Friday, June 15, 2012

Characters: First Name or Last?

by L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers

This is why my novel is taking so long. 

This question comes up dozens of times while I’m writing a novel. Almost every character is given two names (and sometimes a nickname), but what you do you call them most consistently? First name or last? Does their gender and/or role in the story dictate which treatment they get?

I was reading a John Sandford novel recently and I noticed patterns that made me wonder how authors make these choices. There’s a paragraph in which the mother and father of a murder victim are mentioned. Sandford refers to all three by last name, Austin. It’s quite confusing.

In later paragraphs—with the mother, who has the most prominent role of the three—Sandford rotates, sometimes calling her Allyssa and sometimes Austin. This was also confusing, because I’d only met her a few pages back.

Are all novels this messy with names and am I just now noticing because I have to think about these choices when I write stories?

For me, to avoid confusion in family situations, I call everyone by first name and have the detectives refer to them in dialogue by first name or both. Even reporters do this in news stories for clarity.

My main character is Wade Jackson, but everyone calls him Jackson, including me, the narrator. And Jackson, a homicide detective, calls almost everyone he encounters—coworkers, suspects, and witnesses—by their last names. Because this is realistic on the job. Only his daughter and girlfriend get first-name treatment. Young female victims in his cases get first-name treatment too.

The big question for me now is a new character I’m introducing in the Jackson story I’m writing. Everyone else thinks of her as Agent Rivers, so to be consistent, she should be Rivers during her POV. But this character is going to come back in another series and leave the FBI. At which point, I want to call her by her first name. So I’m tempted to start out that way too, so I don't confuse my readers by calling her Rivers in this book, and say, Carla, in the next. But will anyone even notice?

I’m sure styles vary from genre to genre. But in crime fiction—with cops, FBI agents, and private investigators as main characters—I think most coworkers, suspects and witnesses get the last name treatment, while family and friends get first names. I wonder how much it depends on the gender of the writer.

Writers: Do you have guidelines for these decisions? Or do you just wing it? Do you rotate, calling your character Jim, Jimmy, and James? And sometimes by his last name, Shoehorn, just to keep readers on their toes?

Readers: Do you have a preference? Do you like first names or last names better? Does it bother you when writers go back and forth and use different names for the same character?


  1. This was a big question for me as I wrote my first book, a comedic crime novel. I was all over the place at first. After a while, I noticed that all of my familiar characters (the good guys) were referred to, in narrative, by first names. The bad guys were going back and forth, first names sometimes, last names at other times. I went back and changed it to last names only.

    In dialogue, I went with whatever felt natural for the speaking characters. Mostly they used first names, or shortened first names. Sometimes, when a character was referring to another in conversation, rather than speaking directly to him, she might use last name, especially in instances where a close relationship does not exist.

    I think narrative should be consistent throughout. Once Henry Johnson is referred to as Johnson, he should from then on remain Johnson. In dialogue, he may be called Henry, Henny, Hen, Johnny, or Bruiser for that matter, by various characters, as long as the reader is clear as to whom you are referring to.

    Curious to see what others think.

  2. I asked a friend in law enforcement about the name thing. He suggested that they always used first names (which kind of surprised me) and given that my characters are in a relatively small college town, he was certain they'd go with first names. I made the switch in the police procedural I'm working on now.

    In my first book, I gradually made the shift from a character being thought of/referred to using his first name to using his last name as his role shifted in the story from a good guy to the bad guy. I think it worked.

    I think you go with Rivers for this story since that's what works. When she leaves the FBI she can go through her own mental adjustment when people insist on calling her Carla.

    When a story is populated by a lot of characters, I think there should be some consistency. Unless I'm able to sit and read a book in a couple of days (a rare indulgence) I'm likely to get confused if the same character has different monikers.

  3. For me, it really depends. With the main characters, I almost always use their first names in my narrative (unless another character is speaking to them, then it's up for grabs).

    For the secondary characters, it often varies. Some just scream out for being called by their last names. It's hard to describe why; it's more a feeling than logical.

    I think as long as a writer is consistent and sticks with the same name throughout--at least while using his narrative voice--all is well.

  4. Interesting post LJ. I've noticed with established writers (my unscientific observation) that they tend to use last names very often. That grates on me. I prefer to use first names in my novels.

    I've experimented with last names but I really prefer nicknames or firstnames. I think that has to do with my preference for informality.

  5. Thanks for the feedback.

    Jimbo, thanks for stopping in and sharing your experience. I think the idea of last names for bad guys is pretty common and I lean that way too.

    Peg, the law enforcement comment that they use first names surprised me. But it must vary.

  6. When I refer to male characters in my novels, I usually refer to them by last name. For females, I find myself referring to them mostly by first name, so I guess gender does come into for me. This is how I heard names used when I grew up. Teachers and other authority figures tended to refer to males and females in this way. Some habits are hard to break.

  7. At first, I wrote calling men by their surname and women by their first name. Somehow males seemed tougher using surnames (Lee Child always uses "Reacher"). Then I heard a respected author suggest that first names connected more with readers, so using first names would be particularly relevant for protagonist and stakes characters. For bad guys, or if you wanted to keep some remoteness (say, a cold character or serial killer) you could use surname. In my first book I used a nickname for the protagonist, and surnames only for the protagonist's boss, and for one sociopathic bad guy.

  8. In the novel I'm working on - first crime novel - I started with using always last names, except for the female characters (no idea why; I just realized later). Then I thought all my major characters should have first names to refer to, and mostly I switched back and forth. Well, I don't like it and think I'll settle for using the first names for major characters in the narrative, even if in dialogue they are called by last names, because they respective persons don't know each other well or despise each other. Using last names only for bad guys I think is bad, if the reader shouldn't figure out too much in the first place.


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