1. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Using the same pronoun to represent different characters

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Ben414, Mar 12, 2014.

    As a neophyte writer, I'm struggling with the use of pronouns such as he or she to represent multiple characters in the same scene and the same paragraph. I'm wondering if there is any loose rule to govern pronoun usage. For example, does the preceding action dictate who the pronoun refers to? Or is the context of the action enough for a reader (i.e. only one character has a butter knife so spreading butter must be that character)?

    Let's pretend I wrote: "He sat down in the chair. The man smiled at him." Would the reader expect that the next "he" refer to the first character or the smiling man? Are there any tricks to make sure your pronoun usage is understood?

    Thanks for the help!
     
  2. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    If it's not clear who you are referring to, use their name. If the pronoun follows any named or identified person, the pronoun typically refers to that person unless it logically cannot. That's where it gets tedious and you may choose to rewrite the sentence, but do keep to the rule.

    "Mary told her" - since Mary is acting you can assume 'her' is someone else.

    "Mary went to the store. She went with her." - Since 'she' follows Mary, 'she' refers to Mary, no matter how clear you think it is that 'her' refers to Mary.

    "Mary went to the store. Alice went with her. (Or Alice went with Mary.)"

    In this case since Alice went with someone so that someone cannot be Alice. 'Her' refers back to the last logically connected noun, Mary.

    The idea is to trace your pronouns back and make sure they follow directly the person the pronoun refers to.
     
  3. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    That's it, in a nutshell. You want to make things clear for the reader. This is one of the things you should be looking for when you proofread your work.

    However, if you find you're running into this problem a lot, look for underlying causes. One might be that you are using a lot of dialogue between two "he's" or two "she's", and the dialogue tags become repetitive or confusing. In that case, you might find using names in the dialogue tags becomes even more burdensome to the prose. If the dialogue is just between two people, you can drop the tags after you've established who's who.

    The short answer is that, in this specific example, the reader would look to the usage of "he" in the next sentence.

    1) "He sat down in the chair. The man smiled at him. He appreciated the effort to put him at ease, but the smile didn't accomplish that." Both "he" and "him" refer to the first character.
    2) "He sat down in the chair. The man smiled at him. He was used to clients being nervous on first meeting him." Both "he" and "him" refer to the smiling man.

    It should be noted that the nature of the last sentence in either example will depend on which character's POV you are presenting. And that will also aid the reader in following who is "he". Also, the more you avoid "filtering" - statements like "he saw", "he heard", "he realized" - the fewer of these pronoun conflicts you are likely to have. So, in my two examples above, I could avoid the pronoun problem completely, thus:

    1) "He sat down in the chair. The man smiled at him. The smile, while appreciated, didn't help at all."
    2) "He sat down in the chair. The man smiled at him. Clients were often nervous at first meetings."

    Finally, if your next question is, "What about when there isn't a specific POV?" my next answer is, unless you are writing a brief summary passage to telescope time, make sure there is.

    Good luck.
     
  4. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks for the replies; your advice was helpful!

    That's a great way of avoiding potential confusion in the first place. I'll try to use that when I can.
     

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