The Greatest Exception to the One-Name Rule

In yesterday’s post on characters with many names, we covered the rule of thumb that for each character (as long as said character’s identity is known within the narrative, anyway), there should be one name, and you should stick to that name. And in most situations, that’s true. But there is one situation under which that rule should absolutely be broken.

That situation is when the audience can always tell who the character is, but the character herself has a (preferably small) number of long-term cover identities or alternate forms used with sufficient regularity and showing sufficient discrete identities to deserve their own names.

So what’s going on here, and why does it not just encourage but practically require breaking the Rule of One Name?

It’s because at this point, the name stops being just a marker for which character we’re dealing with, as it usually is. Now we know that the names belong to the same person, what they’re serving instead is a marker of who this person is coming across as right now.

The best example of this, of course, is full fledged alter egos. Take—well, pick a superhero with a civilian identity, any superhero with a civilian identity. For the really well-known ones, you’ve got two names, and one does not use one when in the trappings of the other. (Granted, in comics they’re also drawn differently, but what narration there is doesn’t refer to Superman-in-full-caped-glory as Clark Kent, now, does it?) Usually these are treated as two entirely discrete entities, and act as two discrete personalities—you don’t often see half-costuming, so you don’t have to worry about who’s who. The same deal goes for shapeshifters with sufficiently discrete forms, as in Shinali’s question yesterday; using separate names allows for straightforward distinction between Planet![Celestial Body], Female!Human![Celestial Body], and Male!Human![Celestial Body].

When you’re dealing someone who doesn’t compartmentalize the identities quite as cleanly, though, it gets a bit messier, and the name you refer to them by might not just indicate who they appear to be, but which persona is currently more prominent. This, I find, works slightly better in the peculiar perspective I’m inclined to call Third Person PC (more on this later if I can get my thoughts on it together); after all, with PCs, you’ve already got an indelible marker that this is Character X sitting right there. This works best, though, if the character considers the identity to be definitely separate from her own; oddly, the cover identity of one of my characters (and one that was known to be her in some circles, at that) seemed more reasonable for me to call by another name than the full-fledged alter ego of another, since in the former case the projected personalities were actually different, while in the latter case it really was just a magically enhanced costume, and there wasn’t really anyone worth hiding it from at the time. But the nice thing about this is that you can even play with interaction between the names, talking about what outward [identity] is doing and what inward [base character] is thinking, or mashing the names together when the character is functionally acting as both at once.

Note that all of these assume some variation on third person narration; in first person, the situation is generally either mostly irrelevant or not a questionable issue (as how is a narrator supposed to refer to three characters he’s used to seeing as separate entities or fully unaware are the same person by the same name?).


  1. Michael says:

    I’m afraid I don’t entirely agree with this post — though quite possibly that’s because I’m approaching it from the point of view of the peculiarities of my own series. (And it’s also possible that I’m entirely wrong and just being stubborn because I don’t want to change such a large aspect of my writing!) The first four books are in first person and the narrator *does* know (nearly all) the characters’ secret identities from the start. Also, they are her friends and she got to know them as ordinary people before their secret identities ever existed. Therefore, regardless of the identity they appear as, *to her* they are their ordinary selves and she consistently uses their real names. (This may cause a slight problem in Chapters 25/26, where two of them are transformed and two not, and with only real names used it may be harder for the reader to remember which…. but I think it’s not a huge problem.)

    However, the rest of the series switches to third person, and there, I continue to follow the rule of using only the characters’ real names except in very special circumstances (within dialogue, obviously; and also in scenes with a temporary viewpoint character to emphasise that she doesn’t know who they really are). Partly it’s because that has become the style of this series and it would feel strange to change it partway through; but also it’s because I want *the reader* to have the attitude of the narrator of the earlier books — that no matter what appearance these characters have, they are the same people. After all, there is a fundamental difference between my characters and your Superman example: Superman *is* Superman and Clark Kent is just a cover identity, whereas my characters all started life as ordinary people, so in a sense their ordinary identities are more real than their secret ones.

  2. Brickwall says:

    Here’s the thing: when you start referring to a character by separate names, he starts to split into two characters. Clark Kent, Superman, and Kal El are not the same character. Same person? Yes. But they all serve different narrative functions, in cases where it is correct to refer to them by a different name. Clark Kent is a mild-mannered reporter who superheroes. Superman is a superhero who takes a cover identity as a mild-mannered reporter. It can be a really important distinction.

    And this situation certainly DOES apply to first-person narration. Let’s take superheroes. Suppose we do a first-person narrative of a superhero, and he has a superhero friend. We’ll call this friend Steve. If our narrator is out saving Metropolis with The Amazing Whirlwind, and he calls him Steve, that’s some pretty big-deal stuff right there. Hell, it’s a big deal if his internal monologue says that he’s fighting alongside The Amazing Whirlwind, or if he’s fighting alongside Steve. Huge stuff.

  3. Shinali says:

    @Michael, think of it this way, you have seen PGSM. Ami and Sailor Mercury may be fundamentally the same person, but Mercury is more determined and somewhat more outgoing than Ami. Dark Mercury, on the other hand, is so different personality-wise from either that even the cast called her “Darkury” and called her civillian form, “Akumi.” They are the same person, as in they have the same soul or starseed or whatever you say makes a person who they are in spite of radical personality changes, but they aren’t the exact same *character* at all.

    Superman is the same way – Superman is strong and powerful, Clark Kent is mild-mannered and even somewhat shy at times, and Kal-El I don’t know much about, but he’s not really like either, IIRC.

    In my novel, which sparked my question, take someone like the Sun (or Sol as I call him in dialogue). He first appears as a blinding light caller ID sort of thing on a telepathic conference call with a deep booming voice and being rather terse and angry. He mostly acts as a figure of authority and one who demands respect, even when he’s not angry. As Helios, he’s a bit eccentric and nerdy or geeky, and prone to joking a bit and making people think he’s more eccentric than he is. As Helen, she tends to put on Venus’s hippie airs to a lesser extent. So, “Sol” and “the Sun” are just variant names, and the narrator exclusively uses “the Sun,” and character exclusively use “Sol,” but Helios and Helen are practically separate characters.

    Venus on the other hand, in female form acts pretty much like she does in planet form. She even keeps the same name. Her male form goes by a different name, and is of a slightly different personality. She’s the only exception among the actual planets. Some other celestial bodies use nicknames or their planet name because they don’t take human form often enough to bother (so Euporie just goes by Euporie, and Betelgeuse would be Bet/Betty).

    Like I said, though, my narrator uses celestial body names exclusively. This has nothing to do with my narrator being a viewpoint character who is in on it so to speak (though they might be, or they could just be an independent narrator who is not also a character), but rather that a) it provides continuity, b) the human forms are temporary and mutable – Sandra might be blonde and short one day and tall and brunette the next, you never know, c) it helps the reader keep track in the event that they forget, e.g. that Urias is Uranus (Uranus so rarely takes a human form, it’s easy to forget), d) because the other planets think of them that way. However, my story is thus far very dialogue-heavy, and I may later devise a convention to clarify both planet and form in more action heavy scenes (even, “Saturn took on the form of Sander and…and then he…”). Planets also use “it” to refer to other planets in planet form, with the exception of earth, who is usually referred to with “she,” so “Venus experimented with sculpting and she made a vase” but “Venus experimented with terraforming and it made a volcano.”

    Does that seem pretty clear?

  4. Ravyn says:

    Michael: It’s actually strongly implied in a couple of the comics that Superman is more Clark than he is Superman (in contrast to Batman, who is far more Batman than Bruce Wayne–particularly interesting when you consider which one’s the alien). I’m not going to pile on the criticism, but while your narration may not be the style for this, there’ve been a number that are, and they’re often the majority, and in situations where the line blurs like mad. (I’d show you the example where one of my characters got a temporary namelift, but I’m saving it for Friday.)

    Brick: Yeah, you got me there. I’m not sure why I didn’t look at it that way.

    Shinali: Don’t leave much room for responses, do you? Nice examples!

  5. Shinali says:

    Thank you! Bwahahaha? I think by agreeing to NaNo, I forwent brevity for the whole month in all contexts. Hey, forwent isn’t marked as not-a-word by my spell check!

  6. Michael says:

    Brickwall: I certainly didn’t mean that the situation doesn’t apply in first-person narrative; quite the opposite! I only meant that the approach I take is coloured by the use of the first person, for exactly the reason you give: there’s an important difference between the narrator thinking of his friend as The Amazing Whirlwind or thinking of him as Steve, and I wanted that to come across in the text.

    Shinali: I don’t at all agree that Ami and Sailor Mercury have different personalities. It’s like the theory that people have different personalities over the internet — it’s just a convenient short way of saying that they have a personality feature that gives rise to a different set of behaviours in the new circumstances. (Hmm… that gives rise to a thought. There’s probably a very similar discussion to this one to be had with internet usernames instead of superhero identities.) So in that case, I see them as still being the same character. (Dark Mercury is completely different — she was brainwashed by the villain and afterwards *wanted* to dissociate herself from the horrible things she’d done in that form.)

  7. Ravyn says:

    Brick was referring to my article in the line about first person perspective, actually.

    As for the current argument, I think part of what’s going on here is that you and Shinali are using different definitions of character. Yours is based purely on identity and personality, whereas Shinali’s also bringing in the issues of appearance and narrative role–and one of the important things about using different names is that they’re supposed to help code for that. If it helps any, think of the name as purely a designator for the form, since by that time everyone knows who the character is; don’t even they talk about turning into so-and-so just as often as they do just transforming?

    Besides, the thing about form specification is that it’s a way to guide the audience’s expectations, absent the visuals that make this situation much easier in graphic novel and TV formats. When you refer to a character by form, you don’t have to worry about anyone slipping on who she is right now and as a result being surprised when she does/doesn’t start lobbing elemental energy around at the first sign of trouble.

  8. JT the Ninja says:

    What about nicknames or titles/epithets ? I think that, so long as they are introduced clearly and unambiguously, it’s fine to use several names for a character; helps avoid repetition. Can also be varied according to who’s referring to the person; family and close friends aren’t as likely to call a man by his war-won epithet as underlings or enemies.


  9. Ravyn says:

    That varies. In a small cast, and where the names are clearly introduced, you can get away with it; with nicknames clearly derived from a character’s name, I could see it, but if you’ve got a lot of characters milling about, you’d need to be a lot more careful with it. (Note also that this article is meant to address what one does in the narrative, rather than what one does with individual characters’ dialogue; I think with the individual characters, it’s either a characterization point or downright odd if everyone’s referring to the same person the exact same way.)

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