Unnamed Characters in Stories

When telling a story, why might a writer choose not to name a character? If you’ve ever written an essay about a fictional work with an unnamed character you’ll realise it’s more hassle not to name a significant character than to just go ahead and call them something. Indeed there are reasons not to.

To Deliberately Keep A Character Anonymous

The Norwegian/English main character in The Witches by Roald Dahl remains nameless but we never really notice until we’re required to write a book report about him. In this case, the nameless main character is a cipher for the reader, who can then more easily put themselves in their place. The boy could easily be a girl, for instance. He is the archetypal child. To give him a name would be to narrow him down to a particular child, not the child reader. This is partly why I found The Witches so terrifying as a six year old. I even examined my teacher’s hands and hair to check she wasn’t a witch.

Likewise, the narrator in “The Scarlet Ibis” remains nameless, even while the ironic symbolism of his brother’s name is mentioned within the text. This is the narrator prioritising his brother. This is also a confessional story, so perhaps we are to imagine the narrator is real but choosing to remain anonymous.

To Deliberately Keep A Character Generic

There is a place in storytelling for archetypes and flat characters. As soon as we name a character we give them individuality. So if we want the audience to think in terms of archetype, it pays not to give them a name.

On the other hand, some names function entirely generically. Across English fairy tales the name Jack meant ‘archetypal, unmarked boy’. See Jack and the Beanstalk, for instance. (The female equivalent is Jill, but girl characters can never be truly ‘unmarked’ owing to them being marked with female-ness.) John is equally generic, but less working class. The female equivalents are Jill and Jane. The German boys of fairytale were generically called Hans.

Beauty and the Beast” also relies on fairytale archetypes, named for abstract qualities. This emphasises the allegorical nature of the tale. Even in modern revisionings, in which storytellers sometimes give these archetypes individuating names, their archetypal characterisation perseveres.

Cicely Mary Barker (1895 - 1973) The Fairies of The Wayside ~ The Jack-Go-To-Bed-At-Noon Fairy
Cicely Mary Barker (1895 – 1973) The Fairies of The Wayside ~ The Jack-Go-To-Bed-At-Noon Fairy

Paul Jennings made use of generic Australian 1980s names in his short children’s fiction. These names may seem generic, but are clearly white.

Katherine Mansfield does not name the main character in her short story “The Little Governess“. This turns the story of a young woman alone into a more universal female experience.

Another example is Closet Land from 1991, in which the abuser male and abused female remain unnamed. This is an attempt to universalise the dynamic, though it ultimately subverts nothing.

To Keep Them From Seeming Important

Sometimes, and this is a really big myth, sometimes we’re afraid to name experiences or feelings because we think naming them gives them power, and if we’re feeling something hard or uncomfortable, the last thing we want to do is give it power. Let me dispel this myth now with 400,000 pieces of data and 20 years of research. When we name and own hard things, it does not give them power, it gives us power.

Brene Brown

Naming has primary importance as a way of determining a being’s subjectivity. [A character’s namelessness] reinforces his lack of an existence, his lack of agency.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

Writers choose details for different reasons, and one detail might be offering up character names. Sometimes writers want to make a setting seem real, and will give details for that reason alone. Recently I wrote a story which mentioned two children by name — characters who I’d individualised slightly hoping to show the smallness of the community, but who were not going to appear again later on.

A critique partner questioned my decision to name these characters. Especially because I happened to name them early in the story, the reader was primed to try and remember them, expecting them to pop up later. I removed the characters altogether rather than face the dilemma of how to introduce community characters without also accidentally giving the impression the reader is meant to remember who they are.

In short, readers intuit they won’t have to remember the kettle is ‘blue’, and will happily accept that kind of detail as background. A blue kettle may be symbolically significant but nothing more. It is more problematic to name background characters hoping a reader to do the same. We are naturally sentiocentric.

In “The Little Governess” Mansfield doesn’t name the porter, the waiter, either. This is more expected. They’re minor characters, and she interacts with these men as their work roles.

When re-visioning old tales, writers often give names to previously unnamed characters.

Accidental Symbolic Annihilation

Miss Nonentity vintage book by LT Meade, c1900, London

Some years ago I wrote a story in which I named the main male character but didn’t name his wife. The storytelling reason for this: I wanted to keep the wife from seeming important to the plot. To give her name would be asking the reader to remember yet another name. But when I put it through critique, a (fellow) feminist critique partner was insulted that I had not named the wife and refused to read further. She had grown sick and tired of reading stories about men. An unnamed wife was a bridge too far.

This brings up an interesting point. Throughout history, certain demographics have been left out of stories, and not just fictional ones. This is part of a (mostly) subconscious ploy to uphold white patriarchy. Women’s scientific breakthroughs have often been attributed to adjacent men, oftentimes in a variation on the Pygmalion story, in which a successful woman must be the product of a man.

In short, you will come under increased scrutiny if you avoid naming an historically marginalised character than to avoid naming a white male character. This holds true even if you can justify why you did what you did in storytelling terms.

To Highlight Problematic Invisibility

One good political reason not to name a character: To highlight to the reader that this character is ignored, downtrodden and marginalised in society.

An example of this can be seen in “The Home Girls“, a short story by Australian writer Olga Masters about two young girls who are shunted from foster home to foster home. Jarringly, Masters refers to the sisters as ‘the fat one’ and ‘the thin one’. An ungenerous reader might think the author’s fatphobia is revealed in this description.

My take: Masters is highlighting the tendency for people to regard these unknown girls only after the briefest, impressionistic glance: BMI is a shallow and offensive way to describe a girl, and Master’s narrative voice is The Village Voice.

We are now living in an era where commentary on other people’s weight is taboo. Masters published her short stories in the 1980s, and I wonder how many writers would be brave enough today to trust readers’ ability to separate narrative choice from author’s voice.

No Name, Incomplete

In antiquity, to know someone’s name was to have some kind of power over them. This is seen very clearly in “Rumpelstiltskin“.

Toni Morrison utilised this universal mythology in her novel Beloved, drawing on ancient African and Indian mythologies about child-demons. In Beloved, Sethe murders her baby to prevent her from being taken by slave drivers. The ghost of this baby never goes away, interfering in every aspect of Sethe’s life. Significantly, the baby is never given her own name, known only as “Beloved”.

That’s because, in mythic stories, a character never named remains incomplete. Superstitiously, to be incomplete is terrible. And pretty much the worst thing you can be is an incomplete woman. Across mythology, an ‘incomplete’ woman includes a woman who hasn’t given birth. Maybe this is because she died a virgin without having babies of her own (e.g. the Greek ogre of Lesbos, Gello). In that case, she’ll come back to wreak havoc upon corporeal beings, killing other people’s babies, eating them up.

Honestly, what else is she meant to do? The incomplete woman doesn’t belong here, but nor does she belong in the world of the dead. According to The Odyssey, she’ll wander forever between both worlds. 

This category of dead people was known as the aoroi.

Oh, the aoroi did have one use — for us, at least. Earthlings could summon these incomplete beings during rituals. The aoroi were useful as go-between messengers. In ancient Greece and Egypt it was thought that the underworld surrounded its inhabitants by walls, but these aoroi had no walls around them. Any decent magician could summon them back to Earth for a bit.

In Christianity it is also terrible to be incomplete (unbaptised). This will leave you vulnerable to evil. So it’s no accident that the baptism ceremony is also a kind of naming ceremony. There is generally a public naming of the child and a sprinkling of water over the babies forehead.

To be baptised is to be named; to be named is to be complete. As a general principle, naming equals completion.

The Name Is Gained As Part Of The Character Arc

A wonderful example is The Adventures of Beekle: The unimaginary friend by Dan Santat, about a creature who doesn’t fully exist in the world until he finds a real child to imagine him up. It is only then that Beekle gets his name. With his name comes identify, belonging and a sense of purpose.

Nickname Only, Individuality Denied

A variation on the decision to avoid naming a character is to give them only a nickname. This can also have the effect of removing power.


Header: Rumpelstiltskin illustrated by Edward Gorey