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I've got a few short stories going, and I've foregone naming any of my characters. It started because I just didn't have any good names in my head and I was going to take care of it later, but now I'm considering leaving them all nameless. It's worked well for the first four stories, but I have between ten and twelve stories in mind for this collection, and I am wondering if I should just continue without naming anyone. Most of my stories have between two and four characters, and so far I've been able to get away with referring to them by one or two traits. For instance,

  • The man in the pink shirt
  • The woman in the Claims Department
  • The second boyfriend

I realize that these names are kind of generic, but it works. So far.

I would like to know if anyone has any feedback about the relative merits of an entire collection of stories (or at least about 10) without named characters.

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One merit that comes to mind is that without a name, a reader might identify more with the character. In "Characters and Viewpoints", Orson Scott Card says that for one of his books, he completely omitted main character's description. When his editor and publisher called him out on that, he asked them to describe how each of them imagined the character, and they both described themselves. I figure omitting a name would take this approach even further :) So the character could be anybody, could even be the reader. –  Tannalein Dec 18 '12 at 23:33
    
@Tannalein: That's been my thinking, or rationalizing, so far. I am thinking of my characters as stand-ins for anybody. –  tylerharms Dec 19 '12 at 14:44
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It worked really well in Jose Saramago's novel, Blindness. The characters are referred to throughout the long book as the Doctor's Wife, the Girl with the Dark Glasses, the Man with the Black Eyepatch, etc. It's surprisingly non-invasive and effective. –  JAM Dec 21 '12 at 4:26
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4 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Without having read your stories, it's hard to say. There are lots of things one could do in a story that if done well can be clever, innovative, and effective, but if done poorly can come across as a gimmick, lame, and tiresome. In general I'd avoid doing something unusual just for the sake of doing something unusual. But as I say, if you do it well, it can be way cool.

Why do you want to not give the characters names? If you have a specific purpose, like you want to give the idea that the people around them don't know or care who they are, or you want to emphaisze their role over their personal identity, etc, this could be effective. If you're avoiding names to avoid preconceptions that a name might give, like you want to avoid giving the character a national identity or be vague about whether this person is male or female, maybe. But if you're just doing it because you think it's a clever gimmick, I think that would be hard to pull off for ten stories without it just becoming annoying to the reader.

If a character has a title or maybe some other handy "identification tag", this would be little different from a name in practice. I mean like, if you call a character "the mayor", "the sergeant", "the prisoner", etc., the reader might not even notice that you never give the character a name.

You could always use descriptive terms like those you mention, but I would think this could quickly sound like an affectation or a gimmick. If a character only appears briefly and is thus only referred to two or three times, this might again pass pretty much unnoticed. This is especially true if the character would be largely anonymous. Like, I know you said none of the characters in these stories have names, but if you had two or three main characters with names, and then you mention they go to a store and "the clerk" did this or that and then "the manager" said this, readers would probably take this as routine: we usually don't know or care about the names of store personnel, so calling a store clerk by name might be odder than just calling him "the clerk".

A long description could get tedious. If you call a character "the tall bearded man with the snakeskin boots", using that phrase over and over could be tiresome.

I'd be careful about having different descriptions of the same person. If here you call him "the accountant" and there you call him "the tall man", the reader may have trouble grasping that this is the same person. I recall a book I read recently where there was a character who was routinely called by name, but every now and then -- like once a chapter -- the author would suddenly refer to him as "the redhead". The first time he did this I was totally confused, as he had never before mentioned the color of the character's hair. I had to re-read a couple of paragraphs to figure out who he was talking about. Then when he did it again some time later, I knew who he was talking about, but it was distracting.

If you find yourself giving convoluted descriptions, like, "And then the second man -- not the man who had arrived in the bus that is, the other man -- said ...", I think you definitely need to back up and rethink.

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+1 Jay: This helps me rationalize a lot of it. I think I would certainly avoid naming peripheral characters, as you mentioned in cases like the manager. So far, I haven't run into any cases of pronoun confusion, like, "He gave the bag to him". That, though, might be the breaking point. I don't want to sacrifice clarity and concision just to keep my characters nameless stand-ins for humanity, which, btw, has been my reasoning for keeping them nameless. –  tylerharms Dec 19 '12 at 14:43
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"Nameless stand-ins for humanity" I can see how if done well that could work. Like in a romance story, if the characters are "the boy" and "the girl" or some such, it would probably leap out of the page to the reader that they are generic types, but would not necessarily create any awkwardness or ambiguity. –  Jay Dec 21 '12 at 16:47
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I found that when I was reading a collection of Grimm's fairytales — just translated, not the bowdlerized Disney versions — a whole bunch of them have nameless characters. The King, The Queen, The Prince; the baker's daughter, the tailor's apprentice. Puss in Boots is the only character with a name in his story; the rest are the miller's son, the king, his daughter, and the ogre. (The Marquis is a title which Puss invents.) And all those have lasted for hundreds of years.

As long as the reader can keep the characters straight, I say go for it.

ETA I forgot that Larry Niven's Kzin race don't have names at birth; they have to earn them.

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It adds a little difficulty to reading and thus a little chance to screwing up.

Although, especially in first-person stories it's a very common and quite nice literary tool to leave the protagonist both nameless and devoid of most physical traits that are not essential to the plot. This makes immersion easier: every reader can imagine themselves in place of the protagonist and fit in just fine. (and it's easier with 1st person perspective, "I" in narration is unambiguous.)

Still, make sure to give your characters easy to remember (and distinct! Avoid names with identical two first letters on somewhat similar characters!) whenever lack of names is confusing. If seven people in a room discuss, you'll have a hard time making the scene not suck without using at least a few names.

Too many names are bad. If a name appears once or twice per whole story it's poor style - it's much better to give the character some very memorable traits (not pink shirt, but rather a glass eye and chipped front tooth), if they are to reappear seven chapters apart, when the reader would long forget the name (and even more so the pink shirt). Do NOT depend on the reader remembering given name. If a character who is not very memorable returns, give a brief synopsis on when they were seen last, a reminder of where they are recurring from.

Episodic characters may be quite featureless and very generic - if you take time to give a precise description, you focus the reader's attention, they will try to remember the character, and will be pissed at you for wasted effort if the character never reappears.

In the end, the merits are either easier immersion in case of 1st person protagonist, or leaving the characters more impersonal, more distant and harder to relate with (e.g. in Grimm tales). Still, the "nameless character" is correctly executed if the reader asked about the character's name after reading the whole story goes "It's... oh wait, it wasn't mentioned even once, was it?" Essentially, if the lack of name becomes too apparent, you're doing it wrong.

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Don't give similar characters names that begin similarly to avoid confusion. I like that real well. I'm not sure what exactly you mean by "episodic" characters, though. Does this refer to characters who appear and then reappear after a lot of time has passed? –  tylerharms Dec 19 '12 at 21:59
    
@tylerharms: No, ones that appear once and vanish without reappearing ever again, without "living" longer than a chapter, or more frequently a short scene. (or their reappearance bears no connection and significance - introducing a different character would be pointless. Say, a waiter whose only role and significance is to lead you to a table, say some platitudes and recommend a meal; it really doesn't matter if tomorrow it's the same waiter or another.) –  SF. Dec 19 '12 at 22:23
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So just to be clear, you have named them. If you refer to him by it often enough (which may just be one or twice, depending on the context), that is their name. You just haven't giving them a proper name. This an important distinction that points to the fact that it probably doesn't matter. Like anything, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly which elements can turn your readers off, but if your naming scheme is that item, you probably have other problems as well.

It's mostly about how you handle it. If the only recognizable characteristic of "the man in the pink shirt" is the color of this clothing, you have a bigger problem. His name could be Bill Smith or Walla Walla Washington, he still won't grab the reader's attention.

Here are some very memorable characters with no "names":

  • The Doctor from Doctor Who
  • The cigarette smoking man from X-files
  • Everyone in Twelve Angry Men
  • The Time Traveller from The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  • The Man in the Yellow Hat from Curious George
  • The Second Mrs. de Winter aka the narrator from Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

And the crown prince:

  • The Man with No Name from A Fistful of Dollars
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Don't forget "The gentleman with the thistle-down hair" from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 31 '13 at 12:31
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