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My tendency when writing is to give every character a name. Even the most minor ones. It says something about a nobleman when he knows every guard and stablehand by name, and it's something I want. So it's never "a guard" - it's always "Sergeant such-and-such".

Another effect that I like is that of the world being populated - there are people in it, and every person has a name, and that means - a life, even if we don't see it. A world where everyone aside from the main characters is "a guard" and "a servant" feels to me like everything around the main characters is theatrical scenery made of cardboard.

I'm a discovery writer, so first time a guard "comes on stage", he gets a name. Next time I need a guard, I pull out that same guy who I've already named. So characters start getting mileage. I don't plan anything for those characters in advance, but over time they do get a life.

My concern is: I often hear complaints with regards to some published works (e.g. A Song of Ice and Fire) about there being "too many characters", "too many names to remember". Now, "a guard" is not a character - he's a prop. "Sergeant such-and-such" is a minor character.

Is that something I need to be concerned about? Are there ways I can mitigate the downsides of having a great many named characters in my novel?

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    In addition to my answer, please do not discount props. Props are necessary and add value, and the fact that some are beings (horses, guard dogs, falcons, soldiers) is fine. 'The stormtroopers surrounded the rebel base' is ... useful. Effective. Good. – DPT Mar 1 at 0:46
  • if you could give every character a memorable name.. you would be my hero... – ashleylee Mar 1 at 15:17
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    @DPT, Worth noting that, in a case like "stormtroopers", the de-personalization is quite deliberate, since gunning down anonymous bad guys can read as heroic, in the right context, whereas killing a particular human being, especially one known by the pov character, evokes very different feelings. This particular use of beings as props is ubiquitous in heroic action narratives, as the nameless (and often faceless) bad guys are just a generic 'danger' foil for use in demonstrating feats of badassery. Giving these prop characters names would be counterproductive in that genre. – Dan Bryant Mar 1 at 22:32
  • "I often hear complaints with regards to some published works" is just a truism for ANY feature of writing. – Ethan Mar 2 at 0:19
  • When I saw this in HNQ from another Stack I thought it was a complaint about Unicode -- over 137 thousand characters, and not only does each have a name, many have multiple names! – dave_thompson_085 Mar 2 at 8:24
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I say don't censor your "discovery" -- include the names of everyone -- they may come back in later, or you may want to explore their story in a specific vignette. (I'm thinking of Neil Gaiman's Sandman story "24 Hours" -- takes place in a diner, and most characters in it we never see again.... but later there's a link between a diner-character and a new character.)

BUT... editing is where you decide if the names are worth keeping. Sometimes it'll add to the atmosphere (a waitress named "Hilda" vs "Ginger" vs "Mei"). Many times, you'll find that for the core story, there's no need for that level. (She still IS Marabeth, off having her life, but that's off page, and for THIS page, she's just The Waitress, and that's ok.)

I'm a big believe in icebergs -- 9/10s underwater. So if you're a discovery writer, you're building up the entire iceberg by exploring the formation of it ALL, but then editor-you gets on a boat, and sees from a distance only the small portion that will be needed within the book.

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Simple--Metrics.

Count the number of named characters and the number of acts/chapters they are in. Named characters should appear in at least two chapters, to reward the reader for learning them, better yet they should appear in at least two acts.

If you have fewer than 25 named characters and each character appears in 2 chapters and 2 acts, you are fine. This may sound silly, but it is a useful start point nonetheless.

If you have... 75 named characters, and 50 of them appear in one chapter only, you have a serious problem.

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    So you're saying "write first, deal with unnecessary names later"? That would work. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Mar 1 at 12:59
  • This metric sounds interesting -- is there a source, or does it just Sound Right? – April --Un-Slander Monica-- Mar 1 at 14:31
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    @April The numbers are from: creativityhacker.ca/2013/07/05/… although some of my answer is not. – DPT Mar 1 at 15:06
  • @Galastel definitely. Character names (or other forms of identification) should absolutely be something you polish in editing. Write the way that is most comfortable, then adjust later. – Arcanist Lupus Mar 2 at 5:45
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I'm a discovery writer, I don't name every character, or even every character with lines. Here's a waitress (I just made up) with two lines:

The waitress approached, a smiling young girl that had been flirting with the young man eating at the counter. "Ma'am! What can I get you?"

Bethany put down the menu. "This, um, number three, and an iced tea."

"Right up!" the girl said, and spun to leave, but instead of walking back around the counter she took the long way around toward the register, passing behind the young man at the counter, and giving him a gentle punch in the right shoulder as she passed. He laughed, and turned to watch her walking.

Bethany smiled, but then turned back to her phone and the long list of attorney profiles she was browsing. About halfway through and still not a single candidate.

I think it interrupts the flow to stop and note the waitress's name (maybe on her name tag), and the young man's name (more difficult), it really isn't important to the story. She is real enough, the central character in this mini-scene, a young girl flirting with a young man she obviously knows and having fun at work in the diner.

Personally I don't give characters names unless it would be unrealistically awkward for them to not have one. IRL, most people don't remember their waitress's name, they use "Miss" (or for a male, often "Waiter" or sometimes "Sir"). That is not unrealistically awkward. And we need never refer to the young man again, so zero awkwardness.

I agree a nobleman or boss, IRL, is likely to know the names of his employees he interacts with often. But not necessarily all of them.

"Briggs, good to see you. I see your boy there, what's his name again?"

"Bilson, sir."

"Yes, Bilson. I see him heaping up the scoop for the oats there. A kindness, he thinks. Not enough to colic, but we want the pigs and chickens fat, not the horses."

"Sorry sir, I had not noticed. I will take care of it, sir."

"No need to be harsh. Brush and saddle up the white stallion, and bring him to the front. I'll be riding to Duckworth's this afternoon. Want to show some station, yes?"

"Yes sir. He'll be ready, sir."

I also give "walk-on" characters names if it would make sense that their own friends or customers or whatever would use their names, but I don't go out of my way to make that happen.

I guess that is the rule I follow, if the speech feels awkward without a name, I add a name, but I don't go out of my way or write extra to force that necessity.

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    This touches on a key point, imo: whether you name the character or not tells you something about the perspective of the major character who's currently in focus. I'd venture to guess that, outside very small town settings, we don't know the names of the vast majority of the people we briefly interact with on any given day. To the extent that they enter our awareness at all, it's in the context of our interactions, whether that be a body we're walking past on the sidewalk, an unknown cashier ringing up our order or somebody talking to himself on the subway that we briefly label 'crazy guy'. – Dan Bryant Mar 1 at 16:46
  • @DanBryant I agree, and I feel like I interact with a dozen nameless people a day, and that's not counting the people I just see or walk past, when I go to lunch today there will be fifty nameless people in the restaurant; and I am sure I will be nameless to them! In writing, I try to invent some kind of focal point for certain walk-on characters, like the waitress above, to break up the routine-ness of the narrative. Something for the reader to notice (through the MC), so the waitress is not just a waitress, she's an infatuated girl. The stable groom is not a robot, he is also a father. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Mar 1 at 17:01
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    @DanBryant So I guess my tendency is not to give every character a name, but I tend to "personalize" the characters the MC interacts with another trait that isn't part of their job description or purpose in the scene. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Mar 1 at 17:06
  • That personalization possibly tells me something about the character perspective, too. In the context of first person or third person limited (so tied pretty closely to the 'active' character), it suggests that the character is socially perceptive. Though, perhaps this is a reasonable assumed baseilne for most people, at least at a subliminal level. More telling might be its absence, like if a character is a touch autistic and perceives the unique geometry of the shadow cast by a person, but fails to notice that the waitress is flirting with another customer. – Dan Bryant Mar 1 at 18:22
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It's okay to give every character a name - internally. Write them down in your notes, but that doesn't mean you need to tell the reader every one of those names. Reveal the names if it's relevant, but not if it feels awkward or shoe-horned in. Giving them names and backstories helps keep things consistent, so that when characters do appear later, they have a common thread. You might have that guard appear several times before his name is mentioned - he could have some unique characteristic in his appearance that the perspective character notes so that you can later on connect that chance appearance with a name when it's relevant.

One example of this (taken to a bit of an extreme) is in the Star Wars films - every character who appears on screen even for a few seconds has a name - the vast majority of them are never heard in the films, but exist in official canon, and can be looked up by those who care. (Possible exception being the innumerable intentionally-nameless cannon-fodder storm troopers and droid soldiers - leaving them nameless makes us feel less bad about them when they are inevitably killed en masse. Note that the cannon-fodder type characters on the good guys' side do have names, often spoken in the dialogue, so we care when they die, even though they had very little screen-time before that.)

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To add to Amadeus: it makes sense to bring up the name if it comes about naturally within the story. If this ends up happening with too many characters though readers can get distracted by them -thinking that they will end up being important to the plot- and this makes those characters a sort of red herring. Even Robert Jordan -with his massive cast of characters- did not overwhelm with names. If he did reveal names to the reader for characters that were a blip on the screen he did not call attention to it, and the reader was easily able to move on.

I also agree with DPT's suggestion of seeing how much 'screen time' the characters have. If they aren't in much of the story as a whole you wouldn't want to point them out.

I will add that there is nothing wrong with having names and backgrounds for the various minor characters you come across. Whether or not you use this information in the current novel is another thing entirely. If you are someone who enjoys having a host of details about the world in which your story takes place then this might not be too overbearing for you. I have a Game Master (granted for RolePlaying, but still valid here) who knows the names and backgrounds of every minor character on the PLANET he has created. That is a little excessive, but he has the sort of mind that just does that and keeps track of what they're doing in the world as time passes.

To summarize; make sure your named characters are not distracting the reader from what is really going on. Too much name throwing can dilute the conflict. In fact, very few people call each other by name in conversation unless they are trying to get someone's attention from across the room.

Hope this helped.

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Details and structure define the tone of how something is read, and names are a detail.

Whether or not a character/prop should have a name will depend on how you want the story to feel to the reader, and ties in to the traits of characters (and narrator[s]) in the story you're telling.

In most stories, having a scene where the main character walks into a bar and lists off everyone there, by name, and in detail, is likely to come off as weird/annoying/tiring, and probably completely unneeded.

In a story that specifically deals with exploring the life of someone with autism/obsessive traits and how that impacts their perception of reality, then it may not only be fitting, but may offer a highly effective layer to the overall tone and feel of a story. (In which case, the main character not knowing the name of some random basically one time prop-character could even become the entire plot of a story as they try to find a pointless name to put with a meaningless face.)

In short, names and details in and of themselves are neither a downside nor an upside to writing. Their impact on the flow, tone, and feel of the writing is what we need to care about. Does the name/detail/structure bring your piece closer to the flow/tone/feel you are after? - Then it is a good thing and should be included. Does it take you further away from what you're after? Then rework the piece to better meet the goals of your story.

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With a few exceptions, every one of my characters has a name, gender, age, and family relationship. A large percentage also have a backstory. I have well over 100 characters.

As others have said, you don't need to use all the names. But it's your world, you should know the people in it.

Naming characters helps you keep track of them. I have lists on my wall so if I need to pull up, say, a random 3 year boy, I can check my lists and say, okay, that would be Barachel. It can help you keep consistency from scene to scene as well. Characters in movies have names (or unique descriptors, but usually names if they're in more than one scene) just to make it easier for writers/directors/etc to keep track of them.

Naming characters humanizes them, so they're less likely to end up as stereotypic fodder.

Having your characters use other characters' names shows us what kind of people they are, something you pointed out. When I'm switching points of view, I also switch how people refer to each other. My MC knows the names of all the other kids that came with her. One of my other viewpoint characters refers offhand (in his head, not out loud) to another character as "some little twerp." This will change over time.

Not everyone wants to name people, and that's okay too. But you do. So use it. There are a lot of advantages to knowing your world down to the last little detail.

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The complaint you are perceiving isn't really about too many names or too many characters.

It is about the story's complexity. If there is only a single character, but she is juggling dozens of situations, complaints would manifest about "too much going on" or "hard to follow." Especially if the situations have nothing to do with each other.

Tom Clancy's novel Red October ambitiously describes many submarines doing all kinds of maneuvering and tactical operations. There are at least six things to keep track of throughout the climax. I tried following it twice and gave up. In comparison, the film is much easier to follow—and hence a far superior story than the book—because it is mostly the essence of the story.

It says something about a nobleman when he knows every guard and stablehand by name ...

Yes, that is great character attribute. But you needn't bludgeon the (undeserving) reader to express that. The nobleman returned from afar to his village. On the way home, he greeted every single person he passed by name. Even the stablehands and the dairymaids.

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This will not help determine how many is too many character to name but to mitigate the downsides, I would look closely at the types of names being used. For example five female characters named Lindsey, Laurel, Lauren, Liza and Lizzie might be a tad hard to keep apart. Maybe some minor characters dont need full names, just titles or nicknames, which will flesh them out a little without mixing them up with someone more important.

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