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I'm writing a story written in third-person limited, and the main character has no real name. They simply go by the nickname they're given by the people they hang around at the time, resulting in many different nicknames depending on where they are. Then, they're finally given a normal name that doesn't sound like a title of some sort.

So, what I was thinking of doing was: in the first handful of chapters, third person refers to them as one of their old nicknames, and continues doing so even after they are given a real name in their new environs. Then, at some point, as their character grows attached to the people who call them by that name (and by extension, the name itself), the third person refers to them as their new nickname.

This is meant to mark a point in the story where the character no longer sees themselves as a tool or symbol as they used to in the past, instead seeing themselves as a person as the people surrounding them now see them as. Also, it's meant to mark a point when they'd become comfortable with their new environs, whether they'd like to admit it or not.

Would this seem too jarring for the reader, though? All characters would still refer to them as their new name (outside of flashbacks), and rare changes in PoV before the character's change would still refer to them by their new name.

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    Note there is at least one sort of extant example of this in popular fiction which is the character from The Lord Of The Rings who is variously called "Strider", "Aragorn", and "King Elessar". We also have "Gandalf" and "Mithrandir". In both cases, the other characters in the story talk about the confusion around names, so acknowledging the impact of the change with the other characters seems like a good way to soften the blow on the reader. – Todd Wilcox Feb 5 '18 at 18:35
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    @DPT Sméagol. Pronounced “SMEE-ah-goal”, except the last syllable is a bit shorter than how we would say “goal”. Also “Treebeard” is also called “Fangorn”. – Todd Wilcox Feb 6 '18 at 5:47
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    Next reference reading: Sparrowhawk / Ged / a number of other aliases in A Wizard of Earthsea. – svavil Feb 6 '18 at 8:48
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    The Belgariad does something similar, though that is told very much from the main characters point of view. "Old Wolf" switches seamlessly to being "Belgarath" in the middle of a scene, and the main character himself only notices a few chapters later. – Grollo Feb 6 '18 at 9:00
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    In the book "Magician" by Raymond E. Feist, partway through the story one of the main characters (Pug) becomes referred to as Milamber. At the time this name is given, someone speaking to Pug explains that this is part of casting off his old heritage. Later in the book (and it's many sequels) peole from his old heritage refer to him as Pug and the new refer to him as Milamber, helping to signify to the reader in what light these characters view him. – Scoots Feb 6 '18 at 16:55

10 Answers 10

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Interesting question. Changing a character's name is definitely jarring to the reader (at least it has been to me). The best suggestion I've found to deal with that is to create tension about the name. If the reader spends half the story wondering what the true name is and building up to that, they'll want the name to be revealed, and it won't be jarring at all. However, you are dealing with a slightly different problem.

You say:

Then, they're finally given a normal name [...]

This leads me to conclude that this isn't so much a birth name, as a name selected by people who care about this character. That makes how you refer to the character very important and symbolic, as you seem to have figured out.

I think the same principle as above might apply here, if you change it a bit. Introduce tension surrounding the name. Will the character accept it? If the reader wants the character to adopt this new name, then they will cheer when he starts using it, rather than be surprised or confused. Be sure to keep increasing the tension for awhile; the more the reader anticipates the name change, the better.

I think no matter what you do, referring to this character by their new name in narration will be jarring. I think you can lessen that effect by building tension as I've suggested, and also include a scene or internal monologue where the character actually decides to use his name now. Have him basically say or think, 'never again will I be called [nicknmae]. From now on, I am [name].'

The last thing I would suggest is not to surprise the reader. Don't save using that name for the first time for the next chapter. Once the character says the above, call them that name in narration. Or better yet, acknowledge both names in narration and basically reiterate what the character just said. So for example:

[Nickname] was [nickname] no longer. He was [name]. And [name] would never return to who he used to be.

In those three lines I restate what the character just said, and then use the name in narration myself, just to drill it home. THEN you can end the chapter (because that seems like a good point for a chapter to end to me - totally optional though). The point here is that the first time you use the new name in narration, should not be the opening of a new chapter. I think that could be really jarring, especially if the reader paused between chapters for any good length of time.

Best of luck in your writing!

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In The Acts of the Apostles, leading protagonist Paul is initially introduced by his given name Saul, at which point he is an antagonist to the other heroes of the story. The narrator, Luke, who incidentally has no problem switching from third-person to first-person and back at will, changes the name of this character once he changes sides and is 'given a new name' by the heroes' leader. That book is part of an anthology that has been a bestseller for hundreds of years, so I believe readers can accept it under some circumstances.

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    However it can be safely assumed that a large number of those who possess that book didn't buy it because of the literary value. – celtschk Feb 5 '18 at 22:16
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    Perhaps every author's aim should be to write a story so compelling that people buy it for what it says to them rather than for its literary value. – Michael Kay Feb 6 '18 at 0:26
  • Yes, but that's a name change with a clear external inciting incident, and the character accepts the name change as an identifier to others that he's done a Heel-Face Turn. Saul doesn't have an identity crisis before that point and only accepts the name "Saul." The OP is doing something quieter and more internal to the character. Acts of the Apostles isn't known for its subtlety. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Feb 6 '18 at 11:30
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    Actually, Saul's name change is more anticlimactic than this answer and the comments make it seem. His change of heart happens in chapter 9. He is not "given" a new name, and continues to be called Saul as he begins to support the movement he once tried to destroy. It's only in chapter 13--in the middle of a scene--that the narrator casually mentions that he is "also called Paul," and proceeds to refer to him as Paul from then on. (Some interesting ideas on the significance of the change can be found on Hermeneutics.SE.) – DLosc Feb 7 '18 at 1:24
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    Of course, there are plenty of other examples from the same anthology: Abram/Abraham, Sarai/Sarah, Jacob/Israel, Daniel/Belteshazzar, Simon/Peter... not to mention the different names and titles of God. Not all of them fit the OP's criterion of "not jarring the reader," since the material is describing real-life cultural phenomena and isn't too interested in making things easy for us westerners to understand. Abraham and Sarah are the only ones, I think, where a character 1) has an established name, 2) is given a new name, and 3) the narration uses the new name from then on. – DLosc Feb 7 '18 at 1:43
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As long as the change is obvious that sounds like an interesting take on naming your character. You should think about how the exact change happens - it's probably unnatural if your narrator suddenly completely switches from one name to the author.

Old habits die hard.

You could for example make it pretty obvious by letting the narrator start with the first name and interrupt himself:

You know, Doo- I wanted to say Doodler again, sorry - You know, Rebecca, that's a very fine idea.

And after one or two such mistakes it becomes normal to use the latter name.

  • I believe the OP is referring to how he, the narrator, refers to the character though. Not how the characters refer to him - he's already said they start using the new name. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Feb 5 '18 at 16:02
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    @ThomasMyron I am not too good with the specific terms, but shouldn't a third person narrator not be able to make mistakes? For me a narrator is always also a character with a personality of his own and prone to error much like anyone else. The example I chose may not be perfect as it sounds more like a conversation between the characters that the reader is watching, but to combine our examples (even with my silly names) "Doo- ... Rebecca was no longer a child. She would never return to she used to be." – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Feb 5 '18 at 16:10
  • @Secespitus Perspective is third-person limited. The "limited" part means that the narrator only knows the thoughts or feelings of one character--so mistakes are possible. – called2voyage Feb 5 '18 at 16:54
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    @Secespitus It is a matter of authorial choice, but in the vast majority of novels written in 3rd P Limited, the narrator is NOT a character. There is no character development or personality; they relate the events neutrally, and never make any errors. Making a mistake is a character flaw and would imply an unreliable narrator that can also lie. This is not the "default" approach to 3rd P Limited. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Feb 5 '18 at 17:30
  • Which begs the question: in addition to the Narrator... how much time, effort and strife is going to be caused by the name change? All the different locales, nicknames, etc? Unless there is some way to blast out the change (Updating Facebook status... now) that guarantees everyone gets it - and doesn't fight it? (Look how many people still don't call Caitlyn by her name...) – WernerCD Feb 6 '18 at 15:12
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Another option is to have a dialog affirmation. Use an antagonist or villain of some sort who would use the old name after the new name was given, only to be corrected by the hero, and then as the narrator, refer to the new name. This would allow for the character and the narrator to be in sync that this new name will be used. From there, the narrator will never refer to the hero by the old name, excepting from dialog from people who would not know the new name (And Flashbacks... maybe... depends on how the hero sees himself.

"Ah, [Old Name]," The villain said, assuming a fighting stance "We meet again." Insert suitably dramatic actions "I am [New Name]," [New Name] said, as he delivers the final blow to the villain.

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Use the main character's own viewpoint as a guide. They will have a reaction to the name, and to being given the new name. They will make meaning of it. They will attach some significance to it.

They will have a reaction to the third person continuing to call them by their old name, and to the third person's transition to the new name.

And these reactions will change over time.

In the main character's viewpoint, attend to these reactions. They are gold for characterizing the main character and their relationships with the other characters. They will help keep the reader involved, and will help the reader track the transition.

Let the reader experience the meaning and significance of the name through the character's own evolving reaction to it.

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It sounds like naming is at the core of the story, and while name changing may break the rules of storytelling in our culture, it is in fact an ancient tradition to tell a story about how the main character earned their (new) name. The concern you have to not betray the reader's investment in your story makes you a responsible bridge builder to another level of knowledge in the power of words themselves. I wish you well in this endeavor!

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Let me give you historical examples where this was done, and how/when this has been done well in popular fiction.

Starting in fuedal Japan, the height of the 'samurai age' there. When a boy is born, he's given a name. Literally referred to as his 'childhood name'. As he studies the way of the samurai (Bushido, lit. the way of the warrior) and grows in his training, he is eventually granted the title of samurai. To symbolize this, he takes a new name.

Then how about 'Christian names'. In many places across the Christianised world, you have a 'cultural name', if you country was recently Christianised, or more predominantly in African countries. But when you are baptised, you take a 'Christian name'. FYI, this is still a common occurrence in the Netherlands, where if you live in the 'bible belt', people will tell you their 'Christian name' is [...].

This is also quite common in Western Pop Culture. See P. Diddy (or was it Puff Daddy...?) The Edge, The King of Rock and Roll. It's common for someone to 'take a new name' as a performing artist, or a writing pseudonym.

Now, onto fiction. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The first emperor of Skyrim was known by many names. Talos of Atmora, Tiber Septum (birth name, btw), the Hero-god of man, the God of War. If you refer to any of these names, you refer to Talos, and likely to Talos worship which is outlawed by the White Gold Concordat. It's not wrong to refer to this person by any of these names, even though the name used to refer to him does show what you wish to see in him (like the OP suggests for the name change in the phrasing I answer).

Another, and perhaps even more famous example, is Count Dracula. In the original work of Bram Stoker, he isn't referred to by much other than his name or station, but. Look at how modern fiction portrays this iconic character. From Hellsing and Hellsing Ultimate (Alucard, lit. name spelled backwards). To Vlad the Impaler (historical basis). To the Scourge of the Turks (historical basis). To the Father of the Vampiric Nation, and Drake (Blade Trilogy). In many vampire mythos, Dracula is the Adam of the vampires, the progenitor and has either a cult-like following, or a mythic status, or a god-like presence in which nations fall when he rises in the night.

Another common trope used in mystery novels, and sometimes thrillers, is an almost 'split personality' type villain, where (s)he's in plain sight the whole time, but secretly plotting behind your back or acting via proxies and often under a pseudonym. In this way, how the narrator refers to the villain is decided purely on whether they are 'villaining' or 'hiding'.

So. I'd have to say, if the narrator changes the name being used, there is precedent in history, fiction, and pop culture. So go for it.

  • Also note that it commonly happens with family names on marriage, e.g. Jessica Smith turns into Jessica Miller upon marrying John Miller, or John Miller instead turns into John Smith. – celtschk Feb 5 '18 at 22:11
  • Changes in name happen in real life: not just on marriage; also for example on a change of gender. Anthony Wedgwood Benn chose to become Tony Benn as a political act, a deliberate change of image. And of course, A and B can refer to C by different names (e.g Tony vs. Lord Benn) to emphasize their different relationships to C. So long as you take great care not to leave the reader totally confused, I would think it can be a useful device to emphasize changes to a person's nature, or differences in how they are perceived. – Michael Kay Feb 6 '18 at 0:21
  • @celtschk I agree, but that's only changing the last name. And depending on local customs, the names might hyphenate (Jessica Smith becomes Jessica Miller-Smith, or Smith-Miller depending) – Fayth85 Feb 6 '18 at 0:47
  • @MichaelKay I agree. Anything can be done as long as it is done well. Sloppy execution sucks, no matter how brilliant and novel the idea is. – Fayth85 Feb 6 '18 at 0:49
  • More religious conversion examples: Cassius Clay becoming Mohammad Ali, Cat Stevens (stage name, birth name Steven Demetre Georgiou) becoming Yusuf Islam. But all these are a bit different from the "main character has no real name" case. – armb Feb 6 '18 at 8:06
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If the protagonist is a con-man, then you could use something like

He had caused enough chaos here, thought Robert. Time to move on, Aliceville will do; it is only 2 days travel north. But what name did he use there? Billy, he finally recalled. Too many places, too many aliases to remember.

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It would be cheating if you want to make believe your reader that they are two different persons.

Song of Ice and Fire spoiler :

Theon/Reek is a good example.

But if your are clear about the character, it is done too many time to even list examples. All Characters have name, surname, nicknames,aliases, descriptions. That's even a way to avoid repetitions.

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No, of course it isn't!!!

If you read Anthony Horowitz's Moriarty, you'll see that's exactly what he did.

(I hate to spoil this) He started the story as 'Let me tell you my name is Frederick Chase' and the main villain of the story is Moriarty, although he never appears. At the end, 'Frederick' shoots the other main protagonist of the story, and the reader finds out that 'Frederick' is actually Moriarty himself! Genius!

My point is, you can tell the reader anything you want as long as the story's interesting and understandable.

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