Two Notes on Names

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.

Why?

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.

“Indians!”

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.”

“That too.”

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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To view more segments of Copyediting with Keli, you can visit my YouTube channel.

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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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14 Responses to Two Notes on Names

  1. Keli, I loved your examples and I agree … it is best to give our readers the full name as soon as possible. From tht point we can use the shorter version, add a Miss or Mr or whatever other tag and the reader will be able to keep up. It’s not as hard as the Russian culture where the name changes depending upon who is speaking to the person (you find that in some Latin cultures as well), but in our culture, it’s best to identify the entire name as soon as we can … I continue love this series and thank you for your generosity in sharing your editing knowledge with all of us 🙂

  2. Cool examples, Keli. I guess I’d never really thought about this, but it definitely makes sense and is very intuitive.

    And your vlogs are so cute. 🙂 I love your accents and reading voice.

  3. Wendy says:

    These are so great. Yes, helping the reader be familiar is essential. My computer is dying so I’m having trouble commenting. Hope this shows up.
    ~ Wendy

  4. Loree Huebner says:

    Great examples, Keli.
    I agree. It’s important not to over use names. You explained it well in the vlog.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Your Monday posts are becoming one of my favorites! Excellent information –and to the point!

  6. bethkvogt says:

    Sorry, Keli. “Anonymous” is me! I wasn’t logged in!

  7. Very good. I’m a fan of beats. I know early on, when I wrote, I used names too much in dialogue.

  8. Use a character’s name once per scene in dialogue? Good to know! I’m editing 🙂

    This is indeed helpful, Keli. I’ve caught myself overusing names in my scenes. When I go over them or hear someone from critique read them out loud, it really does distract from the story.

  9. Excellent advice, Keli, as always. I remember you advising me on that first point over the phone, and I’m ever so grateful. 🙂

  10. my tendency is to overuse the person’s name when i’m in their point of view. there are a few times when clarification is needed, like if there are two women in a scene and i’m in my heroine’s POV, but most of the time, a “she” or “her” works just fine. maybe you could do a post on this, too. i can’t stand reading a person’s name over and over in a scene….when i’m in their POV!!

  11. PW Creighton says:

    Good advice and analysis of Jody’s writing. It’s very common in third-person writing to do full introductions but in first person it becomes a bit more delicate. It’s not plausible for a character to think using their own full name. Often it’s an external source that introduces them by name. Phone call, someone asking their name etc.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      You make an excellent point. My sister writes in first person, and I helped her figure out how to work in her lead character’s full name as quickly as she could.

  12. Sherrinda says:

    Excellent examples, Keli. And I love listening to you!!!!!!

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