Someone I'm proofreading for has a protagonist that, for whatever reason, has a blanked out name.

She writes it as '_____' which I feel disrupts the flow a little bit.

What way can I recommend that would improve the flow?

5 Answers 5


It's the "for whatever reason" I'm finding problematic. There may be reasons why the character's name is not included, but if the proofreader is frowning at this there's a good chance some readers will too. It could be that this is happening for a grand reveal later in the book, but if the reader loses patience before they get there they might never find the reason.

Even if there is a very good reason, blanked space will interrupt the flow. There are devices to get around this - the "Miss X" from legal transcripts where protection of a witness is important, a generic "Jane" while explaining this is not her real name, or picking a specific characteristic or trait (the "Smoking Man" from The X Files).

It's also possible that interrupting the flow is what the writer is intending - that this is part of the effect - but since you're not sure about this it may not have been done as well as it could have been.


A name is blanked out because it has been redacted. The reason to redact a name is because it is sensitive information like personal gossip, or because revealing it could lead to a libel lawsuit.

Jane Austin blanked names and locations, and so did Voltaire, but they did it because it was a convention of their day. Letters were exchanged daily the way we use social media, to repeat gossip and news and funny stories. Sections of letters would be transcribed word-for-word, and shared not just because the information was juicy but also because the telling of the incident had a writer's flair or if it was just a "viral meme". The fictional novels that used this device are epistolary, they are told as letters so it was a normal convention that was written into fiction. In fact it might have felt untrue to write a letter from a certain character without using it.

This was also an age where reputation meant everything, and a shocking number of men would duel to save their honor – that's how important it was, they were willing to die for it. At the same time, everyone communicated by letters that were easily misplaced or stolen, but also were expected to be shared (and no doubt embellished) with friends and family, so what was said about specific people in letters was precarious. Even being loosely associated with an embarrassed person meant you would inevitably be the subject of gossip yourself, so the need to be discrete when repeating sensitive topics was actually self-preserving.

But there's a little more to it. The convention of using "______" or "A______" was used to show the letter had been directly transcribed, presumably from an original letter that contained the actual names. Using blanks added legitimacy. This is exactly the same as when a government document is released to the public with the specifics redacted as blackout bars "███████" It is more accurate than if the document were re-typed as prose, or described with suggestive or made up aliases for the people involved. The writer is signaling that they are sharing the actual document, copied word-for-word.

I'm assuming your author is using a blanked name to be post-modern or poetic. It might help to explain the practical context for blanking out a name. It isn't done just for atmosphere or to be mysterious, it is actually intended to do the opposite. It implies the narrative has been copied verbatim from the original source.

  • It is fiction, but I do not know so far why it has been employed. Perhaps blackout bars would be better?
    – Piomicron
    Feb 25, 2018 at 18:41
  • If it's being done to be pretentious, suggest other punctuation that implies how annoying it will be to some… Like "XXXXXXX" or "???????", we get the "mystery" idea the first time it is written, but it becomes annoyingly repetitive punctuation marks in no time.
    – wetcircuit
    Feb 25, 2018 at 18:46
  • I also assume this is the only character without a name, or she would use "A____", "B_____", etc. I think it's valid to let her know that it seems like an awkward convention that is only used for one character, but I'm not an editor idk where the boundaries are….
    – wetcircuit
    Feb 25, 2018 at 18:55
  • I saw your answer, and was reminded that Faulkner did the same thing with taboo words, but used just a long, blank space rather than underlines. Feb 26, 2018 at 21:09

Two that I know of:

1.) Make her a first person narrator whom no other character addresses by name. Haruki Murakami does this in Pinball, 1973

2.) Give the protagonist an ambiguous nickname, such as The X where X is something meaningful.


In Clint Eastwood's man-with-no-name Westerns, the protagonist is never identified by name for the entire movie. These include "For a Fistful of Dollars" and "For a Few Dollars More."

It is easy to not use a name for the protagonist in some circumstances. However, if the character is in a formal situation, then their name will probably be needed. For example, in a formal workplace situation or a wedding.

The webcomic A Girl and Her Fed the main characters (the girl and the federal agent) were unnamed and referred to by nicknames. The author gave it up with the fed because he was being addressed by his boss. The girl was left without a name until volume II because she both got married and became part of a structured workplace. It did work for a while, though.


The key words here are, "for whatever reason". If the reason is not clear from reading the story, this is a problem. There's nothing wrong with doing something strange or unusual in a story. Being original is a great thing. But there is a great deal wrong with doing something strange or unusual for no apparent reason. This looks like a gimmick and quickly becomes simply annoying.

I'd suggest the writer either, (a) Explain why she is blanking out the name. Even at that, if the name shows up more than once or twice, I think it would be better to replace it with some actual words. Like, "I cannot give her real name, so I will call her Sally Blank." Or (b) Give the character some sort of name. If there's a reason why the character's name is important and this cannot yet be revealed, then at least give a quick line about this. Like, "No one knew her name, so we just started calling her Jane ..." Or let a fake name be given in a way that you can later say it was a fake name. Like, "My name is Jane Miller, she said." Now later you can say that she was lying and that isn't really her name, but in the meantime you have something to call her.

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