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I'm deep into a biography of a well-known person. He was born with a last name, took his mother's last name following her divorce, took his stepfather's last name following her remarriage, then took a stage name by which he became famous. The only consistent name was his first name, and I've stuck with that throughout the book. But it worries me that it seems too familiar (I never knew him personally). At the same time, it provides, as I say, consistency and avoids confusion between him and his father's and stepfather's last names. I've considered using his first name for his boyhood, then switching to his adoptive last name as he becomes a man, then switching to his stage last name once he takes that on. But I fear that might be confusing. I'm interested in informed thoughts on this particular situation.

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I assume the book will be marketed as a biography of the famous actor and will likely have that name in the title or subtitle, and certainly in the blurb. And that will be the name for which your target audience will pick up the book.

I would therefore use that name as the main or reference name in the book, to which you fall back whenever you want to make sure everyone understands who you are talking about.

I looked at some recent biographies, and most try for a close third person narrative perspective that gives an impression of allowing the reader a glimpse into the mind of the protagonist. The narratives often switch between using the last name when the narration is more distanced, for example in the introductory sentences of each chapter or passage, where we hear the narrator telling us where we are in time and in the history of the person, thus providing orientation, to using the first name when we are getting closer to the portrayed person and his or her emotions, motivations and experiences.

In the biography of Elon Musk, for example, we have something like: Section 1: Elon Musk, Elon, Elon, Elon, Section 2: Musk, Elon, Elon, Elon, etc.

How you deal with a person changing their name, will depend on that person's relation to their name(s):

  1. Switching the name in the narrative along with the name change. I would do this, if the person changed their name in an act of becoming that person. That is, if the name change is an aspect of the identity of the person, as in marriage or adoption.

    Example:

    Mary Brown was born as Mary Greene in 1964. At first, Greene lived in Boston with her parents. Mary went to school etc. In 1987 she married Robert Brown. Robert was nice to Mary. Mary Brown became a mother. Mary loved her children. Brown [that is, Mary Brown] later became a politician. Brown was the first female president of the United States. Mary always remained a loving mother. Brown died in 2014 of a heart attack.

    Here Mary Greene becomes Mary Brown, so the narrative executes the name change with her.

  2. Stick with the name under which the person is known. I would do this, if the phases with different names are looked at from the perspective of the person with the main name, for example if the person never really identified with that name (e.g. a derogatory nickname or the fake name of a fraudster) or the narrative perspective is strongly rooted in the present day and the past is always interpreted in relation to who the person became later.

    Example:

    Nick Knight took on the name of Nicholas de Grenville to relieve rich ladies of their money. "Baron de Grenville", Mrs. Bell addressed him. Nick looked at her and smiled his most slimy smile [close third person]. Knight had always been a natural with women and employed his skill yet again [interpretation by the narrator].

    In this example, Nick Knight isn't really Nicholas de Grenville, so as a narrator I wouldn't use that name (except if I wanted to mislead the readers as to the true identity of de Grenville, for example in a detective novel).

    Example:

    Bono was born Paul David Hewson. As a child, Bono learned to sing and thus laid the foundation for his later career. Bono loved his mother, when he was a teenager. "Paul," she used to say, "I love you." Bono admired her as a younger man, and still does to this day. In an interview in 2023, Bono said that he didn't like school. [I made all that up.]

    Note how in the second narrative all the past events are put in relation to the Bono that we know.

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  • Please don't use code formatting for quotes. (If I were to use my screen reader on it, I would be hearing the punctuation instead of it being read like regular text.)
    – Laurel
    Feb 3 at 13:14
  • @Laurel Done. When may we use code formatting on this site, except for code? I don't feel that marking up something as a quotation that isn't one is semantically correct, either.
    – Ben
    Feb 3 at 13:57
  • For the most part, you shouldn't be using code formatting unless it's for code. There are only a few exceptions, like maybe file names, since even the punctuation is important there. Using blockquotes is the best option for (extended) text that you created to sound like you were quoting from another source, and it's used extensively that way on sites like ELU and ELL.
    – Laurel
    Feb 3 at 14:18

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