First off, the answer might be pretty much obvious (that there is no clear way to distinguish these characters) but I would still very much like to have perspectives (and perhaps even get an answer).

I am in the habit of writing short stories without naming any of my characters. Often I run into trouble because there are multiple (let us say) male characters and there is no way I can distinguish between "he" and the other "he".

For example,

He saw them again. They had moved to the center of the dance floor, almost still. Couples danced all around her, the faster ones to the outside, the slower ones towards the inner side. Yet in the center, he could only see them. She was flushed. Her hands rested on his shoulders, just the way they rested on his when she was tired after taking a walk. “You are fickle, my dear” he whispered to himself, a harsh smile on his face, his eyes cold yet loving. He could never hate her. He only had love for her. A while back when she had passed him, on her way to the dance, he had smelled her perfume. The sweet overpowering smell that he had always loved. The only smell in the world that consumed him. A smell he could never drive out of his mind. That had been the only moment when his hands shook a little, the ice in the glass making a slight “clink”. She had not noticed, of course, her hands in his, walking away as admiring eyes followed them.

Now in this case there are two characters. The first "he" who is seeing everything while the other "he" who is with the lady. In this case the confusion might not be so apparent however there often are situations when the reader might get confused as to who is being referred.

My question is: is there any way I could distinguish the characters without significantly altering the writing style? One possibility that strikes me is the use of capitalization for one of the characters ("He" vs "he"). I seem to recall a few stories that have done something similar. What else could be done? Thanks!

  • Why don't you want to name your characters? If you do not choose the most obvious path, this info may be important to give you meaningful advice. Jan 31, 2014 at 10:39
  • @JohnSmithers To provide a "someone is watching the entire thing" kind of effect, to keep the feeling that it is all vague, as if seen through a blurred lense, provide a certain sense of detachment from the character by painting them all as nameless...and so on and on... Jan 31, 2014 at 10:48
  • for this particular case, the other man could be "her partner" or less ambiguously "her dance partner". He's only mentioned once, all the other he/him are the protagonist i believe. Dec 3, 2021 at 17:28

2 Answers 2


You have to identify them somehow. Use adjectives.

  • The tall man vs. the short man
  • The older man vs. the younger man
  • The long-haired man vs. the man with the thistle-down hair
  • The carpenter vs. the electrician
  • The French man vs. the German man

It may get repetitive to say "her hands rested on the carpenter's shoulders, just they way they rested on the electrician's when she were tired after talking a walk," but that's pretty much what you're stuck with.

  • The similar thing had crossed my mind but then such a descriptive hinting...will it not be a little distracting for the reader? I get it that there is not much scope otherwise to "get out of the situation". Any other suggestions? Jan 31, 2014 at 10:50
  • 2
    @PraveshParekh If this were video, the viewer would just see "the guy in the blue jacket" and "the man with the beard," or whatever. If you don't want to give names, and you want to keep the reader detached as you note above, then that's how you have to identify them. If you read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, one of the characters is only ever referenced as "the man with the thistle-down hair." You have to decide if it's distracting or effective. Or better yet, ask your beta readers/editor. Jan 31, 2014 at 13:21
  • Thanks Lauren! Will just leave the question open for a few days (if someone has something else to add to your answer) and then accept it. Jan 31, 2014 at 14:57
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    You don't have to repeatedly say the carpenter did this, the carpenter did that, but can of course mix all types of identifying characteristics, to make this less boring: "She liked the feel of the saw dust on his wollen jacket [carpenter!], and was reminded of the cheap plastic coldness of the TV Repair Service workwear [electrician!] under her hands yesterday." And you can use this to actually convey part of the backstory (now you know where the electrician works and what he does) and characterize your personell (the carpenter wears wool, so he is more traditional minded and nature lover).
    – user5645
    Feb 1, 2014 at 11:58
  • @what Your advice is sound in general (mix up the references by using additional details), but the OP has specifically said s/he wants the reader at a distance from the action, so we wouldn't be getting the woman's thoughts and feelings. "She ran her hands over his woolen jacket," which then identifies the carpenter, yes. Feb 1, 2014 at 12:21

Here is a problem I run into regularly as a short story writer. Sometimes I don't ever plan to give someone a name. Particularly if they are going to be disposed of in some fashion not warranting the effort of naming them.

  • Name them by what they are wearing, i.e. a mugger in a red jacket becomes Red Jacket for the sake of the internal dialog of my main character. He isn't interested in them, he just needs a way to identify them.

    • This trick works as long as there are only a few people who don't need names and the interaction with the characters will be a short one. More than a few pages of this and people may become annoyed and hope for Red Jacket's grisly demise to happen sooner rather than later.
  • You can simply decide to name them by a personal descriptive attribute, i.e. big hands, dark eyes, scary man with a lisp. Each of these focuses on a threatening aspect of the person allowing you to build around that descriptive element.

    • In the case of big hands he is a bit fidgety, with many scars criss-crossing his rough and callused flesh. He becomes more than just a pair of hands, he becomes the essence of physical violence (that he is the survivor of) giving him a greater menace without giving him a name.
    • Dark eyes has a penetrating (and perceived to be unblinking) stare which bares the soul of anyone who gazes into them. The victim of said stare always turns away.

    • Scary man with a lisp is a hulking brute, but his lisp, which he is very sensitive about, detracts from his menace. This upsets him and makes him even more violent. Think Mike Tyson and his very distracting voice.

You don't always need to give your characters names as long as you give them presence with the descriptions when they come onto the scene. This information cements them into the consciousness of the reader and their names become less important than whatever they represent.

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    Sometimes I don't ever plan to give someone a name. Particularly if they are going to be disposed of in some fashion not warranting the effort of naming them. Oh, yes, I've seen him! The guy in the red shirt.
    – J.R.
    Feb 2, 2014 at 0:12
  • I think giving a character a name in a story signals to the reader that the character is at least somewhat important. Feb 3, 2014 at 17:43
  • I have a similar problem as the OP, but your answer helped me remember Because of Winn Dixie, in which the main character's father is literally referred to as 'The Preacher.' It works fine, and at the same time helps to show how she sees him. Feb 23, 2015 at 22:23

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