This may seem like a duplicate of Changing the way one addresses a character in a dialogue to create variation, but it the answers there did not apply. My question is:

When writing in the first person, is it appropriate to alternate terms of endearment, like using "Mom" and "Mother" interchangeably in both dialogue and narration?


"Quorraline!" A voice calls. Yes, I know it's a strange name. My mom's an oceanographer and wanted to name me Corral but my dad wanted to name me Caroline. So they just combined the two names and spelled it with a Q to be different.

"I'm here, Mother," I call out. Seeing me, her features visibly relax. Her dark-brown arms reach out, and I step in to them.

"Mactaurum," My mother called, she always seems to know who's coming inside the house. My brother entered the kitchen, frowning at Mom calling him by his full name.

See, in this excerpt the narrator uses "My mom," "Mother," "Mom," and "My Mother" to refer to her mom. Because the narrator is speaking, do I have to refer to her mother in the same way to maintain consistency, or do I only have to refer her the same way in the dialogue itself?

I should add that Quorraline's brother only refers to their mother as "Mom" in conversations with their mother and in addressing her. Does her variance make her more dynamic or just inconsistent? Perhaps I'm just over thinking this, and how the protagonists refer to their parents isn't even noteworthy at all, but I would like it if someone were to shed some light on the issue and answer this question. Thank you!

5 Answers 5


Addressing characters in dialogue:

Anything goes. I usually call my mum 'mum', but I might call her 'mother' to be mock-serious.

'Queen of the Muffins'? Sure, if in the middle of some exchange it makes sense for me to call her that, as a joke, as an insult, whatever — you can put it in my dialogue.

Addressing characters in the narrative:

Orson Scott Card! Politically, you might think he's a lunatic (I do). But he's an extremely well-established writer and is regarded as an excellent teacher. A writer asked him exactly your question, and he answered it here. He refers to third-person POV, but the advice applies to any perspective where you're inside the character's head:

The rule for how to refer to a teenage character's parents is really the same as the rule for referring to any character in any fiction where you're using limited third person point of view: You refer to the parents by the names or titles that the point of view character would use.

Let's say that teenage character Anna calls her parents Mom and Dad. When you're in Anna's point of view, then they are invariably called Mom and Dad. If you call them "her mother" or "Mr. Smith," you are violating point of view. Even if Anna, in her dialogue, calls them "Mother" or "Harold," when you refer to them in the narrative you still use Mom and Dad because those are the titles she actually thinks of them with.

But when you do a chapter from Mom's point of view, she isn't Mom, she's Agnes. And she thinks of her husband, not as Dad or Mr. Smith or Anna's father, or even as Harold, but as Harry. She might CALL him "honey" in their conversation, but in the narrative throughout the section from Mom's (Agnes's) point of view, he is invariably referred to as Harry.

Now you have the chapter from the point of view of Anna's brother, Jason. He thinks of Anna as Anna, but in his own mind he calls his mother Mother and his father He or Him with a capital letter, the way some people refer to God. It's sarcastic, but he's also sincere - that is, he REALLY thinks of him this way, it isn't just a pose. You continue to use these terms whenever we're in Jason's point of view. Then, when Jason and his father have a rapprochement and Jason comes to understand him, he can come to think of him as Dad and his mother as Mom, at which point you start referring to them by the new appellation that applies inside Jason's head.

Should you vary your terms for variety's sake?

My advice? Probably not. If your characters aren't dynamic enough to hold the reader's attention, you're not going to fix the problem with a carousel of nicknames. There are much better ways to engage the reader, and you're probably already doing them.

If you're really worried their names are getting repetitive, maybe it's a sign you're overusing them. I do this all the time. My brain seems to think that 'You're an idiot,' is a terrible line, but 'You're an idiot, Jack,' is superlative. When I'm editing, I'm constantly hunting for the parts where my characters overuse each other's names.

Honestly, though, you'd be surprised what you can get away with. Watch Titanic and count how often Jack and Rose say each other's names. It doesn't seem to have hurt the movie much...


"Mom" and "mother" and the other variations are all common enough that alternating between them probably won't be disruptive.

On the other hand, they are different, with nuances of formality and attitude - so if you're alternating between all of them, with great frequency, like you do in this sample - then yes, it does start to feel a little weird. I think the answer is: you aren't limited to just one, but also, don't treat them as freely interchangeable.

My best advice is to point you at this previous answer of mine, I explain some general guidelines about consistency in labeling characters in a way that's appropriate to point-of-view.

But here are a few more thoughts specific to your particular case.

It would be a little weird if Quorraline, when addressing her mother, would sometimes use "Mother" and sometimes "Mom." I'd expect one of the two to be the baseline the mother's expecting, and the other to feel either too formal or too casual.

On the other hand, I have no issue with Quorraline addressing her mother as "Mother," but in the privacy of her own thoughts, or discussions with friends or siblings, referring to her as "Mom." That'd even give decent justification for sometimes referring to her as "Mother," even privately - she can think of her mother in both ways.

"My mother" or "my mom" is a little different: it's using "mother" or "mom" not as a name, but as a role. (This might be a little confusing, because they're so close - "mother" vs. "my mother".)

When you write "Mactaurum," My mother called, that strikes me as odd, because you've already introduced the character to the scene, so it seems weird to refer to her by her role instead of just using her label. It draws attention to the role, the relationship, where that doesn't seem particularly pertinent.

I'll use a different example to demonstrate. Imagine we're already in the middle of a scene, where Captain Elijah Peterson, who is also the narrator's lover, is calling out to a new character named Mycroft.

"Mycroft," Elijah called; he always notices the instant somebody steps on the bridge.

"Mycroft," the captain called; he always notices the instant somebody steps on the bridge.

"Mycroft," my lover called; he always notices the instant somebody steps on the bridge.

Using "Elijah" makes sense here, because that's the narrator's personal label for him.

Using "the captain" sounds odd, though, because that's probably not how the narrator thinks of him, even though he's very much in "captain-mode" right at the moment. "my captain" might work, though.

Using "my lover" sounds odd too. Even though it makes sense for the narrator to think of him as "my lover," there's no relation between calling out to Mycroft and being the narrator's lover. The juxtaposition almost forces the reader to read this as a connection, as though the narrator is implying how attentive and caring their lover is.

In your piece, the "natural name" or label is "Mother" or "Mom." Whereas "my mother_" and "my mom" put focus on the role and relationship. This works fine in your earlier use: My mom's an oceanographer and wanted to name me Corral -- because there the relationship is obviously relevant. But when calling out to her brother, it isn't.

  • 1
    +1, but I think your comments about "mom" and "mother" are a little backward. I'd think it far more likely for someone to call her mother "mom" when speaking to her, but to refer to her as "my mother" when referring to her in conversations with a third party. Personally, I never refer to my mother as "mom" or "my mom" when speaking to third parties. That seems inappropriately personal.
    – Jay
    Jun 22, 2016 at 4:05
  • You're likely right! It depends a lot on "feel" for tone. A teenager might refer to her as "my mom," while an adult wouldn't. And so on and so forth :P You can swing pretty much anything, as long as you know what you're going for, and you stick to the same rules consistently.
    – Standback
    Jun 22, 2016 at 4:38
  • @Jay I'd use 'mom' to refer to my mother when talking about her to my father, or my sibling, but not anyone else. I'd never use 'my mother' when talking my sibling, but I may use 'your mother' when talking to my sibling. However, I know several people who use 'mom' when talking to me about their mother. People and customs vary.
    – user26723
    Feb 13, 2018 at 17:42
  • @Abigail Sure. I didn't mean that no one would ever say "my mom" when talking about her to a third party. I just meant that as "mother" is more formal than "mom", it would be plausible for someone to call her "mom" when speaking to her but call her "my mother" when talking about her to others. Far less likely that they would call her "mother" when speaking to her and "my mom" when talking about her to others. Someone certainly might use "mom" in both cases or "mother" in both cases. Not an iron-clad rule, just a generality.
    – Jay
    Feb 13, 2018 at 18:24

The choice of "mom" or "mother" or some other word helps to characterize the narrator. They differ in formality, and perhaps other attributes.

This offers an interesting opportunity: Your character's choice of words could indicate something about her mood or her attitude toward her mother at each particular moment in the story.

Similar to how a parent's use of a child's middle name might indicate an increasing level of annoyance with the child.


As a general rule, dialogue is not bound by the rules of grammar as tightly as the rest of the novel. Therefore, if a person says something a certain way, you write it that way. As far as your example goes, there is no right or wrong way to refer to Quorraline's mother in dialogue. If Quorraline refers to her both as 'mother' and 'mom,' then her dialogue should reflect that.

As for the rest of the novel: Go with what is best for the book. If referring to Quorraline's mother solely as 'mother' sounds best, do it. If mixing the terms sounds better, do that.

It is generally a good idea to refer to things (excluding during dialogue) the same way throughout a book. The more specific you get though, the less this rule of thumb applies. For example, if your book contains references to time, you should always write them the same way. Personal pronouns? Not so much.

Now if you are trying to sound slightly more sophisticated, keeping it to 'mother' might be the way to go. It all depends on what you want to achieve with your novel.


I feel they are similar enough that they could be used interchangeably, as long as it's not too frequently. Also, consider the personality of your characters, and the scenes that they interact in, and their upbringing.

Growing up, because of my families Southern Appalachian heritage, I generally tended to call my Mother Momma. Growing up in the mixing pot of South Western Ohio in formal settings I use the term Mother. When handling paperwork for college I use the term mother, and put on all my forms that I would like to be addressed using my Mother's maiden name. However, when I am in the company of my friends at the college, especially ones who have migrated from Kentucky, and Virginia for school I generally will revert to using the term Momma.

So, overall I would say it would depend on your characters personality type, and her family background.

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