Where protags have no names

Have you ever written fiction in which the protagonist doesn't have a name, and/or in which the protagonist's name doesn't appear?

If so, I'm curious about what led to that choice. Did you have a particular reason or goal? For example, were you trying to distance the character from the reader? Were you trying to let the reader see themselves as the character? Did you want the character to feel archetypal? Did you want to emphasize the character's role rather than their personhood? Were you trying to obscure the character's identity and/or what kind of a person or being they were? Did it just feel right? Was it an experiment? An accident?

Also, what approach did you take to avoiding the name? Did you call the protagonist "the man" or "the woman" or "the old queen" or "the man in yellow"? Did you use a job title? Did you just use pronouns? Were you calling attention to the lack of name, or trying to be subtle about it? Did the character have a name in your head? Did the lack of a name make you-as-writer more invested in the character, less invested, neither?

(You don't need to answer those questions one at a time; just tell me anything you want to say about your nameless character(s).)

I'm also curious about the other side: how do any of you (whether writers or not) react as readers to nameless protagonists?

In my experience reading submissions, I think I often find it kind of annoying when a protagonist is nameless. (Or even, though this is a different thing, when the protagonist is referred to only by epithets and pronouns in the first few paragraphs and then is given a name.) But sometimes it works. And sometimes I don't even notice it. And there's certainly a long tradition of nameless protagonists; a lot of fairy tales have them, for example.

So I don't mean to suggest that it's inherently bad. Just thinking about what kinds of effects it can have, and about when it's a good idea and when it isn't. Discussion welcome.

4 Responses to “Where protags have no names”

  1. Cat Faber

    I’ve written at least one story where the protag’s name didn’t pop up until several pages in.

    In that case it was written from the first person POV, and the protag was alone for most of it. Since I don’t think much about my name when I’m alone, the protag didn’t either.

    It kind of startled me when someone commented on it, actually.

  2. Joey

    Lockpick had a nameless protagonist, but this always just seems natural when using the first person, where you have to go out of your way to give a character’s name. It wasn’t toward any particular effect. At least not consciously.

  3. TomJ

    In the marvellous novel The Princess Bride a major character is refered to for some time as the Man in Black. The mystery about his identity is needed for dramatic reasons in the first read (or viewing of the film) and fun on subsequent reads…

    (Phew, spoilers avoided.)

  4. Vardibidian

    I’ve been meaning to add—as a reader, when I come across a nameless protagonist, I assume it’s a reference (or homage) to the Continental Op. So that’s all right.



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