When should a character refer his dad or someone close in third impersonal person? Let's say you have a character and his dad is the President of the United States. In what situation is it appropriate for the character to refer to his dad as "the President"? What if the dad isn't a President, but a musician, or another lesser known/important profession?

I am concerned about realistic interactions between people. I don't want my characters acting strangely in my novel, since the readers will notice.

  • 4
    I don't think this is opinion based, more like "situation based". But it can be answered.
    – Liquid
    Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 8:39
  • 3
    I voted to reopen, since (maybe) the close votes didn't have time to look at my edit of the question (which imo solves a bit of the opinion-based part).
    – Liquid
    Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 12:55
  • 3
    @linksassin I disagree, Liquid answered it thoroughly. I second reopening, Liquid's generalization of the reasons is correct (and indirectly covers my own answer, since emphasizing "distance" can include emphasizing "closeness", but no examples of the latter were given).
    – Amadeus
    Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 14:00

3 Answers 3


You refer to someone indirectly when you want to emphasize distance.

In your example, saying "the President" instead of "my dad" is a more formal and correct approach, since it underlines the man position of responsibility in a government. This sets a distance between the speaker and the referred person, as it ignores their deeper relationship.

In more mundane situations, the same logic applies. There will be always be contexts were putting distance between a character putting distance between him and his father is advisable and more "appropriate".

E.g., a journalist talking about a company his father runs will say

Regarding the incident, the CEO of Rubble S.p.a. has declared ...

Because that's the formal, neutral approach. Saying :

Regarding the incident, my father declared ...

would be considered unprofessional for a journalist, unless the familiar bond is somewhat relevant to the discussion. Yet, that self same journalist will probably tell the story differently to his wife when coming back home:

"I just had to publish an article about my father today."

Using the official position or profession of someone could be used to communicate distance, as in the case of an estranged son. When the profession is not relevant enough, the same effect of distance can be created by using a character full name instead of "my dad".

"Where did you leave the car?"

"At Jack Brown's place."

Again, this creates distance. Maybe the whole point is that the speaking character doesn't want others to know he's related to Jack Brown. Maybe he proves resentment towards the man.

It's not unrealistic for the reader if you do for the right reasons. So, it mostly depends on the context and on the intent of the speaker.


@Liquid covers most of my answer.

Sometimes you would refer to your father by his title or office, not to emphasize distance, but to emphasize that role of influence, especially if their blood relationship is known.

If everybody knows Jake is the son of the CEO, then Jake saying "The CEO isn't going to like this," means Jake is threatening the person with his relationship to the CEO.

This would apply when the father is a Judge, the Chief of Police, a Congressman or Mayor or crime Boss or anybody with power. It would not apply if the father is a gig musician, an office clerk, a salesman or anybody else with no particular influence over anything.


I mostly agree with Liquid, but let me add a few other comments.

Well, first I'd say, why not just think about your own life? When would YOU refer to your father or girlfriend or whomever by their job title rather than the relationship? In general, your characters should do the same.

Mostly, I'd refer to someone close to me by a title rather than relationship if the title was relevant to the context where I was speaking or writing and the relationship was not. Like if my father was a scientist and I was introducing him at a convention of a scientific society, I might well say, "Ladies and gentlemen, our next speaker is Dr Jones, professor of physics at Fwacbar University", and not, "Hey guys, my dad is up next."

But if I was introducing him to a group of friends, I would almost certainly identify him by the relationship. "I'd like you all to meet my dad." After that I might or might not mention, "he's a physics professor" or whatever.

I think that the point is not how much I want to portray myself as close to or distant from this person, but rather, what the audience cares about. The audience at a science convention probably doesn't care that the physicist who is about to speak is the father of the master of ceremonies who is making introductions. It's an irrelevant fact. Likewise if I'm introducing my new girlfriend to my parents, the most important thing to her is that they're my parents, not what their jobs are.

The more you say, the more likely you are to bring up both. If I was giving a long introduction for my imaginary physicist father, at some point I might tell some amusing story about how when I was a kid we couldn't play catch in the back yard without him talking about Newton's Laws of Motion. Or if I was telling my girlfriend about my parents, it seems likely that somewhere along the line I'd mention my father's job.

There might be times when you would deliberately keep the job title or the relationship secret. Like the girl doesn't want boyfriends to know that her father is a billionaire because she wants a man who loves her for herself and not for her money. Or the reporter doesn't mention that the person he's writing about is his sister because he doesn't want readers to think he's biased. Etc.

  • Very good point about the audience. Indeed, one can imagine situations where the interest of the audience shifts. For example: “If you do this, I will tell the CEO about it.” — “And why do you think the CEO would even want to talk to you?” — “Because he is my father.”
    – celtschk
    Commented Jul 13, 2019 at 9:08

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.