I have this secret. I love, and write, stories without names. And I think we should talk about that.
At first even I didn’t see what I was doing. I would avoid naming a character until chapter five and think that was just my whimsical way. I would merrily type [INSERT COOL NAME HERE] and chuckle as I thought of all the trouble that little humdinger would cause my future self. But it slowly dawned on me, like a manatee surfacing hot on the tail of a gooey cabbage, that I love stories in which the protagonist never gets a name.
One of my favourite books, as a teen, was Rebecca by Dauphne Du Maurier. It’s a real fab book, if you ever get the chance to read it. It has all the fabtacular language of The Great Gatsby, coupled with awkward British problems, and a murder. There are also mantelpieces, fur coats, fast cars, and a Ball, if that tickles anyone’s fancy. Anyway, I love this book. It is a book that fell apart it my hands because I read it a little too much. It is a book that sits waiting for it’s red scuffed spine to be loving restored. And it is a book in which the main character is never named. This had a substantial impact on me, I know it, for most recently I have a character who is never named. She’s given nicknames, she definitely wants a real name, but it never appears. And here’s the really interesting part: I never intend to name her. I already know that she’ll never find her name, and that when I type OMG FIN* she will remain that way.
It’s not that I’m just bad with names, or lazy**, but that I love the way the absence of a name can create both distance and a kind of intimacy all at once. I love the paradox of that — that somehow by not naming a person you’re opening a window, and letting people project themselves into a small part of this whole new world you’ve created around them.
And everyone loves a good paradox, right?
I even like that not offering a name out makes the main character a little shady. If they don’t trust us with a real name, what else are they hiding? I think this is kind of a great attitude to have when reading!*** Life isn’t full of reliable narrators; it’s dangerous and full of unsolvable problems. It’s difficult. Even our own memories can lie to us for the sake of continuity, so I like the idea that my narrator might lie a little too. Maybe my not naming her is a way of showing, from the very start, that there’s something not right.
I do understand that not naming a character can be problematic. I even recognise that maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe I think that a character can be made to be “bigger” than an ordinary person just by not having a name, and I’m foolish for doing so. I do see that anonymity can make a main character hazy to the story, creating unnecessary distance, too. But I still think there’s definitely an argument for naming most protagonists. Just like there’s a case for mostly not over-using adverbs, but sometimes going wild with them anyway. There’s a case for most things in fiction as long as we do it well, right?
What do you think? Maybe I should bite the bullet and just name the character, already? I should say all my other WIPS eventually end up with protags with names this is not, currently, a total addiction I have. *laughs nervously* *sweats*
* that’s how everyone ends stories, right?
** although, okay, maybe I am 30 percent lazy
*** perhaps in life too! some people will try to tell you that life is not a vampire detective novel and you don’t have to interrogate everyone you bump into, especially not postal workers, but those people clearly have not spend a whole lot of time around people, nor around me on a wednesday afternoon playing herd-the-zombie-into-the-cupboard while desperately searching for the partner to the lone shoe I wear; anyway, bigger picture here, we’re all detectives in a mystery that nobody will ever solve