It’s often said that you should avoid writing multiple characters whose names begin with the same letter. The idea is that names help the reader tell characters apart, and it’s easier to get two names starting with the same letter mixed up.
As we learned in our recent discussion of show, don’t tell, it’s easy to take a rule too literally. So, how true is this one? Should Jack and Jill really have been Jack and Sarah?
Let’s look at some examples
George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, now being televised as Game of Thrones, makes a great case study. Not only does the series have an enormous cast with multiple points of view, it also flouts the rule by giving multiple characters similar names. In fact, he goes further. In some cases, he even has two or more characters with exactly the same name.
As GRRM explains in his defence, there’s plenty of history behind his choice:
I encountered English histories and the names are all Henrys and Edwards. In French history it is all Louies and Philips. Even the secondary families are using the same names over and over again. There were particular names associated with particular houses. I decided to do that-to hell with the rules.
I certainly know people who find the ASOIAF cast daunting. In the TV show, the producers even went so far as to rename some of the characters – Asha Greyjoy for example became Yara Greyjoy to avoid confusion with Osha the wildling.
However, I’m sceptical that this confusion has much to do with names, rather than simply the size of the cast. I’ve yet to see anyone confuse Tyrion with Tywin, or Bran with Bronn. It’s usually more a question of ‘who’s this guy again?’
On the other hand, I’m currently reading Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy. His cast is smaller and far less complicated, but I’d be lying if I said I never confused Grumlow with Burlow, or Friar Glen with Father Gomst. The similarity in names certainly feels like part of the reason.
So why does one author get away with it, and not the other?
Keeping your characters distinct
I think the answer lies partly in the characters themselves. Despite the size of his cast, GRRM expends a great deal of effort on character development. Even his supporting characters tend to have unique traits, personalities, and allegiances, and those things make them memorable. The idea of confusing Tyrion with Tywin seems daft because the two characters are simply nothing alike.
On top of that, many of GRRM’s characters are separated by the context in which they appear. Bran and Bronn might have similar names, but they’re only ever encountered in different storylines, in different parts of the world, from different points of view. If they had actually appeared in a scene together then it might have been more of a problem.
In contrast, the Broken Empire books follow a single point of view, with most of its cast drawn from the same band of amoral thugs. They’re broadly similar people, and they’re generally in the same place too.
Because the novels are written in first person, most of its character development is focused on the protagonist and his closest allies. We don’t know the supporting characters as intimately, and have to rely on their name and a few broad traits to tell them apart. It’s easy to see how these things combine to make the problem worse.
So what about the rule?
It might not be quite as good a sound bite, but I think what it really comes down to is making sure your characters are distinct enough from each other that your reader can tell them apart. How you achieve that is up to you. Just remember that your reader only has access to what’s on the page, and superficial details are less memorable than genuine personality. The former tend to only get mentioned occasionally, while the latter is visible every time the character acts.
Are character names starting with the same letter a problem? Not necessarily. However, if you’ve got a group of characters who’re encountered in a similar context and who don’t already have some strong distinguishing characteristics, giving them all distinct names – that don’t start with the same letter – would probably be a smart idea.