The tenth (writing) commandment, according to ‘Mslexia’

September 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

The cover of MAR/APR/MAY 2013 issue of Mslexia advertises ‘Fiction’s 10 Commandments’. Such writing rules are always tantalising, but usually turn out to consist of rules that are either sweeping or restrictive ‘make sure every scene and sentence in your novel advances your plot or characterisation in some way [the third commandment]’ or trivial ‘Thou shalt not give characters names that all start with the same initial [the tenth commandment]’.

Rare must be the book where all the characters’ initials are the same. There are, however, many novels where more than one character has the same initial. And this ‘misnaming’ of characters is easily done.

For one thing, writers do not name their characters simultaneously.  A main character’s name begins with a “H”, so the writer avoids other names beginning with a “H”. If we have a “Harry”, then we will not have a “Harold”. We call someone else “Tim” but later on, when another character is invented—Tim is not present at that point in the story—the name “Tom” comes to mind.

On reading through the draft, the error is glaring: “Tom” must go but it is a pity because “Tom” is very much a “Tom”, and it is hard to think of him as a “Bill”. But we owe it to our readers to make the change, so “Tom” becomes “Bill”.

Not all writers exercise this vigilance and many books are published which breach Mslexia’s tenth commandment.

But having characters with the same initials may not be as bad as having a similar syllable in characters’ names. We may well distinguish “John” from “Jerry” but have more difficulty with a “Jon”’ and a “Don”.  A similarity in the first syllable is worst of all. In Gladys Mitchell’s The Saltmarsh Murders we must deal with a ‘Burt’ and a ‘Burns’.

The following examples come from six months’ of reading, and half the examples are from the last two months.

The Worst Witch Strikes Again: Jill Murphy’s four main characters are Ethel, Enid, Maud and Mildred.

Empire Falls:  Mr Russo has no qualms about having Fr. Mark, Miles, and Max as main characters who appear in scenes together.

Minerate: Leila Abouleila’s main character’s (Najwa’s) love interests are called Tamer and Anwar. Not, of course, the same initial but both are five-lettered names and are quite easy to confuse. Najwa has a brother ‘Omar’ and the place ‘Oman’ is also mentioned.

In the first chapter of Emily of the New Moon, L M Montgomery introduces Emily and Ellen. This isn’t too confusing because Ellen does not remain in the book for long. But there is an Aunt Elizabeth. However, the title ‘Aunt’ makes the name distinguishable enough from Emily.

John le Carré confuses us in a particular part of A Murder of Quality: we must distinguish between Felix (D’Arcy), Fielding and a place called North Fields.

Gillian Flynn gives significant roles to Amy and Andie in Gone Girl

In An English Murder by Cyril Hare, we meet Lady Camilla and Mrs Carstairs.

In The Minnow on the Say, Phillipa Pearce gives David a brother called Dick.

In Roy Vickers’ short story ‘The Yellow Jumper’ from The Department of Dead Ends, out of three main characters, two have the initial ‘R’ (‘Ruth’ and ‘Rita’).

In Handles by Jan Mark there is an Elsie (a man) and an Erica.

Yet sometimes the same initials do not confuse me. In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen has Elinor fall in love with Edward. Apart from having the same initial, the names seem quite distinct. (Edward tends, anyway, to be known as Mr Ferrars.)

So the rule might be restated: No characters of the same sex should have the same initials. Characters of opposite sex should only have the same initials where the names are otherwise quite distinct.

This tenth commandment is not significant. If you do not apply it, you will annoy your readers. If you do apply it, your readers will not be congratulating you: they won’t notice.

The tenth commandment is in breach of the fourth commandment ‘cut out all inessential words’ in the same article. “Initials” are the first letters of names, so “start” is an inessential word. But it is a trifle which I would not vex myself about.


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