Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Buttonweezer rides again

Hello Chums!

What's the name of your main male character? 

Felix Buttonweezer? 

Of course it is.

What's the name of your main female character? 

Betty Buttonweezer? 


Now, look at your query.
Do you call him Buttonweezer and her Betty?

Calling a man by his surname, and a woman by her given name might indicate unconscious sexism in your writing. Watch out for it.

Specific need trumps general guideline in these cases of course.
Just make sure you've decided there is a reason if you do this.

Any questions?


Mister Furkles said...

So I'm working on Urban Fantasy in the 6th century; characters have only one name.

But a more important consideration for naming characters is that no two have similar names. Otherwise readers often confuse which one is in dialogue or action.

Another point to be aware of is that some characters are referred to by other characters using their last name in which case it isn't sexism. What if two males have the same first name? Then using their last names is critical. Men more often than women have the same given name whereas parents go to some trouble to give daughters less common names. You see this when, as an expectant parent, you look at lists of the most popular names given to recently born children.

In business organizations, it is common to refer to managers and executives of either sex by their family names. Managers do this for employees. But coworkers usually refer to each other by first names for both men and women.

Theresa said...

I belong to an online discussion group of women biographers who write about women, and this frequently comes up in our conversations--choosing the appropriate name to use when referring to our subject.

Steve Forti said...

This... is something I never considered. Interesting.
That made me think back on my stuff. My last book, the main character is a woman, and I always used her first name (though other characters called her Captain). Yet everyone else, even in their POV chapters, I used their last name. I have no idea why I did that. In my WIP, I go by first names for all the main characters, with the exception of the biggest jerk, a male who I used his last name. I'm thinking it was to express a lack of cordiality for him through the main character's eyes. But a very interesting thought to go back through all my stuff and see if I did this at all.

As for questions: Is Betty Buttonweezer short for Elizabeth or Bethany Buttonweezer? Or perhaps Beatrice?

Android Astronomer said...

Ah, duly noted. Will change immediately. I didn't even notice the sexism when I referred to my characters as Honeybunz and Betty.

Craig F said...

I get the feeling that even having a specific need will get a side eye. That shouldn't have to be so.

I thought one of the objects of writing is to grow the personality of your characters. The easiest, maybe most efficient way is to exploit the quirks and foibles of a slightly deficient personality and rectify them.

It does not imply sexism in the writer all the time, some days you have to mire in the mud to find a way towards the light.

Besides, sex and sexism sell.

Katja said...

I recently realised that NONE of my characters in my first book has a surname. Just given names.

In my current WIP, out of my 4 main characters, well at least 2 have full names.

I might be the only one who leaves out last names. And get things wrong that way... 😬

Julie Weathers said...

Mister Furkles

I laughed about this. I paid to have an editor go through the first 50 pages of Far Rider and The Rain Crow.

Editor pointed out that Kaelyn the MC and her Uncle Kael's names were too similar and I needed to change them.

I explained she is named after him so yes they sound alike and no I can't change the names.

Some of my beta readers pointed out some characters in Rain Crow had similar names and I should change them. I explained these are real names of generals, so there isn't much I can do about that.

Now, on to the question of the day.

This made me wonder. I just checked Far Rider.

Captain Boots Trelaine my pirate and sometimes villain is most frequently referred to as Trelaine or Captain by everyone.

Other males are usually referred to by first name.

Just A Gigolo, everyone goes by first names usually. The brothers Sarah (MC) has hired to help restore and rebuild an old falling down house she's bought get called the Deliverance Brothers by her boyfriend.

The Rain Crow goes back and forth because of period norms. You wouldn't call people by first names readily if you didn't know them well.

Col J.E.B. Stuart is either called Colonel Stuart or Jeb.

R.E. Lee is either Colonel Lee or Marse Robert. Many of his men call him Marse Robert.

The big bad villain is a Pinkerton agent named Benjamin Byles. Everyone calls him Byles.

It's something to keep in mind.

Beth Carpenter said...

A reviewer recently called me on introducing my main characters by first name only. Later in the book their surnames came up, but she said she had to check the blurb to verify that the POV character in the chapter was one of the main characters. I hadn't really thought about it before.

NLiu said...

Superhero names FTW!

S.D.King said...

On the topic of names that sound alike..."100 Years of Solitude". I just couldn't do it. I never had any idea who was who.

Lennon Faris said...

Curious, why is that sexist? (Many guys I know go by their last name. I can only think of a few girls who did that, and that was only in high school, and only on a sports team.) I'm a girl and I only go by my last name when there is a suffix in front of it, but of course not everyone is like me.

Maybe bc a first name sounds like you are super familiar with that person, so it could be considered demeaning if you aren't? But a last name only, without a suffix, sounds even more casual.

I may be opening a can of worms here, but I'm stumped.

PAH said...

I agree with Lennon on this one. I am stumped.

Men and women are different (GASP!) and are therefore treated differently. It is customary to call a man by his last name (this is prevalent in sports but I am sure has much older roots). It is not as common to do so with women (it does happen and I think it says a lot about the people involved and serves as nice characterization).

As writers, are we not supposed to reflect the world as it is ... not as we wish it were? Write the world you want and at best you will have drivel and at worst propaganda. I would rather be honest and not get published ever.

Ahh well. Maybe I am just a misogynistic a-hole. So I'll leave the last word to my friend, Gilbert Keith:

I remember an artistic and eager lady asking me in her grand green drawing-room whether I believed in comradeship between the sexes, and why not. I was driven back on offering the obvious and sincere answer "Because if I were to treat you for two minutes like a comrade you would turn me out of the house."

E.M. Goldsmith said...

My main character gave up his name to be what he is so he is never referred to by name and only by occupation (Rooke). My female character hides her true name to stop Hell from reclaiming her so nobody ever calls her by the right name but she is not worried about it. And she's a kid (or so she appears) so there's no ma'aming or anything of that sort.

She'd be more concerned if anyone figured out her real identity/name. Neither naming or un-naming has anything to do with gender. The supposed mother of weird kid is a smuggler and goes by her first name which isn't her real name anyhow, not wanting to make much of her family name as the mother and daughter are trying to hide from said family. Escaping Hell is hard. Escaping the Three Empires, even harder. And its fantasy in a world that has seen the break down of social constructs so there isn't a lot of Sirring and Misses stuff going on. Just Imperials and not. And those that rule these Empires don't give a shit about gender or anything else about an individual. To those that rule all are cattle. There is no individual as far the Empires go. Everyone is called "Denizen" or "Citizen" - no proper names allowed except for the Rebels who wear their names like armor. Just subservience. You either obey or you die or you fight. Period.

So. yeah, I have given this a lot of thought. It's tricky working a narrative where so many are trying to hide who they are or simply are not permitted to know who they are.

Joseph S. said...

I scanned “She Calls Herself Loira” to see what I did. Virtually all characters are called by their first name, with four exceptions.

My novel is told from two POV. When I write from E.J. Sniegorski’s point of view I call Werner Schlamme “Schlamme” most of the time. E.J., of course, is E.J. When I write from Werner Schlamme’s point of view, I call him “Werner.” And I call E.J. “Sniegorski.”

Werner Schlamme’s fellow bad guy, Dazza Rylander, with very few exceptions, is called “Dazza.”

A dead courier, Carlos Zambrotta, is sometimes called “Carlos” and sometimes “Zambrotta.”

There’s a police Inspector Travesso who is called “Travesso.”

I’m leaving it that way.

Joseph S. said...


At least you're consistent. You don't have a last name here, either.


Colin Smith said...

I had teachers at school who would call students by last name. Most of these would, however, tend to preface the girls' names with "Ms."--as if to show more respect or deference. This is perhaps what some would call sexist because you're not treating the girls the same as the boys.

There was one French teacher who didn't abide by that. Everyone was on last-name terms with him. His screeching "SMIIIIITH!!!" still rings in my ears to this day.

This post makes me wonder whether it would be possible to write a story where everyone has the same name, but it's written in such a way that the reader can identify individual characters and keep track of who's speaking. There could be a nice twist at the end, too. Hmmm... 🤔 I daresay it's already been done. I'm sure the better read in the room will know.

Joseph S. said...


Here's how George Foreman does it (from Wikipedia):

"Geprge Foreman has 12 children: five sons and seven daughters. His five sons are George Jr., George III ("Monk"), George IV ("Big Wheel"), George V ("Red"), and George VI ("Little Joey")"

I'm reading "Thief of Souls," which takes place in northern China. Two officers have Wang as a surname. One is called Fatty Wang, the other Big Wang.

My brother growing up had three friends named Kenny Joknson. One. suprisingly, was called "Kenny Johnson." Another was "Little Kenny Johnson" because of his diminutive stature. The final was called "Big Kenny Johnson."

Finally, Texas Longhorns once had two great players named Johnny Jones. here's how they handled it:

"Coach Royal, in order to differentiate between two players named Johnny Jones on the team, gave them nicknames based on their hometowns—Johnny “Lam” Jones from Lampasas, Texas, and Johnny “Ham” Jones from Hamlin, Texas."

Katja said...

Joseph S., you just made me laugh, haha. Yes, I'm consistent.

Honestly, thinking about it earlier, if the only problems my query and my WIP have are the ways I've handled first and last names... there are no problems, hurrah.

How easily can THAT be fixed...

AJ Blythe said...

It's quite common here for surnames to be abbreviated and used as a person's name (I was called by an abbreviation of my maiden name through school). So my characters (male and female) get called by variations of their names by other characters (again both male and female). Of course, setting and situation affect that as well. I tend to refer to my characters by their first names in my query letters, because it is just clearer, but I wouldn't have thought about an agent viewing my naming as sexism if I did otherwise.

Colin Smith said...

Joseph: Interesting... but he still differentiated the characters with a number. The challenge I'm thinking of would be to give them all exactly the same name. So, for example, all the characters are named George. And the only way you know them apart is by some other kind of writerly magic (e.g., speech pattern, mannerism, or some other quirk). Nice try, though. 😀

Dena Pawling said...

I write MG. All my characters are called by their first name or nickname unless they are in trouble then it's first middle last. Adults are Ms. Nancy or Mr. Joe. I knew there was a reason I wrote MG =)

KDJames said...

For those confused, imagine a business setting where Mr. CEO is introducing employees to John Client for the first time (kind of like a query is an introduction, which is the context we're discussing, not how they're addressed in the story).

"John, this is Fred Jones from Design."

(they shake hands, do the "nice to meet you" thing)

"And David Smith, account manager in Sales."


"Steve Anderson here will be handling Production."


"And this is Laurie, our head number-cruncher."

[This might seem like a compliment and Mr. CEO might intend it to be: head number-cruncher. Problem is, Laurie has a last name and a title. If I were writing it, this would come next:]

Laurie steps forward and extends her hand to shake, "Laurie Fisher, VP of Accounting. Nice to meet you, Mr. Client."

And if John Client has even a tiny bit of social awareness he'll say, "Nice to meet you as well, Ms. Fisher."

I've seen this kind of dismissal happen so many times in real life. Been on the receiving end of it more times than I want to count. It's not *exactly* disrespectful, but it shows a marked lack of regard. It's unprofessional, at best. As a result, I've gotten into the habit of always introducing myself by both first and last names. No matter the setting. Plumber coming to do repairs? I introduce myself, both names, and shake hands (well, no handshaking since COVID).

Most men -- and women in some professions -- tend not to notice this because it doesn't affect them. It can be a glaring omission for women, though (other groups too, I imagine). Janet is right to point it out and ask us to think about it.

John Davis Frain said...

Hear hear.

Completely agree. You def don't want to do this in a query or synopsis. OTOH, if you want to SHOW someone in your story as being sexist without TELLING the reader that they're sexist, this is a wonderfully subtle way to do it.

You might want to drop another clue or two at scattered points throughout the story. Alternatively, you could have the recipient reflect on it as KDJames did so well in her post, if you have the luxury of the right POV.

Cara M. said...

I caught myself doing this in my last novel, and then I realized that the distribution wasn't male/female, it was POV character/non-POV character. If I have the pov, I will use the first name. If I don't have their POV, I will use the name the POV character would use for them.

That's what makes it tricky, because on one hand it may reveal the author's implicit bias, but it also may just accurately represent the way people are referred to in a world full of sexism, such as, in this case, academia.

smoketree said...

I'm reading George Saunders' excellent new book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, and he makes the case that most problems in literature that we would consider moral problems are also problems of craft.

His example was the Tolstoy story Master and Man, where the landowner is given a greater depth of character than the peasant, which makes the ending of the story weaker than it would be otherwise.

I'd say that treating female characters as special cases, even in minor ways like this, is probably also a sign that these characters aren't as complicated and frustrating and interesting as their male counterparts are allowed to be. There might be a kind of chivalry in play that robs them of their chance to be the kind of messed up human beings we like to read about.

Adele said...

Mid-20th century and earlier, Mr. Felix Buttonweezer's wife would be Mrs. Felix Buttonweezer. You introduced them as "Felix Buttonweezer and Betty" because people who wanted to talk to her needed to know what her first name was, but they already knew her last name, so it would sound silly to repeat it. Happily, in North America we've all become a lot less formal in the past 50 years, so today they'd be introduced as Felix and Betty, with no last name mentioned. And then there's an added wrinkle, that most servants were known only by their first names (and some of those were imaginary ones that went with the job). So what's a writer to do?

Maybe go back to those tedious 1930s prefaces where they listed all the main characters by first and last name, and told you their main characters traits and profession.

Mister Furkles said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Davis Frain said...

smoketree, thank you. An excellent example. We do a whole lotta things without even realizing we're doing them. You did a wonderful job with your example. And George's, I'll share the praise.

Joseph S. said...


Back in high school (way back) we called a girl in our class by her surname "Cooper". She married "Larry."

I'm not sure how this fits in with your comment, but there it is.

I just ran errands. I think I'll listen to an old album. Can't decide which. Should I listen to Elvis or to Streisand?

Colin Smith said...


Did you enjoy the Elvis Streisand album?


Joseph S. said...


I chose CREAM's "Disraeli Gears" instead.

It was a good choice.

Yvonne Osborne said...

Just how the innocent word "trump' has taken on such an odious meaning.

theblondepi said...

KD James for the win! Best explanation ever. I've had that happen to me more times than I can count. And note Janet said to look in your query, not to suddenly start ripping apart your book, and then if you're doing it, make sure it's intentional. I am the least PC person I know, and this manner of unconscious sexism irks me no end. Here's another peripheral example, not the same but a similarly passive-aggressive way to demean women in business: on the Doctor channel on Sirius XM radio, there'll be a panel of physicians of mixed gender, and often (not all the time), the men call each other "Dr Jones," because it is common to offer that respect in front of each other and especially patients (and the listening audience), but then call the female physician "Betty". There is one male physician who did it regularly on his show. I kept waiting for her to correct him and she didn't. Why? Afraid to make a fuss. Afraid to get accused of being a feminist or PC. "Don't be so sensitive." "Relax." "It's not a big deal." I can just hear the accusations, because I've heard them myself when I stood up and demanded respect in business, demanded that the subtle but insidious lowering of my status cease. Janet is right, as usual.