How to avoid or minimize duplicate names with an ensemble cast

I’ve often seen the suggestion to avoid using the same letter or starting sound for characters, like Amelia and Amber or Jonas and James. This is sound advice, if you’re working with a fairly small cast. When you’re dealing with a large ensemble cast, particularly when it continues growing with the addition of new generations, that advice is no longer practical. However, there are some ways to minimize the risk.

Realistically speaking, you can’t always give a different name to each and every single character. You always want to avoid the extremes of gut-loading your book with current Top 100 names and only using outliers. A book quickly dates if every single character has a name like McMadysynne, Aidanjadenbradencadenmaiden, Ellabella, and CowboyHunter, just as it stands out for the wrong reasons if everyone is named Polyxena, Wolfgang, Ghisolabella, and Demetrius. In real life, social circles are more likely to have a mix of trendy, classic, unusual, foreign, and invented names.

Particularly when we’re dealing with historical characters or characters from traditionally more conservative cultures, it’s not really plausible for everyone to have different names. Let’s be honest, it’s not unusual to find numerous Johns, Marys, Williams, and Sarahs in the same generation of one family tree. During its last century or so of existence, the Russian Imperial Family pretty much used the same dozen or so names over and over again (with some notable exceptions). Even the name Pyotr was only used once after Peter III, on a grand duke born in 1864.

In my Russian historicals, duplicate names include Andrey, Natalya, Aleksandr, and Sofya. The trick is using these names on characters who don’t really appear together because they’re not so closely connected, or using different nicknames. My older Sofya goes by Sonya, and Lyuba and Ivan’s next-youngest child goes by Sonyechka. For now, she’s still young enough to use that nickname. You can also use a name on a major character and on a minor character s/he’ll never share a scene with.

**************************************

There’s also the trick of distinguishing characters by titles vs. first names or nicknames. I don’t care how old-fashioned this supposedly has become; I’ll always call my adult or older characters Mr., Ms., Mrs., or Miss. This way, there’s no confusion between, e.g., a grandfather and grandson who share the same name.

In my Atlantic City books, the wealthy Sewards have an unbroken custom of alternating the names Maxwell Stanley and Stanley Maxwell among firstborn sons. Father and son share their name, and the grandson starts over. So far, I’ve had Great-Great-Grandpa Max, Great-Grandpa Stanley, Grandpa Stan, Mr. Seward, Max, Fudzie, and Stan. The name Fudzie came to Max in a dream when he was eleven, and he was so attached to it, he used it as his son’s nickname. Mr. Seward threatened to cut him out of the will if Max didn’t kowtow to family tradition by naming his son Stanley Maxwell.

*****************************

I have a number of Kat- names in my Russian historicals, and I similarly use different nicknames and titles. Lyuba’s mother is Mrs. Lebedeva (formerly Mrs. Zhukova), Katya, Machekha (Stepmother) Katya, Tyotya (Aunt) Katya, or Babushka (Grandma) Katya, depending upon who’s addressing her, but she’s always a Mrs. in the narrative.

Radical Katariina Kalvik-Nikonova is called Katrin in the narrative and by most people, though her husband and sister often call her Kati, and her friends’ children call her Tädi (Aunt) Kati.

Little Katerina Vishinskaya goes by Kittey, a non-Russian nickname I found justification for keeping because of its usage in Anna Karenina. The nicknames Kitty, Dolly, Betsy, and Annie are spelt phonetically, as English, like French, was a fashionable language among the upper-class at that time. I just think the spelling Kittey looks a little more believably Russified than Kitti, Kiti, or Kitty.

Kittey’s sister-in-law Katriyana goes by Kat, which I kept by justifying as her way of standing out from the crowd of 15 sisters and not wanting to be just another Katya. I found out later Katriyana isn’t such a traditional Russian name, but I innocently copied it from Felice Holman’s The Wild Children, trusting those were all real Russian names. I think it works because a number of Kat’s sisters have less-traditional/common names, like Yelikonida, Alisa, and Rozaliya, and by the time you get to your 15th child, you kind of have to think creatively.

Lyuba and Ivan’s fourth-born child (Ivan’s special pet), Yekaterina Koneva, goes by Katya. Her family also calls her ptichka, “little bird.”

When Katya Chernomyrdina appears with Katya Koneva, they’re Older Katya and Younger Katya.

***********************************

Some Russian names are lucky enough to have several base nickname forms, like Anastasiya (Asya, Stasya, Nastya), Nadezhda (Dusya, Nadya), Aleksandr/a (Sasha, Shura, Sanya), Yelena (Lena, Lyolya), Lyubov (Lyuba, Busya), Dmitriy (Dima, Mitya), Georgiy (Zhora, Gosha), Pavel (Pasha, Pavlik), and Vladimir (Vova, Volodya). In English, names with multiple nicknames include William, Elizabeth, Katherine, the Jul- names, John, and the Al- names. Using child vs. adult forms of a nickname is a perfect way to distinguish characters, like Joe and Joey or Lizzie vs. Beth.

You should always try as much as possible to use different names for every character, but sometimes it’s just not feasible.

Paternity Warfare (Palatino)

Font: My belovèd Palatino, of course!

Created: 1948

Personal experience: Used almost completely exclusively since late September ’93. The ’93 Mac didn’t have Bookman, so I chose what looked like the next-closest thing. It’s been my font soulmate ever since.

Chapter: “Paternity Warfare”

Book: You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan

Written: 1998 or 1999

Computer created on: I think it was the ’96 or ’97 Mac we had.

File format: ClarisWorks

This is Chapter 15 of my first Russian historical novel, my favorite chapter and also the shortest, in only the upper 4000s. (By my standards, short=lower 4000s/upper 5000s, midrange=7000s/8000s, long=10,000+.) Though I lost all my formatting when I finally was able to open and convert these old files, I still remembered that certain parts of Ivan’s dialogue were in bold italics. He was that livid when Boris popped in on his second illegal visit home, trying to steal Tatyana.

There’s no contest as to Tatyana’s paternity, as Ivan is a virgin till September 1921, when he’s 23 years old, and Tatyana was conceived in April 1918. But Ivan is the man who’s raised her since the night she was born. Boris abandoned Lyuba shortly before she went into active labor, and was beating her constantly during the pregnancy. Tatyana was really the result of a rape, though Lyuba doesn’t like to think of it in those terms since Boris didn’t hold her up at knifepoint and wasn’t a stranger. Off-screen, so to speak, Boris got Lyuba drunk and drugged when it became clear she didn’t want to be intimate, and the next morning she woke up naked next to Boris, with a massive headache and blood running down her legs.

During this chapter, Lyuba is in town working at the Godunov cousins’ brothel, and has left Tatyana in the care of the man she considers her father, Ivan. Ivan isn’t having any of it when Boris shows up in the middle of the night.

The croup remedy Ivan uses to help Tatyana was something I learnt from the Spanish professor I had at community college.

Some highlights:

Eliisabet drops her fork. “Holy Mother of God, I knew there was some secret reason why she kept insisting she couldn’t be with you and had to stay with Borís!  She talked in vague generalities about being afraid of staying with a nice guy, but I never dreamt it was anywhere in that perverted league!  No wonder she feels more familiar with being abused and disrespected by men!”

“I don’t know how to do that!” Iván carries her outside to the outhouse, unpins the diaper, and sets her down on the hole in the ground.

“You don’t need to wear winter gloves.  It’s not like you’ll get Bubonic Plague from changing a diaper!” Kat laughs.

It is all falling apart.  Iván has never gone long without a woman to take care of him.  He suffers through two more diaper changes, three naps, and two more feedings before he sets Tatyana down in the crib for the night, only to be jerked awake at two in the morning by her croup.  Cursing to himself, he grabs her and dashes into the bathroom to turn the shower on.  He’s hardly thrilled when it comes back again the next night.  He sits on the floor with her and cries for two hours.

Iván turns white in fury. “You!  Who gave you permission to enter this house!  You dared to come back here illegally a second time!  This is my child!  You abandoned her before she was born!  Get the hell out!” He sets Tatyana down on the floor as soon as she starts breathing normally again and storms toward Borís, hitting him with the back of his hand.

“This bastard Borís has come back to wreck more havoc in our lives!” Iván gives his former best friend a push backwards down the stairs. “Get the hell out of this house before I kill you, you dryan, you súkin syn, you worthless piece of govnó!”

“You see what you did?” Iván scoops her up and rocks her back and forth. “It’ll all be over soon, my precious little tsarévna.  Just as soon as that man gets out of this house.  He wants to take you away from me, but there’s no way in the world I would ever give my angelic little girl away to anybody!”

By now Iván has grabbed Borís by the throat and is banging his head against the floor, ignoring his gasps for breath.  The other people in the band have come running from their beds by now to see what the noise is all about.

Borís looks at Tatyana with tears in his eyes. “You can always go to bed with Lyuba and get her pregnant, and then you’ll have a child of your own!  Let me have my child!  You can even have five or six kids with her, just give me back my child!”

Blushing, Borís turns away and heads back for the abandoned resort where he’s been staying.  He chokes ahead of time on the stench of beer, wine, vomit, urine, govnó, and blood that’ll be sure to greet him once he enters the old resort where bands of wild children and their older counterparts are staying, stacked up like sardines, and always afraid to leave anything unattended, for fear of it being stolen by an unscrupulous bandmember.

Ellis Island (Euphemia)

Font: Euphemia (wanted Edwardian Script, but it was too hard to read for an extended period, even in 30-point type)

Chapter: “Ellis Island”

Book: You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan

Written: Spring 1999 or 2000

Computer created on: It was a Mac that must’ve been made in ’96 or ’97, or a new ’99 one.

File format: Word98 (first and only time I wrote any chapters of my first Russian novel in Word!)

This is Chapter 22 of my first Russian historical novel, the first chapter of Part II, “America.” I had so much fun doing the research for this, because I’ve always been fascinated by the history of immigration to the United States, and Ellis Island. More recently, I went back and did some editing on this chapter, after finding out some new information (like how single women and unmarried couples weren’t allowed to leave alone, and how immigrants had to do puzzles to test their mental powers).

Our characters arrive on 3 May 1921, after having left from the port of Tallinn on 15 March. They were very lucky to get in, as restrictions on immigration began tightening that year. In early 1924, it became even more difficult for anyone from Eastern or Southern Europe to immigrate, thanks to all those racist, xenophobic laws. People from Asia couldn’t immigrate even with a miniscule quota (which was never even met in all those years it was on the books). America is made of immigrants, even the Native Americans themselves. These laws severely restricting certain races and ethnic groups from entering are one of the biggest black eyes in our nation’s history. Many people died because they weren’t allowed to leave dangerous situations, like Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. Rant over.

Lyuba’s party traveled second-class, but they end up having to go through the processing station with steerage, instead of inspected right on the boat like they were promised. Along the way, there are a couple of problems, but eventually everyone is allowed to enter the mainland. I now realize that a large White Russian immigrant community was established uptown in Hamilton Heights, but I’m too used to having them in the Lower East Side to undertake significant rewriting to change the setting. I think the downtown setting works better for the storylines of the first two books than putting them uptown would anyway.

The chapter ends with Kat and Nikolas’s wedding and Nikolay’s baptism at the Kissing Post.

Some highlights:

“The Americans in government now are racists,” Katrin proclaims. “Don’t you remember what Pyotr said?  They’ll send back people with a little birthmark on their neck if it looks like it’s contagious.  I even heard they once sent an old woman back because one of her fingernails was black, even though it wasn’t from disease.”

“Does anybody here have relatives to take them in?” Katrin asks. “I also heard they routinely send people back if they don’t furnish proof of employment or family waiting for them.”

“Time to be checked out by customs,” Katrin’s young suitor tells them after the three hours are up. “Don’t say anything incriminating.  And be warned, single women aren’t allowed to leave the island without male escorts, and they don’t let unmarried couples leave together.”

Anastásiya screams as the eye doctor flips her eyelids back with a buttonhook.  Katrin begins to whimper when her turn comes up.  That indignity, however, is soon overtaken when various jigsaw puzzles are set before everyone.

“I’m twenty, not five,” Katrin huffs. “If you’re giving us these puzzles for us to pass our time, you could at least do to give us puzzles with a hundred or more pieces.”

Anastásiya has switched from crying to her old bad habit of biting her nails since she’s gotten discharged by the doctors.  She’s biting them harder and more desperately than ever before because she’s afraid of spending the night here, on Ellis Island, surrounded by strangers.

Lyuba watches with tears in her eyes as the priest marries Kat and Nikolás.  Kat is wearing a purple silk gown and holding a nosegay of flowers she’s bought from one of the vendors.  Nikolás is wearing the only suit in his possession.  Kittey stands by, wearing a pink velvet dress and holding a second nosegay, serving as the bridesmaid.  For the first time since the Revolution, everyone in the wedding party is able to take Communion.

Sweet Saturday Samples—In the General Store

This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples also comes from Chapter 39 of The Twelfth Time. During her visit to Minnesota, Lyuba has been helping her next-best friend Kat and Kat’s sister-in-law Kittey with the general store they’ve started since relocating. After the business day ends, she’s allowed to choose a free gift to take home to her newly-discovered stepsister Lyolya, and a gift for herself. She gets the exact type of necklace I’d love, a spider necklace. (I already have a small jewelry box made to look like a spider’s web, with a red spider on top.)

***

Kat turns the sign on the door around from “Open” to “Closed” at 5:00.  By this time Tatyana and Fédya have gone back next door and Kat’s children have gone to their own house, and only Kat, Kittey, and Lyuba are left in the store.

“Did you notice anything you’d like to buy for your new stepsister?” Kat asks. “She’s the dancer, right?”

“A ballerina.  Praise God, she regained her mobility after those godless Reds almost destroyed her kneecaps.  It’s a miracle she’s able to dance again, well enough to get lead roles.  I assume she has plenty of dance clothes provided for her.”

“Dancers always appreciate pretty hair decorations,” Kittey says. “We have a section of jewelry and hair ornaments, some of them handmade and others we ordered from a catalogue.”

Lyuba goes over to the corner of the store reserved for fancy purses, ladies’ watches, jewelry, and upscale scarves. “I know she’s a fellow Sagittarius, so her birthstone is turquoise or blue zircon.  She might like to get hairpins with those stones.”

“And put them in a pretty little clutch.  That’ll be a nice presentation.”

“I hope she doesn’t think it’s too rude to get a gift from a stranger.  I might be her stepsister, but she’s never met me.  She’s probably more expecting to get gifts from her real sisters.”

“You’ll become her real sister in time,” Kat says. “Matryona, Dinara, and Svéta all appeared some time after we’d come here together, and they don’t see you as just a stepsister.  Maybe you have the most special relationship with Álla because she’s the stepsister you’ve known longest, but your surviving parents are still married.  And you share that adorable little brother.”

Lyuba selects a pair of silver hairpins with heart-shaped blue zircons and a black silk clutch with pink ballet slippers embroidered on it. “How much is this going to be?”

“You can have them for free if you’d like,” Kat says. “We’re not going to charge one of our best friends.  Think of it as a courtesy gift.  We know you’re not going to make a habit of helping yourself to merchandise.  And we’re no longer practically starving, so we can afford to give some stuff away for free.”

“Are you sure you don’t need the money?  I can easily afford it, so long as it’s not hundreds of dollars.”

“It’s our treat,” Kittey repeats. “You should have a nice gift to take back to her next week.  Your kids will make something, but everyone expects kids to give homemade or cheap gifts.  Adults with decent money are supposed to give more upscale presents.”

“If you insist.”

“Save your money for taking care of your remaining business in New York and relocating here,” Kat says. “And you’re going to have a baby in October.  Think about him, and not trying to reimburse us for a small gift.  You can even take a little something for yourself too, if you’d like.  Have anything you’d like, and it’ll be on us.”

“Now that’s just taking advantage of you!”

“We won’t let you leave our store to go home till you get a small gift on us.  How about something purple?”

Lyuba shakes her head in resignation. “Fine, you win.”

Kat pulls out purple wrapping paper for Lyolya’s present and the item Lyuba eventually brings to the front, a necklace with a spider pendant.  Kittey giggles when she sees the necklace.

“I knew you’d see that and want it.  You’re still such a tomboy, even as a married mother.”

“Why not?  I always liked spiders.  They’re such beautiful creatures.  And this isn’t some childish costume necklace.  It looks elegant and refined, as least as far as a spider necklace can look.  I’ll be proud to wear it to work.”

“You and Iván are perfect for each other,” Kat smiles. “You’re both so different from the so-called norms, and don’t mind that about each other.  I think people who are different seek other outcasts out, or are pulled together through some unseen force.  Either way, I’m sure you’ll get back on track beautifully once you’ve permanently resettled.  In spite of all your problems, you still have that deep base in common.”

Nikolas

Name: Nikolay Andreyevich Vishinskiy

Date of birth: Autumn 1899

Place of birth: Moskvá, Russian Empire

Year I created him: 1993

Role: Main character, Not Protagonist

Nikolas is the first of two children of Andrey Eduardovich Vishinskiy and Lyudmila Bogdanovna Surikova. His little sister Katerina, called Kittey, was born in September 1906. In April 1917, in the wake of the February Revolution, Bolsheviks broke into their house, killed their parents, and sent him and Kittey to a labor camp in the Urals. Their friend Anna Pavlovna Furtseva (Anya) was in the camp with them. Upon their return to Moskva after the October Revolution, as part of a prisoner exchange, Nikolas became betrothed to Katriyana Dmitriyevna Vrangel, the last of fifteen sisters. Though Kat initially was very unhappy about the match, she eventually realized what a nice guy she was set up with, and that her potential husband could be much, much worse. Kat and Nikolas finally get married in May 1921, at the Kissing Post on Ellis Island.

When he was twelve years old, he fell in love with the ancient Greek philosophers, and began going by the Greek form of his real name. While he’s not some egghead or geek, Nikolas is still a serious intellectual, preferring to read philosophy books and discuss ideas instead of engaging in pursuits like sporting or dancing. Partly because he’s so detached from the real world, he’s not aware of all the trouble that starts in his home when he adds to his family against Kat’s wishes. She gets her hands on a book about safe and unsafe times too late, and feels she can’t violate Russian Orthodoxy by having an abortion or using artificial birth control. She’s eventually saddled with three sets of twins, and resents the younger two sets deep down in her soul. She never wanted to turn into her mother, who almost lost her mind on account of having 15 kids, and yet now she’s headed down that same path.

When Nikolas finally receives a serious wakeup call about how seriously his marriage and home are in trouble, he slowly starts trying to turn things around. He’s devastated when Kat later sneaks away to get sterilized, but ultimately comes to accept that maybe six kids are enough for them, and that Kat truly couldn’t handle even more kids. When the exodus from Manhattan to Minnesota begins, Nikolas takes his family there first. Once in Minnesota, he starts studying to go to university, a dream he’s had to defer for years. He wants to either go to law school or be a philosophy professor, while Kat and Kittey run a general store next to the house.

Some representative Nikolas lines:

“Don’t you think you’ve once and for all finally proved your love for each other after everything that’s happened?” Nikolás inquires. “I hate this job.  I wish I could get moved to the book-keeping department or some other managerial task instead of simply standing all day over scalding hot liquid iron.  I’m an intellectual, not someone who likes to do manual labor!  I had a hard enough time as it was when I was enslaved in that labor camp!”

“My wife was in your hotel room of sin and corruption to innocently borrow a dress to wear to a dance tonight, a dance we never departed for. She was made late when you came in unexpectedly and she had to hide in the closet.” Nikolás can hardly believe he’s asserting himself when so often he’s been more passive than even Iván usually is.  “Kat overheard and oversaw some things that upset her very much.  Are you going to give us an explanation for your deviancy, repent and go back to preferring men, or claim my wife is a liar?”

“Had I known you were a deviant then, I never would’ve allowed my little sister within a hundred kilometers of you!” Nikolás thunders. “I would’ve found some other girl in the women’s section of the labor camp to watch out for her!”

“Now that’s crazy talk!  You’ve been hanging around Katrin far too long, I can tell.  But I’ll retrain you.  You’re not supposed to be prepared for more children, even if you know you wanted one anyway.  Children ideally are supposed to just happen as little miracles from God!  We’ve got two already; what’s one more or even a second set of twins if God so wills it?  We’ll love having more children!  Think of it as a little playmate for Lyuda and Ráya!” Nikolás takes her luggage and carries it back to their tenement.

“I know everyone thinks of me as this purely philosophical guy who likes to spend all his free time reading, debating, and thinking, but I just couldn’t resist myself when your parents matched us.  And obviously you saw something in me.  Otherwise you wouldn’t have stayed with me for so long.  I know you wouldn’t have if you’d only felt sorry for me like you initially did.”

“He’d keep us here for several weeks at a stretch if he could,” Nikolás agrees. “That little mudak is all about profits, not people.  He doesn’t care we’re human beings and not stones.  Even the pathetic money we make for all this overtime is nothing next to all the money he’s wallowing in.  What a traitor to his people.  Now I understand why Katrin resented the Estonians who curried favor with the Tsar’s appointed rulers, since they weren’t acting in the best interests of their own people.”

“And you have been paying an awful lot of visits to your parents lately,” Nikolás says. “You’re twenty-six.  Guys your age can function without their parents.  And don’t give us that line about how you have six and a half missing years with your mother to catch up on.  You can catch up with a weekly get-together or phonecalls a few times a week.  If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you have an Oedipal complex.”

“Why are you calling our babies brats?” Nikolás asks as he cuddles Andréy. “I thought you’d be over this selfish, lethargic attitude by now.  Keep taking all those pills until you’re back to thinking and behaving like a normal woman.  Maybe you’ll be all better by our younger twins’ first birthday party later this month.  I’m so glad their birthday coincides with the two paid vacation weeks I get!”

“What nonsense.  All decent women love having children!  You’ve just been hanging around Katrin too long.  You’re starting to get some of her radical ideas.  You’ll change your mind and want more within the next few years.”

“Kat’s home all the time,” Nikolás says. “I know it looks a bit messy and dirty, but I’m gone at work almost as long as Iván and don’t really care what it looks like when I get home.  I’m too tired to care.  So long as there’s food waiting for me on the table, Kat looks pretty, and our four kids are fed, bathed, clothed, and happy.”

“Nonsense.  How could she not love having four children and having the luxury of working from home so she can raise them?  In fact, it might be a good idea to take this time to work on creating a fifth child.  Once a new baby is born, Kat won’t be able to even assemble those silk flower bouquets from home anymore.  Perhaps working has distracted her mind from putting her all into being a fantastic mother and housekeeper.  I’m sure another baby will set her straight, and I’ll never hear another peep out of her again.”

“You need to work on your attitude,” Nikolás says. “I’m sure you’ll be as cheerful and helpful as you used to be once the baby gets here.  You must just be having some kind of bad hormone overload from pregnancy, coupled with an overload that never properly resolved itself after your last pregnancy.”

“That’s nonsense,” Nikolás scoffs. “We need to leave Kat’s womb open for any future babies we might desire.  Why prematurely close it when she’s not even thirty years old yet?  She just turned twenty-six in September!”

Nikolás rolls his eyes. “Kat won’t have the time or interest to even make silk flower bouquets from home once she’s got five or six kids to look after.  Kittey works at the florist’s part-time now, so we’ve still got some extra money.  As soon as she gets home from the hospital with the new baby or babies, she’ll finally come back to her senses and lovingly embrace being a full-time wife, mother, and housekeeper.”

“Can you ever forgive me for what I’ve done to you, my little flower?  I drove you into madness and almost ended up a widower at only twenty-seven years old, because I just wouldn’t listen to you and was convinced I was the one in the right!”

“Yes, of course I know what a uterus is!  But you just turned twenty-seven last month!  You had a good twenty or more years of fertility left!  How could you let anyone take away the essence of your womanhood!  Please tell me this was a tragic mistake and the doctor really meant to remove something else!”

Nikolás hangs his head in his hands. “I suppose the most important thing is that you’re safe and back where you belong.  My most dear wife means more to me than some internal organ.  I still love you, not your ability or inability to have children.  I would’ve chosen you even if you had been barren or had problems like Lyuba.”