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My writing project involves flashbacks and explanations that may already be hard to follow to the reader. But the most important point in it, is that in the end, no one remembers what ever happened. The narrator participates a little in the plot, but has no particular role in the turns of events.

I want to leave an ambiguous ending, because the narrator doesn't remember it. While they write, I wish they would forget to precise the character's names, and there are four important characters, two with a minor role and a 'god'. I'm not sure how to refer to them; maybe with their role in the story, because even if the narrator used to be close to them, they forget all about them. I've thought about physical features, too, but that would be too repetitive.

Does someone have an idea on how to refer to them?

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  • Reading this question I know that reaching the end and not remembering the dramatic events you just read is a powerful device, normally used in time loop stories such as Arrival, Source Code, and The Time Traveler's Wife. Being deeply invested in a character only to be forgotten is painful and often used to pull us in. Stick to the general rule: end with the beginning. If you introduced "a peculiar young man with uncontrollable hair," end on that same note & close the story circle. Good stories generally return to the beginning. The ambiguous ending denies closure then re-invests us.
    – Vogon Poet
    Sep 1, 2023 at 15:23

2 Answers 2

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In The Screwfly Solution, the story is told through diary entries, letters, newspaper stories and so on. Some of them are written by people who are mentally ill, and in at least one the entry-writer refers to "someone" when we know exactly who it is, and know that the entry-writer should too, but has suppressed it as a grief mechanism. You can do the same thing with your narrator, having them say "someone has [done a thing, left, died, been hurt]." You can even have them argue with themselves: who was it, I should know her name, come on brain, think, remember, the littlest one? who was that? and so on.

It's up to you just how ambiguous the ending is. Do you want the reader to be able to figure out what happened to everyone, and who did what in what order? Or is it enough for the reader to feel some of the confusion and forgetting that you have shown everyone else, even the narrator, feeling? If you want clarity for the reader, then you may have to go back to earlier spots in your story and add "markers", like maybe telling us that someone is very tall, the tallest person any of the other characters have ever met, so that you can use it at the end. "I don't know who that was. I've never met anyone so tall. He seemed familiar, but he didn't speak to me and just walked away." Or whatever. It's your call whether you want us, who are not losing our memories, to end up knowing more than the narrator who brought us this far.

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Don't worry about repetitiveness, worry about comprehensibility for the reader. You don't want to be so creative with the labels for your characters that the audience isn't sure how many characters are present and which labels belong to the same person.

Characters names are "invisible" words that can be repeated often, and the same goes for character labels that are not names as such (like "the king", "the teacher", "Granny"...) but for all intents and purposes function as names.

The way I see it, when your narrator forgets someone's name, the best thing you can do is to invent a character label - based on something the narrator still knows about the character and that's also clear to your reader so as not to cause confusion - that will be used as a name from that point on. And then stick to that label. Don't switch between a bunch.

Physical features are honestly not obvious to the reader, so I'd suggest to try and choose something about the character that was important for the story (their job? relationship to the narrator? a significant feat they accomplished?), rather than looks.

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  • In response to your admonition against “[being] so creative with the labels for your characters that the audience isn't sure how many characters are present and which labels belong to the same person,” I note that there is one novel (which was later made into a Hollywood blockbuster) that features exactly such confusion, and to very good literary effect. (I refrain from identifying it so as to avoid spoilers, but I’ll be happy to share those details in chat.) Aug 30, 2023 at 23:00
  • @PaulTanenbaum Will I be right in my guess that in the novel in question, the author is obscuring the characters' identity deliberately? Sure, you can use anything as a tool if you know what you're doing. What I had in mind was something akin to the practice of many beginner authors who are so afraid of repeating characters' names that they flood you with "the young wizard", "the bushy-haired boy", "the bespectacled youth", "the Gryffindor hero" and "the talented Seeker" in the most non-sequitur moments just to avoid saying "Harry". It's bad writing, purple at best, incomprehensible at worst.
    – Divizna
    Aug 30, 2023 at 23:20
  • Ahhh, okay. Then I’d suggest you consider tweaking your answer. I think it would be helpful to explicitly mention that concerns about repeating characters’ names are often unfounded. Aug 31, 2023 at 1:15
  • @PaulTanenbaum Yes, it would... that's why I spent the whole second paragraph on it.
    – Divizna
    Aug 31, 2023 at 1:43
  • Sorry, where in the second paragraph do you “explicitly mention that concerns about repeating characters’ names are often unfounded”? All I see is your saying that it’s okay to repeat them. That’s why I explicitly said explicitly. Aug 31, 2023 at 1:59

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