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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Anachronisms to watch out for, Part IV

This is the fourth installment of a five-part series on potential anachronisms that can ruin the plausibility or accuracy of a historical.

Menstrual products

There’s one funny scene in my 7th Max’s House book that I now realise couldn’t have happened in 1943. Max’s hated youngest full brother Gene grabs a random pair of clothes in a beach locker room after their cousin Elaine put his real clothes down a sewer as revenge. Gene comes home and all the way out to a restaurant wearing pink shorts with a maxi pad stuck to them, and everyone, of course, laughs hysterically. Mr. Seward goes ballistic when he sees it, and refuses to believe Gene’s story. As punishment, he eats Gene’s dinner, rubbing salt in his wounds by making loud yummy noises.

Sanitary napkins didn’t have adhesive strips till the early Seventies. Prior to that, women had to wear belts, suspenders, and special underwear, or attach the pad with hooks or pins. Tampon use wasn’t that common, particularly among single girls. There also wouldn’t have been mainstream ads for any of these products, and they were often sold in unmarked brown paper right near the register, to save women the shame of being caught buying them in public.

Body modification

Tattoos and non-ear piercings didn’t start going mainstream in the West till the 1980s. Even ear-piercings was frowned upon as prostitute-like for a long time. Having more than one earring in an ear would’ve been considered shocking and scandalous for much of the 20th century. You couldn’t just walk into a tattoo parlour or find one in the yellow pages 50 years ago.

Sports

What sports were popular in your chosen era? Were the rules different? My father and brother still laugh when remembering how I thought I knew all these football rules based on reading the 1965 encyclopedia we had. It included positions and moves that no longer exist.

Language

Watch the slang your characters use. I’m embarrassed that I had my 1940s and even 1910s characters using 1990s American slang. Make it accurate to the time period, but don’t overdo it. And watch for modern terms and phrases, like “shut up” or “brainwashed.”

Transportation

How did people most commonly get around in your chosen era? Trains were very common for long-distance transportation until airfare became more affordable for ordinary people. A lot of people didn’t have cars even after they supplanted horses. Most people crossed the ocean in ships, not planes, until probably the 1970s. And make sure you know how fast a given mode of transport could travel in that era. Crossing the ocean in a ship took a lot longer in the 18th century than in the 1920s, for example.

Cost of living

Look at some old catalogues and other resources to see how cheap it was (by today’s standards) to buy food, a car, a house, clothes, a wedding dress, shoes, appliances, and a night out on the town.

Sexual double standard

Sadly, it’s still very much alive and well, but before women’s lib, it was even more oppressive. Even a lot of women bought into it. It was so horrifying to read the slut-shaming in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and its sequel in all but name, Joy in the Morning. A minor character in Tree, Joanna, was treated like an absolute pariah because she dared go out in public with and show love to her baby girl born out of wedlock. Her boyfriend wanted to marry her, but his mother and sisters insisted she had cheated and he couldn’t be the father, since “if she let you, she let others.” In Joy, Carl’s hideous mother and sister also say this when they find out Annie’s pregnant, albeit some months after marriage. But of course, it’s okay for a man to sleep around and have premarital sex, since he’s a man.

Valentine and Ajax (Verdana)

(Warning: Contains some mature language.)

Font: Verdana

Year created: 1996

Personal experience: Some of my files of notes and scratch work have been saved into this font through default, and I rather like it, for a sans serif font.

Chapter: “Valentine and Ajax”

Book: Cinnimin

Written: 4 September-1 October 2002

Handwritten

This is Part XLI (41) of my magnum opus under the current table of contents, the second Part of Saga VI (the Nineties), Children’s Children. The title couple are Cinni’s firstborn grandson, Ajax Kevorkian, né Seward-Filliard (born February 1972), and the firstborn of her dear friend and stepsister-in-law Gayle, Valentine Pinkerton-Pembroke (born 1970). (Valentine was, surprise, born on Valentine’s Day!) It’s set from 17 May-23 August 1991. Near the beginning, the Seward patriarch, dear Grandpa Stan, dies.

During the wedding reception, Julieanna’s troubled son André is thrown over the edge to learn that his wife Bridget, who’s also his stepsister, is pregnant a third time without consulting him, esp. since they’ve already got two sets of twins. The elderly family patriarch suffers a stroke during André’s ranting, and things only get worse from there.

Some highlights:

“Corpses rot quickly in the heat,” Al advised. “Somebody wrap him up in ice packs before rigor mortis sets in.”

“Under my roof, you will cut off your own head if I order it,” Mr. Seward growled.

“Don’t be coy about what you do,” Max laughed. “My beautiful daughter-in-law hawks pornos and sex toys.”

Mr. Seward turned white when he spied Luke assembling the sixty-year-old television set. He anticipated hearing a huge pop or snap or bang when Luke adjusted the rheostat that turned it on. Instead a fuzzy black and white image filled the small screen.

Eunomia came into the room carrying a chocolate dildo filled with honey. Fudzie ran to lock up the rest of that month’s freebies, only to find Pandora and Stan sitting wide-eyed before a VCR broadcasting Aspen’s Mountains. He yanked the plug.

R.R. reached out and cuffed Ernie. “Do you really want to imagine your big sister slamming the sheets?”

Gayle pinched him. “And must you talk so cavalierly about our firstborn having intercourse?”

“Now Ajax, you’d better knock my daughter up asap,” R.R. said. “Gayle and I are dying for some grandkids. Just look what happened to your great-uncle M.J. He nearly went insane waiting for grandkids!”

[Cinni’s firstborn Demian, increasingly upset at the extravagant wedding presents his de facto father-in-law Max is giving Valentine and Ajax] “No fair! I had to bust my ass painting just to put my wife through Princeton, and they’re getting everything handed to them on a silver platter!”

“I helped Mommy get pregnant again,” Olivia said proudly. “So she’ll let me name the kid as a reward!”

“I have been duped for the last time by that woman! I swear to God I shoulda had a vasectomy after she told me she’d tricked me into impregnating her with a second set of twins!”

Everyone but André froze in horror as old Nathaniel Malspur toppled over on his right side, his face white and limp.

“What, you think the grounds are cursed just ’cause some geezer on his last legs had a stroke here?” Bobbie Jo challenged. “It’s bad enough the perpetrator fled.”

“Oh, thank God, Max.” Luke’s eyes lit up. “I was just hideously attacked by that man, and your bitch of a daughter is already spinning it to make me look like the bad guy. Give me like ten thousand dollars and I’ll leave town to go on a mission asap.”

“So you can try to convert more old folks on their deathbeds?” Nick screamed, nearly popping his jugular.

“Wolfgang!” André thundered. “No kid of mine is gonna be named Wolfgang!”

“Do you have a toy like this?” Pandora gleefully pushed a button that sent a lifesize Oscar the Grouch towering out of a plastic rubbish bin. Kevin screamed.

“This is just one big conspiracy to rob me of my money!” he ranted when they got home. “What is it, quints?”

Bridget screamed when she saw her oldest daughter’s cello had been brutally smashed. André laughed.

[Bélgica, Julieanna’s oldest daughter] “André got recovered by a family out for a yacht ride, bleeding, unconscious, slit wrists, an apparent jump from the bridge into the ocean. They don’t think he’s gonna make it.”

[The elderly Mr. Malspur] “Give André my blood. I have negative AB.”

“I’m ninety-eight years old. I’ve lived long enough. André is only twenty-eight. He has four young children and two more on the way.”

[Typical Violet, not understanding her niece was giving her anything but a compliment] “Oh, my heart glows to hear you say that, Ash! I may be two months shy of sixty-one, but I love to be remembered as a cold domineering bitch who always gets what she wants!”

WeWriWa—Made to Eat Crow

Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, where participants share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. I’ve been sharing from a book whose rough draft I completed 20 years ago, and which has gone through a number of edits and additions over the years. Right now, it’s in the queue of books in need of more editing and revision. A lot of the original material from 1991-93 never should’ve stayed in there as long as it did, and needs either complete redaction or radical rewriting!

It’s the first day of summer vacation in 1941, and Max’s father has just announced to his shocked family that he’s divorced his cheating wife. Everyone is going to be in for another shock the next day, when he brings his secret mistress home and announces their upcoming marriage. But for now, his sister-in-law reminds him that he’s still related to his ex-wife.

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“You three can wash up and get dressed up, and I’ll be ready to drive you to the dance at about a quarter to eight.  Doesn’t the mansion already feel calmer and happier now that the insufferable Clara is gone?  Thank God she’s finally permanently banned from our home!”

Elaine’s mother Babs cleared her throat. “Have you forgotten that you’re speaking about my sister?  I highly doubt I’m ever going to divorce your brother, so Clara is still going to be your sister-in-law, like it or not.”

Max smirked. “That’s what you get when you and your brother marry sisters.”

Meet Ammiel and Micah (MS Sans Serif)

Font: Microsoft Sans Serif (wanted Modern No. 20, but the html coding didn’t work)

Year created: 1997

Chapter: “Meet Ammiel and Micah”

Book: Cinnimin

Written: 21 April-16 July 2003

Handwritten

This is Part XLVI (46) in my current table of contents for my magnum opus. It’s set from 15 June 1995-late August 1996, and was written in one of the single-subject notebooks I split into two Parts. So much happens here, and two new main characters are introduced, the curmudgeonly beatnik Ammiel Garfinkl and the determined, lovestruck Micah Levine.

Ammiel is the best friend and male version of Cinni’s granddaughter Mancika Laurel. These two are so close that everyone suspects they’re more than just best friends, or blind to what a perfect match they are. They’ve even seen one another naked and insisted it was no big deal, just the human body. Ammiel is always bitching about everything, even his own last name, and doesn’t care whom he might offend with his brutal honesty.

Some of the many highlights:

“I’m going to name one of my babies Midnight,” Eulalia said. “Since it fits the blackness of my soul.”

“Oh, Maxwell has long behaved like this,” Mr. Seward said contemptuously. “I was in the loonybin for four years on his orders. My fatso ex-wife was too, along with his youngest full brother and a lot of his distant cousins, all while he was off playing in Italy. And on his orders, I only got to vote under supervision. That psychotic Stalinist who ran the asylum stood in the booth with me as I voted!”

Mary Julia looked around suspiciously. “There are so many crazy people on the streets, Demian. I saw the looks they gave me. Wanting to stone me and Dana for wearing short sleeves and shorts. I’d love to walk through onea their neighborhoods to force them to see a liberated woman. They thought I was crazy to be wearing this necklace of Lakshmi while Dana is wearing a crucifix and I’m looking for my black hat daughter’s apartment since my grandson is getting mutilated tomorrow.”

[Mr. Green] “I’m not senile. I’m as alert at 92 as I was at twenty.”

“So that leaves Butler Reagan as the oldest geezer in town,” Bobbie Jo smiled. She tore out a notepad and started making up the new Top 20 list.

“There are wonderful bands and singers on MTV,” Portia said. “Why do they waste their time playing this Dark Ages garbage?”

[Sympathizing with her mother Violet re: her lifelong rival Kit] “Don’t worry, I agree with you,” Portia said. “That woman is a major hypocrite. It’s like she gets under your skin on purpose. I’d like to bomb her childhood home.”

[Kit’s youngest daughter Raspberry Ann] “Exactly. Sure it’s nice to be well-endowed, but do you ever find women sharing information about their measurements? I’m glad I have indoor plumbing.”

Leah was far from excited when Gavrilla showed up at her apartment early Monday morning, Lulu’s people standing behind her. There was a plane with their names on it waiting for them at the airport, and free champagne and chocolate.

“Ten glorious years without child support,” Leah nodded. “Contrary to what the majority of unwed mothers on your show believe, it’s not worth sobbing over. There’s no father in my daughter’s life. Big deal.”

“Besides the fact that Garkinkl has an unflattering sound and never gets spelt or pronounced right, it’s a bullseye for the anti-Semities, like Katz, Cohen, or Goldstein. I wish I could hide behind a name like Laurel. Like hell I’d torture my own child with my last name.”

Philip looked up on his way out of the school and saw Ammiel and Mancika reading The PWW underneath a large oak tree. Despite the good early September weather, Ammiel was sporting a black turtleneck, black beret, heavy old-fashioned button-up boots, and loose khaki pants. His brown hair reached down to his shoulders.

A lot of people were there, even Arafat and Rabin themselves. There were a lot of singing, dancing, and flowers. Raina was moved to tears when the 75-year-old prime minister sang the Song of Peace, his first time to sing in public. And five minutes later, shots rang out.

“Gifts are a pretension of the very highest order,” Ammiel said. “I only got Mancika a book of revolutionary quotes from the quarter bin at my favorite used bookstore.”

Ammiel was walking around naked as Mancika went on typing an editorial for the school paper. A wet towel was carelessly tossed on the floor.

Raspberry Ann was enraged at her mother as she went through twelve hours of labor with only gas and air. All while Kit stood by telling her horror stories about old men doctors who thought they were God’s gift to expectant mothers, trivialized women’s feelings about being seen by a strange man, and mistook ectopic pregnancies for attempted self-abortions. And of course the subject of Sammy just had to come up too.

“That is your boyfriend,” Courtnie insisted. “Why else would you kiss on the lips for like three minutes and exchange ‘I love you’s?”