Substitution codes and naming your characters, or, how our brains work

I am sure that if you are on any type of social media, you have seen pictures that look somewhat like this:

Simple substitution code with numbers for letters

Easier than you would think!

If you haven’t, take a moment to read the text.  It’s pretty easy, isn’t it?  Surprisingly so considering what the “words” are actually composed of.  A few  years ago, another similar piece was going around where the first letter and the last letter of the words were correct but the middle was all jumbled up and again, it was surprisingly easy to read.  I was thinking about this earlier today and I said to myself, “It’s because our mind sees the shape of the words rather than each individual letter,” and I had an a-ha moment.

“That’s why naming our book characters similar names is foolish!!!”

Have you ever been reading a book where the two main characters have very similar names, ie, James and Jason?  Those two names aren’t really alike, but after a few minutes your brain starts getting all confused about who is who and you can never keep them separate.  I have literally given up on books because of that issue.  The names “look” the same.  They’re the same length.  They both start with J, and they both have a’s, s’s, and m/n in them.  Our brains would see them as identical as they raced through the text, eager to find out what happens next.

I have been very careful as I name the characters in my books:  Riordan, Sunny, Finn, Doyle, Mrs. Howard, etc.   They don’t look or sound alike at all and their last names, when provided, (Do butlers ever have last names?) are similarly unique.

But what if  you’re a reader sucked unwillingly into a murder mystery where the protagonists are a set of triplets named, sadly, James, Jason, and Jasmine?  Well, aside from throwing the book at the wall which would be my first reaction, you can train your brain to look at the names separately.  What is different about the names?  The last letter.  Pay attention to that as you read and see the names as Js, Jn, and Je, and see if that helps.  Once your brain notices that about the names, then it should be able to distinguish the three characters from each other without as much trouble.

Now, what does this have to do with substitution codes in the title of this blog piece?  I think that seeing these two different ways of writing, the scrambled letters and the numbers for letters system, should make simple code breaking nearly impossible.  When you break a code, you look for letter  patterns such as “the,” “and,”  and “tion” that repeat over and over again in the English language and those tell you how to break the rest of the code.  With this ability to scramble letters or leave some numbers to substitute for the letters, I think that will no longer be a sure thing.  Someday I would like to test my theory and see if I am correct!

So, writers, watch your naming!  And readers, pay attention to bad naming patterns by the authors and teach your brain how to get around their failings and we’ll all be a lot happier in the end when we can tell our Jameses from our Jasons.

About susannahsharp

I'm pursuing a life-long dream of writing now, something I am really enjoying. My first book should be out by Christmas. I want to blog about all things Irish; offering some book reviews for romantic, not smutty, books; and also things pertaining to reading and writing.
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14 Responses to Substitution codes and naming your characters, or, how our brains work

  1. Timely post. I just renamed one of the characters in my WIP.

    • It has to be done sometimes, but it can be painful. I know I was critiquing a story by a friend and it seemed like all of her place and character names started with the same letter. When I pointed that out, she was shocked. She hadn’t even noticed. It was hard for her to change them, but she did. I think the manuscript is better for her struggles.

  2. So true. I had to rename a few characters because their names were too similiar.

  3. great blog, Susannah. I had never thought of naming in this way. it also explains why I throw at the wall books with complicated very unusual names. I love books set in Wales, but I’ve stopped buying them if the names are complicated old versions of modern names and/or the text includes many words in welsh. It is a beautiful language but one I find particularly difficult to read, and so I’ve quit trying.

    Now I know why the names don’t follow the conventions my mind has been trained to observe and look for. Does that make sense?

    • Oh, man. I agree with the Welch names, although I haven’t ever tried that specifically. My husband and I like to read the Falco series by Lindsey Davis and it is so easy to get all those Roman names confused, although I think she does a pretty good job. But we actually did give up on a murder mystery set in ancient Ireland because the names were just impossible. It can be a big issue for readers.

  4. Interesting. I have a histfic book based on a true event in the 17th century. People didn’t have surnames, it was ‘Fred, Fredsson’ sort of thing and there was a limited set of names to choose from. One of the main charactersis a fellow called ‘Jacobsz’. When he exits stage left, another fellow appears whose name was also ‘Jacobsz’ (different man). I changed the second Jacobsz to Jacopsz to try to avoid confusion – but it didn’t altogether work. You’ve just pointed out why.

    • Yes, this can definitely be a problem from earlier eras. Especially if you are trying to go authentic to the era as they had very limited name choices in total. And I agree that the differences between Jacobsz and Jacopsz would not work. You were smart to realize that.

  5. Terry Odell says:

    I keep a very simple spreadsheet with the letters of the alphabet in 2 columns–one for 1st names, one for last names. When I need to name a character, I fill both names in on the spreadsheet which gives me an ‘at a glance’ way of knowing if my names are too much alike, or if I’m zeroing in on 1 particular letter.
    Terry’s Place

    • That’s actually a very good idea. It is so easy to be enamored with names that start with one particular letter and not even notice. I might have to try that myself, especially as I move on to write more novels. It would be helpful to have such a worksheet.

  6. ivy says:

    I have similar confusion issues when watching a movie where all the men look the same. Same color hair, same build, etc.
    I’ve also been guilty of naming two different characters the SAME name! They were very minor characters, but still, the boss’s neice and the main character’s sister should not both be named Becky. 🙂 haha

    • The story about the name is great! That would be confusing for the readers, I bet. I can just imagine them frantically pawing through the pages trying to figure out how they can be the same person.

      But I also wanted to say I completely agree about the looks of the characters in TV shows or movies! I get so confused. I thought I was just an idiot, but maybe it’s not only me who wishes they would clearly differentiate by build or hair color so that I can immediately see who is who. This is a great point. Not that we can do anything, of course, about correcting this issue but it’s good to know I am not alone.

      Thanks for reading!

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