First Names = Characters, You're in Trouble

If you're anything like me, you know quite well that the main purpose of middle names is so you can tell when you're REALLY in trouble. They are the default, "I'm warning you" setting for most parents.

I was reading a book the other day and realized that, in fiction, first names can have that same kind of stopping power. For slightly different reasons.

Let's look at some examples.

Dresden Files
Harry's love interest and partner in crime fighting is Karrin Murphy, affectionately known to him as "Murph" throughout most of the series. Only about twice a book, do we see a "Karrin" slipped in there, and it typically happens at points of high tension or character change. This shifts a little as the series goes on and they become closer, and because readers have been familiar with what I'll call the "First Name Rule" up until that point, the more frequent use of her name is a sign in itself of their growing relationship.

Fever Series
Karen Marie Moning does an excellent job of stoking the chemistry between her two main characters in part because of the names by which they know each other--Barrons and Ms. Lane. It only becomes "Jericho" and "Mac" in situations of life and death. The characters know it and react to it, and readers do too!

Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt Books
This is another one where the two main characters, best friends, rarely think of each other by their first names (or, at least, rarely speak them out loud). If Al or Dirk do call each other directly by name, you know something's about to go down.

Okay, not a book...but still awesome! When they started calling each other "Rick" and "Kate," instead of "Castle" and "Beckett," it meant something and we all knew it. Even without any other hints.

How about you? Do you do this in your writing? Have you noticed it in your reading?


  1. Not so much reading as watching. Mulder and Scully spring to mind ^_^

    I haven't really written a book where the whole last/middle name thing works yet as a way of showing relationships, but it's a good thing to keep in mind. Thanks!

  2. Diana Gabaldon does that too. She usually has the man use a pet name for the MC, but when things get serious he uses her real name. Interesting...

  3. I definitely think that names, or nicknames (I love how you included Castle), make a difference in writing. When my characters come to a certain point, they usually end up calling each other something other than their given or normal names, because it definitely does show a closer relationship. But then again, sometimes even "normal" names, like first names, can have a special ring if they aren't normally called that by anyone, like you said.

    A good post, and very thoughtful!


  4. My characters don't have nicknames or middle names, so I haven't used it.
    And if I heard Alexander, I knew I was in for it!

  5. Yeah, gotta watch out for middle name usage in my home. LOL. Interesting observation though about the first name usage in fiction. I'll have to be more observant in other writing. I only have one character in my current work that has a nickname. In fact, it's not even revealed in book one that it *is* a nickname. But there is, however, a lot of race and title usage, but that's not all that uncommon in epic fantasy.

  6. hehehe. Yes! Middle names are definitely there for the "know" factor. YOU ARE IN TROUBLE! Great examples too. I have to laugh at stuff like this and sometimes I wish I knew the middle names of my kids at school. Maybe that would get them to quiet down faster. ;)

  7. Excellent post. I actually do that first name thing in The Dragonslayer. Ms. King doesn't become Lois until later on for Xan. I wasn't even thinking of the reason why either! *LOL* And great using the Fever series as an example. I really want to reread that series. I love Barrons and Mac!

  8. I'm having an X-Files moment. When Mulder and Scully became Fox and Dana, we knew something was up.

  9. Yes, I do. I didn't realize it till now. My main character calls him by his full name when she's angry at him, not his nick name. Lol

  10. That can be a powerful tool. In my book, I have the MC referring to the main guy as "The Jerk" in her head until she softens toward him. Great post!

  11. It just depend on which character is saying the other person's name. But the nicknames are usually close to the first name--unless the last name is the nickname.

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  13. I've noticed how when someone switches from using someone else's casual nickname to using the first name, it is communicating some sort of tension.