Pronouns and Descriptors

Normally, pronouns tell the reader who is speaking or doing an action – He/him, she/her, them, they, etc. Writers can also use character names. Descriptors are what writers use to tell the reader what or who the character is – usually a one or two word description, for example, ‘the manager’ or ‘the victim.’

The use of pronouns means that ‘he said or she said’ are used extensively. This might sound intrusive to the reader, but they’re not as invasive as writers think. That’s because readers are so used to seeing them that they fade easily into the background without distracting them. It’s only when writers detract from this pattern that pronouns become less unobtrusive and more of a problem. They overuse descriptors and pronouns.

One common dilemma occurs if all the characters in a scene are the same gender. This presents the problem of differentiating between which character is speaking or doing the action as a way to avoid them all being, ‘He said/he did this’ etc. If they’re all male, which ‘he’ is speaking?

In this case, the use of character names interspersed with a few well-placed descriptors can help the reader distinguish between characters, without needing to overuse them, for example:

‘There’s nothing on the board about a meeting,’ Tom said. ‘Can’t attend if I don’t know about it.’

‘It was there, I can assure you,’ the foreman, Tony, said.

Young Caleb’s voice filled the room. ‘He probably took it down himself.’

‘Did not.’

Tony sighed. ‘All right, you two, knock it off.’

The youngster peered at Tom and chewed his jowls, but the older man didn’t respond to the bait. 

In this example there are three men – Tony, Caleb and Tom, so to help readers follow who is talking, and to avoid confusion, there’s a mix of a descriptor – in this case ‘foreman’ – and the character names. That way, the writer can show each character talking and the reader can easily keep track of who is saying what, without it being too confusing.

This can be further improved with descriptive beats between dialogue, which helps to pace the narrative and break up dialogue, for example:

Amy pulled the bags from the car. ‘This is it.’ She looked up at the cabin, then her two friends. ‘For the next five days.’

Jane got out the car. ‘Did you remember everything?’

Donna, eldest of the sisters, shuffled from the back seat. ‘I hope so, otherwise we’re stuck.’ She straightened. ‘We have wine, if that counts.’

‘I packed everything, trust me,’ Amy said. She peered at Jane. ‘Including the wine.’

The youngest sister smiled back at Amy. ‘Exactly. The most important thing.’

In this example, where all the characters are female, the writer has balanced the use of character names, pronouns, descriptors and narrative beats between the dialogue to show who is talking and doing an action. This keeps the flow and avoids confusing the reader.

Another common problem can arise if the writer uses more descriptors than what is necessary to show which character is talking or doing an action, especially when there are already established characters within a scene. This happens because the writer doesn’t understand that they don’t have to describe the speaker every time he or she talks, rather than using a pronoun or their name, for example:

The prisoner looked up. ‘I’m getting outta here.’

The guard peered at David. ‘Sure you are, kid.’

‘I am.’

‘And how exactly you gonna do that?’ the officer asked.

The condemned man shrugged. ‘You’ll see.’

Here the writer has used too many different descriptors – the prisoner/ the guard/ the officer – rather than using their names, even though the characters would have been established from the beginning of the story. These can sometimes be distracting for the reader, but it also has a negative effect on establishing immediacy. Too many descriptors tend to distance the character from the reader. It doesn’t create any immediacy, so the reader will feel disconnected if you keep referring to your character as ‘the prisoner’, ‘the guard’, ‘the condemned man’ etc. That’s not to say you can’t use a descriptor from time to time, because one or two sprinkled throughout the narrative keeps things interesting and breaks up the ‘he said/she said’ pattern, as the pervious examples have shown.

The idea with well-placed descriptors is to maintain the emotional connection with the reader, for example:

David looked up. ‘I’m getting outta here.’

Officer McKinley peered at him. ‘Sure you are, kid.’

‘I am.’

‘And how exactly you gonna do that?’

David shrugged. ‘You’ll see.’

In this example, the character names have replaced the different descriptors. This shortens the bridge from the character to the reader and creates immediacy, which is vital to every story. Names are personal – descriptors are not.

As with everything in writing, it’s about balance. Make sure you use descriptors in the right way.  Don’t overuse them. Balance them with the use of pronouns, character names when needed and narrative beats between dialogue. That way, your reader will have no trouble with who your characters are, and who is doing the talking and the action.

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