Thursday, February 24, 2011


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Pronouns are important when it comes to writing. No matter if it's first person or third person (even the dreaded second) a writer needs to know when to use which and how to make due with what is allowed while still managing enough variety to not bore or confuse the reader.

First Person - I don't do this often but I know what to use for the most part. As you probably know, "I" is the common term in first person, along with "me," "my" and "mine". We is a reference to a group that includes the main character, along with other terms like "us" and "our". Wow, this is quickly becoming a grammar lesson but I have more than grammar to discuss here.

One thing that is important in first person to me, as a reader, is names. I need to know the main character's name in first person novels and it needs to happen more than once in the first 5 chapters. I have stopped reading a book because I couldn't remember the main character's name because it was mentioned once maybe in one chapter out of the first 5. Some other readers may not have a problem with this, as it is my personal taste, but i like to know names.

Second Person - The dreaded point of view in fiction writing. It works in newspaper columns/viewpoints and in pick-your-own adventures but in general, not a good idea for a full novel. This is basically the "you" pronoun, which isn't even in the picture I posted for this blog entry. Sometimes it will be seen in first person, the main character has something that has "you" and it stands out to me as odd because the speaker is talking directly to the reader. The reason readers don't like it is: 1. It takes them out of the story when the character talks directly to them. 2. It makes assumptions about the reader. I hate when I'm reading a story and it assumes I'm anti-homosexuals (there is a sci-fi story like that and I hated it) because I am not what the character was saying and that is very off-putting.

Third person - This is the pov I prefer but it has drawbacks. This contains a number of pronouns, such as: he, she, "it" (probably won't use that one often for a character), they, Names, etc. It's easy to do a scene between a male and a female using he and she because supposedly readers don't pay much attention to the "said" while the "he" and "she" easily distinguish which character is speaking. But sometimes it doesn't feel like the reader is really into any character, from their point of view, which can make it tough unless going with omniscient.

This has other issues. I struggle because this is my go to set of pronouns but it's hard to find balance. Also, it's not easy making sure the conversations are distinguishable without overusing pronouns because I have many scenes where the characters are the same gender. Writing m/m can make it a little difficult because "he" could mean either character and using the names too often can be problematic as well.

A problem most won't face that I've mentioned on twitter is what to do when there isn't a gender. Either the gender of the character isn't known (easier with secondary characters) or the main character doesn't know which they feel is the right gender/sex for them. If someone is born both and they are the main character in a novel, and they haven't picked male or female, this is an issue.

Normally, if I have a transgender character it will depend on where they are in figuring themselves out as to which gender I will use. Most often, I go with what gender they feel they are and not necessarily what the biology shows at that moment. But I have a main character who is intersex; born both male/female and at that point in the story hasn't made a decision on gender. In fact, that is the main conflict in the story.

So, I posted that I didn't know what pronoun to use because I can't use the character's name all the time without it becoming redundant. Someone mentioned "shim" (which is a combination of she and him) and I'd never heard the term before despite volunteering with glbtq teens and knowing someone who was intersex. I did look it up and the dictionary on my computer basically refers to it as a "derogatory slur" and while some people may now be okay with the term (like some of the younger generations are okay with queer), I'm a little uncomfortable using it in a novel on a regular basis to reference the main character. Plus, my readers would have to know what it means and if I didn't know it, something tells me others won't either.  Easy solution is go with first person, but it's still a little vexing. I'm not very good at writing first person but I may have to toughen up and just do it.

What pronouns do you use?
Enjoy this English lesson? ;-)


Justin W. Parente said...

Pronouns. Woo-hoo! My favorite thing about pronouns is when you say two male (or female) character's in a room together, engaging in the same scene and possibly dialogue. That narrows it down a bit. Sometimes you have those sentences where even a good pronoun won't do the trick, so you're forced to use the character's name twice in the same sentence.

I've seen it done before, and while I tried to tell myself: "I would word it better," sometimes you have no options.

Thanks for posting!


Tessa Conte said...

ooooh GRAMMAR *shudders*

But great post! I wish my teachers could have hit that tone (the one that makes me not want to fall asleep) - you got it absolutely right. Thanks. It's always good to be reminded of the basic tools we use.

Me, I'm more of a first person (singular) kind of writer - especially if I'm stuck somewhere with a character. Third person (personal rather than omniscient) is a good one, too, and from what I've read of your work you do that really well.

As for second person... that's kind of a freaky point of view. I have read one book recently that somehow pulled it off in a roundabout way. The MC speaks in first person and tells the story to YOU, about what YOU did with her (it's told as if she were writing a letter to her kidnapper). That was STOLEN by Lucy Christopher. It certainly made for an interesting read, hard to get into, though.


Anonymous said...

I do whatever works for the story. I started my memoir as fictional autobiography third person, and it wasn't working. Then I put it first person, told the "whole" truth (as close as possible) and it worked. Clarity is the main thing. Like you said, the reader needs to know who's talking, and whether the characters are male or female. This, I think, is the bottom line.

I'm so glad you commented on the guest post L'Aussie did on me yesterday--on my memoir set in Orem, Utah and then in Virginia, about my gay ex-husband and others in my long journey through life. Ah yes, Nancy Drew. I recently read some again and laughed at the writing. But I'm no longer 12 years old! The stories intrigued me then, and I loved them. Sweet memories.

I'm so happy to meet you. I always wanted to work in a publishing house (I dreamed about New York City), and eventually was an editing intern for one semester at Brigham Young University. I suspect you're enjoying the job?

And I hope you're enjoying your Thursday. I'm now a follower so I can keep in touch.

Susan Kane said...

Ah, pronouns...gotta love 'em. I am pretty much a first person myself. My writing almost requires it. But the third person is also fine, but I feel removed from the characters, as if I have them pinned down, and am dissecting them. Thanks for the exposition. Susan

Murees Dupé said...

Fantastic post! Thank you for breaking it down for me.

L'Aussie said...

Great post Dawn. I'm a first person kinda person but I may grow out of that. I know it annoys hell out of some readers but for me it creates an intimacy that I just find hard to crack in third.

Thanks for the lesson. I hope MaNaNo is going well. I need the frantic whipping up that the Nov. mob has. I saw something about an edit one somewher but I forgot where i saw it. That's basically what I'm doing - editing my first NaNo and finishing writing my second.

Have fun!