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Surnames – important or not?

I’ve long wondered whether they really make that much difference to the reader or not – personally, I couldn’t give two hoots about what a characters last name is, but I think I’m in a minority when it comes to this. I guess at times it might give some information about the cultural identity of someone, but most of the time it slides to the back of my mind.

For years I didn’t give the characters in my novels surnames. But then people started telling me that I needed to – people have surnames characters should have surnames too, if you want them to be people.

So I started doing it more often, and some seem to spring to life with surnames attached (Delaney Jones for example – that said, her surname is important to the story), whereas others… boy, I struggle trying to find one that sounds right. It just seems so frivolous at times, I mention it once or twice, and the rest of the time it goes unspoken. I can see where it would be different with characters where surnames are used a lot (officials, teachers, doctors etc), but for my novels it just doesn’t seem to come into play very often.

I just had an ‘ah ha’ moment. I think I know why I’m not at all bothered by having characters with first names only – my mother only has a first name.

Of course, she had surnames in the past: her maiden name, her married name. But now she has only her first name, the name she gave to herself, and yes its all legal! There ARE people in the world who only have one name, and one of them happens to be the most important person in my life, and a role model. She is well known, well loved, very much respected. And she only has a first name. No wonder surnames seem unnecessary.

Anyway, I’m coming around to surnames, I am. But I’d like to get some feedback – how important do you feel surnames are? And what makes them so important to you?

Are they more important in the long work than in a short story? Or is there some unspoken law that says all characters should have surnames?

I am thinking that possibly they aren’t so important in a short, it seems kind of redundant and unnecessary to tag it onto the end of a characters first name at the start of the story only to never be mentioned again. But then, I am just one writer, one reader 😉

What do you think?

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18 thoughts on “Surnames – important or not?”

  1. I feel it depends on both the character and the story. I loathe stories that start:

    “John Delacourt straightened his tie and…”

    So artificial. Bleuch. I only put the surname in if it comes up naturally or, as you say, if it is a defining part of the character.

    1. Hahaha, that cracks me up about starting like that! I have done that before, purely because people have said ‘this character needs a last name’ but I could find no decent way to insert it into the storyline. Am really glad to hear that I’m not the only one who thinks surnames are not 100% necessary all the time.
      It can get tricky if you don’t use it early on, and then it crops up later in the story and people go ‘who?’ because you’ve used the surname but haven’t prior to that.

  2. I hate coming up with surnames — I always feel like the names I come up with sound dumb — but I do feel that they add a note of completeness. It’s one of those things that _I_ would probably never notice if a writer didn’t supply it, but I try to keep in mind that other readers than me exist. 🙂

    I, also, try to make sure that if the surname comes up, it’s in a vaguely natural context — someone addresses them that way for a normal reason, or they have to sign their full name, or something. It can be difficult.

    1. It can be difficult, you’re right. I’m still working out how to slide it in naturally, because like you, I’m well aware that some people are going to want a surname…. which isn’t to say I’ll always provide one, but it has to make sense in the context of the story.

  3. Sometimes they are VERY important, sometimes trivial. All depends on the story.

    I love it that your mom has one name. 🙂 And completely understandable why surnames have little bearing on your work. And I love that too!

    1. lol thanks Anna! I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to work out what an impact it’s had – that said, she is always trying to get me to blame her for something, so now I can add this to the list (along with encouraging me and my passions to the point where I believe I can do anything I want, and therefore not providing me with a cage of parental wants against which to rage – my Mum rocks 😉 maybe one day I’ll find something bad to pin on her but you know, I really don’t think there is anything!)

  4. I agree with the others that sometimes they’re necessary, but not always. I tend to prefer knowing full names, but maybe that’s just me. It’s never been hard for me to come up with surnames, though. When writing, it helps me see characters more fully to give them full names, so I just always do.

    In real life, I’m a call-you-by-your-full-name kind of girl. This isn’t really on purpose, and it’s not every person…I just tend to think of some people as their first and last name, and it comes out that way when I address them. I never noticed I did it until someone responded by calling me by my full name.

    Fortunately, I don’t go around writing my characters’ full names every time I mention them, haha.

    1. That was popular at one point though wasn’t it? Will be interesting to see whether there are trends through time about naming characters, and what we’re doing with them in ten years time.

      You know, it’s funny that you say you’re a full name kind of girl, reminds me how much I am not. A good example of this was when I was doing my wedding invites and I realized I had several friends whose surnames I didn’t know. People I had known for years, hung out with on a regular basis, and was obviously inviting to my wedding! It was kind of embarrassing having to ask, but then, they didn’t know mine either so it was okay 🙂 I guess I’m super casual?

  5. Most of my characters have been fantasy, so they don’t require a last name, generally referred to as Delonia from Godena Tribe for example.

    Having read a lot of Mills and Boons over the summer months, I have noticed that the female character is generally introduced as (again an example) Sally Harris – then her last name is never referred to again.

    To be honest, it is up to the writer to make the decision. If the surname is not important to the story, then why battle with them and try and stick them with something that they don’t want?

    1. You know, I hadn’t thought about the fantasy aspect, I certainly think that when you have interesting and diverse first names, surnames become less important. That said, there are a huge amount of fantasy novels and series where there are big family trees and surnames certainly come into play within many an epic tale.

  6. How awesome about your mum! I’ve considered moving to no surname (there’s no real reason for not wanting one, it just feels wrong) but ended up deciding the inevitable complications just weren’t worth it – though the name I use for writing, which is fast becoming my real, though not legal, name is my first and a short form of my middle name. There’s an article I read a while back here. It’s good to know you can do it legally in NZ anyway.
    I understand in Indonesia it’s quite common to just have one name.

    Back to writing, there are some circumstances I think a character does need a surname, and occassionally one will just pop up, but mostly I don’t bother – I feel I could be working out a lot more interesting things about the character than endlessly going through the dictionary.

    1. That was a really interesting article! I remember that at the time my mother legally changed her name there were only 7 people in NZ who had one name, would be interesting to see how many have only the one now.

  7. So I’ve been thinking about this some more, and a few examples of surname use (or the lack thereof) popped into my head.

    I can’t imagine Seinfeld without knowing George’s last name is Costanza, Kramer’s first name is Cosmo, etc. Likewise with The Office – Dwight being Dwight Schrute is tons better, as are Michael Scott and Pam Beasley, for some reason. I think it helps to reinforce their quirkiness.

    Then there’s LOST, a good example for how to use surnames deliberately. When they withhold one, it’s usually because the person is mysteriously connected to another character. Later, with the reveal, it’s really satisfying and everyone gasps.

    But then, I think about the musical RENT. Those characters are largely referred to by their first names only – Mark, Maureen, Mimi, Joanne, etc. They probably do have last names, but I don’t remember them. I think I’d be more annoyed to know their last names, it would be unnecessary.

    All that to say, after thinking about it, I think it depends on the tone of your story and the story itself. 🙂

    1. Oh: and on re-reading, it made me laugh to read “…and everyone gasps.” Everyone = the audience on the viewing side of the screen, in case that’s not obvious. At a glance, it looked like the ‘everyone’ might refer to the actual characters in the show, gasping at one another, haha.

      1. thanks for the morning giggle lol I love the image of all the characters gasping at the reveal 🙂

        Certainly, surnames are called for at times, but it’s nice to know that I can get away with not using them in every story.

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