If you want to confuse your reader, try using as many different ways as possible to refer to the characters in your novel.
Shane posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
When writing character names, which name is appropriate? First name, last name or combination?
I’m working on a thriller novel that I’ve mixed a secondary characters first and last name depending on my writing pattern on any given day. I want to standardize. Using his last name seems odd, but when in dialog, I use his first name, cuz, that’s how people talk.
In my mind and daily life, I rarely use peoples last names. I’m a first person guy, so in writing, I tend to reference their first names, a lot. Is there a standard? In Thriller/mystery’s is it different? I’ve read a lot of police procedure stuff that tends to focus on last name.
Randy sez: A lot depends on what category of fiction you’re writing and what your readers expect. In Russian novels (or novels with Russian characters), it’s common to refer to characters with their full names, including the middle name. This drives American readers crazy because those Russian names can get quite long. I can remember a few Tom Clancy novels in which the extra Russian names seemed to add another 100 pages to the book.
My rule of thumb is to use one name almost exclusively for each character. In most cases, that’s the first name of the character. In a few cases, it’s more natural to refer to certain characters by their last names.
It’s common in certain communities for everybody to go by their last names. Military units. Sports teams. Cop environments. Certain dorms I’ve lived in. If I were writing a novel set in one of these communities, then I’d be sure that the characters used each other’s last names in dialogue. However, in the action parts, I’d probably refer to most of them by their first names, unless there was a compelling reason to use the last name.
One mistake that you should avoid is trying to eliminate repetition by mixing up first names, last names, nicknames, and roles in a horrible hodge-podge. That just confuses the reader.
To illustrate how badly this can go wrong, let me write a really wretched bit of fanfic. Count how many characters you see in this snippet of a scene:
“Go away,” Harry said.
Lord Voldemort gave a high, cold laugh. “Says who?”
“Do it,” said the green-eyed boy wizard. “Now.”
The greatest dark wizard of all time pointed his wand at Potter’s chest.
“You think you’re really something, don’t you, Riddle?” sneered the son of James and Lily.
“Call me Tom.”
“One thing I’ll never call you is the Dark Lord,” said the Gryffindor seeker.
He Who Must Not Be Named hissed sharply as he twirled the wand between his long, pale fingers. “You will,” he said in a soft, dangerous voice.
“And I refuse to use euphemisms like You Know Who,” said the Boy Who Lived. “I’m not afraid of you and that’s why you hate me.”
Randy sez: Gack! How many characters did you see? If you haven’t read the Harry Potter series, then you counted these thirteen characters:
- Lord Voldemort
- The green-eyed boy wizard
- The greatest dark wizard of all time
- The son of James and Lily
- The Dark Lord
- The Gryffindor seeker
- He Who Must Not Be Named
- You Know Who
- The Boy Who Lived
If you’re familiar with the series, then you know that there are only two characters here: Harry Potter is the green-eyed Boy Who Lived, the only son of James and Lily Potter, and he’s also the seeker on the Gryffindor Quidditch team. Tom Riddle is the greatest dark wizard of all time, self-proclaimed Lord Voldemort, known to his followers as the Dark Lord and feared by his enemies as either He Who Must Not Be Named or as You Know Who.
In the series, Harry Potter is mostly referred to as “Harry,” although many characters refer to him in dialogue as “Potter.” The various other appellations for Harry are rarely used.
Lord Voldemort is generally called “You Know Who” by those who fear him. A few brave souls call him “Voldemort” when speaking about him. Professor Dumbledore calls him “Tom” and Harry calls him “Riddle” when speaking to him. Voldemort’s followers always call him “the Dark Lord”.
The key thing is consistency. Throughout the series, the context determines what Harry and Voldemort will be called, and things are never confusing.
Don’t be afraid of a bit of repetition. Clarity is good. If you have to use “Harry” and “Voldemort” fifteen times on the same page, then do so. Don’t confuse things by constantly switching appellations. If “Harry” appears in every paragraph, the name quickly becomes invisible and the story flows smoothly.
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