What’s in a Name That Starts with J?

I admire the way writers like Tolkien and George R.R. Martin juggle enormous casts of characters. Martin has an entire appendix dedicated to all of the different houses, for crap’s sake. How in the world do they keep track of them all? Extensive note-taking, I’m sure. They are obviously masters of their craft.

I have never had as much luck managing that many characters, but I’ve found a few tricks help me keep everyone straight.

As shallow as it sounds, names are probably one of the most basic ways to avoid character confusion. I learned early on that names that sound the same or to have too many names that start with the same letter make it hard to tell everyone apart. I also tend to use simple names, even in my fantasy writing, to make them easier to remember.

I also try to give each character at least one very distinguishing trait, personality or otherwise. A verbal “tick” helps distinguish people when they’re talking. Catch phrases are handy for this, or ending everything in a question, or not using contractions.

Delving into each character’s back story (off the books, of course) helps me figure out each character’s motives, drives, dreams, goals, opinions, sense of humor, and the like, so as to make all of them different enough to tell apart.

The best way to avoid character confusion, I think, is to try to avoid having too big of a cast in general. I always try to make sure each character serves a function in the story. If two are too much alike, I merge them into one. If I had an awesome character that’s just awesome but serves no greater purpose, I’d cut him (maybe give him his own book). I try to keep the focus on the crucial players, and most importantly, make sure that I can tell all of them apart and keep track of them all. If I can’t, how can I expect my reader to?

And trust me, as many good names as there are out there that start with J, try not to have too many characters with a J name.

Sara is a Kansas-grown author of the fantasy and horror persuasions. She is convinced that fantastical things are waiting for her just around the corner, and until she finds the right corner, she writes about those things instead.

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