Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Name Dropping in Conversations

Paula thinks about how we use our characters’ names in one-to-one dialogue.
Have you ever read dialogue that runs something like this?
“John, I think you should change your tie.”
“Why do you think that, Mary?”
“Because it doesn’t match your shirt, John.”
Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but in a couple of books I've read recently, the dialogue  sounded unnatural, simply because the characters used each other’s names too much. I’ve also read a comment from an editor that said, “Any story where the characters are constantly addressing each other by name in dialogue drives me crazy and I can’t get through the story. No one talks like that in real life.”
How often do you use someone’s name in a one-to-one conversation? I’ve monitored a few conversations recently as an experiment, but wasn’t surprised when, in the course of these, no one used my first name, and I didn’t use theirs either. Try it for yourself sometime!
When I am talking to one of my friends, I don’t say, “Did you see that film on TV last night, Brenda?” I omit her name. She knows I’m talking to her!
The same should apply in our novels. We need to think carefully about when our characters would call each other by name. As with most things, less is more. I must admit I don’t notice my use of characters’ names when I’m writing, but as soon as I read a chapter out loud, I find I’m deleting the unnecessary use of names.

Obviously, names can be used for effect in some circumstances e.g. when someone is angry (“Oh, for heavens’ sake, Mary—”) or pleading (“Please, John—please don’t go,”). There are also times when using a character’s name in dialogue can help to avoid dialogue tags, since nothing is worse than having to count back through short dialogue comments to work out who is saying what. I’m sure we’ve all done that sometimes!
Even so, we need to avoid the over-use of names, certainly in one-to-one conversations. Where there are three or more people, names are sometimes needed to clarify who is being spoken to. Having someone saying, (e.g.) "What do you think, Mary?" is fine unless everyone is using everyone's else's name. The dialogue would then start to border on the ridiculous! Far better to use some action e.g. John turned to Mary. "What do you think?" We then know that he's talking to Mary, and so using her name isn't necessary.


  1. Good points, something else to watch out for!

  2. Totally agree with you on this! Although I find that using a nickname sometimes helps when you have to use the name in the dialogue in order to avoid tags, but you want it to sound natural. But again, not often.

  3. Carol, even when I get my printed books and open them, I can still see names I should have deleted. Not sure why I write them in when I wouldn't say them myself!

  4. Jen, that's made me realise I very rarely use nicknames!

  5. My agent gives us a list of things to watch out for in our manuscripts, and this is on it. I do the same thing. I write them, so I have to be sure to watch out for them, but like you, I don't even know why I write it, because I don't talk that way. lol

    Great tip!

  6. I knew we were alike, Joanne! We can now add 'using characters' names' to our list of similarities in how we both think and write!

  7. I am often surprised by films where characters repeat each others' names in one-to-one conversations. These remind me of stage plays, where names seem to be used a bit more often,.
    I try to use names just enough to help keep the reader straight.

  8. Ana, I think the 'older' films are more guilty of over-using names than more modern ones, which is why using names in modern books made the characters sound like they're in a 1940s or 50s movie!
    You're absolutely right that there are times you have to use names to keep the reader straight - and also for (dramatic) effect at other times.

  9. Name dropping in dialogue definitely makes it sound unnatural.

    In real life, I'd say the only time I use a name in conversation is if I'm trying to get someone's attention or if there are a lot of people in the room and I'm addressing my comment to one particular person.

  10. I think I do the same, Debra - which is why it's interesting that we often use them more in our writing than we do in real life.