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Let there be a character. Let the character's name be, for example, Alexander.

Now, Alexander's parents call him 'Sasha'. His friends call him 'Xander'. His girlfriend calls him 'Alex'. In formal circumstances, he's 'Alexander, son of Philipp'. To himself, he is all of those - they are, after all, variations on a theme.

What should the omniscient narrator call him? That is, if the omniscient narrator sits on the parents' shoulder, Alexander is called 'Sasha'. If the omniscient narrator sits on the girlfriend's shoulder, Alexander is called 'Alex'. But what if the narrator is sitting on Alexander's shoulder, or on no shoulder at all?

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    What does Alexander call himself if he were to introduce himself? While I may respond to many names and they all mean me, I only address myself with one of them. – bruglesco Mar 5 at 22:32
  • @bruglesco depends on the situation. Introducing himself to his superiors - 'Alexander, son of Philipp'. To his social equals - 'please call me Xander'. To his subordinates - 'I am Alexander of Macedon'. (Not really writing about Alexander the Great, it's just an example of name + title) – Galastel Mar 5 at 22:46
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    I get that it's an example, Having a title attached to ones name isn't the same as having it be part of ones personal identity (but it can be, its a personal thing) For instance I know people who consider themselves Chef So-and-so. That is who they are. To me the title is just a title. I use it at work. – bruglesco Mar 5 at 22:52
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    Frodo is Frodo, not the ring-bearer nor Frodo, nephew of Bilbo, nor Frodo Baggins (except by some and/or when introduced and/or in certain circumstances.). Smeagal is Gollum. Except when Smeagal is Smeagal. Smaug is Smaug but also 'the dragon.' I think if you trust your instincts, you will be alright. – DPT Mar 5 at 22:58
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    @Galastel: Maybe to further specify bruglesco's question: how would he call himself if he were talking to a stranger (an equal to him)? Because that reveals how he thinks of himself. If he introduces himself as "Al", that paints his general attitude as a casual one and you should use that name. If he defaults to "Alexander of the House Targaryen, First of His Name, the Unburnt, King of the Andals and the First Men, Khal of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Father of Dragons", then you paint his general attitude as prideful/self-important and thus should use "Alexander". – Flater Mar 6 at 12:28
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I have a character named Alexander and the name form he thinks of himself as at any one time reflects his mood and the relationship of those around him. To his sister, he is Alex or Xander, rarely Xan - though when angry she calls him Alexander Nicolaus.

When he is with her, he thinks of himself as Alexander or Alex and is called such by me. When he is with a lifelong friend, he sometimes becomes Xan.

When he is thinking professionally and becomes more formal, he refers to himself by his surname.

Use of the various forms will inform the reader both of the depth of the relationship and his attitude at the moment. I trust them not to be bewildered and think he is really five people.

I have situations where he starts out with his surname but starts to relax and thinks of himself as Alexander. A little later he considers himself Alex and is getting rather mellow.

A friend told me I had to change his name because there is already a famous character named Alex. I told this friend it is a relatively common name and mine won’t be mistaken for him, though if he could think of a name that suited him as well and has the flexibility of Alexander - go for it.

My omniscient narrator changes the form of his name to suit the situation. It works.

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    This can be used to great effect to have the narrator define the context and have the context partially define the character. – bruglesco Mar 6 at 0:01
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    Good answer - but do make sure it's obvious to the reader! Especially if the name variants don't look obviously alike, like "Alex" and "Sasha". I got half way through Dr Zhivago before realising that two major characters, who moved in the same circles but somehow never crossed paths, were actually different nicknames of the same person (well-known nickname to a Russian, not so to a non-Russian)... I'd been thinking how interesting it was that these two seemed to have similar agendas, similar personalities, same peer group... what would happen when they finally met...? – user568458 Mar 6 at 13:11
  • @usee568458 That is one reason I only use parts of the actual name rather than familiar forms that, whilst obvious to someone of Slavic descent, could be mistaken by others. That, and my character is of German descent and would initially ignore someone who might call him Sasha – Rasdashan Mar 6 at 17:41
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I would think Alexander would think of himself with the name he first learned and responded to as a child; likely this was what his mother called him on a daily basis, I would guess that is where the "Sasha" comes from.

However, were I writing, the narrator would use "Alex", for brevity in reading and being slightly less intimate than "Sasha". I feel that distance is important: I don't feel like a narrator should present like his friend, to me ruling out "Sasha" and "Xander", but then again the narrator will be talking about him a great deal, and would likely resort to a shortened version of his full first name; hence "Alex" instead of "Alexander" (or something even longer and more formal).

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Who is the narrator? It is not important that the readers know, but it is important that you, the writer, knows.

If Alexander is also the narrator he really should use "I". Others have suggested that he use the third person and a name that reflect the context, but I disagree with that. If I read a book like that I would seriously start questioning "Who is narrating this anyway?" It would disrupt the flow. For me, at least. Others may have other experiences.

This is in part because I read English and Norwegian and neither language has a tradition for speaking of yourself like that. Other languages have other traditions.

Now, if you have another character in mind as narrator, you need to find out what their relationship is. They would probably be consistent about it.

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    'Omniscient narrator' is not a character within the story, but someone telling it from outside. Who's the narrator of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves? It isn't Snow White - she couldn't have known about the mirror, or the poisoned apple, or everything that happened while she was "dead", right? – Galastel Mar 6 at 11:51
  • @Stig Hemmer - You would be absolutely correct if it were first person narration. The original post specified omniscient which is a third person. The narrator is not in the story being told, but knows everything about the story and the people - including how they think of themselves. Whenever my Alex is referring to himself in dialogue, he uses I or me, but when I refer to him it depends on both his state of mind and how he is viewed by others. As the narrator, I restrict myself to using his surname, Alexander and Alex. The other variants occur only in dialogue spoken by others to him. – Rasdashan Mar 6 at 16:36
  • A narrator not being a subject in the story does not exempt them from being a character - I agree that as a writer it is important to define who/what your narrator is, how they think, and from where their knowledge and relationship with the subject matter comes from, as this impacts the tone and phrasing they use. If you don't define who/what your narrator is, then how can you really make an informed decision on how the narrator should refer to things? – TheLuckless Mar 6 at 17:24
  • @TheLuckless - Third person omniscient narrator is different. Can you give an example of a third person omniscient narrator who is also a character in the story? – Rasdashan Mar 6 at 17:49
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    @Rasdashan ALL omniscient narrators are a character... A generic unnamed "god" telling a story about a person in the universe: Even if the writer never names this god-narrator, that narrator will still have traits and still function as a character in the overall narrative. The way the narrator 'thinks' about the world and other characters defines how they narrate and what their voice is, what points they highlight, what things they might gloss over, how favourable/negative of a light they cast things in, etc. Trying to treat them as NOT a character is to hamstring yourself for no reason. – TheLuckless Mar 6 at 18:19
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(You picked a great example name; and it makes me wonder if all writers know an Alexander who likes to be called Sasha)

I have a friend named Alexander, who I call Sasha and his answer has always been "it depends on who I'm talking to." If I were to write a book about him and I were me, the narrator; I'd call him Sasha because that's who he is to me. If most people in the book are going to call him Alex, I'm going to let them call him Alex. I'm going to use both names, it might be worth having Alex say at to someone new he is meeting, "Oh, they call me Alex, but my friends and family call me Sasha," which is how he explained it to me after I knew him by the name Sasha for about a year and he finally introduce me to someone who knew him as Alex.

This can be confusing for readers if they aren't familiar with such names, so it's important to stick to one for a bit (unless you need to vary early) and then explain it quickly or make it clear that Sasha is a nickname and this is just accepted. Prose can get away from you and be confusing anyways, so try something heavy and go lighter if your alpha/beta readers complain.

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I honestly think that having the name 'Alex' be the way the omniscient narrator refers to him would simplify things. I have never read something where a character was referred to by so many different names -even by the narrator- so I can't respond if this would throw me off or not. The name Alex, however, is easily connected to all forms of the name Alexander (with the exception of Sasha, perhaps) and is short enough to be read in a nice flow with the rest of the text so the narrator can get the reader to the action.

The idea of having the narrator use each of the different forms of his name depending on how the character identifies himself at the time is interesting, but I'm not sure what that would do to the flow. It depends on whether or not how he identifies himself is a big part of the plot. If it is a part of the main plot/action then calling attention to it would make sense, and give the reader a payoff in the end. If it isn't then they will have taken the extra time to remind themselves what character the narrator is talking about (it does take a couple extra seconds to orient the thought process when the reference keeps changing) has been wasted.

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