Let me first explain what is going in in the beginning of the story: My main character belongs to a tribal culture that requires their children pass a rite of passage to earn their name.

So I'm kind of stuck on how to refer to the character while he is on his trial. (The story would start up right in the thick of battle as he is taking the test, which is done by going out into the jungle and stalking and killing some form of food that would feed the tribe.)

Then a bit later I had planned to have my second character make her appearance, interrupting his trial so he technically never gets his name. However, she gives him one by making her nickname for him his name for the rest of the story.

But up until that point I am not sure how to reference him if I am doing it from his perspective.

  • Welcome to Writers. I've cleaned up your question a bit for capitalization and punctuation, and given it a more concise title; but please revert my edit if I've accidentally changed your intent. Feb 12, 2013 at 19:32
  • Also, have a look at the questions on nameless characters we already have. While none of these quite covers your exact situation, you may find the answers there useful. Feb 12, 2013 at 19:35
  • Thanks for the edit, it was kind of a jumble. I will be sure to read through those; I might have to just use a narrative or something to describe it. Anyway thanks for the help.
    – Lokiie1984
    Feb 12, 2013 at 19:49
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    Is there something about indefinite personal pronouns (he/him) that doesn't work? Feb 12, 2013 at 20:30
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    I do plan to use those quite a bit, i just figured he would need to be called something to start with. I mean i cant open with "He walked through the jungle." Or at least my brain doesn't want to work in that way. But as Lauren Ipsum suggested below i think i can come up with a "filler title" to start it off.
    – Lokiie1984
    Feb 12, 2013 at 20:44

3 Answers 3


You have a few things going on here:

1) If the story is first-person, your problem is solved. We rarely address ourselves by our given names in internal monologues.

2) If your story is in third person, then you have a cultural issue.

The children may not get official Names (Starfall, Willow, Runs With Scissors) until they do something to earn it. But you still have to address someone before that age, since they have to have some level of competence to hunt and kill food. A mother with three kids under the age of trial is not going to introduce them as Hey You, Thing 1, and Pain In My Butt (even if that's how she thinks of them).

So I think you need a culturally embarrassing placeholder address which is clearly not a name, which the nickname will then supplant.

  • It could be a cutesy use-name, which is why a warrior of either gender would reject it (Starlight, Birdsong, Crushed Peony Booger).
  • It could be a mocking name (Screech, Sewage, Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo) because the tribe thinks the gods will steal children who have fine names, so they give them ugly names until they are old enough to defend themselves against the gods.
  • It could be a literal placeholder (Third Daughter of Two Blades).

3) Cultural issues aside, if this is a short story and you really mean five or six paragraphs, using "the warrior" or "the boy on trial" is fine.

  • Sorry i should have mentioned that the plan is for it to be in third person view, and be a novel. Whether it actually gets that far remains to be seen. I like how you put your answer though. I think a place holder name or title would work; his character is the quiet brooding type so maybe something along the lines of "Quiet One" sounds kind of lame but something like that. A personality trait, or maybe a reference to an animal that has a similar demeanor. Thanks for the answer, i think it will help me get it of the ground.
    – Lokiie1984
    Feb 12, 2013 at 20:34
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    I think for now I'm going to experiment with "Number Two." I plan to avoid using it as much as i can, other then a small explanation stating that it was what his parents referred to him as growing up. He was the second born so it makes sense.
    – Lokiie1984
    Feb 12, 2013 at 21:06
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    Your examples of placeholder names are beautiful and I would totally read a novel where everyone had names like those. Feb 13, 2013 at 16:38
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    I managed to make it work using he/him/his and then later on down the line when he meets the other character i had him mention the nickname his mother used to get his attention. Like Lauren said yesterday, i wanted the nickname to be something that wouldn't work as a name. In this case Number Two, that way the other character felt compelled to give him a real name, whether he liked it or not. However, i agree with Jays answer too, thankfully the culture that he is from only plays a roll in the very beginning, and helping to shape his personality of course.
    – Lokiie1984
    Feb 13, 2013 at 21:14
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    Borg designation: 7 of 9 Apr 25, 2018 at 14:34

Depending on what happens in your opening scenes, you may be able to refer to him as "the boy" or "the unnamed person" or some such.

But: How do you suppose that the people in this culture refer to those who don't yet have names? If you're in the person's presence, you could point and say "him", but what if you're not? The fact that you are struggling with this for your narrative may indicate that you have created a society which, to this extent, is unbelievable.

I think this is a common trap for people writing fantasy and science fiction. It's easy to write, "The people in this society all walk on their hands." But really, it's so wildly impractical, how long would such a thing last? Surely sooner or later someone would say, "Hey, it's so much easier to walk on your feet!" and no matter how much the authorities fought it, the advantages would be too obvious. At the least you have to explain away the obvious problems.

Perhaps in this culture unnamed people really do have names, they just don't consider them "real names". The name he's given as a child isn't considered a name, it's just something you call him by until he earns a real name. Depending on what you're trying to do in the story, it might work to say, "He was called Flinghar, but that wasn't his name. He hadn't yet earned a name. He hoped to earn a name in the Trial at the next solstice ..."

Or maybe they're referred to by some description, like "Hamgar's Second Son" or "Boy of the Third New Moon" or some such.

If the society is highly ritualized, I'd think there'd be a formula to such things. You wouldn't just use a random nickname.


What about something both direct and indirect, like "theUnnamed", "nameless" or "namelesstwo"...

That way we (as readers) could figure out who it is, but still keep within the rules of the story's universe.

  • 1
    Welcome to Writing.SE, Roberta! Take a look at our tour and help center pages when you have time. Your answer could be made better if you explained how your particular approach would affect the tone of the story, what advantages you think it has over other approaches, and best of all - if you could provide examples of existing literature where this approach was used. Jul 28, 2019 at 9:00

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