Written by 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?