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First and Last Name Poll

I like my characters to have first and last names, if possible

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I’m big on characters having the right name for the book which means that the names should match the region, ethnicity, political structure, if any, and so forth. In most books, except for some fantasy books (and there has to be a reason for this), I need characters to have first and last names. The lack of a surname really bugs me. However, according to this site, surnames are a modern invention. What’s your opinion? Do you need a surname?

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Alex Beecroft
    Dec 11, 2008 @ 04:17:05

    I think it depends on the setting of the book. I write historicals, so I wouldn’t want to see surnames before surnames were invented. But in any period or culture where surnames were used, I would want at least the major characters to have them because they don’t feel quite real without them.

  2. Caty
    Dec 11, 2008 @ 05:16:09

    Surnames, definitely. Unless it’s (a) a historical period that really didn’t use them, or (b) a fantasy book and that particular fictional culture doesn’t have them for some reason. In any setting where people normally have surnames (hereditary or otherwise) to distinguish them from other people with the same given name, the characters should have a surname. If they never get round to exchanging surnames, fine – but in any context where real people use(d) surnames, surnames ought to be used.

    And anyone writing a historical needs to research period names properly (me included, if I ever want to get published). Most do, but just occasionally there’s a name that jars (I’m going to have to go away and think of an example now, in case anyone asks).

    There’s no simple line between no-surname/surname periods and not all surnames work the same way. Roman characters with families need the praenomen-nomen-cognomen parts of their names to work properly. Many people in 11th-13th century England had a formal or informal designation as the son of whoever, or ‘the [occupation]’ or ‘of [place]’ or a nickname depending on their own origins or occupation or appearance – and either a Norman nor Saxon forename depending on their ancestry, particularly in the early conquest period. Names conveyed a lot about who you were. All the English examples they give in the link were used for many generations to describe individuals before they became hereditary.

    Oh, and the same principle goes for titles: use them, and please use them properly. And use forenames that were in use in that historical period, too, please.

    [Ahem. Here endeth the historical pedantry. Sorry.]

  3. Anne Douglas
    Dec 11, 2008 @ 06:47:05

    I’m in the maybe category. Sometimes a single name is a rather effective tool for adding a layer to the character (as in he is so cool/tough/throwaway etc s/he only needs one name), others it bugs me as the character ‘wasn’t even given a surname, poor dude!’

    In a weird correlation – my first book went final edits before anyone realised two of my main characters had no surnames. In my head they had surnames, in my character notes they had surnames, but somehow I’d just never put them in the ms. One of my first I-just-sat-down-and-wrote-a-story-author writing lesson learned :)

  4. Katharina
    Dec 11, 2008 @ 07:26:18

    Actually, hundreds of years ago, it was a hard earned privilege in Europe to be only recognised by one’s first name. During the Renaissance era there were Raffael, the famous painter and master constructor, Michaelangelo, Giotto and many many more, who went only by their first name.

    Regarding the books I read, I like believable and pronounceable names. I also write some reviews each month for a print journal, and I get nuts when I can’t find a surname in the book. To me it looks as if the author didn’t really care about her characters. The minimum requirement is a Christian and family name.

  5. Monique
    Dec 11, 2008 @ 07:40:13

    Like others here, I prefer surnames when appropriate and no surname when it would be historically inaccurate.

  6. DS
    Dec 11, 2008 @ 09:46:45

    What Caty said, although when dealing with a fantasy worldscape the rules can be different– but I want them consistent.

    And dear god, use the apostrophes sparingly. In fact, I think a name (first or last) should only have an apostrophe if it is in the possessive.

  7. Jinni
    Dec 11, 2008 @ 11:58:28

    It’s funny this came up, because I’m reading Ken Follett’s World Without End which takes place in medieval times, before the standardization of surnames, and the last names of characters shift and change depending on their current occupation, who their father is, or whether they rise to nobility.

    I like all characters to have names, but I was told by a Harlequin editor recently that they are too distracting and if they don’t have too large a role, they should be referred to by their position in the book (cabdriver, nanny, etc.). I disagree, but then she publishes books, so who am I to say.

  8. Mariana
    Dec 11, 2008 @ 14:36:35

    Surnames aren’t as important to me, as being able to pronouce the names they’re given.

    That being said, a couple of my all time favorite characters is Roarke and Lt. Eve Dallas (from J.D. Robb’s In Death series). She was given her name through events not in her control and Roarke just uses his surname as his name. I find them fascinating and the origin/mystery of their names interesting.

  9. Angie
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 02:27:12

    I like characters to have names as appropriate for their culture and situation. So there might be a culture where most people have first and last (and even middle) names, but your classic Orphaned Street Waif might only have a first name, or only a nickname. And of course, supporting characters are iffy — maybe they need full names and maybe they don’t. And minor characters, the ones who are props more than anything else, need whatever they need; choosing a name for them is like picking a wallpaper pattern, where sometimes busy is appropriate and sometimes you’re better off with something that fades to the background.


  10. Kat
    Dec 14, 2008 @ 20:33:50

    As someone with a hard-to-pronounce last name (that’s only five letters long!), I couldn’t help but notice the conflicting opinions above. If you want to create an authentic cast of characters for an urban, modern-day setting for many North American cities, you’re going to need a multicultural cast of characters. Even if the major characters only belong to one ethnicity, if they interact with the city at all they’re going to know people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. And that means that some names are going to be easier to pronounce than others, depending on where each individual reader is coming from, both geographically and socially.

    Personally, if it’s in a book, I’d rather have a name that “looks” right for the character (even if I’m mangling the pronunciation when I imagine it being said out loud) than something that it’s believed “everyone” will be able to pronounce.

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