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Using Names in Fiction—4 Tips

March 7, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 7, 2015

We’ve already looked at considerations for naming characters, so we’re going to focus on something different regarding character names in this article. As a matter of fact, we’re going to look at four issues concerning character names.

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#1—Use Character Names Once They’re Known

Once a character is named, use that name or a pronoun to refer to the character most of the time, especially within the viewpoint character’s references.

So once you’ve revealed that the man standing in the shadows is Keith, the protagonist’s brother, and not a hit man, you would never again need to refer to him as the man, the stranger, the creep, or the stalker as you might have before he was named. Certainly not in the protagonist’s head.

You also wouldn’t need to refer to him as her or my brother (depending on the POV). So rather than this—

My brother passed the milk, after drinking out of it, just as he always had when we were young. Then my big brother stuck out his tongue and displayed his half-chewed food. That too was familiar.

—try—

Keith passed the milk, after drinking out of it, just as he always had when we were young. Then he stuck out his tongue and displayed his half-chewed food. That too was familiar.

The use of my brother again and again gets annoying. As does the doctor, my boss, the hit man, the monster, the dinosaur, the vampire, or any reference other than the name.

It’s not that you couldn’t use these other kinds of words occasionally, especially to be funny or make a point, but the use of names is much more intimate. And more likely to be an accurate reflection of a character’s thoughts.

We even name characters/beings that don’t have given names in order to have something to call them. So the unnamed vampire becomes Vladivostok, the dinosaur becomes Godzilla Junior, and the terrorizing monster becomes Major Ugly.

Use names to decrease the annoyance factor.

 

Excessive Variety Isn’t Needed

Don’t think that for variety you need to say my sister, my friend, my boss, the captain, and so forth. Especially not for first-person or deep POV third-person narration.

In these POVs we hear the characters’ real—uncensored—thoughts. And most of the time, we don’t think of others close to us by their titles or by the relationship that connects us. If my brother’s name is Paul, I think of him as Paul. I don’t think little brother or lieutenant. It’s true that I may call him my little brother or a jerk or refer to him by his title when I’m speaking about him and maybe—just maybe—when I’m speaking to him, perhaps to get a rise out of him. But I’m typically going to call him Paul in my thoughts and references. That is, I don’t think my brother is a jerk. It’s more likely I’d be thinking Paul is a jerk.

I don’t have to remind myself of my relationships to others or refer to those relationships again and again in my mind. And characters don’t need to do this either. Sandra knows that Bill is her husband; there’s no reason to bring that point up again and again in her thoughts.

It’s extremely artificial to refer to characters by anything other than their name or a pronoun in a thought. We don’t think about them as the relationship—friend, brother, husband—but as Sally, Paul, and Richard. We also don’t think of them as a title—the lieutenant, the secretary, my boss.

If a character hasn’t been named, that’s different and you do need ways to refer to him or her. But once the character gets a name, use it.

There are allowances, especially in dialogue, for when a character, such as a sibling, is trying to annoy another character and uses the family connection rather than a name. So a character could refer to another as brother or sister or jokingly call them something such as little sis or bro.

And such a practice isn’t restricted to siblings.

I knew a woman, some years back, who teasingly referred to her husband by his military rank when speaking to him. Yet at the same time, in her thoughts he wasn’t a rank, but a name.

I don’t find this a problem in every manuscript I edit, but when a writer has the viewpoint character thinking of one character by relationship or title, he tends to have a lot of characters referenced in the same manner. The simple fix, so you don’t annoy readers by overusing titles and family relationships, is to use names and pronouns almost all the time.

And when your characters make up names for characters or beings that don’t yet have them, keep to a single name per character/being (at least from the point of view of the viewpoint characters). So until the stalker is named, call him the stalker, not the spooky guy, the creep, and Mr. Nightstalker.

 

#2—Multiple Names for One Character

While it’s likely that some characters will be known by multiple names, consider keeping multiple names for characters to a minimum. Not all of your characters need to be referred to as their first names, their last names, both first and last names, and a nickname.

Now, if almost everyone calls your private investigator by her last name, that doesn’t mean her husband can’t call her baby and her mother doesn’t call her by her first name. But you don’t have to give every character three or four names. Once multiple names for multiple characters start flying around, the reader is required to perform a juggling act. Sometimes this is fairly easy, but too many names can be confusing. Especially if the names are used willy-nilly and not in a planned manner.

If a character’s husband calls her Twinky as a term of affection, don’t accidentally allow co-workers to also call her that. Co-workers wouldn’t use the husband’s pet name for his wife. (Exceptions if they know that the husband uses the name and the co-workers use it purposely to annoy her.)

Consider giving multiple names to only those who really need them. And then be consistent in your use of those names. If you can logically restrict most characters to a single name when they’re being referred to by others, do so. This doesn’t mean that we don’t know the character’s full name. It simply means that most other characters refer to her by either her first or last name most of the time.

If Celeste Crusher thinks Celeste is too soft a name for a private eye, let her go by Crusher. And let her mother keep her humble by calling her Celeste. But she doesn’t also need to be C. C. or Cel. And she definitely doesn’t need multiple names if she’s also a mom, referred to as mom or Mrs. Crusher.

If you find you’ve called a character some cute nickname but only once or twice, change the reference. Adding a cute name that’s used only twice isn’t worth the possible confusion.

This issue is on my mind because I came across the practice of multiple names used to an extreme degree in a book I admit I couldn’t get into because I was so distracted by all the names in the first two chapters. I ended up taking notes on the names in those chapters—and you know you’ve lost your reader when she’s not reading but counting the different names in your early scenes. Not only did the opening scenes not hook me, they pushed me away.

The first-person narrator was called by five names (four variations of her full name plus one title) in the first chapter, all within the first four pages. In the second chapter, readers were introduced to four more names for her. So this one character, the viewpoint character, was referred to by others nine different ways within two chapters.

Admittedly, many of the names were variations of her legal name, but nine? Couldn’t those around her settle on one name? Couldn’t she settle on one name to be? Yes, some characters, as we’ve already seen, may be known by different names to their family, to subordinates and bosses, but nine names goes beyond any need. Especially when they all pop up in the first two chapters and in a single event/scene. Who knows how many other names she went by in the course of the story? I didn’t get far enough to discover a total.

The names included these combinations:

Ms. last name

abbreviated last name

title

abbreviated first name

first and last name

full last name

full first name

two nicknames unrelated to her given name

I don’t want to call out the writer or the editor of the book by pointing out the real names, so I’ll use a fake name to give you an idea of how this looks.

Ms. Jefferson

Jeff

doc

George

Georgina Jefferson

Jefferson

Georgina

girlie and honey

Until the reader figures out that these all refer to the same person, he has to do a double take to understand who is being addressed when another character uses each of these names. I certainly did. Ms. Jefferson was also George and was also doc and so on. Confusion is deepened by the fact that the shortened names, both first and last, could refer to a man or a woman—great if you want to confuse readers, but not so great if that isn’t the intent.

One additional point of confusion arose because the first reference to the character didn’t include her full name. While there are still too many names used for one character, if another character had called out, “Hey, if it isn’t Dr. Georgina Jefferson,” some of the confusion would have been mitigated.

Yes, that example is poor writing in itself. But something similar would have made it clear that the same person was being addressed when a few lines later others called her Georgina and Jefferson.

While each of these names may be legitimate, I argue that they probably aren’t and that there’s no reason to introduce them all at this stage in the story. As a reader, I don’t know this character; I’m just learning who she is. Don’t confuse me with something as simple as names when I’m trying to figure out what’s happening in the scene and this character’s place in it.

The confusion was made even worse by the fact that multiple characters, not just the viewpoint character, were called by multiple names. A handful of other characters were given two, three, or four names. One was referred to six different ways. And the viewpoint character herself called characters multiple names, using one name in her thoughts and another in her dialogue. Even she couldn’t decide how she referred to her buddies.

Added to this already confusing mix was the naming of characters who didn’t show up in the scene, but were only talked about. These characters also had multiple names and titles.

~  One simple fix for using so many names is to reduce the number of names that refer to any one character. Most characters can get by with one or two names.

~  A second solution would be to reserve some of the names for another scene. The use of the great variety of names for each character in a single scene smacks of an info dump. An info dump for names only, true, but an info dump all the same.

~  And certainly don’t give multiple characters multiple names in the same scene. That’s just overkill or poor planning.

The use of so many names for the viewpoint character should have been caught and corrected by either the writer or the editor. The use of multiple names for multiple characters in so few pages should have never made it past an early draft.

A related issue that should have been addressed was the mention, by name, of a great number of different characters. Not only did many characters have several names, but there were a whole lot of characters dumped into the mix.

 

#3—Naming Everyone in the First Pages

You don’t want to overburden readers with any issue at the opening of a story. You certainly don’t want to throw more characters at them than is necessary to get the story started.

There would be very few reasons to introduce every major character and a whole lot of minor ones, by name, in the first few pages. Unless, of course, the total number of characters was fairly low.

The characters who are named in the early pages should have something to do in those early pages. You’re not creating a playbill for your story, listing the characters by name and by their relationships to all the characters. And you’re not calling them onto the stage before the story starts so readers can see who they are and what parts they’ll play. Those details should come out as each character takes part in the action. Characters don’t all have to show up on page one for a cameo before they can join the adventure.

And there’s little reason to name even more characters, those not even in the scene, simply because they’re related to another character.

In this same book, several offstage characters are mentioned in the course of events of the first two chapters. And not only are some of those what look to be major characters, but some are additional characters who are related to those characters. But they aren’t just mentioned—they too are given names.

The reader has no way to create associations to these characters who are once and twice removed from characters who are actually walking through the scene. What’s the point of including the names of even more characters? If there weren’t already so many named characters present in the scene, it might be easy to remember the name of a character’s girlfriend’s sister, but why would a reader even try? There are too many flesh and blood people walking through the scene that need attention. Readers aren’t going to recall the mention of a character three relationships removed from a character they can see. They shouldn’t have to.

Introduce names when the character is on the scene so readers can create links to those characters in a way that will help readers remember them. Readers create links through what happens on the page, through action and events. A character who is linked to another character will not be easy to remember if neither actually shows up in the scene. Especially if so many other characters are actually present for the scene.

Exception: Naming an offstage character can work if a great many onstage characters don’t get in the way.

Don’t expect your readers to learn the names of a couple dozen characters off the bat, especially if the readers are just being introduced to your story. Additionally, if you add multiple names for a handful of those characters and throw in titles and then offstage characters as well, you’ve introduced reader frustration. If you do this on the first pages, it’s likely you’ll lose your readers before they engage.

How can a reader possibly decide who to focus on when you throw multiple named and unnamed characters at her within just a few pages, many of them with a variety of names of their own?

The solution is to not throw too many characters at the reader and definitely not to do it in your story’s opening.

The number of characters you can name in the early pages will depend on the story and the way the characters are named and how they’re introduced. But if you expect readers to understand family or friend relationships and social or business hierarchies, and expect them to remember names, nicknames, and titles, you’ve got to restrict some of the information.

In the book I’m using as an example, there are at least 17 named characters in the first two chapters. And the 17 are referred to by almost 50 different names or titles. Two chapters, 24 pages, and 50 different names and titles for 17 people. And that doesn’t include the unnamed characters who were referred to by description or occupation (prostitute) or title (officer) or by their relationship (girlfriend, sister) to one of the named characters.

Was it any wonder I was confused?

That’s the same as naming 50 characters in the first two chapters. But worse than that, it’s giving multiple characters multiple names in the same setting, where the nicknames and alternate names have little meaning. It’s including nicknames out of context.

My advice is that you

refrain from putting every major character into your first scene or chapter

refrain from naming every character right away

refrain from giving multiple characters multiple names, at least not all at the same time

refrain from calling most characters by name and then by title in the early pages unless there’s a need to include titles—consider pairing names and titles rather than using them individually

give named characters a link to the scene’s events so that the name is connected to something a reader will remember the character doing

omit names in the early pages for characters who are not featured in the scene—exceptions if you’re trying to hide in plain sight the mention of someone or their relationship to another character, if you’re naming offstage characters for a purpose that will be clear later in the story

Be careful to not simply list characters who are present in a scene, especially in the early scenes when readers are unfamiliar with the characters. Name them if they have something to do with the scene, otherwise allow them to be part of the background, even if they prove to be major characters later.

 

#4—Names in Dialogue

This one’s a reminder, a suggestion I hope you’ve heard before: refrain from repeatedly calling people by name in dialogue.

We don’t do it, call people by name with every sentence spoken to others, and our characters shouldn’t do it either. We actually often don’t call people by name at all.

Repeating names in speech gets annoying quickly. Use names in dialogue for specific purposes—

Use names to help readers keep track of who is speaking to whom.

Use names to indicate that a character is speaking to someone new or to only one member of a group after he’s been speaking to someone else or the entire group

Repeat a name if one character intends to bother another character with the repetition.

Use a name if the sentence rhythm requires it.

Keep in mind, however, that readers get annoyed just as easily as character do, and so use name repetition purposely, not accidentally.

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In our real lives we use names to help us keep people straight, as a means of identifying them and differentiating them. Writers should seek to do the same with character names. The use of names shouldn’t confuse. Names should instead allow readers to flow easily with the story, knowing who is doing what to whom.

Readers shouldn’t have to reread the text to determine which character is speaking or which is being spoken to.

Use character names productively and let them be a help, not a problem or a weakness, of your fiction.

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26 Responses to “Using Names in Fiction—4 Tips”

  1. Phyllis Lake says:

    This was helpful to me. I will look back at the beginning of my novel to make sure it is not confusing.

  2. Grace says:

    This is an important topic – thanks for sharing. I’ve read books with too many names, and a few where the characters are named at the beginning of a chapter, and then it’s nothing but “he” and “she” the rest of the way through (which doesn’t work if there are more than two characters).

    I write epic fantasy, which lends itself to multiple characters with multiple names, so I have worked hard at keeping my naming conventions manageable. This article is still a good reminder, though, because in the fantasy genre it’s so easy to let names get out of hand. JRR Tolkien, master of fantasy though he was, was very heavy-handed with the names, and it could get confusing. Even so, though, he usually kept to one or two names as the primary identifier for most characters.

    In any other genre that doesn’t have to contend with ancient prophecies and multiple languages, I don’t think there’s really a need for more than a couple of names (formal and informal, as you pointed out) for characters.

    I always enjoy reading your posts and I always learn something! :)

  3. Grace, you made a great point about sometimes needing to include names more often. Using only pronouns or using pronouns when there are multiple males or females can be a problem. Thanks for the reminder and the kind words.

  4. Darien says:

    Thanks Beth!

    I was acutely aware of this problem when people started reading my manuscript. I ended up cutting several characters and anecdotes that didn’t directly contribute to the story. I have two characters who get mentioned about five times throughout the book, so when they come back, I usually add, i.e. his sister, Kathie, or the cook, Matt. I found it flowed better and even if readers do recall these characters, I don’t think adding the extra two words make it annoying.

    What is your opinion of a YA story, where the main character refers to his/her parents. Wouldn’t my mother or my father be appropriate?

    Many thanks as always!

    Darien

    • Darien, anything you can do to help readers without annoying them—you might not want to say his sister or the cook every time—can be a benefit for a story.

      As for my mother or father, it depends on if you’re talking about thoughts or dialogue and how deep/intimate the point of view is.

      Characters may say my mother, my father or they may say Mom, Dad or a combination of names when they speak to their friends. But in their thoughts, they’ll probably stick to one or the other, Mom or my mother, rather than using both.

      You know the narrative distance is very close if your characters think Mom rather than my mom or my mother.

      If you meant something else about your reference to my mother or my father, let me know.

  5. Darien says:

    Thanks Beth!

    I’m reading the Brooke Shields book right now, and she is using mom and mommy . . . I prefer my mother personally.

    Agreed on the other point. I should have said when they enter a scene, I will use his sister, but only the first time, and only after chapters have gone by.

    I always appreciate your responses!

    Darien

  6. Hi Beth,

    I had a question regarding the First Name / Last Name switch during the story. I’m writing a novel with and FBI-type of agency, so, on the job, most characters call each other by their last names, but not outside, or if they’re very close friends and alone. The dialogue part I already have it down, I think, but it’s the third-person narrator part that gives me trouble. If a character is called Emilio Chavez, as the narrator, should I call him by either first or last name ONLY throughout the whole novel, or are there moments in which I can switch from first to last name? When is that justified or recommended, if at any moment?

    • A good question, Carlos. I have a couple in response for you.

      Do you switch viewpoint characters or do readers see through the eyes of only one character? Do you use close/deep POV so that readers recognize whose eyes they’re seeing through, or is yours a more distant third POV, maybe an objective viewpoint?

      If you’re telling the story through the eyes, mind, and heart of one identifiable character (or maybe a couple of them), you’d use the name the viewpoint character would use. If you switch viewpoint characters, using the name the new viewpoint character would use would help readers keep up with the viewpoint character switches. So, for example, if we hear a thought or report about Sam, we’re reminded that we’re in Tom’s viewpoint because Tom calls his brother Sam. If we hear Sam referred to as Jenkins, we know we’re not in Tom’s viewpoint but in Sam’s boss’s viewpoint because he calls Sam Jenkins.

      Even if you don’t show us the thoughts of the viewpoint character, if you’re using his or her eyes for the scene, use the words he or she would use. And that includes names.

      For a truly objective narrator, be consistent. Pick one name and use it all the time. While a viewpoint character in a more subjective POV might change the way he looks at another character over the course of a story—and thus might change the name he uses for another character—an objective narrator wouldn’t change.

      So an employee might call the CEO Mr. Fitzwater when the story starts, when the employee is a new hire or has no relationship with the CEO. But over the course of the story, their relationship might change and the employee might be invited to call the CEO Robert.

      Or maybe the employee only thinks the relationship is changing and calls the CEO Robert in his thoughts, even if nothing changes overtly.

      Or maybe the employee comes to loathe the man and calls him something nasty in his thoughts.

      So your use of names depends on who’s doing the narrating and that person’s relationship to the person being named. The use of names should usually be consistent (which helps keep the reader oriented), but there are legitimate reasons for names to change over the course of a novel.

      Does that make sense? Let me know if I didn’t zero in on what you specifically needed.

      • Hi Beth, thanks for responding so quickly. In general there is the one narrator, but depending on the scene the POV might briefly change, but you did give me a VERY important point that I don’t think I’ve been putting to use. The way I saw it was that, unless I was writing dialogue, or the ACTUAL thoughts of a character, that I should consider myself the narrator, period, but given the shifting POV’s depending on the scene it would be something like this:

        When I’m narrating from my point of view, situations or facts about a character, I should keep a consistent name. So, if I’m writing:

        Alyssa Michaels came to work every day at 8:59 a.m.

        I should always call that character Alyssa because I’m narrating ABOUT her. If I’m writing as her boss, who might refer to her by last name and it’s his point of view, even if I’m narrating I should write:

        John watched her come in, and he couldn’t help but wonder how Michaels managed to always make it in just a minute short of being late.

        Is that sort of what you meant?

        • Yes, you’re on the right track. But keep in mind that you aren’t actually narrating.

          Who is your narrator? Is it an omniscient observer who knows all? Or is it one or more characters?

          Who is telling the story? In each scene, who is reporting what’s going on? Whose words and attitudes get used?

          It almost sounds as if there’s no consistency with viewpoint issues. Tell me if I’m wrong, but it seems as if POV and the choice of viewpoint character are not yet jelled.

          • I have an omniscient observer that narrates and comments on what’s happening; it’s not, say, like in A Song of Ice and Fire, in which there’s a POV character for each chapter. I’m not sure if that’s what you meant, do you have a similar article on handling POV that I can read? I have written short stories in the past, but not an actual full-length novel, so any help will be appreciated.

  7. CK says:

    I was researching tips on handling aliases and code names in a story when I came across this. It was exceptionally helpful in helping me figure out how to handle the issue. Thanks so much.

    • CK, I’m always glad to hear that an article is helpful. Your situation is different than many since you have a true need to use multiple names for characters. Still, many of the suggestions should prove useful. As long as readers know which alias and code name belongs to which character, you should be fine.

  8. This is a great blog. I have recently started writing fiction in a genera that is not usually written today: railroad fiction. This was popular from the 1950s (even as late as the 1970s) back to the beginning of railroading. I worked in train service for five years. I have 20+ years experience in technical writing outside of railroading, and have been writing articles for my model train club’s monthly newsletter for a few years. Fiction, however, is a whole different ballgame.

    My current novelette (the fourth one) will probably be in the neighborhood of 15,000 words. I was having problems with the names, which your article addresses well. I’ve given most characters nicknames, since in many of the scenes in the novelette, nicknames would mostly be used among members of a train crew, for example, but when addressed by a person of higher authority, a full name would probably be used, or perhaps just the last name. I think I’ll get rid of some of the nicknames to simplify things.

    One thing I have problems with in my own reading is keeping track of a multitude of characters. I’ll find myself saying, “Okay. Now who is this George guy again?” Then I have to rummage back through the novel trying to figure out who the heck he is. To me, that is annoying. In my novelettes, I’m trying to keep the named characters to a minimum. This current one will probably have 12 named characters—14 tops. However, I’m wondering if I can somehow keep the four bad guys limited to just one named character when they make their appearance, so maybe only 9 named characters.

    Here’s several questions:

    1. Is a Cast of Named (or Major) Characters a good thing to have somewhere for the reader to refer back to? And if so, where should I put that? I’m aware that including such can spoil any surprises later in the book. Because of that, in a previous novelette, I left one character out of the CONC.

    2. Would it be a bad idea for the first time a character is referenced in each chapter, to have his full name used and perhaps his occupation, etc.?

    3. If I stick with a couple of nicknames, should I use them exclusive of the characters’ real first names? Or should I only use the nicknames when a character is addressing somebody he normally addresses that way? Example: Jack peered steely-eyed at Dan and said, “Sleep, let’s get a move on.” Dan replied, “Hold your pintos. I’m comin’.”

    Once again, a great blog!

    • David, those are all good questions.

      While you could include a cast of characters, most novels and novellas don’t have them. Books with large casts (think epics) can use a cast list, but I’d suggest not including one in a typical story.

      Your second question addresses a tricky issue. Sometimes a full name and occupation can be too much information. If part of the full name is never used again and/or the occupation isn’t mentioned again, you’ve given the reader info he doesn’t he, info that won’t be reinforced with other references. Readers may try to remember details that that’ll never need.

      On the other hand, those details might prove useful later.

      Regarding names and occupations, readers will try to remember the details because they’ll assume that those details are important. If they’re not important, you may want to skip any mention of them.

      If characters are known by nicknames, use those names. You might have to include a full name somewhere—with a boss, at the police station—but if Jack is Jack, use Jack. Your major characters will probably all get full names, yet they don’t need to be called by their full names by more than a couple of people.

      “Hey, Mr. Smith. Can you jump start my car?”

      “Sure, Tommy. And call me Jack. Tell your mother I said it was okay.”

      ————-

      You want characters to be as complete as they need to be, but you don’t want to overburden the reader with details that are unimportant for the story.

  9. Ashleigh says:

    Hi!

    I’m in the process of writing a sequel in my YA fantasy series. This article was really helpful, but I have a kind of unique scenario. What would your suggestion be if a character had two names, one is his real name and one is his alias. So in the first 1/3 of the novel there is a quest to find “Smith” (real name example). Later there’s interaction with another character named “John” (alias name example). So the people on the quest find out later that Smith IS John. If to the rest of the world Smith goes by John, would they just continue to call him John? i.e. said John, etc.? Or would you recommend switching everything back to Smith?

    • Ashleigh, I’m not quite sure what you’re asking here. Is this close—once they find out he is Smith, would they still call him John or would they start using Smith? I’d guess most would switch to Smith. Some, however, might have trouble doing so. And some might keep calling him John to show their displeasure with his deception. But if his name is Smith and he and others make that clear, I’m guessing that most would then call him Smith. And he could safely refer to himself as Smith in his thoughts. An omniscient narrator would also be safe in calling him Smith at that point.

      Is that the kind of info you were looking for?

  10. Richard says:

    How are informal pet names written in dialogue? Examples: “You are getting a little full of yourself, missy,” or, “thank you so much, love.” In these cases, these are two strangers talking, and are not accepted nicknames for their targets. Should it be Missy and Love?

  11. Lee says:

    I’m curious about a main character in a group while writing in close 3rd.

    Say the mc is “John” and he’s with a group of companions. Would it be better to say (we’re in John’s head):
    The thing approached John and his companions.
    OR
    The thing approached them.

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