Saturday, January 3, 2009

What's in a Name?

What do you advise authors when they want to know whether to use a character’s name or a pronoun in dialogue and narration?

Here are a few tips I’ve amassed.

1. In one-on-one conversations, people seldom use each other’s name. So don’t litter your dialogue with characters’ names. Here’s an example. “I say, Mary. Have you noticed how cold it is outside tonight? Mary, I think I’ll light a fire.” This passage contains two Marys too many.

2. When a character is alone and we’re in her point of view, it’s safe to assume that the personal pronoun refers to her, except when she mentions someone else in her narrative. Therefore, it’s not necessary to use the viewpoint character’s name constantly. This is also a good way to make sure you’re staying in a particular character’s POV.

3. A name is more prominent than a pronoun, so reserve it for special occasions. For example, when a character begins a new activity in a scene, alert the reader to that fact by using her name rather than a pronoun. The change will help the reader shift from the current action to the next one.

4. Finally, don’t slavishly adhere to the three tips above. If mentioning a character’s name works best for the rhythm of your prose, feel free to do so.

Anyone have any advice to add to my list?

Shelley Thrasher has a PhD in English and specializes in editing novels written by women. She spends most of her time style-editing for Bold Strokes Books. She also enjoys writing poetry and novels, which you can find on Amazon.


  1. I don't use the person's name a lot, unless there could be confusion between that person and another one in the same sentence or the next one.

    Also, I'll use the name at the beginning of a page.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. I use the character's name when he or she is first introduced in the book. Although I in real life may refer to myself by name, as in, "Dang, Helen, you idiot," I would be highly unlikely to have a character do that.

    I agree, don't use the character's name a lot except primarily when he or she needs to be identified because they've been off-scene for a while or there are multiple characters interacting.

  3. Over-using people's names generally feels unnatural (unless the speaker is a salesperson). However, it is sometimes necessary to clarify who is speaking or acting. For example, if you start with a complex sentence involving George and Fred, in the next sentence, you usually can not refer to one of them as "he" without confusing the reader. Of course, if George kills Fred, we can assume that future action involves only George.

    It can be difficult for the writer to find the right balance because she always knows who is speaking or acting. Asking someone else to read the work and note where they are confused can be quite helpful.


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