writers / writing

When do you use first or last names in novels?

writers groupThis post is for Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writers Support Group (click the link for details on what that means and how to join. You will also find a list of bloggers signed up to the challenge that are worth checking out like Rebecca who inspired me to begin). The first Wednesday of every month, we all post our thoughts, fears or words of encouragement for fellow writers.

This month’s insecurity – How do I decide whether I should call my character by his first name, last name, or both?

I’ve seen it done all ways, but whichever I pick ends up sounding stilted. If I use first names, my characters don’t sound professional enough. If last names, it sets an unnatural distance when I’m in the head of a character they’re close to. I’ve tried switching, adapting for the scene, and my book club complains that I have no set name.

What do I do?

More IWSG articles:

Am I good enough? Does it matter?

Am I a Storyteller?

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning. 

46 thoughts on “When do you use first or last names in novels?

  1. Pingback: #IWSG–The Importance of Comments | WordDreams...

  2. I write more MG, which means first names usually. Adults, depending on their relation to the main characters, are addressed properly with last names. However, the MG I’m currently working on uses both names for the MC. His last name has a strong connection to the plot, and how the other characters see him determines whether they use the first or last name. (It sounds more complicated than it is.) Good luck in figuring yours out!


  3. I use whatever seems to go with the role the character plays. For instance, it’s common for cops the firefighters to call each other by their last names, so I do too. With teachers and, say, government officials, it’s Mr., Mrs., Ms. with the last name. With characters that are going to have a more personal relationship with the reader, I use the first name/nick-name.


  4. Personally, I think you should do what feels right because every situation and every character is different. You need to play a little, have a conversation with your characters and find something you can agree on! My brother is a military man and in his unit, like so many others, they use surnames to address each other – even when they’re friends they either create a nickname or shorten/play with the surname. So if last names normally work better for you, and you want something a little more personal when you get into a characters head, try out a nickname or two!


  5. What a great question & you know this same quandary happened when I was erring this past weekend.
    I feel That when I read it back aloud – I could hear what fitted most . Lots of good hints and advice here 🙂


  6. Initially, I tend to look at the circumstance and how the names are used by the characters. A hard-bitten private eye in his sleazy little office? Last name. Best girl-friend? First name or pet name. Who is doing the referring? (Dialogue or narrative?) If the high school vice principal (in charge of discipline) is calling you out–last name. If that vice principal is female–maybe even Mr. or Miss last name. Kids? first names, unless you’re trying to emphasize a class difference. (Sorry, I’ve been reading a string of southern novels of late.) How old is the character? Many older folks were raised during a time when respect attached to title+last name. What is the context? Work or play. Ever noticed how people call the boss Mr., but the ‘girls’ in the office have only first names?
    In my first book, one of the characters is a school teacher. We see her in a friendship mode, so it’s first name. But the next time my readers encounter her, she’ll be at work, too. There, she’s Miss _____, and is always trying to get the students to use Ms.


  7. In my first book the main female character’s name changed depending on the people around her–I did it for two reasons: 1. to show she had little power in her life (her family called her by her childhood Katie. 2. I wanted her husband to see her as stronger than she was–he called her Kate when he was happy with her and Katherine when he wanted to distance himself from her.

    John Weldon was always Weldon because while the reader knows him the other characters are rarely allowed to get close to him.

    Names are fun!


  8. This is an interesting question. I guess I’ve never really given it much thought. In my writing I use my character’s first name unless they are in some sort of formal or business situation. I guess I try to keep it like real life. I only refer characters by their first and last name when it pertains to something written, like a letter for example. It seems to me this could go so many ways. I hope you figure out the balance you are seeking.


  9. It depends on the character. I typically use first names (heck, half the time I have characters that don’t have last names!). Of course, if the person is trying to be respectful, a Mr./Mrs./Ms./Miss might be thrown in before the last name. I’ve noticed in sports people usually are called by their last names by coaches and fellow teammates. In the end, it just depends, which doesn’t really help out.


  10. I love names. All main characters have first and last and many have a nickname bestowed by other characters. MY crit group (ahem!) also complains about this, unable to understand why one character may call Snuckleyums “Mommy” while another calls her “Mrs. Candy.” Less important characters may only be known by one name, or none at all.
    Don’t usually call anyone only by a last name – might try this in my next book. What do you think, Murray?


    • Hehe. To me, if that person is flat, one-dimensional, like some characters are there to serve one purpose, it makes sense to use only the last name. Otherwise… Just like you calling me ‘Murray’–are you mad at me dear friend?


      • Good grief, NO! I was trying to be funny – joke dud, sorry. I could never do stand up comedy.
        But doesn’t it feel cold and distant to be addressed by your last name, especially without the honorific of Mrs. or Ms.? That should be considered when naming characters in books, don’t you think?


  11. Hard core action novel, mystery and suspense seem to use the last names more than other fiction. I think they sound tougher that way, bigger than big, more official–know what I mean?

    Heck, even our Latin teacher in high school only called us all by our surnames. 😮


  12. I to have a tendency to use both, depending on the scene and what it going on. Example; if it is in a professional situation, I will use the first or full name and keep it that way. However, if it is in a more personal situation; say a cop and his partner, then I will have a tendency to use the last name. I haven’t really had any complaints about it as of yet. Great question.


  13. I didn’t have a problem with that because it was a short story. That means the emphasis isn’t on the person as much as everything else.

    Figuring out who’s who–that’s a strong point for reading apps. You can do a search and see where that gal-dang person showed up in the past and why. It’s saved me more than once.


  14. INTERRRRRRRRESTING. The short story I just got a critique on I wrote in the first person and used no name which some people commented on.

    I have trouble remembering names (in “real” life) and as a reader it’s the same. It often takes me pages, sometimes chapters, to figure out who is who. A clearly delineated relationship or identity (wife, baker, barber, brother etc) is the thread that keeps it clear for me.


  15. I’ve noticed that when my character doesn’t respect another, it’s all last names baby. And when they know each other well, it’s nicknames or first names.

    Come from the character’s point of view. How do they see themselves? I go by my first name no matter who I meet, but you’re right that doesn’t fit everyone.

    Anna from Elements of Writing


    • I am trying out evolving the last name to first as the characters get to know each other, just as would happen in real life. To show the familiarity and respect. Or, if through the POV character, s/he always thinks of people in the first name friendly, I go that way. That feels natural, even though everyone doesn’t agree.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. An interesting thing to ponder–I tend to use last names, mostly for the practical purpose of having more diverse words during conversations. If I’m writing “Smith said,” then it breaks it up if the other characters call him “John” instead of all Johns. I have a character who is a hard as nails killer and I refer to her solely by first name, a small trick to heighten a certain reveal. Beyond that, it’s all a matter of how if feels–the characters’ vocations, station in life, inter-relationships and the degree of intimacy I want the reader to feel, crossed with any games I want to play with readers’ reactions. Even settings come into play: there is a population of military personnel among my current characters, which lends itself to last names–but the last novel had, as it’s main character, a female chief of state, and I wrote her on a first name basis because the novel relied upon the reader taking her journey beside her.


  17. Mm… I write mostly MG and YA, so this isn’t much of a problem for me. I normally use first names. But I think for other stories, it’s best to have the main character, at least, with just the first name, and then maybe a few secondary characters. It depends on the story, really. In real life, most people just call each other by their first names.


  18. This is a problem I face constantly. As a result, I often do both. I refer to my main character by his/her first name – and often closely associated – and use last names for secondary characters. You’re right, though, no matter which you use it often sounds a bit off, so I try to be descriptive enough that the reader will know who is on without the name being used. That works with short stories, but in novels I just use the method I described. It’s a headache.


  19. Interesting thoughts. I tend to use first names, or occasionally nick-names, but that is probably more in keeping with the genre I write in (children’s fiction mainly). If writing for adults I guess there are going to be times when a more formal approach is needed. Maybe try asking your book club which they think fits the particular scenario best.Also reading your work out loud to yourself might help.

    Good luck and best wishes.
    Suzanne (IWSG co-host)


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