I have a character who starts as a low servant caste and rises up through society. While plotting, I never bothered to give her more than one name, I guess I was thinking her island/village is small enough that it wouldn't be important, and that she has no family name to claim. To be honest I didn't consider it in a "worldbuilding" sense, but the idea is also to signify she has no status of her own.

The rest of the characters come from societies modeled on Western culture, so they have first and last names, nicknames, and often ranks and titles.

My problem is coming up in dialog. I can signal the social hierarchy and also give hints to the mindset of the speaker though the way characters refer to one another: "Miss Karagi" vs "Joan Karagi" vs "Joan" vs "Lieutenant Karagi" – I can easily signify social hierarchy and levels of familiarity. It happens without even thinking about it.

This doesn't work on the character with one name, and now I'm stumbling over it again and again in dialog, especially since the way she is perceived by other characters is a major theme of the novel – some see her as a naive girl, some see her as a scheming social climber, etc. Her status also changes over time as she "levels up" in their society, and eventually she plays with these social perceptions, for example insisting on being called "Mrs Rothschild" (not the actual name) after only a tenuous relationship with a millionaire. She also eventually gains some infamy and at that point her one-word name works like Madonna or Cher.

But in the early stage, while she is still servant caste and only beginning her social climb, it's become a dialog issue because I've lost this level of subtlety. I'm not sure how to address her formally, and there is also a subplot about her name appearing on legal documents.

I'm not sure how to handle this as a writer, and I'm not sure how the characters themselves would handle it. How would (Westernized) characters refer to to this person with only one name? Would they give her a last name out of convenience (fix her, Ellis Island style) or are there other name conventions/euphemisms they would use? In casual dialog the people close to her would just use her name, but I don't know what to do when the dialog becomes formal, or people who aren't so personally familiar need to address her or talk about her. Are there ways I can signify these social layers and the personal perception of the speaker?

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    It looks like this is something that comes up regularly in reality, for example on Academia someone asked I have only one name shown in my ID card. How do I write my name (surname) in research paper or article? or Expatriates: No last name on documents These are about documents though and I don't know if the nationality of your character is important. Where is your character coming from? Maybe the specific culture has a common way to deal with such an issue.
    – Secespitus
    Mar 27, 2018 at 14:02
  • Not an answer, +1 @Flater. This is just a problem of imagination. Force a name on her early, by some profession (Smith, Cutter, Taylor), her father's or mother's name, (e.g. Johnson = John's son, Williams meant William's). Rewrite, it is part of the job. You only need to introduce this once, early on, and then continue to use a mononym; but when it becomes necessary she offers up the last name you introduced in Act I. Make it resonate with her path or desire or skill.
    – Amadeus
    Mar 27, 2018 at 14:55
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    Point of clarification: What do you mean by in dialogue? With her? About her by others? In some dialog the higher castes would call to her as 'you there.' 'Drudge.' 'Girl.' This was my first thought. My story has a nurse and when the characters refer to her (and this is somewhat formal) they call her "Nurse (name)." Your character might be referred to as the servant, the maid, the cook. Cook Nancy.
    – SFWriter
    Mar 27, 2018 at 15:10
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    There is an assumption that she is a sex servant, so, OUCH! Yes, I didn't want to go there but attaching that profession to her name would very much happen – probably not to her face – but definitely in locker room talk. I'm going to refer to it as "Cook Nancy" until I figure out how to work it in.
    – wetcircuit
    Mar 27, 2018 at 20:30
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    Utterly irrelevant nitpick: contrary to popular belief, the clerks at Ellis Island did NOT change people's names. The clerks were working based on written documentation - passports, tickets, etc. - not on orally-given information. The immigrants themselves often took the first opportunity to change their names to something they believed would fit in better, but it was NEVER a willy-nilly change imposed by the immigration officials.
    – Martha
    Jul 15, 2019 at 22:13

3 Answers 3


There are several ways to address this. This is really just a matter of picking whichever custom you like the best.

Intentionally keep the mononym.

Your character can decide to not take a surname and keep the mononym, to symbolically remember her roots.

If this is the case, then you simply refer to them by that mononym. This happens in real life too; thinks of artists who use a mononym (Eminem, Bono, Cher). They are always referred to by that name, and no one really struggles with using it (except maybe on official documents, which is not the focus of your question).

  • Effectively, a mononymn is both someone's first name and their surname. But you obviously don't say it twice :-)
  • It's still possible that someone who doesn't personally know this character instinctively refers to this person by using a longer name ("Mister Eminem", "Sir Bono", "Lady Cher") simply because they are unaware that it's a mononym. That would in effect be a mistake; but an unavoidable mistake as the character is unaware that the name is a mononym.
  • If there are cases where the name is expanded as a matter of protocol (e.g. referring to a knight as Sir Galahad, or a monarch as Queen Victoria), then you should stick with that protocol ("King Eminem", "Sir Bono", "Queen Cher").

Growing the name over time.

There is a precedent here:

Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons.

This name has grown with every significant victory that she achieved.

The same can happen to your character. If they "rank up" because they killed a troll, Bono could choose to rename himself to Bono Trollslayer. If he then "ranks up" because he kills the previous monarch, he could choose to rename himself Bono Kingslayer.
It doesn't need to be as elaborate as Daenerys' names.

It's also possible that the character's name is changed by others, without the character's consent.
A precedent occurs in Lord of the Rings, when King Theoden (still under Saruman's spell) refers to Gandalf as Gandalf Stormcrow (explanation here).

"Stormcrow" is essentially an insult, implying that Gandalf causes trouble wherever he goes. Using it as if it were his given name further implies that Gandalf always does this (it's similar to someone saying "danger is my middle name". It being your name implies that you live by it).

Culturally default names

In keeping the mononym, it's possible that a default surname exists for those who have none.

A great example here is bastard names in Game of Thrones. All bastards receive a default surname (Jon Snow, Ramsay Snow, Brynden Rivers, Elia Sand). The name varies per region (Snow = the North, Sand = Dorne, Rivers = the Riverlands), but every region has a given default name.

Similarly, those from a lower caste (in your world) could be given a default name. It's possible that those who hate the character will intentionally keep using that name long after she rose through the ranks, simply to insult her initial lower status.

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    Another option for a culture default is using the name of the village for a last name Mar 27, 2018 at 22:05
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    @prosepraise Good addition. A great example of this is Leonardo Da Vinci. Technically, we don't know the guy's last name, we just know him as "Leonardo from Vinci" (a small town).
    – Flater
    Mar 28, 2018 at 6:21
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    @Flater it's not that "we don't know" Leonardo's last name; it's that he was born out of wedlock. His father acknowledged him and bastardary wasn't a huge impediment at the time, but he couldn't take his father's name. Mar 28, 2018 at 9:58
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    @LaurenIpsum: You're correct. I was simplifying the explanation for people who up until then considered "Da Vinci" to be his actual surname. I can't immediately think of an English example, but Dutch still has actual surnames that refer to locations, e.g. "Van Parijs" (from Paris). They're few and far between, but they do exist, and "Da Vinci" could've been one as well.
    – Flater
    Mar 28, 2018 at 10:07

My first thought is, if you're struggling with this issue, why not make your character struggle with it too? If she has no family name, then in situations where she needs to be addressed by one, she'd feel uncomfortable. Exactly because this conveys social status, she would have some emotions towards the situation, whether shame, or resentment, or whatever else you decide.

Then, from this situation, could she not make herself a family name? It could be based on the place where she came from, or her parents, if she'd want it meaningful, or just something random - whatever you think would fit her best. Real-life family names are quite often associated with where one came from (e.g. Toledano, London) or one's parents' names (e.g Watson, Johnson).


To me, this is a worldbuilding problem.

You have to decide

what the absence of a last name means within the context of your story, and how the people in your world would deal with it.

It's your story, and we wouldn't know.

You admit that you failed to think of this issue ("I never bothered to give her more than one name" and "I didn't consider it in a 'worldbuilding' sense") and now you have come to the point where your lack of planning becomes a problem. What you have here is the worldbuilding equivalent of a plot hole.

Now you need to go back and decide what the role of this character is in your story and whether her role demands a last name or not. If she should have a last name, revise what you have written accordingly. If she should have no last name, you can only have come to that decision if there is a reason for the absence of her name. That reason will also imply an answer to your question about how the people in your world behave towards that absence of a name.

In short:

Your question cannot be answered in the general way that you ask it. (Unless you ask for help in worldbuilding, and then this question is offtopic here and must be moved to Worldbuilding.SE.) The answer, if it is about writing, depends on what you indend your story to be.

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    It might be related to worldbuilding, but I don't think Worldbuilding SE would allow it. Mar 27, 2018 at 17:08
  • @Galastel My main point it that Wetcircuit now need to do the worldbuilding they failed to do.
    – user29032
    Mar 27, 2018 at 17:24
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    The "Westernized" characters do not care how she calls herself. She has one name, I said why. The typical upper caste person won't go out of their way to be PC to her. It's not a worldbuilding issue, it is a language/custom/prejudice issue. The question is how WESTERNIZED CHARACTERS would speak TO and ABOUT her, following their OWN protocol and prejudice. Please read Secespitus' comment to understand how this is an issue in rl (maybe rl failed to worldbuild Arabic names? LOL). Flater's answer covers a range of positive and negative, and adds worldbuild-y "race-default" options from pop media.
    – wetcircuit
    Mar 27, 2018 at 20:21
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    @wetcircuit The reason you gave is that "you never bothered". Your whole introduction to your question is about how you "guess" but "didn't consider". That is, you make it quite explicit that the lack of a name is an omission on your part and wasn't intentional. If it was, then the opening to your question is misleading and you might want to edit it accordingly.
    – user29032
    Mar 27, 2018 at 21:00
  • You might want to read past the first paragraph. Thank you for the input. It does make me think.
    – wetcircuit
    Mar 27, 2018 at 21:55

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