When characters are name-callers

Here’s another thought for those of you who are interested in the kinds of things a writer has to consider.

In a single stretch of dialogue, how often should the characters call each other by name?  I’ve been hypersensitive about this lately, because I just read another book that, IMHO, did it very wrong.

Here’s an excerpt from Sweet Salt Air in which Charlotte and Nicole are discussing Cecily Cole.  Cecily is the legendary island herbalist, alternately feared and adored.  Her herbs, which are particularly strong, are what makes island food so special.

Charlotte starts the discussion.  If I were that other author, it might read something like this:

“Nicole, is Cecily still doing her thing?”

“Oh, Lord, Charlotte.  You don’t know.  Cecily died five years ago.”

 Charlotte stopped walking.  “Died?  But, Nicole, how can we do this book without her?”

 “Her herbs are still around, Charlotte.  Didn’t the chowder and clams taste as good as ever?”

 “Yes, but, Nicki, you can’t talk about island food without talking about Cecily.”

 “Oh, Charlotte, we can still talk about her.  We just can’t walk with her.”

Does this bother you as much as it bothers me?  Like we don’t know who is involved in this dialogue?

So when do I repeat the names of the characters?  Here are four thoughts.

First, I repeat them for clarity, when there’s a question about who is talking to whom.  This is especially true if more than two people are involved in the discussion.

Second, I repeat them for emphasis, as in times of stress, when there is heavy-duty emotion at play.  This last line of the above dialogue is actually a good example of this.  It might have worked, had it not been for all the name-calling before it.

Third, I repeat them for love, i.e., as an endearment.

And the above excerpt as it appears in my book?

She squinted, trying to penetrate the fog and spot the boulder that marked the start of Cole land.  “Is Cecily still doing her thing?”

 “Oh, Lord,” Nicole said in surprise.  “You don’t know.  Cecily died five years ago.”

 Charlotte stopped walking.  “Died?  But how can we do this book without her?”

 “Her herbs are still around.  Didn’t the chowder and clams taste as good as ever?”

 “Yes, but we can’t talk about island food without talking about Cecily.”

 “We can still talk about her.  We just can’t talk with her.”

Is that better?

BTW, the herb above is mint, and Cecily’s mint is something to behold.  Ever had mint brownies?  People on Quinnipeague (the island in Sweet Salt Air) have.  Yummm.

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  1. Melissa on April 11, 2012 at 5:29 am

    Oh I love the way you write, I always find your dialogue easy to follow and I can hear the voices in my head (ha ha) flowing naturally in their conversations. That’s what makes me come back for more, I really loathe a book that’s a struggle to read!
    I’ve said it before but I can’t wait for this book 🙂 Do you know how long after publication the e-book will be available? My sisters are buying me a Kindle for my birthday this year!

    • Julia on April 21, 2012 at 2:22 pm

      I hear the voices in my head too 🙂 I’m so happy with Barbara’s books to read!

  2. Karen on April 12, 2012 at 7:14 am

    There are a few authors that I have tried to read but I don’t find them enjoyable because of this..and things similar. I have to have natural flow of conversation. You make scenes so “real” that following along with you is like watching a movie in my head. If you describe a fireplace in the room I can feel the heat, for instance! Looking forward to this book..and thank you for bringing me to your blog!

  3. Teresa Rice on April 12, 2012 at 7:35 am

    Ditto, ditto, and AMEN!! 🙂

  4. Anne on April 12, 2012 at 8:07 am

    I have groaned when reading some books when names are interjected too often in a conversation. The second set of what you’ve presented seems natural enough to me. I’d not have noticed a thing when reading. The only problem I sometimes find (and not that I recall with your writing) is that when dialog goes on for 3-4 pages without somehow acknowledging who’s speaking it can get a bit confusing. And when this happens, it seems to me that the dialog is way longer than it should be anyway and the information could have been presented in a different manner more effectively. In any case, I found your posed question interesting.

  5. Pat Puckett on April 12, 2012 at 9:55 am

    The way you state it is perfect. The first example is very annoying. This is why your books are so enjoyable….they flow!

  6. Mary Taber on April 12, 2012 at 11:28 am

    I always tell people that you write like I would if I were a writer! You are the best!

  7. Jaime on April 17, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    I have this same problem when I’m watching a show, namely a soap opera. I understand that they’re trying to introduce fans to the characters if they are new viewers. But as an established viewer it makes me want to change the channel as if it insults my intelligence. That, and when they refer to a character by his full name. “I just had lunch with John Smith.” Or, “Honey, I just talked to your brother, John Smith, about what his wife, Mary Smith said.” AHHHHH!!! Make it stop.

  8. Lynn Kurszewski on July 17, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    07/17/2012 Hi barbara I just read the excerpt you put on your webisite for sweet salt air I love the way the book sound so far . I will look forward to reading it when it comes out .and will the book be downloaded on ebooks as well. thank for all of your good hard work on your books barbara . thank you Lynn kurszewski

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