What’s in a Name? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

10 Jul
What’s in a Name? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer

     The other day I reviewed a new writer’s story, all about a man named John. In the course of the first few pages John walked, John saw, John said, John thought… The list was endless and boring. By the end of the second page I wanted to throw John in the john. After three I had all I could stand.
     And people wonder why I’m so grumpy.
     Everyone knows that when we tell a story in first person we used the pronoun “I” to refer to the protagonist. No one has a problem with that. So, why is it that virtually no one understands that the third person equivalent to “I” is “he” or “she,” not John, Betty, Susan, or any other name? Turn to almost any new writer’s work, though, and you’ll find the character’s name sprinkled like salt in virtually every paragraph.
     Here’s the thing: we never think of ourselves by name unless we’re addressing ourselves from a third-party position—lecturing ourselves for some reason. What that means is that every time you, as a writer, use the character’s name in describing their action, that’s a-point-of-view-break. Yes, there are times when it’s necessary to use the name because a reader might become confused over who you’re talking about. But those times are few. And readers won’t forget your character’s name if you don’t use it ten times a page. They really won’t.
     And here’s another thing that needs to be taken into account. If we more often use the other character’s names, while sticking to he or she for the protagonist, that makes the protagonist unique.
     Sure we want to use the protagonist’s name, initially, to introduce them. We also want to use the character’s name at the beginning of scenes or chapters so the reader knows who were talking about. We want to use it in dialogue, where the speaker is placing an emotional emphasis by referring to the character by name. But that’s it. Almost anything else is a POV break, and has the risk of distancing the reader from the action that’s taking place. Make sense? I hope so.
     In addition to that problem there’s the use of the possessive, his or her. That too, is often overused, because the reader already knows who the text is referring to. And when we use the possessive we often add verbosity, along with it, that slows the narrative.
     Look at a few examples:
     “As she hoped, her vision was unchanged.” Is that “her” required? Could we not just as easily say “As she hoped, vision was unchanged.” ? After all, who else’s vision could we be talking about, if the character is alone, or if we already know who’s being referred to?
     And with the line, “She moved her hands to cover her eyes with fingertips” wouldn’t it be smoother to say, “She covered her eyes with fingertips?” Of course. Yet virtually every manuscript I look at is filled with unneeded detail, linked to the possessive, like that.
     Small things kill a reader’s enjoyment, each driving in a tiny splinter of annoyance: Unnecessary references; excessive use of the protagonist’s name; unnecessary description. Each is a minor distraction, but such distractions are additive. So anything you can do to remove the unnecessary and distracting words will both speed the narrative and render the author invisible—placing us in the prompter’s box rather than on stage. And isn’t that were we belong?

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.

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7 responses to “What’s in a Name? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

  1. Peter

    July 26, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    Just a few words to say how much I’ve enjoyed your articles on writing. I would say it’s a breath of fresh air, but you’d shoot me down for repeating such a cliche. Too late. Found your blog after reading your crit of a story on Scrib. Dismayed at my incompetence, confused by the ‘advice’ I’ve read, I’d rather pushed writing aside. You’ve inspired me to engage again. I enjoy the creation process and I’ve missed it. I’m not a real writer, no grand novel in process, nothing published, just a scribbler of notes on life. Its good to be grumpy. Your site will be added to my own for others to discover. Thanks again!

  2. Susan Stuckey

    August 13, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    Nice post. I found it interesting.

  3. brightonsauce

    February 24, 2014 at 6:44 pm

    Ach, you’ve frightened me. Posted a 2000 today with the characters’ stupid names sprinkled about the place…

    and I constantly shovel more, more pronouns, plus the indef/definite articles during my thousand drafts, and maybe oration produces a worse result? Woe, confusion.

    Right, shall give those novels of yoz a proper go.


  4. Joanna Bartlett

    April 1, 2014 at 8:17 pm

    Thanks for this. I think as new novelists we often try too hard, not wanting our writing to be too sparse in detail or description. At least that’s the case for me. You’ve given me something to think about. Thanks.

  5. John Boyd

    November 5, 2014 at 1:10 am

    ““As she hoped, her vision was unchanged.” Is that “her” required? Could we not just as easily say “As she hoped, vision was unchanged.” ? After all, who else’s vision could we be talking about, if the character is alone, or if we already know who’s being referred to?”

    This example doesn’t work for me, unlike the one that follows it. I would include “her” for fluency. But I’ll certainly check my writing anything redundant.

  6. Ell Meadow

    January 1, 2017 at 1:44 am

    Good advice but the only problem with “covering her eyes with fingertips” is that now you have no idea whose fingertips she used. She might have picked up some random fingertips lying on the ground. Or cut some off a stranger. You never know …


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