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When writing a conversation between two female characters, I found myself using their names over and over instead of using pronouns. If I use 'she' for both of them, it's confusing to read because it is unclear which character is speaking. How do I make these scenes sound less repetitive?

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    Has this issue never come up with a conversation between two male characters? Feb 21 at 7:31
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    Further Greg Martin wholly reasonable Comment, aren't most literary conversations between two male characters? Whether they 'should' be is a different question and since IMHO they are, why do most authors not have problems? Have looked, for instance at Alexandre Dumas' Musketeer stories which often include not merely two but three or four same-sex characters? Feb 21 at 20:21
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    You can always go Cormac McCarthy. People take turns speaking. Lots of dialogue means lots of boring attribution tags. Try skipping them. Every half-page or so you throw in a name so people don't lose track of the alternation. Feb 21 at 23:39

3 Answers 3

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"There is a very simple solution to this," said Gryphon.

"I'm listening," Dracaena replied.

"First, don't be afraid to use names occasionally, Dracaena. There's a balance, sure, but sometimes it does become necessary to remind the reader who's saying what. Also remember that sometimes your characters might use each others names in conversation. Effective, so long as it comes naturally."

"That makes sense," Dracaena said.

"Second, it's fairly easy to keep track in a dialogue who's speaking. So you don't always have to break quotations to tell the reader who's speaking."

"Hmm. Would that work with three characters or more?"

"Not as easily," Gryphon declared. "A combination of names and pronouns would work there." She ruffled her feathers. "There's one other thing to point out: certain words sort of LEAP out at readers: sussuration, crepuscular, quetzalcoatlus, eleemosynary, and so on and so forth. Big, complex words that grasp the reader's attention and can sometimes distract them from the story.

"However, there's another class of words, ones that barely register and tend to slip under the radar: is, was, are, then...he, she, it, his, hers, its. Forms of the word 'to be' and pronouns, primarily. If you had to repeat a word often in a text, choose one of these. Using the word 'she' frequently isn't as egregious as it might seem."

Dracaena said: "So, don't be afraid to use names, utilize long stretches of dialogue without tags, and use words that don't sound repetitive."

"Yep. That's about it."

"That all makes sense," she said. "But what's a quetzacoatlus?"

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    "But I never use names in conversation to a person. That comes across as a bit odd, frankly. Not as odd writing, but, a person who speaks a bit oddly. A parent to a child, would do it. If someone used my name to me a lot, I wouldn't find it insulting or anything, but it'd certainly be unusual to me," protested Dracaena to Gryphon. "What about people speaking in a more old fashioned way, dear coz? Maybe it's OK then?" "I suppose..." "It helps the writing, Dracaena." "Agreed. But we won't do it excessively, Gryphon, will we?" "To be sure, no." Feb 20 at 21:43
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    "... wait, you ... you don't know what a quetzacoatlus is?? Who are you, and what have you done with the real Draceana"? Feb 20 at 21:44
  • @lessthanideal: The fake Dracaena is the one the dropped the first L in Quetzalcoatlus. Gryphon would got it correct a few lines ago, so would be unlikely to mirror the error and say "quetzacoatlus" when replying to that question. Feb 21 at 2:33
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    "All correct, though I'd refrain from having my characters declare, utter, or, God forbid, quip. Keep it simple." Feb 21 at 8:10
  • Great example. I got mixed up at "Dracaena said: 'So...'", though, because logically I expected the summary of the teaching to be given by the teacher, not the student. I would change part to something like: "'Ah,' Draceana replied, 'I think I get it. So...'"
    – Ben
    Feb 21 at 12:52
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Don't be afraid of using your characters' names. Names are among the words you can repeat as often as the text calls for.

Some writers seem to think they need to avoid repeating names at all costs, and do one of two things that are both detrimental to the reader's enjoyment of the story.

The first of those things is cycling between several names for the same character (for example, their given and family name). The other, even worse, is replacing the name with a description of some random trait of the character that's irrelevant to the scene at hand.

Both of these break the immersion, make it harder to follow the story, and suck the reader's attention away from the details that actually deserve it.

So, don't. Just like you call our mutual childhood friend Tommy, so should your narrator have one name for each character ze knows them by - it's Tommy, not Thomas and certainly not Mr. Miller (at least until Tommy objects to the childishness and asks us to call him Tom instead).

And while you can occasionally replace a character's name with a description ("the mighty sorceress queen" instead of "Galadriel"), this isn't something you should use as a crossword clue from which the reader has to decipher who on the stage is who; this should only ever be used when you want to point out the trait in question because it's relevant to the immediate context.

Use the characters' names as often as you need. Don't try to concoct any workarounds, they're inferior.

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  • “you can occasionally replace a character's name with a description… should only ever be used when you want to point out the trait in question.”  Good advice.  Not always followed — but one story used it to devastating effect, switching between two descriptions that seemed equivalent, only to reveal at the end that they were actually different personalities in the same body…  (One of the best and cleverest examples of ‘hiding in plain sight’ I've ever seen.)
    – gidds
    Feb 20 at 18:50
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Here is the beginning of Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed (Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed) in the translation by Lady Charlotte Guest:

      Pwyll Prince of Dyved [went to hunt. He found a pack of dogs that had brought a stag down. He drove away those dogs and set his own dogs upon the stag.]
      And as he was setting on his dogs he saw a horseman coming towards him upon a large light-grey steed, with a hunting horn round his neck, and clad in garments of grey woollen in the fashion of a hunting garb.
      And the horseman drew near and spoke unto him thus: “Chieftain,” said he, “I know who thou art, and I greet thee not.”
      “Peradventure,” said Pwyll, “thou art of such dignity that thou shouldest not do so.”
      “Verily,” answered he, “it is not my dignity that prevents me.”
      “What is it then, O Chieftain?” asked he.
      “By Heaven, it is by reason of thine own ignorance and want of courtesy.”
      “What discourtesy, Chieftain, hast thou seen in me?”
      “Greater discourtesy saw I never in man,” said he, “than to drive away the dogs that were killing the stag and to set upon it thine own. This was discourteous, and though I may not be revenged upon thee, yet I declare to Heaven that I will do thee more dishonour than the value of an hundred stags.”
      “O Chieftain,” he replied, “if I have done ill I will redeem thy friendship.”
      “How wilt thou redeem it?”
      “According as thy dignity may be, but I know not who thou art?”
      “A crowned king am I in the land whence I come.”
      “Lord,” said he, “may the day prosper with thee, and from what land comest thou?”
      “From Annwvyn,” answered he; “Arawn, a King of Annwvyn, am I.”
      “Lord,” said he, “how may I gain thy friendship?”
      “After this manner mayest thou,” he said. “There is a man whose dominions are opposite to mine, who is ever warring against me, and he is Havgan, a King of Annwvyn, and by ridding me of this oppression, which thou canst easily do, shalt thou gain my friendship.”
      “Gladly will I do this,” said he. “Show me how I may.”
      “I will show thee. Behold thus it is thou mayest. I will make firm friendship with thee; and this will I do. I will send thee to Annwvyn in my stead, and I will give thee the fairest lady thou didst ever behold to be thy companion, and I will put my form and semblance upon thee, so that not a page of the chamber, nor an officer, nor any other man that has always followed me shall know that it is not I. And this shall be for the space of a year from to-morrow, and then we will meet in this place.”
      “Yes,” said he; “but when I shall have been there for the space of a year, by what means shall I discover him of whom thou speakest?”
      “One year from this night,” he answered, “is the time fixed between him and me that we should meet at the Ford; be thou there in my likeness, and with one stroke that thou givest him, he shall no longer live. And if he ask thee to give him another, give it not, how much soever he may entreat thee, for when I did so, he fought with me next day as well as ever before.”
      “Verily,” said Pwyll, “what shall I do concerning my kingdom?”
      Said Arawn, “I will cause that no one in all thy dominions, neither man nor woman, shall know that I am not thou, and I will go there in thy stead.”
      “Gladly then,” said Pwyll, “will I set forward.”
      “Clear shall be thy path, and nothing shall detain thee, until thou come into my dominions, and I myself will be thy guide!”

I love this passage, because it monotonously employs he said, said he to great effect. It all sounds very ancient.

But do you get lost? Do you forget who is speaking? I don't! The content of the exchange makes it abundantly clear who is speaking which passage.

I am not saying you should tag your dialogue in this style, it is certainly old-fashioned, but the example shows that in well-written dialogue it is unlikely the reader will not understand who is saying what, regardless of how you tag the speeches or whether you tag them at all.

If any of the two characters could have made an utterance and the content and context (i.e. what is said immediately before and after) don't make it clear who the speaker is, you may need to think about why this is so and revise that passage.

Sometimes, though, it may be irrelevant which character speaks what part of a dialogue, because they all feel the same:

Rose and Heather looked at John admiringly and they both sighed.
“He is so handsome, isn't he?”
“He is. I wish he was mine.”
“Yeah.”
“Isn't it unfair?”
“That the most beautiful boy in school should be gay?”
“Yeah.”
“Yeah.”
They both sighed and looked admiringly at John.

Or:

Linda, Nancy and the other salesgirls sat in the lunch room chatting when Barbara came rushing in.
“You know who just walked in?” she asked. “Sylvia.”
The women looked at her, stunned.
“What?”
“No!”
“Really!”
“How dare she!”

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    I did find the first few lines of dialogue in the Guest passage hard to keep track of! By line 4 of the dialogue I was already confused - my brain assumed that the person who said "Chieftain" was the same as the previous person who said "Chieftain", but apparently the two characters are both addressing each other that way! Perhaps, in context, a reader is already accustomed to that? Feb 20 at 20:40
  • @JamesMartin Did your read the cited passage from the beginning or did you skip the first two paragraphs and begin with the dialogue directly? The last sentence before the first line of dialoge is: "And the horseman drew near and spoke unto him thus." I think this makes it clear who says the first sentence, and the rest of the dialogue follows from that. —— Maybe this sentence should have been on the same line with the first turn of dialogue, but please note that the paragraph breaks were added by me. They aren't in the original text.
    – Ben
    Feb 20 at 21:14
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    I read it from the beginning. The confusing thing is that both characters address each other in the same way. Since I wasn't expecting that, when I saw the second "Chieftain" I somehow switched to thinking that the line was delivered by the person who had spoken the first "Chieftain". If you're not reading slowly and carefully, it's easy to get lost. After a bit I had to backtrack, when it became clear that the way I was interpreting no longer made sense.... I guess I'm saying that this would not be my go-to example of a passage where the attribution of lines to speakers is abundantly clear :) Feb 20 at 22:27
  • But probably it's just me! Feb 20 at 22:31
  • @JamesMartin The upvotes you get indicate that you are not the only one. To me it is always absolutely clear who is speaking. Maybe that is because I read the passage in a printed book? On the internet everyone's attention span seems reduced, and I suspect you weren't attentive. In the cited passage, there are two people, one did the other wrong. If you keep that in mind, most of the sentences can only be said by the one person or the other, because their content only fits one of the speakers. The other sentences are clarified by names or immediately follow a sentence that is thus clarified.
    – Ben
    Feb 21 at 8:38

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