I'm writing a story about a spy. The narrator is third person omniscient. However, our spy has multiple names.

Her fellow spies refer to her as "Spy 94" but her real name is "Kafu". And then when she runs away to join a militia, she is codenamed as "Mimi".

So my question is, how is our narrator supposed to refer to her in the different parts of the story? Does the narrator just pick one and stick with it? Or can the narrator interchange her multiple names?


7 Answers 7


I have a book with a character that travels under assumed names.

The narrator always refers to her by her real name. Other characters refer to her by whatever name she gave them, and she always answers to it, naturally.

I always have her introduce herself by her assumed name.

Sarah smiled, and offered her hand. "Hi, I'm Karen. Happy to meet you."

Your character is a spy, I presume she is trained to remember her assumed name and react and respond to it, and just as importantly, to not respond to her actual name, or any other assumed name she has ever used, should somebody use it. That's her job, to maintain her cover, even under duress. Even if she is having sex. Even if she is injured, interrogated, or beaten.

Spies have to be able to assume the identity, personality, and emotional makeup required to infiltrate a group and get their spying job done, convincingly, and never give up that assumed name and personality.

Blowing it may well mean death or a lifetime in prison.


For simplicity, I'd recommend introducing her real name first and have that one be used exclusively by the narrator. Otherwise, it may be hard for the readers to follow.


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 for supporting characters. For instance, 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.

For a POV character, where the identity is always known. I'd try to think how does the character refer to themselves, and I'd have the narrator always -- as much as is possible -- use that name. The narrator can explain that Mimi is Kafu.

Other characters can refer to Kafu by whatever name they associate with her.

If a character's name changes three times in the novel, and the narrator is consistent, then it doesn't seem like it would be a problem. After all, different characters refer to the same character by different names all the time: Dad, Son, Jerk, Beloved could all refer to the same character, by different people.

As long as the narrator is consistent it tends to work out. Consider how many names Gandalf had in the Lord of the Rings. Those other names were used by characters and the narrator was consistent, at least in the Hobbit, and stuck to Gandalf.


A third person omniscient should refer to her always by a single name. Probably her real name, because the omniscient narrator knows it and that it's her real name.

If it were a limited point of view, it might shift according to how the character thinks.


There are four (common) basic viewpoints:

  1. Third person omniscient

    The narrator knows the true identity of the character and therefor always refers to her by her real name.

  2. Third person limited and

  3. First person

    In both of these viewpoints the story is told from the perspective of the character herself. As the character always knows who she is, she will always think of herself by her real name.

  4. Third person non-omniscient, non-limited (i.e. one or more other persons tell a story that they witnessed)

    Only here will the narrator(s) not know who is who and refer to the protagonist by the different names she gives at different times.

    This is the proper narrative mode to use when the reader is not supposed to know the true identity of the protagonist, which will be revealed to the reader later in the story.

There are of course special cases – e.g. a third person limited narration of a character with multiple personality disorder whose different personalities don't know that they are the same person – and these will require their appropriate naming schemes.

There is also a possible alternative narrative mode for the third and first person narrators (nos. 1 to 3 above):

  1. "Pretend" mode

    The narrator – and with the narrator the reader – follow the protagonist into the role she takes on and act as if she was that person. Everyone – the protagonist, the narrator, and the reader – know who the protagonist really is, but for the brief scenes where the protagonist takes on a fake identity, they pretend that she is that person and call her by that name.

    This narrative mode would require a marked transition, e.g. something like the following:

    Nikita looked in the mirror and almost couldn't recognize herself. She had completely turned into Heather. To help her stay in her role, that is how she decided to think of herself: Heather. Heather turned from the mirror and ...

    There are some stories where the protagonist takes on a new identity, and often there is such a transitional scene and a switch in naming:

    Joan decided to leave her old life behind and become someone else. Barbara would be a good name for who she wanted to be from now on. [next chapter] Barbara does this and that ...


This could also come down to stylistic choice by the narrator, and decide based on how her character develops over the course of her assignments. For example, calling her Mimi may give a feeling of her really getting into the role of her alter-ego or even getting lost in it.

On the other hand, if you want give the impression that she always keeps a grasp on her real self, even when she is under deep cover, you may want to always refer to her as Kafu, even when addressed as an alias by other characters.

You could always fall back on using a kind of emphasis or inverted commas when using an alias as a short-hand reminder the reader.


"Hi Mimi", said Mark

"Hi Mark", said Mimi

Spy 94, though, is so obviously not a name it may feel a bit jarring if she's called this by the narrator.


The good news is that your readers will likely keep up just fine, because we all have many names. Off the top of my head I can think of six different names I answer to, contextually; what my wife calls me, my kids, my mom, my friends, colleagues, or the cashier at the grocery. Names are contextual.

I too am writing a character who goes by numerous names, so much so that the character isn't even given a name at all until the second chapter, nor does the reader ever learn his birth name. And it works, because a priori, he only thinks of himself in first person, so even when narrating in his voice, his name doesn't matter. It helps that I'm writing limited third-person unreliable, but even if you're writing omniscient, you can use names as a story-telling device, not just a facet of the story.

For example, if I open a chapter with:

"Dammit Dad, where's the key for the f#$@ing Subaru!"

Think of how much information this conveys. You can assume the speaker is probably old enough to drive, that their home life is probably not rainbows and roses, or perhaps unorthodox, and we have established tension. Not bad for not even using a proper name...

Now let's say Dad's best friend calls him Bart, and his wife calls him Barry. Once you establish their respective context, the names themselves will provide that context to the reader, and not rely on it.

Bart gulped the rest of his beer and slammed the bottle down. "Welp, I'm out."

"Out?" Mark scoffed. "What, don't wanna be late for dinner, Barry?"

"Which one of us is still married, smartass?" He slapped a twenty down, then floated another to Mark. "There's for your dinner. Later."

See? Mark's use of "Barry" here gives reader context: sarcasm.

Aliases are really no different than any other name, they just might take a bit more contextualizing to establish attribution. You may only need a single sentence for "Dad", whereas it might take an entire chapter to establish a different persona. Or maybe not.

"Well look what the cat dragged in."

He glanced up from his phone and did a double take. "Holy sh-- Angela?"

"Hey, Booey."

"Haven't heard that in awhile," he grinned.

But if you're uncertain whether something is working or not, and you can't get beta readers to provide feedback, another thing you might try is to read your story out loud. A partner is handy here, but even just to yourself can often suffice to underscore clunkiness or confusion. Not a single sentence, mind you, but a page or so, to give you a feel for flow and cadence.

If that still doesn't provide the clarity you need, you're not sure if you need to change it or not, then go with your writer's instinct; if it's telling you something is off then yeah it probably is. Try again, or if you're truly stymied, bookmark it and come back to it later. You might stumble on a better way of doing it a few chapters down the road. But don't let it break your writing flow, and don't overthink it.

Sometimes you just gotta trust your reader. Tell them a good story, and they'll work out the minutiae, no matter.

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