Who are you, again?

To many writers, myself included, names are partially what make a character. I’ve touched on how a new name can completely change a character, but even after an author has found the perfect name for a character, there comes another problem: introducing the character to the reader.

Recently in the NaNoWriMo Forums, a writer asked for advice on, “how to appropriately introduce new characters and offer their names.” The poster acknowledged that there seem to be two ways to introduce names to the reader. 1) Using the character’s name whether or not it has been used before or 2) wait until the names come up in dialogue.

So which should be used? Honestly, a little of both.

Introducing characters is one of those moments when you really have to nail down who your POV character is. With first person and third person limited being the most popular POVs by far these days, writers will most likely be writing with one character relating the story/a scene (either as “I” or “s/he”) It is possible to change POVs between scenes, especially in third person, but each scene should follow one character (otherwise it becomes head jumping). Once you know who the POV character in a scene, it becomes simpler to know when to share names.

1) If the POV character knows another character’s name, use it. Since you are in the POV character’s head, there is no reason to wait for someone to say another character’s name if the POV character knows it. Would you really call your friend “the tall man” or “the blond man” when you know his name is “Tim”? It is forcing in awkwardness where it needn’t be. (Note: The same goes for using nicknames. If POV character calls someone “Tim” in their head, there’s no reason to use “Timothy” in the narrative. Just be consistent [you shouldn’t flip between Tim and Timothy in narrative if you start with one]).

2) If the POV character doesn’t know another character’s name, wait for it to come up. Hopefully, this won’t be a long wait, but it would be a POV slip to say a name when your character would have no way of knowing it. Luckily, people tend to introduce themselves pretty early on when they aren’t known to someone. Stalling some with “the blonde girl”, “the young girl” or “the happy girl” shouldn’t be a problem. As soon as the character is introduced or the POV character gets a name, you can switch to using the new character’s name (e.g. another character in the scene calls “the blonde girl” Sally. It is fine to use Sally from that moment on because the POV character now has a name).

The biggest thing is you simply don’t want to confuse your readers. The sooner you can introduce a name and use it consistently the better.

Finally, if you are using omniscient POV, you should use the names for your characters as soon as they are introduced, unless there is a specific reason not to. As your narrator is omniscient they know all of the character names to begin with. By withholding a name, you are saying there is something important about it. Suddenly using it without any sort of reveal comes off as odd/anticlimactic.

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