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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Stick to One Name Per Character Per Scene

The tall man sat at the conference table. The doctor took a sip of coffee and looked at his presentation notes. The Lithuanian orphan scratched his head. The left-handed man jotted down a note. The Harvard grad readjusted his chair. Karl checked his watch. The old man wiped his glasses. The widower looked around the room...

...and saw that he was still alone at the conference table.


Are you thinking, "Wait, how could he be alone? What about all those other people in the room? The doctor, the orphan, the tall guy, the lefty, etc.?"

Many aspiring novelists make the mistake of referring to an individual character by more than one name or descriptor in the same scene. In the scene above, all those descriptors (from Lithuania to Harvard) refer to the same person. Karl was a tall, old, left-handed, widower who began life as a Lithuanian orphan and then went to Harvard and became a doctor.

But my guess is that you thought there were eight people at the table. That's the problem with referring to the same character by different names or monikers in the same scene: it's confusing and misleading.

The rule is this: stick to one name per character per scene.

Maybe I should add "per viewpoint character" to the rule.

If your viewpoint character calls him "Karl," then he must be called "Karl" throughout the scene in which you're in this viewpoint character's head. If the next scene is from a new viewpoint character's head, and that person refers to the same character as "Pops," then this new viewpoint character should refer to him as "Pops" throughout the scene and probably never as "Karl," "the old man," or "the Beatles fan."

I think writers do this as a form of telling. They think they can use these different names and descriptors as subtle ways of sneaking in bits of information or backstory about the character. I mean, by the end of the scene (if you'd been able to understand it correctly) you would've learned a lot about our man Karl. But it would've been cheating. Because telling is (usually) cheating.

If you need us to know that Karl was a Lithuanian orphan, figure out a way to bring that out organically, through scene and dialogue (or perhaps even through the Dumb Puppet Trick, Tip #21), not through sticking it in here and thus confusing us, your readers.

Stick to one name per character per scene (per viewpoint character) and you'll do fine.

Jeff Gerke
a.k.a. Jefferson Scott


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