Avoid name drift with proper planning

One of the most common problems I see in novice writers’ manuscript is something I call “name drift.” This occurs when the spelling of a character’s name changes in the novel, or worse yet, the character suddenly has an entirely different name. Obviously, that can’t occur in a published novel or story unless the author doesn’t mind losing all credibility.

Name drift typically occurs because the writer decided to change the character’s name and hasn’t replaced all of the instances of the original one in the manuscript. It also might occur simply because the author has forgotten a character’s name; this usually occurs when a character appeared a few chapters back, so weeks (if not months) may have passed since the author last wrote about him.

Fortunately, there are a couple of ways to avoid name drift:
• Establish the characters’ names before you begin drafting the story. When outlining the story, write up descriptions of the novel’s major characters and establish their full name, title and nickname at that time. Then stick with it.
• Keep a running list of your characters. In a novel (and even in a longer short story), you may need to introduce characters that you didn’t think of when outlining the story. And some authors don’t even bother to outline (which is OK, though I advise that you do). Keep track of your characters by adding them to a running list as they are introduced in the story, and refer back to your list when bringing them into a scene.

Should you decide to change a character’s name midway during your writing, immediately go back and change all uses of the old name in what you’ve already written. You may need to run a global search and replace several times to find all variations of a name. For example, in my character’s original name was Carl Steinar, and I change it to Karl Strumper, I will need to search and replace “Carl” and “Steinar” as well as the possessive forms of those names, such as “Carl’s” and “Steinar’s.” The sooner you do the search and replace, the lower the chances that the wrong name will drift into your final draft.