Allow me to reintroduce you to the word “they.”
It is a useful word. A versatile word. A word that so completely disappears into the background you don’t need to worry about repeating it.
For some reason lots of writers are scared of pronouns. They find all sorts of convoluted ways of avoiding them.
For instance, there might only be two people in the scene, but rather than just saying “They went,” the writers will say:
“Girl and father went.”
We know who’s in the scene. We already know their relationship. You can just say “they.”
Or, in order to avoid saying a character’s name or simply “he,” you’ll see things like this:
“You’re my brother and I love you,” she said.
“Thanks,” her brother said.
We know he’s her brother. You can just say “he.”
Or a character will be referred to very consistently one way, only for the writer to suddenly change it up. For instance:
His mom handed him a ham sandwich.
“Thanks, Mom,” he said.
Mrs. Williams nodded.
Just keep saying “his mom” or “she.” It feels like Mrs. Williams is a totally new character who magically appeared.
Or they’ll just keep saying a character’s name over and over to the point of distraction. Once you say a character’s you should then stick to their pronoun afterward until someone else comes along that could cause confusion.
Pronouns disappear into the background. They’re like the word “the.” Readers don’t notice the repetition.
They absolutely will notice if you find all sorts of convoluted ways of replacing them and changing up the way you refer to characters.
Use pronouns or character names as consistently as possible and don’t worry about repeating them. As long as it’s clear, your reader isn’t going to notice.
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Art: The Mirror of Venus by Edward Burne-Jones
Ken Hughes says
It’s been called “Burly Detective Syndrome” when authors keep swapping in a flashy phrase to avoid using the obvious noun and pronoun. The trouble is, we’re supposed to be immersed in the story — stepping back to show the character in new words ought to be done for a reason.
Michael W. Perry says
Excellent advice! Good writers know how to use pronouns to smooth the flow of a narrative and avoid boring readers. It’s much better than repeating names (“John” over and over), descriptive terms (“brother”) or cliches (in NYC papers, “the city’s finest” for either the police or firefighters, I forget which).
Using pronouns properly is also a reason to oppose the use of “they” as a genderless pronoun. For example there’s, “The surgeon began to operate. They plunged their scalpel deeply into the patient.” Awful, really awful. Make that surgeon a man or woman and be done with it. Good writing is also concrete. Readers can’t visualize a genderless character.
Of course, all that runs against what I call the “write badly, get rich” school of authoring. Writing for readers unaccustomed to thinking, these authors sell blockbuster novels with passages like this.
“I love you,” said John deeply passionate.
“No you don’t. You hate me,” said Jane angrily.
“Yes, I do,” said John in reply.
And on and on and on…. Nothing is left to a reader’s imagination. Names are repeated. Even obvious emotions and actions have to be described in words. It’s why I’ve never been able to get past the first few pages in a James Patterson novel. His writing remind me of those dreadful story books I was forced to read in the first grade: “See Spot run. Run Spot run. Run, run, run.” Hey, I got it the first time. Spot is running. Why repeat it?
–Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien (a day-by-day chronology of LOTR)
Might I suggest an extra large cup of espresso to help wake you?
Nathan Bransford says
I think your perspective on “they” is pretty out of date. There are plenty of good reasons to use “they” and not stick to a “he/she” binary. Readers can absolutely imagine a genderless character for the very simple reason that not every human identifies with a gender.
Sure, if a character identifies male or female just use “he/she” if it’s true to the world of your novel, but there are there are plenty of situations where “they” is perfectly precise.
Barbara Evers says
Thanks for this. I never thought about pronoun usage until I read an author’s blog advising writers to revise sentences to avoid pronouns. Granted, she wasn’t suggesting using mom or Mrs. Williams in place of “she.” She wanted people to revise the sentence so the reference to “he,” “she,” and “they” were no longer necessary. Sometimes, I can do that, but often it gets a bit complicated.
The one area pronouns don’t disappear into the background is when several sentences on the same page start with “he” or “she” or whatever your favorite pronoun is. It gets really choppy and stands out in this case.