TVTropes.org is a very, very dangerous site. Sometimes I’ll start reading it late at night, and I have to stop when it’s much later night and my brain has jellified. Look up anything at all, and you’ll wind up in a dense forest of fascinating related pages. It makes getting lost on Wikipedia look absolutely harmless by comparison. So fair warning, if you follow this link you’ll be there a long time.
Allow me to introduce the One Steve Limit, a literary device that appears in practically everything ever written, ever. Authors avoid using names that are remotely similar to each other because it’s distracting to the reader; they get confused because they can’t keep the characters straight, or even worse: the author gets confused.
In both books I’ve published so far, I’ve averted this trope, and in the first I even went so far as to lampshade it. (If you haven’t spent 300 hours on TV Tropes yet, averting a trope is pretty self-explanatory, but lampshading means to call attention to it and move on. They are not mutually exclusive.) While I don’t intend to write every book this way, and haven’t, I had my reasons for doing it.
First, I noticed this phenomenon way before I knew there was a trope named for it. It’s always bugged me. I remember in grade school, I never had one year in which there wasn’t at least one overlap between first names in the class—and this across a couple different schools, so it wasn’t all the same group of kids. In college, overlaps happened in any class that was big enough. It’s not unlike the so-called birthday paradox: with 23 people in a room, the odds are 50% that two of them share a birthday. In some countries, as the trope notes, this is actually much worse because the popular names change in waves far more obvious than the ones that sweep through the Anglosphere—to the point where if you’re writing fiction with characters from a place like France, you should research which names were popular around the time they would have been born.
In One Woke Up, when I started expanding from the novella I realized that the environment, a hotel with nearly 60 residents, needed to feel like it really did have that many people. It needed to feel like a community. Breaking trope was a perfect way to handle that, and as a result I feel really satisfied with the way the background characters come across. Yes, it means I have four characters named Jennifer and at least three each named Mike and Sara, but all it took was being sure to handle it well. The community often gives people letter names, like Sara O., and the narrator breaks down the prominent Jennifers into Perky Jenn, Hot Jenn, and later new-Jenny (or just Jenny). Clarity is maintained throughout, and I don’t think it ever gets cumbersome. No one who’s read it has said so either.
I couldn’t help bucking the trend again somewhat in The Affix, in that the three best friends who are main characters are Matt, Mike, and Mark. It helps that Matt is the narrator and his name doesn’t come up as often. Is it confusing that they’re all so much alike? Readers have noted that it’s different, but beyond a minor adjustment I don’t think it’s that bad. The characters all have different personalities, and Mike stands out from Mark by dint of being more outspoken and having a quicker wit. This did show me there’s a limit to how far you can take that kind of thing, though, which is proof that as annoying as the trope is, it shouldn’t be played with lightly.
Remember that warning not to go to TVTropes.org lightly? Well, I just found out the Affix is both a Clingy MacGuffin and Weirdness Magnet, and also of course a Mineral MacGuffin. I found out a lot of other things, too, and now it’s an hour later. The site is like that. Another MacGuffin trope I could mention is a spoiler, but I can say readily that the whole book is one gigantic MagGuffin Melee. The book of course has a MacGuffin Title. A few of the villains are Affably Evil, with a few cases of Villains Out Shopping. And now it’s two hours later.