Written by L.J.  Sellers


L.J. Sellers

L.J. Sellers

This question comes up again and again 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? For me, their gender and/or role in the story often dictates which treatment they get. But I have yet to find any consistent patterns or general rules in the writing world.

For example, in a John Sandford novel, 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 was very confusing, and it surprised me, because he’s such a good writer. In later paragraphs—with the mother, who has the most prominent role of the three—Sandford rotated, sometimes calling her Allyssa and sometimes Austin. That was also confusing, because I’d only met her a few pages back.

Are most novels this messy with names, and am I just now noticing? Because I have think about these choices for my own stories?

I try to stick to basic guidelines. 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 real-life reporters do this in news stories for clarity, even though newspaper style calls for last name.

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 or both. I make this choice because it’s realistic on the job in many large police departments. Only Jackson’s daughter, girlfriend, and brother get first-name treatment from him. Young victims in his cases get first-name treatment too.

But if you need any proof that sexism is alive and well, take a look at protagonists’ names in crime fiction.  One of my main characters is a female detective named Lara Evans. I have the other detectives refer to her as Evans, a last name treatment like they give everyone else. But my freelance editor (and others) want me to change it to Lara when I’m writing from her point of view (POV). They say it’s more intimate. After a quick survey, I realized most female authors crime fiction authors use a first name when they write from their female protagonist’s POV—but most men use last names for their detective/agent/hitman.

This feels inconsistent and sexist to me. So I call my female detective Evans just like I call the guys Jackson, Schak, and Quince. I make an exception occasionally in dialog when people she’s close to call her Lara. In my standalone thrillers, when the main female characters are not in law enforcement, I call them by first names. Most civilian men too. But bad guys always get last name treatment.

The big question now is a character I’m introducing in the new Jackson story (Rules of Crime, January). Everyone else thinks of her as Agent River, so to be consistent, she should be River during her POV. But this character is going to come back in future stories and most likely leave the FBI to become a private investigator. At which point, I might want to call her by her first name. But will it be confusing if I call her River in this book, and say, Carla, in the next? Or is Carla simply too feminine for a PI?

I’m sure styles vary from genre to genre. But in crime fiction, it seems important that female characters in traditionally-male roles—police officer, FBI, private investigator—have strong names, or better yet, even somewhat masculine. It seems sexist, but it’s how many readers feel, me included. Or am I wrong?

Writers: Do you have guidelines for these decisions? Or do you just wing it?

Readers: 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?

L.J. Sellers is the author of the Detective Jackson Mysteries and various thrillers. For more information please visit her website or follow on twitter.

Tagged with:

7 Responses to “Character Names: Why Does Gender Still Matter?”

  1. It’s a constant struggle, LJ. In my last book, my detective’s partner, Craig Daniels, had a more visible role. It seemed to me that Skip (my detective) would call him Daniels (and he’d call Skip by his last name, Carlton). But when Peri my PI talked to him, I couldn’t see her calling him Daniels – I heard her calling him Craig. Would that confuse everyone? I treaded very gingerly and considered each instance and didn’t get complaints from readers so I guess I succeeded. But it’s not a very successful feeling.

    • Mari Adkins says:

      I require consistency. But I have ADHD which makes swapping back and forth difficult to follow. LJ, I appreciate the way you differentiate you characters. It helps everything flow well. Now, if you’re calling Evans Evans in her stand-alones, then River should be River in hers. :) imho, of course. ymmv :)

  2. L.J. Sellers says:

    Thanks for hosting me, Milo! Thanks, readers, for stopping in.

  3. Jeannie says:

    As a reader:
    1) I don’t mind when a writer switches back and forth from just first name, to just last name, to both names as long as the first intro fully described the person.
    2) I think Carla is fine for a detective/police/investigator. It’s not her name that’s as important as the picture we see when we read her name for the first time.
    3) I think it’s confusing sometimes to be bombarded with too many characters at once. It’s OK to have lots of characters as long as they’re introduced. I’m reminded of some of the first mysteries I ever read; Agatha Christie, where she would list the characters in the front of the book- very helpful to a young reader. Now if I have to continually go back to ‘see who that person is’ or ‘see what that person looks like’, it’s easy to get bored with the rest of the book.
    Thankfully, your books never confuse and are a joy to read.

    • L.J. Sellers says:

      Thanks, Jeannie! Your point about too many characters all at once is important. When I was editing fiction that was one of the things that new writers tended to do. Often the opening paragraph would throw three people out there with no introduction.

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying my books!

  4. Rebecca Walton says:

    Personally, as a reader this is something that interests me greatly. I find that the names used shows a lot about the characters in the story. I read a lot of crime & war fiction, and in crime fiction I usually enjoy last names regardless of gender. In war fiction I prefer nicknames or lastnames. I also think that names should change depending on who Is talking to the character. A mother will usually refer to her son by his first name or nickname.

    Lj- I think Raven is a great name for your character because
    She can identify as Raven in any situation.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers:

%d bloggers like this: