Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Burly Detective syndrome

I’ve encountered this a bit recently, so I thought I’d write about it. Sample conversation to show what I mean, with apologies to George R. R. Martin. Well, not too many apologies, given how many alternate names or titles some of his characters have.

“Hello, Robert,” said Eddard Stark.
“Hello, Ned,” said Robert Baratheon.
“Nice weather we’ve been having,” said the Lord of Winterfell.
“No, it’s quite chilly,” said the monarch of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.
“Chilly? You should see the winters up north,” said the Warden of the North.
“Only if I can see them from a safe distance,” said the King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men.

By the end of the conversation, this could easily be six different people speaking. Readers already aware of who the characters are may be bored, since they don’t need to have this information spelled out to them again, but readers who don’t know these characters are likely to be confused.

Imagine having a new acquaintance insist that the first time you address them, you use their first name, the second time their prefix and last name, the third time their race and appearance, the fourth time their profession and so on. These are a lot of details to remember, they may not be relevant at that moment and there are better ways to convey them.

There are two main reasons writers succumb to Burly Detective syndrome (as it’s called in the Turkey City Lexicon).

1. They’re trying to provide information to readers.

2. They believe it’s repetitive to keep using a character’s name, so they try to provide variety instead.

It’s relatively easy to solve the first problem and get the necessary information across to readers, so I’ll deal with the second one here. If a story is told from a first-person point of view, this problem is less likely to arise because there’s more variety when it comes to pronouns. Even with stories told from a third-person point of view, though, repetition of names can be reduced in ways that don’t involve constant use of euphemisms.

Pronouns are a much better option when it comes to name replacement. Like "said", they're near-invisible words that don't attract as much attention as a parade of descriptors. The reader should be focused on the story, not on the writer's heroic efforts at varying the way he or she refers to the characters.

Dialogue, if it’s well-written and if the people talking have been characterized sufficiently, is often enough to show the readers who’s talking, even without speech tags. There should be no need to add “the blond assassin said” or “the captain asked” to lines of dialogue, unless the viewpoint character doesn’t know their real names and they’re all in the same scene.

When there are only two characters talking, there’s a little more leeway for tag-elimination. There’s a scene in Gone with the Wind that’s told entirely in dialogue, and although only two characters are present, it’s completely clear who says what. I like trying this for brief scenes within short stories, but it’s probably not as feasible for longer scenes unless these are extremely gripping and the readers are following the dialogue closely.

As well as dialogue, the characters’ thoughts - provided the head-hopping is kept to a minimum - can tell readers which characters are performing which actions without too much repetition of names. Rewriting sentences is also an option. Here’s an example.

Janet knew that either Katrina or Liz had taken the money, but she felt sure that Katrina wouldn’t want Janet’s family getting involved and Liz would offer Janet a cut of it for her silence.

Just replacing the nouns with pronouns might not convey the same meaning, but getting into the character’s head is a workable option.

Janet knew that either Katrina or Liz had taken the money. But Katrina won’t want my family getting involved in this, she thought. As for Liz, well, she’ll try to buy me off. If she’s got the cash to do so.

Anything but Burly Detective syndrome, said the small dark-haired Asian-Canadian writer who was really tired of euphemisms.


Anonymous said...

Ah - good old 'burly detective syndrome'. Every time i see something like that in a published work i immediately think 'this person used to write fanfic'. Is that bad of me?

Good post. Thanks :)

Marian said...

No, it's not bad of you. Fanfics seem especially prone to this, to the point where it can be unintentionally funny. I mean, how many different ways can we refer to Tom Paris - the pilot, the cocky lieutenant, the young blond man?

I actually do do write fanfics, but I write them in more or less the same way as I'd write something intended for publication. :)

Mary B said...

The blonde soccer mom in Texas totally agrees with this. It's a pet peeve of mine, thought the lawyer and mother of two.

Anonymous said...

I used to know someone who wrote fan fiction, and she did this. She absolutely could not use the character's name twice in a row because it was "repetitive." So we'd end up with the Captain, Lee, the Skipper, Crane, and the Commander--for one character.

Worse, the other fans thought she was a great writer and imitated her! That might be why it's common in fan fiction. I suspect that some of the people writing fan fiction don't read much fiction outside of it, so they just imitated the next fan fiction writer instead of writers in general.

Rafael said...

I try to avoid it by giving a short description/setup before the character speaks. It avoids to an extend "he said/she said, said he,said she" but your right, no burly detectives allowed.

Angela said...

That was a great example on how to rewrite in order to weed out extra names yet still clarify the situation through first person thoughts. Excellent!

Anonymous said...

To practice my German, I've been reading these old German pulp novels. They're wonderful in their horridness.

"The flaxon-blonde shrieked in horror!"

"The blue-eyed girl screamed in terror!"

(The women scream *a lot*)

"The bald man held a gun in his hand!"

They also really loved exclamation points. :)

GunnerJ said...

yeah but, on the other hand, all those titles for westeros dudes are totally boss

Marian said...

Hey Tasha,

Now I want to do a post on the over-explanation of characters' emotions - in some cases, where this amounts ot pointing out the obvious, since it should usually be clear to the reader whether a character's screaming in terror or pain.

I have that problem myself with characters' thoughts and reactions, so it would be a good reminder. Resist the Urge to Explain.

Marian said...

GunnerJ : He who dies with the most titles wins.

Barbara Martin said...

Love your term, and I have fallen for that when I first began to write. Now things are much tidier. Excellent post.