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It has been said that you should avoid similar sounding character names. One recommendation is to let character names begin with different letters of the alphabet, and not having them rhyme or alliterate.

But what about similar charater versus object names?

For example, in a science fiction novel a person could be named Anton Hilfinger and a planet Helmin.

Would that cause confusion? Even is the character was refered to his first name almost exclusively?

Or would you not confuse the names, but subliminally perceive some relation between them?

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People don't confuse the person called Barack Obama with the city called Omaha and those are much closer than the examples you're worried about. – David Richerby Jul 16 '14 at 19:38
I'm not even sure if you mean that "Anton" is too similar to "Helmin" because they both end with short-vowel-en or "Hilfinger" is too similar to "Helmin" because they both begin with Aitch-short-vowel-ell. – David Conrad Jul 16 '14 at 22:19
Also there is an "i" and "n/ng" in both names. The only real difference is the "f". – what Jul 17 '14 at 9:10

5 Answers 5

Don't stress about it. There are only so many consonants in the English language. The similarity would have to be pretty big before anyone noticed it. In the specific case you give, I don't think it is. Sure, they both start with the same letter, but other than that they have almost nothing in common.

Consider the number of characters, locations and items in your story. They all need names. There is a limit to how many unique combinations of syllables you can imagine, and that limit goes down when you remove the tongue-tying ones and all the dirty words.

If you had, for example, a character named Aster and a planet named Astarte, I'd understand the concern. I could easily imagine a reader confusing them, especially in the early parts of the story. That's because the shared portion is quite large incomparison with the differentiating portion. Aster and Astrophel would be more easily distinguished.

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When writing with names that readers are already familiar with, it's easy to use nicknames, diminutives, etc., that they're already familiar with. E.g., if Mary says to John, "Come here, Johnny!" readers understand the variant name forms. An unfamiliar language might have different rules or patterns for forming these. Aster and Astrophel could be confusing if someone says "I'm going to go see Aster this weekend," it might be less clear whether they mean their friend Aster, or they're taking a trip to vacation planet Astrophel, informally known as Aster. Context means a lot. :) – Joshua Taylor Jul 16 '14 at 17:02
That's interesting, I hadn't thought of that. I was thinking of Aster in terms of being an old-fashioned English name that had fallen out of use. – lea Jul 17 '14 at 6:29

Think of everything in the story in terms of "actors". Do they appear near enough to be confusable? Do they appear in contexts where one can be confused with the other?

In your case it's rather distant. Sure, there are contexts where they can be problematic.

We're going to hitch a ride to Hilfinger

We're going to hitch a ride to Helmin.

That's one example. I bet it would be a rather rare one to occur in the story, so don't sweat it, but such things can confuse the reader if you don't make them clear from the context. It's not much of a problem, don't worry.

But if you write a story about a team of soldiers, the sniper calling his gun Culler, and the heavy weapons guy named Culley, you're asking for trouble. Why the hell is the sniper carrying the heavy weapons guy on his back? Wait. Did the sniper gun just speak?

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Based on the Topic rather than the comment following.

There are several character names that are the same as an object. Richard Castle Jessica Steele Robert Stone Henry Block Jason Sand, etc.

Names sounding like their origin. Mork from Ork. Elmer of Selmer Bluto from Pluto, etc.

I would stay away from many names to avoid confusion. That being said, many characters have nicknames, and to compound the issue even further, some character have different nicknames depending upon who they are communicating with. In one of my novels Martin Thomas Hurston refers to his boss John Homer Blaine simply as J.B., while other employee's refer to him as Mr. Blaine, and his close friends just call him John. Only one person in the story knows the H. in Mr. Blaine's name stands for Homer, and only used once in the story. Ella Thornton is also known as Rose Thorn, and a few other names she was known as is mentioned also then quickly brushed aside not to be used again.

The hard part is trying to fit a name to a character that rings right with the story being told. I often change a characters name as I get further along in the first rough draft, because something else comes along that just fits the character better. Then too, sometimes I switch back to the original name I started with, adding a modification or slight change.

If you stumble on a name when reading your story out loud to yourself, then obviously that name is not a good fit. I also listen when others read my story back to me orally and listen for areas where they get tripped up, and then try to fix it.
I have one word in a current WIP that everyone gets tripped up on when trying to say it out loud. deacidification Unfortunately, there is no synonym for this word, and it is the name of the process used to prepare pulp paper historic documents for long-term storage.

Good luck selecting your names, I know it's not easy.



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It depends on just how well you portray your words. You can have a variety of different names to chose from.

Here is an example of how you shouldn't name your characters:

Apple was a smart student and she had a knack for climbing trees. Apple did not fall far from the tree.

Yet you can simply take an imaginary name such as Auburn and simply portray him/her simply by the context of their name. Be blunt. Be brave.

Auburn, just as his name implies, had eyes and hair of that color. Even his clothes went well when they were the right shade of brown.

But for your purposes, why does it matter? Many writers make up names, refer to object's names, or even fabricate one out of gibberish. It all comes down to one very simple rule in the English language: It needs to make sense. You can name anyone anything, give them the most amazing persona, have them do amazing things, and tell an awesome story but their name doesnt make jacksquat sense. As long as the name you chose isn't easily (and I mean easily) confused in a particular sentence, then don't use it. Or if you think it is the world's most fitting name for your character, then simply avoid using those sentences.

The name Apple would be a great nickname. Now don't ever use it in a sentence that alludes to anything that might hint Apple as an object, and not a person.

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I'd think the "she didn't fall far from the tree" line could work quite well as a deliberate quip. The trap is if you start making such ambiguous statements unintentionally and they don't fit the context. – Jay Apr 17 at 17:47

I agree with others who point out that there isn't that much similarity between "Hilfinger" and "Helmin". They both start with "h" and include an "n", that's about it. I don't think they're likely to be confused.

But to your basic question, if you had a character named "Hilfinger" and a planet named "Halfamger", I could see that being confusing to the reader.

Of course there are many context where it would be obvious which you were talking about. "_____ is wearing a blue shirt today" presumably refers to the person. "_____ has a large ice cap near its north pole" probably refers to the planet. Etc.

But even sentences that might seem obvious to you when you're writing might confuse a reader. "_____ loves Sally." My first thought would be that that means the person loves Sally. But maybe the planet loves Sally, in the sense that you might say, "America fell in love with the Beatles."

Even if all context are crystal clear, a reader might still find himself routinely confused. "Wait, was Hilfinger the name of the person or the planet? Oh yeah ..."

Of course it may be that you WANT to create an association between a person and an object. You may want to name a character "Robert Stone" because you think the name "stone" creates an image of reliability and ruggedness. Maybe if literal stones play an important part in the story that would cause confusion, but generally not. The difference there would usually be obvious from context. (Like when used as a name it will be capitalized, but presumably not when used to refer to a rock. But what if it happens to be the first word in a sentence?)

All of which leads me to say: Make all names, whether people, places, ships, animals, whatever, as distinct-sounding as possible, unless you want to create an association between them. Of course I wouldn't get obsessive about it, no need to create formulas to measure how different-sounding two words are.

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