Currently, I'm running into an issue with constructing a scene in third person in which the POV character is having a conversation with his mother. Since it's third person, I can't just be like "Mom said this. Mom did that."

And, since it's his mom, I can't just refer to her by name. (Or can I?) I'm mostly having to overuse "his mother" to the point where even I'M annoyed by it.

The problem is that for example How do I say that a character said something without resorting to “said Character” every time? is referring to dialogue tags. I'm trying to find a way for a character to refer to the person he's speaking to that isn't repetitive.

As an example:

His mother did a thing. She was always doing that thing.
"I resent you thinking I always do that thing."
"Sorry, Mom, but you totally always do that thing," he said. His mother stormed away.

I'm always referring to her the same way, and I can't switch it up without being untrue to the way that the POV character thinks of her.

What are ways to fix this?

  • Welcome to Writing.SE! I think you can find the answer you are searching for in the question I linked. If not, please edit your question to show why answers to that other question would not apply to your situation. The goal of StackExchange is to always have one canonical question with all useful answers ranked by their merit under that canonical question, which is why I am proposing to close this question as a duplicate to make it easier for future readers to be directed to the other one. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun
    – Secespitus
    May 23, 2018 at 11:06
  • That's a helpful post, but the problem is that it is referring to dialogue tags. I'm trying to find a way for a character to refer to the person he's speaking to that isn't repetitive. Like say: //His mother did a thing. She was always doing that thing. "I resent you thinking I always do that thing." "Sorry, Mom, but you totally always do that thing," he said. His mother stormed away.// I'm always referring to her the same way, and I can't switch it up without being untrue to the way that the POV character thinks of her.
    – LHH
    May 23, 2018 at 11:27
  • I retracted my vote and tried to edit your question with your comment to clarify what you are looking for. Please note that questions are always judged by the question. Comments are ethereal and can theoretically be deleted at any point for any reason, which is why the results should be incoporated into questions/answers. Those have for example a revision history (you can click on the "edited x minutes ago" to see the different versions and rollback if an edit was too much; or you can simply edit further).
    – Secespitus
    May 23, 2018 at 13:07

5 Answers 5


In Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling alternates between "Aunt Petunia" "his aunt" and "she".

In Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury has the following:

Far off, the old man smiled.
They approached each other, carefully.
'Is that you, Will? Grown an inch since this morning.' Charles Halloway shifted his gaze. 'Jim. Eyes darker, cheeks paler; you burn yourself at both ends, Jim?'
'Heck,' said Jim.
'No such place as Heck. But hell's right here under "A" for Alighieri.'
'Allegory's beyond me,' said Jim.
'How stupid of me,' Dad laughed. 'I mean Dante.' (Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes, chapter 2)

In the same passage, he uses "the old man", "Charles Halloway" and "Dad", all referring to the same person, same character's father.

I'd say, the third person narration can reflect how the MC thinks of the character they're talking to, and how you want the reader to think of them. Harry Potter doesn't think of his aunt as "Mrs. Dursley", nor as "auntie", so you wouldn't see those terms used.
You would see "Mrs. Dursley", for example, used if you wanted to distance the reader from Harry's POV, make them see the scene without Harry's bias, as it were. Such usage would be somewhat jarring, which you could use to deliberate effect.

  • Thank you for your advice. I think I'll try using differing descriptors as in the Bradbury example you provided. Variations on what she is like: "the proud woman" or "the doctor". Or, you know, other such things that are much less formal which my fried brain cannot come up with at the moment.
    – LHH
    May 23, 2018 at 12:12
  • 1
    This works really well, and not only as a means to remove repetition. It also allows you to provide descriptions of the character in a more organic way. Also, you can use this to show how the characters view other characters in the story, assuming you aren't using a detached third person narrative.
    – Nero gris
    May 23, 2018 at 13:27
  • @LHH also, try to keep your writing simple. It allows the reader to focus on the scene itself. If there's no other woman in the room to confuse her with, just use 'she'. 'She stormed out.'
    – GGx
    May 23, 2018 at 14:48
  • @GGx, That's not the true content of the scene. That was a random few sentences I threw together for an example of why this post was different than the suggested one. In the actual scene, it sometimes felt unnatural to the flow to say "she" rather than "his mother". So, I kept re-using the latter ad nauseam. Posting the actual scene just felt too much like I was asking for a free edit.
    – LHH
    May 23, 2018 at 15:02
  • 2
    @LHH Be careful of attaching too many monikers to the same person. Even if all correctly describe the character, the reader could end up confused about how many characters are in the scene. (In the Bradbury example, having the narrator refer to the same character with both the close "Dad" and the formal full name seemed odd to me. Without knowing the context, I mentally added one extra character to the scene.)
    – Llewellyn
    May 23, 2018 at 17:54

@LHH I'm posting an actual answer in response to your comment above.

Firstly, I gathered it wasn't the actual scene. There's nothing wrong with posting your actual writing so long as you are asking a valid question (which you are) and not expecting an edit of that sample. I would change your question to use part of your own scene.

Secondly, if the repetition of 'his mother' is already annoying you, you can guarantee it's going to annoy your reader.

You say that you need to use 'his mother' repeatedly to stay true to the way the protagonist feels about her. As in, you wish to make it clear to the reader that the protagonist is annoyed/frustrated by her and this is best conveyed by constantly referring to her as 'mother'? It's a common foible, especially with new writers (I know because I slip into it often myself), to feel they need to be extremely clear about the meaning they wish to convey, to the point that they end up beating the reader over the head with it.

Readers are surprisingly adept at divining meaning from very subtle lines of dialogue and action. And you may find you do not need to hammer the protagonist's feelings home with the constant repetition of 'mother'.

I would suggest you look closely at your scene and see if his feelings are already conveyed with your protagonist's dialogue and actions. Instead of telling the reader about his frustrations with this constant repetition, try showing it instead. Convey it in his language, in the way he taps his forehead in frustration, or takes deep breaths and counts to ten (these are just examples).

For example:

She was doing it again. She was always doing it.

She said, "I resent you for even thinking that."

Ben pressed his fingers hard into his temples. "Sorry, Mom, but you did it yesterday, you're doing it now, you're always doing it!"

His mother stormed out.

You may find there are moments when you don't need the 'his mother' tag at all, because it is very clear that she is speaking. So remove as many as you can. As in the above example, the 'he said' isn't required.

I would also leave the scene to rest for a few days, then come back to it and read it out loud. Does it still sound repetitive? Are ALL the 'mothers' really necessary or could you leave just a few in place where they have moments of real impact, replacing the rest with 'she'?

Remember that repetition sometimes has the opposite effect to the one you intend. A bit like when you say a word over and over until it loses all meaning. Instead of giving the word power by using it in one or two select places, repetition removes its power altogether.


Brenda did a thing. She was always doing that thing.
"I resent you thinking I always do that thing."
"Sorry, Mom, but you totally always do that thing," he said. His mother stormed off.

I don't think it sounds repetitive, I only changed the words: "His mother" to "Brenda".
You can give "his mother / ma / mom / (the) overworked parent / stressed out mom of two" a proper name.


The thing about real life (and movies (and radio-plays (etc))) is that people generally sound different to each other. Some reasons for this are:

  • Men usually have deeper voices than women
  • People from Birmingham have a different accent to those from London
  • Drunk people tend to slur their words more than sober people
  • A lung full of helium makes a person sound like a (cartoon) chipmunk
  • etc.

The point is, people can be distinguished from each other by ear. But when a reader only has the written word to work out who is talking, then it is up to the writer to use those words to give clues. When this happens effectively - names are not so necessary.

For example, there are regional differences between folk. Listen to people who speak with different dialects and you will notice certain peculiarities of speech. Someone from Sheffield might call people 'Love' or 'Duck' far more that would seem appropriate. Those from London might drop 'innit' or the odd piece of rhyming slang into the mix. Caribbean natives use patois as well as words derived from French, Spanish or other languages.

Similarly, old people talk differently to younger people. Language changes over the years and is reflected in what people say to each other. Men have different patterns of speech to women and so a terse statement could indicate the male is talking whilst a longer passage might indicate a woman.

All these things, of course, draw on stereotypes - but still, done subtly, they can give enough clues to make names unnecessary.


Whenever I do dialogue in my works, I re-read it later and anytime I even think I get confused about who just spoke I add a 'he said' tag. If the dialogue is short, there won't be many of these. If it's longer there will be. But the longer also tends to get broken up by action, a pause in the dialogue as it were that lets the reader reestablish everything about the scene that's not included in the words. Also having one character refer to the other by name helps and can be used to set tone as much as anything outside of the dialogue. Ie after four switches of dialogue the child starts with 'Why do you always have to be that way mother' etc. If the child usually calls her 'mom' and then suddenly and only this once uses 'mother' not only have you reminded the reader who is speaking but changed the tone subtly.

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