Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Misused Pronouns

My Front Garden, weeds & all - Back Garden is bigger but not better.

No doubt why these are called Gloriosa Lilies

Hailey with family cat Pos
Hailey, 15-years later

 How time flies!

~ * ~

Last week's post on Character Identification really seemed to hit a nerve, world-wide, so here are the dates of previous posts on Character Development. (If I ever get my posts organized into a book, hunting around for "character" posts will be a lot easier!)

From the Archives:  

Character Development series:  Nov. 7, 2015, Dec. 5, 2015, Jan. 30, 2016, Feb. 6, 2016, Aug. 20, 2016.

How to Develop Characters series:  Oct. 15, 2012, Oct. 29, 2012, Nov. 5, 2012. 

Writing Workshop # 6 - Characters+:  Feb. 7, 2015

~ * ~


In work I edit for others, in contests I judge, sometimes even in my own work, I find the Narration slipping into pronouns (he/she, his/hers, her/him, they/them, theirs,etc.). Often to the detriment of the sense of the sentence. (When the "He" at the beginning of the sentence is not the same person as the "him" in the second half of the sentence, we have a problem.) 

More importantly, readers cannot get a "fix" on the characters if they are constantly referred to as "he" and "she," "him" and "her." These pronouns are not only confusing, they give no sense of character, no feeling for the very real person behind those measly two & three letters. It is very important to introduce your characters by their full names, with their position in life, if you can work it in. An English title is easy enough to add, as is mentioning that Jacob Smythe works for Silicon Tech. Just something for a reader to hang his/her hat on until you reveal more details.

Yes, there are instances where you want a sense of anonymity, a technique frequently used in Prologues; for example that "killer" in the murder scene that often begins a Mystery. I made use of pronouns in the Interim that begins Royal Rebellion, the last book of my SciFi Saga, Blue Moon Rising. Regular readers of Mosaic Moments have already seen "The Witch and the Wolf," which is a complete short story in itself, but for purposes of illustrating a proper use of pronouns used in place of the full names I so love . . .

No, I don't go a long time without a name—I've underlined the place where I sneak it in—but I hope I've achieved the "feeling" I wanted for the opening of Royal Rebellion.

The ballroom, Crystalia, the Psyclid royal palace
Two Blue Moon cycles after the Battle of Psyclid

   The music flourished to a close, the women’s skirts flaring in a final kaleidoscope of color before settling to hug their bodies close as they dipped into curtsies. Their partners bowed, the men’s bright tunics competing with the women for which gender would add the most brilliance and sparkle to the evening.
   All but one, that is—a man slunk into the shadows behind a marble pillar, his back against the wall. Although he wore the required tight white hose, his tunic of black velvet fell well below his knees, his sole concession to fashion the borders of intricate gold embroidery decorating the hems of the sleeves and tunic. Embroidery he could not reject because his sister had created the garment with her very own hands, so what was a man to do?
  Except hide.
  He should not be here. This was a night for celebrating the completion of Psyclid’s ridó.
  A full two Blue Moon cycles after it was needed.
  He had failed. Men had died, ships were lost because there was a gap in the force field intended to protect Psyclid from the Regs. From the revenge of a mighty Empire on a pacifist planet that asked only to be left in peace.
  He, T’kal Killiri, had been tasked with getting the job done, and he’d fallen short. He was here tonight only because King Ryal had ordered it. And if there was one thing the Pysclid engineer was, it was loyal to the crown.

But, as mentioned last week, in most cases it is vital to get all the necessary information in right up front so readers can get a feel for your characters, understand who and what they are, and begin to empathize with them.

Unfortunately, sometimes authors do no more than casually mention a first name in the first couple of paragraphs and then switch to pronouns—a practice that not only fails to identify the characters properly but frequently causes confusion about which character is speaking or thinking or walking or driving, etc., etc.

This can happen through carelessness, but I suspect a good part of the problem is that authors have read about "deep POV" and seem to think that using a character's actual name in the narration means they've dropped into "author POV." Sigh.

I've struggled with this issue myself, as I try to practice what I preach: Get inside your characters' heads. Let readers see what they see, hear what they hear, feel what they feel. Yet when you suddenly drop the character's name into the mix, it's like referring to yourself in Third Person. 

Nonetheless, you have get the names in there. You can't go on page after page, saying "he" did this, "she" did that; "he" thought, "she cried" . . .

Believe me, if you use too many pronouns, confusion reigns. In addition to the fact that "he" and "she" are too vague for your readers to develop an attachment to your characters,, "he" and "she" could be anybody. Certainly not a hero or heroine you want to cheer on to Happily Ever After.


 I looked around for a paragraph I could massacre as an example and came up with a "backshelf" book, which I wrote right after I moved from Venice, Florida, to Orlando. A highly traumatic move, as I'd lived in a really big house for 25 years, and it was packed with not only my things, my deceased husband's things, but "stuff" belonging to all three children. In short, I should have taken a vacation from writing for about six months . . . Sigh. So I'm giving the opening paragraph its first airing below:

Brazil, February 1804
    “Hoy-y!”  Slowly, Tomás Freeman lowered his machete, raising his ebony face toward the source of the thundering sound of falling water just revealed by his last vicious slash at the tangled greenery. His companion, Justin Renshaw, said nothing at all as he stepped into a clearing around a large pool of water and lifted his square, uncompromising chin up, up, then up again until his eyes, almost as dark as his companion’s, found the top of the spectacular waterfall.       

   “A thousand feet?” Freeman asked. 

Rewritten to demonstrate how confusing a lack of names can be:

   "Hoy-y!" The man lowered his machete and raised his ebony face toward the source of the thundering sound of falling water just revealed by his last vicious slash at the tangled greenery. His companion said nothing at all as he stepped into a clearing around a large pool of water and lifted his square, uncompromising chin up, up, then up again until his eyes, almost as dark as his companion's found the top of the spectacular waterfall.
   "A thousand feet?" he asked.

Hopefully, you get the point. And no, I'm not saying "Forget pronouns." Pronouns are great, useful; they give us an alternative to saying the same name over and over. But they can be also be confusing. Examine what you've written. Can readers understand which "he, she, him, her" you're talking about? Never hesitate to replace an ambiguous pronoun with a name. Or rewrite the sentence completely, if necessary. Clarity is all-important. Readers do not like to be left frowning over who said that, or who did what to whom!

Final example. Here's the opening of Florida Wild, as published by Ellora's Cave Blush and now on hiatus until the attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando fades enough for people to be more open-minded about Muslims. (As it was during the years before Pulse when I wrote this fairly light-hearted look at American-Arab relations.)

I have substituted pronouns for the original text, now offset by brackets. If you read the excerpt twice, once with the inserted pronouns and once with the names (as originally written), I believe you will find the message clear.

   “That,” Cass declared, “is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.”             
   “For once, kid,” her brother drawled, “you may be right.”They [Cass and Hugh Wilder] raised nearly matching determined chins and velvet brown eyes to the brilliant March sunshine, staring up at the newest addition to the Central Florida entertainment corridor.  The great wooden hump of the highest point of the Close Call Coaster rose twenty feet above a solid forest of ninety-foot pines and towering live oaks.  The only other visible sections of the rollercoaster were its loading platform and the final thirty feet of flat track after it exited the trees.  The rest of the ride wound its way through dense forest, its ups, downs, twists, turns, and multiple surprises hidden from a preview by passengers daring enough to play dodge-‘em with tree trunks.
   “This is a test, isn’t it?” she [Cass] demanded.  “Ride this a couple of times and maybe you guys will let me out of the office.”
   He [Her brother] flashed a broad grin.  “Maybe.  But if we let you into ops, who’s going to answer the phone?”
   “There has to be some reason you wanted me to come with you instead of Doug or Alec.  I mean, it’s the business that got the Preview invitation, so why you and me?  You all know I’m not a coaster fan.” Which was putting it mildly.
Screams echoed around them as a car loaded with passengers splashed down into a stream, sending a double wave of spray that doused the riders with water.  His [Hugh’s] eyes gleamed. “Well now, we might have had something like that in mind.  In our line of work we have to deal with a lot of things we don’t like, so Doug thought—”
   “This was Doug’s idea?”  Her [Cass’s] voice rose above the babble of eager customers waiting to board the Close Call Coaster. 
   “He’s the boss, kid.  He calls the shots.  I’m just the lowly peon who does what he’s told.  Basically, he [Doug] figured if a rollercoaster freaks you out, what good are you going to be when there’s real danger?  Gotta conquer your fears, babe, or how can anyone trust you when the chips are down.”
Well, hot damn.  Wasn’t this just the fate of a girl who worked with trio of relatives—two older brothers and a cousin—who put a new shine on the description macho Alpha male?  Her [Cass’s] eyes narrowed, her chin squared.  “So bring it on.  I’m sick of repeating, ‘Halliday and Wilder, Security and Private Inquiries, how may I help you?’”
   “Which means you’ve got to be good enough to bring in the cash to pay someone else to say it.  Wilder Investigations is just beginning to break out of the red—”
   “I keep the books, remember?”
   He [Hugh] pounced on that one.  “Another problem,” he crowed.  “If you go into the field, we’ll have to hire an accountant.”
   “Are we doing this or not?” she [Cass] demanded.  She walked toward the loading platform with all the swagger she could manage, taking care to keep her face turned away from her brother as she watched a coaster car rise above the tree tops, inching its way toward the summit.  Eager passengers—insanely eager passengers, she [Cass] thought—thrust their hands high above their heads as the car paused on the brink of the downward plunge, heightening the tension. She [Cass] winced. Her stomach churned. She absolutely hated rollercoasters, and he [Doug] and the brothers knew it.  And, just to rub it in, with ninety-five percent of the coaster’s layout hidden behind a wall of trees and dense Florida underbrush, there was no way to anticipate the surprises, no way to steel herself for the promised “close calls.” 
   The [Her brothers] couldn’t have devised a more diabolical test.
She could do this, she really could, she [Cass] assured herself.  She had a sudden ridiculous vision of herself as The Little Engine That Could, puffing valiantly up the steep hill to deliver toys to good little boys and girls.  Yeah, well, the valiant little train only had to go up, not plunge down into a black hole full of trees and who knew what. 
   He [Hugh] snagged the coaster car’s front seat.  Of course he did, she [Cass] thought as she settled beside him, still trying to resign herself to the inevitable.  Her brothers, known as the Wild and Wooly Wilders, had such an anathema for nine to five, they’d leaped at the opportunity to join their cousin [Doug Halliday,] when he abandoned a career in some secret government acronym to start a PI business in Orlando. Fortunately, the need for investigations and bodyguards in Orlando, resort capital of the world, was constant.  Halliday & Wilder was still struggling, but the future held more than a little promise.

Identify, identify, identify. Reinforce, reinforce, reinforce. Make sure your readers know who your characters, primary and secondary, are. Use their names. Use pronouns only if you're absolutely certain there can be no doubt which character you're referring to. In short, you're going for both elegance and clarity. Fix those characters, rock solid, in your readers' heads. 

~ * ~ 

For a link to Blair Bancroft's web site, click here.

For a link to Blair's Facebook Author Page (May 12, 2018), click here.
(New Post features inside info on Royal Rebellion)

To request a brochure from Grace's editing service, Best Foot Forward, please use the link to Blair's website above.  

Thanks for stopping by, Grace

No comments:

Post a Comment