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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Pronoun Usage and Same-Sex Characters

Image courtesy of FreelanceWritingGigs.com
and Comedy Central.
I learned something today. (Cue cheesy end-of-episode South Park music.)

It's probably something obvious, and it's little, but something I hadn't noticed before.

Sometimes it's difficult to decide which pronouns to use. I'm specifically referring to a close 3rd POV narrator in a scene with another character of the same gender. When do you use "he" and "she" (or "it", depending on your genre of choice)?

In this latest draft of Fighting Fate, I followed my linguistics training, adhering to supposed rules of pragmatics to dictate when I used "he/him/his" or "she/her/her" instead of proper names.

An example:
Roger took several steps toward her. Marcus tried to followed, but Roger’s hyper-awareness picked up on it right away. He paused and glanced over his shoulder at Marcus. Even if for a second, it made Marcus stop.

Here's the breakdown. In the second sentence, I used "Marcus" because, according to pragmatics, "He" should refer to Roger as the subject of the previous sentence. After "but" I used "Roger" again, because "he" would refer to Marcus. In the third sentence, "He" is Roger, being the most recent available subject to refer to. Then we get "Marcus" again, BUT it's in a prepositional phrase, so the last sentence repeats "Marcus" because the most recent SUBJECT to refer to is "Roger".

I don't think this is wrong per se, but it's clunky. Do you feel the clunky? I felt the clunkiness even while writing it, though wasn't sure how to fix it.

I sent it off to a crit partner of mine, and this is how it came back (some suggestions hers, others I adapted based on what I'd learned from several of her line-edits). Because it's a little out of context, please note that the close 3rd POV narrator is attached to Marcus in this scene.

Roger took several steps toward her. He tried to followed. Roger paused and glanced over his shoulder, his hyper-awareness tipping him off. Even if for a second, it made Marcus stop.

Less clunky, no?

But is it clear?

So the dilemma continues. I've rewritten it again, because another crit buddy was confused (and I can't say I blame her). I've changed the second "he" back to "Marcus" because pragmatically the reader is going to assume "he" to be "Roger" otherwise. Right? Or not?


So what's most important? Ditching the clunky or maintaining it for the sake of clarity? How do you deal with a close 3rd POV narrator and multiple people of the same gender in one scene? How do you use pronouns? Any advice to the poor, recovering linguist that is moi?

12 comments:

Jan Morrison said...

aaagh. My head hurts. And now for something entirely different - how come 'her' doesn't have a name? Probably a contextual problem but it made me wonder if Marcus and her were the same person even though Marcus is a guy's name - Here's how I might do it.

Roger took several steps toward her. Marcus started to follow, but when Roger paused and glanced over his shoulder, he stopped.

I know that you don't get to mention Roger's hyper-awareness but if you are in Marcus's mind then it is only conjecture anyhow and you SHOW it with the glance. I try not to use 'tried' as Yoda says 'do or do not do - there is no try.'
I struggle with this sort of thing all the time. Editing is such fun, wha?

RosieC said...

Thanks, Jan, for the suggestion. Good point about "try". I'll have to look around for that word. And I'll have to think of a way to insert Roger's hyper-awareness at some point, since it's never from his perspective.

For the majority of this scene, Marcus doesn't actually know "her" name, so using it would be a little odd. I promise "her" is NOT Marcus, though :)

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

Hmm, I deal with this all the time because all I write in is 3rd person. All I can say is don't worry about it TOO much. If you're making a serious effort to make it clear, that's all you can do. I know for Monarch, my editor fixed a bunch of stuff like this according to how she liked it - and it ended up so smooth. Amazing what those editors do!

Matthew MacNish said...

I understand your point, but it's hard to decide which is more important in this scene without more context. For example the verb followed makes it quite clear that the "he" cannot be the same "he" as Roger, but in the third sentence I see your point.

Depending on what kind of book this is, the context, and so forth, I would say that you can sometimes replace both the pronoun, and the name, with something else. Like "the dude" or "that punk" or whatever might fit.

I completely agree about not repeating the proper names so much, though. I hate that.

Matthew MacNish said...

Oh and I'm following now. Nice to meet you!

DEZMOND said...

ah, pronouns, I won't even tell you what kind of hell they give to us poor little translators, especially in language like mine where we have a distinction between second person singular and plural .... a total hell, believe me :)

Trisha said...

It really irks me when I get confused about who's saying what, or who's doing what. Happened to me recently in a published (and doing very well) book. ;)

Claudia Del Balso said...

Hi Rosie,
I haven't encountered that problem yet, but I bet I will. However, in my editing class a student asked something similar. If we get an answer next week, I'll make sure to pass it along ;)

Madeline Bartos said...

I was just thinking to myself and wondering why I have trouble writing from 3rd POV. This is another reason why! I think above all, clarity comes first.

Missed Periods said...

I didn't think that your original version was all that clunky.

Carol Riggs said...

Argh! Makes MY head hurt. I'll take a stab at rewriting it:

Roger took several steps toward her. Marcus started to follow, but Roger paused and threw him a backward glance. Apparently Roger's hyper-awareness had picked up on it right away. Even if for a second, it made Marcus stop.

That way the troublesome "he" pronouns are omitted, and the whole paragraph is kept in Marcus' POV.

(Picked up on "it"--what is that? might need a noun there, to explain, if it isn't obvious in context.)

Medeia Sharif said...

I think only one of my wips long ago was in third person. All the rest were in first, so I haven't faced this problem.

Even in first person, if there are many characters in a scene, I have to trim words and combine sentences to decrease clunkiness and confusion.

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