Secondary Character Syndrome

I suffer from Secondary Character Syndrome. Never heard of it? I’ll explain. It’s the tendency to introduce minor characters and forget their names, thinking they aren’t important. Okay, usually, this isn’t a problem, until one of them turns up again. Believe me, these little, inconsequential people still have stories they want told. They want their 15 minutes of fame.

I try hard to write these people down. Really, I do! Mostly I’m good about it, but once in awhile…. Well, you know how that goes. I remember they exist, then I have to go back and find their names so I can add them to the character list.

Sometimes, and this happens a lot more than I like to admit, I don’t give them a name at first. I think they’re so minor, they won’t ever come back. Or I give them a designation, like ‘hungry actor’, later deciding on a name. They don’t much like that, insisting upon coming back into the story to gain a proper name.

The ones that are really bad are the ones I name, forget to write down, they come back and I give them another name. Don’t think it doesn’t happen. Yes, laugh at my pain! Can’t tell you how often I’ve done that. It’s embarrassing.

The worst minor characters are those who somehow end up with the same name. Not overly sure how or why this happens, but two totally unrelated people will pop up in a story with the same name. Yes, it’s possible for the characters to meet more than one person named Michael, David, Peter or Joseph. However, for the readers, that gets complicated. Is this Mike the Cab Driver, Mike the Bartender or Guitar Mike at the restaurant?

I went through an entire novel calling two separate characters Mickey. I changed the name of the murder victim in a short story from Jay to Jeff less than three pages later. I’m still not sure I’ve got that right. I named my ‘hungry actor’ David and forgot and called him Sam. I even went back and checked my character list for him, missing him completely. There are only 12 other names on the list. There’s no excuse for that!

So please, if you know a way to rid myself of Secondary Character Syndrome, please tell me! The guys & I will be waiting over there in the booth, in the back, in the corner… in the dark.


Filed under writing

10 responses to “Secondary Character Syndrome

  1. This post made my day–I’m glad I’m not alone! I accidentally called one of my secondary characters Sophie, when her name is actually Sandy. The only way that I have found helps to rid me of this problem, is to write a list of the characters that are brought into the story as I’m writing my draft, and keep it beside me–much like the character bios written when someone is writing a play. It helps me to keep things consistent. 🙂

    • dellanioakes

      I’m the same way, Krissy. I have to write it all down so I don’t forget. Of course, once in awhile, I forget to write it down, then I’m in a mess!

      • haha It’s so true! Or in my case, at the moment, I’ve written the information down, and my desk has decided to hide it on me. I can’t see one square inch of it right now–I think it’s time for some spring cleaning!

        • dellanioakes

          My desk is in the dining room, so I don’t have any room to spread stuff around. I move things from my desk to the table and back. (Needless to say, we rarely eat at the table). I tend to lose things like that because I have to shift stacks. I’ve got three small 3 rings that I keep my character notes, etc, in. I have one for finished stories, another for unfinished & the third I keep notes of all kinds in, stuff I run off, etc. So far, that works well for me. I also started a character box. I write down on index cards the two main characters, who they are, what they do, story they’re in, friends & co workers, family, coloring, etc. It’s pretty dumb, but I frequently forget the hair & eye color of my main characters. I usually find it when I go back through and I’m glad it’s me who spots it, not a reader! I haven’t done it for secondary characters yet, but since I reuse some from story to story, I’m going to ahve to.

      • Index cards sound like a great idea! I think that’s something I’m going to try–it would keep my important information in a concise and easy-to-find format. I have different notebooks too that I use for different things. I have a notebook for my blogging, a notebook for writing, and a notebook for my work, all colour-coordinated based on what I’m using it for. I find it’s a great way to stay organized and compartmentalize the different things I’m working on. It can get really hard to divide my time, and I find that switching notebooks really helps.

  2. I keep a list of the names I use. I also keep track of the first letters of their names. I write out the alphabet, and whenever I name a character, I put their first name next to the appropriate letter, and their last name next to the appropriate letter. I also do this if the middle name is an issue. This way I can see at a glance what names I’ve used. It also keeps me from using the same letter for the names of my characters. (Which is why the last name of one of my characters in Light Bringer is Zaroff.)

    So when did I start doing this? After one of my books was published and I realized both of the suspects — the red herring and the villain — had the same initials. Yep, first, last, and middle. Have no idea how that happened.

    • dellanioakes

      OH my, Pat! that could get confusing. I try hard not to use the same beginning letter for my names, but find myself doing it sometimes. I go back and change the names of the minor characters so that it won’t be so confusing. That’s an excellent suggestion, keeping track of all the names alphabetically. I’m not sure I’m that organized, but that’s really a good idea.

  3. dellanioakes

    Krissy, I like the color coordinated idea. I wish I had more room. The reason I keep the small notebooks, about half the size of an ordinary one, is because they don’t take up much room. I really need a couple more, but they’re difficult to find. I have several 3 ring binders, but they’re huge!

    Oh, I also use a lot of Post It notes. I should take out stock in the company =)

    • I’m a post-it note fiend too. The amount of post-it note accessorries I have would probably make people feel that I should be committed, *snorts. Every size, dispensers, it’s ridiculous, but it’s a system! Each has its own function depending on what I’m working on. It’s a wonderful thing. 🙂

  4. christinehusom

    What a great discussion. I tend to pick same names. In one of my books I had Jesse, the Mpls cop and Jesse, the Winnebago County Corrections Officer–my daughter noticed it, so I changed it. I named a Sara and a Sarah in a book because that happens in real life and there was no confusing the two in the story.

    One of my deputies is Todd and he’s Todd, Todd, Todd, then Dan in one reference, then back to Todd. I mix up two of my deputies because they are often with Corky. So in the same scene, you start out with Carlson and end up with Mason a page or two later. It should be more than obvious to me, but I’ve done it more than once!

    I had a notebook, alphabatized, like Pat’s, by last name and first name of my characters, then moved to a file on my computer. I list the characters, what books they’re in and what role they have. The problem? Keeping it current.

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