How To Confuse Your Reader

If you want to confuse your reader, try using as many different ways as possible to refer to the characters in your novel.

Shane posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

When writing character names, which name is appropriate? First name, last name or combination?

I’m working on a thriller novel that I’ve mixed a secondary characters first and last name depending on my writing pattern on any given day. I want to standardize. Using his last name seems odd, but when in dialog, I use his first name, cuz, that’s how people talk.

In my mind and daily life, I rarely use peoples last names. I’m a first person guy, so in writing, I tend to reference their first names, a lot. Is there a standard? In Thriller/mystery’s is it different? I’ve read a lot of police procedure stuff that tends to focus on last name.

Randy sez: A lot depends on what category of fiction you’re writing and what your readers expect. In Russian novels (or novels with Russian characters), it’s common to refer to characters with their full names, including the middle name. This drives American readers crazy because those Russian names can get quite long. I can remember a few Tom Clancy novels in which the extra Russian names seemed to add another 100 pages to the book.

My rule of thumb is to use one name almost exclusively for each character. In most cases, that’s the first name of the character. In a few cases, it’s more natural to refer to certain characters by their last names.

It’s common in certain communities for everybody to go by their last names. Military units. Sports teams. Cop environments. Certain dorms I’ve lived in. If I were writing a novel set in one of these communities, then I’d be sure that the characters used each other’s last names in dialogue. However, in the action parts, I’d probably refer to most of them by their first names, unless there was a compelling reason to use the last name.

One mistake that you should avoid is trying to eliminate repetition by mixing up first names, last names, nicknames, and roles in a horrible hodge-podge. That just confuses the reader.

To illustrate how badly this can go wrong, let me write a really wretched bit of fanfic. Count how many characters you see in this snippet of a scene:

“Go away,” Harry said.

Lord Voldemort gave a high, cold laugh. “Says who?”

“Do it,” said the green-eyed boy wizard. “Now.”

The greatest dark wizard of all time pointed his wand at Potter’s chest.

“You think you’re really something, don’t you, Riddle?” sneered the son of James and Lily.

“Call me Tom.”

“One thing I’ll never call you is the Dark Lord,” said the Gryffindor seeker.

He Who Must Not Be Named hissed sharply as he twirled the wand between his long, pale fingers. “You will,” he said in a soft, dangerous voice.

“And I refuse to use euphemisms like You Know Who,” said the Boy Who Lived. “I’m not afraid of you and that’s why you hate me.”

Randy sez: Gack! How many characters did you see? If you haven’t read the Harry Potter series, then you counted these thirteen characters:

  1. Harry
  2. Lord Voldemort
  3. The green-eyed boy wizard
  4. The greatest dark wizard of all time
  5. Potter
  6. Riddle
  7. The son of James and Lily
  8. Tom
  9. The Dark Lord
  10. The Gryffindor seeker
  11. He Who Must Not Be Named
  12. You Know Who
  13. The Boy Who Lived

If you’re familiar with the series, then you know that there are only two characters here: Harry Potter is the green-eyed Boy Who Lived, the only son of James and Lily Potter, and he’s also the seeker on the Gryffindor Quidditch team. Tom Riddle is the greatest dark wizard of all time, self-proclaimed Lord Voldemort, known to his followers as the Dark Lord and feared by his enemies as either He Who Must Not Be Named or as You Know Who.

In the series, Harry Potter is mostly referred to as “Harry,” although many characters refer to him in dialogue as “Potter.” The various other appellations for Harry are rarely used.

Lord Voldemort is generally called “You Know Who” by those who fear him. A few brave souls call him “Voldemort” when speaking about him. Professor Dumbledore calls him “Tom” and Harry calls him “Riddle” when speaking to him. Voldemort’s followers always call him “the Dark Lord”.

The key thing is consistency. Throughout the series, the context determines what Harry and Voldemort will be called, and things are never confusing.

Don’t be afraid of a bit of repetition. Clarity is good. If you have to use “Harry” and “Voldemort” fifteen times on the same page, then do so. Don’t confuse things by constantly switching appellations. If “Harry” appears in every paragraph, the name quickly becomes invisible and the story flows smoothly.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

13 Comments

  1. Adam July 30, 2010 at 7:16 pm #

    THANK you. I needed to hear this. While I’ve generally gotten over the Tom Swifties and the hesitance to use “said” each time a character talks, I keep trying to avoid repeating a character’s name too often in prose. When I see it in other people’s works I tend to cringe a bit but always thought they were just doing it wrong, not that it shouldn’t be done. Now I know better.

  2. Judith Robl July 31, 2010 at 4:00 am #

    Name switches are not the only way to confuse the reader.

    I just read a proposal for a publisher in which short scenes changed as quickly as strobe lights – without concrete reference to ground the reader.

    Are there specific techniques you can recommend to keep us from doing that kind of thing?

  3. Sakhi July 31, 2010 at 8:29 am #

    I have a question related to this. In WIP, characters go by titles because their true names give people power on them. In one of the characters, this is significant, because when she thinks about herself I have her true name, but other characters think and talk about her with title. How do I make it clear that I’m using the two names interchangeably?

  4. Levi Montgomery July 31, 2010 at 10:43 am #

    One thing you didn’t mention is the effect of point of view on names. In any story which utilizes more than one point of view, there’s a strong possibility that names will have to switch as POV switches. When you’re following an adult through his workday, in third person, you might call him Doe, but when you switch to his wife, looking out the window, hoping he’ll park on the far side of her car so he doesn’t see the dent, he’s going to be John, and in most families, his nine-year-old daughter is going to be watching for Dad or Daddy.

    Granted, if you try to use all of those names in one scene, you’re probably not close enough to the POV character, and it’s going to confuse the reader as much as it confuses you.

    It’s up to you, as the author, to make this all clear, and personally, I think that if the characters aren’t alive enough in your head to carry all the names they need, then it’s probably too soon to try to tell that story. Let it steep a while longer. Let those characters begin to breathe and live on their own. When they’re ready, you’re not going to have any trouble telling them apart.

    We have dozens of names and titles in real life, and in the stories we write, conveying that depth of life shouldn’t be a problem.

    Levi

  5. Tami Meyers August 1, 2010 at 10:12 pm #

    Hi Randy, In my WIP set in the 1850’s gold rush one of the main characters is Chinese. His name is Hing Sung Ti (pronounced Heng Soong Tee) I don’t know which of the names would be most commonly used by others so I’ve been using all three. Does anyone have any suggestions? I know that Hing would be his family (last) name, but what would others call him?

    • I'm Chinese January 1, 2016 at 9:49 pm #

      In Chinese, siblings would call him brother (little or big, depending). I believe that most would call him Sung Ti. Relatives call me by the last two parts of my name. But it depends on those he speaks to. I assume that Americans would call him Sung if told his last name is Hing, or Hing if they didn’t know. (as you do not usually state someone’s first and middle name when addressing them in English)

  6. Luke August 2, 2010 at 4:36 am #

    I think Levi answered this pretty well with his “it depends on who’s doing the talking”. So, I would answer the following questions:

    What do his different family members call him?
    – wife would probably say Sung Ti
    – his children would be baba (if you want to use the Chinese) or father (if you want to use the English).

    What would his friends call him?
    – Probably Sung Ti in an informal setting.
    – If they are at work and equals, probably Sung Ti
    – If they are at work and not equals, then probably Mr. Hing

    What about others? Here’s where you decide. It depends on how they feel about him. Do they follow Chinese traditions of respect? Does Sung Ti have a preference? Do they like him? Would they use a racial slur (Chinaman would be period appropriate)?

    In terms of what you should call him, I would say in a given scene use whatever your POV character would call him.

  7. Tammy August 2, 2010 at 8:55 am #

    I am the total opposite. I keep using the names over and over along with “X saw this” and “X did that”, “He measured – He jumped – He landed”. I also worry that I’ve used the characters name too many times in a page of writing, starting each new paragraph with some for of What X is doing in this chunk of text.

    I’ve been looking critically through some of my favorite books for what those writers are doing. It seems that there is no way to avoid this naming, and it occurs frequently in books that I love.

    Also, as a reader, I don’t recall reading all the names in sentences; I just remember what was going on. So perhaps this is just how its done. If the story is compelling, then the names seem natural?

  8. Luke August 2, 2010 at 10:37 am #

    I think that’s absolutely true. We’re always looking to eliminate repetitive words, but there are some words that are just “white space” words. No one counts the number of words like “the”,”and”, etc… unless there’s just a ridiculous number of them.

    A person’s name, so long as you’re not using 50 times per page is not noticable. 5-10 times and it just seems normal. Or at the very least doesn’t call attention to itself.

  9. Jessica Thomas August 2, 2010 at 7:04 pm #

    Another related tip I’ve either learned or read about along the way is, when naming your characters, start with different letters of the alphabet. Don’t have a slew of characters with “s” names. Sam, Sherri, Stuart, Sally. I’ve confused myself in my own writing and had to do some renaming.

  10. Mohamed Mughal August 3, 2010 at 5:14 am #

    I agree with you with one minor exception: if there’s a utility or contextual reason for the name change. For example, I might have a soldier in my story. All along he’s called “Bates.” In a scene with his mother, he’s called “Johnny.”

    Interesting post; interesting blog. I’ll be back πŸ™‚

  11. Angela Breidenbach August 3, 2010 at 1:06 pm #

    Sometimes I want to use a nickname to show a different relationship. But I remember driving my critique partners nuts when I switched it too often πŸ™‚
    Angie

  12. Mira October 23, 2010 at 1:39 pm #

    @Tami Meyers
    I’m only part Chinese but I thought I’d offer what I know. In Chinese culture, you can only call someone by first name if you’re on friendly terms. For example, imagine two girls who meet in class on the first day of school. They’d start off by using one another’s family name, then gradually as they become closer and on more friendly terms, they’d sooner or later decided it’s time to drop the formality. This usually occurs in the form of an invitation, one would casually say something along the lines of ‘just call me [insert first name] from now on.’ It might seem a little awkward at first but it would become more natural over time, to the point where their initial formality would be all but forgotten.

    Another example, if you call someone you’ve just met by first name, unless that person is incredibly laid-back and easygoing, and has zero interest in cultural norms, that can be insulting…it could be taken as something like ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ I guess. In this case, the polite thing to do would be to use the complete name, so surname/family name first, followed by the first/given name. It’s also fine to use just the family name, when speaking to a male or a female. Hope that helped out a little, best wishes.

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