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I'm writing the outline for my first novel, which has three main characters. I'm very happy with their names, however I recently noticed that I was naturally referring to the first two by first name, but to the third one by his last name. I think it is because 1) I like that last name, which is a very strong and rare one, and 2) it is the name of someone I've known for long and who I've always addressed as "Mr Last-Name."

The story is a thriller involving two members of the mafia and one old tired french cop, if it has any relevance to the question.

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7 Answers 7

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Here's a set of guidelines I really like:

  • You can refer to each character by the moniker most appropriate to him, so long as you use the same one consistently. Readers will happily accept any name that seems appropriate; the important thing is not to confuse them by referring to one individual by a dozen different tags.
  • You can have different characters refer to an individual by different monikers, so long as they do so consistently. This is a natural detail in relationships - "Captain Jon Smith" is "Jon" to his friends, "Smith" to his boss, "Captain Smith" when he's introduced in polite society, and either "Captain" or "Ol' Waxwhiskers" to his subordinates, depending whether or not he's in earshot. But again - each character is consistent in their own name for this individual.
  • For this purpose, narration is a point-of-view, so when you're referring to him in narrative (rather than a character mentioning him in dialogue), the name should be consistent, and probably should be the name you'd most like the reader to associate with the character, for whatever reasons or preferences of your own.
  • If a single character is going to be addressed by several different names over the course of the story, then it's a good idea to introduce the character by his full name (and title, nicknames, etc.) the first time we read about him. e.g.: Today was Captain Jon Smith's first day aboard the _H.M.S. Ratatouille_. Then you can slip right in to your chosen moniker ("What a great ship," Smith thought to himself, when he was interrupted - a kid was running towards him, yelling, "Captain! Captain! Come quick!"), confident that from then on, the reader will be able to identify the character from any of a variety of references. (Without that, your references could be choppy and confusing - consider: "So, first day onboard, eh, Jon?" said Bob. It was a nice ship, Smith had to admit - but just then, a kid burst out of nowhere, running towards him and yelling, "Captain! Captain!").

In conclusion, there's no problem referring to the third character differently then the other two, particularly since you like the name better and (it seems) feel that it suits the character well. Just be consistent in how he's referred to, and you're good to go.

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Take care to look for patterns in how you choose which people are referred to by which names.

A few years ago, I reread all of Isaac Asimov's Foundation/Robot/Empire novels, and commented to my wife, "All of the men are always referred to by their last names. All of the women and robots are always referred to by their first names. I wonder what's up with that."

She said, "Robots and women serve men."

Oh.

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OH, indeed! I have to go back and check that. Mercy. Good on your wife for spotting that. –  Lauren Ipsum Oct 14 '11 at 13:27

In a variation of "Keep it consistent," you may change the reference to the character from last name to first if:

  • The character is not the main character, and the main character's perception of this character changes. For example, your main character is a college student and the professor refers to all the students by last name. So she knows all her classmates as Smith, Jones, Johnson, etc. As you are writing about Jane meeting "Smith," you should refer to him as "Smith." Once Jane gets to be friends with him, you can change the references to "David," because her perspective on him has changed. (David Eddings was very subtle about this in the Belgariad; he referred to Belgarath as "Old Wolf" or "Mister Wolf" for at least a book or so until Garion learns that Belgarath is his ultimate grandfather, at which point the narration switches over to "Belgarath.")
  • The character thinks of himself differently in different situations. At work, he thinks of himself as "Doctor Smith." At home, he thinks of himself as "Scott." (You still have to be consistent within a scene, however, unless something home-related happens at work and he would think of himself more in home-terms than work-terms.)
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It is ok, if it fits to your story, i.e. the relationships of your characters and how they address each other.

If they are good friends, it is unlikely that they use surnames to talk to each other. If it is a stranger or the boss, it is more common to use the last name.

You have to ask yourself from which perspective you write your scene. If your POV is the wife of Mr Last-Name, then, no, it is not ok. If his student is telling the story, it is ok.

When using a omniscient narrator and he always refers to him as Mr Last-Name, go for it. Just do not switch surprisingly in the last chapter to "Joe" and puzzle your readers.

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It is one of those things that are a matter of personal taste. Sometimes referring to a character by its surname implies things - eg that they are inferior or superior to their peers depending on context, that they are old schoolfriends from the type of school where people are known by their surnames, that they are mysterious and don't reveal their first name to anyone, and so on. While consistency is good, you could also have a character whose last name is generally used except by one other character, implying a higher degree of intimacy between those two. But yes, you can call them by first or last names, or a mixture, as you feel correct.

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I say go for it! As long as you remember to refer to the same person by the same name every time, it should be ok to refer to them by their last name. Have fun and keep calling him -- or her -- by their last name.

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I agree, you can call characters by first or last names, but have to be consistent. However, I think this poses an additional challenge. When you mention two characters in one sentence, and one of them is a first-name one (say, Charly Miller) and the other you refer to by the last name (John Smith), it could sound funny.

Charly and Smith looked at each other and laughed.

It would be much more natural to say "Miller and Smith" or "Charly and John", but this would break the consistency rule.

Any thoughts? I know this is an old discussion, but I was so happy to find this threat that I thought I'd try.

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Your last paragraph seems to indicate that you are not aware that this is a Q&A site--see the about page--not a discussion forum. You might also want to read the FAQ. The first part of your post seems decent as an answer, and I encourage you to continue using the site. Questions about what is on-topic here can be asked on the meta site. –  Paul A. Clayton May 29 '13 at 23:42

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