13

I'd like to write a story, in the third-person perspective, centering on a character who changes her name several times in the course of the story.

She uses her birth name for the first couple of chapters, then perform an "identity switcheroo" with another character, with the intention of using that new identity for the rest of her life. The two of them only meet twice afterwards. That new name would be used for about 2/3 of the story.

The switch would then be discovered and her old name used by some of the other characters and toward the end she would decide to create a new name for herself, with no intention of going back to the old ones.
There are also parts of the story where she uses aliases, but they are short-lived and won't be used by the narrator.

At first, I wanted to add a paragraph describing her getting mentally used to her new name when it changes, then use it in the narrative until it changes again.
On one hand, she absolutely intends to become a new person each time, and sees herself as a "Jane" then a "Dolores", etc, at different points of the story, but I don't know if it would be clear enough for the reader


Note : there are other closely related questions but I'm not sure if their answers apply to this case.
1) Revealing MC's name midway through a story
2) Character lying about her name
3) Character changes name but other call him by the old one


Question :

Would it be better for the narrator to use the MC's birth name for the whole story (especially since it makes a surprise comeback in the end) ?
Or should the narrator adapt to the changes ?

Is there a better option, like giving her a nickname early on and using it through the story ?

  • 3
    The elven folk will probably use another name for your character as well. – Simon Richter Oct 30 '18 at 19:32
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    Is the intent that this name-change be known to the reader? I ask because I recently read a book with multiple POV characters, and the "twist" later on is that you learn they are actually all the same character with different names at different points in their life. – David K Oct 30 '18 at 20:03
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    It's a spoiler so I won't use specific names, but I read a book where a character went by one name until her royal lineage (think "she's secretly the lost princess Anastasia") was revealed (to the reader and some other characters). She continued to go by her incognito name in public, but the narrator immediately switched to the "Anastasia" name and has used consistently ever since. My point being that it worked quite well and wasn't jarring at all for that author. – Tin Man Oct 30 '18 at 20:51
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    if I'm not wrong Piers Anthony does something similar with one of his characters in A Spell For Chameleon – BKlassen Oct 30 '18 at 22:36
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    @DavidK Yes, it isn't a secret for the reader, the changes are important plot points and the story is told chronologically, following the MC's life. – Cerise St Hilaire Oct 31 '18 at 7:58
7

It all depends on your narrative voice, and how sympathetic the narrator is to the character.

she absolutely intends to become a new person each time, and sees herself as a "Jane" then a "Dolores", etc, at different points of the story, but I don't know if it would be clear enough for the reader.

The narrative voice should confirm the new identity, not undermine it, if the reader is going to have any sympathy for this character.

Read Jane Austen who is still considered the master of playing with POV, using a technique called Free Indirect Speech in which the 3rd-person narrator is temporarily replaced with the internal thoughts of various characters. Austen also does a more subtle technique where the vocabulary and tone of the narrative voice will shift to the vocabulary and emotional tone of a character in the scene.

Each new "identity" will have shifts in their tone and vocabulary which become more confident over time. The narrative voice should echo this transition, not fight against it – depending on how the reader is meant to relate with (or alienate) the character.

Give her a transition phase while she is still filling in the gaps with the new persona. For instance, she verbally stumbles as she must invent a bit of history on the fly, but when that same lie comes up again she has woven the details together more convincingly. If it comes up a third time she doesn't even need the details because her emotions of it are now genuine.

As always with writing, the more you can show the process (not tell) the more the reader will be involved, sharing the stakes along with the character. If we see her invent her new identity through her actions and speech, you won't need to hit the reader over the head with explaining the plot of the novel, or constantly stop the show to pull back the curtain and remind readers that she isn't really Mrs So-and-so.

15

There are many ways you can tackle this question. Some considerations would be how close your narration is to the MC, how the MC thinks of themselves, and how you want the reader to think of her. Let me give you some examples of how different authors treated the question, and you can see which approach fits your story best.

  • One famous example of the MC changing names and identities is Les Misérables. The narration leaves Jean Valjean in Digne. Some time later, we are introduced to Monsieur Madeleine, the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. I don't know if readers in Hugo's time knew in advance that Monsieur Madeleine was Jean Valjean, or if they had to figure it out. Modern readers certainly do know in advance. Hugo keeps on calling Valjean 'Madeleine', and leave it to the audience to figure it out, right until Valjean's identity is officially revealed. The effect produced is quite interesting: even knowing who Madeleine is, we are allowed to see him from outside, as it were - experience how he is seen at this point of the story by the people around him. It is through this tool that we learn how much he has changed. Even to himself, he is no longer Jean Valjean - it is the name of his past self, of himself-the-criminal; he is no longer that man. But of course his past identity catches up with him, and he must carry it.

  • In Diana Wynne Jones's book Dogsbody, Sirius (the star) is transformed into a dog, and his new human owners call him Leo. The narration alternates between 'Sirius' and 'Leo', depending on the focus of each scene.

    "Oh, I hope not!" Kathleen said, knowing how much Leo ate already. Sirius realised she was worries and wagged his tail consolingly outside his basket. (D.W. Jones, Dogsbody, chapter 2)

    Sirius, of course, thinks of himself as 'Sirius', and the girl, of course, thinks of him as 'Leo'. So you get both names in the narration.

  • In David Eddings's Belgariad, the main character Garion earns the prefix 'Bel-', signifying he is a sorcerer. Other characters start calling him 'Belgarion', but he calls himself 'Garion', and so does the narration. The narration is close to the MC, so it follows the way he thinks of himself, and he thinks of himself humbly - he's not used to the whole 'sorcerer' thing yet.

  • In Terry Pratchett's Reaper Man, Death gets fired, and for a while finds a new identity as Bill Door. The narration switches to calling him Bill Door the moment he gets the new name:

    I AM TIRED AND IT WON'T STOP.
    Bill Door clutched at his skull.
    ALSO SPIGOT GAVE ME A HUMOROUS APPLE JUICE FERMENTED DRINK BECAUSE OF THE HEAT AND NOW I FEEL ILL.

    But of course we can never forget who Bill Door is: he talks in ALL CAPS.

Personally, I feel that changing the MC's name in the narration many times might be a bit confusing to the reader. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, if you think this is what suits your story best. It does mean you should maybe give some extra thought to how to keep the reader not confused.

  • 2
    Another example is "Destiny's Road" by Larry Niven. The main character (Jemmy Bloocher, if I recall correctly) changes names several times in the course of the story, and is always referred to by the name he is using at the time. I don't recall offhand how the transitions were handled, but it was fairly deft as I wasn't thrown out of the story. – Wildcard Oct 30 '18 at 20:14
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    Frank Herbert's Dune has multiple name switches in which Paul Atriedes also gains the names "Muad'Dib" and "Usul", and is referred to differently depending on the people he is with (although generally only in dialogue). The sequel Children of Dune goes a different direction and introduces "The Preacher" with the reader and characters initially left to question of whether or not this is Paul. – Thunderforge Oct 31 '18 at 4:30
3

Not sure if this qualifies as a complete answer, but one example that I've run across that was hard for me as a reader to figure out (and partly because it was an audio book) was A Fire Upon The Deep, in which one of the alien species in the setting is not explained to the reader until it gets explained to one of the human characters, despite a section from the alien's point of view.

I'll get to why that was confusing in a bit.

The alien main characters name was Scriber. And also RickRackRum (spelling: will need to verify). His companion was JackaRamaPhan. Scrubber also later gets injured and ends up with a name change, to RickRackScar.

Why the name change?

Well, now I have to explain their physiology.

The aliens are 3-5 member packs of things-that-are-roughly-wolves with a shared consciousness. RickRackRum's Rum died and he merged with the lone survivor of another pack named Scar (3 was kind of the minimum number required for consciousness and more than six had cognitive issues). So he was made up of three members: Rick, Rack, and Rum. Rum died and Scar joined. JackaRamaPhan was a pack of five (Jack, Ram, Phan, and two others) and a slightly abbreviated name.

And there in less why it was so hard to figure things out as a reader...listener.

Not that it was done poorly, just less than ideal, especially with the nickname (Scriber) that was used interchangeably by some characters and the physiology want explained until after the humans interacted with them. Early on the story, Scriber "moves his Rum to get a better view" and the reader is like "what."

But your story wouldn't have this issue of the reader is present for the identity swap and name change. Doubly so if the other character doesn't show up very often afterwards; separated by time the reader will become adjusted to the swap and won't confuse the two people. If the two characters were running around together all the time, it'd be a cognitive mess.

  • 2
    That does sound confusing, but interesting. – wetcircuit Oct 30 '18 at 17:30
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    Definitely sounds confusing. I wonder, though: is it confusing because of the name-change, or because two names for the same entity are used interchangeably? The way you're describing it, by the time RickRackRum becomes RickRackScar, what's going on should be clear enough - it's Scriber/RickRackRum that's confusing. That's a valid concern, but a separate one, I think. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Oct 30 '18 at 17:38
  • @Galastel You are correct, but I thought it was worth bringing up. – Draco18s Oct 30 '18 at 17:52
3

I don't think the narrator adapting to the name change would be a problem per se. However, what needs to be clear to the reader is which character you are referring to.

So, suppose that we have a scene where Jane and Dolores meet and agree to switch names. As a reader, if you then tell me that «Jane left the building and returned home», I am left wondering which Jane did it. It would be much better that you clarified that the new Jane left the building. Or even the old Jane, that was now called Dolores, left the building...

This way, we disambiguate it for now, but will need to clarify who is when we the narrator only talks about Jane.

I would then eg. start the next chapter with «Jane woke up, looked at herself in the mirror and said "Hello Dolores" [or "Hello Jane"]. She was still trying to get used to that name…» which is quite similar to the idea you had.

Then, when the two characters meet another time, you should disambiguate again. Just think on how confusing it may be having the narrator refer to the characters in one way, they themselves in another or even differing between them (eg. the old Dolores may think in herself as Jane now, but also think in the new Dolores as Jane, as that's how she met her). Even if there was only one valid interpretation, the reader shouldn't need to stop reading to test possibilities and figure out who-is-who (not to mention that these situations are likely to confuse the writer, too!).

2

My first instinct is that a third person narrator should always refer to the character in a consistent fashion, probably using her birth name, or a variant of it. But the narrator should also take note of who the character thinks they are and the reader should be reminded regularly, but not incessantly, of the identity she is currently using. That should be done primarily through her interactions with other characters but the narrator should mention her new identity at least a couple of times, especially early on, as well.

2

One of my characters, a kind of spy, goes by several names in the course of her story. The narrator always refers to her by her real name. I make sure she introduces herself by whatever cover name she is using, and she never fails to answer to it. In about 95% of scenes, everybody is calling her by her cover name.

This is true even in an intimate setting with a fellow spy that knows her real name, because no matter how private you think you are, you never know when you might be overheard, recorded, or bugged. So they fool around but neither of them ever breaks character.

The narrator never calls her anything but her real name, a constant reminder to the reader she is not the character she is playing. That can work for you too. It sounds like part of your story is this search for self, and that kind of reminder would subtly reinforce that she really hasn't found herself, and perhaps never does.

2

Obvious case: If the reader is not supposed to know at first that this character is pretending to be someone else, if that's supposed to be a surprise revelation somewhere along the line, then of course writing,

"My name is Bob Jones," Fred Miller said.

would blow the mystery right off the bat. I'm suddenly reminded of a book I read where two seemingly very different characters turn out to be the same person. One is always called by a title and the other by a proper name, and so there is a crucial scene where it says, "And the light shone on the face of Fred Jones, the Prime Minister." (Not the real name or title. Like I said, avoiding a spoiler.)

Second case that I think is easy: A character uses a series of aliases, each one for a relatively short portion of the story. Like a spy or a criminal or someone trying to hide their identify. If each alias is only used for a few pages, it could be very confusing to the reader if the narrator keeps switching. Better for the narrator to use the real name and the characters to use the alias. Then the reader knows who the person is unambiguously.

The case you describe sounds to me like the hardest. If someone starts out as "Bob" and early in the book changes his name to "Fred" for whatever reason, and he now really thinks of himself as Fred and everyone calls him Fred, for the narrator to call him Bob might just be distracting and add to complexity. If it was a one-way change, he goes from Bob to Fred and never goes back, I'd say to switch to calling him Fred. But you say your character goes back to the original name. Also, if there are other characters who call him by the original name, etc.

So my advice, in the absence of further detail about your story, would be for the narrator to use her original name throughout. But frankly I say that tentatively, because without reading the story, it's hard to say how it "feels".

2

It depends on the story.

There are several approaches, as you noted, but the best one will depend on your narrator and the character. You should probably work with early readers, who can tell you where identity/attribution might be unclear or downright confusing.

Consistency of narrative and style.

If the character does not change significantly, then it would probably feel authentic to use a nickname throughout. Or she may always think of herself using her birth name. Many people, myself included, shed old nicknames as we outgrow them, however, so this might not suit a more dynamic character.

Narrative distance.

A first-person narrator can directly show your readers the challenges of maintaining an identity. You can cement those name changes into the reader's consciousness by making them a driving force in the narrative---if you want.

If you use a close third-person narrator, then most dialogue or actions attributed to "she" or "her" will be ascribed to your protagonist. Readers will become accustomed to her being called by different names, especially if there are occasional reminders (old emails, inscribed jewelry, calls from old friends, etc). You would only need names, physical descriptors, etc to avoid ambiguity when an action might reasonably be attributed to another woman in the scene.

A more distant third-person narrator may become awkward unless you make the cutoff very clear. You could show the character actually assuming the new identity, with some details to drive it home---acquiring forged documents, getting a government ID, setting up new bank accounts, etc. Or maybe that ruins your pacing. Maybe you want to handle it as briefly as possible. In that case, you could use chapter or section names as indicators, e.g., "The Jane Years" or "The Alice Excursion".

  • Thank you! Using chapter names is an excellent idea – Cerise St Hilaire Oct 31 '18 at 8:10

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