Perils of Professional Titles in Fiction

Dr. Smith Examines a Tonsil

I’ve been busy finishing a book. I need some advice. Well, maybe.

You know how I am. I find my answers in the middle of asking for advice.

All the same, here you go:

My main character works in the medical profession, under the guidance of a high-ranking physician. For the first half of the book, he addresses this physician as “Dr. Smith”. When circumstances change (and they do, big time)… the doctor becomes a close friend and asks to be addressed by his first name (we’ll call him “Bob” for example) outside of work.

It only feels awkward to me because he doesn’t become “Bob” until the middle of the story.

And the doctor was his mentor.

Plus the doctor is much older, so there’s a father figure thing too.

Should I explain the “call me Bob” thing in some dialogue and refer to him as “Bob” instead of “Dr. Smith” from that point on?

Bob and I went down the diner to get a five-dollar milkshake. To our surprise, Dr. Phil was there too. “Whatcha doin’ here?” Dr. Phil asked. “Dr. Smith and I wanted to see if that five-dollar milkshake was any good,” John replied. “Dunno if it’s worth five dollars,” Dr. Phil said, rubbing his shiny pate. “But it’s pretty friggin’ good.”

Or continue to call him “Dr. Smith” unless the main character is speaking to him? In which case he can pull something like:

John handed Dr. Smith the plunger and asked, “You sure you know how to fix a toilet, Bob? We could call a plumber.” Dr. Smith waved him off. “It’s a toilet. How much different can it be from the human colon?” John had his doubts. There was a reason they had maintenance on speed-dial.

I’ve been told I over-think. There’s my mind on coffee.

33 Comments

Filed under Decisions, Writing

33 responses to “Perils of Professional Titles in Fiction

  1. I’d go with your second option. The doctor didn’t ask us, the readers, to call him by his first name. Does that make sense?

    • karengadient

      That’s the direction I’ve decided to go in. For now, at least. Trick will be if “Dr. Smith” is no longer employed as a doctor later on in the tale (likely). The professional title thing might not work for the long haul. It’s things like this that make me want to kill characters off. πŸ˜‰

  2. The little details make a difference to how you see the story so it’s only natural to spend time making sure it feels right. I go with the same name in the narrative throughout the story though if you’re writing in first person I don’t see any problem in making the change and explaining it in dialogue.

    • karengadient

      You’re right. Consistency is the key. If I establish a name early enough on, I can probably go either way. Just have to stick to my choice once I make it.

  3. I’d say stick with Dr. Smith. Like you / Karen said, consistency is really important. When I was reading through Lord of the Rings, I got so frustrated because every character had like five names they were called by. Gandalf was Gandalf, but he was also Stormcrow, and Mithrandir, and the White Rider, and … too many! Stick with one name. Your characters can call each other whatever they want, but I think the narration should use only one name.

    • karengadient

      Title is one thing, but having every culture in your world call a guy by a different name? Yeah, that’s… well, that’s Tolkien for you. πŸ˜‰ And I’m not Tolkien, so I’ll choose a name that my MC calls his mentor and keep that constant. Might mean no title from the character’s POV, just so I can let the ‘doctor’ character join the civilian world without title issues later.

  4. tough one. readers get confused by too many names but what i would do is have him call him “Dr. Smith, er I mean Bob” the first couple of times after the friendship, than move on to Bob afterwards.

    • karengadient

      I think I’m going with something close to what you’ve suggested. I can establish (heck, it’ll be obvious) that the guy is a doctor, but I can keep him on first name basis with the main character outside of surgery.

  5. What an interesting dilemma! (and interesting comments too). Looking forward to see how you resolve it – I bet you did, or were close to it, right after writing the post, just as you said you would!

    • karengadient

      Pretty sure I’ll keep the physician on a first name basis with the main character and have others (professional staff or patients) call the guy by title. Feels better for the story than having someone who’s like a son more than apprentice calling his mentor by title for a whole novel or more.

  6. t

    I like the second option as well.

    And you over-think =]

  7. I’m really inspired by your ambition! So I nominated you for the “very inspiring” blog award. (:

    http://olivethepeople.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/the-very-inspiring-blog-award/#comment-626

  8. I’m with you-all on this. Depending upon who’s head you’re in, that’s what you call him. The Narrator’s a bit tricky, though he’s supposed to be unemotional, so Dr might work best.

    Changing what you call him will help readers identify who’s talking, too.

    • karengadient

      In the main character’s head, close 3rd POV. I’ll go with one name (possibly last, kind of like Holmes and Watson and all that) sans title outside of his professional sphere. I figure if I just stay consistent, it’ll be fine. I’m sure my beta readers will tell me if it’s wonky. πŸ™‚

  9. I like the title when writing part…and when he is spoken to by the main character. I have seen this done in films…he is called by a title by someone, but later his first name is used when the people are ‘equals’.

    However, it is an interseting dilemma if the ‘doctor’ loses his title later in the story …. hmmmm… I see writing is filled with details to work out, besides the writing itself.

    • karengadient

      Starting to think I might go by surname alone. He taught the main character; he’s his mentor. Another character in the book goes by just his last name, even if other characters who know him well call him by his first. Who knew names were so tricky?

  10. The names of characters is a window into their soul. When you start meddling then it changes their persona. Stick with your gut instinct. That’s my two bobs worth πŸ™‚

  11. You know Karen, before I use to think that my struggles with proper usage in writing my non-fiction books were difficult. But after reading this post, I think it’s far more difficult for fiction writers. I guess that’s part of what makes good fiction books “compelling” and good non-fiction books “helpful.”

    • karengadient

      Thanks for the comment! I don’t know if fiction is more difficult than non-fiction, but it’s definitely a different mindset. Writing is challenging no matter what.

  12. I think the change can be made, but maybe not like flipping a switch. When something is as ingrained as what we call a person, changing it might not come naturally because we don’t conscientiously consider every word that comes out of our mouths. I think the character would continue to use the more formal title, particularly when among others for a time.

    This also gives the reader time to get used to the change so it doesn’t throw them for a loop. I’ve been discovering that readers don’t necessarily read every word. So one can state something clearly and explicitly, but still end up distracting the reader if they glossed over the explanation. For that reason, in a format as long as a novel, I think one has to find subtle ways to reinforce things that will be jarring to the reader. It’s a very tricky thing. Therein lies the art.

    • karengadient

      I think I’ve figured out how I’m going to approach it. Primarily one name (likely surname) with the occasional title when it’s spoken in dialogue. Pretty sure that’s how the main character would approach it. Something like that, anyway! Who knows what I’ll do in the final draft. I’ll see how the beta reads and rewrites go.

  13. It sounds interesting. How’s the book coming along?

  14. Happy Easter. Blessing to you and yours ! .

  15. Hey there Karen! Any more progress on your book?

    • karengadient

      Wow, you’re like having a deadline fairy! Which is cool, since it’s nice to know others are cheering for me. πŸ™‚ I’m still working on the beta reader copy. If you want to know just WHAT in real life is holding me up, feel free to email (see ‘about’ page) and I’ll explain (some things aren’t meant for the blog). I’ll get ‘er done within the next month or two… just taking longer than expected.

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