Essays > Published on September 16th, 2011

Names Versus Pronouns

Nothing I say here is law.  These are not rules carved into stone.  Consider these guidelines more like shirts hanging on a rack in a store:  If you like them and they fit, try them on.  If they’re comfortable and make you look good, wear them. 

The goal is to collect options and techniques you can use as you need them.  A wardrobe or tool set or paint box that will always be ready.

So, relax.

That said...  never, ever use third-person pronouns.  At least for the month of July, No Third-Person Pronouns.  No “he said” or “she walked” or “it flew.”  Instead, look at more specific ways of referring to a character.  If you haven’t noticed, my goal is to always create a maximum amount of tension using a minimum of elements -- limited settings, characters, time.  By staying with the same elements, I can focus on physical actions and avoid slowing the story with the description necessary for introducing new characters and settings.

The obvious problem with avoiding pronouns is repeating nouns until they become monotonous.  For example, “Shelley Parker closed the book.  Then, Shelley Parker dropped the book on the floor.  Shelley Parker bent at the waist to retrieve the book.”

No, using the pronouns “she” and “it” wouldn’t make these sentences much better, just shorter.

So instead, consider that everything has multiple names, the least-powerful of which is the usual noun.  For example, “Shelley Parker closed the book.  Then, Miss Parker dropped the dusty thing on the floor.  The coy minx bent at the waist to retrieve the crumpled pile of pages.”

It’s not perfect, but the passage is getting better.  The trick is to recognize how identity shifts, then refer to people and props by their new, varied, evolving names.  If nothing else, this is why I try to give each character at least three names.  And it’s not just a Catholic Trinity deal.  Most of us have nicknames and middle names.  Full names we only hear when we’re in trouble – “Charles Michael Palahniuk, this court sentences you to serve no less than thirty years in a federal maximum-security...”  Many cultures or religions ask members to choose a new name at adulthood, including Catholic rituals of Confirmation where applicants must choose a saint to emulate, adding the saint’s name to their own. 

As a conversational opening, anytime you’re around a Catholic ask him or her about their Confirmation saint.  It’s a shortcut to their secret childhood identity.  Saint Joan or Saint Francis.  Mine is St. Lawrence, who talked too much and was barbequed alive by the church officials.

My point is that nobody has only a single static name.

But before we get to proper names, let’s consider other, stronger labels.  At our first awareness of someone we’re likely to assign them a label based on their actions and appearance.  For example, “the blonde man who died in that movie” or “the tall, singing  woman wearing the hat.”

Beyond that, we’re likely to label someone based on their relationship to us.  For example, “the bastard who cut off my car on the freeway” or “the dog that licked my hand.”

Usually their proper name is the last detail we recall about someone.  Shelley or St. Lawrence.  Even then, you can vary the name by using titles or nicknames:  Miss Turner, Dr. Lewis, Sweetie-Pie Barnes.  Plus any endearments – Honey, Dear, My Sweetness.  “Marian winked at me, and the skinny witch said, ‘Drop dead’.”

Of course, you need to be careful not to lose or confuse your reader.  If you’re referring to one character in various ways you’ll probably want to create a new paragraph each time you depict each character.  Just as important, you’ll want to create standard, consistent physical characteristics and nicknames or endearments for each character.  And keep the following in mind:

First impression is based on appearance and physical action.

Next comes relationship – how does this affect me? 

Last comes a real name, “I’d like you to meet Thomas.”  Also, “Thomas” is the most abstract or vague of these labels.  That’s why it’s stronger to precede it with action and gesture.  Or sensation, how someone smells, tastes, sounds.

In closing, please experiment.  If you’re careful and write with authority you can skate with references based on practically nothing about the character.  In Fight Club, as the narrator rails about Big Bob, the narrator refers to him as “the big moosie” and “the big cheese bread.”  Neither of these are based on Bob, personally, but portray the narrator’s distain.  Moosie is a covert reference to the hulking, idiot character Moose in the Archie comics.  And “cheese” is always kinda dismissive and derogatory, i.e. “that’s too cheesy to take serious.”  Anything beats a pronoun.

For homework, you get to watch reality television. 

As you work on a writing project, it helps to recognize the ancient myth your type of story reinvents.  Is it a Faust tale, where someone bargains with the devil?  Is it a Quest story, where someone must complete a mission or journey?  This month take a look at the various reality competitions where groups of people compete at tasks and one-by-one get kicked off a television show.  Shows like Survivor, Design Star, Project Runway and Hells Kitchen.  Note how the cast consists of archetypal characters – the Asian, the Gay, the Blonde Princess, the Jock, the Black, the Old Man, etc.   Then notice how all these shows isolate their casts from the real world, and push them to crisis.  Doesn’t this sound like every Gothic novel?  Compare the shows to Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie, or The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin.  How about the novel/movie Burnt Offerings?  Or the great movie Alien.  Consider that this ancient Gothic form – isolate, stress, execute – never changes, and that the success of a story depends on reinventing this ancient storytelling model.

List all the basic character types.  Identify every variation of the form; even if it happens in Alaska (Thirty Days of Night) or on a derelict ocean liner (Ghost Ship).

After that, list all your own names.  Including the teacher who still knows you as “the weird kid who sat in the third row, the younger brother of that hellion Armstrong boy...”  You’ll be surprised by the length of that list.

About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.

Enter your email or get started with a social account: