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You Name It!

Imagine you’ve just picked up a novel. Here’s the first paragraph.

Charles, Lana (“Lans” as we call her) and Sanjeet work at Carlton Industries in an office with Berthold, Christie, Sharon, Ray, another Charles (Badgerton, funny name, huh?), Crystal, Nessa (short for Vanessa), and Jake Masterton, the section chief. For lunch, Charles and Lans go out for lunch at Roy’s, a local burger place, or Emilio Santini’s Pizza Parlor. Crystal sometimes goes along. Sanjeet often eats with Sharon, Ray and Christie, since they all bring their lunches from home. Lans worked at Shelley’s Clothing before being hired at Carlton, where she and her long-time friend Jeannie first met.

Are you following along so far? Ready to take a quiz as to who eats lunch with whom?

Not everyone likes Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. One of the many difficulties is the name count: four hundred named characters appear in the novel. But takes far fewer to turn a reader away.

There is such a thing as name overload. Writers know that details add to the reality of a story, and names are a simple detail to add, but it’s important to remember the concept of Reader Templates (more details can be found here). Readers read things with some preset ideas and concepts in mind. One preset idea is that anyone who is named in the story is going to be important to the story.

When a character buys a soda from someone at the local store, the reader acknowledges the action without thinking twice about the person behind the counter. But if the writer says the character buys a soda from Ray Rankin at the local store, the reader tags Ray as someone who is going to come back into the story at a later point. If not, why name the character in the first place? The reader tries to remember everything that seems to be of significance, and that particularly applies to specific identifiers such as names, so hold off on naming the gas station attendant if he’s just changing the oil.