I am writing a short story which features a character known only as Old Man, but there is a part of the story where someone calls the Old Man by his name. Only once, and I was wondering if there was a way to have it so that the name is said but not mentioned in the story. My story is written from the third person.

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    Is it a mystery that he is Old Man? If not, you should introduce him in a third person narration as John "Old Man" Smith and then refer to hims as Old Man until the dialog calls for "John or Mr. Smith" Another way is to have a character who is close to Old Man call him by "John" as sign that they only use their name when it's serious.
    – hszmv
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 17:00
  • Peter shout on (called) the Old Man, by his name. And so on ..
    – Ali_Habeeb
    Commented Nov 15, 2018 at 15:19
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    Write in the first person. See du Maurier's "Rebecca" for the classic example. Commented Nov 15, 2018 at 19:35

6 Answers 6


Sure, take the example of the Library story arc in Doctor Who, we see River Song tell the Doctor his name by way of convincing him she's trustworthy but we don't hear it. The audience only know what she told him because she says she's going to tell him and only know it's the right name because of the Doctor's reaction to it. The same is possible in written fiction as well:

X leaned over and whispered into the Old Man's ear. The colour drained from his weatherbeaten features, then he found his voice. "But how do you know that name?" he sputtered.

Or something similar, the key is to show the information being used without actually saying what that information is.


Have the narrator tell the action in that place, not show it. Then show Old Man's reaction.


"Nothing gives you the right to do this."

Old Man sat back down in his chair, hoping Taylor would take the hint and go. Instead, he bent over so close Old Man smelled beer and onions on his breath. Then Taylor whispered something Old Man had last heard from his wife's dying lips. Too many years to count.

"How?..." Old Man asked him.

Taylor stood. "I know more than you think. More than just your name, Old Man."

And so on...

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    +1 got goosebumps when reading "I know more than you think. More than just your name, Old Man."
    – Crettig
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 23:29
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    Damn, now I want to know more about the Old Man and his late wife, and what is this Taylor guy up to.
    – Josh Part
    Commented Nov 15, 2018 at 16:56

I think a good way to do this is to simply said "(person) called his name." or something like that.

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    The problem with this is that your characters can hear something that your readers can't, which creates a disconnect between your readers and the story. I really would try to avoid the name being audible in-universe; you can have some characters hear it (e.g. as a targeted whisper, or as an anecdote of something that happened elsewhere), but from the perspective of the narrator or whoever's telling the story, it should be inaudible so as to maintain disbelief. Commented Nov 14, 2018 at 17:48
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit: I wouldn't consider that a problem unless the name is significant to the plot. If the name is going to be a plot point later, then this is a Bad Idea. If the name is being omitted because it's not supposed to matter, then eliding it in this fashion is perfectly unobjectionable (just like eliding any other irrelevant detail).
    – Kevin
    Commented Nov 14, 2018 at 18:42
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    @Kevin: IMO it would be like introducing a character without describing them, stating their appearance, what they say, it's just not a good way to tell a story! And I feel the reader will notice that and be uncomfortable. I would at least. Commented Nov 14, 2018 at 18:58
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit: Well, you're welcome to your opinion, but without any story-mechanical reasoning for why this is actually a problem, I think we have to agree to disagree. I would not be uncomfortable with reading this storytelling technique.
    – Kevin
    Commented Nov 14, 2018 at 19:02
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    I agree with you, @LightnessRacesinOrbit. It feels a little jarring to have the mention of the name be so on the nose. Do you think a grammatical trick to de-emphasize the use of the name in the sentence structure would make it more palatable?
    – Becca
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 1:13

You can say e.g. "upon hearing his name, he turned..."

  • What would go just before this? Something like "Balt called out to the Old Man, and upon hearing his name, he turned...," perhaps? I'm not sure why burying the mention of the name in a preposition phrase makes it feel less jarring to me than Kale Slade's suggestion.
    – Becca
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 1:13
  • @Don01001100 you could precede it with mention of calling out but you needn't. I like economy of word so I probably wouldn't. E.g. you could begin "he walked directly towards X, his gaze fixed, but upon hearing his name called from a grey figure huddled on the sand, he turned..." Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 2:36
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    @Don01001100 p.s. If I were writing this I'd probably dance around the not using of the name by talking about the name at length, how they react upon hearing it, what the name means to the person, when they last heard it, why they're surprised to hear it, what it might mean that somebody uttered it etc Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 8:45

Note: This answers a slightly looser requirement that "the real name is not mentioned in the story". This isn't precisely what the OP asked, and may not work for them, but may suit others in a broadly similar situation.

You could perhaps adopt/adapt the technique used in the spy novel The Ipcress File by Len Deighton. Although the film of the book gave the main character a name (Harry Palmer), Deighton did not. At one point in the book he has another character refer to the protagonist by name (while in an airport bookshop):

I was killing a minute with the paperbacks when I heard a soft voice say, 'Hello, Harry.'

Now my name isn't Harry, but in this business it's hard to remember whether it ever had been.

and "Harry" shrugs it off as a previously-used false name. That works well for a cloak-and-dagger spy story, but there are variants you could use in a more run-of-the-mill setting, for instance:

Old Man didn't know why [she | certain people] had decided his name was "John": it wasn't, but he couldn't be bothered correcting them.

Note: The technique Deighton uses keeps it clear to the reader that they don't know the name of the main character: he has not been named up to this point in the book, and as soon as a name is mentioned, it is immediately made clear that it is not the character's real name.

This is in contrast to, say, The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. Here (spoiler-block for anyone who has not read the book):

The main character is identified early on – both to characters within the story and to the reader – as Charles Calthrop. While we [the reader] see him assume many false identities throughout the book to evade the authorities, we "know" he is Charles Calthrop. It is only in the epilogue that this certainty is disabused and we learn that neither we, nor the authorities, know his real name.

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    As a side note, this has been used (albeit in a direct homage to the Deighton style of spy novel) by Charles Stross in his Laundry series. Essentially, the name given to us for the character is Bob Howard (Bob Oliver Francis Howard in full, which is a rather subtle geek I M A Pseudonym) and several times in the books, he alludes to the fact that this isn't his real name, but since you are reading his secret service memoirs/case reports the names have been changed for security reasons.
    – Wenlocke
    Commented Nov 15, 2018 at 16:31
  • This seems to be answering a question different from what the OP asked. Commented Nov 15, 2018 at 23:33
  • @Acccumulation Not precisely the same, but related: I'm answering more how to satisfy "but the real name is not mentioned in the story". There are good answers for how not to mention the name at all; I think this is a useful variant. It might not work for the OP's situation, but might for others in a similar position. I'll update the answer to acknowledge this explicitly.
    – TripeHound
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 7:43

I'd imagine, the Old Man is one of the central characters of your story. Why not name the story after him and use his name there?

Doing so would accentuate his stature while creating an air of mystery. Allowing one person to called the Old Man by his name also conveys depth and sensitivity.

I'm not sure if you've got a short story title in mind but I would simply call it "John" and leave it at that.

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