I Have… Many Names

Last week, I talked about characters who don’t have names at all. But what about the ones who have two or more? They might be actual names, cover identities, fancy titles, what have you, but the upshot of it is that there’s more than one name that can be applied to one character, and it’s not just the people who have to deal with that character directly who might get confused. It’s just as much of a challenge to their creators to figure out which names to use when!

When someone’s operating in third person limited (one of the nice things about first person is that it avoids the issue entirely), the easiest thing to do is to pick one name and stick to it, at least in the narrative, then use whatever name is appropriate to the situation in dialogue. That way, no matter how many situations where a different title would be appropriate, the audience will still recognize that this is the same character. (Then you can have fun playing with the titles later; I know I do!) There are exceptions to this, though—if a character is completely submerged in an identity you’ve just spent a while establishing, it might make sense to switch to that name, at least for purposes of external description.

But that’s only the case if you want people fully aware that this is indeed the same character; usually, this is more a matter for GMs and authors, as games with only one PC per player make it pretty easy to tell when the PC’s using a secret identity. (That doesn’t apply all the time, though; I was once in a situation where my GM was running an Obligatory Martial Arts Tournament, my character was going in disguise in hopes of not drawing attention to herself-personally, and most importantly the GM knew I had experience with the game and needed someone to handle some of his spare entrants, so I covered three or so NPCs plus my character’s cover identity, and referred to the latter by the name she’d chosen.) This is the best way to spoiler-proof an identity until the viewpoint character/player(s)/reader in third person objective stories has found out through the natural course of events.

Most characters with multiple names are going to have a name that they identify with most closely. More often than not, it’s the original name, and the others were taken on as aliases or silly titles or Obligatory Ritual Name Changes or what have you. But there are reasons for a character not to hold to the original name; perhaps she’s actively choosing to shed the old name as part of becoming a new person, rather than paying lip service to the concept; perhaps the name was an instruction for her life, and she’s rebelling from it; maybe the name’s been destroyed or taken or something and she literally cannot get it back. What to do then depends in large part on the creator of the character; if it’s far enough in a story with an established character, they might keep the old name, but if it looks like the new name will stick, changing to the new name is likely the best option.


  1. Brickwall says:

    I remember running across a relevant writing tip: your narrator should only use one name for any given character.

    Obviously, that’s one of those rules that has “Made to be Broken” emblazoned across its packaging, but it’s pretty good to follow almost all the time. Perhaps it more has “Break Only In Case of Emergency”.

  2. Ravyn says:

    Well, yeah–part of what I’d been going for here was establishing that and then listing off common exceptions. Did it not come through?

  3. Shinali says:

    It came through for me.
    I’d say the main time you break that is if the reader/audience should not know who the character is (compare to translation convention that says you translate anything your viewpoint character understands, and don’t translate what they can’t understand). Any other things pretty much fall under this IMHO. After all, if your MC is a deep-cover spy and they are your viewpoint character, or your viewpoint character knows who they really are, you use their real name, but if they are supposed to be a mysterious stranger to the viewpoint character, the vpc would call them by their announced name.

    Similarly, in the game I’m in, Samar keeps calling another character who went through an Obligatory Ritual Name Change by his original name, even though she tries really hard to use his new name. The reason is, she knew him first as Corbin, and is just getting used to him being Aurelius. Where she is narrator/VPC (such as in backstory accounts, or if she’s telling a story to the group), she calls him Corbin, almost exclusively. She does try to introduce him as Aurelius in dialogue, however.

    The main reason I was asking was because in my NaNoWriMo novel for this year, my characters are mostly planets. They all use assumed names while in human form, but if it weren’t for the fact that we have standard names for all the planets (and other celestial bodies) in question, they would be The Nameless. I had begun using the planet names as the narrative names, but I wasn’t sure if that was confusing, as they are going to be mostly in human form. It was to the point of things like using the human name in dialogue and the planet name in the tags. To make matters worse; the sun, moon, and earth don’t have very dialogue friendly common names (“So, the earth, will you handle that?” “Moon, will you talk to the moons for us?”) so I assigned them dialogue names of Sol, Luna, and Gaia, respectively (‘”But everyone calls me Luna,” said the Moon’).
    I am wondering if that seems too confusing?

  4. Ravyn says:

    Then again, his player calls him Corbin as often as not, so I’m not sure how long he’s going to stay Aurelius in this group. One gets the feeling (and has had it verified, as it may become mechanically relevant) that the name change was lip service to the concept.

    With your planets, I’d say give them separate names; see also the follow-up to this post.

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