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This is probably a repeat of a previous question, but I have a slightly different problem when writing. I don't always want to refer to characters by their names (if I do, then I run into problems with people needing to remember a long list of characters and names), so I want to pick some other trait, say "the old" or the young (insert whatever), but it gets to be repetitive using those terms to describe them. At the same time I both like the repetition (to avoid moments of "who is this character?") but it can also be limiting too. Almost to the the point of people wondering if I need to brush up on my vocabulary skills.

My friend brought up the concern of it being too repetitive to keep using a limited few words to describe an unnamed character. (eventually his name does come to the story), but at the time of his first appearance he's in a flashback of another character who knows him well enough to not be using his name in a sentence.

Things I'm trying to avoid:

  • Using the character's name in dialogue (it just doesn't feel natural in a one on one conversation.)

  • Too much repetition. He's elderly, old, frail. He's the commander of my fictitious army. We got that, but to keep using the same choice of words to describe him, is that appropriate? Would it bore readers?

  • Blurting out his name before it fits the context. Most likely "sir" is the word you'll hear my character refer to him as, unless it is an informal meeting. Even if that happens, it feels more natural to not be calling him out by name.

  • My main fear is if I deviate too much it will be "who is this character?" or where did "his friend" come from when trying to come up with alternative titles to break up the repetition.

One choice is to just "tell" rather than show and have the narrator just give the names of the characters as soon as the flashback appears, but I feel that kind of loses something.

Another thing to consider the scene involving this unnamed character is written in 3rd person narration. The narrator writes in 1st person with scenes that involve him, but when he's seeing scenes involving other characters, the style switches to 3rd person.


That said, what are your thoughts? How do you handle characters without names, or those with names the story isn't ready to reveal yet? Do you stick to a few labels for each character and keep referring to them by those titles, or come up with as many as possible?

  • I'll attempt an answer later, but I will point out that if you are dealing with a military figure, then rank is not only acceptable, but expected. As such, "Sir" is the very minimum. – Thomo Jan 8 '18 at 4:01
  • That's pretty much what I had him say until the reader told me to drop "every other sir" from the POV character's statements. I guess he wouldn't have to say sir all the time, but then again I'm not 100% knowledgeable how that goes. Plus there's some weird friendship thing going (non romantic) but kind of manipulative. Even so, the commander character does want to befriend the POV character, but it leaves an uncomfortable dynamic that my POV character tries to avoid if possible. – BugFolk Jan 8 '18 at 4:18
  • It's kind of a 1 sided friendship. The commander views my POV soldier as a friend, but the soldier doesn't view him the same. He rather not be involved (sees the commander as morally corrupt), but forced to at least act friendly. – BugFolk Jan 8 '18 at 4:19
  • Personality wise the character in question is like an ENTJ, (take most the negative traits with only a few of the positive ones, enough to make me enjoy having him as an "antagonist"). Very into his vision of an idealistic future except that means ruthlessly destroying enemy/ competing colonies. That said I could title him "Ruthless/mean B-----d" But maybe that'd be too obvious/too much telling? – BugFolk Jan 8 '18 at 8:54
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I write in third person limited, meaning my narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of only one character in the book (the hero). Everybody is still referred to as "he", "she", "they", etc, (never "I"), but the narrator does not reveal anything the hero does not plausibly know or see.

My latest hero often encounters strangers on her quest and interacts with them, without names.

My solution for the narration is to temporarily pick some unique characteristic she (and the narrator) uses to refer to them, but if they use a name in conversation (as people do) start using the name.

IRL, you learn the names of your friends, enemies, coworkers and store clerks eventually, somehow. Once I know a character is going to be important later, I typically "engineer" one of these ways into a first encounter. In this segment, my female hero is seeking passage on a primitive down river barge:

    As she approached the next station, she saw just the type of barge she was looking for: No animals, and the cargo looked like simple lumber and some barrels. A man in his forties was tilting barrels, apparently heavy with something, and rolling them toward the pilot house.
    "Sir?" she called, still walking toward him. He stopped and looked up, squinting, waiting for her to get closer.
    "Do you take passengers?" Alice asked. "I aim to get to Corktown."
    The barrel-man turned and called to the pilot house. "Brady! Yo! Do you want a passenger?" He turned back to Alice who had reached the end of the barge. "Give him a minute," he said, and began rolling his barrel again.

When Brady emerges, he is called by name. Note that if I had put Brady on the barge rolling barrels, it would have been a bit more awkward for Alice to learn his name, since (as in real life) they likely would conclude their transaction first without names. I would introduce "barrel man" as an 'extra' doing some labor for Brady that we don't really need to see again. Without the barrel man, It would need to be a more explicit exchange. Say after a price was agreed:

    "Done then," he said, pocketing the cash. "What's your name?"
    "Alice."
    "Alice," he repeated, and pointed at himself. "Brady. I leave at noon, with or without you."

Like names, "barrel man" here would not be used every time, just about as often as I use any other name. That IS his name in Alice's mind. Likewise in another situation, speaking to three clerks, she might use "bald clerk", "tall clerk" and "young clerk". Some salient detail she has plausibly noticed that would separate the people for the reader. If a name is learned, it is used thereafter:

The bald clerk rolled his eyes, and addressed the young clerk. "David? Would you please shut up?"
    David was going to respond, but seeing the stern look in the bald clerk's eyes, clamped his mouth shut.

If the "barrel man" above reappears later, but is not important enough to name, he remains "barrel man", whether barrels are present or not.

But eventually, like in real life, your character(s) need to learn the names of other characters. I favor indirect approaches like above, Brady and David can be important later in the story. Or callouts:

"See that guy? Red tie? Sam Philbin, the weather guy."

Or introductions:

"Alice, this is Jerry, the runner I told you about."

Whatever real-life tricks you can imagine. As a last resort, in real life, we can resort to direct query:


    "Hi, I'm Alice," she said, extending a hand.
    The boy took it. "Griffy," he said, "It's Griffin really, after my grandfather, but everyone calls me Griffy. Except my mother. And my sister, she thinks my name is 'dumbass'."

For myself, I would not refer to any character by a label or title for more than a single scene (which may be a whole chapter). If I were referring to them for two or more scenes, I engineer some way for my hero to learn their name, preferably indirectly. For dramatic effect, I often use direct introduction for "important" characters that will be an ongoing presence. Of course for friends and family, I do the opposite of the above from the heroes POV: The hero uses the name mentally, but the reader has to learn their role. So

    Her mother shouted from the kitchen. "Bill? Where are you?"
    Her father shouted from the garage, not in anger but for volume, "I'm busy!"

Somehow or another we have all learned the names of hundreds of people. Try to employ in writing all the ways that can happen in real life.

    He walked into the office, there was only one blonde woman at the desks, so he approached her.
    "Hi, are you Alice?"
    "Yes," she said, still reading her computer screen, then looked to him. "How can I help you?"
    "I'm David, from engineering. I was told you handle ordering for machine parts?"

You can find thousands of name suggestions online, particularly looking for baby names. Personally I try to avoid duplicates and keep a list in alphabetic order for characters in the story. If I need new characters, I look for a first letter I haven't used before, at least for that gender. If I don't like any of them, I will reuse a letter, but make sure the names read and sound distinct enough for the reader to keep them straight. Not "Billy" and "Bailey", maybe "Billy" and "Brad", or "Burke".

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Some titles are used routinely in "real life" and so can be used freely in fiction. For example, other characters might routinely refer to someone as "the general" and address him as "general". Similarly "mayor" and "Mr Mayor", "pastor", etc.

If the characters would not know another character's name, like a stranger shows up at a party or meeting, than in real life people would probably refer to him as, "the stranger", "the man in the blue suit", "the fat lady", etc. But right away I think you can get into trouble here. It's unlikely that everyone would refer to someone by the same description. If one person says, "Hey, who is that man in the blue suit?", and a little later someone says, "Oh, the man in the blue suit was from the Health Department", that wouldn't sound odd. But if there are six characters and they all call him "the man in the blue suit" every time anyone talks about him, that would sound repetitive and implausible. In real life, maybe one person would call him "the man in the blue suit", but someone else would call him "the stranger" and someone else "that guy who showed up", etc. Some descriptions are common enough that this wouldn't be a problem. Like, "the policeman" comes to mind. Certainly if the first person to see him refers to him as, "the tall, dark-haired man in the blue suit with an angry look on his face", it would sound quite strange for other characters to use this exact same description repeatedly.

I think your best bet is to give every character a name or the sort of description people use routinely as quickly as possible. Obviously, if you have a scene where a stranger walks into the room, the narrator could say that his name is Bob Arbuthnot, but the characters won't know that until he (or someone) tells them, so it would be quite disconcerting for everyone to start calling him Mr Arbuthnot with no introduction. But that's often easily solved by having him say, "Hi, my name is Bob Artbuthnot". If that's implausible -- like I wouldn't expect the prison guard to introduce himself before he begins torturing the prisoner, like "Hi, my name is George and I'll be torturing you today" -- try to come up with something that people might plausibly call him, like "the guard".

I would definitely avoid getting yourself into a position where identifying characters get confusing. "And then the second man -- not the man holding the horse, the other one -- said ..."

I read a novel once where a character was routinely referred to by his name, and then suddenly the author called him, "the redhead". I had to stop and figure out who "the redhead" was. If he had previously mentioned the color of his hair, I missed it. I presume he wanted to avoid saying "Bob said ... then Bob walked ... then Bob opened the box ...", etc, so he figured he'd vary it up by sometimes calling him "Bob" and sometimes "the redhead". But he dropped it in without warning and I found it very disconcerting.

  • Most "people" in this story look the same more less, since they a fictional non human species living in a colony. I went by the character's military title/ physical description "Frail old", but the reader got bored of reading the same words to refer as the character. Could be just an opinion of his though. Even if it was just an opinion I still keep it in mind. – BugFolk Jan 8 '18 at 4:10
  • Because they live in a colony I have to be choosy on who I name and who I just leave by description. As for the character I cut into the middle of a flashback where the characters know each other, so I miss out on an introduction until the middle of the flashback. Then the POV character blurts the unnamed character's name out, but until then he's just the "marshal" (their term for general). – BugFolk Jan 8 '18 at 4:13
  • Calling someone "the marshall" probably works because that's the sort of title that people really do address someone by. Calling someone "the frail old man" is not a common title, so I can readily see that sounding repetitious very fast. – Jay Jan 8 '18 at 4:19
  • You can give a character a name without having someone say, "Hi, my name is Bob" or "This is Bob." If someone just walks up to him and says, "Hi, Bob", or one character tells another, "Bob did this ... oh, here he is now", "Bob, you look terrible!", "Bob entered the room. His friends all gathered around to ask him what had happened", etc. You can give him a name without being blatant about it or interrupting the flow of the story. – Jay Jan 8 '18 at 4:22
  • I had "the frail marshal" too but I guess that too was annoying. – BugFolk Jan 8 '18 at 4:22
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Is your story in war/military setting? Then the real life military has a solution. There is no way a soldier can know everyone in his brigade, or a sailor can know everyone on battleship/carrier-sized ship by name, but putting rank and unit next to the name is everything he needs to know. Ex: "Lieutenant Kelly, the Assistant S3 of the 1st Battalion 502d Infantry!"

  • It kind of is like that. Because they are non human, I tried to make up a military system that isn't based off any particular country/ system. The marshal is the one in charge of the entire army and runs a spot in the "Grand Council" (the ruling government just below the queen (who's also the egg laying mother of this colony.) The POV character 3rd person is a brigadier. He's ranked below the assistant marshal, but above other ranks. – BugFolk Jan 8 '18 at 18:54
  • Then I think you are on the right track. Define a title for every small character, and later you can always develop him or her with greater detail. – Alexander Jan 8 '18 at 19:03

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