We get a lot of stories about pronouns in our inbox — characters who
have no other handles than “he” and “she” or “I” and “you.” There’s a
certain seductiveness for an author to leaving names unspecified — not
only can you avoid coming up with an appropriate one, but you can argue
that leaving things more open-ended allows readers to can fill in the
blanks from experience and identify more closely with the characters.
But there’s a risk associated with it as well. The strategy can work well in songs, for example, to capture a certain mood or slice of common experience, but it doesn’t always work so well in fiction. In stories we don’t want placeholders. We don’t want the general notion of a scientist or wife or postman. We want individuals who happen to fill those roles, but go beyond them, too.
By no means does every character need a name — bit parts are probably better when they fly under the radar, allowing us to focus on the major players. Many first-person stories also feature a compelling narrator at the centre of the action who’s never directly named. It’s a device that works best at a relatively short length (a length AE specializes in), and for certain kinds of stories. In fact, we’ve published several stories that manage to draw the reader in without naming a single character. “Remains” is a story about people who’ve taken themselves out of the world of the living, and about the ones left in their wake who are forever defined by their absence. The changes described in “The Visible Spectrum” affect everyone in the world, so the somewhat impersonal narrative makes sense. It’s told to us by a narrator who’s used to explaining the implications to millions, using one representative family (her own) to show how humanity adapted over the years.
“Touch the Sky, They Say” is another everyone’s-in-the-same-boat kind of tale, but this one is different. It’s really the story of its narrator, and in that sense everyone else is just a bit part. That doesn’t mean that they’re faceless extras — even in the brief glimpses we see, we get a feel for the girl who wastes no time in touching the sky and the spiky-haired teenager rebelling against his school uniform. And in Matt Moore’s other story in AE, “Ascension,” there’s another good reason for everyone to be anonymous, as people leave their “flawed, finite bodies” behind along with their former identities.
These stories use the device masterfully, but there’s another kind of submission that gets us scanning ahead, wondering if anyone with a name is ever going to show up (although by that point, if someone does eventually get a name, we have to wonder why it took so long for them to appear). Often this kind of story is told in the third person and conveniently features one male and one female character. They generally go on to participate in an awkwardly nonspecific romance (because what else are you gonna do when you have two, and exactly two, characters of the opposite sex?) Especially when we lose the access to the thoughts and perceptions of a character that we get in a first-person narrative, we’re desperate for telling details about the characters in a story, things that set them apart from characters we’ve seen before. Unfortunately, the nameless people in these stories hardly ever have enough distinctive qualities to make them stand out. Put a couple of everymen in a room together, and their interactions are usually about as compelling as two chatbots talking to each other.
To be sure, names by themselves aren’t some magic dust that you can sprinkle on a character to turn him or her or it into a fully realized creature instead of a caricature. They can be a powerful tool to provide some of the shading that makes a character feel more three-dimensional, however. People don’t generally get to choose their own names, but the names they bear can convey information about their family or culture. Or how they wear the name they were given can provide clues to their personality. Maybe they did choose their name, or maybe they’re known by a nickname they earned from friends, family, or comrades.
“Last Words” uses the corporate-sponsored surnames of its characters to tell us something about the future in which the story is set. The names Bertingham, Ninia and Fretil from “Resolution” contribute to the absurd mood of the piece, while in “The Infinite Onion,” the vanilla monikers Carlson and Truman evoke the impersonal company that the characters are part of. In “Orange,” the names of the players in each vignette change as the story moves around the globe, showing us that they are different individuals in each scene, but they are also similar enough to each other to suggest that we should read their disparate narratives as part of a larger common experience.
In the end, names serve much the same function in fiction as they do in real life. We want to know new character’s names for the same reason that we want to be introduced to the good-looking stranger at a party — so we can get to know them better, and so we can talk about them without pointing or constantly casting awkward glances. And for the person performing the introduction, the goal is to point someone out and say “Hey. Pay attention to this one.” In games, when you see an NPC with a name, it’s a sign that you should probably talk to them, and in stories it tells you to keep track of this person and what you know about them so far because you may see them again later. It’s the author shining a spotlight on the character, however briefly. If the spotlight never comes out, it feels like all the action is taking place at the edges of the stage and it’s hard to know where to look. If no one in a story is worth introducing, then we’re likely to keep looking for someone else we might want to spend time with.