I’ve written about the idea of calling parents “Mom” and “Dad” in deep third person before on my collaborative blog, AuthorCulture. It has always bothered me, though I never understood why until the day when I was editing a manuscript written in third person during the day and reading a book written in first person in the evenings. Basically, what I realized is that saying “I called Mom” sounded more natural than “Pete called Mom.” The point of deep third person is to get inside the POV character’s head as far as possible, but the problem is, the POV character would never call himself by his first name.
Once, when I made that remark, someone commented that he did his best not to identify his main character all the time, using pronouns instead, or taking him out of the picture entirely–which is great. That’s one way to deepen your POV. Problem is that there are times when identifying your character as the one speaking or doing the action is inescapable.
I’m reading a book that I deeply love and would recommend to everybody, but the author uses the technique of having the characters call their parents “Mom” and “Dad.” It bothers me, but not seriously. Kinda like a bug splatted on an otherwise pristine windshield. Every now and then it catches my eye and distracts me from my driving, but it in no way discourages me from taking the journey through the story.
Let’s look at some examples from the book (I changed the character names):
1. Mom called for dinner. Melissa stayed by the bedroom window.
Melissa is the POV character in this. Because the author is telling us she stayed by the window, we’re already slightly out of a deep POV–which is okay. There is no way to be totally immersed when we’re in third person. But if we were in her head, we wouldn’t be calling her by her name. Does that make sense? I would never say, “Mom called for dinner. Linda stayed by the bedroom window.” So we’re already out of POV. It’s awkward, to me anyway, to call her mother Mom and then the character by her first name in such close proximity.
2. He’d even tried to express his passion for teaching to Dad once.
In this line, the POV character has already been identified, and since he’s the only one in the scene, the author is properly using pronouns instead of calling him by his name all the time. If she’d written “He tried to express his passion to Dad,” the line would still bother me, but not quite so badly. But this one had me wishing for strong enough windshield wipers to sweep the bug off the glass.
In this line, the author is stepping in to tell a little backstory. This is a definite pulling away of the camera to show a wider scenario. Again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the fact she did this. The author presented backstory expertly throughout the novel. But the very fact that this line is written in past perfect cues the reader that we’re learning a little of the character’s history from the author, not from the character. So calling the father “Dad” in this instance got to me.
3. Then she went to the side table, and placed two framed photos on it–one of Dad with Mom just before she died, the other of Dad with Tommy on his shoulders.
This one made me want to stop the car and scrape the bug off with my bare hands. Tommy is the POV character. Tommy watched the woman’s activities, recognized the pictures she was moving around, and called himself “Tommy” and his dad “Dad.”
We are in deep POV. Nowhere in the paragraph did the author say “Tommy looked at her” or “Tommy watched her.” Words like this in deep POV are pointless. Write what the person saw, not that he was engaged in the action of seeing. This, the author did splendidly all through the book.
But when she had to differentiate between the two males listed in the sentence, it seemed immensely awkward. Had this been in first person, it would’ve been just fine: “the other of Dad with me on his shoulders.” See how natural that is? It is not possible to achieve that kind of depth in third person. The closest you could do is to write “the other of Dad with him on his shoulders.” In fact, I wish she’d written it that way. She’d written the paragraph in such a way, and the sentence in such a way, that there would’ve been no doubt who the “him” applied to.
I wish I could go on a crusade and explain to authors why they shouldn’t do this–and I just might.
Things like this don’t bother readers, however. At least I don’t think so. I noticed with my own novel, The Cat Lady’s Secret, reviewers who are also authors ding me for having the Millie character in first person, present tense when the rest of the novel is in third person past. We’ve been taught not to do this because it’ll “confuse the readers,” something I’ve discovered is confusing itself. Our readers are smart. Things like this don’t confuse them–and things like the MC calling his parents “Dad” and “Mom” probably don’t distract them.
But I’d really like to change the accepted norm about this and influence authors not to do it.