Proper Nouns, Pronouns, and Deeper POV

Have you seen the PC Matic-dot-com commercial on TV? It is one of the most effective advertisements I’ve seen in quite some time–the characters and the skit are appealing, the ad goes quickly, and “PC Matic-dot-com” is mentioned sixteen times in less than thirty seconds. By the end of the commercial, there is no doubt about the product name or what it does. For marketing purposes where promoting name recognition is a goal, the ad is perfect.

JG Wentworth commercials–as horribly obnoxious as they are–are also effective. The name and phone number stick in my mind simply because of their frequent mention in the ad. Repetition of product name helps potential customers remember. Name recognition sells.

I hate to think how many times I’ve talked to people about “my book, my book, my book!” without ever once mentioning “my book” by name. Talk about opportunity lost!

But in a novel, a proper name used sixteen times within a thirty-second reading span can be distracting and downright irritating.

The following example is similar to what I’ve seen in manuscripts I’ve edited, and I promise you–it’s not exaggerated:

Carson couldn’t concentrate with Sgt. Kirby standing over his shoulder. Carson searched his mind for a way to send Sgt. Kirby’s attention elsewhere, but came up blank.

“What’s that?” Sgt. Kirby asked, pointing at a symbol Carson had written on Carson’s notepad.

If Carson had to explain to Sgt. Kirby everything Carson wrote, he’d never finish this job. Carson muttered, “Why don’t you find something else to do and just wait for my final report?”

Sgt. Kirby growled at Carson. “What did you say?”

Carson ducked his head. “Nothing.”

But he immediately kicked himself. The sergeant had no control over Carson. Carson was no longer in the military. He twisted to look the sergeant in the eyes. “I said, find something else to do.”

The first line of the sample is fine. It establishes who the characters are in the scene, which is the POV character, and who the pronoun “his” refers to: since Sgt. Kirby can’t stand over his own shoulder, the pronoun obviously refers to Carson. Once that is established, you can cut how many times you use the proper name by substituting the pronoun. So the revised scene would read like this:

Carson couldn’t concentrate with Sgt. Kirby standing over his shoulder. He searched his mind for a way to send Sgt. Kirby’s attention elsewhere, but came up blank.

“What’s that?” Sgt. Kirby asked, pointing at a symbol he’d written on his notepad.

If he had to explain to Sgt. Kirby everything he wrote, he’d never finish this job. He muttered, “Why don’t you find something else to do and just wait for my final report?”

Sgt. Kirby growled at him. “What did you say?”

He ducked his head. “Nothing.”

But he immediately kicked himself. The sergeant had no control over him. He was no longer in the military. He twisted to look the sergeant in the eyes. “I said, find something else to do.”

The general rule for pronouns is that they reflect back to the last noun mentioned, and if there is any confusion, the noun (or a representative, like “the sergeant” for Sgt. Kirby) should be used again. If there is any possible doubt who the pronoun refers to, it’s best to clarify, but often logic clarifies best. For instance, in “Sgt. Kirby asked, pointing at a symbol he’d written on his notepad,” Kirby wouldn’t be asking about a symbol he himself wrote; he would know what it meant. The masculine pronoun in this example obviously refers to Carson.

Another way to cut references to the POV character is to remember he is  the POV character. We’re in his head, reading his thoughts. We can simply lift him out as often as possible and deepen the POV.

Carson couldn’t concentrate with Sgt. Kirby standing over his shoulder. Surely there was something else Sgt. Kirby could be doing.

Sgt. Kirby growled. “What did you say?” [since there are only two characters in the scene, "at him" isn't necessary.]

What a cowardly response! The sergeant had no control over him. He was no longer in the military. He twisted to look the sergeant in the eyes. “I said, find something else to do.”

In the first line, instead of the author telling us that Carson searched his mind, he shows us what was on his character’s mind. In the last line, instead of the author telling us Carson kicked himself, he shows us Carson’s thoughts.  By showing instead of telling, the author also deepens the POV.

Finally, we need to cut down on the use of “Sgt. Kirby.” Since the masculine pronoun has already been designated to Carson, the POV character, the easiest thing to do is to find other things to call Kirby or leave reference to him out.

Carson couldn’t concentrate with Sgt. Kirby standing over his shoulder. Surely there was something else the man could be doing.

“What’s that?” Sgt. Kirby asked, pointing at a symbol he’d written on his notepad.

If he had to explain to Sgt. Kirby everything he wrote, he’d never finish this job. He muttered, “Why don’t you find something else to do and just wait for my final report?”

The sergeant growled. “What did you say?”

He ducked his head. “Nothing.”

What a cowardly response! Sgt. Kirby had no control over him. He was no longer in the military. He twisted to look the man in the eyes. “I said, find something else to do.”

In the original version of this scene, the characters’ proper names were used sixteen times; in the final version, only four. The final version reads far more smoothly without losing clarity.

So, to avoid the PC Matic-dot-com effect, designate a pronoun and be consistent with it as long as possible, remove reference to the POV character whenever possible (a.k.a. deepening the POV), and find alternative tags for the secondary character.

About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
This entry was posted in Writing, Writing Tips. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Proper Nouns, Pronouns, and Deeper POV

  1. Great advice, as always, Linda.

    Like

  2. Marji Laine says:

    Great insight, Linda! Thanks for the refresher course. And so glad to see you back on your fingers! :)

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  3. Pronouns aside (and I totally agree with you about them), you make an awesome point about the necessity of actually naming our books in our promotion of them. If potential customers don’t know the title, how can they find it?

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  4. Great advice, Linda! I know I’m guilty of this here and there.

    Hope you’re feeling better!

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  5. patgarcia says:

    Hi,
    It is nice to know you are feeling better and back to writing.
    Take care of yourself.
    Ciao,
    Patricia

    Like

  6. Great examples, Linda. I love how you show us rather than just tell us!

    Like

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