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A friend has asked me to read through a chapter of his story and give my opinion.

Lets say he has two main characters Mr John de Havilland and Mrs Sally de Havilland.

I've noticed that the author sometimes uses the full name, Mr John de Havilland; Other times he uses the short form, John and other times uses a descriptive word instead of the name, i.e the plumber.

Whilst reading the story, I often found it difficult to work out 'who said what' (especially when I was having to distinguish between Mr de Havilland / Mrs de Havilland).

I am going to suggest that he pick one name for each of the characters and stick to it. To keep using various pronouns/roles to refer to the character, but decide on the one word to use for their name. So, if the name is to be used in the narrative, nearly always to choose "John" instead of varying between "John", "Mr de Havilland" and "Mr John de Havilland".

I'm interested to hear if that is a sensible criticism.
How much consistency/ variation should there be in specifiying character names?

Is it typical to add variation to the words used for a character's name to keep it spicy or is consistency often considered the prioritised goal?

23

Orson Scott Card answers your question precisely and eloquently in his excellent Character and Viewpoint, under the heading One Name Per Character. Go, read.

For posterity, I'll summarize:

  • Names should be treated as "invisible words" - they're so common, the reader hardly notices them. You can repeat them as often as you like, without worrying about "sounding repetitive".
  • Alternating between different tags can be confusing and distracting.
  • Every POV (point of view) should stick to a single tag per character - that's how that person thinks of them. This tag might demonstrate the relationship between the characters - Mr. John de Havilland might be "Johnny" to his wife, "Mr. de Havilland" to his subordinates, "the prig in the yellow shirt" to a street kid, and "Knives" to a newly-released ex-con whose gang he belonged to when he was 11. But the ex-con will never think of him as "Mr. de Havilland," nor as "the plumber." Don't break from the POV's chosen tag unless the story itself calls for it.
  • Don't use the tags themselves to tell us directly about the character - rotating between "De Havilland," "the plumber," "the 50-year old," "the ugly revolutionary," "the Soviet spy" just to tell us he is all those things. It's clunky, it's confusing, and it's telling us rather than showing us.
  • Point #3 is particularly important in the context of this question. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jul 12 '12 at 9:54
  • Thanks for the link to that book. It looks really interesting...added to my wishlist. – JW. Jul 12 '12 at 13:57
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It's not about "spicy," it's about not being boring. Using "John" in every single dialogue tag can grate on the inner ear. That said, don't overdo it.

I would say you should use character names (or he/she) 90% of the time, and the other 10% can be "the detective," "the doctor," "the captain," "the younger woman," "her older sister," etc. You want to do it just often enough to prevent monotony.

If you're having trouble figuring out who "Mrs de Havilland" is in a conversation between a husband and wife, then the writer is doing a poor job of attribution, period.

EDIT TO ADD: As JSBangs notes below, using a character's full name and courtesy title (Mr John de Havilland) in a dialog tag sounds very strange to the modern ear. Unless there's some compelling stylistic reason, pick one version of the person's name (Mr de Havilland, Dr. McCoy, John) and stick with that in pretty much all iterations.

  • Thanks, I see your point. But, would you have much variation between usages of "Mr de Havilland", "Mr John de Havilland" and "John"? – JW. Jul 11 '12 at 21:43
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    @JW, I find it awkward and unusual to use something like "Mr. John de Havilland" at all in a dialog tag, unless you're deliberately affecting a Victorian style. I would not recommend alternating between different versions of the name in the way that you describe. – JSBձոգչ Jul 11 '12 at 22:37
  • Thanks for the clarification. Could you add that to your answer. – JW. Jul 11 '12 at 23:49
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I also dislike repeating "He" or "John" over and over again. I have a little rule that I use when it gets on my nerves.

When I talk about a single character, then I use different variants, eg "the young", "the old man", "fatty", "the scholar" and so on (depending on their defining characteristics). In any other case, I address characters by their short-name or nickname.

There are few exceptions to this rule. For example, my Maid character uses "Young master". When I narrate her POV I use "the Young Master".

(Sorry for my bad English, not a native).

  • Hello, and welcome to SE :) I took the liberty to fix few commas in your answer. – FraEnrico Dec 12 '17 at 12:04
  • Beware though, if you use too many variants, it will confuse the readers. – Mephistopheles Dec 13 '17 at 17:47
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If the two Havillands are in separate scenes and which one has been established, you could use their last names, for example: Havilland threw his hands up in surrender. or: Havilland tapped her foot.

I also sometimes use descriptions of appearance or personality which have already been established, for example: The blue-eyed man. or, sometimes: The more arrogant of the two sneered.

I hope this was of some help! :)

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