Thursday, October 11, 2012

Speechtag Question from Paul Tag

Question: (used with permission)
As you may remember from my first two thrillers, Category 5 and Prophecy, I write in the third-person limited viewpoint.  As such, in those books I've referred to my characters by their last names: e.g., Silverstein and Kipling.
I've completed my third thriller in that series (in which, by the way, Linda Kipling now has the lead, rather than Victor Silverstein) and have been using that same last-name convention.  I'm getting ready to publish this novel through iUniverse.  This time, I have a different evaluator, and he is pretty adamant that I should be using first names.  Here is what he says:
"I also suggested that the POV could be strengthened by carefully selecting the names when writing in viewpoint.  It can feel very distracting to consistently read Kipling when Linda is the viewpoint.  It also removes some of the intimacy created by a limited POV.  Cop dramas sometimes use this technique, but it isn't as common in thrillers.  Would Linda think of herself as Kipling?...In the end, the honest problem with using Linda's last name (or any of the other viewpoint characters' last names) on such a consistent basis is that it clashes so significantly with the limited viewpoint that the author establishes.  It is like constantly pulling the reader close and then pushing him or her away.  This breaks the ideal feeling that a limited viewpoint is trying to create, and therefore it would strengthen the novel to change it."
Here is what I said to the evaluator in reply.  "I look at it differently.  In the third-person-limited viewpoint, it is I, the narrator, who is telling the story, and I do not perceive myself as being that intimate with the character that I would use first names.  There would be nothing wrong with doing what you say but, from my perspective, it is less appropriate in this thriller where serious things are happening, for which my job as the narrator is to remain at arm's length from the characters."  I then point out that the way I do it is consistent with the way Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlam write in their books.
The evaluator did not buy my argument.
It would be easy to make the changes he wants, but I don't feel good about it.  Have I been doing it wrong all along?  Should I change all of my third-person POV references to their first names?
Thank you for your consideration.  Please say hello to Roger for me.
Your grateful former student,
Paul Tag
Dear Paul,

I firmly believe this is author's choice.  Actually in Limited omniscient, each scene is told from the viewpoint of a character, as you (the author) portray them, and the reader is supposed to be inside that character's thoughts and actions.  Whether you call her "Linda," or "Kipling," you are putting us inside her during all her scenes.  Being the character that she is, a strong, business-like, competent, and sometimes combative, agent, I do agree that it is in keeping to call her by her last name as long as we are not in first person. Secondly, this is a thriller, not a romance, and you are in good company with Ludlum and Clancy.

Certainly you are being consistent with your other books in using last names and I see nothing "wrong" with it, nor could I find any guidelines on use of first names in the Chicago Manual of Style, the stylebook used by most publishers.  Having said that I do sort of quibble with your perspective that it is "You the narrator" who tells the story.  In limited omniscient viewpoint, it is supposed to be the characters who tell the story. The author puts the reader inside each of them in turn, depending on whose side of the situation you wish to relate. Nevertheless, it is YOU who write the narrative and the dialogue for those characters to speak and it is your voice that relates the whole story, so perhaps you are right in that, too.

It's been so long since I've read your book that I can't recall now, but in conversation what do they call each other? Many working partners refer to one another by last names in conversation. Yes, most remarkedly in Dragnet, but it happens in real life, too.  At this time, I don't recall any place where Silverstein said, "You know, Linda...."

Now you, quite properly, did not say who did your evaluation, but my guess is (if the team there works like the one at WD did) you could probably get as many answers to this question as there are evaluators, because once the hard and fast rules were observed, the rest of what we wrote was opinion based on the individual piece. This is born out in that your earlier evaluators did not object. At least, as far as I am aware, there is no firm rule on this point and it should rightly be left up to the story-teller and whatever is appropriate to the story he is telling. In any case, to follow in the footsteps of Ludlum and Clancy certainly can't be a bad thing. :) And IF there were any obscure Style rule against it, THEIR copy editors would have made them change it when THEY were newbies.


Arline Chase


  1. Consider the movies of the "Alien" series, novelized by Alan Dean Foster. Dallas, Lambert, et al., and especially our lone survivor hero, Ripley, must have first names but they are never mentioned. I daresay that almost anyone who has seen (or read) "Alien" would feel themselves to be inside Ripley's head.

  2. My own take is that if you want the reader to think of Linda as a woman who has our "typical" idea of a woman's vulnerabilities, then Linda is fine. But if you want the reader to think of her as a kick-ass woman who is up to any challenge she faces, then Kipling sounds better to me.
    "He folded Kipling gently in his arms and brushed her lips softly with his before pulling her tightly against his body and crushing those full wet lips with his fevered mouth," would sound a little better to me if she was Linda, not Kipling. But I'm not much of a love-scene person so I'm no big authority.