In this segment of Copyediting with Keli I’m exploring two uses of character names in a work of fiction.
When we introduce a character in a story, especially a main character, it’s customary to give the person’s full name.
A character’s first appearance is our opportunity to present both names so the reader becomes familiar with them. After that we can use either the character’s first name or the title and surname, and the reader will picture the correct person.
For example, author Jody Hedlund introduced the heroine of her second historical novel, The Doctor’s Lady, using her first and last names. Here are the opening lines of the story.
The sharp call from the back of the sanctuary jolted Priscilla White. She sucked in a breath and twisted in the pew.
From this point on the reader knows that either Priscilla or Miss White refer to the same person.
The second tip is to limit the use of proper names in dialogue.
Why is that?
When we speak with someone in real life, we rarely call one another by name. However, we writers can be guilty of having our characters overuse names, as is the case in the following example of a passage from The Doctor’s Lady that I’ve altered in order to illustrate this point.
“Eli Ernest, you’re exasperating me.”
“I’ve been told that’s one of my best qualities, Doctor Baldwin.”
“You mean worst, don’t you, Eli?”
“That too, Doctor.”
My alterations to the passage were obviously exaggerated, but they show how overuse of proper names in dialogue can become distracting—and downright annoying at times.
The general guideline is to have a character use another character’s name once per scene. This means we must come up with other ways of identifying the speakers or the people being addressed. Doing keeps our stories from sounding stilted.
In the actual passage from The Doctor’s Lady, Jody made use of action beats to avoid the overuse of proper names, as can be seen in the example.
Dr. Baldwin pushed himself out of his chair. “Eli Ernest, you’re exasperating me.”
He grinned. “I’ve been told that’s one of my best qualities.”
“You mean worst.”
Armed with this information, you’ll be able to introduce your characters so your readers are aware of their full names and to be on the lookout for unnecessary repetition of character names in dialogue.
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