Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 39

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 39: Referencing Characters by Title Rather Than Name

In the time it takes you to write two small words, you might be dramatically distancing your readers from your story’s narrative. Scared? You should be. But don’t be that scared, because this one of our most common writing mistakes is just as easy to fix as it is to commit. And what are those two small but egregious words? Your character’s title (in place of his name).

One of these sinful words is almost always “the” (although a possessive pronoun can do the trick as well). The other is a descriptive noun that tells readers something about a character: his gender, his status, his job, his relationship to another character. For example, you might be referencing characters in your story as any of the following:

  • The doctor.
  • The pilot.
  • His mother.
  • Her boss.
  • His fiance.
  • The secret agent.
  • The man.
  • The lady.

Wrinkling your nose in disagreement, are you? After all, what’s so wrong with any of those? They’re just simple descriptions that are completely true. How could they possibly be pulling your readers out of the narrative?  Good questions–and the answer is: you’re right–there’s nothing wrong with any of these in themselves. The problem is only in their actual usage in the narrative. Take a look.

How to Use Titles to Pull Your Readers Out of the Narrative

Consider the following deep third-person point of view. Our narrator is a spunky astronaut on the brink of being grounded from her first mission thanks to a head cold:

Sienna stared at Dr. Jeraldo Martinez. He had been her personal physician ever since she came on board the launch team. He knew how much this mission meant to her. Surely, he could fudge the reports on a measly head cold to get her headed back to the moon.

“You can’t be serious!” she said.

The doctor exchanged a pained glance with Mike–who’d asked Sienna to marry him last night.

Her fiancé intervened. “Now, sweetpea, you can’t blame Jeraldo for this.”

The astronaut slid off the examining table. “Just watch me!” She stormed out of the room. She’d talk to her boss about this, just see if she wouldn’t!

Now, granted, the example is a little hampered by the fact that this is the first time you’re meeting Sienna and her gang, so you presumably need a little descriptive guidance to know she’s an astronaut, Jeraldo is a doctor, and Mike is her fiancé. But this scene is taking place in the middle of the story. Readers have already been introduced to all these characters and their relationships to Sienna. They know these characters’ roles. Even more importantly, Sienna definitely knows their roles.

The trouble with referring to characters by their titles, rather than their names, is that it kills the realism of a deep POV. How many of us mentally refer to people (especially people with whom we’re familiar) as “the doctor” or “my fiance”? Subtle as it is, this is a tiny but instant pin in the balloon of your readers’ suspension of disbelief.

How to Use Character Names to Keep Readers Immersed in the Narrative

Fixing this one of our most common writing mistakes is simple. All you have to do is switch out the titles for names and pronouns.

Sienna stared at Dr. Martinez. He had been her personal physician ever since she came on board the launch team. He knew how much this mission meant to her. Surely, he could fudge the reports on a measly head cold to get her headed back to the moon.

“You can’t be serious!” she said.

He exchanged a pained glance with Mike–who’d asked Sienna to marry him last night.

Mike intervened. “Now, sweetpea, you can’t blame Jeraldo for this.”

She slid off the examining table. “Just watch me!” She stormed out of the room. She’d talk to Capt. Wilkes about this, just see if she wouldn’t!

The effect is an admittedly simple one. But never discount the importance of intimacy with your readers in your narrative choices. The deeper your POV, the more important these subtleties become.

3 Reasons Authors Sometimes Slip Into This Writing Mistake–and Why They Don’t Matter

Today’s most common writing mistake is, admittedly, a bit of a pet peeve for me (just ask anyone I’ve ever edited for!). But it’s one even I find myself committing in my own writing. What are some reasons we might end up falling into this trap?

1. We’re Quite Tickled by the Character’s Title/Role

This is undoubtedly the worst reason we can choose for committing this writing mistake. Admittedly, it’s pretty awesome to be writing about an astronaut or a pilot or a secret agent or a cowboy. Sometimes we just want to swish the sound of those lovely roles over our tongues and enjoy the satisfaction of it all. But readers don’t enjoy it nearly as much as we do. They don’t need to be reminded at every turn that they’re reading about a secret agent. Even if they don’t notice and feel patronized, the small amount of enjoyment we get out of it still isn’t worth endangering narrative intimacy even slightly.

2. We’re Worried Readers Might Forget a Character’s Role or Relationship

When Dr. Martinez is introduced in Chapter 1 and then fails to reappear until Chapter 32, we might be legitimately concerned that readers will have forgotten all about him and his medical practice. But aside from the fact that, in his particular case, his own name–Dr. Martinez–offers reminder enough, there are always going to be subtler and simpler solutions than constantly referring to him as “the doctor.”

A final comment on this: Nothing wrong with providing readers a needed reminder. But readers often need to be reminded far less often than we think they do. Give them credit for being just as aware of your story details as you are. If you end up erring on the side of not enough info, your beta readers will always let you know.

3. We Feel the Need for Variation in Our Sentence Subjects

Variety in our narrative is important. Sometimes we might worry that using a character’s name or even a pronoun over and over again will grow repetitious in readers’ minds. But, frankly, this is not a concern. Character names and pronouns are invisible to readers. They’ll never fault you for overusing them. If you’re struggling with monotonous sentences, the problem is not that you’re using Sienna’s name in every sentence. The problem is that you’re not varying your sentence structures. For example:

Don’t Do This:

Sienna got out of bed and made coffee. She read the newspaper while she drank her coffee. She took a shower and got dressed for training.

Or This:

Sienna got out of bed and made coffee. She read the newspaper while she drank her coffee. The astronaut took a shower and got dressed for training.

Do This Instead:

The first rays of sunlight woke Sienna, and she rolled out of bed. A cup of Folgers was already calling her name. While she drank off the whole pot, she looked over the paper for any news of the launch. Not a word. Probably just as well. She tossed the paper across the table and headed to the bathroom to shower and dress for today’s bout of training.

Most of us overuse character titles and roles to the point that this can be an easy mistake shrug off. Don’t do that. Take the extra time to tighten up your narrative by removing this unncessary obstacle between your readers and their intimacy with your story. The result will always be a subtly polished manuscript that welcomes readers into its world.

Tell me your opinion: Have you committed this one of our most common writing mistakes in your narrative?

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 39

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. These kinds of posts make me a lot happier person. It makes me feel the mistakes I have made in my writing, and makes me do a bout of editing in my next writing session.
    And maybe you pro writers has forgotten the feeling, but just having something to edit is a great feeling.
    Off I go to have a look in my current manuscript.

  2. PetLoverSpy says

    Ah, ahem, I am quite guilty of this. The story I’ve been writing features mostly scenes between two female characters, so to (stupidly) avoid the overuse of names I constantly referred to the (older) non-POV character as ‘the woman.’ I just want through it again and cleaned that up. The only instance where I left a title was where I wanted to strongly imply the contrast between the two, i.e. the thief and the crimefighter. But thanks for the advice! I discovered your blog only a few days ago, have been binge-reading it since, and it’s been really helpful so far!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good for you! And it really is an easy fix, isn’t it? I bet even just that little tweak perked up your prose. So glad you’re enjoying the blog!

  3. This post made me worry that I should edit my WIP in beta… Yay, one less thing for editors to yell at me for.

    Now, I have a mother/daughter subplot where, as the daughter, Jocelyn, begins to forgive her mother (who is a POV character), I have lines like, “She dared to rest her arm over her daughter’s shoulders,” or something like that. So, is that too much? Will my readers hate me for saying “her daughter” when we’re in the mother’s POV? Should I change it to “her shoulders” or “Jocelyn’s shoulders?”

    I kind of liked using “her daughter” at moments where I felt they connected as mother/daughter instead of their usual state of Jocelyn wanting nothing to do with her…

    Also, kind of similar question: I have a scene where five people are deciding what they need to do next, and all have a voice. Pronouns got confusing real fast, but the constant name writing seemed too jarring. Also, I know if a character hasn’t spoken in a while, you’re supposed to write something like, Jocelyn said, “Why do you think that’ll work?” but to me, having the character’s name before their dialogue sounds jarring and I’ve noticed a lot of recent books have almost done away with this. Any thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think the daughter reference works – especially if it’s only once or twice. The emphasis of the relationship seems important to the scene.

      You’re right about the speaker tag being jarring previous to the dialogue. The solution is simply to stick it *after* the dialogue or at the first obvious break. E.g., “Why do you think that’ll work?” Jocelyn said. -or- “What do you think,” Jocelyn said, “of this new dress?”

      • Thanks so much! I was worried that it would confuse readers if someone else chimed in during a conversation, but I’m definitely just going to stick to that.

  4. Great post! I am reading a book right now that has this issue. I think the author is afraid of pronouns, or he is trying to up his word count, or something. I’m 2/3 through the book and the main character is still often referred to as ‘the paranormal investigator’ or ‘the investigator’ instead of saying his name or using ‘he’. The investigator is in love with a psychologist, who was introduced in the first 100 pages, but is referred by her profession more than her name. During my reading yesterday, the paranormal investigator and the psychologist made love. Doesn’t that sound super romantic? Ugh. It makes the writing seem awkward and pulls me from the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Fear of pronouns is shame, because pronouns are powerful things. They offer a subtle, even invisible way for the character to interact as intimately as possible with the readers.

  5. Okay, apparently I’m alone in my opinions on this. But as a reader AND a writer, seeing a name used over and over again just makes me twitch violently. Give me a hair color sometime! Unless it’s a first-person perspective (in which case I fully agree because no one thinks of their friend as ‘the blond’) it just annoys me to bits if I read their name over and over again. (Especially in a several-character situation when other descriptors are possible.) But maybe I’m the only one that thinks this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Which is why pronouns are so awesome. There’s no reason to use a character’s name over and over, except when it’s necessary for clarity. Otherwise, pronouns should be our go-to, since they’re more invisible and better at creating a deeper sense of intimacy between the reader and the narrative.

  6. I have a minor issue with this, and it’s to do with pronouns. What if you have multiple characters of the same gender? Won’t that confuse the reader? As in…I tend to write about a lot of women and girls, and I tend to read a lot of things with female characters, and in first drafts, it’s harder to figure out which “she” is doing what things where without using titles or names over and over. And kind of like CC, seeing character names over and over bothers me because it gives me the impression that the author thinks that the reader has forgotten what the character’s names are.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Obviously, clarity has to carry the day. Whenever we’re using a pronoun, the antecedent must always be clear. But I really wouldn’t worry too much about overusing a character’s name. At the end of the day, that name is going to be much more invisible than if you try to mix things up with untoward variation.

  7. In my WIP, the setting is a foreign land and names can be a bit unfamiliar to the general reader. In this area (Nepal) there is a leader of the village called the Mukhiya and there are 2 characters in my book that are Mukhiyas. To keep the reader from getting confused I call one of them I call by his name, and the other by ‘old man’, (who currently doesn’t have a name). This man gives guidance to the main character and is seen as a mentor. When my main character calls him by name, he says, “Mukhiya” as a term of respect but when the narrator uses his name, he (or me, haha) says “old man”.
    Is this confusing?? haha.
    Should I capitalize Old Man or give him a name? I was hoping to convey a sense of feeling by using this term, but after reading this, I’m doubting this decision.

    • Just to clarify, a Mukhiya in more familiar terms would be something like Governor.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Consistency is the key. If you’re *consistently* referring to a character by his title, then you’re not likely to have a problem. Whether or not you decide to capitalize that title depends on how greatly you want to identify that character with the title. If you capitalize “Old Man,” it becomes, in essence, the characters name.

  8. Great. Thank you for your advice!! 😀

  9. Laura Stewart says

    I’m so guilty of this one! I’ll have to look out for this one when I’m editing.
    One thing that has me a bit confused is how to refer to a character’s parents. People almost always think of their parents as Mom or Dad, not first names. In my WIP, I’ve been referring to my main character’s parents usually as “her mother” or “her father,” but I feel like there has to be a better way to phrase that. I tried first names, but that just felt unnatural. What to do, what to do…
    Great post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I admit the “Mom” and “Dad” thing in a third-person narrative usually throws me too. I tend to use primarily “his dad” and stick in the father’s name where I have to. It’s not perfect but it works. My protagonists usually have daddy issues anyway, so the extra distance created by having their narrative refer to their parents by name usually works out better than it might otherwise.

  10. Christine Damen says

    Yet in your example of how to do it right, you’ve got “she” starting two sentences. The echo doesn’t work for me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Give a shot to rewriting it. 🙂 I bet you can come up with something even better than still doesn’t resort to titles.

  11. Gary Pettigrew says

    Sorry, a bit late to the party (But here to stay).
    My issue with this is not so much with my named characters but in my first draft but protagonist and his buddy run into a lot of encounters with rogue soldiers, any tips on how to avoid refering to these nameless characters as “The soldier”, “The other soldier” or “The toothless soldier”. From a POV perspective the reader wouldn’t know these character’s names.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s the one I use and see frequently in other books: Simply have the narrating character initially identify the unnamed character by a prominent physical feature (e.g., curly hair), then have the narrator nickname that character something that corresponds (e.g., “Curly”).

  12. Hi,

    I wonder if you can clarify how this would work with multiple characters, where I am referring to them as plural rather than singular, as in the following example:

    “He had the look of someone both world-weary and world-wise at the same time. It was Martin, Jack and Sally’s father.”

    I changed the last part to “It was Martin, Jack and Sally’s father.” based on your advice, but would the following also be fine here: “It was Martin, the kids’ father.”

    Sometimes if feels strange using their names rather than a more generic label. Again, another example:

    “The kids were asleep in bed” or “Jack and Sally were asleep in bed”

    Is the version with “The kids” wrong? Or is it acceptable when you are not referring to one particular character? Imagine if there were 6 kids for example,where it would feel very strange to list all their names, and I can’t really think how I would do it other than saying “the kids”.

    Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

    Kirk

    • What about the following examples:

      “Sally flung up her arms and wrapped them around Martin.”
      “Jack looked at Martin and then at the door.”

      or

      “Sally flung up her arms and wrapped them around her dad.”
      “Jack looked at his dad and then at the door.”

      Is is okay to use “his/her dad” when I’m talking about the father character as I imagine the children would think of him? Or should I still be calling him “Martin” here, even though it sort of makes it sound rather informal/distant, as though they maybe see him like a step father or something?

      Note: I’m writing this in omniscient third person.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        If you’re in a deep narrative, you would want to refer to the character by whatever name or title the narrator would use. E.g.: “Sally wrapped her arms around Dad.” Personally, I often find this awkward and would actually opt for the “title” in most instances: “Sally wrapped her arms around her dad.”

        However, in an omniscient narrative, it’s also possible to get away with the more distant attribution.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good question. With omniscient, the rules on this will change slightly, since you’re automatically creating a narrative with more distance. It’s also a different story when you’re dealing with a group. As you say, you wouldn’t talk about a football team by naming every single player. So I think you’re find referring to the plurality of kids by a “title” in some instances.

  13. I’m writing a third-person subjective, pov through the main character, a young woman (Ray) pretending to be an adolescent boy and about a thrid of the story told through her male coworker (Dex) who has no idea Ray’s true gender. I’m having trouble with the pronouns during the chapters from Dex’s pov.
    I know, and the readers know that Ray is a female, but through Dex’s pov chapters, should Ray be referred to as “he” as Dex knows her or “she” as she actually is?
    I find myself avoiding pronouns and labeling Ray “the boy” or “the kid” when Dex associates, talks or thinks of her. Since it’s third person, I’m afraid it may be confusing to label Ray “he” but I don’t think using labels on her if very effective either.
    Any thoughts? I appreciate any feedback!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, you’ll want to refer to the character by whatever pronoun the current narrator is aware of. Ray would think of herself as “she”; Dex would think of her as “he.” Readers will understand.

  14. James Ross says

    Oh, I am so guilty of this, that it still exists after I went in to manage the problem.

    In my short story /excerpt, one of the characters is a ‘brannonite,’ meaning she dresses up as the MC because he’s the thorn in the side of an oppressive regime. (Somewhere between “I am Spartacus” and Guy Faux.) The short-short is almost over before she introduces herself, so Brannon just resorts to calling her “Brannon” which is appropriate to the characters, and the narrator usually calls her ‘the brannonite.’

    I went in to enhance the emotional arc – it was already good, I think – then I come back to read this. Back to it again!

  15. What about a person, who has different titles/names for different viewpoints?

    Ex. Mrs. Helen Pickett AKA Cassandra’s mother

    In Cassandra’s POV, should Helen always be referred to as “her mother”?

    In Matt’s (Hero) POV, should Helen always be referred to as “Mrs. Pickett”?

    In Mildred (Helen’s friend), should Helen always be referred to as “Helen”?

    In the narrative POV, should Helen always be referred to as “Helen”?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Technically, yes. It’s nice when as many POVs as possible can refer to the character by the same name, but ultimately staying true to the narrating character is more important.

  16. Hi, I’m not a writer looking for advice, but I KNOW there’s a technical term for what you’re describing, probably something with *nym in the word. Please tell me what it is, because for the life of me I can’t remember and just can’t find a way to enter the right terms in a google search…

  17. I hope you’re still reading replies! 🙂 Do blog posts work the same way? My blog will be about life experience and the lessons learned. My jumping off point will be about my husband’s cancer and death, and dealing with life and emotions in the aftermath. Ours is a story of hope and life.

    I originally didn’t intend to include the name of our oncologist or hospital; they are not important to the narrative. I changed my mind after reading that including those details might help with getting picked up by a google search.

    I included that information in the post that talks about where we learned his diagnosis–it was one of those “one in a million” things, in the worst possible way. But I don’t feel compelled to use the doctor’s name every time it comes up.

    Blog posts, while they can be linked back to in future posts, are more stand-alone. It seems simpler to say “at our appointment with our oncologist,” rather than “at our appointment with our oncologist, Dr Smith” every time. I’m wondering if “our oncologist” or “our doctor” would be more appropriate, unless I included dialogue.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Blog posts are a little different. The narrative structure isn’t as deep and it’s understood that extraneous details (such as doctors’ names) are often deleted, both for expediency and for privacy.

  18. Fantastic article! I’m reading a story for a friend and I’ve come to the conclusion that she forgot her characters’ names about a quarter of the way through. For instance one main character became the student, then she added the teen, and then the brunette, and the blue-eyed boy, all used randomly. Similarly, the other main character gained a handful of descriptive names. I found myself chanting, “use their names, use their names, USE THEIR NAMES!” I’m going to make sure she sees this article! Thank you!

  19. I’m guilty as charged with the replace name with title thing. (I just got tired of using the character’s name so frequently.) I’ll need to go through and edit a bit.

  20. I have a question on grandma.
    The children call her Grandma. Her name is Ethel. Can i use Ethel in narrative? She is introduced as Grandma Ethel .
    Hannah looked at her grandma.
    “Grandma, i need help.”
    – Ethel shuffled over to her chair.
    – Grandma Ethel shuffled over.
    -Hannah’s grandma shuffled over.
    -Her grandma shuffled over.
    The grandma is a main character used often.
    If i use Grandma Ethel all the time it just seems to young of a readers audience.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If you’re in a deep narrative, you’ll want to call her whatever the narrator naturally thinks of her as.

Trackbacks

  1. […] K.M. Weiland continues her common writing mistakes series with part 39: referencing characters by title rather than by name. […]

  2. […] Referencing Characters by Title Rather Than Name […]

  3. […] Here’s another simple but effective tip from K.M. Weiland: […]

  4. […] post from K. M. Weiland discusses what I’m talking about. This means saying “the lady”, “the man”, “his mother”. […]

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