Why You Should Stick to One Name for Each Character in Your Novel
You’re probably known by several different names in your life.
I’m “Alison Luke” when I fill in a form.
I’m “Mrs Luke” to my bank and to cold-callers.
I’m “Mummy” to my kids, occasionally “Mum” (they’re not convinced that I even have another name).
I’m “Ali” to everyone who met me after I turned 18, and “Alison” to some of those who met me before that and never adjusted!
I’m “Kitty’s mum” to a lot of my fellow school mums.
Like real people, your characters will almost certainly have more than one form of their name. They might also have a particular role or profession (e.g. “solicitor”) that you could plausibly “name” them as.
When it comes to your narrative, though, your character needs to have one name that you use consistently.
It’s confusing for readers if you switch between their surname and first name a lot, or if you use descriptions to try to shake things up a bit (“the girl”, “the tall man” “his friend”, “the cop” etc).
Using a character’s name repeatedly is like using the word “said” repeatedly: readers will barely even notice.
Why Switching Up Your Character Naming Doesn’t Work
Here’s an example of naming going wrong:
As Susie watched, Jason took a bottle of wine from the fridge and poured two glasses.
“Here you go,” the tall man said.
Her friend hadn’t even asked if she wanted something else instead. Surely Williamson knew by now that she very rarely drank.
“Thanks,” Susannah said.
Even if we already know that Jason is (a) tall, (b) Susie’s friend and (c) has the surname “Williamson”, it’s still a bit jarring to have him referred to in all these different ways in such a short space of time. It’s also confusing when she suddenly switches from “Susie” to “Susannah”.
Obviously, you should use pronouns (“he” / “she” / “they”) where appropriate; do use names if there’s the potential for confusion, though, or if you’re resuming after a break within / after a chapter.
Avoid Using Descriptors in Place of Character Names
Some writers, especially newer writers, think that it’s important to avoid over-using a character’s name. Instead of using the name, they write something like:
- “The teacher”
- “The cop”
- “The detective”
- “The tall man”
- “The woman”
- “The blonde”
Generally, you should avoid this.
Why? It’s distancing. It positions the narrative further away from the character and can make the character seem less of a person and more of an archetype or depersonalised figure. (You may of course want this, which we’ll come onto in a moment…)
(For more on this, check out K.M. Weiland’s excellent post Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 39: Referencing Characters by Title Rather Than Name.)
It can also be confusing to the reader if you use this type of descriptor. They have to stop for a moment and work out whether “the tall man” is definitely the same person as “Jason”.
When You CAN Refer to a Character by Something Other than Their Name
Of course, there may well be times when you want to use a nickname, or more formal name, or a distancing reference to a character.
This is always OK in dialogue – and, of course, the names we use for people can be significant. (My children only ever get called by their “long” names when they’re in trouble…!)
Within the narrative, though, it’s sometimes appropriate to use something other than the character’s name.
You might want to use a descriptor (like “the teacher” or “the blonde”) when:
- You want a distancing effect. (If you’ve read Brighton Rock, think about how Pinkie Brown is only ever referred to as “the boy” in the narrative.) This doesn’t necessarily need to take place throughout the novel – it might only occur in viewpoint scenes from certain characters. If your villain always thinks of the female protagonist as “the blonde”, for instance, that says something about who the villain is and how he perceives her.
- You have a minor character who won’t reappear in the story (e.g. “the taxi driver” or “the barista”) – by labelling rather than naming the character, you make it clear to the reader that they’re not important to the story. Essentially, if their role is what matters (e.g. the taxi driver is only in the story because he gets the hero from A to B), then referring to them by role is fine.
- Your viewpoint character doesn’t know someone’s name. In this case, it often makes sense to use a simple description like “the woman” or “the young man” or “Blondie” – but keep it the same each time, and introduce the character’s actual name as soon as is reasonable. (Unless you’re deliberately obscuring the character’s identity, in which case you can carry on.)
Sometimes, you might have a good reason to use variant on a character’s name (e.g. a shortened form of their name). The main reason for this is when:
- The current viewpoint character habitually calls them something different. Perhaps “Susie” is always “Sue” to her old school friends. You can certainly use “Sue” in the dialogue from these friends; if you have scenes that are from their perspective (either first person or third person limited), you can also use “Sue” in the narrative.
Do you name your characters consistently in your narrative? If this isn’t something you’ve consciously thought about before, you might want to read back over a few pages or chapters to see whether you want to make any changes.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about character names – and whether you think consistency matters here! – in the comments, too.
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
If you're new, welcome! These posts are good ones to start with:
Can You Call Yourself a “Writer” if You’re Not Currently Writing?
The Three Stages of Editing (and Nine Handy Do-it-Yourself Tips)
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Amazing Article … Just one thing to add.
You are Ali Luke to your readers
Thanks! I don’t really mind what readers call me, to be honest — though I have occasionally had emails addressing me as “Luke” (normally when I’m guest posting). 😀
This is an interesting post that I think is very informative. I haven’t yet had the problems that you have described of some writers here but then again, I haven’t written much myself.
I have one problem in my writing that I would like some help with. I think I use the main characters name and their pronoun too often, any suggestions on how to improve that aspect of my writing or is that not a problem at all.
It’s only a problem if your sentences themselves end up being quite repetitive in structure.
E.g. I have a tendency to start most of my sentences with a name/pronoun then a verb (e.g. “Kay watched…” “He walked…” “She shook her head…”)
So if you’re doing something similar, you might want to change things up a bit. Apart from that, I think it’s almost impossible to overuse the name and pronoun!
An exception of course is alias, like my antagonists have unrecognizable names and alter-egos when they’re out in public. It’s omniscient POV, so the characters don’t know it’s them until late story, but the reader will.
Yes, of course that’s a good exception: sometimes it’s appropriate for a character to go by an alias (like “Strider” in The Lord of the Rings, who’s later revealed to be Aragorn, Heir of Isildur).
I think the problem arises if the alias and the actual name are being used indiscriminately, with the writer switching between the two in the same scene, for no good reason!
God, this is such an annoying problem in fan fiction…I don’t know if you’ve noticed it in Sherlock (TV), in the common John/Sherlock pairing? It seems writers of “slash” pairings always run into one glaring difficulty: it’s hard to write a romance scene where all the pronouns are the same. Ever noticed that it’s really easy to write a guy/girl romance scene where you don’t mention anyone’s name for paragraphs and paragraphs? Not so in this case.
So what to writers do? Resort to “the tall man,” “the shorter man,” “the blond man,” “the detective,” “the army doctor”…etc etc etc. It gets so beyond annoying. I’ve written just one of these works, and I know from experience that it is more than possible to find a way *besides* using inconsistent descriptors. I stick to names and pronouns and resort to a descriptor only when absolutely necessary, but only one that makes sense in context. If a scene has nothing to do with Holmes’s detective work, I’m sure not going to describe him as “the detective.” Even though that’s an essential element of his character. Another creative way of getting around it is describing the scene really well. Movies don’t need to hover gaming tags over characters—if you make the details vivid enough, you don’t have to worry about naming them.
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I have to admit I tend to avoid most slash (it rarely fits how I see the characters — I don’t mean just John/Sherlock, characters in general! — though I’m all for others writing and enjoying it).
But I can imagine the issue!
Yes, it seems intensely clumsy and clunky to use phrases like “the tall man”, “the detective”, etc. I think names is fine, and as you say, sometimes more careful description makes it clear who’s doing what to whom.
I suspect part of the issue may be that fanfic writers see other fanfic writers doing the same thing, so they end up taking that as example of how to do it rather than how not to do it!
I don’t actually write that much, only because, like you said, I don’t agree with most of the pairings. However, once upon a time I shipped Sherlock and John and I still read the pairing because the writing is often pretty good. Except with naming and descriptors, though. In that area it’s atrocious. 😉