All over our lives, we are met with names. We have names for places, things, concepts, pets, and of course, people. For a person, a name is something that is usually thought out and researched. There are hundreds of baby name books available (not to mention websites) that try to cater to every type of parent. Not content to simply give definitions for names, they also have top-ten lists, names that go well together, names to avoid, names that are themed, and names that are “unique”.
[For more on baby name trends, see this excellent essay.]
In real life, it is soon obvious that, with few exceptions, a name is not unique. The mere fact that it is in a book of names means that someone has picked it before. It has a history, whether it was last popular a century ago or whether it is a new variation on a name that has been recently popularized. One can try to pick a name for their child that ensures that they will be the only child with that name in their school, but eventually, one will find another person with their name.
Also in life, we meet lots of people with the same or similar names. Depending on the name, these people may be quite varied in age, social status, and geography: you may know seventeen people with the name Andrea, Andrew, Andy, or Andra, and these seventeen people could be your friends, your neighbour, your kids’ school janitor, a barista at your local coffee shop, your co-worker, and your second cousin’s spouse.
Amazingly, our brains generally can keep all of these individual persons straight, even those with the exact same name, for the following reasons: we don’t meet all of them at once, we associate them with different places (“Andy the Janitor”, “Andi the Coffee-Shop Girl”, “our friend Andrea”, etc.), and we are able to come up with ways to distinguish in an obvious way, such as with last names or nicknames. Unless you do end up meeting all of them at once, keeping track of them is so obvious that we don’t think about it often.
Yet, in fiction, giving characters names that are the same is considered to be a bad thing unless there is a connection between them. Generally, it is acceptable to give the same or similar names for the following reasons: a) they are related in a family; b) one is a successor to the other, such as the school bully Andy whose little sister is tormented by a girl called Andi; or c) they are going through a parallel character arc.
Why is this so? Why, if it is easy enough to distinguish between Andy the Janitor and Andi the Coffee-Shop Girl and Andi the Neighbour’s Daughter in our real universe, would it be difficult to distinguish between the same characters in a fictional one?
In the case of a work with a limited number of characters, such as a play or short story, I can understand that unless there is a joke in the names, one should give the characters distinct names. Andy the Janitor should probably not buy his coffee from a girl named Andi when the name Sara will do just fine.
However, in longer works such as novels or television series, why should names be such a big deal? If I want to write a story wherein Sara has six people named Andy or Andi in her life, why should that be a problem for a reader? Just as in real life, one introduces characters one at a time and provides context for them. In such a case, it would be my lazy writing that might make it unclear to whom I’m referring, not the fact that they had different names.
Furthermore, in visual works such as a film, Andi the Coffee Shop Girl would look different from Andi the Neighbour’s Daughter and certainly quite a bit different from Andy the Janitor. Also, in a television series, if Andi the Coffee Shop Girl was a regular character, the occasional appearance by Andi the Neighbour’s Daughter would not confuse viewers.
Is it making a story unnecessarily complicated to give multiple characters the same or similar names? I don’t think it does. Done right, readers and viewers would hardly notice at all if the names were not a plot point.
Perhaps it comes down to simply this: in real life, we have to keep track of multiple people (and sometimes pets and other entities) with the same name; in fiction, we want to relax and not have to do that.
Furthermore, naming characters gives us a chance to be creative – we can even use names for fictional people that we would never use for our own children. Why stifle that creativity with realistic repetitiveness?
The reason that I think this is an issue is really only applicable in “realistic fiction”, be it a novel, television episode, or movie. Having no one named the same or similar can actually cause a break in one’s suspension of disbelief, particularly the more characters that are introduced. Your main character has one of the top-ten names of the past generation and yet does not encounter a single member of the human race who shares their name? This is especially jarring when the cast of the show have the same name, or if the story has been ongoing for several books or seasons.
Simply put, names are fun, but they are not unique. The individual behind the name is. In the right context, what the name is doesn’t matter.
[For more information/discussion about names in fiction, click here.]