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Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Third-Person Characters
September 28, 2004


Question:

How do you refer to a teen-age character's parents in a young adult novel? Referring to them constantly as so-and-so's mother or father seems redundant, but using Mrs. Smith seems odd. Can you use the parent's first name, or is this not the way to go either? Thanks for your help!

-- Anonymous

OSC Replies:

The rule for how to refer to a teenage character's parents is really the same as the rule for referring to any character in any fiction where you're using limited third person point of view: You refer to the parents by the names or titles that the point of view character would use.

Let's say that teenage character Anna calls her parents Mom and Dad. When you're in Anna's point of view, then they are invariably called Mom and Dad. If you call them "her mother" or "Mr. Smith," you are violating point of view. Even if Anna, in her dialogue, calls them "Mother" or "Harold," when you refer to them in the narrative you still use Mom and Dad because those are the titles she actually thinks of them with.

But when you do a chapter from Mom's point of view, she isn't Mom, she's Agnes. And she thinks of her husband, not as Dad or Mr. Smith or Anna's father, or even as Harold, but as Harry. She might CALL him "honey" in their conversation, but in the narrative throughout the section from Mom's (Agnes's) point of view, he is invariably referred to as Harry.

Now you have the chapter from the point of view of Anna's brother, Jason. He thinks of Anna as Anna, but in his own mind he calls his mother Mother and his father He or Him with a capital letter, the way some people refer to God. It's sarcastic, but he's also sincere - that is, he REALLY thinks of him this way, it isn't just a pose. You continue to use these terms whenever we're in Jason's point of view. Then, when Jason and his father have a rapprochement and Jason comes to understand him, he can come to think of him as Dad and his mother as Mom, at which point you start referring to them by the new appellation that applies inside Jason's head.

Only when you're writing from the viewpoint of the cop who is investigating the crime do the parents become Mr. and Mrs. Smith; though it's more likely that he will think of them as Harold Smith and Agnes Smith, quickly reduced to Harold and Agnes.


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