Here’s another peek at the archives while I’m away on family business.
Pronouns are those clever little inventions that allow us to replace nouns and avoid clunky repetition. How awkward would it be if we had to mention our character Col. Daniel Fitzgerald the Elephant Trainer by name five times in one paragraph? Thanks to the pronoun, we only have to mention him once at the beginning of the paragraph, unless another male character interpolates himself somewhere in the middle. However, pronouns accomplish much more than just variation of word rhythm.
The Benefits of Pronouns
When used to their full potential, pronouns have the power to accomplish a number of impressive tasks, including:
1. Aiding suspension of disbelief.
2. Encouraging realistic narrative.
3. Fostering a sense of camaraderie and intimacy between one character and another and between characters and readers.
Much like the dialogue tag “said,” pronouns offer a certain amount of invisibility. We read them, recognize them, and process them almost without seeing them. Not only does this contribute an extra oomph of speed to our reading, it also eliminates even the slightest of jolts that might pull us from the story. Using pronouns to replace character names, whenever possible, creates a seamless flow of narrative that puts the focus on the what and how of your scene once you’ve established the who.
Overusing character names is a surprisingly common pitfall. Perhaps because it takes us five minutes to write a paragraph that will be read in thirty seconds, or perhaps because we often feel a special connection to our characters’ names, it’s far too easy for us to mention names more often than we need to. Particularly in scenes in which only one character is present, we have no reason to repeat the character’s name in every sentence.
On the other hand, we don’t want to overuse pronouns to the extent that we mire readers in such a state of confusion that they have no idea who this “he” they’re reading about really is. Following are some guidelines for deciding when pronouns are appropriate and when they’re not.
Use pronouns when:
- Only one character is present in a scene.
- Only two characters of opposite genders are present in a scene.
- The pronoun’s antecedent is clear.
Use names when:
- You introduce characters.
- Any chance exists that a reader might attach a pronoun to the wrong character.
- The flow of the sentence demands emphasis on a character or his name.
Take a look at a few paragraphs in your work-in-progress and see if exchanging a few names for pronouns will aid the flow and readability of your story.
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