Updated April 2023
Many authors agonize over choosing the perfect names for their characters—Jay Gatsby, Binx Bolling, and Scarlett O’Hara are a few character names that are distinctly memorable. But what about writing characters who are never given a name? While this literary device has been used for centuries, The New Yorker recently noted an uptick of unnamed characters in contemporary novels.
One way to use this literary device is to have an anonymous narrator who plays no part in the story, but who merely acts as an observer telling the tale. Or, in a work that is based on allegory, an unnamed character can be identified by a number, letter, job, or common trait to symbolize a hidden meaning.
Novels or stories with nameless protagonists are often dystopian, but leaving a character unnamed is also a way to show that he or she is experiencing a personal crisis of identity. Instead of the person’s name, we focus on how he or she is affected by a drastically different world, a different culture, a new job or new relationship. In Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog (2014), the protagonist uses a pseudonym; we never know his real name. A New York lawyer whose life is falling apart, the unnamed hero decides to improve his life by moving to Dubai. However, he discovers that his life is not better—in fact, he feels even more trapped.
By using a nameless character, an author can prevent readers from unconsciously attaching the identity of another person, ethnic group, or social background. This technique also reinforces a theme of lost or changed identity—of someone who does not want to be known or whose identity is ever-changing, so it cannot be known. But while the lack of identity may make a character seem unknowable, it can also make the character more accessible to readers.
Here are a few well-known stories with nameless characters:
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. A young, college-educated African-American man travels from the South to New York in the 1930s—and experiences racism and violence. Winner of the 1953 American National Book Award.
- Anthem by Ayn Rand. A dystopian novella set in a time when humans are identified by number. Rand hypothesizes what a purely egalitarian society would be like: Committees make all the decisions—whom to marry, what job to take, and what to learn.
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, a father and son walk through post-apocalyptic America—defending themselves and their few resources against marauders and cannibals. They have a gun with only two bullets.
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. An eavesdropper tells the protagonist’s story of traveling into the Congo during Belgian colonialism.
- Everyman by Philip Roth. Fewer than 200 pages long, the story begins at the protagonist’s funeral and looks back on his life: jobs, marriages, divorces, illnesses, and retirement.
- The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe. This classic story is told by an anonymous narrator hoping to convince the reader of his sanity while describing a murder he committed.
- Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. Surprisingly, the protagonist of this well-known book and movie adaptation is named in the film—but not in the book. He uses several aliases to attend different support groups…but his real name? “I have no idea,” says Palahniuk.