Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Five Reasons to Use Proper Nouns in Dialogue

No matter how I try to fix myself, I remain an unwilling contrarian. Tell me a rule is wrong and I’ll defend why people’s experiences would lead them to espouse sweeping rules. But give me a rule, and I can’t help looking for where it fails.

Larry Brooks, author of Bait and Switch, recently posted “5 Creative Flaws That Will Expose Your Lack of Storytelling Experience.” The first stirred my nature.

1. Proper Names Within Dialogue

Which equates to bad dialogue.

Without teasing about what equates to sentence fragments, you can see why an editor who’s dealt with too many amateur writers would think these things. Mr. Brooks lists several trite uses of proper names. Clumsy writing is seldom good; you ought to re-read your material at many points to catch any potential for sounding awkward. But ban proper nouns from dialogue? Especially on the grounds that people don’t use them often or for good reasons? That’s not right. I can think of at least five perfectly good reasons to use them.

  1. The name as a threat.
Your parent, guardian or teacher probably used your name to add further weight to a demand in your childhood. If not you personally, then you’ve likely heard an adult do this to someone else.

“Moses Christopher Jones, you put down that turtle this instant!”

Applied in fiction, the use of a proper name not only gives specificity, but carries implication and tone. That’s complex writing. That’s good.

  1. The name for supplication.
 It was once polite to address people of significant position or office by name. Many reporters will still wedge titles and names into conversation.

“Mr. President, this morning when you made your remarks on the health care debate, did you have the Kochs in mind?”

It happens in less formal circumstances as well. Reverse the roles of my first example.

“Can’t I have an iPod, Dad? Please?”

Kids absolutely say this. The use of the name adds weight to the request to someone in a superior position.

  1. The name for clarification.
Mr. Brooks gives his own exception in the list. “Unless someone is calling on the phone and opens with, “Is Mary there?”, don’t make this mistake.”

This is the use of a name for clarification. You might just as quickly hear a voice on the phone and ask, “Is that you, Mary?” Or simply, “Mary?”

The same goes for if you’re alone in the house and hear a noise. Has Mary returned early? Naturally, you call down the stairs.

“Mary? You home?”

There’s nothing unnatural about it, until it turns out it’s Mary’s ghost.

  1. The name for specification.
I’m in the middle of a scene where Zhanjee orders Sheryu to take the inmates up the canyon while Piece-35 should take the automatons back to the fortress. Zhanjee’s divvying up the duties between people.

Zhanjee can just point at Sheryu and say, “You take your people down into the canyon.” But there are crowds here. Even if everybody in the story knows who Sheryu’s people are and so they don’t need to be named, what about Lixio and Puzo, who aren’t in either crowd and Zhanjee wants to ride with him?

“You, you, you and you go into the canyon. You, you and all the metal guys go home. You and you come with me.”

This is surely not the antidote to amateurish dialogue. At some point Zhanjee is bound to make eyes with someone and say, “You go with Sheryu.”

  1. The name as the subject (or for it).
If you’re talking about what a weird name Joachim Oakwood Goldfistings III is, you’re likely to say it in dialogue. It’s kind of hard to discuss it without ever saying the actual name.

Now, the above is a hairsplitting exception. But there’s a less hairsplitting usage in the same area, and you get points if you noticed that it appears in Item #2. If you’re talking about somebody who isn’t present, you’re just as likely to use their proper name.

Let’s say I suspect Joachim’s been sleeping with his sister and I want the gossip about it with my lunch buddies.

“So what’s the deal with Joachim and Periwinkle?”

If the Goldfistings aren’t in the room, I’ll mention them by name to bring them up.


  1. People use each other's names in conversation all the time, especially if there are more than two of you and you want to specifically ask one person's opinion etc, or to draw attention to their answer in some way. To say NEVER to do it is gross oversimplification. Yes, using someone's name in every line to get away from using "he said/she said" is terrible writing, but so is NEVER using them.

    So I heartily agree with you, sir.

  2. I don't believe in rules for writing, only guidelines. Yes, there are newbies who start every bit of dialogue with a name and that is amateurish, but to say you can NEVER use it is just dumb.

  3. I'm glad you got to this before I did. In lieu of measured reaction, I probably would have just screamed and blown a blood vessel.

  4. Clever illustration.
    Guidelines are helpful to keep you on some sort of path.

  5. Icy's right: people use names in conversations, so what's the problem with using them in dialogue? Same with adverbs. I try to keep them out of narrative, but don't worry too much about them in dialogue.

  6. Well played, sir. Those were some very good exceptions to the rule. And really, let's face it- if you're a bad writer, all the rules in the world won't help you. And if you're a really good writer- you make your own rules.



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