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?

5 Comments
  1. I have read too many books that make the mistake of switching character names before giving the reader a chance to get to know them. I hate when I have to go back and figure out who I’m reading about. I think writers need to name characters, be consistent with those names, establish relationships in dialogue and be consistent again with the names used. If a person’s name Is James Taylor , but his sister calls him Jimbo then she calls him Jimbo through the entire work. In scenes involving detectives, etc. I use their entire name the first introduction and then their last name for remainder. I believe readers don.t want the confusion. It’s just like using “he” or “she” too many times in scenes involving multiple characters. It just becomes too difficult to follow.

  2. It can be even more complicated in my genre – historical romance set in the Regency era – because we are dealing with not only first and last names, and the occasional nickname, but also with titles which may or may not relate to the character’s last name. My male protagonists typically think of themselves by their first names, but they are usually referred to or spoken to by other characters by title. I have to constantly think about what I should use when I am writing, based on whose POV I’m in and what they would call a specific character. Do I use Lord or Lady, or simply the title? Do I use a first name? A shortened first name or title? And each character has a correct manner for referring to the other characters as well. I believe readers of this genre tend to expect such things, because otherwise it would not read with any sort of authenticity. But I know my own preferences for character names tends to vary by genre.

  3. I agree with Robin. It doesn’t matter so much what a writer calls his characters, as long as he/she is consistent. And by consistent, I don’t necessarily mean that a character is called the exact same thing by everyone (in fact, that might be weird). Just that every person (and the narrator) remains consistent in their use of a character’s name.

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Catherine, I don’t envy that naming process. What a pain.

  5. I actually started using the geographic atlas to help name some characters, a tip learned from a seasoned pro. Also, the same name, played with like playdo and mis-pronunced or familiarized in so many ways, goes a long way toward establishing the relationship between two characters. Take care to listen, for example, how cops talk to each other informally –or formally, especially with other jurisidictions, or of higher or lower rank.

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