In last Wednesday’s post, “Deep POV: Thinking Like Your Character,” I explained about how clumsy familial relationships can be when writing in deep POV. I’ve written about it before, and keep forgetting to clarify about using the POV character’s name. Sure enough, someone caught me on it.
Codex Regius wrote this:
I don’t quite agree with your view on using or avoiding character’s names. Imagine that, in your third example, you had a boy and his father. Then your first phrase would sound like, “Jonathan slipped his hand into his father, Jake’s, and he smiled at him.”
Who smiled at whom?
I want to clarify about using the character’s name. I’m not against it. Not at all. You simply can not get away from it if you’re going to keep the scene’s characters straight in the reader’s mind.
But when we do use the character’s name, we’re pulling the camera back a bit, crawling out from under her skin so we, the author, can step in and clarify who’s who, or describe the action or setting. And when we’ve stepped back, it seems strange to me to continue calling the parent “Daddy.”
Let me extend last week’s example:
Ellie slipped her hand into her father, Jake’s, and he smiled at her. They were going for a walk–just Daddy and her. No mean brothers to tease her about monsters. Daddy was bigger than the monsters. He could beat them all up.
She skipped along beside him.
Up ahead, Aunt Mary stood near her ranch gate, checking her mailbox. She smiled and waved at them. Ellie pulled Daddy forward, trying to make him hurry. Daddy quickened his step.
Ellie saw Aunt Mary up ahead, but we don’t have to say “Ellie saw” because we’re in her POV. We just show who it was she saw. But now we have another female in the scene and we have to differentiate between the two, so we use Ellie’s name instead of the feminine pronoun–and when we call the character by her name, we’ve stepped out from under her skin.
Here’s another way to write that last paragraph:
Up ahead, Aunt Mary stood near her ranch gate, checking her mailbox. She smiled and waved at them. Ellie pulled her daddy forward, trying to make him hurry. Daddy quickened his step.
It’s a fine line, I know. And it’s a suggestion, a guideline maybe, but not a rule. I don’t write rules.
But while we’re at it, let me address the change in the sentence Codex Regius provided:
Jonathan slipped his hand into his father, Jake’s, and he smiled at him.
This doesn’t confuse me about who smiled at whom because of the construction “he smiled at him.” If Jonathan was the one who smiled, the sentence would read “Jonathan slipped his hand into his father, Jake’s, and smiled at him.”
I wonder if we’ve become so paranoid about not being understood unless we use proper names all the time that we’ve forgotten that there are other cues in the sentence–and there’s also such a thing as common sense.
Let’s play with Codex Regius’s rewrite a little:
Jonathan slipped his hand into his father’s, and he smiled at him.
Jonathan slipped his hand into his father’s and smiled at him.
Can you tell what’s going on in each of these sentences? Do the pronouns confuse you?
Even in this one, you can tell what’s going on:
Up ahead, Aunt Mary stood near her ranch gate, checking her mailbox. She smiled and waved at them. She pulled Daddy forward, trying to make him hurry. He quickened his step.
I wouldn’t recommend writing it this way, but if you did, the reader could still tell who the “She” is who’s pulling Daddy forward, just by logic and common sense. Aunt Mary is up ahead, so who’s pulling “Daddy”?
As I said, though, I don’t write rules. I just provide my observations, things I learn from reading others’ works that help with my own understanding of this craft. I share in case something I’ve learned will help my readers.
I am so thankful to Codex Regius for disagreeing with me, because I really didn’t know what I was going to write about this morning. He gave me a topic!
I wonder if author’s preference, or voice, would also dictate some of the usage, as long as the structure isn’t ambiguous for the reader. Great points. Thank you for clarifying and suggesting. I learn so much from your posts!
Author preference, voice, the publisher’s in-house editor, all these could dictate some of the usage. Like I said, it’s not a hard and fast rule–it’s not a rule at all. What I find is that anytime I’m inside the character’s skin, it’s not even an issue.
When writers started trying to go deeper, and calling the parental character by the same term the POV character would use became the norm, I thought it was a great idea. Still do. But something about it always seemed off. One time, I was editing a deep third-person POV manuscript in the daytime, and reading a 1st person POV novel at night. That’s when it hit me.
It’s natural to write “I went with Mom to the store,” because that’s what the POV character would say in a 1st-person novel. But “Ellie went with Mom to the store” didn’t seem right. In the 1st-person novel, the character almost never calls herself by her name–there’s no reason to. There’s no confusion as to whom the “I” refers. But in 3rd person, we have to differentiate between characters when the pronouns would be confusing, so, like I said, we slip out of the character’s skin long enough to straighten it out, then slip right back in. Calling “Ellie” by her name isn’t the issue. The issue is the author calling Ellie’s mother “Mom” when we’ve slipped out from under Ellie’s skin.
“Ellie went with her mom to the store” works better, in my opinion.
I see your point, and completely agree. Otherwise, I struggle with comprehension, which ruins the magic. 😊
I don’t argue this at all. But I’ll often get hung up over the usage of “Dad” or “Daddy” or the like, *unless* the narrating character’s voice is particularly distinct and it just flows. I have to cheat in my own narratives sometimes and just let the narrating character call the parent by name, just to appease my own inner cringing.
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Yes. I went through that with Aunt Adele and The Final Ride. With them both being female, it got pretty awkward to write.
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