I recently read a book in which the three main male characters' names were Rafael, Richard, and Robert.
Dude, I could not keep those suckers straight.
I fully admit I maybe read a little too quickly at times, and I also admit names are not my strong suit, but … but … c'mon, authors, throw your readers a bone and choose names that won't be easily confused.
Richard and Robert were the worst, because in my mind they're sort of interchangeable "nice" names that are both two syllables and start with Rs and have an R toward the end as well. As I'm skimming along, I can't distinguish them for beans.
At least Rafael is a little bit more unusual and with a different sound, and it was often abbreviated as Rafe (oh, for a Dickie and a Rob, too!), but is it too much to ask that if there are going to be three important male characters that they not have names that all start with the same letter?
Now, I know writers of nonfiction or fictionalized history might have no choice. And maybe there are certain occasions when sequels or prequels inadvertently force similarly named characters to collide. But, for the most part, you as the author are fully in charge of giving your characters names that won't give your readers fits.
To that end, here are my humble suggestions:
1. Don't name everyone with the same initial letter.This is surprisingly tempting. Our brains work in logical trains, after all. When we've come up with one good name that starts with a certain letter, it's only natural to think up similar names first. Keep the wheels turning, and don't settle on your first choice.
Keep in mind letters that are different but sound alike: Corrie and Kerry. I'd suggest avoiding even letters that are the same but sound different: Celia and Chris — because in skimming, it might still be easy to mistake one for the other.
Remember last names, too: Mrs. Adamson and Mrs. Allison and Mr. Arlington would drive anyone to another book.
2. Don't make everyone have the same name rhythm.RICH-ard. ROB-ert. At least RAF-a-el breaks the syllable and emphasis chain. Give some people names with more or fewer syllables. Nicknames might help here, too, such as Rafe.
And don't make everyone's names rhyme, even inexactly. If your book's group of female friends consists of Mandy, Candy, Wendy, and Maddy, don't hate me if I refuse to finish.
3. Think outside a single culture.Particularly if you're writing a contemporary story, there's likely no reason or excuse to make all your names of one specific culture. You have less wiggle room if your book is grounded in a definite time and place. Even so, I've found ways to play around with that. Look at Rafael, for instance — he's a character in an English Regency novel, but his name is not ethnically English. (It's sort of Hebrew via France.) A lot of people from that time and place were immigrants from other lands or had ancestors who were, so it was not uncommon even in the titled classes (maybe especially in the titled classes) to have names that were Germanic or French, for instance. And you might even make your story more interesting if you give a character a name that seems out of place — and then find the way to explain it.
4. Find inspiration for names outside your own brain.It's quite possible you have a limited imagination when it comes to possible names (I tend to), since you're drawn to names you'd give your own children. The beauty of fictional characters is they're much more forgiving. It can be a similar process, though — I love fooling around with online baby name generators, for instance: You can set syllables, starting letters, cultural parameters, and so on. I also love lists of names for a particular culture — you can just type into the search engine something like "boys' names Finnish," for example, and you'll find various people have made lists for you. (Why? I don't know why. Don't you love the internet?) You can find last names this way, too, which is a huge boon if you don't know what to put at the end of all your interesting first names.
If you're writing a historical novel, another fun thing to do is troll around in novels from the time, Wikipedia articles on events of relevance to your novel, or family trees online and find actual people's names in vogue (or at least in use) at the time. I also personally love flipping through hymnals — there are some names in there that make me think, Well, of course you became a hymnist, Augustus Toplady.
If you're writing a contemporary novel, there's the time-honored practice of leafing through a phone book. Digitally speaking, blogs, Facebook, and newspaper articles are also good sources. When finalizing names for my mystery novel set in Northwest Indiana, I made good use of church websites, Facebook pages, and online articles from the area to get a feel for what names are popular. It's best not to lift names whole cloth (these are real people, after all), but it's totally valid to notice there are a lot of Kathys and give that name to one of your characters along with the last name from someone else you observed.
5. Change the names after you write.If you're sure sure sure you've come up with the perfect names and they all sound exactly alike, fine — for now. Go ahead and write your story. Then come back and figure out which names stay and which names go. That's what Find & Replace is for.
Obviously, these tips are for the main characters, and you'll have more leeway with background characters. In fact, you can make similar names a way of setting the protagonists' relationship with background characters: Maybe the protagonist legitimately can't keep Rosalie and Rosa straight and lumps them together as she ignores them both.
But I'd suggest — please, please, please, as a reader, I beg you — following these simple guidelines for the characters whose names recur the most, likely the main one or two protagonists, along with any love interests or a villain if you've got those.
How about you? Do similar names confuse you when you read? Have you had to change characters' names around in your writing?