Are you overusing character names in your novel?

Some of the most common edits I make at the sentence and paragraph levels have to do with overusing character names in a story. These edits arise from a single issue: the tendency to approach things a little too formally, from a little too far outside the framework of how characters would naturally think of others, with a little too much deliberation.

Do your characters use other characters’ names too frequently as they think about, refer to, and address other characters? Put yourself in your viewpoint character’s perspective and you’ll soon realize how awkward this can sound.

Pronouns vs. names

The more you unnecessarily repeat a character’s name, the more you remind readers that they’re on the outside of the story looking in, reading about a character in a book. Once readers grasp that a particular scene is from Margot’s perspective, they don’t need constant reminders that it’s Margot doing the talking and thinking and doing.

Margot opened her browser and fired off a string of search terms.

“Did you find anything yet, Margot?” John asked.

Margot blanched and minimized the window.

“John!” Margot said. “I didn’t realize you were here.”

You’ve probably figured out by now that someone named Margot is in this scene. Instead of beating poor Margot to bits, use pronouns: “she blanched,” “she said,” and so on. Pronouns strip away that layer of formality. Especially in deep/close point of view, pronouns help readers feel more as though they’re closely inside the character’s head or closely following the action over the character’s shoulder.

Inelegant variation

Taken to ludicrous extremes, the urge to avoid repetition can lead authors into the byzantine trap of (in)elegant variation.

Laborious ways of referring to the same thing merely to avoid repetition was originally dubbed elegant variation. The word elegant refers to the strained precious quality of so many euphemisms—“the wizened man,” “the ancient ancestor,” “the tall man,” “the stooped elder,” and so on, rather than simply helping readers grasp that the scene is still referring to “he” or “him” or “Grandfather Spitz.” In a nod to the tangles created by this mass of euphemisms, elegant variation is sometimes known as inelegant variation.

Elegant variation frequently leads to reader confusion as readers struggle to sort out whether this character is someone they already know or someone else with similar characteristics who’s just entered the scene. Keep it simple; use names or pronouns.

Thinking of you

One of the most common point of view errors I see is referring to a character with a name the viewpoint character wouldn’t naturally use—for example, a character thinking of her dad as “Mr. Bosch” rather than “Daddy” or even “my father.”

This can feel tricky when there’s a difference between what a character thinks (“Mommy”) and what they say to others (“my mom” or “my mother”). We all hold different frameworks in our heads for the people in our lives. Make sure you choose the one that makes sense for the viewpoint character and the context.

Commas and direct address

Use a comma to set off a name or word used in direct address.

“Hey, you!”

“Hey. What say ye, love? Shall we binge on some Netflix?”

“No, Miss Frederick, my butt has officially taken on the shape of the couch. I’m going for a jog.”

A quick aside: Ever wondered whether you should use a comma in the middle of today’s ubiquitous email greeting “Hi Sam”? It’s not necessary in informal messages; “Hi, Sam,” looks pretty awkward with two commas on a line all by itself. The matter is much more straightforward in formal correspondence, when you should probably be writing “Dear Mr. Phelps,” anyway.

Character names in dialogue

Most people don’t use names with each other very often in the course of casual conversation.

“Jack, that’s a great shirt you’re wearing today.”

“Why thank you, Tim.”

“You’re welcome, Jack.”

Pretty awkward, right?

Once you’ve established the characters in a given scene, you can safely assume that the characters have no more need to keep reasserting one another’s identities. Naming names makes more sense in the heat of the moment—and I do mean heat: “Oh, Connor, yes, yes! Connor, baby, don’t stop!” or “I hate you, Mom. You’re not my mother anymore.” Rule of thumb: if it ain’t already hot, don’t overcook it by stuffing it full of character names.

Lisa Poisso, Editor and Book Coach

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