Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Who's on first?

The tall, lanky brunette sat at the conference table. The attorney took a sip of tea and looked at her trial notes. The Hungarian mother scratched her head. The left-handed woman jotted down a note. The Oxford graduate re-adjusted her chair. Megan checked her watch. The beautiful woman wiped her eyeglasses. The widow looked around the room . . .

and saw that she was still alone at the conference table.


Are you thinking, "What? How could she be alone? What about all those other people in the room? The attorney, the mother, the brunette, the lefty, etc.?"

In the above scene, all those descriptors (from Hungary to Oxford) refer to the same person. Megan was a tall, brunette, left-handed widowed Hungarian mother who went to Oxford and became an attorney. If an author refers to the same character by more than one name or descriptor in the same scene, readers are going to get confused. Stick to one name per character per scene, maybe even go so far as to keep it to one name per character per scene per viewpoint character.

If your viewpoint character calls her, "Megan," then she must be called "Megan" throughout the scene in which you're in this viewpoint character's head. If the next scene is from a new viewpoint character's head, and that person refers to the same character as, "Martuska," then this new viewpoint character should refer to her as "Martuska" throughout the scene and probably never as "Megan," "the lanky brunette" or "the B-52's fan."

Authors can use different names and descriptors as subtle ways of sneaking in bits of information or backstory about the character, but this is really more of a telling of the story. Not good for those who write by the philosophy, show, don't tell. By the end of the above scene (if you'd been able to understand it correctly), you would have learned a lot about our gal Megan, but it would have been cheating. Telling is usually cheating the reader.

If readers need to know that Megan was an Hungarian mother, find a way to bring out that organically within the story, through scene and dialogue, or even a flashback. Just don't confuse the readers. Once they're pulled out of a story, they may not go back into it. Stick with the one-name-per-character-per-scene-per-viewpoint-character rule and you'll have a headstart on keeping your reader in the story.


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