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OK I found an alternate (non-native) solution. I did some more searching, and remembered I had previously installed Alternative dialog Find & Replace for Writer (AltSearch) so I started poking around the search box and found, under "Extended" (I am using 1.3.2), the ability to search for substrings in "Text fields" like this: [::Field::]variable value ...
Why not use "character1" & "character2" throughout as you write the story, and then when you're ready to apply names do a search/replace on "character1" and put in the actual name of this character.
Nothing related to this functionality is specified in https://help.libreoffice.org/Writer/Variables. The best shot could be setting a unique text, for example numbers mixed with letters, and search for it.
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