Are You Benefiting From the Intimacy of Pronouns?

Are You Benefiting From the Intimacy of Pronouns?

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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. A worthy review of information. You answered a question I didn’t know I had until I read this. Notes taken.
    Mary

  2. Glad you found it useful! It’s a topic I’ve rarely if ever heard discussed, but in my own writing and in editing for others, I’ve discovered how important it is.

  3. Thanks for posting, K.M. Good piece of advice you’ve got here. Take care and have a great week. Thanks for following, by the way.
    -James
    http://jamesgarciajr.blogspot.com/

  4. Thanks for commenting! And it was my pleasure. I’ll be back later to read more.

  5. We have to be air traffic controllers of pronouns and names, don’t we?

    Just the right mix so as not to irritate, yet not confuse, our readers.

    Excellent post, Roland

  6. Precisely. Pronouns are a beautiful, subtle addition to our language, but they can become mighty confusing when misused.

  7. My writing is usually from the perspective of some character, so that character will almost never think of himself by name or pronoun. They will think of others that way. Since I never change perspective within a paragraph, I simply have to be sure to specify which person is the focus and who he’s talking to. If there are multiple people involved this can become tricky. Getting the right blend of terms while still sounding realistic is one of the biggest challenges I face.

    Marc Vun Kannon
    http://authorguy.wordpress.com

  8. Something else I didn’t mention in the post is that when you’re using a 1st-person narrator, the “I” always distinguishes him from the other characters, freeing up other pronouns.

  9. I finished critiquing a short story minutes ago, which included a dozen hims in sequential paragraphs that about drove me crazy. I think you needed to include the whole repetition argument. A dozen back-to-back hims and hes can drive your reader nutz

    :O) Regards, Mac

  10. I had a tendency of overusing my character’s name in dialog. After discovering this common mistake, I revised my WIP. Thank goodness for writer’s conferences which offer such great information for writers.

  11. @Mac: So long as the reader is never confused over antecedents, pronouns shouldn’t be a problem. Repitition isn’t a problem with pronouns anymore than it is with the word “the.”

    @Sharon: Overuse of direct address is a common and frustrating problem – even in some published books.

  12. I’m glad to see a post that puts this topic in balance. Not too many, not too few.

  13. Good fiction is all about balance. Balance, balance, balance. If I could say only one thing about writing for the rest of my life, that would be it!

  14. Hi, I’m curious how pronouns can aid suspension of disbelief?

  15. Thanks for stopping by! Pronouns, properly used, aid suspension of disbelief by encouraging a seamless flow of narrative. By their very invisibility, pronouns allow readers a more intimate sense of character than if they’re being treated as if they can’t remember a character’s name from sentence to sentence.

  16. I do have to be careful, because I’m a cut and paste, adjust for flow writer, and have to go back and readjust. I agree that ‘he’ and ‘she’ are more ‘intimate’ — In deep pov, they’re the same as “I”

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  17. Writing is all about rhythm. If, for whatever reason, pronouns aren’t working, don’t use ’em. But, often, they contribute to a more seamless flow of rhythmic writing.

  18. Thanks for the tips

  19. You’re welcome! Thanks for commenting.

  20. ‘I agree that ‘he’ and ‘she’ are more ‘intimate’ — In deep pov, they’re the same as “I”‘

    That’s funny, since I just tweeted the same thing!

    Marc Vun Kannon
    http://authorguy.wordpress.com

  21. Great minds think alike!

  22. Good reminders all around. I know when I’m editing, I’ll occasionally run across a scene where I’ve got three women in it, and I have to make sure it’s clear who I’m talking about and have to revert pronouns to names.

  23. Clarity wins every time!

  24. Good point. I used to think I needed to add the name in now and then just because–and found that using the pronouns when one person is in the scene is the best way to go!

  25. Back in my early days as a writer, I was convinced I needed to name the character in every new paragraph. Got over that one pretty quickly!

  26. Thanks so much for this! I have trouble with pronouns…

  27. They can be slippery little devils, can’t they?

  28. Ah pronouns! I love to hate them. 🙂 I’m still mastering them, especially when a character is talking about a similar gender character. What fun!

    Thankfully I’m getting better about using them instead of the character’s name which can distance the reader from the scene and be really annoying.

    Thanks for these practical tips, Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Betas are the bomb at helping us figure out when our pronouns are getting confusing. Since we always know who’s who, we can easily think our antecedents are clear when they’re anything but.

  29. I love the intimacy of four guys having a conversation and each of them are …he said. 🙂

  30. This is great advice. I like to think that I don’t overuse names and work in the pronouns well, but I’ll have to pay more attention to this.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      It’s a balance. We have to use the names to prevent reader confusion. But we want to use pronouns where possible to create this sense of flow and intimacy.

  31. Using pronouns to the maximum extent is a good way of keeping dialogue intimate, given that we can’t see each speaker in a multi-character exchange, only infer by means of verbal clues the writer has provided. Another bonus of using pronouns is that the writer then has to pay attention to each character’s voice, turns of speech and verbal idiosyncrasies to steer clear of confusion.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      It’s always better for us to be clear in cases of possible confusion. But, perhaps a little ironically, pronouns often present a smoother reading experience.

  32. What you learned in grade school is valuable.

Trackbacks

  1. […] to numbers; James Hall delves into when and how to use symbolism; K.M. Weiland wants us to benefit from the intimacy of pronouns; and David Marsh has 10 grammar rules you can […]

  2. […] 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? Continue Reading>> […]

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