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I'm a Chinese writer. Chinese people always tend to refer people by their full names, so the first name last name thing shouldn't be an issue. But now I'm working on a novel with a character from the US.

Here is the scenario. Let's call the protagonist Joe, and the character from the US Adam Baker. When Joe first met Baker, they didn't have direct contact. Joe just learnt Baker's last name when his employees called him Mr. Baker. Later Baker tried to killed Joe. Until that point, Joe still didn't know Baker's first name. I, the narrator refered to him as Baker. During the struggle, they found out that it was nothing but a misunderstanding, so they made peace. Baker told Joe his first name was Adam.

They started getting closer and eventually became close friends. At some point, Baker told Joe that he should call him Adam. Is there an applicable rule for English writing? Should I continue referring Baker as Baker or should I change it to Adam? Referring a close friend of the protagonist by his last name sounds strange to me, but when I change it from his last name to his first name, it sounds too sudden, and weird.

Are there some techniques to change the name a character is referred to by without making the readers feel strange?

(I'm only talking about the way the narrator refers Baker, not the way other characters address Baker)

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  • I've a few classic examples that do this for an extended time through the story: Red Badge of Courage and Lord of the Flies. In Lotf, the original reference names are foreshadowing in some instances. It adds to the storytelling.
    – 54981
    Sep 11 at 13:37
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    One of the more famous examples of this in English literature is in The Fellowship of the Ring, after Strider introduces himself as Aragorn. Tolkien avoids this being too disorienting by doing the switch quickly, before we’ve gotten too used to him as Strider.
    – Davislor
    Sep 11 at 20:26
  • Also seen in the Belgariad by David Eddings. "Old Wolf" and "Aunt Pol" were used through the first book (at least?) and change to their proper names indicate significant moments for Garion. Interestingly enough, Old Wolf changes first. He hangs on to Aunt Pol for longer.
    – stanri
    Sep 12 at 17:21

8 Answers 8

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You should refer to the character as the point-of-view character would think of him.

Some people would think of "the waitress" even as she introduces herself as Amy, and some people would think of her as "Amy."

If your character calls him "Adam" but thinks of him as "Baker", the text should agree. You can even put in scenes where the name flips as he mentally corrects himself, whether it's because he thinks "Adam" when he wants to keep the distance or "Baker" when he wants to get into the habit of the new name.

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  • 7
    Good answer. I can think of at least one story, and I’m sure there are others, where a change in the name used in narration is a subtle marker of a change the POV character’s thoughts or feelings towards the named character. Sep 11 at 5:50
  • 1
    Correct me if I'm wrong. Based on my understanding of your answer, when Baker interacts with Joe, I should wrote something like, ' Adam smiled' 'Adam said' . And when Baker interacts with his own boss, I should write something like' Baker nodded his head','Baker looked at something'. Did I get it right? Sep 11 at 5:57
  • 6
    @fatraccoon: This answer seems to assume that you're writing in a first person or "limited third person" point of view, with a single viewpoint character who either is the narrator or whose thoughts and experiences the narrator describes, and that this viewpoint character is your protagonist, i.e. Joe. In that case, you would never* write a scene where "Baker interacts with his own boss" unless Joe was also there to observe it, in which case you'd describe it from Joe's perspective and use the names Joe would use. Sep 11 at 10:09
  • 3
    Sure. Most people think of different people differently
    – Mary
    Sep 11 at 17:41
  • 2
    @LastStar007 Exactly. So he would fight against the other name.
    – Mary
    Sep 11 at 23:52
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For narration in the 3rd person, the narrator should strive to always refer to a specific character by a single identity to minimize confusing the reader.

Obviously, that is not always possible. A character might start off as a waiter and be referred to by the narrator as the waiter, but later become Fitzgerald or whatever. The author should make it clear that the character who was called the waiter is the same as Fitzgerald, then should refer to that same character as Fitzgerald.

The character's dialogue is not bound by the same guideline. One character might know Fitzgerald as Father and another character can know him as Son, while others might know him as MoFo or Henry. In dialogue, using different names for the same character can make it easier to identify the speaker. Reducing the need for attribution tags, letting the author focus on action beats and gestures.

For characters with intense relationships, in dialogue, they might often use many names for each other -- honey, baby, jag-off, dirtbag. Then, the author needs to make sure that who is speaking to whom is very clear.

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  • 1
    I am amazed that yours is the only answer addressing the critical difference between 1st and 3rd person references. +1! Sep 12 at 8:50
7

I always change the name, once it is known.

**The waiter approached the table.

"Hi, I'm Bill, I will be serving you today. What are you drinking?"

Mark said, "Diet Coke."

Mary said, "Same."

Bill said, "Two diet cokes! Back in no time."

He put two menus on the table, and left.

It is best if, when the name changes, you (the narrator) find an excuse to use the new label, as a narrator, to establish the new pattern.

In your particular case, this is particularly important, because from Joe's perspective, this guy is no longer "Baker" the guy trying to kill him, but "Adam", with a completely different attitude, perhaps even an ally.

Baker said, "You can just call me Adam, dude."

Joe nodded, and held out his hand. "Done. Nice to meet you ADAM."

Adam grinned, and shook his hand, mimicking him. "Nice to meet you JOE. Sorry for that whole, trying to kill you thing."

Joe said, "Hey! We can all make incredibly stupid mistakes. Even I, might. Someday."

Adam nodded sagely. "I deserve that."

5

You might want to use a name change as a tool. For instance, if Joe incorrectly thinks Baker is an adversary, and the reader is taken down that path along with Joe, changing name habits at the transition point has the effect of opening the reader to accepting a different character than the one they've believed in so far.

"Baker" may bring the baggage of the previous misleading character development enough to make the reader suspicious of the new role, but "Adam" never did anything to us. Even though the reader knows the two are the same, it hits slightly differently seeing a new name instead of the familiar one.

Similarly, if you want to preserve the mistrust of the reader toward the character, sticking to the same name can be a device to keep them on guard--reminding them that this new friend has been an enemy as well.

4

From a reader's perspective (based on my own experience) it is horribly confusing to deal with multiple names, especially when there are many characters to track. For example, consider the following hypothetical passage:

Mr. Jones walked over to the device with Sam. After tapping on the console, Smith activated the bomb and the room was filled with a deafening silence for five minutes. An hour later, the police could find no biological remains of the professor or the captain, but only bits and pieces of metal and wood.

Now, how many characters are in the scene above? Is Smith the same as Sam (i.e. Sam Smith) or are they two different people? Are there three people, Mr. Jones, Sam, and a Mr. or Ms. Smith? Now, who are the professor and the captain? Are they designations for the other people mentioned in the scene or are they two additional characters, bringing the total number of characters to five (Mr. Jones, Sam, Smith, the professor, and the captain)?

So, be consistent. If you have an overwhelming need to rename a character, make it very explicit and only do so rarely. This will telegraph to your reader that the name change is an important plot point.

For an example of an important plot point, in Star Wars, we initially hear about

Luke Skywalker's father and Darth Vader

before eventually finding out that they are the same person.

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  • 1
    Star Wars is a classic example because before the audience realizes Luke's father and Darth Vader are not the same person, everyone who knew them personally referred to him as two separate people, to such a degree that Vader himself, Sideous/Palpatine, and Obi-Wan all speak of Anakin as a separate person despite knowing who Vader was, signifying that Vader truly though of his birth identity as a dead person. The first time someone confronts Vader's identity as Anakin in the original trilogy, is Luke. And Vader in no uncertain terms tells Luke that is not who he is anymore.
    – hszmv
    Sep 12 at 19:41
3

I agree with another answer that if your novel is written in limited 3rd-person as most are, and possibly other types of writing, that the point-of-view character (which is advisably the character who is most invested, stands to lose the most or has highest stakes in the scene) should determine how things and people are named, because it's being told from their perspective. If using an omniscient point of view or otherwise unattached to a character, then do whatever will keep the reader most well informed of the relationship changes as they happen.

Whatever you do, keep the reader in the loop unless you're intentionally trying to confuse them or make them NOT invest in any knowledge or fact.

If you immediately change what name is being consistently used instead of gradually changing over by increasingly frequent use of the new, then make sure to include contextual cues to indicate which person is being named. One way I like to do this is by adding dialog tags, verb-based phrases describing what the speaker or spoken-to person is doing as they talk to one another, which include a short descriptive reminder of something the reader can easily identify the new-name character by. Basically it's just an imagery cue to clarify who it is without having to state their name (which is the problem information - the name is changing).

In short, you can use other more reliable means to uniquely identify the character when the name becomes less reliable.

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I feel you are free to use whatever name you want, you can call the person by his family name all through the book, you can call the person by his first name all through the book, even though other characters do not know it. (You will have to explain that it is the same person, but that is on you, you may even leave it as a surprise to the readers.

One of the writers I like to read will use two or three names for most of the main characters in the books and after introducing them once by the full name, she often uses one or two of the names but different ones, that can even happen in two following sentences.
It is a style choice, not a rule. (The writer I mention is from the USA, so where your characters are from.)

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Generally, when you refer to someone by their last name you would use "Mister (Mr)" for a man, "Miss (Ms.)" for an unmarried woman, and "Misses (Mrs.)" for a married woman, followed by their last name (also known as a "Surname" or a "Family Name". Additionally, using the title "Master" (no abbreviation) is used to address an unmarried man, though this is archaic.). Especially since many last names can also be first names (for example "Adam" is a given name, but if your family is as creepy as their kooky, mysterious, and spooky altogether ooky, then your in the Adams family). So you would refer to Baker as "Mr. Baker" and not "Baker" unless there is a rare exception. You would also never spell out Mister if it is followed by a name (except for very formal addressed letters).

Generally, in English, it is polite to refer to someone by their title followed by the family name unless they give you permission to use their first name. Almost all school children will address their teachers with Mister/Miss/Misses. Though not required, teachers may refer to their pupils in the same fashion, though this is often the hallmark of teachers who believe their students to be equals in terms of respect. At young ages, children will typically address parents of friends or very close friends of their parents as Mr./Ms./Misses (First Name). Co-workers will typically refer to each other by first names as well, unless in situations where proper respect are due.

On rare occasions, there are characters who would prefer you refer to them by their last name even when on a first name basis. In these cases, you would address them without the Mister/Miss/Misses. One such example were the lead characters in X-Files, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Mulder hated his first name, and almost never used it, prefering close friends to call him simply "Mulder". The only people who call him Mr. Mulder are those who are not on a First Name Basis with him. Only his parents and his sister address him as "Fox". Scully, is almost exclusively referred to by her last name without title by Mulder, though he will occasionally call her Dana, though the moments he does are more high drama points than casual. Her family and other friends will call her Dana.

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