We Are Glad the Dauphin Is So Pleasant With Us

There is a balance of realism and artistry to be found in writing dialogue.  It is not always an easy balance to find. I confess that a personal pet peeve is to find contemporary dialogue in "pre-modern" settings: such as a Revolutionary soldier saying "Okay" or Charles the Mad saying "Darn" after killing the Bastard of Polignac...  But speaking of Charles the Mad, my particular psychosis which we are going to indulge today has to do, not with period-accurate slang, but with the use of names in dialogue.

use of names

When the character is in a group the use of names in dialogue is rather necessary.  In this instance literature does not quite reflect reality: in a realistic situation you would not keep saying "Well, Euripides, I think - " "Of course, Euripides, I see that - " "Euripides, when you put it like that - " etc.  In reality you would rely on physical prompts to tell people who you were talking to directly: the inclination of your eyes, a gesture of the hand: unspoken signals that may, if used excessively, gum up a piece of writing.  But in a piece of writing, repeating the character's name over and over is unrealistic and undeniably tedious.  Look to strike a balance between the use of given names (or even pet names) and nonverbal prompts to keep the dialogue on a level with smooth, polished literature but recognizable as reflecting reality.

use of character relationship

This gets me probably more than the excessive use of proper names.  It may be a mere pet peeve of mine: I will let you judge.  Very few people, except perhaps Mrs. Bennet, can get away with referring directly to a sibling as "sister" and "brother" all the time in conversation.  Typically, brotherhood and sisterhood are relationships that people do not consciously think about, nor, when they do, do they tend to assign "brother" and "sister" a place of proper noun-ship.  In some time periods and cultures you can get away with this on occasion (Mrs. Bennet) but in my perusals of writing I have found it to be often the mark of amateurism.  Avoid referring to the obvious.  This also goes for an excessive use of "mother," "father," "lord," and "lady," though those titles are closer to being proper nouns in some instances than "brother" and "sister" might be and, as such, have a little more leeway. Again, look for a balance between realism and a translation from the image in your head to the written word to the reader's imagination.

judging by emotion and situation

I gave you some don't-do examples, now I'll try to give you some examples in actual settings.  Dialogue encompasses the entire range of human emotion and just about every circumstance humans can find themselves in.  Names will be used (or not used) differently depending on these factors, and they can mean different things depending on these factors.

Anger.  Everyone knows that you are only given a middle name so you will know when your parents are mad at you. Calling a person by name is a way of grabbing hold of them - in the right tone, it acts in lieu of a physical shaking.

“We need a Caesar! If you can see another way, God help you, but we cannot. Rome cannot help us—she made that very clear. She can barely help herself.” There was a heavy silence, hollow and dark; Lord Alan’s next words fell in the silence like the ghostly pall of snow upon his heart. “We are alone, Ambrosius.”

Contentedness.  When God is in his heaven and all is right with the world, you don't tend to refer to your friend by name while talking to him.  You don't need to get his attention: you already have it, and you're both in a happy state of friendship.

Love.  Again, pet names aside (and those can be many and varied and are up to the discretion of your imagination), people in love don't tend to refer to each other by name when conversing.  They know intuitively that their minds are linked and have no need to draw the person's attention.

Fear.  When you are afraid every moment counts: you won't take the time to string out the entire name of a Spanish character - you will stamp him by his short little Christian name and that will be that.

Embarrassment.  Avoid names.  Using names is like making eye contact, and when you are embarrassed you do not want to have anything to do with the other person.

Extreme happiness.  Unlike contentedness, when you are absolutely, full-to-the-brim happy, calling out the other person's name acts as a relief and to link the other person with your own ecstasy. 

These are just some random feelings and situations that I plucked out of the dark attic of my mind.  Again, think about realistic situations in which there is dialogue and then think how best to translate that into writing.  Things will have to be tampered with when they go into writing otherwise something will be lost in translation (such as nonverbal indicators), but in general keeping a firm touch of reality goes a long way to keeping tabs on names in dialogue.  It may be apparent in these examples I gave that I steer away from using proper nouns in dialogue.  I do that, not because I think it is taboo, but because people don't usually speak that way.

Sum up: keep in touch with reality, attend to period-accurate address, and maintain a good feel for when proper nouns are used by what emotions in what situations. 

13 ripostes:

  1. "When we have match'd our rackets to these balls / We will, in France, by God's grace, play a set / Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard."

    Sorry. :P

    All jesting aside, this was an excellent post. There is such a flimsy balance in writing: we must write like reality, but we cannot entirely be reality. As you mentioned, there are certain occasions in which we must stray from life (i.e. when it's necessary to name the person to whom so-and-so's words are directed). Unfortunately, I have found the latter extreme to be far more common. If a writer is proficient in his or her craft and writes dialogue with finesse, the names can easily be added later on. It's far more difficult to curb the "Oh, Suzie! Look, Suzie. Did you see that dog, Suzie?" habits.

  2. Because crying out "Suzie, this! Suzie, that! Suzie, come! Suzie, look!" is a great way to get kicked by the seat of your pants into the hedge.

  3. Ha! This just happens to be one of my pet peeves! It irks me to no end when an author keeps reminding the reader who is talking to whom like this mainly because it takes away from the sense of realness and reminds us that we are reading not living.

  4. Well said! That's one of my pet peeves, too. Thank you for addressing this, and for giving some good examples.

  5. But what if Euripides just won't. pay. attention?

  6. The only folks I usually think of as calling each other "sister" regularly (aside from Mrs. Bennet) are those pairs slightly eccentric elderly maiden ladies such as the Baldwin sisters in The Waltons or the Misses Jenkyns in Cranford. Of course, being Waltons and Cranford fans, my sisters and I address each other that way in fun. :)

    I think the over-use of relationship titles and such is the opposite problem of the historically-inaccurate dialogue you mentioned in your first paragraph—sometimes you'll see historical fiction where the author was evidently anxious to make their characters sound "historical" and just made their speech stilted and filled with too-formal expressions.

  7. I agree! I irritate myself sometimes by re-reading one of my old writings, and finding that full names in every sentence were an absolutely must to me, back in the day. Thankfully, I have been cured of the disease by some miracle, but the medicine had a harmful side-effect: now I forget to use names, and call everyone "he" and "she" a little too often, forgetting that when a person read my book they will not know exactly what's going on because they in fact do *not* read my mind. ;P

    At any rate, you have put me in a Henry V mood with that marvelous quote. :) Oh, and I'm watching the last two hours of P&P tonight with my sisters, so when I hear "Sister, sister! Have you heard the news? Mr. Bingley is back at Netherfield, and the whole town is talking of it!" naturally I'm going to think of this post. :D

  8. Is it merely coincidence that I just finished reading a How-To chapter on dialog before reading this post? Hrm. Someone's trying to teach me a lesson, methinks.


    Bree - Overcompensating for early mistakes, I know exactly what you mean. It's really annoying when you have just three people talking because then the name-juggling gets down-right tedious. I am running my creativity dry trying to worm out of that trouble... As for reading minds, apparently I am good at that... And I do forget that you aren't crawling inside my head thinking all my thoughts with me. When I do realize that, I am so deeply grateful...

    Rachel - Reading minds. Just sayin'.

  10. Having a bit of weakness on dialogue writing, I swallowed this post, hook and sinker! Really. Right down to every single word that you wrote, Jenny. I am guilty of many of the above "don'ts" in fact and by now I know it so well, it makes me blush staring at the dialogue in 'The Crown of Life'... but I have always (at least I hope!) tried to avoid modernized dialogue such as a character using "okay" "alright" "yeah" (they're pet peeves of mine too and get me so irritated whenever I read them).

    Great post! And can I ask... is that snippet from one of your books? Because if it is, it is just brilliant!

  11. EXCELLENT points! I have a tendancy to use names in my dialogue...I really usually shouldn't, I suppose, but it feels far more natural. In Monster, for instance, Eva calls Mir 'Mir' frequently, but I think it has a lot to do with the story. His name signifies a lot, so it's more...I don't know. I wouldn't go so far as to call it creative license...more subtle symbolism. Anyway, an excellent post and what's hilarious is I was watching Pride and Prejudice while I read it and the first thing I thought when my eye brushed over the word 'brother' was Mrs. Bennett. XD

  12. Thank you for this, Jenny! I found it very instructive and, accordingly, I was horrified to look back at my writing and discover what a bad girl I've been in this respect. I shall be editing, I shall...

    Thanks for blogging. You're a gem, JennyDear. ^.^

  13. Mirriam - I am currently reading Pride and Prejudice, again, and whenever I need to fold gobs of laundry or do my nails, or just chill, I'll watch the 1995 version, so goodness knows that story is never far from my mind. :P As for "Mir," one thing I didn't think to mention is that even I have pet names that characters use almost as a touch: the use of the name is a bond, a link, a hand. So I totally understand. ^.^

    Katie - I'm naturally intuitive, which means I don't tend to think about all this concretely, so I'm on the opposite spectrum from try-too-harders, as you said before. In a sense that puts me at another kind of disadvantage, but I completely understand so don't call yourself too much of a bad girl! Thank goodness you can't get a hold of my early attempts at writing...

    Joy - Thanks! As for the snippet, it's part of a larger story that I intend to write some day. Bits of it float out on occasion and I have a hulking, vague shape of plot, but as yet I have not thrown myself into it.