One of the things I absolutely love is a character with a great name. In fact, a question authors get asked quite often is how they name their characters. When the main character has a great name, it tends to draw the reader in. But if names set up the tone of the character’s journey, so what does it mean when they have no name?
Sometimes I’ll be reading and realize I don’t remember the name of a character and have to go searching. Every once in a while though I’ll realize that I don’t know the name because there isn’t one. At least not one the author chose to share. I’ve found that the lack of a name can be a very powerful tool. Often the lack of a name becomes a plot device or purposely gives the book an unsettled or mysterious tone.
I have since fallen in love with books with anonymous narrators, our unnamed main characters. While there are so many great ones out there, here is a list of ten books with an anonymous narrators.
Books Featuring Anonymous Narrators
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
A classic full of twists and turns, Fight Club tells the story of “Tyler Durden” and his underground fighting ring. As the twisted tale is told by our narrator we start to see things aren’t exactly as they seem. And that the names given to us aren’t the real names. Even as Tyler Durden and our narrator find their life spinning out of control we never know the real identity, adding a whole new meaning to rule number one: We don’t talk about fight club.
Everyday is for the Thief by Teju Cole
Returning to Lagos after moving to New York many years ago, our unnamed narrator reflects on how things change. As he watches the place he came from evolve into a place he doesn’t remember, and his loved ones no longer fitting the box he had put them in, he starts to understand things about his own life and experience. Even as he tries to fit the current Lagos with his memories, he finds himself unsettled and struggling for identity.
Because our narrator/main character is unnamed, we, too, are left with a struggle of identity. This brilliant story will leave you asking yourself questions for days.
The Investigation by Philippe Claudel
Unremarkable and unnamed, our Investigator is just trying to do his job. In an attempt to investigate an outbreak of suicides and everything is just…off. First, his train is late, then there’s no one to pick him up, then it rains, and it’s nighttime. As our character struggles towards the town and the source of his investigation nothing is as it should be. Told in a style that will leave the reader unsettled, and with more questions than answers, The Investigation perfectly deploys a nameless narrator.
The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Lê Thi Diem Thúy
Set in 1978, a girl, her father, and four uncles leave Vietnam to make a new home in San Fransisco. Told from the young girl’s perspective, this book reflects on the traumas the family has endured and the terror of being separated from family. However, once the family is reunited nothing is resolved, in fact, it only brings more ghosts. Despite following this family, and this girl from age 6 to 26, we never once learn her name.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
An intuitive look at marriage and misogyny, our main character is known to us only as “the wife.” We follow a couple as they deal with the typical problems: a sick baby, rocky relationships, and putting their individual lives on hold for the good of the family. As the couple writes back and forth about their struggles we gain insight into their perspectives but rarely their identities outside of each other. Able to be read in a single setting, Dept. of Speculation is a poignant take on domesticity and marital expectation.
We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
In a future faced with extreme racism and segregation, a father is faced with an impossible choice: should he turn his son white? A new procedure can do just that and open up opportunities he wouldn’t have as a Black man. This unnamed father will do anything he can to protect his son, no matter the cost. This suspenseful satire offers a look at racism in a dystopian future that feels not so different from America’s racist history and the current struggle for equality.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
This book is a masterclass in suspense and has become a world-renowned classic for a reason. When our heroine is swept off her feet by a wealthy and charismatic widower, it seems like life couldn’t get better. However, soon she realizes that her new husband’s late wife Rebecca is casting a shadow in their relationship. It seems that even in her grave Rebecca is determined to see our heroine’s downfall, so much so that we never even learn her name. Rebecca is the only name that matters.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Our anonymous narrator explores the racial divide in an utterly unique way. As he travels from the deep south northwards he reflects on the varying perceptions and characteristics of Black culture. An unparalleled account of racial bigotry and the effect it has on those who perpetrate it and suffer from it, Invisible Man is a story not to be ignored or forgotten, and our narrator tells it all without even telling us his name.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
A father and son walk across a desolate landscape that used to be America. They have little more than a pistol and each other to defend themselves against the villains that lurk along the road. As they make their way to the coast on a distant hope that they can build a new life there, they encounter horrors that will make you want to leave the lights on at night. We know very little of these characters — we don’t even know their names — but we know they love each other. And we know that they will do anything to keep each other alive.
Chemistry by Weike Wang
Our narrator’s life seems perfect. She’s working towards an esteemed PhD in chemistry, she has a great relationship with her family, and her boyfriend just proposed! But soon everything changes. Between the long hours at the lab, and the unanswered marriage question, pressure is building. Soon it sends our nameless character careening down a path she never expected for herself. Told with wit and humor, this is about questioning ones choices in life, and going down the path you least expect.
With books like these, what’s really in a name? From classics to new works, the world of anonymous narrators has plenty to explore. Now that you’ve explored anonymous narrators, take a closer look at the unreliable narrator and get to know the types of unreliable narrator, too.