I'm writing a novel, and it's written in close third person perspective, very much sitting on the shoulder of one main character and privy to their thoughts. There is another very important character who goes only by his nickname for most of the novel, but who will mostly likely tell the main character his real name about a third of the way through the story.

My first instinct is to have the narrative switch from " Nickname said, 'why don't we do this?' " to " Realname said, 'why don't we do this?' " after the main character learns his name, but I worry that this will be hard for the reader to get used to after several hundred pages of Nickname and possibly even confusing. Nevertheless, once the main character knows the real name and has started to use it, it seems terribly awkward to keep referring to him by the nickname.

Is there any (relatively) canonical way of handling this / are there some good examples of either method?

Edit: Here is a set of 3 links to short articles on the close third perspective, just for reference on the difference between that and straight up 3rd person.

  • Maybe take a look at Eoin Colfer's "Artemis Fowl" series. Although written for children, when Artemis's bodyguard, nicknamed "Butler," reveals his real name, "Donovan," all the characters, apart from those who always knew his real name, still refer to him as "Butler". Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 8:11

5 Answers 5


David Eddings does this in the Belgariad pentology.

Main character Garion is introduced to a man whom his Aunt Pol calls "Old Wolf," and Garion decides to call him "Mister Wolf." Mister Wolf later announces to other characters, "This is what Garion is calling me, and I happen to like it, so that's what you'll be calling me for now." All the attributives and narrative references to the man are "Mister Wolf." Garion later learns that the man is named Belgarath, and all attributives immediately switch over from there out. (This was so subtle I didn't notice it until my second or third read of the series.)

Similarly, Garion's aunt is "Aunt Pol" whenever he is the story's focus, but when the narrative turns to her when he's elsewhere, the attributives use her full name, "Polgara." This goes on until the end of the series, when Garion formally refers to her as "Lady Polgara" for the first time. After that, in the Malloreon (the sequel pentology), she is always "Polgara" no matter who is the narrative focus, because Garion has changed the way he thinks of her.

Interestingly, although at one point in the first series Garion does something to earn himself the honorific of "Bel-" and many characters refer to him as "Belgarion," the character himself always thinks of himself as "Garion."

There are also several characters who are spies, who tend to go by their nicknames: Kheldar is Silk, Liselle is Velvet. Khendon is Javelin. It's made clear early on what the characters' real names are, and they are used, but attributives are usually the nickname.

For your story, I would say it depends on how your main character thinks of this other person. If he thinks of the guy as "Bob" and later learns his real name is "Frank," it's fine to keep referring to him as Bob. But if he goes by "Nails," and Nails reveals his name is actually "Nicky" in a moment of bonding and friendship, then your character is going to think of him as Nicky.


Keep it plausible. The way your characters act in your universe must be authentic. Otherwise you jerk your readers out of the story.

What is authentic depends on your setting. Two examples:

When Little John is just a fellow, helping the main character, because he is a good fighter, then it could go like that:

"Hey, Little ..." Darn. He still forgot to use his real name. He was too used to the old one. "Hey, Leon, please lend me a hand here."

People mess things up, so just changing in addressing him from Little John to Leon from one page to the other does not feel realistic. It takes time. So when the main character has learned to use the new name, the reader will have also.

For the second example, let us assume, that revealing the name also introduce a new relationship between the characters. If he changes from good fellow Little John to King Leon, we have a whole new situation.

When the main character has to kneel down, has to call him "My King" or "Your Grace", then it is unlikely that he mess this up ("Oh sorry, I've forgot you are my king. My bad."). Also the readers will follow the new name/title easily in this case.

  • 3
    +1 good distinction, and good point about having characters mess up the name switch in-story.
    – RSid
    Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 19:16

The issue here is that you want to avoid an identity disconnect between the reader and this character. If the reader is connecting to this character only through their name, then this is not only a problem of identification but also one of a lack of style and characterization. You have a couple of ways to avoid this:

Characterization: If this character is a strong character, and if their thoughts, speech, and actions all ring true to the character, then the reader will be able to identify the character past the name change.

Confusion by proxy: Another tool you can use is that, if the name change is done "publicly" (i.e., the other characters are experiencing it as well), then other characters may be slightly confused as well. You can play this up a little bit, and cast those characters' confusion as stand-ins for the reader's confusion. Of course, this may be tricky since people in the real world can see each other and hear each others' voices. But look for opportunities to portray illustrative confusion. (This is analogous to having a "newbie proxy" character who doesn't know what's going on, and exists to be someone to whom other characters can explain the situation.)

Transparency: Explain why this is happening, and make sure it's clear why the character is changing their name. If the name change is believable, and if the reader buys into it, they'll make the effort to follow along.

Third-person narrator issues: Of course, you have one more problem to overcome: In third-person, the narrator is usually a general, vague entity telling the story. He stood up, she walked across the room, they both thought about the color yellow for different reasons. If that narrator changes their story (i.e., mentions this character by the old name, then the new name), then this narrator will have been lying to the reader. Make sure there's a good reason for this!

In summary, make sure the reasons for the name change are solid and believable; as in any story, make sure your characters are well-drawn; and do your best to anticipate and head off issues the reader will have.

  • 3
    I almost upvoted your answer, but your "Third-person narrator issues" paragraph messed it. Third-person does not need at all to be all-knowing and the OP states that it is not in his case (close third-person). So I doubt, that he needs a good reason, or that this paragraph addresses the problem at all. Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 9:47
  • There's still a potential issue here that the narrator has been lying to the reader. Will edit my answer. Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 13:57
  • The idea isn't that the narrator has been lying--it's that the 3rd person narration is really only privy to things the main character knows. And he didn't know the real name until he was told. Generally a very good answer otherwise.
    – RSid
    Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 14:31
  • @RSid - That's an important distinction; making it clear to the reader should help alleviate problems with this. Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 15:09
  • @NeilFein It would be pretty clear to the reader in-story, but I made my question clearer by editing it to include references on close 3rd. Thanks!
    – RSid
    Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 19:15

No concrete examples are coming to mind at the moment, but just thinking about it leads me to believe it's best to stick with the character's nickname. But this assertion is circumstantial: you say the main character has started to use this fellow's real name; I ask you why?

If someone is going by Nicky the whole time and then dramatically reveals their true name to be Nikolaevich, why does this make it necessary for the other characters to change what they call him? Is your character specifically indicating that he wishes to be referred to by his full name? If not, continue to use the nickname, both in narration and dialogue.

Ah! I thought of a simple example. In Harry Potter, Voldemort's true name is in time revealed to be Tom Riddle. Dumbledore always calls him by this name (Tom), but he is still called Voldemort by the narrator and by other characters talking about him. Few other characters ever address him by name. It's rarely necessary to do so--how often do your dialogues need to start out with a name? "Sarah, I wish it were louder." "Mick, I'm afraid so." I actually think it should only occur in a small percentage of your dialogues. And other characters referring to this fellow when he's not around would still use the name they know best--his nickname.

As a rule, I find it's bad to change what a third person narrator calls a character, anywhere, ever. It's discombobulating and strange, because that narrator is assumed to have certain transcendental and genuine knowledge of a concrete and absolute nature. I can't think of a single instance of it ever happening, in anything I've read, unless someone had been using a flat-out fake identity.


In fiction (which takes place in a universe much neater than our own), a change of name almost always indicates a change of status. Thus when Strider becomes Aragorn his status changes from vagabond to king. How a character responds to the change of name, therefore, is a signal of how they respond to the change of status. Failure to change would indicate either a refusal to acknowledge the change of status or a claim to an intimacy that supersedes those of status, like members of the royal family calling the queen Lillibet or Grandma, or a claim to superior status that does not require you to acknowledge the new status.

So how your characters handle the new name indicates whether or not, and in what way, they acknowledge and accept the character's new status.

  • "change of name almost always indicates a change of status" very true. It is always done for a reason, and the treatment of the name change should depend on that reason.
    – Lew
    Commented Dec 13, 2016 at 18:27

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