Slay those villainous pronouns!

Epic fantasy books often have a huge cast of characters. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin has over two hundred of them. I love this novel, but keeping track of everyone can be hard on the brain!

Game of Thrones, Season 3

No, him! That guy! The one with the…oh, never mind.

Luckily, Martin does a fantastic job writing about his characters. (This is why his book has turned into a popular HBO series.)

Even with a smaller number of characters, it can be tough to figure out who’s doing what. This is because writers tend to rely too much on pronouns.

Those Sneaky Pronouns

When you write a lot about the same people, you can get tired of repeating names all the time. This is why you use personal pronouns—like he, she, or they—to take the place of the names. It’s okay to do this, as long as your readers know who the pronoun is replacing (the antecedent of the pronoun). Unfortunately, your readers may not be able to tell.  They’ve fallen into the ambiguous antecedent trap!

Two Sentences, Three Ways

I’m going to take a passage from A Game of Thrones to show you what I mean by troublesome pronouns. Here’s the original text:

“Will could see the tightness around Gared’s mouth, the barely suppressed anger in his eyes under the thick black hood of his cloak. Gared had spent forty years in the Night Watch, man and boy, and he was not accustomed to being made light of.”

After reading this passage, we know something about Gared and his history. The meaning is clear. But what if I replace one name with a pronoun?

“Will could see the tightness around Gared’s mouth, the barely suppressed anger in his eyes under the thick black hood of his cloak. He had spent forty years in the Night Watch, man and boy, and he was not accustomed to being made light of.”

Now we have to think. Is “he” referring to Will, or to Gared? We might guess it’s Will because Will is the subject of the first sentence. Eventually, we figure out that it’s grumpy Gared. Meanwhile, we’re grumpy that we had to think about this.

What happens if I replace another name? Uh oh.

“Will could see the tightness around his mouth, the barely suppressed anger in his eyes under the thick black hood of his cloak. He had spent forty years in the Night Watch, man and boy, and he was not accustomed to being made light of.”

Now we have no idea what’s happening. Is Will looking at his reflection? There’s nothing that tells us otherwise. We’ve lost track of Gared altogether.

See what I mean about the dangers of pronouns?

A Call to Arms

The best way to avoid this trap is to pay attention to those sneaky pronouns. Are you sure that your reader is going to know your meaning when you use one? If not, you can try one of these tactics:

  • Get rid of that pronoun and replace it with the noun. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it can make your sentences feel repetitive. You be the judge.
  • Change the order of your words so that the pronoun is closer to the original noun (the antecedent). This makes it easier to tell that the two words are related to each other.
  • Reword your sentence so that you don’t have to use a pronoun. Who needs them, anyway?

Don’t let your readers be ambushed by pronouns. It’s time to fight back!

(P.S. Here’s a bonus link about ebook typos for Game of Thrones fans. Enjoy!)

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