Monday, January 5, 2015

Perspective and Parents' Names, Part Two

Last time, we discussed the subtle perspective error that can arise from calling your perspective character’s parents by their names in the prose—it creates a subtle implication of distance to the relationship. It’s a small problem, but one that writers should be aware of.

If you’re looking for ways of dealing with this problem (beyond simply calling the character “his mother” throughout the entire story), here’s a few tips and ideas:

Call the parents what you want, and make the relationship fit. There are a lot of reasons why a character might call their parents by name. You can easily work one of those into the relationship between your protagonist and their parent.

I’ve read plenty of stories where one of the central conflicts was between the protagonist and their disapproving/distant parent. If you’re going to have a conflict between the two of them anyway, why not ramp it up slightly? Perhaps your protagonist calls his father by name in order to upset his father. Perhaps he’s been so long estranged from his father that it feels odd to call him “dad” now, so he thinks of his father by name.

Perhaps your protagonist works with her mother, and her mother is concerned about potential accusations of nepotism. She might have the protagonist call her by name to avoid any appearance of favoritism. Perhaps there are other social circumstances behind the decision.

Or, barring external motivators, perhaps they’re simply the type of parents who prefer that their children call them by name.

Killing off the parents is always an option, too, though it can be a bit overdone. 

Call the parents by a different title. It often works surprisingly well to simply call the parent characters “Mom” and “Dad” without bothering to distinguish “my mom” or “so-and-so’s dad.” This only works if we’re very deep inside the perspective of the protagonist—usually because they are narrating in first-person perspective:

     I was ready to go, but mom was still loitering at the cash register, flirting with the perfume salesman. “Mom, we’re going to be late,” I called. She ignored me. Mom always got like that around cute guys.

This is particularly effective when your perspective character is a child (or an adult narrating their childhood).

Change the perspective. This is both the simplest and most time-consuming fix for the problem. Time-consuming, because if you’ve already written a significant portion of the story, it will require a bit of work to switch it to a new perspective. Simplest, because it fixes the problem without gimmicks or major adjustments to character relationships or plot.

The “Parent Name Problem” is most prevalent in third-person limited perspective, when we’re inside the head of the protagonist. If you switch to first-person, you can easily use the “Mom and Dad” approach above. Or, you can switch to a third-person omniscient narrator, who can tell us what is going on in your protagonist’s head while still referring to them by name without it being a perspective error.

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