#WritingTip: When To Not Name Characters

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Sometimes writers intentionally want to create big worlds, so they go out of their way to write a huge cast. If you’re like me, you might’ve unintentionally done so. During the revision process, I discovered that I had named too many minor characters. Many of these characters never return.

So, what’s wrong with naming the gardener, that cute guy at the restaurant that walks by, the waiter, the MC’s second cousin’s best friend, the Uber driver, etc.? Many readers don’t have the patience, mental headspace, or bandwidth to handle ongoing Covid-stuff, work, kids, family drama, everyday stressors, and remember every single name in a manuscript, unless they’re gifted with eidetic or photographic memory.

Y’all…we’re in the age of texting and skim reading. No joke. The age of sitting down to read the newspaper (hard copy) is nearly extinct. In fact, I do a double-take when I see 1.) someone purchase an actual newspaper and 2.) read it word for word, cover-to-cover.

So, how come you can’t have a giant world? Well…you can. Certain genres tend to be massive. Sci-Fi and fantasy genres are much more likely to have a long page count and tons of characters. But, if you’re an unpublished debut author like myself trying to break into the world of traditional publishing, trying to outdo Game of Thrones in terms of character count isn’t always the best approach.

I’m not saying large casts can’t be done. There are so many examples of books out there with lots of characters and a huge word count. But I’ve found, based on beta reader feedback, it’s much easier for them to focus on your story when they don’t have to remember every single character under the sun. Especially the ones that aren’t important.

When To Not Name Characters

  • Not Important: When the character doesn’t add to the story or is someone unimportant, and therefore the reader doesn’t need to remember the person.
  • The Setting: If he or she plays a minor role and is more a part of the setting versus being a major player, who will be providing a clue to a mystery that needs to be solved.
  • One & Done: If the character only shows up once and doesn’t return, in most cases said character doesn’t require a name.

If you’ve got too many minor characters and you’ve inadvertently named them all, from the mail main to the dog walker, then you’ve got to decide if they all need to be in the story. If some of them serve a purpose to further the plot, build character, or add to some mystery and can stand to go nameless, then that’s the best option. Does the reader absolutely need to know Mary Jane Smith, the dog walker, or can she simply be referred to as…the dog walker? It’s the same with word count. The reader needs to be convinced that every single character – minor or major and every single word is necessary. If it’s not, then it’s time to press the delete button and cut.

The Bottom Line

During the editing phase, don’t be afraid to evaluate your manuscript and cut excess characters along with word count. If minor characters are needed that aren’t going to be returning or further the plot, try to have them go nameless. I’ve had to do this during the revision process lately. Too many characters to keep track of can sometimes convolute the story and cause more confusion. We want our readers to have an enjoyable experience and not one where they’re either pulled out of the story or, worse yet, they stop reading altogether. As aspiring authors, we’re always learning, growing, and trying to get better at our crafts. Hopefully, we’re keeping our audience in mind as we do so.


10 thoughts on “#WritingTip: When To Not Name Characters

    discoveringthebluehour said:
    September 9, 2021 at 7:09 AM

    I agree with this. I also have over 100 characters in my series I’m working on. And I have a couple of characters that I don’t name as well. They are in fact minor characters you don’t see. I mean every writer doesn’t have to be like Jk rowling right?who has a backstory for every character.

    Liked by 1 person

      S.Z. Estavillo responded:
      September 9, 2021 at 10:27 AM

      Yeah, that’s the thing. In many cases, debut authors are told not to include a backstory dump. And then there are examples of successful books that have it in there? 100 characters is a lot but then someone counted around 50 names in mine. I didn’t even realize I had that many. I just went through unnamed a bunch of minor ones that aren’t needed. Is yours fantasy or sci-fi?

      Liked by 2 people

    chrisr74 said:
    September 9, 2021 at 10:33 AM

    It can be so hard to pare back characters, as they all serve a purpose. Otherwise you wouldn’t have conjured them up in the first place, LOL! But great suggestions for keeping characters and word count from running amok.

    Liked by 1 person

    stephaniechongmin said:
    September 9, 2021 at 10:34 AM

    I’m a fantasy writer and I try to keep my character count down too. I’ve been accused of having too many to keep track of in my WIP. So, I’ve trimmed out about 20 characters and then also unnamed a about 10 and kept it down the bare essentials that serve the story. Great article.

    Liked by 1 person

    Priscilla Bettis said:
    September 9, 2021 at 12:42 PM

    I appreciate it when a big fantasy book doesn’t have too many characters named. Or if there are a lot of characters that need names, then I appreciate it when the author slowly introduces them. I purposely didn’t name a major character in a yet-to-be-published dystopian novella because the society is so impersonal. He’s always just “the boy.”

    Liked by 1 person

      S.Z. Estavillo responded:
      September 9, 2021 at 2:29 PM

      That’s a great method. I like keeping your MC as “the boy” for a while. Yes, slowly introducing characters is what I prefer too. But, if a book can minimize their character count I appreciate that as well. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    Fairy Queen said:
    September 19, 2021 at 3:54 AM

    Hello, I come here from Italy, we have many writers who have made the history of writing since ancient times, such as Dante Alighieri. I sometimes find it difficult to name my characters. Sometimes I don’t really know what to call them. Because a name also contains an environment, a cultural background, a life. So the names don’t have to be random.

    Liked by 1 person

      S.Z. Estavillo responded:
      September 19, 2021 at 10:29 AM

      Yes that’s true. We have to keep in mind if the person that is named is essential to the story because does encompass the environment, social/cultural elements.

      Liked by 1 person

    sylviakathrynsupe said:
    September 30, 2021 at 8:06 PM

    There are great points in your article. I’m a new writer too, and it is sometimes difficult to know which characters are needed, and which characters might need to be named. I think this is especially true of short science fiction, which I often write. Relevance to the plot is probably the best way to put characters to this test. It brings to mind one of my WIP, I think I need to give it another look. Thank you for this timely reminder, and good luck on your writing journey.

    Liked by 1 person

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