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Name or Descriptor When It Comes to Your Character?

I read somewhere that it was better to name your character every time or use a pronoun, instead of using a descriptor of them (eye color, hair color, age) in place of their name.

I tried writing like that, as the article said that was how “professional authors” wrote, but it felt unnatural with some stories.

What do you guys prefer? Only using names and pronouns? Or using descriptors as well?

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Depends. If the PoV knows the name they I tend to just use the name and he/she/it/X. But if the PoV doesn’t know their name then I use descriptors to indicate that there is a less known factor involved. But sometimes I do use other descriptors like nick names and other terms like boyfriend, best friend etc.

I write from first person so it really depends on the what the character is ‘narrating’ at the time.

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As I write mostly short stories and my characters don’t necessarily get a name, I often use pronouns as narrative voice and names (if any) in dialogues (if any). To me, I like the anonymity/generality that leaving names out allows. A story with “she/he did that” is more thrilling to me, if a specific offender is not named, but if it could have been anybody.

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Something else you may consider along with this general advice is characterization and character hooks.

Characterization is making a character unique and continuing to build on their personality and uniqueness throughout the story.

A character hook helps build characterization, especially with minor characters where characterization isn’t as strong. A hook is something memorable that will help a character stick in a reader’s mind. When a character comes into scene, you can use their hook to help remind the reader who the character is and to strengthen characterization. Hooks can be things like a description, dialogue style, or something that always appears in scene with the character.

In the book Save The Cat! Blake Snyder refers to hooks as giving each character “A Limp and an Eyepatch”.

Here are some examples from one of my favorite series, Harry Potter. Hagrid has beetle black eyes, he is massive, has a wild beard, a soft heart, etc. that make him very unique. You can flip to anywhere in the books and Rowling never uses just his name in a scene. She always takes advantage of the opportunity to strengthen characterization. A more minor character, Filch, is always with his cat, which is his hook. Her books are full of characterization and hooks in every scene. The characters without hooks are the ones I tend to forget. I could never remember who Parvati Patil was, but I could remember Colin Creevey with his ever-present camera and Potter-crush.

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I think I’ve seen that advice, you mean using epithets instead of names? (eg “the redhead” instead of “Sarah”) I’ve gotten used to seeing a lot of epithets in fanfiction, but I can’t remember the last time I saw it in a novel. But it’s one of those things that comes down to taste, what’s too much for one person is not enough for another, so you need to decide what you and your audience can be most happy with.

If you’re using epithets because just using pronouns is confusing, one thing I’ve found helpful is to write a scene only using pronouns and then leave it for a few days. When you pick it up to read it again, anywhere where you’re confused about who’s doing what put a name back in.

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I second the point about it mattering the POV. If your POV character of the moment doesn’t know the name of the person being described, it’s perfectly fine to describe them with an epithet.
If the POV has an established relationship with the character being described, I’d say it’s generally better to go with the character’s name. Certainly people don’t tend to describe people they know as “the taller woman” or “the brunette” instead of by name.

AND if you do decide to go with epithets instead of the name, it’s generally considered best practice to make sure that the epithet is highlighting something important.
For example, in Treasure Island, Long John Silver is first introduced as “the one-legged pirate” in a warning to our main character. So it would be odd for Jim, as our POV character, to describe Long John as “the blue eyed man” when he shows up in the story, because we as the readers have essentially been told to pay attention for a one-legged pirate making an appearance.

I’ve definitely seen epithets in professionally published novels, but typically only when the POV character has no name to put to the person being described.

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