09 April 2015

Hey, You! Calling Out Your Characters

**My theme for this year’s A to Z Challenge is THE NAME GAME. Everything you’d want to know about naming characters.**

Today’s post isn’t about coming up with a name for a character, but about how we actually use names within the writing. Whether you write in first or third person, characters’ names will pop up all the time. It’s important that the reader knows which character is speaking or doing the action. But what about within dialogue? How often should you use your characters’ names? And how easy is it to overuse them?

When you use a character’s name in the dialogue, it’s called direct address. This means that the speaker is directly addressing the other character by name. This is mostly used when you’re trying to get someone’s attention or starting a conversation. It’s something that’s very easy to overdo. We may want to use our characters’ names over and over again in the dialogue, whether it’s to keep things clear for the reader or just to provide emphasis.

So how do we know when to actually use a character’s name? Think about all of the times you actually say someone’s name throughout the day. Is it a casual part of conversation, or is it just when you’re trying to get their attention? I know I hardly ever call my fiancé out by name—
usually when he’s doing something like walking the wrong way or about to step off a sidewalk into oncoming traffic (yeah, that actually happened once). I’m sure parents use their children’s names a lot more often than anyone else, whether it’s to yell at them or just call them downstairs for dinner. But really, when do you use a person’s name? And more importantly, when should you use it in your writing?

FUN TIP: Pick a person you talk to regularly and make a mental note of how many times you actually say their name in one day. It’s probably lower than you think.

A character’s name really shouldn’t come up all that much within the dialogue. Take this little snippet of an argument, for example: 

“John, you really screwed up.”
“I know, Mary, but what do you want me to say?”
“You could just apologize, John.”
“All right. Fine. I’m sorry, Mary.”
“Now, really, John, was that so hard?”

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? You most likely would never use direct address so much, but do any of these sentences really need it? If you cut out all of the names from that conversation, wouldn’t it still get the same point across? If you already know who is speaking, using it within the dialogue probably isn't necessary. If you do need to point it out to the reader, it would probably be better to use it in a tag:

"You really screwed up," Mary said.
"I know," John replied, hanging his head.

From there on you wouldn't need to use the names again, unless someone else entered the conversation or if you insert some exposition between the lines of dialogue. This way, it's clear who is speaking, but the names aren't overused. The less you use your character's names, the more natural the dialogue will feel.

Do you try to avoid direct address in your own writing? When do you think names should be used in dialogue? 


  1. Yes, I do try to avoid overusing direct address in my writing. I find it totally off-putting and unrealistic when I come across something like that in a book I'm reading. It's very annoying and pulls you out of the story. Repeating 'said' over and over and again annoys me too.

  2. I don't necessarily agree. As a reader, I don't mind character names being used more often than in real conversation, especially when it is done to maintain clarity. Clarity of the narrative trumps many things in my book.

  3. I read a book recently that repeated the names a lot - between a married couple as well, as though they were afraid they'd forget what the other was called! It's very distracting.

  4. Repeated names in dialogue is so frustrating to me. When I write I rarely use names during speaking parts so when I see it done while reading others works, it throws me off.

  5. I feel like I almost never use people's names when I'm talking to them. lol

  6. I know I overdid it when I first started. I've learned to scale back, because we don't often use names when talking.

  7. I tend to overuse names when it's just two people in the scene, but during editing I cut, cut, cut.

  8. This is a really true, awesome post, and something to definitely keep in mind. Thanks!

  9. This is exactly why I have an editor. He keeps me on the straight and narrow on things such as this.

  10. Thanks for addressing this pet peeve. Sometimes I feel like such a picky reader, but this is the type of thing that can actually make me stop reading a book because I get tired of getting thrown out of the story every time it crops up.

  11. I had this issue when I first started writing. I hope I've gotten better. Now you have me wondering and wanting to look through my WIPs.

    ~Patricia Lynne aka Patricia Josephine~
    Member of C. Lee's Muffin Commando Squad
    Story Dam
    Patricia Lynne, Indie Author

  12. It's almost embarrassing how many times I have characters call out names in my WIPs. In the editing process, I cut most. New follower and fellow stormy sidekick!