Go Pro: Addressing People By Name In Dialogue
This is the third post in Go Pro, a new blogging series for writers that talks about craft and dispenses industry advice.
Someone said on twitter that they had been told that characters referring to each other by name in dialogue was "not authentic," and they wanted thoughts on that: they refer to their kids by name all the time, and their kids refer to each other by name. So what gives? How can it not be authentic if it happens in real life?
This was my response:
So let's break that down a little bit and expand upon the salient points.
Here's what every writer needs to remember about writing: when we write, it's impossible (and a bad idea) to record every single detail. When a character walks into a room, we don't describe the room down to the pattern in the carpet, the color of the walls, the type of material used in the drapes, the name of every single piece of furniture and every single knick-knack in the room... It's exhausting to type, and it's even more exhausting, not to mention tedious, to read. Even though a real person who walks into the room will notice and take in everything there with a quick sweep of the eyes, not all of that information belongs in the book. As storytellers, it's our job to understand how stories work: every detail builds on the previous details, and that's what shapes the story into a tidy and satisfying package. Our readers understand this, and so their brains will try to hold on to every piece of information that we present to them. Therefore: The only things that belong in the book are the details that are relevant either to the story itself, or to the character whose eyes we see the room through.
So, for example: let's say this is a murder mystery, and the main character walks into the living room, and a murder has taken place there, and the main character will later figure out that the murder happened here and that the weapon was the copper lamp base. (Is there such a thing as a copper lamp base? Is it even a good idea to make a lamp base out of copper? Wouldn't that electrocute a few people? This is why I'm a writer and not an electrician or a lamp maker, folks. If I were a lamp maker, I would undoubtedly kill people with my poor lamp base decisions.) The only things you need to mention are the fact that this is a living room, the copper lamp base, and one or two other items of interest (to throw the reader off the scent, otherwise your foreshadowing will be super obvious and there won't be any mystery).
You also don't need to include information that your main character already knows, and that the reader already knows via the main character. If the main character tells us that she's gone to be by herself in her room, from that moment on, we know that she is in her room, and that there isn't anyone else in there.
Bringing this back to dialogue: unless this is the first page, your readers probably already know the name of the man character. And as they meet your cast of characters, they will learn their names as well. So having them address each other by name repeatedly quickly becomes repetitive and unnecessary, and it clutters up the page. This is especially true when we remember all the times that readers will see our characters' names in narration, in the form of dialogue tags (Sam said) and conversations about the characters ("If we can get to Sam's house before nightfall, we can protect him from the screaming bats!" Jenny said.).
In the example I gave on twitter, Sarah is in her room and her mom comes in to talk to her. In real life, she'd probably open with, "Hey, Sarah. Let's talk about..." But in fiction, the rule is, only put the important stuff on the page. The reader already knows that Sarah is the one being addressed, so her mother doesn't need to say her name. She can just say. "Hey. Let's talk about that thing that just happened." We know she means "Hey, Sarah,"--who ELSE would she be talking to?--and so we don't need to see her say it.
Are there exceptions to this? Sure. Maybe addressing everyone by name every time is a verbal tic that a particular character has, or maybe in this particular point of the narrative, having a character address the other by name will tell the reader something important about their relationship in this moment. But as a rule, it's something to avoid. Do it only when you need to in order to tel the story well.