Recently, I listed opening a book with a nameless character as one of the 5 Reasons I Put Your Book Down. In comments, I was asked to elaborate a little more for the benefit of those who are wondering why it’s such a big deal. I attempted to answer in comments, but (in classic form) my answer grew a bit beyond its context.

Here is why I personally believe the technique of not naming your characters can be risky one–and when I think it can work:

First, a few points:

The omission of a new character’s name isn’t always a bad idea.

When it is, it’s usually an ongoing, obvious omission (not just a brief delay within the first few sentences). Whether it is a bad idea sometimes also depends on the POV you are using. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m referring purely to the third person POV, as first person has its own set of rules.

A young woman sat alone on a large rock beside the crossroads. Kafir turned his head to watch her as his wagon rumbled past, wondering what had inspired her to come here unaccompanied.

is very different from

A young woman sat alone on a large rock beside the crossroads. She plucked nervously at the hem of her sleeve as a large caravan wagon rumbled past, and wished she had not chosen to come here alone.

In example one, the young woman is not named, but she is also not the viewpoint character. Kafir, who is apparently the viewpoint character–and is named–obviously cannot name her unless he knows her.

In example two, the young woman is the viewpoint character. Though, taken on its own, it’s not terribly egregious, if the exerpt continued and referred to her again as simply “the young woman”, it would start to grate on my nerves.

Why? Because she’s the viewpoint character. I’m in her head enough to know that she’s nervous, and uncomfortable being where she is alone. Why would I not know that most simple and basic piece of information that is her name?

There are a few answers to that question, but the most common explanation for the withholding (in my experience) is: the author is being coy. He or she is attempting to pique my curiosity, but is unfortunately doing it in what is, to me, a very transparent, clumsy way.

It’s an author’s job to manipulate me, but it’s also their job not to let me see the man behind the curtain.

I don’t ever want to FEEL manipulated, and when I can see an author maneuvering, it’s intrusive. I’m noticing the writing rather than the story, which pulls me out of it usually before I’ve even had a chance to be absorbed. At the very beginning of a book, the place where immersion is the most difficult to achieve–and arguably the most important–this is a poor strategy, and in most cases I can’t see that any small bit of mystery gained would be worth the possible losses.

That said, there are a few other instances in which an author might purposefully omit a name:

  • The lack of a name is a subtextual cue to the reader that the character is not important.
  • The character is important, but his/her identity is the answer to a story-significant puzzle.

In my mind, these are both more legitimate strategies than your basic tension gimmick–though they both have their own issues and limitations. Let’s look at both of them.

The subtextual cue that the character is not important

This is something I have seen used to great effect by clever writers when they want a reader to view significant events without forming attachments to characters they may never see again. I have attempted this myself, to limited success, and am still trying to figure out how to make it work.

Drawbacks: The biggest issue with this technique is that it cannot continue for any extended length. Why? I, like many readers, am interested in events but am even more interested in characters. It is my attachment to the characters that keeps me reading and leaves me wanting more. I want to have some sort of a relationship with all of the characters–not just the heroes, but the villains and the sidekicks and everyone in between.

So, after a few pages of being held at at a distance from the characters, I start to wonder why you’re having me invest so much time with characters who are not important enough to be named. As a reader that likes to be immersed, that continuing “don’t get attached” cue is unsatisfying and something I start to feel the need to get past quickly. The desire to skim gets mighty powerful after a while, and the events have to be spectacularly compelling to keep my interest.

The character’s identity is a story-significant puzzle

This is often used in mysteries and thrillers when authors write from the viewpoint of the perpetrator, whose identity we are not intended to work out until much later in the story. It’s used in a more limited context in other genres as well.

Drawbacks: I need to know that the character’s identity is important, and that the author is not using the previous strategy, or simply withholding for the sake of cheap tension. In mysteries and thrillers, where such puzzles are common, it’s very easy to come to this conclusion because the author is working off existing reader expectations. In other genres, such as fantasy, it is a less-used device and therefore the author needs to do a little extra work to make it clear that the character’s identity is important to the story, and will be revealed at a later time. By doing this, the author is making me a promise that I will trust him to fulfill during the course of the story, rather than either leaving me cold and clueless, or making an arbitrary and annoyingly intrusive stylistic choice.

In this instance, like the last, the interlude with the nameless character cannot continue for too long. Even if I know that the character’s identity is important, the fact that it’s being withheld from me keeps me at an arm’s length–something that soon becomes uncomfortable.

My patience for this strategy is much higher if it is not used at the very beginning of a book. If you have already given me characters and stakes to invest in, I won’t feel as frustrated by that inability to attach to the nameless character. However, even in these cases, it’s important that the nameless character and his/her actions have some perceived relevance to the characters I’m invested in. Otherwise, I’m left wondering why you’re telling me this, and why I should care.

If that perceived relevance can’t be established (perhaps because that too is part of the puzzle) it needs to be kept very brief. I will take it on faith that the person and events are significant, but don’t stretch it too far. After a certain point, I’m likely to just skip ahead to the characters I’ve already invested in, and in the best case scenario I’ll make a mental note to come back once I see some connection to the mystery character.

In case you’ve noticed the running theme of “Keep it short”:

The longer the omission continues–whether it’s done well or poorly–the more uncomfortable it becomes.

Setting aside the points I made above about needing to attach, being held at a distance, and perceived relevance, there’s another reason why it is uncomfortable to spend an extended period of time with a nameless character (regardless of the reason you’ve omitted it):

Without a name I have nothing to attach my mental concept of the character to, save for something usually very generic. I’m carving out mental real-estate for this character, but I have no label to place on it, and no way to file it away or access it at a later time. Like being told a story without any hint of a setting, this lack of an ability to ground a concept mentally is very disorienting and uncomfortable.

With all this said, here is my last point:

I firmly believe that anything can work in the hands of a clever enough writer.

Yes, even those Sacred Rules every college creative writing professor swears must not be broken. I also believe that the cleverest writers carefully determine what they are trying to gain by using any technique, and weigh that against what they stand to lose.

Once you know what you’re attempting to gain by introducing a nameless character, ask yourself if there’s a better way to achieve it. If the answer is ‘no’, go for it.

3 thoughts on “The Curious Case of the Nameless Character

  1. In short, if you can’t name a character, don’t use him as a viewpoint. But what if it’s a mystery/spy/thriller genre where characters like this is often introduced?

    1. I _do_ think there are instances in which you can omit the name of a viewpoint character. Among those instances that I listed above:

      “The character’s identity is a story-significant puzzle

      This is often used in mysteries and thrillers when authors write from the viewpoint of the perpetrator, whose identity we are not intended to work out until much later in the story. It’s used in a more limited context in other genres as well.

      Drawbacks: I need to know that the character’s identity is important, and that the author is not using the previous strategy, or simply withholding for the sake of cheap tension. In mysteries and thrillers, where such puzzles are common, it’s very easy to come to this conclusion because the author is working off existing reader expectations.”

      As always, I think it’s important to be aware of how various conventions work within the context of the genre you are writing. I don’t think anything is off-limits in any genre, so long as it’s executed well.

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