There are a number of reasons why you might not name a character in the opening two paragraphs.
David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants—Hiding Characters’ Names
A couple of days ago I mentioned that if you didn’t tell me your character’s name in a story within a couple of paragraphs, I would “probably” reject the story. That seemed to shock a number of writers.
Now, there are a number of reasons why you might not name a character in the opening two paragraphs.
First off, let’s say that you’re starting your tale on an alien planet, or in a fantasy world—a setting that is very important to the story. Obviously, you may start off with some fantastic descriptions of the setting. So the name of the protagonist in the story might not come up for a page or more. In that case, you’ll get a pass. I’ll be so wrapped up in your setting, I won’t care who the protagonist is.
Another reason why you might not give a character’s name is if you are writing in first person, and it would naturally not come up. Let’s say that your protagonist is walking through a street in Calcutta, circa 1908, looking for an antiquities dealer named Nabil Habib. No one will know your protagonist’s name, and your protagonist might spend two pages wandering the streets before she enters a shop and Nabil looks up and says, “Why, Joan Wilder, what are you doing here?”
There are sometimes cases where your story is a mystery, and not knowing a name might be important. For example, your protagonist awakens in a cemetery and can’t recall her name. She wanders for hours, meeting people and getting information, until she realizes that she is dead, and she’s talking to ghosts. She recalls the mystery of her murder, and wants desperately to tell the police that her husband did it, but just then the sun comes up and she begins to fade, her memories unraveling, and realizes that this is her fate, every night for eternity, to solve the mystery of who she is.
So there are cases where the author needs to withhold the protagonist’s name in a story. Unfortunately, most of the time writers do it for the wrong reason.
Sometimes, the author just doesn’t realize that it’s important. The author doesn’t realize that the reader needs to be grounded in the tale quickly—told right up front who the story is about and where it is taking place. Such authors tend to make a lot of grounding mistakes, repeating the same problem from one scene to another, until the story just falls apart. That’s why I see a lack of a protagonist’s name as a red flag.
Other times, the author is withholding information in order to try to create tension with the reader. So the author might not let us in on the secret of who a character is, what their sex is, where the story is taking place, or what the story is about. This is what I call “false tension,” and it really can get annoying.
You see, real tension arises when a character is in jeopardy, and there is some doubt as to the outcome of that jeopardy. For example, you have a character who is going to give a public speech, and he has been getting death threats. He knows that there may be an assassination attempt on his life, but he also knows that what he has to say is more important to him than his own life. So he plans on speaking anyway.
If you as an author could just resolve the mystery of “what is my protagonist’s name?” by telling us, then the mystery is pointless. Unfortunately, this is perhaps the most common reason that identities get hidden. Sometimes, I’m sure, the author is just afraid of sound repetition, of using the name too frequently. But that creates a big error in order to avoid a slight problem. The truth is that names are invisible AND the reader is eager to be grounded in the character—so use the name!