Critique Technique, Part 36—Name-Calling

This post and the next one will focus on problems that are specific to dialog.

Sometimes characters addressing each other by name is a problem, sometimes it isn’t. It’s important to be able to tell the difference. It’s more likely to be a problem in fiction, memoir, and creative non-fiction than in other kinds of non-fiction, because reportorial non-fiction generally uses direct quotes in a non-conversational context. Name-calling can become a problem when character talk to each other.

Let’s begin by identifying the kinds of situations where one character calling another by name IS appropriate.

  • One character needs to get another’s attention, such as:
    • In a moment of danger: “Bob! Run!” Alice shouted.
    • In a noisy or crowded location: “Alice, over here!” Bob called.
    • From a group of characters: Carol spotted Dean in the group of teens hanging out at the end of the pier. “Dean, what are you doing here?”
  • The author needs to direct the reader’s attention to a specific individual: The teens were milling around at the end of the pier. Carol worked her way through the crowd. “Dean, what are you doing here?” she asked.
  • To emphasize an emotional state, such as:
    • Intimacy: “Francine, that’s so sweet,” Eddie whispered.
    • Anger: “Eddie, you’re such an idiot!” Francine said.
  • A situation where characters are in a superior/subordinate relationship. The stereotype here would be a military environment but many civilian cultures also have these kinds of relationships. Consider, for example, how the children in small-town Alabama address the adults in To Kill a Mockingbird.

There are a few other keys to note here. First, and perhaps most important, the name-calling happens the minimum number of times necessary, typically just once. I’ll discuss this more in a moment.

Second, the author has chosen to use dialog instead identifying the person being addressed through narrative. For example, the intimacy example above could also be written,  “Eddie snuggled up to Francine. ‘That’s so sweet,’ he whispered.” In a case like this, the author may be looking for a little variety in the way the story is being told, or she wants to emphasize the relationship and the emotion of the moment by having one character address the other by name.

Third, the situation may require name-calling to help the reader keep track of who’s speaking to whom.

Where authors run into trouble, though, is when the characters keep calling each other by name when it isn’t necessary. Typically, this happens in a back-and-forth conversation between two characters where there’s no chance the reader will confuse the speakers. Let’s go back to Eddie and Francine for an example.

“Eddie, you’re such an idiot!” Francine said.

“I am not, Francine. I’ll have you know I’m highly educated.”

“I don’t care that you’ve got a Ph.D., Eddie, that was still a stupid decision.”

“Now, Francine, you know I made the best decision I could based on the information I had.”

“That was the best decision you could make, Eddie?”

And so on. Let’s look at what’s wrong here.

Line 1: Nothing. Francine is using Eddie’s name to emphasize that he’s the target of her anger. This might not be true if we had more context for the scene, but since we don’t we’ll call this line acceptable.

Line 2: Maybe nothing, since Eddie’s trying to placate Francine. But at the same time, lacking any other information, we know who he’s talking to. The first sentence could be deleted.

Line 3: Again, there’s nothing to suggest there’s anyone else Francine could be talking to and the level of emotion is set, so she doesn’t need to call him by name. Even if there’s a superior/subordinate relationship between these characters, there’s nothing to indicate that it’s in play here. Maybe Francine has a doctoral degree, too. Maybe she’s his boss. Or maybe she’s his housekeeper. We don’t know.

Lines 4 and 5: By now the names are just empty words, contributing nothing to the story.

The edited version might look something like this:

“Eddie, you’re such an idiot!” Francine said.

Eddie stood up straighter. “I’ll have you know I’m highly educated.”

“I don’t care that you’ve got a Ph.D. That was still a stupid decision.”

“I made the best decision I could based on the information I had.”

“That was the best decision you could make?”

OK, that’s still not great dialog—it could be tighter and use more gestures and actions—but it’s a lot better than it was. It sounds more like the way people talk.

To sum up, then, here are tests you can use to determine if an author’s characters are calling each other by name inappropriately:

  • One speaker already has the attention of another.
  • The speakers have already been identified and there’s no chance for confusion among them.
  • The name-calling does not serve to amplify or emphasize an emotion, point, or relationship.
  • It’s clear who the author wants the reader to be paying attention to.
  • The name-calling continues beyond when it would end in natural speech.

As a reviewer, when you come across a situation like this, be sure to point it out to the author and suggest ways they could ensure the reader always knows who’s speaking and the intent of their speech without resorting to name-calling.

What else do you look for when you’re looking for characters calling each other by name inappropriately?

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