Why You Should Always Identify Characters Pronto

As the author of your story, you not only understand everything that’s going on, you’re also able to see behind the curtains. You understand even those intimate and intricate gears and switches that readers will never see. Possessing this inside knowledge is essential for crafting a deep and dimensional story. However, don’t lose sight of the gap between your own implicit knowledge and that of readers. Otherwise, you risk confusing them by assuming they know things they do not. This will destroy their suspension of disbelief and eventually risk the loss of their attention altogether.

For example, in a generational saga I once read, the author opened almost every scene with a pronoun. He apparently expected readers to instantly comprehend which character the pronoun referred to, so they could orientate themselves in the POV and the setting. But that isn’t quite the way it worked. Since the story featured half a dozen main characters and skipped through large chunks of time and space, readers were left grasping, skimming, and skipping ahead to figure out what was going and which character was being referenced

In your own story, you, as the author, may know exactly to which character each pronoun refers. But don’t make things unnecessarily difficult for readers for no good reason. Introducing characters by name—and even a brief description by way of reminder if necessary—is a simple courtesy that will ensure readers are never yanked from your narrative by the need to hunt down antecedents.

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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. The scene opening is a great tip and one I’ve had generously pointed out to me by critters. It somehow seems dramatic to open with a little ambiguity around POV, but it’s really just bad communications technique. Beyond this, one thing I look very carefully for is to assure that every he or she is clear when there are multiple people in the scene. I think effective dialog tagging is similar problem, though one requiring a defter touch. Too much tagging can give dialog a sing-song feel, but too little can make it indecipherable.

    Katie, enjoy your well deserved week off. Don’t spend it all trying to figure out ways to twist my brain into knots!

  2. Grace Dvorachek says

    I tend to shy away from vagueness and run in the opposite direction. I constantly have to remind myself to cut back on the explanation… Sometimes I feel like I have to explain every single connection and detail to my readers in order for them to “get it”. But then I realized–partly from talking to many friends who are readers–readers are smart and often figure things out for themselves. So now I’ve cut back on explaining and started using less dialogue tags.

    The main thing with my current WIP is that there is tons of backstory. All of the characters are somehow connected through this big chain of events. Since I wanted to avoid info dumping, I scattered hints about the backstory throughout the story, leaving plenty of room for some nice reveals near the plot points. However, I caught myself explaining the backstory waaay too much. So in many scenes, I simply have the characters remark something in normal conversation… and leave the readers to figure it out. So far, it’s worked.

    Thank you for the post… enjoy the break!

  3. Yes and Amen!
    I just quit a book I had eagerly anticipated reading. My frustration was so great mainly because sentences were so poorly written. I frequently had to read them twice to understand what and about whom it was written.

    And, yes please, everyone give “a brief description by way of reminder,” especially if writing a work with a multi-generation cast, or a cast of thousands, or minor characters returning after an absence of 100 pages. I can think of several authors I’ve quit reading altogether for this failure to help me read their work. If I must pull myself out of the story in order to comprehend the sentence, my likelihood of dropping the book has just increased.

    And what a good reminder to myself to do this for my own readers!

  4. Edward Denecke says

    Katie, Even your “shorties” are packed full of major story-improving info!!!!

  5. Essential advice, Katie. Thanks for another on-point reminder about the importance of respecting the reader’s experience. I do try to do a self-crit of my manuscript while pretending I’m a typical reader, but “forgetting what I know” is quite a mind-trick! Have a peaceful break…

  6. A book I’ve just finished (I had to as I’d promised an honest review) the author began nearly every chapter with a pronoun and continued for at least a page. It is so frustrating.
    Thanks for reminding us about it.

  7. The same could be said for constantly reminding us what the character’s last name and occupation are…

  8. annegreening7365 says

    True. It’s also important in dialogue – especially where you have two men or two women chatting. e.g. “She told her she had put her keys on the piano, but she had not been able to find them, because she mistaken them for her keys..” (Actually the keys were in the piano – I can never resist a bad pun).
    However…. I have just written a short (1000 word) story, without naming the two main characters. They are referred throughout as he and she. That last sentence of the story reads, “He shouted out her name, before the darkness engulfed him for the last time.” – but her name is still not mentioned. I find that one can commit writing crimes in a short story that would never work in a longer piece..

  9. It is harder to do when you are writing the story in first person. Basically, what you need is dialog” either another character addressing the PoV character by name near the chapter beginning or the PoV character themself engaging in some internal dialog.

    I do not find the latter ringing true.

    Other suggestions?

  10. michaelcapriola says

    A break? Someone said you could take a break? 😉

  11. Paul Andrew Schreck says

    The challenge for me is finding ways to reveal the character’s name and description without breaking deep POV and stepping into narrator’s voice. Most of us don’t go around referring to ourselves in the third person, so this can be tricky, at least at the beginning of the book. Would love to hear suggestions.

  12. I’m a great believer in names having power and I name everyone – even if it’s a “walk-on part”. Yes, it could be confusing to readers, but each characters name starts with a different letter.

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