1.11.2006

Would a rose by any other name drive you as crazy?

I'm working through yet more revisions on my novel.

One of three principal characters is female, more precisely a 24 year old single German woman: Sabine Hassell.

A trusted reader has noted that I refer to all the male characters, regardless of age, by their surname but refer to the female characters sometimes using first name and other times the surname.


" No, no, no, " my trusted reader says, I should always refer to the (younger) female characters by their first name only.
When I asked why, she (the trusted reader) shrugs and says," I don't know, I s'pose it's just a girl thing. Referring to a female character by her surname just seems..." (shrugs again) " rude and hard."

Do you have any insights on this? Is it just gender or a combination of age and gender which determines authorial first name/last name use? I welcome any comments.



You ask this of Miss Snark who will eviscerate you if you call her just "Snark"?

This is actually a great question because it addresses something we've never really talked about here on this blog yet: reader's sensibilities.

Cause that's what you have here: your reader's ear expects a young woman to be called by her first name. She doesn't blink twice if a seven year old boy is called off the Little League bench by the coach with a bellowing "Buttonweazer! Get ready to bat!". This same reader quails if a young girl, age seven, is addressed that way. It "feels funny".

I run across this sometimes in word choice. There are words that are distinctly girlie words: "munch" is one of them. I don't think I've ever heard a man in real life say "I munched on some fruit roll ups". Have you? Another one: "lickey split". Ever heard a man say it? Another one: "That Hamilton Woman." Ever heard a man described as "that Hamilton Man" ? nope, me neither.

Which brings us to the writing. It's important that the characters who are talking to or about the young girl be true to their character in their diction (word choice). For example Grandmother Snarkwould never refer to a young woman as "Buttonweazer" despite her egalitarian view of the world. Miss Snark's neighbor the 20-something soccer coach does it all the time. Police officers call each other by their surname regardless of gender. To do otherwise would look wrong for that character.

The sensibility starts with the character. Keep that consistent and accurate and it will ring true for the readers.

It's a very nuanced part of writing but it's important.

34 comments:

Tribe said...

I've heard guys refer to "that Goddamn Hamilton woman."

archer said...

Well, it depends on the character. When Sigourney Weaver is blasting all those horrible slimy aliens to bits using a firearm the size of a sofa, it's nice to hear her called "Ripley."

A.R.Yngve said...

Question:

Cops and soldiers tend to address each other by their surnames. "Vinkelmeyer! Get your lazy ass over here and help me get this mortar into the chopper."

But what about a group of only female cops or soldiers? Would they use first or last names among each other? Which would sound "right"..??
:-S

bordermoon said...

As one who also prefers to be called "Miss LastName" (as I am not a manuscript, I do not wish to be described as "Ms"), I concur with the Divine Miss Snark. There are words that just seem... funny... if they refer to what I perceive as the wrong sex for them. For example, I don't want to read about any man "giggling" unless he's a "gunsel". Okay?

Of course, this is very much a "your mileage may vary" area.

Anatidaeling said...

Another one of those female-only words is "vivacious." You'd never describe a lively man as vivacious, would you?

JD Rhoades said...

I've never heard anyone described as "That Hamilton man" (sounds like an ad for men's clothing, actually) but there is "that Hamilton guy" or "that Hamilton fellow" (or as we say in the sticks, "feller").

Ray said...

There is another dynamic that you see in business in the US. People at the lowest levels of the organization tended to be called by their first name:

"Jack", "Mary"

As they get to the levels of middle management, the underlings often call them by both names.

"Jack Applebottom", "Mary Jones"

As they get to the top level the underlings tend to refer to them by the last name:

"Applebottom says there will be layoffs."

"Jones has sunk the company."

But, the choices made here reflect the culture of the company and can be very useful when creating background.

For example, I work in a company of 5000 people. We call the two leaders "Wally and Greg". What does that tell you about our culture?

There is another company in our industry where the leader "Mike Fister" is always referred to as "Fister" (a tough name anyway). What does that tell you about that company?

I think you should consciously use the naming approach as a tool to build a world picture rather than try to follow a convention.

Anonymous said...

I think the time period also plays into this. F'rinstance, I loathe "Ms." I am a "Mrs.," I like to be called "Mrs.," and I don't feel it diminishes my feminist attitude one bit.

However, in this day and age, "Ms." is the accepted form of address for women. So, were I to be novelized (perish the thought), I would expect other characters and the narrator to refer to me as "Ms." throughout the book, provided it were set in contemporary times.

If it's an historical novel, then I probably would be referred to as "Mrs." How the author would deal with my penchant for opening my own doors, I have no idea.

kathie said...

Buttonweazer, munched, lickety-split...you're cracking me up, woman. Tell me you're toiling over your own great novel and not just pushing the work of others around town.

chibent said...

a.r.yngve asked:

But what about a group of only female cops or soldiers? Would they use first or last names among each other? Which would sound "right"..??

When I was in the Army, we usually called each other by last name, even when it was just us females.

This included when we were talking about a female to another female ("I"m meeting Miller for lunch"), addressing a female ("Hey, Miller, you still want to have lunch?"), and leaving a message ("This is Jones, give me a call back about lunch tomorrow"). There were a few times we used first names, but those tended to be in a civilian setting with soldiers we considered close friends.

I can't speak for all soldiers, of course, so YMMV. And I can't speak at all for cops.

Bernita said...

A.R., it does sometimes depend on rank.

Saundra Mitchell said...

But what about a group of only female cops or soldiers?

When I was in the Army, we all called one another by our last names, even though we were free to use our first names if we so chose.

Saundra Mitchell said...

(Er, it should go without saying that I'm a woman, and my entire platoon in Basic was female.)

Feisty said...

Miss Snark, you are particularly snarky today.

You may need a break from that slush pile.

Stacy said...

Interesting topic that came up when I was a teenager - and just to be clear, I'm a Jamaican, so the social culture may be different from the average readers. A new Physics teacher, twenty-something male, had a habit of referring to all his students by their surname. This marked him as having attended and perhaps taught in an all-boys' school, where calling each other by surnames is brash and manly. In the all-girls' school that I attended, however, it was a matter of days before the 16-year-old junior physicists revolted. They had NEVER been so offended. He was the RUDEST man ever, and one particular friend of mine, Nicky H., vowed to do something about that APPALLING man. Physics teachers were very, very scarce, so it seemed that they would have to put up with him, or do without a teacher. Well, 3 weeks later, he was gone, and the Physics class finished the year travelling to another school for class.

True story.

Squire said...

"By any other name" , a classic episode of Startrek TOS

Cyclus said...

I'd always refer to Miss Snark by that social title, especially since that's her preference. But I'd use "Ms." (not MS. or ms., which can refer to "manuscript") when sending the agent behind Miss Snark's persona a query letter.

Anonymous said...

From Emelle in OK: Coarse men say, "Take a leak for me, will ya?"

Names and titles are important:
"Miss Hattie" is an elderly woman in the South. It is also common in southern regions to call children and siblings "Brother" and "Sister" instead of using given names. "Sister, please pass the grits to Brother."
"Master Robert" might be a boy in upper-class society.
"I had a lot of uncles" means my mother was a slut.
A woman might call her husband "Mister" to emphasize his authority over her. "Mr. Jones would never allow that in our home."

Answer for a.r.yngve: Does a female cop wear a name tag that says "Barbie"? No, she has a surname just like her male counterparts. Off the job, at home with friends and family, she'd be Barbie, but on the job she'd be called Smith, or (title) Smith, except perhaps by her partner. Again, not all partners are pals. As Miss Snark says, it's nuance: How intimate is the relationship?

Daria said...

I have just one question. What is a "lickey split"? *g*

And, yes, about Miss. I don't even know why (obviously, Miss and Mrs are derived from the marital status, and I don't even believe in marriag as a social institution) but Ms just sounds funny to me.

Dee said...

Snarky baby, truer words were never spoken.

(Evisceration should be an interesting experience, one I can write about later, if I survive it)

If it's done right, and the writing is sparkling like bubbly water, a writer can get away with alot. But, then again, how many of us are champagne, and how many are just plain Cold Duck.
:-)

Jen said...

I think whether or not someone hears men say "lickety split" also largely depends on where you live. I don't hear it quite so often now from men or women, but when I was growing up, it was pretty common for both. I don't remember it coming more from one or the other.

lmnop said...

Women say "pee," men say "piss."

Sal said...

I'm "Ms Towse" because I'm not a Miss. If you want to call me Mrs. because I'm married, use Mrs. husband-surname.

The club directory for a women's club I belong to has gone from

Mrs. John A. Jones (Thelma) to
Thelma Jones (Mrs. John A.) to
Thelma Jones (Mrs.) (John A.) to
Thelma Jones (John A.) to
Thelma Jones

re However, in this day and age, "Ms." is the accepted form of address for women.

The accepted form of address is whatever a woman says it is. Miss Snark wants us to use "Miss Snark." We damn well better if we know what's good for us.

The friends of our children have always called me Mrs. husband-surname because that's our children's surname too. I assume they ask the kids what to call me and that's the answer they get.

"That Towse woman" has a nice ring to it too.

Anonymous said...

Another one of those female-only words is "vivacious." You'd never describe a lively man as vivacious, would you?

Well, maybe you should...

If you only associate a certain word with a certain category of people, that means you've got a stock characterization stuck in your head.

As a writer, it's good form to stir things up verbally. Finding a way to describe a man as "vivacious" without it sounding silly could make for a memorable character description. At the very least, it makes a good exercise.

"He was young and wriggly, with exuberance bursting past his black lipstick and mercury-dot sunglasses. He had a badly inflamed tattoo, a mohawk like a lacquered fan, and was striding onto the dance floor looking vivacious in his shiny plastic pants."

Elektra said...

Miss Snark, I have a question of your expertise, and do, not the literary kind.
Outside of the frozen kind, what's the wimpiest kind of drink a man can order?
I need it for my novel, but, not being a drinker myself, decided to come to the best.

kitty said...

The idea of a man saying "lickety split" reminds me of Trey McDougal on Sex & The City saying, "Well, alrighty!"

Stacy said...

"He was young and wriggly, with exuberance bursting past his black lipstick and mercury-dot sunglasses. He had a badly inflamed tattoo, a mohawk like a lacquered fan, and was striding onto the dance floor looking vivacious in his shiny plastic pants."

I think anonymous proved the point that when you describe a man as vivacious, you are also saying he's effeminate. Not judging, just noticing, alright!

MadScientistMatt said...

Normally, I would not dare presume to answer for Miss Snark. But I figure I'm qualified to speak on the subjects of masculinity and booze, so I'll give Elektra a little help while Miss Snark gets her official answer together. Here is a primer on determining a drink's macho level.

1. Any mixed drink that was popular with any historical or literary character with a reputation as a manly man is automatically something a tough guy can drink without fear, as long as it remains close to the original. For example, lime Daquiris on the rocks are quite acceptable for Real Men, since Hemmingway liked them. Frozen bananna daquiris are not.

2. Take off macho points for any use of fruit juice except lemon or lime. Only a tough guy could drink pure lemon juice anyway.

3. You can make up for fruit juice if you add enough alchohol. Lots of alchohol makes a drink macho, especially if it tastes like it could clean a stove. With its 151-proof rum, nobody dares call a Zombie a drink for wusses. (The Zombie also doesn't violate Rule 4, below).

4. Under no circumstances may a macho drink have a cutesy name. Nothing, and I mean nothing, kills a drink's reputation more than an unmacho name. If a name doesn't have tradition behind it, it needs something ominous or tough like "Zombie" or "Godfather."

So, what drinks break as many of these rules as possible? I'd have to say that the least macho drinks I know of would have to be the Fuzzy Navel and the Woo Woo.

Sal said...

I'm not Miss Snark, but I'll take a crack at Outside of the frozen kind, what's the wimpiest kind of drink a man can order?

Have you ever seen a guy order a cosmopolitan? Fruit-flavored beer?

harridan said...

Elektra,

If you want a whimpy drink for a guy, write it as a Pink Squirrel.

A cutesy drink from bygone days that looks like Pepto Bismol and is normally served in a martini style glass. Meaning cutesy little stem with a vee shaped top.

Stacy said...

I don't drink, but the names of drinks are fascinating. Could a manly man drink a 'Sex on the Beach' without tarnishing his image? How about a 'Screaming Orgasm'?

I'm such a prude that I probably couldn't even order them.

Elektra said...

Pink Sqirrel! I love it!

bonniers said...

The friends of our children have always called me Mrs. husband-surname because that's our children's surname too. I assume they ask the kids what to call me and that's the answer they get.

The friends of my children refer to me as "David's mom." As in, "Hey, David's mom, can we come in and get a drink of water?"

waylander said...

I've drunk Belgian fruit beers - ever tried Kriek?- and if anyone wants to discuss masculinity then we can go out to the car park.