I have a simple, very simple, request for everyone who reads this blog. Please, please name your main character.
I recently ran a short story critique group as part of an online writers conference, and fully half the stories had a nameless main character. One of these was even a third-person narrator.
The reason given by the authors was, "I wanted the main character to be an everyman type," or "I wanted to make sure the reader would be able to step into her perspective." In addition to the lack of a name, these characters lacked history, lacked family, lacked motive -- lacked personality.
Before I begin dissuading you from taking this route, let me admit there are perfectly good stories which have nameless and extremely interesting narrators. A. Lee Martinez does a fantastic job with a nameless first-person narrator in A Nameless Witch and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca also has a nameless first person protagonist.
But for the most part, every novel you pick up is going to have a protagonist with a name, and there's a reason for that. Because before your reader can identify with your protagonist, your protagonist has to have an identity.
Leaving the character nameless is a symptom of this overall lack of identity in the main character, and rather than creating a blank slate on which the reader will write his own name, gives the reader a featureless individual who drifts rather than acts (since our actions come from our identity) and whom we instinctively distrust. In these cases, the namelessness is a symptom rather than a cause.
Do you want to write an "everyman" type of character? Check out the Harry Potter books. Not only is Harry's life detailed, but they're very specific details. They're in many ways over-the-top details, but they're all there, and yet millions of readers identify very strongly with Harry.
Now why would that be, since I can guarantee you all those millions of readers do not have magical powers, are not orphans, were not forced to bunk under the stairwell, and aren't living in boarding schools. Many aren't male and all the ones I know personally are not British.
What we're identifying with is his core humanity. Break him down and you get:
- someone who's special, but the world doesn't really know it
- someone who faces adversity
- someone who has trouble making friends, although he has a few close ones
- someone who feels misunderstood by authority -- either people expecting too much of him or, by contrast, people expecting far more than he could possibly deliver
- someone who feels the rules are smothering him and keeping him from achieving his full potential.
Everyone can identify with these traits. Either we feel those things about ourselves, or we want to believe those things. Harry evokes in the reader a sense that we can transcend our past, can prove our detractors wrong and maybe live up to the expectations of our cheerleaders. Who wouldn't want to feel that?
So to make your MC more identifiable, give him that human core which we all want. Expanding those characteristics, even if they're not specific to every one of your readers, is going to make your protagonist more accessible. He doesn't have to be "everyman" in order to be identifiable to everyone.
The reader wants to invest in the main character. That's in the author's favor. It's easier for us to do that if your MC is inhabiting a fully-fleshed-out world of his own. That means a job, clothes, flaws, needs (both met and unmet), friends, choices to be made and the process by which the character makes them. It means a personality. It means a name. And once you give us those characteristics, we'll be able to step into his place and see ourselves there too.
Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the resolute Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.