In the story I am currently writing, the culture has an obsession with unique names for each individual person. For some poor saps, this means ridiculously long, quintuple-hyphenated names.

Of course, while normal in this world, it can become a bit of a burden on the reader. Though the MC would be used to parsing these names, it would really make simple things such as dialogue tags a slog.

I considered using shortened names or nicknames in the prose, but I feel that in many ways rather kills the point of the story -- especially as the viewpoint character would not even think to use them.

Another option I thought of was limiting attribution of dialogue to descriptors, but that in itself I feel could get confusing, ambiguous and grating. In non-dialogue text I would stick to the full names.

How else could I go about creating a happy medium between plot and prose, here? What are strong alternate solutions I have not thought of?

  • 7
    How does the culture deal with emergencies? "Corolianus Alexander Bartholomeus...! Get away from that dog!" Is it permissible to skip the titles in those cases?
    – Llewellyn
    Dec 28, 2020 at 15:35
  • 2
    Just so long as it's not as long as this guy's name. That would just be wasting paper... Dec 28, 2020 at 19:22
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    @DarrelHoffman It could be much worse
    – gidds
    Dec 29, 2020 at 2:22
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    If you get stuck, is it worth it to use those long names? There is still time to change to something more handy.
    – Willeke
    Dec 29, 2020 at 11:30
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    @gidds It is much worse. Did you click on my link? His full name was more than twice as long as that Monty Python character's. Also he's was a real person, not fictional... Dec 29, 2020 at 13:41

4 Answers 4


Pet Names/Convenient Initials:

The MC can have pet names for everyone, and in third person everyone is called the pet name. But when someone is formally addressed, it's by their full name. So Alejandro Llewelyn Ignacio-Schmitt becomes "Ali" in the MC's head. Or a girl looks feline, so she's "Cat," but when the MC speaks they say "So your royal Ladyship Karenina Hoggenbottom Quintessa Thule esquire, defender of the realm, how are you today?"

This is still a nick-name, which you didn't want, BUT it's also clear he uses the full name in addressing people. This also works for close friends (for whom it would be acceptable to address in a less formal manner) or enemies (who would be insulted by the less formal address). So, in other words, all the major characters in most books.

Alternatively, remember that in third person, you're only approximating the MC's view. So if all the characters have these huge names, you can have them discussed as their initials. So my first example would be ALI or ALIS, while the woman would be KHQT. To facilitate this being easy on your readers, I'd make the initials into short names, and your characters will ironically then all be thought of by three of four letter names in the third person. "ALI" already works, ALIS sounds like "Alois" and "KHQT" sounds/looks a little like "Cat" This also means if they are fancy folks that monograms will have their (short) names on them - convenient!

It would be up to you if you left them all in caps, or went the full distance and only capitalized the first letter. But I think this is your best balance for what you're looking for.

  • 2
    I agree that it seems a bit unrealistic if the main character is even thinking the full name. I expect that would slow everything radically down.
    – Llewellyn
    Dec 28, 2020 at 15:31
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    Just look at the real word example where the natural rule of language is to shorten everything down and ease pronunciation taken to the "abbreviation hell" of US military/government agencies.
    – mishan
    Dec 28, 2020 at 16:01
  • 1
    I've been told (after seeing a friend's "real" name on a document) that Malaysian names work like this, except the everyday-use name isn't even part of the formal name. It's like a 2nd made-up short name. Dec 28, 2020 at 17:30
  • The initials thing would work rather well for me, actually. As long as I drop in the occasional reminder of the full name...
    – Weckar E.
    Dec 28, 2020 at 17:49
  • @WeckarE. Glad to hear this helps.
    – DWKraus
    Dec 28, 2020 at 18:38

While I imagine it might be annoying to the reader, maybe readers will get used to these names and simply skip over them. The best way to check this would be to write some kind of dialogue (or copy an existing one and replace the names) and ask your beta readers. In any case, I'd advise you to make sure that each name has a distinctive beginning and ending, so readers aren't forced to parse the entire name.

And maybe you could adjust your writing style to incorporate this quirk. For example, instead of using lots of dialogue tags, try making the characters' voices distinctive enough that readers can follow who's speaking without dialogue tags.

Depending on your story, it might be possible to plan and describe actions in such a way that you don't need to switch between characters a lot. For example, instead of a lengthy combat scene describing in detail how character A and B are fighting, you could focus on one character and refer to the other one as their "opponent" or reference the other character's actions indirectly (e.g. "another blow hit" or "character A dodges a swing of the sword").


It would be a society where talking is simply allowed to take longer than with shorter names.

Still, people would get used to rattle down the names - much like Finnish rattle down the digits of numbers.
(A very instructive example is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuNs1v_jtfs, which demonstrates all numbers between 1 and 100; the start is very slow so you have a chance to follow the structure, but somewhere beyond 50 it approaches typical native number pronounciation speed. A video where a Finn pronounces e.g. price tags should be even more instructive, because it's so many syllables - and the Finnish don't even think about it.)

Internally, people would likely think in descriptive terms - "my beloved", "that annoyance", "my enemy", "my king".
Less because the name is long, but it's too many concepts (units of meaning) to recall when you're focused on some other aspect of the situation (such as "I need to hold back the assassins attacking my king!").
Maybe there are indeed situational talking modes - if a persons's identity is in focus, such as in greetings, or when it is important to clearly identify a subject of some activity such as in plans, legal documents and orders, you'll typically have the full name (and it may even be considered bad form, tasteless, or just sloppy to use any abbreviation); if the identity is out of focus (assassin storming into the bedroom, counting soldiers or employees), then it's merely a descriptive term.

It might be a status thing, too. Addressing the receptionist as "receptionist" is making clear that you don't care about the identity; it's a pretty quick way of dismissing somebody as unimportant as a person.
Asking for the full name and making a point out of pronouncing it would be pretty honorific to a mere receptionist.
The interesting thing in a society with such an identity obsession is that there would be no real middle ground here, either it's reducing the person to the function or it's full acknowledgement as a person worth talking to.


This answer on a Worldbuilding sub might help: https://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/62648/why-would-a-city-not-use-names/62661#62661

In it, I talk about titles and positions in societies. While this is, in fact, the exact opposite of what you are doing, the answer might be contained within.

Just ask the question: are the relationships BETWEEN PEOPLE and their POSITION in society important?

If so, calling someone Auntie or Magistrate and so on might be your solution. In societies where position matters and name matters, the shorthand is going to be about the position in society or in relation to the speaker.

If a nickname is disrespectful, initials are likely best, though for variety, short positional titles (general or specific to the character) would be helpful to the reader.

Out of curiosity does the main character call their mother mom, or Maria Conchita Lousia Remeriz Gallagher Gomez III? And how did that work when they were, oh, say, 2-5 years old?

Unless these characters aren't even remotely human, this extension of names is going to be unnatural at a young age. If they are not human and develop in a way that is foreign to us, that's a different thing.

But definitely, no reader is going to want a huge name every single time. Or even most of the time.

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