I talked a lot, a long time ago, about how to choose characters’ names. But what about when the character just plain doesn’t have one?

There are a lot of downsides for a character not having a name. For one thing, it makes it harder for the audience to refer to the character quickly (though to be fair, if it’s a game group, they might already be referring to even the named characters as things like “Whatsisname, Carmilla’s second”, “Axe-Boy” or “Twitchy”). More importantly for those of us who want our skill recognized, we have to do a lot of telegraphing to make it clear that we weren’t just being too lazy to come up with names. And if the nameless character is one with any sort of role beyond standard redshirting, we probably need to come up with our own working titles for them.

But how does this nameless thing come about?

The main root of namelessness often has to do with language. Most animals (or at least, most animals in a non-animal-centric series) aren’t going to be naming themselves, after all—and likewise, a feral child in a story where the animals don’t have speaking parts isn’t too likely to have a name to begin with, at least until someone who cares about this whole name thing comes in to try to rectify that. It’s possible (though a lot harder for most people to wrap their heads around) that there is a perfectly good language, but it doesn’t incorporate naming. More rarely—the main example I can think of is H. Beam Piper’s Fuzzy books—there already is a perfectly good language, and presumably are perfectly good names, but at least in the beginning, the viewpoint characters can’t hear the language as such, and the names they provide instead stick. Make it clear one of those is coming into play, and you’ve got an excuse (though if your viewpoint characters use names, don’t expect the nameless to stay nameless).

Sometimes, there are more societal or supernatural causes at play. Given how powerful they’re said to be, it’s small wonder that names in fantasy stories spend a lot of time being sold, stolen, eaten, sacrificed, modified, or otherwise messed with. What happens with such a name is another question entirely, but it’s not unheard of for the absence of the old name to be supernaturally enforced.

The one time when “didn’t get around to it” is considered a worthy answer in a work of fiction is when the getting around to it is in character rather than out of character. After all, if you’ve got something that’s nameless due to lack of language, it’s not going to be fetching a name for itself, and if only one person can provide the name, and they don’t get around to it—well, it gets really awkward for just about everything else. (I’m actually in the midst of a real life example: a cat belonging to a patron at my library, who at first wasn’t named because her owner couldn’t find a name that satisfied him, but now seems not to be getting any closer due to her owner being annoyed with her antisocial behavior.)

Then there are the times when it just suits us not to name the main character. Mostly it’s to make it easier for the audience to insert themselves, or so as to not have to deal with whatever connotations a name has managed to acquire. I once did it as an experiment; I was supposed to write a two-page story for a state test, and wanted to see if I could do so without actually naming my main character. Oftentimes, it’s hard to actively apply any of the above explanations for character namelessness in situations like this; the character might have a perfectly good name and just not feel like using it, the narrator may not be aware of the character’s name…. or we’re in third person limited and the name just isn’t coming up, but that’s harder to carry.

Have you had an important but nameless character?


  1. Michael says:

    I haven’t, no… but your post made me think of another reason why characters are sometimes nameless. In “Calvin and Hobbes”, Calvin’s parents are never named because Calvin always addresses them as Mom and Dad. In fact, the author deliberately kept them nameless, even dropping the character of Calvin’s uncle when it got too awkward for him to continue avoiding using their names. However, in the novel I’m currently redrafting, I have the opposite problem: I know the name of the narrator’s mother and I’d like the reader to know what it is, but I can’t find a good place or reason for it to come up!

  2. UZ says:

    That certainly reminds me of the name that most cats in my life have been assigned by default, namely, “Cat”. In practice it’s a good idea to name things quickly because they tend to assume some kind of label by default and the default is usually not flattering.

    Now I must ask – are names as important in other cultures as they are in the NA / UK culture? Because I’ve noticed that names are considered things of paramount importance (true names, the Echthroi, Aosi &c) in this culture and I don’t know if others have any equivalent concept.

    Most mythologies have certain themes. Pacific Island mythologies often involve fishing, Irish folktales have a recurring theme of bodily deformity, and I’ve been thinking recently that names, and stories about their greater metaphysical properties, are a theme of mainstream (US inheriting from UK) fantasy. Still gathering evidence for this particular theory though.

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