First Name or Last?
This question comes up dozens of times while I’m writing a novel. Almost every character is given two names (and sometimes a nickname), but what you do you call them most consistently? First name or last? Does their gender and/or role in the story dictate which treatment they get?
I’m reading a John Sandford novel now (one of my favorites!), and I noticed patterns that made me wonder how authors make these choices. There’s a paragraph in which the mother and father of a murder victim are mentioned. Sandford refers to all three by last name, Austin. It’s quite confusing.
In later paragraphs—with the mother, who has the most prominent role of the three—Sandford rotates, sometimes calling her Allyssa and sometimes Austin. This was also confusing, because I’d only met her a few pages back. The author does this again later in a situation with a newly introduced witness, calling her Brandt in one paragraph, then Jean in the next. It threw me.
I wonder if Sandford’s novels have always been like this, but I’m just now noticing because the writer/editor/evaluator part of my brain never shuts off anymore. I also notice that Sandford calls his detective, Lucas Davenport, by his first name. Lucas’ partners are Sloan and Del, and I honestly can’t remember if they’re first names or last.
As a novelist, to avoid confusion, in family situations I call everyone by first name and have the detectives refer to them in dialogue by first name or both. Even reporters do this in news stories for clarity. In my current novel, an entire family is victimized, and once their full names are established, I consistently refer to them by first name, with the last name added on as a reminder sometimes.
My main character is Wade Jackson, but everyone calls him Jackson, including me, the narrator. And Jackson, a homicide detective, calls almost everyone he encounters—coworkers, suspects, and witnesses —by their last names. Only his daughter and girlfriend get first-name treatment. The young female victims in his cases get first-name treatment too.
The only time I go back and forth on a character’s name is after that character (usually a suspect) is well established and I’m writing a scene, such as an interrogation, in which several males are consistently speaking. Using pronouns (he) in these situations is unacceptable, and I may call the suspect by his last name, Gorman, as general rule, then throw in Bruce every once in a while just to break things up.
I’m sure styles vary from genre to genre. In crime fiction—with cops, FBI agents, and private investigators as main characters—I think most coworkers, suspects and witnesses get the last name treatment, while family and friends get first names. I wonder how much it depends on the gender of the writer?
Writers: Do you have guidelines for these decisions? Or do you just wing it? Do you rotate, calling your character Jim, Jimmy, and James? And sometimes by his last name, Shoehorn, just to keep readers on their toes?
Readers: Do you have a preference? Do you like first names or last names better? Does it bother you when writers go back and forth and use different names for the same character?