My Characters Have Too Many Names!

(the struggle is real)

I’m currently working on a military sci-fi novel (and I do mean a ‘novel’, not a ‘story’ – I’ve planned this all out with a colour-coded, chronological spreadsheet and everything), which draws a lot of inspiration from the Mass Effect and Battlestar Galactica universes; namely that everyone has surprisingly light bespoke power-armour, and everyone has a callsign, a sort of military nickname that is a constant identifier when things like rank are suspect to change.

This means each of my characters has up to names: their first name, their surname, their rank, and their callsign. And I flip between all four of these annoyingly often: characters that are friends call each other by their first names, while distant ones will use rank; ones seeking a more personal relationship might use a callsign, but ones happy in their distance might use a doubly formal, doubly distant rank-surname combo. This is made more tedious by the fact that I’m trying to downplay the importance of gender in this universe, so the narrator will often slip into using callsigns and surnames to avoid referencing obviously-gendered first names (because if I were to invent a whole new naming culture for this universe I’ll probably create a society in and of itself, rather than adapt and futurify our current one).

I know that this is probably a good thing; as a writer of stuff I’m looking for different ways to present that stuff, and by adding complexity to something as ingrained as the naming of characters, I’m giving myself a lot of freedom to push ideas of closeness, distance and social rigidity without having to shoehorn in a ham-fisted ‘THESE PEOPLE ARE LOVERS’ sign every five minutes. But right now, where I refer to the same character by four different names in my notebook, spreadsheet, Notes page and Pages document, and then realise after an hour of planning a subplot I’ve written two characters into one, it’s a bit of a slap to the face.

I should have standardised things like my notes before I started making them; it’s okay for there to be narrative murkiness as long as it’s to create a coherent, consistent effect, but if the effect I’m shooting for is itself murky, that’s a problem.

I have now learned, however, and all my characters are now consistently named by surname in all of my notes; now comes the problem that I’m so white that all my go-to surnames are like ‘Smith’ and ‘Johnson’ and shit. I’ll fix this before writing any more of the story.

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2 thoughts on “My Characters Have Too Many Names!

  1. It’s great detail, and world building all at the same time. Just be wary of confusing your readers – YOU may know he’s a lieutenant, but your readers might have forgotten that by page XX.

    I feel you on the notes. Mine are an unspeakable mess, sometimes.

    1. Considering I keep forgetting whose rank and callsign is whose, I’m really quite afraid of that :’) And I may have spent two hours reformatting my notes into a new spreadsheet so I can actually understand them!

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