To Name, or Not to Name?

Note: MIDNIGHT THIEF now has a cover!  Check out the cover reveal at Iceybooks, and enter to win an Advance Review Copy while you’re there.

I've been thinking about names lately. I've blogged before about how the sound of your name affects how people view you. But today I'm thinking about what it means for character to even have a name. It's a signal to the reader that this character is worth paying attention to, and the decision to name a character can affect the reading experience.

A few examples from my own writing:

1.    Clutter. 
In one of my short stories, the heroine has a brief conversation with a girl in the opening scene named Tiyo.  Tiyo never appears again, and some readers thought Tiyo’s presence felt unnecessary.  I ended up removing Tiyo’s name and simply referring to her as “the girl standing next to her,” which streamlined the reading experience.

2.    Specificity and Expectations. 
This example is from POISON DANCE, so I'll try not to give too many spoilers. At one point, James’s guildmaster suggests that James partner with another assassin “Sylvan” on his jobs.  James doesn't like the idea because Sylvan is highly loyal to the guildmaster and likely to report on James’s movements, and this instigates tension between James and his guildmaster.  I don’t pursue the Sylvan thread beyond that mention though, and test readers expecting a Sylvan subplot were disappointed. In the end, I replaced the mention of “Sylvan” with “some of the other men.” There was still some implication that the “other men” would inform on James, but this lack of specificity diffused the expectation on the reader's part for an elaborate Sylvan subplot.

3.    Memory Load. 
An early version of MIDNIGHT THIEF’s cover copy proved hard to follow for some test readers. One way I remedied this was to replace the mention of “James, the leader of the Assassins Guild” with simply “the leader of the Assassins Guild.” This conveys the same information while giving the reader one less name to juggle. This decision was made easier by the fact that James is a fairly common name.  If he'd had a more unique name, then leaving it out of the cover copy might have taken away some intrigue. (By the way, if you're curious about the MIDNIGHT THIEF cover copy, you can read at my cover reveal!)

So readers, what do you think?  What difference does a name make?

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  1. You're covering an aspect of naming that gets discussed quite a bit at writing workshops. Frank Conroy talks about the specific details you give readers to put in their backpacks and carry up the hill of the story. If you give them lots of unnecessary details, they don't know which ones to put in their packs and they end up doing a lot of work carrying all those details up the hill. When (if) they get to the top and see that they didn't need to carry some or many of those details, they will feel a certain amount of resentment toward the book/author at having made them work so hard. Will they be likely to continue on? Read another one of your stories? Probably not.

  2. Livia, I forgot to sign in before posting my first comment. I don't like getting "unknown" comments on my blog, so I thought you might want to know where the comment came from. Jilanne

    1. I like the backpack imagery, Jillanne. That's a nice way to think about it.

  3. That's interesting. So far I've had the opposite problem with my writing. I keep not naming characters that go all the way through the story and irritate the living heck out of my beta readers.

    1. Haha, I do that too sometimes. It just depends on my mood, I guess.