On personal pronouns


One of the aspects of writing over which I stumble most frequently is the use of personal pronouns. Given a conversation between two characters, it often feels reductive to rely purely on repetition of their names and "he" or "she" -- but, equally, throwing in more descriptive pronouns like "the taller man" or "the old woman" or "the redhead" feels a little amateurish.

I got to wondering how the professionals do it, so today I pulled down from the shelf a couple of my favourite books to see how the authors handle the thorny issue of pronoun usage. Firstly, from one of my favourite books, I looked at the opening chapter of China MiƩville's Perdido Street Station (chosen in part because i was struck by the beauty of his prose when I first read it).

It starts with a short segment featuring an unnamed street seller, that creates atmosphere and colour -- these are the personal pronouns MiƩville chooses:

The costermonger, he, he, the food-vendor, he, he, he, he, he, he, he, he.

The rest of the chapter is concerned with the two main characters in the book, Isaac and Lin. Vermishank is Isaac's old boss. First they wake up, Isaac having had a bad dream about work:

Isaac, he, he, Isaac, Vermishank, Isaac, he, Vermishank, he, Isaac, he, he, Lin, Isaac, Lin, she, Isaac, he, he, Isaac, he, Lin, he, her, he, Lin, him, she, her, him, Isaac, he, him, Lin, her, her, she, Isaac, her, his, he, his, he, his, his, Isaac, his, Lin, he, Lin, Lin, her, she, Isaac, her, he, he, Isaac, Lin, Isaac, their, he, her, her, they, Lin, she, him, she, Lin, he, her, Isaac, Lin, her, she, her, she, her, her, her, Isaac, he, her, her, her, she, she, him, he, his, him, his, his, he, her, she, her, him, Isaac, she.

Next they have breakfast and discuss their plans for the day:

Lin, her, she, Isaac, they, Lin, Isaac, he, Lin, her, Isaac, Lin, he, his, Lin, Lin, him, she, her, her, Isaac, Lin, Isaac, Isaac, Lin, they, their, they, they, they, they, Lin, Isaac, her, him, he, his, his, Lin, hers, her, she, her, Lin, her, Isaac, he, his, Lin, he, he, he, he, his, his, Lin, he, he, his, her, her, she, his, he, he, he, he, he, he, he, he, his, his, Vermishank, Isaac, Isaac, he, Vermishank, him, him, his, Isaac, his, his, him, his, his, him, Isaac, he, he, he, he, him, Lin, him, him, he, he, they, him, Lin, she, him, Isaac, she, her.

And finally they fall into bed again:

The lovers, Isaac, Lin, he, his, her, he, she, Isaac, Lin, her, Isaac, his, Lin, she, his, she, she, she, she, Isaac, they, Lin, her, Isaac, her, him, he, her, she, his, she, he, her, her, her, she, she, his, him, them, Isaac, he, her, his, he, her, his, his, her, her, his, he, her, them, the lovers.

That seems pretty conclusive to me. The only descriptions are given to the unnamed food seller at the very beginning of the chapter; after that, any named character is either referred to by name or with a simple "he" or "she" or appropriate variations depending on tense. Out of the 264 words used, proper names account for around 26% of occurrences, so fully three-quarters of pronouns used are she/her/he/him/etc.

Perhaps it's easier to do that when a scene only contains two people of different genders, though. What happens when several people of the same sex are in a scene together?

The following extract is from Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana, taken from a scene (one of my favourites across all of his novels) that is exclusively male:

Alessan, him, him, Devin, he, him, he, his, he, he, he, he, the men, him, his, his, he, Alessan, his, Alessan, him, him, he, the man, Devin, his, Tomasso, him, Devin, the man, he, bar Sandre, Tomasso, he, Devin, their, Scalvaia, his, Devin, Alessan, Alessan, he, he, them, he, Scalvaia, his, Nievole, Devin, Alessan, the others, Alessan, his, he, the man, his, Devin, he, he, Alessan, the man, his, Nievole, his, Nievole, his, Alessan, he, Scalvaia, him, he, Devin, his, him, he, the two lords, their, he, his, he, him, the men, their, Nievole, Alessan, his, he, Devin, large man, his, his, his, he, his, he, the man, Tomasso, his, his, Devin, Alessan, his, Tomasso, Devin, Devin, Tomasso, Alessan, he, he, Tomasso, Devin, Alessan, Tomasso, Tomasso, the yellow-haired man, Alessan, he, his, Devin, he, the five, he, Devin, Baerd, Devin, they, they, his, Devin, the other two men, they, Devin, him, the speaker, Baerd, Devin, Catriana, Alessan, Catriana, Alessan, the man named Baerd, Alessan, he, the four of them.

This time there are a far greater number of proper names -- 56 out of 144 nouns, pronouns or phrases (39%) -- which is as you might expect in a scene where differentiating between many characters is necessary. What is interesting is how the more descriptive noun phrases are used. They are almost exclusively used either to succinctly describe a group of two or more people ("the men", "the two lords", "the five"), or to describe a character that has not yet been named, or with whom the POV character is not yet familiar ("large man", "the yellow-haired man").

The only other descriptive tag employed is "the man," which Kay uses a few times without any qualifying adjective, trusting in context to let the reader knows to whom he is referring.

Of course, different authors will employ very different techniques in their writing, but just from looking at a couple of examples, it seems that the following may be pretty good rules of thumb when it comes to deploying personal pronouns in your own writing:

  • For named characters, stick to character names or the basic personal pronouns (he, she, him, her, they) almost all of the time;
  • Use more descriptive adjectival phrases for less important, unnamed characters;
  • Consider using more description when introducing new named characters to convey the unfamiliarity of your POV character.
Matthew Pennell

Designer, developer, writer, runner, gamer, devil's advocate, INTP. Senior designer for Booking.com. Founder, Refresh Cambridge.