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I have written a short story, and the main character is referred to as "he" right the way through - the idea being that this character is very guarded and mysterious. My plan was to not reveal the name of the character because that would be too personal and would allow the reader to "get to know" the character, which is undesirable when trying to maintain an aura of mystery.

However, I'm not sure I'm pulling it off as well as I'd like to - I feel I'm overusing the word "he" and I'm stuck for ways to refer to "himself." I've attached a small extract for you to perhaps see what I mean.

The alarm on his watch beeped.

His eyes crept open as he was slowly roused from his light slumber, he knew he had work to do, and now he felt ready to start.

His job was very stressful and had little rewards, but he did as he was told; just a pawn a very large game of chess. It was however, not a large company, which is why a lot of the stress landed on him and it's terribly difficult working for a boss you've never seen nor heard. Strange as the concept was, he and his boss kept in touch by e-mail and text messages. It wasn't ideal, but it was definitely necessary; being that his field of work was a slightly less than reputable one. He only knew his boss by one name, and he knew it was an alias.

Can anyone offer any assistance, perhaps give me some ideas on how to reword some sentences, help that I may then be able to apply to the rest of the short story?

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Good question! I was struggling with this same issue myself, though I did not want to create mystery. I wanted any reader to be able to believe they could be the main charachter, and to secretly enjoy the story as if it was them in it. I thought a name would interfere with the ease of belief. –  Magnus Smith Feb 4 '11 at 17:03
    
I don't feel like it's that bad, personally. You might be too closed to the problem: if you hadn't mentioned that you were overusing the word "he", I don't think I would have felt that way. Maybe give an excerpt to somebody without context, and ask for their impression. –  sh1ftst0rm Jan 7 '13 at 14:21
    
I do get a certain sense of mystery from it, but in sort of a strange way it also makes the character feel more familiar, almost intimate. Referring to someone by name kind of makes them one character among many in a story, but all this namelessness makes it feel like the narrator is closely shadowing this particular character, and sort of raises him about the mass of lesser, named characters. It's kind of like, he's so central that he doesn't need a name, it's just implicit that he's the one you're referring to. Not sure if that's what you're going for or not. –  sh1ftst0rm Jan 7 '13 at 14:26

8 Answers 8

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Some Preliminary Words...

I'm not entirely sure that withholding a character's name is the best way to go about producing an aura of mystery. In fact, this is something that I've seen in a lot of early writers (and I even did it a few times myself back in high school), but which almost never works. Usually, the reader just finds it incredibly annoying. Even if you can pull off the "no-name mystery" grammatically so that it doesn't sound awkward or repetitive, the reader would almost always like something to remember him by.

A lot of writers (I struggle with this, too) decide to retain little details - name, location, whatever - to try for an air of mystery. While we have all probably read books that do this at the beginning, it's usually not for very long - rarely for entire stories. If the aura of mystery hinges on these details, then it's not going to be mysterious enough to keep the reader reading. It will just be annoying.

My Answer, Though...

If I were you, I would work on making sure your story has such a strong "mystery" element to it that you could reveal more about your character if you wanted to, without destroying that element. Then, you can decide what you want to reveal and what you want to withhold, and perhaps the mystery elements themselves will lend you ideas.

In this case, you wouldn't need to give his real name. He could have an alias, too, just like his boss. Just one idea.

Another is to consider the first person perspective. Difficult, but if he is always thinking of himself in terms of "I" and "me" and doesn't run into anybody who uses his name, then that could work.

Regardless of whether you add an alias or write from first person, I would (if I were you) make sure that your information you're giving has more of his attitude behind it. If we aren't allowed to know your character, we should at least "experience" him. Rather than simply being told about his job, we should almost definitely find out about his work via his attitude about it - or something along those liens. If you want to maintain that aura of mystery, then we'll have to be invested in the character enough to care about him, even if we don't know his name.

Definitely eliminate any unnecessary words - include "he" and "him".

In other words, without a name, you gotta pull double duty to keep the reader sucked in! That alone could potentially overcome the repetitiveness of "he" and "him" and such. If done well enough. This won't be great (and it definitely has my tone and attitude thrown in), but here's a quick example of what I mean:

The alarm beeped.

His eyes crept open as he slowly roused himself from his light slumber; he had work to do, and it was time to begin.

The damn job was too stressful, with too little rewards, but it wasn't like he had a choice. Just a little pawn in a large game of chess. A pawn who doesn't even know his king. As one of the few members of such a small organization, most people would have assumed he knew his boss. He'd never even met the man. No, he was expected to do the work of ten men, communicate solely by e-mail and text, and chug along as best he could with the orders he was given.

You know your story, though, so I'm sure you can think of something much more imaginative (and mysterious!) than that. :-)

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that is exactly the kind of advice I was looking for, thanks alot man! I'll jump into this story again soon, perhaps re-write it with this new information. The issue of the first person writing though, if he does not run into any people who use his name or he never refers to himself by name, then it's possible that the reader may not know that the name is being withheld, I would want them to know, as I'd be endeavouring to get them to try and learn more about him, you know what I mean? Cheers for your help though –  Dan Hanly Jan 22 '11 at 17:32
    
"a lot", please, not "alot". (Feel free to delete this comment.) –  Neil Fein Jan 26 '11 at 2:51
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There's a story I like about the alot monster. –  QuickerSnarkerBacker Feb 2 '11 at 16:00
    
Good advice. I personally would try using first person. Easy for me to say, as I prefer writing in first. –  Graham Powell Feb 9 '11 at 1:43
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On a similar note, be wary of being mysterious just to be mysterious. If this man is a very mysterious and private person, to the point where you could have a conversation with him and never learn his name, then keeping him nameless may be the right thing for your story. However, if all the other characters in your story know the man's name, it's going to be tough to keep in concealed and you're not playing fair with your reader. It can take the reader out of the story if he or she feels like everyone in the story knows something, yet you the writer are jumping through hoops to hide it. –  InkAndPixelClub Feb 9 '11 at 19:35

"The man" also works.

The man's job was very stressful...The man only knew his boss by one name...

If you give him any other identifiers, like "tall" or "with sunglasses," that will allow you some variety.

(also, use a semi-colon after "slumber" in the first sentence, not a comma.)

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thanks, it is definitely a tricky task. Cheers –  Dan Hanly Jan 22 '11 at 17:32

I wrote a story where none of the characters have names (well, one minor character has a name). To make it readable each character was given a nickname which described one tiny aspect of the character. For example, you might have "The man in green" or "The girl from Toronto" or something along those lines. In my case it wasn't meant to add mystery per se, and so the detail which identifies the character might also be that character's stereotype. In this way you can vary how the character is referred to in your text and in dialog, by changing the way you describe the character.

  • The man in green
  • The man
  • The man with the green coat
  • etc

These nicknames can also be used by the other characters who might not know the character's name or might be talking to someone who doesn't know it.

It does get tricky after a while making sure that the dialog and narrative reads smoothly. Luckily for me it was only a short story.

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(Nathen nailed it above, however)

I have written a short story, and the main character is referred to as "he" right the way through - the idea being that this character is very guarded and mysterious. My plan was to not reveal the name of the character because that would be too personal and would allow the reader to "get to know" the character, which is undesirable when trying to maintain an aura of mystery.

You can give the character a alias via some plot device. Then he would be nameless but still have a easy handle you can use. The alias can be some very plain and amusing such as "the hatless one" or something equally random. You can then change the alias depending on his environment to confuse the reader; though I don't know how much good that will do.

My honest opinion is that a character is created to be presented. A character that is unknown should not exist, or be simply on the sidelines until he is able to take the position of character in the story.

If you ever do go with hiding information idea, I would suggest you be very subtle about it (put the character in a position where he can't say his name). As others have mentioned it is not the most awe inspiring characteristic of a story by itself.

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I like the idea of using some kind of title such as "the tall man" or "the man with the hat" or something along those lines. Just using "he" and "him" had the potential to cause all kinds of confusion if you introduce more male characters later on. –  InkAndPixelClub Feb 9 '11 at 19:29

I wrote a similar story recently, leaving the character nameless as a method of dehumanisation as opposed to implimenting mystery. I think the best way to do it is to use more thought-based 1st person interjections. This makes events more interesting, with added variation in the form of narration and allows the reader to get some idea of the character, limited by the way you choose to portray his monologues. If you are trying to incorporate mystery as a theme, you could always make his thoughts conflicting, giving the reader added interest and questioning as to why he is like he is.

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How about using the second person instead of the third person?

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You mean the first person? –  Joe Z. Feb 26 '13 at 16:56
    
No, second person. "You..." –  Joel Spolsky Mar 18 at 20:46
    
Ah, so the reader is the mystery character? –  Joe Z. Mar 18 at 21:32
    
"One morning, when you woke from troubled dreams, you found yourself transformed in your bed into a horrible vermin. You lay on your armour-like back, and if you lifted your head a little you could see your brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. Your many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of you, waved about helplessly as you looked." [Apologies to Franz Kafka] –  Joel Spolsky Mar 21 at 14:45
    
I know what second-person narration is; it's just I thought the main character (as narrated) was definitely intended to be somebody who was not the reader, which would make the second person not make sense. –  Joe Z. Mar 21 at 14:56

Well, there is a book and a movie adaptation :- '12 Angry Men'. That one exactly does what you have in your mind. none of the character's names are used. there are 12+ characters in the plot! Hope this link helps - 12 Angry Men

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Fun fact: even "The Man With No Name" (Clint Eastwood's character in Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy of classic spaghetti Westerns) had a name. Several, in fact!

Your reader needs a mental handle by which they can "grab onto" a character as they think about your story. A name is a useful way of providing that, even if it's just a nickname. This is such a big deal that if you don't provide one the reader will insist on making one up for themselves, based on some character trait or quirk of behavior or whatever other hook they can find to hang it on, no matter how farfetched.

An example of this: in both Chuck Palahniuk's novel Fight Club and the film adaptation of it, the main character (Ed Norton in the movie) is never explicitly named. But readers of the novel consistently refer to him as "Joe," because of lines like "I am Joe's complete lack of surprise" in his interior dialogue (the conversations he has in his head). "Joe" has nothing to do with his actual name -- it's a parody of the style of old Reader's Digest stories -- but readers latch onto it desperately as a way to identify the character. In the film, the screenwriters changed "Joe" to "Jack," and so people who know the story from the film call the character "Jack."

For this reason I would suggest that, if the "no-name" approach is difficult even for a writer as good as Palahniuk to pull off, you're probably best served by just ditching it and finding other ways to suggest mystery. What does this man do? Where does he come from? Why is he the way he is? These are all more interesting questions than what his name is.

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