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I have a character with two names. Well not two distinct names, but rather two forms of the same name. My story is set in the later Roman Empire, but the characters are Romanized easterners living on the desert frontier. They have both native Aramaic names and Latinized names.

For example, the main character's husband is the Roman governor of Syria. He speaks Aramaic in private and lives in a mostly-Aramaic speaking area where he is called "Odainat" by most including his wife, but on official Roman business he uses the name "Odaenathus." I have other Roman POVs that also call him this.

The way I planned it, the two forms of the name would appear with equal frequency. I wanted to use both to be historically accurate, but I'm wondering whether or not this will be annoying or confusing to the reader. Any advice?

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    When I read Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith many years ago, I struggled with the use of different names for characters, depending on who was talking to them. However, I figured it out. It may be helpful to include an expository passage earlier to make it clear that one person can have two names. – Dancrumb Dec 17 '20 at 18:28
  • I Have Many Names. – Mark Dec 18 '20 at 21:48

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I know you said this is based on an ancient Roman custom, but the way you describe it - a longer name used in formal settings and a shorter version used among friends and family - makes it sound like "Odaenathus" is his real name and "Odainat" is a nickname. This, to me, feels similar to how a character in a modern novel might be called "Matthew" by some characters and "Matt" by others.

I expect most readers would interpret it in the same way, and therefore this wouldn't be confusing at all to them.

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  • Hey, thanks for your reply. I wouldn't say "Odainat" is his nickname, more like his native name that he uses in certain contexts. It's hard to compare it to modern names because they worked a bit differently than in ancient times, but I still would hope it wouldn't be too confusing to my reader. – Lgndry Dec 17 '20 at 15:41
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Given that most characters in the Lord of the Rings books have at least two names, and that it is successful, I would see no problem.

Keep the use of each name local to the appropriate scene.
And, drop in the occasional reminder to the reader that the character has two names.

Indeed, in your case where the names are simply cultural variants, it should be easier than my example.

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    “Many are my names in many countries: Mithrandir among the Elves, Tharkûn to the Dwarves; Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incánus, in the North Gandalf; to the East I go not.” – TRiG Dec 17 '20 at 11:30
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    @TriG, Yeah, but that was kind of a one-off. He's referred to pretty much exclusively as "Gandalf" throughout the entire series and only occasionally do they drop a "Mithrandir", and always with an explanation nearby so you know who they're talking about. "Strider"/"Aragorn" might've been a better example, because he does spend a large part of the story just going by "Strider". – Darrel Hoffman Dec 18 '20 at 18:36
  • You're right. He's Strider at the beginning; Aragorn in the middle and end; and King Elessar in the appendices. Gandalf is almost always simply Gandalf; occasionally Mithrandir but always with clear context clues. – TRiG Dec 18 '20 at 19:19
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I think it’s fine. It doesn’t sound like your character has two names, more like two titles. And that’s normal for everyone if you take the time to think about it. For example, say you run a company and have a family. You would be called “Boss” by your employees, “Mr./Mrs. _______” by your partners and colleagues, “first name” by your husband or wife and friends, and “dad/mom” By your kids. It’s never confusing who they mean, it just depends on who is saying his name.

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This works more than fine. Russian novels frequently refer to characters by various different names -- for example, in "Crime and Punishment", one of the central character's full name is Avdotya Romanovna Raskolnikov. Depending on the context, and who is speaking to her, she is alternatingly called Avdotya, Dunya, Dunechka, Avdotya Romanovna, or by her full name.

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    To be fair, though, I have heard complaints about the difficulty of following who is who in Crime and Punishment for non-Russians. It's not immediately clear that Dunya is a diminutive form of Avdotya, in much the same way that a non-native English speaker might be surprised that Peggy and Margaret are the same person. – Spitemaster Dec 17 '20 at 20:02
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    @Spitemaster Or indeed that Rita and Peggy are the same person! But there is literary precedence even for very tricky switches like this, and the proposed double name suggested in the question is certainly easier than these. – Carl-Fredrik Nyberg Brodda Dec 17 '20 at 22:01
  • Absolutely! But OP was asking about clarity, and while it's certainly legitimate to have tricky nicknames, it's anything but clear. Citing Crime and Punishment (which is unclear, at least in English) doesn't say anything about whether or not OP's suggested names are clear. – Spitemaster Dec 17 '20 at 22:04
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    Another example to include might be Paul Atreides, Muad'Dib, and Usul from Dune. Three completely different names for the same character at different points in the story. – Criggie Dec 18 '20 at 4:27
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    @Criggie In Dune we actually witness the scene were Paul is given the name Usul on his acceptance in the Fremen tribe. Much later in the story it gradually becomes clear the mysterious Fremen leader Muad'Dib is actually Paul/Usul. As such it is no surprise at all to the reader (and there is no confusion). – Tonny Dec 18 '20 at 12:28
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In my opinion, the best way to cement two names together in a reader's mind is to have the narrative describe him one way while a character describes him another way.

"Is that you, Odainat?"

"Yes," Odaenathus said.

Obviously, make it less forced than that, but the important thing is to tie the names together in the same passage.

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he is called "Odainat" by most including his wife, but on official Roman business he uses the name "Odaenathus."

Mention it the first time that Roman officials converse with him. "Hail, Odaenathus! How fare thee? some polite small talk The locals call you Odainat, I hear. Is that true?"

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  • For me, your example sentence falls a bit afoul of the "show, don't tell" maxim. Having it explicitly mentioned near the first time the other name is used is a good idea, but you have to be careful to make the explanation natural. If the reader gets the sense you've added the mention specifically (only) to call out the point, you've gone to far. It should flow naturally from the in-universe situation without feeling contrived. – R.M. Dec 18 '20 at 15:37
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    @R.M. this is IMO "showing" because it's natural conversation. – RonJohn Dec 18 '20 at 16:28
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It's alright as long as you use it sparingly i.e., reserving such luxury for the main characters in the story, or the main characters in an arc. Anything more will likely irk some section of readers. That said, the only exception to this rule is the titles. Your main characters can have many titles which may change per arc. But since we're talking about the literal names themselves, make sure to give a bit more 'added' weight and meaning to those names so that the readers will know and connect with the characters better and thus also remember them better.

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It sounds like you're planning to choose which name to use based on the POV character. That should work fine, as long as:

  1. it's clear that you're referring to the same person each time, and

  2. you don't switch POV too often. (It's not a good idea to change POV within a single scene.)

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I would suggest using the names when appropriate and, if the character is POV, introduce him to the readers using the name he would prefer the readers to call him. To give a modern example, if I was writing about a character with the name "James Tiberius Kirk", he would use different names with different people. James Tiberius Kirk is his legal name and would be used in a formal or legal context (Say an academy admissions form or a disciplianry hearing), where as using pet names of Jimmy might be family and close friends, Jim might be more friends or very close working collegues, J.T. might be among his primary (elementary, middle, and high school) friends, to whom he felt James/Jimmy/Jim was too common or silly and the first and second name initials are way to cool (especially if the name is an unfortunate name pun after a pop culture icon... Looking at you, Degrassi). And to those to whom his job makes him a superior to, he might use his last name only with an appropriate title (Mr. Kirk, if he was teaching a classroom of students... Captain Kirk if he was a commanding officer on an Enterprising vessle of exploration).

The reader however, should be introduced to the character in a way the character calls himself (James Kirk) unless their is a significance to a dual identity nature that we should establish. This exception usually comes up in cases where there is an alter ego (Batman/Bruce Wayne) or more (Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman). The two selected individuals are highlighted because among superhero fans, they often stand in contrast to one another in how they are precieved. To the later, the character is Clark Kent, while his birthname is Kal-El, and his created public persona is Superman. To the former, many fans will argue that "Batman" is the character, while Bruce Wayne is both a birth name and a created public persona (often writers will go out of the way to show that Bruce Wayne, when talking to himself, calls himself "Batman" rather than Bruce. Contrasted, Superman will call himself "Clark" when talking to himself.).

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I know several people from China living in English speaking areas and having two completely different given names. No relation between those names and often people know them by one or the other name. And sometimes they also use different family names, like a widow might use her (former) married name with some people and her maiden name with others, and those can both be combined with either first name.

Sometimes when at a meeting one of the ladies is expecting a relative or old time friend and she warns us under which name or combination of names they will ask for her.

Your proposed combination of names seems tame when you know that.
You seem to have a local language version and a Latinized version of that same name. You may want to explain it once, but that is all you need. It might even be clear without any explanation.
Unlike my friends.

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