Writing Tip: Names versus Pronouns

My guess is I don’t need to tell you what doesn’t work about this passage:

Mary rifled through the suitcase that John dropped on the bed. “John, have you seen my camera?” Mary’s hands flew to her hips and she scowled.

“I’m certain you packed it, Mary.” John scratched his head. It wouldn’t be the first time Mary had forgotten to pack something important. “I’ll check our carry-on. Mary, where did you leave it?”

“Other room, on the table, John.” Mary huffed and began stuffing shirts back into the bag.

John retreated to the sitting area of the luxury suite. The place had cost John a fortune, but Mary had insisted on a room with a sunset view, specifically for taking photos. John emptied the carry-on and sighed, certain Mary would have a fit and accuse the airline of stealing. “I checked and it’s not here, Mary.”

“Oh, crap, John!” Mary stomped into the room. “The airline must have stolen it.”

Did you notice all the Mary’s and John’s?

If you didn’t, trust me that after a few pages you’d be pretty tired of Mary and John. When I’d started writing, my publisher made me go through my manuscript and edit out first names whenever they weren’t needed. Here’s why…

1. Pronouns create a tighter POV.

Generally, we want a tight POV because it draws the reader deeper into a character’s experience.

Whether we’re writing in 1st or 3rd person (except omniscient), we’re sitting inside the POV character’s head, looking through her eyes, hearing what she hears, feeling her emotions, living out a scene from his/her perspective. Authors work hard to achieve the immediacy of a tight POV.  When clarity isn’t at stake, POV character’s will always refer to themselves with pronouns.

This is easiest to see in 1st person books where the POV character always refers to him/herself as “I.” Another way to think of this is in your daily life. When you’re hanging around the house you don’t refer to yourself by your name. I don’t say to my husband, “Diana’s going to make tea; do you want some?” That would be weird. I use a pronoun. “I’m going to make tea…”

3rd Person is subtler, but the same reasoning applies. We’re still sitting inside a character’s head, viewing the world through their perspective. Though the pronoun in this convention is a “he” or “she,” it’s still a pronoun. POV characters wouldn’t naturally refer to themselves by their names.

2. We don’t talk that way.

Next time you’re in for the evening with one other person, pay attention to the conversation or record yourselves for a short time. If names are used at all, it’s with purpose – primarily to get someone’s attention (“Hey, Randy, have you seen my keys?”) or for emphasis (“Listen, Randy. You lost them, you better find them!”). Do the same with a group of people and you’ll notice more first names, but still surprisingly few.

When are names necessary?

The answer is pretty obvious – to avoid confusion. And it’s easy to identify those situations:

  • When starting a new scene
  • When there are more than two characters in a scene and the dialog and action is jumping around
  • When two characters are talking about another character(s).
  • When two characters are the same gender.

Now, like anything in writing, this “rule” is meant to be broken, and broken for all kinds of reasons: reminders to the reader, to get a break from all those pronouns, sentence pacing, etc. This is simply something to be aware of when crafting your prose.

Here’s that paragraph all cleaned up.

Mary rifled through the suitcase that John dropped on the bed. “Have you seen my camera?” Her hands flew to her hips and she scowled.

“I’m certain you packed it.” He scratched his head. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d forgotten to pack something important. “I’ll check our carry-on. Where did you leave it?”

“Other room, on the table.” She huffed and began stuffing shirts back into the bag.

He retreated to the sitting area of the luxury suite. The place had cost him a fortune, but she’d insisted on a room with a sunset view, specifically for taking photos. He emptied the carry-on and sighed, certain she would have a fit and accuse the airline of stealing. “I checked and it’s not here.”

“Oh, crap!” She stomped into the room. “The airline must have stolen it.”

180 thoughts on “Writing Tip: Names versus Pronouns

  1. reocochran says:

    I like how you directly showed us (ingenues or first timers need easy lessons!) 😀 I probably would forget to identify anyone!! Lol 🤣

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for the great tips D. Wallace! And for another great post 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. […] Names versus Pronouns (Myths of the Mirror) […]

    Liked by 2 people

  4. […] via Writing Tip: Names versus Pronouns — Myths of the Mirror […]

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great advice! I find I have to read over what I’ve written a few times to see if I’ve overused my character’s names. Usually I use them a lot because I just love them! Huge name nerd here 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. mycountryepoque says:

    now, now, you did! you brought me back down memory lane, to that class of English lessons, yup. Thank you for bringing them to our attention. Very interesting Diana. Have a nice evening!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Great before and after examples. At least the first one didn’t have: Mary’s hands flew to Mary’s hips and Mary scowled. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Dear Diana, I have nominated you for The Entertainer Blogger Award. Please check it out when you have a moment. https://cookandenjoyrecipes.wordpress.com/2018/02/10/the-entertainer-blogger-award/ Thanks in advance

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Fantastic post! Overuse of given names in fiction is a really bad habit that’s been reinforced by movies and television (note the way Mulder and Scully address each other by name in virtually every exchange of dialogue, despite the fact that they’re often the only ones in a room together!), but seldom occurs in reality. Names in dialogue and narration should only be used when necessary for the sake of clarity. For example, in my WIP I have a number of scenes in which the two lead characters, both men, are physically fighting with one another, so for the sake of keeping the reader oriented, I’m forced to use both of their names — a lot. But if it’s clear which one I’m referring to without invoking his name, or — better yet — if I can reword the sentence to avoid invoking a name at all, then I’m happy to leave it out.

    Great post, Diana. This is a very basic writing lesson that can’t be overtaught.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Someone mentioned that new shows (and probably the same with movies) use names a lot so the viewer learns them, which sort of makes sense. Those scenes with two people of the same gender require lots of creative flexibility to avoid a Mary/John situation. Thanks for reading and adding to the conversation! Happy Writing. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Absolutely right, Diana. We don’t fill our speech with Proper nouns and it flows much better when people write as we would speak.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Helpful post, Diana. You did a good job explaining it. 🙂 — Suzanne

    Liked by 2 people

  12. There’s a plus in being a blind author. for everything i write, the screen reader reads back to me. i have the option to turn the automatic on, and it’ll just keep on reading until i stop it. for example, imagine yourself listening to an audio book. and the screen read expresses the punctuations as it reads, so i know when ! marks aren’t suitable, when a comma is needed or should be removed. and of course, when i should replace the pronoun with the name, or if the pronoun sounds better. sometimes i feel like i’m cheting.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Well done, Diana. You’re absolutely right. Hugs

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Teagan. It’s a flexible rule, but something to keep in mind because too many is definitely a problem. Glad you enjoyed it, my friend. Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

      • A balance is certainly necessary. Plus we’re just wired to need the right pronoun. Don’t misunderstand — this has nothing to do with people’s freedom to choose or be who they are. But conversationally, it’s nearly impossible to get by without pronouns. (So you’d think it wouldn’t take such effort to use them in writing.) For example. Once I went to a new job (new part of the country). I had a perfectly nice coworker named Pat. Pat happened to have a very androgynous appearance. I was desperate not to offend. A task came up where Pat was mentioned. Imagine my challenge in asking questions about Pat’s role and Pat’s skills, and where to find Pat and Pat’s phone number… etc without a pronoun! It’s harder than you’d thing to do that verbally. No offense intended — I liked Pat and Pat was great to work with.
        Maybe more pronouns should be added to the dictionary. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

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