Name Dropping

On May 20, 2011, Jill wrote, ….Is it possible to say a name too many times? One of my biggest pet peeves is when writers use the same word too many times, so I am really conscientious about it when I am writing. I was just now writing and realized I was using one of the character’s names a lot to avoid using the pronoun too many times. How can I avoid this?

Then bluekiwii wrote, @ Jill
    I read somewhere that words such as “she”, “he”, or “I” tend to be invisible–which means that when readers read them they don’t tend to notice them. I normally use names when using the pronouns would be too confusing (like when two women are having a conversation). Does this help? It had never occurred to me that saying a name too many times would be annoying to read, but, on reflection, I agree. It will also be a useful device to use on a specific character to make him appear obnoxious.

And Jenna Royal wrote, I definitely have a problem with using he, she and it. I know they become invisible to the reader, but as the writer they really bother me. I find myself inserting the words “the girl” or “the boy” or “the woman” a lot, which I don’t really like either. It’s not the right voice for my stories, and it’s kind of jarring. I guess I will just have to get brave and use the pronouns. 🙂

I googled but couldn’t find anything I could quote about the invisibility of pronouns. I did find a blog post in which the author opined that good writing is invisible, that the reader should be so lost in a story that the words disappear, which I half agree with and half don’t. When the writing is stunning I am sometimes aware of it even if I’m engrossed in the action.

By stunning I don’t mean the author is using exalted language. The words may be everyday, but they’re perfect in the moment. A character says something simple but surprising, exactly what she would say. A detail is revealed in a character’s bedroom, and it’s the right detail. There are many, but a few young adult and children’s book writers who jump to mind for great writing are Sharon Creech, Laurie Halse Anderson, Kimberly Willis Holt, and of course my friend Joan Abelove.

If I reread a book, when I’m no longer so worried about what’s going to happen next, then I’m likely to notice the writing.

I also notice when the writing is annoying, and annoying sometimes means confusing, which can happen in a scene when I don’t know which character a pronoun represents.

Referring to characters often feels awkward to me, too. When I have a character who has a title and a name, I vary their use, referring to him sometimes by name, sometimes by title, and, when it’s clear, by pronoun. In A Tale of Two Castles the ogre’s name is Count Jonty Um. I refer to him by turns as he, the count, His Lordship, and, at the beginning of the novel when I want to establish firmly what he is in the reader’s mind, the ogre. Often doing this feels mechanical, and I don’t know whether or not it reads smoothly. But I don’t like the alternative of sticking to just the name and pronoun. I guess I agree that a name can be overused.

And, as I think about it, I do believe the pronoun disappears, which may make it the best choice as long as you’re sure the reader will understand who is meant and isn’t going to forget the character’s name.

The charm of writing scenes with the dragon Meenore is that IT keeps ITs gender secret, so it’s an IT. Ordinarily in scenes involving three characters there have to be two of one sex, but if Meenore is among them and there’s a male and a female, no problem! I capitalize IT because, while there’s no danger of mixing IT up with another character, a small i t IT can be confused with a chair or a rock!

First person has a similar effect. The narrator is I, and so you can include a male and female character in a scene without activating the pronoun problem. With Elodie as I and Masteress Meenore as IT, I can crowd in two more characters and be home free.

Of course, we don’t structure our scenes around pronouns. When a scene calls for two or more same-sex characters, we write it with clarity and name repetition as needed. Story needs trump pronoun considerations.

I question using “the woman,” “the man,” which Jenna Royal wondered about. I think those expressions may distance the reader from the story. Naturally you can do it if distancing is the effect you’re going for, which is valid. But if you’re not, and you want the reader fully engaged, I say repetition of name or pronoun is the lesser evil.

What I really dislike, especially in a story for kids, is when a writer alternates the name and the pronoun with “the little girl” or “the little boy.” The reader, presumably, is a little boy or girl, and the description seems condescending as well as distancing. In my opinion, the writer of a children’s book should be inhabiting a child’s point of view and those terms make me doubt that’s happening.

Pity the poor Finns, who have no masculine or feminine pronouns! Everyone is it. I spoke to a person at a Finnish publisher who told me that translators from other languages do resort to “the man” or “the woman” for clarity. And I don’t know what happens in languages where objects have gender. La plume (the pen) is female in French, and the pronoun is elle, same as for a woman. Oy!

In dialogue, it’s nice when you can eliminate the need for names or pronouns entirely here and there. I discuss this a little on the blog and even more in Writing Magic. If the reader knows who’s speaking, no identification is needed. In A Tale of Two Castles, for example, the princess says La! a lot, and she’s the only one who does it. Another character characteristically says By thunder, and he’s the only one who does it. When the reader sees La! he knows the speaker is Princess Renn, and when he sees By thunder, he knows it’s the cook, Jak. In the Disney Fairies books the character Rani finishes people’s sentences for them. When the reader sees this, he knows the speaker is Rani. Of course, you can overdo this. If Jak said By thunder every time he spoke, the reader soon would wish lightning would strike him.

Melissa asked what I’ve been doing at my summer workshop, and I’ll answer in a future post, but the first of these prompts was adapted from prompts I gave the kids. Write your stories or scenes in third person and go on at least long enough to have to make decisions about repeating names and using pronouns. (Naturally, if you like, finish the story or the novel or the series.)

•    Carl, who doesn’t like to share, possesses something that’s very precious to him, something that can have magical properties – or not. You decide. His three friends, Tomasina, Max, and Wendy, want it. The four are at a local park. Write what happens, including action and dialogue.

•    Beauty is visiting home from her Beast’s castle. As in the fairytale, her older sisters are jealous and want to keep her from returning. The three are in their father’s modest parlor. Write what happens.

•    Three characters are around a campfire, conspiring to overthrow their king. The discussion isn’t going well, and one threatens to leave their group. They also hear noises in the woods. Write what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!


A reader of Writing Magic, who is also an English teacher and clearly a fellow writer, has sent me a letter in which she puzzles over two topics, the first about names. At the end of her questions she wonders if she should just “get over” herself and recognize that names don’t matter much.

Without revealing your name, Thanks! I’ll respond to your second question next week. To everyone else, I’m always looking for blog topics, so I’ll be grateful if you put them in your comments.

To my letter-writer, please don’t get over yourself! Names do matter. Picking them shouldn’t be a random act. Naturally, tastes vary. I don’t like names that are obvious, the way they are in Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, with characters named Obstinate, Pliable, Goodwill, and so on. I even dislike semi-obvious names. I named a selfish fairy Vidia, rather than Invidia, as had been suggested to me. To my ear, Vidia sounds exactly right, a mean name, but Invidia lacks subtlety, and it’s too long (see below).

I’ll never name a character Stormy because she’s moody. But I may name her Stormy if her sisters are Rain, and Skye. Then, if I’m going in a certain direction, I’ll name their parents Bob and Jane; in a different direction, Yearning and Insight. (Is Yearning the father and Insight the mother? Or vice versa?) Names are fun!

One way to get a name that has meaning without being obvious is to think what the character you’re naming is like. Suppose your character happens actually to be moody. Look up moody in the thesaurus and stare intently at the synonyms. Do you see anything that calls a name to mind? Melancholy – Melanie for a girl, Mel for a boy. Petulant – Petula. Also, I have no problem with neologistic names. (Kids, maybe you’d like to look neologistic up or see if your parents know it.) The synonym irascible (irritable) can become Rassie for a girl, Rass for a boy. It doesn’t trouble me if I’m the only one who gets it.

Nicknames can also take you where you want to go. That moody personality again – his name may be Michael, but his friends call him Mope, which may make him mopier.

I prefer names of one or two syllables, three the limit, unless I’m being funny, and then the more the funnier. Or unless there’s some other purpose for the long name. Even when I’m not going for humor, a character can have eight middle names, but the name for everyday use will be relatively short, and that goes for fantasy and science fiction. I hate names that I can recognize on the page, like Xlmaeiothipnm, but not pronounce.

Sometimes readers, even adults, get confused when two names are very similar. If the main character’s boyfriend is Brad and her brother is Bart, the reader may have to work unnecessarily hard to remember who is which. If you’re writing for children who’ve just learned to read, the experts suggest that all the character names start with a different letter.

Names should work for your story or book’s genre. If you’re writing historical fiction, you probably don’t want to name a girl Brianne or Aspen or a boy Denver or Brooklyn (all popular 2009 names, according to an online source). If you’re writing fantasy, the names Phil and Susan may seem out of place, unless they’re visiting from our world.

I have nothing against using the names of people I know. By chance, I happen to know three Mollys, but I won’t hesitate before naming a character Molly. However, if my friend has an unusual name, I may hesitate, and I may ask the person’s permission, especially if the character is going to torture squirrels. I did name a character after a relative who has an usual name. This relative gave me permission, and the character is not only good, but also my favorite in several books, and yet my relative has not been entirely pleased. So you never know.

Also, pay attention to the names of the people you meet. Write down the good ones (probably not right at that moment!), so you won’t forget.

Sometimes having a naming theme helps narrow down your choices. The book I’m working on now began by being based on Perrault’s version of “Puss ‘N Boots,” although it’s moved away from that. Perrault was French, so I decided that all my names should be pronounceable in French. I know un peu French, so some of the names are Anglicized versions of actual French words. A few readers will catch on, but most won’t, and I don’t care. I get a chuckle out of it.

Which is the point. You get to pick. You are the final authority. Make yourself happy. Even if you don’t use a name you like, save it. It may come in handy in another story.