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I'm writing a historical fiction. For context, it's about Robert Oppenheimer and how he swapped lives with a modern-day kindergarten teacher.

Here's a little piece of dialogue between him and his bestie Ernest Lawrence:

Lawrence tossed the apple into the sparkling lake. "Come on, Oppie, you know you're not supposed to be here."
Oppenheimer turned to his friend, the annoyed expression back on his face. "I've told you so many times, Ernest, and I'm not going to say it again. I can't go back. The kids need me!"

Since our characters call each other by their first names (and nicknames), does that mean I (the third-person omniscient narrator) can do that too? Or since they're historical figures, do I just refer to them by their last names?

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  • In fiction, why would you even suggest that your narrator did anything but follow the style of the particular period? In straight history, it's fine for the narrator to follow the view of the author's society or culture but just like every other form, historical fiction needs lure the reader into suspending disbelief. That, here, includes 'speaking' in the style of the time. Oct 8, 2023 at 18:47

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First of all, you, the author, are not the narrator. The narrator, even if not a character in the story, is a function of the narrative and provides a specific viewpoint and voice for your narrative.

How your narrator speaks of your characters and how "he" or "she" (or "it") names them will depend on what viewpoint and voice you want to give to that agent.

If you want to give the impression of neutrality and objectivity, the narrator should use the names that your characters would have in a scholarly work or in a newscast. If you want to give your narrator more of a personality and equip them with an individual view of your characters, have them call your characters according to that personality.

If your narrator develops over the course of your narrative or if their relation to or view of the characters changes, the way they name the characters might change as well.

To answer your own question, you will have to decide what kind of narrator you want to tell your story.

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To avoid confusing the reader, the narrator should be consistent in how they refer to any given character. It can be the character's name, nickname, or a handy moniker like the man with the yellow hat.

When the narration is in a specific character's POV, then the name used to identify other characters would be whatever was appropriate to the moment -- a spouse might think of their partner as darling, beloved, Joan, John, or rotten bastard as any given moment. Also, if you've multiple POVs they might think of the same character by different terms -- son, daughter, wife, main squeeze, pain in the neck, daddy, mommy. Each POV has its own way of identifying that one character because they have different relationships to the character.

There are corner cases. Like when a story is told in the present tense. This means the narrator doesn't have full knowledge of what is going to happen. This means that a character could change -- they were Dr. Jekyll for most of the story and now they are Mr. Hyde. The narrator would need to change how they refer to that character otherwise it would be weird. Using Hyde before they change would be confusing as would using Jekyll after they change. Using Jekyll-Hyde throughout the story might work if the story didn't depend on that transformation.

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When I have written a character that (in the story) is pretending to be somebody else, I always used her real name in the book (say, Alice), but she introduced herself by her fake name, and answered to it.

"Hey Brenda, what are you doing for lunch?"

Alice looked up. "Nothing yet. Any ideas?"

In private with somebody that knows her true identity, Alice answers to Alice. When she is supposed to be "Brenda" (impersonating Brenda, or operating under a false persona as a spy), she doesn't forget it.

Since your Oppenheimer is swapped with some teacher (say Gary), I would refer to him as "Robert" or "Oppenheimer" in narration, but "Gary" in dialogue.

Readers can keep track of that, and it is a constant reminder that they are really seeing Oppenheimer and not "Gary". In fact that is why I did it that way, there were multiple chapters in which my "Alice" was pretending to be "Brenda", with a much different personality than Alice, and I did not want readers to slip into thinking they were reading about Brenda as a different person. It's always Alice behind Brenda's smile, the calculating and ruthless spy.

If for some reason Ernest is also body-swapped, then when they are alone it would make sense to refer to each other by their real names. But it would also make sense if Oppenheimer demanded that Ernest always call him "Gary" just in case they were overheard.

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    This matches the narrative convention from the Odyssey, and it's hard to find a stronger precedent than that.
    – fectin
    Oct 6, 2023 at 17:36
  • @fectin +1, I did not know that!
    – Amadeus
    Oct 7, 2023 at 11:35
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Typically, the narrator would use the same names the characters use; in the case of third person limited form, where the narrator is watching from inside one character's mind, the names that the point-of-view character would use.

If you're using a different type of narrator than first person or third person limited, you're free to make a different choice as an author, but you should know why.

And please don't assume that your reader is unable to remember what Niels's and Enrico's surnames are. Especially not in an audience willing to read about nuclear physicists!

Did you fill in "Bohr and Fermi, duh"? And without as much as being told once, even! If you could do that, then surely your reader doesn't need a reminder every paragraph.

It's likely that refering to the guys by the names they use (for themselves or for one another) will be better for the immersion and storytelling. Calling them all strictly by their surnames like a textbook would probably isn't the preferable choice, but it can be a stylistic choice too - the final verdict is yours.

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