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Narrative use of character names

Crumbly Writer

After 13 published books, and editor just suggested I refer to characters by their last name in the narrative. Unfortunately, he mentioned it midway through the story. So if I do so, I'll have to revise most of my current books. He claims it's common practice for authors to refer to characters by their last name, rather than their first.

How does everyone here refer to their characters in their stories. Am I way off base by using first names, especially when there are more than one family member in the stories?

I'm a little befuddled. I'm about to start rereading each of the novel on my bookshelf to see how they handled it.

richardshagrin

I think authors are close enough to their characters to use their first names. There may be some situations where you want to use a last name, perhaps the character is an Asian who uses last name first, first name last or a title is preferable, President (last name) Since President George is a little informal, and there is always, "Bond, James Bond." although that probably is just dialog. If the first name is one of those unpronounceable eastern European or Russian names, and the last name is short and easier to understand there might be some reason to use a last name. or a nickname, like Ski for a Polish person with a twelve consonant name.

You are the author, you get to make these complex decisions. Just be relatively consistent and keep the same name for the same character, and named objects, like yachts or animals like race horses or pets.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@richardshagrin

You are the author, you get to make these complex decisions. Just be relatively consistent and keep the same name for the same character, and named objects, like yachts or animals like race horses or pets.

I typically use first names, though I vary between first and last names, positions and relationships to avoid repeating the same name every couple sentences/paragraphs.

The chapter in question features the main character being grilled by his bosses, so keeping things formal would help the scene. But once he convinces them he's innocent, they help defend him, so it if I'm going to use their first names, I should establish those names in the reader's memory now.

Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

I've never read a book where a character's last name is the only one used to refer to them in the narrative. In some cases I can see you doing that, especially if that's all they're known by, but more often they'll be named by their first name or the full name. In some cases I use their nickname and often intermix the three, depending on the context of the story at that point.

Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

I typically use the character's first name.

But I have one character in the story I'm currently working on who I refer to by his whole name -- first and last. It just seemed right to do so. I wonder if James Bond is like that?

Sometimes I have the character referred to with a nickname in dialogue and use their given name in the narrative.

Do whatever feels right.

shinerdrinker

That actually feels like a journalism thing. In news writing, you identify everyone by the full name and position first then by either position or last name as the story continues. Switching back and forth from position and last name is actually something challenging and with longer stories or feature stories often the subject is referred to by a description just to try and break up the monotony.

That's my feeling on it anyways.

awnlee jawking

@Crumbly Writer

Given the nature of your stories, it's almost unthinkable that you'd use last names except, perhaps, for throwaway official characters for example. I'd be interested to know your editor's justification for thinking otherwise. Is this the professional editor you hired?

AJ

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

editor just suggested I refer to characters by their last name in the narrative


A late thought on this, I wonder if they get that rule from one of the rule books on academic writing because there you have to refer to people by their last name at all times.

sejintenej
Updated:

Surely it is all down to context . The butler will always be Jenkins, you introduce someone as Mr/Mrs/Miss/Doctor (first given name optional) and family name. Between friends you rerer to an absent friend (non professional) as Fred, Fanny Flossie etc.. There are degrees as to when you refer to the local professional person (doctor, school teacher etc) by their title and name or first name or nickname.

Of course where foreign countries are concerned there are different needs. In some European countries you will usually refer to someone by their title and profession and rank Herr Bankdirektor. In one Latin American country a decently educated man (even without a degree) is Doctor but at the bottom of the tree only a family name is used.

All very complicated but apart from servants in posh houses you would not normally use only the surname

Switch Blayde

I just checked the beginning of "Casino Royale." The first reference to Bond is "James Bond" and afterwards simply "Bond."

I, for one, wouldn't refer to him as "James" in the novel. I'd either use "James Bond" or "Bond," the latter what the author did.

I don't believe there's a rule for this. Whatever seems best for the character is what should be used. As I said, in my current story I refer to a character as Joe Birch. Not "Joe" and not "Birch" (in the narrative). "Joe" just seemed wrong. I hadn't thought of "Birch" and may consider changing to that.

Ernest Bywater

@Switch Blayde

Whatever seems best for the character is what should be used.


I agree with this. In a current work in progress the main character is David Light Arrow Jones - Navajo mother and Aussie father. Most of the time I refer to him as David, but in some areas when he's living in Window Rock I refer to him as Light Arrow because he's in his Navajo persona at that time. Horses for courses, use what's best.

A good rule of thumb is to use the shortest option you can, unless there's a special reason for something else. Thus Bond would be shorter than James, Joe shorter than Birch, Percy instead of Percival Lawrence etc.

awnlee jawking

@Switch Blayde


I'd either use "James Bond" or "Bond," the latter what the author did.


That usage may well be a reflection of Fleming's upbringing and the social mores of the time. If written nowadays, when teachers routinely call pupils by their first names and sometimes the pupils are allowed to reciprocate, I think it's likely Fleming would have chosen a different option.

AJ

Crumbly Writer

@awnlee jawking

I'd be interested to know your editor's justification for thinking otherwise. Is this the professional editor you hired?

No, it was actually one I stole from Ernest. He claims it's from a general reading of literature. According to him, primary characters get referred to by first name, but secondary characters get referred to by their last names. When I think of that, I immediately think of Grisham or Ludlam. In this story, he focused (in chapter 5) on the main character's two bosses, who are grilling him for a perceived government fraud, so they're immediately seen as outsiders (though they play a role in his defense, and work to defend him). So far, I've changed a couple, initial references, but have kept the use of first names.

Strangely, where I expected him to flag something was when the character testifies before Congress. In those chapters, the legislators are always referred to by their proper names in dialogue, but when the characters speak among themselves, they switch to their first names.

Hell, even in business circles on Wall Street, I always referred to people by their first name, as the point was to establish a personal connect so they'll trust you, rather than an 'inferior' position of fear and distrust.

To put this into perspective, it's a past tense 3rd person omni perspective, focusing on the central character and those around him. I'm guessing it's a formal vs. informal relationship kind of thing, like the James Bond analogy. I'm also a sucker for sibling characters, so there's that dynamic in many of my stories as well.

Changing the topic slightly, in another story I have two characters with formal first names and pet names. As Ernest suggests, I use very short (two character) names. The lead character is "Al", and I never explain what his full name is. It's simply accepted as his name. However, everyone but he refers to his sister as "Betty", including the 3rd person omni narrator, but the lead character refers to her as "Be". I'm a little conflicted about consistency, but was hoping to develop the close ties between the siblings.

awnlee jawking

@Crumbly Writer


it's a past tense 3rd person omni perspective


I assumed as much :)

I can see the editor's point but I'd rather he looked at the situation from the point of view of what's right for your story, rather than what others have done.

AJ

Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

but the lead character refers to her as "Be"


CW, usually when a name gets shortened to the phonetic sound of be it's spelled out in writing as Bea to reduce confusion.

richardshagrin

@Ernest Bywater

To Be or not to Be, that is the question.

Dominions Son

@Ernest Bywater

CW, usually when a name gets shortened to the phonetic sound of be it's spelled out in writing as Bea to reduce confusion.


I suppose Bee could also be used

Replies:   funkso
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

Strangely, where I expected him to flag something was when the character testifies before Congress. In those chapters, the legislators are always referred to by their proper names in dialogue, but when the characters speak among themselves, they switch to their first names.


I totally misunderstood your question. I thought you were talking about the narrative, not dialogue. That is: "'Blah blah,' Bond said" or "Bond lifted his gun."

In dialogue, it depends on the character speaking.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Switch Blayde

@richardshagrin

To Be or not to Be, that is the question.


Or in this case, To Bea or not to Be.

Ernest Bywater

@richardshagrin

To Be or not to Be, that is the question.


In my days in high school they were called forms and went from 1 to 6 after 1 to 6 in primary school, thus the 2nd year in high school was 2nd from, the classes were A & B for advanced, C for credit, D for standard level, with E for just below standard, F for those about to flunk that subject. It was amazing how we sometimes didn't have enough advanced for a B class, but never enough extras for additional Credit or Standard level classes. Anyway, the first English class of the 2nd year I was in the B class and we walked to see 2B or not 2B, if not 2B find another room on the blackboard - yeah pre-whiteboard days by a decade or so. I went up to the board, picked up the chalk and wrote 2C if you belong there, try room 217 which was two doors down and where 2 C English was. I turned around and found the teacher watching me with a raised eyebrow, I smiled and chose a seat. She said nothing, and left it up there.

Replies:   sejintenej
sejintenej

@Ernest Bywater

In my days in high school they were called forms and went from 1 to 6 after 1 to 6 in primary school, thus the 2nd year in high school was 2nd from, the classes were A & B for advanced, C for credit, D for standard level, with E for just below standard, F for those about to flunk that subject

You had it simple; try to understand this (given from youngest to oldest)
6th Form
Lower IV
Upper IV
Lower Erasmus
Upper Erasmus
Deputy Grecians (or Upper Fifth - the flunk form)
Grecians
Button Grecians

The first three were divided into A and B

JohnBobMead

Wes Boyd does a mix of first and last names. When introducing the character he'll use the whole name. After that, most of the time he'll use first names. If the person is a professional/authority figure, he'll use last name with the relevant honorific, such as Mr. Hekinan (the High School Principal, later School Superintendent) or Judge Dieball. He'll also, if the individual isn't mentioned as often, use the full name. He's careful to not have several people with the same first names; if he does have two with the same first name, one will be distinguished by second or last name, such as Brent Wayne to differentiate from Brent (in this case Brent Wayne Clark is the great-grandson of Brent Clark, whose middle name we never learn. Brent Wayne was born shortly after Brent's death.) This is all concerning the non-spoken narration, the spoken conversations will vary depending upon the formality of the situation.

funkso

@Dominions Son

My understanding is Bea is a shortening of Beatrice, and Bee would be the vulgar for anyone with s B name,

bond gets called Bond all the time, and only intimately called James (by lovers, close friends).

I find lots of characters in stories get referred to by their surname, mostly by friends or people who know them less well... Parents will use first names, and in Australia we love a good nickname.

It depends on the character, his relationship to who he's talking to, etc.

Think of Jerry Seinfeld in the show and Newman, Kramer, Costamza, who would call them solely by last name vs first.

A rival may call you solely by last name to antagonise and distance himself from friendship, as an example.

I have a very common first name for my generation, and we had several people with the same name, so I got used to my surname or a nickname. People only call me by my first if there's only us, or a couple of people around and even then they use the shortened form, where my family always uses the full,

ustourist

@funkso

It may also depend on how long the main character has known the person, and how they met them.
Everyone at my school was addressed by surname and unless the person was a close friend, that continued outside school. Close friends usually had a nickname. The same situation arose with my sisters. If I met any of those people now I would still only use the surname, though maybe with an academic honorific unless I didn't feel they deserved the respect.

Replies:   sejintenej
Ernest Bywater

@funkso

My understanding is Bea is a shortening of Beatrice


Bea can be used as short for Beatrice, it's also a name in its own right, and is the usual way to write it when it's the phonetic abbreviation of another female name shortened to sound like Bea.

Switch Blayde

Can I get a clarification? Are we talking about the character's name in the narrative or dialogue? I thought the original question was in the narrative.

sejintenej
Updated:

@ustourist


Everyone at my school was addressed by surname and unless the person was a close friend, that continued outside school.


Yes, and it was very unusual to know anyone's first name or even initial. There was one exception; I was DB and another boy with the same surname was KC. I found out what the K stood for when he died

docholladay

@Crumbly Writer

I have seen both at times as well as a combination. I think it depends both on the writer and the characters. What a person is called depends on many factors but usually if I call a person by their last name after I get to know them, its because I don't like and/or respect them.

Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

I totally misunderstood your question. I thought you were talking about the narrative, not dialogue. That is: "'Blah blah,' Bond said" or "Bond lifted his gun."

Mostly the names appear in attribution and action attributions, so there's a bit of a crossover. If you refer to someone with a given name in dialogue, you usually use the same name in the narrative to avoid confusion (except where I noted I broke my own rules).

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

If you refer to someone with a given name in dialogue, you usually use the same name in the narrative to avoid confusion


Not necessarily. I introduced a character in my novel as Rocco Natoli. In the narrative, he's referred to as Rocco. But in the dialogue, it depends on who is speaking. Often it's "Rock" which is his nickname. Sometimes it's Officer Natoli. Sometimes it's plain Sergeant.

That's why I asked for clarification. Our discussions, which usually start with narrative, immediately switch to dialogue.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer  funkso
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

That's why I asked for clarification. Our discussions, which usually start with narrative, immediately switch to dialogue.

I suspect that's because we run into problems in narrative, which tends to be drier, but we spend more time working with dialogue, which is often the driving force in many stories.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Crumbly Writer

but we spend more time working with dialogue


But almost anything goes in dialogue. People argue that something is wrong, but if that's the way the character speaks, it's right. In the narrative, however, it might be wrong.

Replies:   richardshagrin
richardshagrin

@Switch Blayde

Monolog is one person speaking. Dialog is two people speaking with each other. Is there a word for three or more people speaking other than conferring or conferencing? Is Trialog a word? My spell check doesn't think so. When a branch won't do, trialog.

sejintenej

@richardshagrin

Is Trialog a word? My spell check doesn't think so. When a branch won't do, trialog.


Trialogue - Oxford Dictionaries
www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/trialogue
A dialogue or meeting between three people or groups. Meaning, pronunciation and example sentences,

now we have to find the words for four, five ....... people

Dominions Son

@sejintenej

now we have to find the words for four, five ....... people


it's easy just apply the prefixes to agon that are used to descrip polygons of N sides.

Quadralogue, pentalogue hexalogue, heptalogue, octalogue, ennealogue, decalogue...

Replies:   sejintenej  madnige
Switch Blayde

@sejintenej

now we have to find the words for four, five ....... people


Absolute confusion.

sejintenej

@Dominions Son

Quadralogue, pentalogue ..............

Glad to see you add the "ue".
My source spells it quadrilogue - I had a big job finding it and avoiding the references to the pop group (if that they be)

madnige

@Dominions Son

Quadralogue, pentalogue hexalogue, heptalogue, octalogue, ennealogue, decalogue


That's switching between Latin and Greek derived prefixes (well, the prefix for four is Latin, Greek would be tetralogue). Can't we, on this site at least, stick with Latin for six: sexalogue

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@madnige

Can't we, on this site at least, stick with Latin for six: sexalogue


Yes, if it's a stroke story.

Replies:   richardshagrin
richardshagrin

@Ernest Bywater

For some reason travelogue pops into my mind. How many people in a travelogue? Bus capacity 40 or so, airplane, say 200, cruise ship 2,000 plus.

Replies:   sejintenej
Crumbly Writer

@richardshagrin

Monolog is one person speaking. Dialog is two people speaking with each other. Is there a word for three or more people speaking other than conferring or conferencing? Is Trialog a word?

Maybe "conversation"? In writing, "dialogue" means spoken text, between any number of speakers, though few include more than a couple at a time (it becomes more complicated the more you add).

sejintenej

@richardshagrin

For some reason travelogue pops into my mind. How many people in a travelogue? Bus capacity 40 or so, airplane, say 200, cruise ship 2,000 plus.

????
bus/coach slightly more - say 60 plus in a London double decker. Airplane - often close to 500 but the 380 is designed to have a maximum payload of about 800, cruise ship far far more which is why I refuse to go on such cruises

Perv Otaku

I think whatever name they go by most is what you use. In some settings, like military or law enforcement, last names prevail. Most of the rest of the time it's first names.

funkso

@Switch Blayde

Yeah, okay, I looked back at mine after I posted and I wrote for dialogue and not narrative in my explanation. I wasn't in a mood to respond until now, sorry.

So, with narration it would follow the same kind of rules, except I'd be more consistent in calling your characters one name. Dialogue usually has a lot more context because we know the participants, can indicate them as a reminder, or we attribute the dialogue - narrative needs to be more consistent.

I've seen many reviews and other complaints where people have decided that there are too many characters in a story. I've never had a problem with that myself, I'm usually pretty good at following along, but I've been lucky in some of those stories where I've waited until the end to read them and not tried to follow along each week.

So, one name is easier to remember. Again, if we take the Bond example it's pretty easy - you'd want him aloof, secretive, distanced, so he's Bond, not James. You might have a character call him James to invoke some intimacy, but that would be obvious who James is in context.

If you had a schoolteacher you hated, or a boss, he might be "Higgins!" or similar, surnames. If you had a little nextdoor neighbour's daughter, she'd be Suzie, all sweetness and light.

Of course, there's always time to break the rule, and switch in and out - for example if Bond had just broken in misery and was particularly vulnerable you might switch to "James" to reflect that.

And then there's the folks who have two names anyway - the Southerner "Bobby Joe", or "Peggy Sue", who are always referred to by both names unless they aren't.

I think whichever way you go, just be consistent unless you're not.

richardshagrin

@funkso

"Be consistent unless you're not."

Easy advice to follow. Wish I'd thought of it.

Replies:   funkso
Crumbly Writer

@funkso

one name is easier to remember. Again, if we take the Bond example it's pretty easy - you'd want him aloof, secretive, distanced, so he's Bond, not James. You might have a character call him James to invoke some intimacy, but that would be obvious who James is in context.

The key here, is if you have a larger cast, and several people are speaking in tern, then you're forced to tack on acknowledgments every time someone says something (as opposed to a two person conversation, where it's assumed who's speaking for much of it). If you keep repeating the same name every other line, even more if someone references someone, or you record their action, you'll be constantly repeating the name over and over again.

Instead, I tend to alternate the name (either first or last, depending on the relationships) with their role, title and position (wife, sibling, coworker, etc.), just to keep from repeating myself.

Alas, that's one reason why most authors avoid larger casts than four to six people!

Replies:   funkso
funkso

@richardshagrin

Sometimes folks just ain't :)

Sometimes, you mean to not be consistent. Unreliable narrator, if you want to cause confusion, if you want to change the tone or the tension.

You could use it throughout a story, or you could break from it.

You could write a chapter in another person's view, where you may refer to your characters differently than in your usual viewpoint.

funkso

@Crumbly Writer

Instead, I tend to alternate the name (either first or last, depending on the relationships) with their role, title and position (wife, sibling, coworker, etc.), just to keep from repeating myself.

Alas, that's one reason why most authors avoid larger casts than four to six people!


Hrm, it would depend on who you have talking at the time, or gathered at the time doing things - but for the most part I would think it'd be more of a dialogue issue. If you have several people talking though you can usually try to give them their own voice or agenda, that may differentiate without needing to name them. Typically I would think of having two people conversing and others interrupting, named, or agreeing "the others agreed, except..."

If it's actions then you'd devote the paragraph, or what you can to one character and change, but it'd depend on how it reads, how active they are etc.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@funkso

Typically I would think of having two people conversing and others interrupting, named, or agreeing "the others agreed, except..."

That's typically what I do, but as I've grown and developed my storytelling (and dialogue skills), I now include several people in the same dialogue (with active roles). My latest book has a testimony before congress, and discussions afterwards where the defense team discussed how things went, so there are several points of view, each with a different agenda. However, generally, if you have short comments, you can't rely on voice or agenda to identify speakers.

Replies:   sejintenej
sejintenej

@Crumbly Writer

That's typically what I do, but as I've grown and developed my storytelling (and dialogue skills), I now include several people in the same dialogue (with active roles).

This might be the normal way of talking in your area but I would always use "conversation" here in place of "dialogue" because it is not one.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@sejintenej

This might be the normal way of talking in your area but I would always use "conversation" here in place of "dialogue" because it is not one.

I understand your objection, but no one speaks of the 'art of writing conversation'. The industry term for writing conversations is dialogue, however many speakers you have. I suppose the reason is because, the most powerful and frequent uses occur between two main characters at the end of a play/movie or book. But it's used so frequently, trying to change tens of thousands of writers to your way of thinking is a largely wasted effort. (And I was referring to "writing dialogue", not "speaking to people".)

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