Posted by: Kathleen Mix | September 14, 2011

A Rose by any Other Name

Seeing Red by Susan Crandall (Grand Central Publishing, 2009) is a fabulous book I heartily recommend. The story has a page-turner plot and believable characters. Near the end, readers are treated to a unique twist that I never saw coming. If you enjoy romantic suspense, read Seeing Red. That said, I must admit my enjoyment of the story was less than one hundred percent because of one small flaw: confusing character names.
Character names that are too similar, usually because they all start with the same letter, are one of my pet peeves. In Ms. Crandall’s book, the protagonist is named Ellis, and the villain is named Hollis. I read very fast when I’m engrossed in a great story, and the –llis ending shared by the names tripped me on several occasions. I would read the name and a few words past it, then stop and think: wait, was that Ellis or Hollis? I’d go back and check, then start reading again. Authors work hard to control pacing and move the story at break-neck speed when the suspense is building, but the confusing character names forced me to stop reading for a couple seconds and interrupted the story flow.
Of course, the tripping effect of Ms. Crandall’s name choices was minor and pales in comparison with the blunders of other authors. Years ago, I read a book that had almost a dozen characters. The author introduced Marta, Mary, Mark, Manuel, Bobbie, Barbara, Bonnie, and Ben before the end of chapter one. I was pulling my hair out, the names were too alike, and I couldn’t keep the characters straight. Was Mary the co-ed and Marta the heroine’s niece, or was it the other way around? I check that author’s books carefully, now. And I only buy if I see names I can differentiate.
Because I’ve been confused by other authors’ too-similar character names, I try to avoid making the same mistake. When I begin a new manuscript and choose character names, I’m careful that each name starts with a different letter. I list the names and say them aloud, striving to make each look and sound unique. Character names are important in many ways. Certain names fit a character. But I rarely have trouble finding alternatives. Keeping the names distinct reinforces my characters, and I hope it helps readers finish my book without tripping.
By the way, I will devour Ms. Crandall’s future books, because her stories are always wonderful. A writer must mentally juggle a million details while writing a book. I’m confident the similarity between Ellis and Hollis slipped into Seeing Red unnoticed by an author intent on providing a great plot. However, in her next book, I hope Ms. Crandall chooses to name her villain Howard or her protagonist Rose.

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