Call me Ishmael… When to reveal your MC’s name if writing in first person

Daisy Hickman from SunnyRoomStudio has sent this question. ‘How soon, when writing in first person, does the story need to reveal the full name of the protagonist? And how do I weave it in? It always feels awkward.’

Slipping in your first-person narrator’s name is a small matter but often feels awkward. It’s logically unnecessary, since the narrator is talking to the reader directly. Of course, naming shouldn’t look like a piece of explanation for its own sake, the dreaded exposition. So writers can tie themselves in knots bringing in other characters who will intrude with a plausible reason to utter their name.

Dickens and du Maurier

Here’s how Charles Dickens handles naming in Great Expectations:

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

This is the opening paragraph of the entire novel. No messing there. But actually, Dickens has another reason for giving us his MC’s name so early. For much of the book Pip isn’t very likable, but every time we see the name Pip used later on, we are reminded of his child self.

At the other end of the naming spectrum is Daphne Du Maurier’s narrator in Rebecca. She doesn’t have a name at all until she marries Max and becomes Mrs de Winter. This is logical because until she marries she is a paid companion, with no status and nothing of her own and no one ever uses her name. It is also resonant– the girl has no identity, to herself or to the rest of society, until she becomes Mrs De Winter. And of course she feels like she is an impostor… I could go on.

Dickens had a good reason for giving us Pip’s name at the very start. And Du Maurier had a good one for not giving a name at all. So the reader isn’t going to feel lost or annoyed if the protagonist’s name isn’t revealed for quite some time.

Names in a first-person narrative are usually pretty peripheral anyway, unlike third person, where the name can be a profound symbol. You can get interested in a first-person character without knowing their name. We do it all the time in real life.

A terrible memory for names

How many times do you hear people say they don’t have a good memory for names? When we first meet people, we remember them more by what we connected or disagreed over. I have a friend who I first met when she was crazy for a handsome Italian guy she worked with. It was a few weeks before her name was ingrained in my brain, but I remembered every detail of her romantic plight effortlessly – and always will, even though they have married, had a daughter and divorced.

Your first connection with someone who talks to you as ‘I’ has little to do with a name. (Usually. Except for Pip. And Ishmael in Moby-Dick, who has chosen a symbolic name that tells us something about his character.)

Safety net

Also, to an extent, you have a safety net. Where is the first place a reader looks once they’re enticed by your title or cover? The blurb. Most blurbs – or the Amazon version – slip in the protagonist’s name anyway. If the reader really starts to feel rudderless, they can look there. (This may seem like a cheat but it’s not a bad idea to write with an awareness of what is on the blurb. Lionel Shriver was spurred to find an extra twist in We Need To Talk About Kevin because she knew the flap copy would give away the novel’s main event. But I digress.)

Key points

  • Don’t be in a panic to slip the name in. It takes as long as it takes.
  • If you have a brilliant reason for doing it at the beginning, like Great Expectations and Moby-Dick, then do it. If it doesn’t naturally arise until later, don’t fret – it’s not the most important thing the reader wants to know.
  • Don’t try to shoehorn in a tired scene where the character picks up the morning post and sighs that someone has misspelled their name.
  • As with all kinds of back story, see if you can use the name-revealing for something else as well.

Thank you, Daisy, for a great question, and Thunderchild7 on Flickr for the picture. Let’s share some examples: first-person introductions that work brilliantly – and ones that make you cringe

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  1. #1 by dazydaywriter on November 21, 2010 - 11:32 pm

    Exactly what I needed to know, Roz! Brilliant post! So glad I asked the question, even though it seemed elementary …🙂 I’m the one who is “in a panic to slip the name in” so my readers know who they are reading about, so now I know to let the story evolve: the name will show up in due time! Thanks again for such a thorough response, which is an intriguing extension to your guest post in SunnyRoomStudio re how to name a character! Wishing you a wonderful week. Your creativity is always inspiring! (I’ll link to this on my facebok page.)

    • #2 by rozmorris on November 22, 2010 - 12:03 am

      My pleasure, Daisy. I started to write a quick answer, then realised there was a more fundamental question. And yes, it is rather an interesting complement to my SunnyRoomStudio post. I’d never thought before how differently the MC’s name works in a first-person novel.

  2. #3 by Verdonk on November 22, 2010 - 12:28 am

    You have to get a fair way into Frankenstein before the narrator’s surname is actually used, and I think we don’t even get his first name till about chapter 3. Of course, you know his name because it’s the title on the cover – but I wonder if that would have been obvious to the book’s original readers?

    Anyway, I agree you don’t need to be in any hurry to get the narrator’s name across. The important thing is to make the opening pages grip so that the reader stays interested. The narrator’s name is of secondary importance and can just come in wherever it naturally fits. Take a look at Greene’s The End of the Affair, for example, where we are told the names of the other main players in the love triangle right away, but we have to wait a few pages to learn the narrator’s own name.

    • #4 by rozmorris on November 22, 2010 - 9:00 am

      Verdonk, that is another point I was going to make – sometimes the character’s name is on the front cover anyway.

  3. #5 by Texanne on November 22, 2010 - 2:26 am

    Interesting post. Thanks. There are so many decisions to make when one writes a book–perhaps that is why so many novels are abandoned after page 51.

    Huzzah on NAIL YOUR NOVEL. For some reason, even though I had seen the book mentioned and praised on Twitter, I hadn’t figured out that you had written it. 😳

    • #6 by rozmorris on November 22, 2010 - 9:05 am

      Hello, Texanne (great name!), nice to see you here. Yes, you’re right – this decision, along with hundreds more, is one of the things that makes writing a novel infuriatingly difficult.

      Thanks for the praise for Nail Your Novel – I see you’re a fan of the great Holly Lisle so I take that as a very high compliment indeed.

  4. #7 by Amanda Hoving on November 22, 2010 - 2:37 am

    Good points — You never want to force any information. A reader notices when something is too contrived — it can make for some awkward stumbling, instead of seamless transitions.

    In addition to your suggestions, I think a name often naturally presents itself during sections of dialogue.

    • #8 by rozmorris on November 22, 2010 - 9:07 am

      Hi Amanda – yes it’s interesting that a piece of information or back story can be contrived in one place but natural in another. It can take a while to find that perfect spot, though.

  5. #9 by Julie Eshbaugh on November 22, 2010 - 4:10 am

    I loved your reference to REBECCA. I think that’s one of the great “namings” in literature.
    PS – stop by my blog – I’ve given you a blogging award.

    • #10 by rozmorris on November 22, 2010 - 9:18 am

      Apparently the nameless Rebecca MC was an accident. Du Maurier couldn’t think of what name to call her, then realised that not giving her a name was even better.
      Thank you for the blogging award – a lovely surprise on a Monday morning! I love having a new shiny badge for my blog!

      • #11 by Julie Eshbaugh on November 23, 2010 - 10:50 pm

        Du Maurier’s “accident” is encouraging; isn’t it? Great ideas have many routes to the page…

        • #12 by rozmorris on November 24, 2010 - 12:24 am

          And they go through many muddles first!

  6. #13 by Dom Camus on November 22, 2010 - 10:54 am

    Iain M. Banks’ “Feersum Endjinn” handles the naming of Bascule very well and very quickly (although that’s not until chapter four since like most of his work it’s multi-threaded). Bascule’s monologue begins with his recounting a snatch of conversation with another character. In keeping with Bascule’s very simplistic style, he repeats what was said to him verbatim and therefore includes his own name.

    Neater even than Dickens in my view, since he not only gets the name in straight away and makes it feel natural, but also manages to do it whilst discussing something else as you recommend above.

    • #14 by rozmorris on November 22, 2010 - 5:35 pm

      I’ve never read Feersum Endjinn (although Banks’s early non-SF books are some of my all-time favourites). It sounds from what you say that it’s a little like Riddley Walker, with an evolved form of English. Hmmm… But to return to your point, yes that’s a clever way of slipping the name in.

      • #15 by Dom Camus on November 22, 2010 - 5:44 pm

        Yes, indeed – although it’s very much evolved slang. In fact in retrospect (I didn’t pick up on this at the time) it’s not far from modern l33t-speak!

        • #16 by rozmorris on November 22, 2010 - 8:20 pm

          What’s l33t-speak? Dear me, I feel so unmodern.

          • #17 by Dom Camus on November 22, 2010 - 8:43 pm

            Hehe – you’re not missing much!

            It’s a kind of slang which exists only in written form, found throughout electronic communication, but particularly on internet forums. It is characterised mainly by use of numbers and symbols to represent letters or abbreviations, not necessarily for the purpose of communicating efficiently as might be the case in a text message but more often just for stylistic reasons.

            The name ‘l33t’ is read as ‘leet’, which is itself an abbreviation of ‘elite’.

            Typically l33t-speak is used like a kind of extended in-joke for isolated phrases. Nobody old enough to order a beer would typically type an entire paragraph of it.

            • #18 by rozmorris on November 24, 2010 - 12:24 am

              Elite… what a disappointing use of the word.

  7. #19 by Alexander M Zoltai on November 22, 2010 - 8:05 pm

    Once again, rock solid info, presented in a smooth and engaging way🙂

  8. #21 by Dave Morris on November 22, 2010 - 8:52 pm

    Actually Dickens’s opening for Great Expectations works even better than you said. Yes, it’s important to have a continual reminder of, and connection to, the young Pip (whom we like) when for a large chunk in the middle of the novel we have to tolerate adult Pip, who can be a rather unpleasant social climber. And it reminds us of where Pip came from, which excuses a lot of his later behavior.

    However, what’s really clever is that the opening paragraph also picks up on the whole theme of the book, which is that Pip sees all the complexity of the world, tries to make sense of it, and in doing so gets it so wrong.

    And anyway, as you say, in most cases it simply isn’t important to get the name in straight away. No reader ever gave up a well-written story because they didn’t know what to call the narrator! Just fit it in when it feels right.

  9. #22 by Jane Kennedy Sutton on November 23, 2010 - 12:06 am

    Leave it to Daisy to come up with such an interesting question. You made some great points. I haven’t thought much about the topic, but now I plan to pay more attention when reading to take note of when the protagonists’ names are revealed and how.

    • #23 by rozmorris on November 23, 2010 - 8:34 am

      Hi Jane, great to see you here. I hope this post won’t make you neurotically aware of whether you know a character’s name! It’s funny, but I don’t mind if I don’t know the narrator’s name for several pages, or even chapters. But I do mind if it looks awkward.

  1. Tweets that mention Call me Ishmael… When to reveal your MC’s name if writing in first person « Nail Your Novel -- Topsy.com

Your turn!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: