If you’re like me, trying to keep the names of new acquaintances straight isn’t easy. And when the names start with the same letter or sound alike, it’s even worse. That’s why I try to ensure the names of characters in my books—even minor ones—begin with different letters and are as distinctive as possible. To accomplish this, I create a Character Spreadsheet to keep my unruly characters organized. (I’m better at orgranizing characters than I am at organizing myself.) Here’s a sample of the headers in the Character Spreadsheet for the 1938 manuscript I’m currently fine-tuning: First Name ... Last Name ... Role ... Physical Description ... Personality Characteristics. The information I entered for my hero is: First Name-Ed, Last Name-Nelson, Role-Hero, Physical Description-Age 32. Mahogany hair, green eyes, 6', Personality/Characteristics-Loyal. Brave. Lonely. Smart/college educated. (Couldn't figure out how to load the spreadsheet--sorry!)
This spreadsheet can be sorted by First Name or Last Name to make it easy to see if you have a plethora of characters with similar first or last names. I developed this AFTER I had to go back and change character names in a prior book to eliminate problems. While I didn’t have problems with the names of my hero and heroine, I had oodles of duplications with my minor and walk-on characters. It was almost as if I had a part of a tune stuck in my head that prompted me to name characters with the same first letter—Marley, Martha, May, Mike, Myrtle, Myriam. Doing a search-and-replace in Word after the fact is a much bigger pain than entering information into a spreadsheet at the get-go. It certainly helps me pick up on the fact that a beginning letter or sound is on a repeating loop in my brain. Also a global search-and-replace simply isn’t an option if you need to change a name like Ed to Norman or May to Shirley. Try that and you wind up with results like this: “She edited NormanitNorman the manuscript. He May Shirley love her.”
Another advantage of my spreadsheet organization is that I scan down the Physical Description column to see at a glance if I’ve populated my novel with all green-eyed beauties, accidentally creating a “Stepford Wives” effect. It also lets me make sure I don’t indicate a character’s height or hair color one way on page 10 and another way on page 130.
I create a similar Timeline/Chapter spreadsheet to track when and where things happen. I don’t do this in advance, but add the basics for each chapter after I write it. Then, if I change my plot later, I can go to the spreadsheet and find where I need to make changes. The headers on that spreadsheet are: Chapter No ... Pages ... POV ... Date/Time ... Events ... Characters.
As a reader, do similar names annoy/frustrate you? As an author, how do you keep your characters and timelines on the straight and narrow?