Two Characters, One Name

A reader asks, “How should we go about referring to different characters with the same name in prose? Like a daughter named after her mother when they are both in the scene in question.”

First off, the featured image is twins. I can’t really imagine twins having one name. Although, I guess you could do some weird things with that as a story prompt. It’s like Parent Trap, except even more confusing. See what I’ve just done here? I’ve accidentally given writers a prompt for a story I’ve certainly never heard before. Value-added content.

So, what do you do about two characters with the same name in the same scene?

I think there’s a few good answers here. I’ll get the kind of blunt one out of the way first. Don’t do it. Why yes, people in the real world share names all the time. People name their children after themselves. It’s a thing. My name is David. Before moving to Japan, I found that at any given time I had an average of 2.35 other Davids in a room with me. This made for complex bathroom discussions.

Seriously though, avoid it. Just because it happens in the real world doesn’t mean it flows well in a book. It’s challenging. It demands you come up with solutions, and frankly, unless you have an absurdly good reason for it, it’s just unnecessary complication.

That said, if you feel you have to do it anyway, I think there are two good ways to broach the topic.

The first is a simple designator. We have these in the real world. For example, I’m a “Junior.” Now, this gets a little weird when you consider the gendered problems with language. In the reader’s initial question, the example given is two women, and there’s not a commonly used English equivalent designator. So this isn’t exactly a catch-all. But in that case, you might use “the elder Sue” and “the younger Sue.” You can also use in-narrative cues for the same. The older Sue might get descriptions befitting an older woman’s voice, face, or attitude. The younger Sue might use more obvious slang.

This is good for when nicknames simply aren’t viable options. Milk the context. Use your descriptions to hit home. In a perfect world, your readers should be picturing your characters already anyway, so call back to earlier descriptors and references to keep those images strong.

The second is a nickname. I particularly like using nicknames, because they let you communicate more setting ideas quickly. For example, in Top Gun, “Maverick” is the name given to “Pete Mitchell.” Calling him Pete Mitchell says nothing about the setting. But calling him Maverick says a ton. So, you could easily have another character named Pete in Top Gun, without having to worry about name repetition. Maybe in your world, the elite enforcers are called “archons.” So, instead of calling Lucinda Lucinda, characters refer to her as “Archon.” Then, any time they use that word to refer to her, they’re also referencing whatever context you’ve built around these archons.

In Blood Flow, my protagonist actually uses nicknames to make characters with (potentially) different names the same. He calls some of his victims “Steve,” and has began numbering them. The first was Steve 1. The second Steve 2. This lets me communicate a bit of Dylan’s descent into anonymizing and depersonalizing some of his victims through an easy shorthand. It also means I don’t have to think of a new name on the fly, which makes me have to search through drafts and verify that I haven’t already used that name.

So here’s three avenues of approach. Do you have an approach you prefer?

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