In last Wednesday’s post, “Deep POV: Thinking Like Your Character,” I explained about how clumsy familial relationships can be when writing in deep POV. I’ve written about it before, and keep forgetting to clarify about using the POV character’s name. Sure enough, someone caught me on it.
Codex Regius wrote this:
I don’t quite agree with your view on using or avoiding character’s names. Imagine that, in your third example, you had a boy and his father. Then your first phrase would sound like, “Jonathan slipped his hand into his father, Jake’s, and he smiled at him.”
Who smiled at whom?
I want to clarify about using the character’s name. I’m not against it. Not at all. You simply can not get away from it if you’re going to keep the scene’s characters straight in the reader’s mind.
But when we do use the character’s name, we’re pulling the camera back a bit, crawling out from under her skin so we, the author, can step in and clarify who’s who, or describe the action or setting. And when we’ve stepped back, it seems strange to me to continue calling the parent “Daddy.”
Let me extend last week’s example:
Ellie slipped her hand into her father, Jake’s, and he smiled at her. They were going for a walk–just Daddy and her. No mean brothers to tease her about monsters. Daddy was bigger than the monsters. He could beat them all up.
She skipped along beside him.
Up ahead, Aunt Mary stood near her ranch gate, checking her mailbox. She smiled and waved at them. Ellie pulled Daddy forward, trying to make him hurry. Daddy quickened his step.
Ellie saw Aunt Mary up ahead, but we don’t have to say “Ellie saw” because we’re in her POV. We just show who it was she saw. But now we have another female in the scene and we have to differentiate between the two, so we use Ellie’s name instead of the feminine pronoun–and when we call the character by her name, we’ve stepped out from under her skin.
Here’s another way to write that last paragraph:
Up ahead, Aunt Mary stood near her ranch gate, checking her mailbox. She smiled and waved at them. Ellie pulled her daddy forward, trying to make him hurry. Daddy quickened his step.
It’s a fine line, I know. And it’s a suggestion, a guideline maybe, but not a rule. I don’t write rules.
But while we’re at it, let me address the change in the sentence Codex Regius provided:
Jonathan slipped his hand into his father, Jake’s, and he smiled at him.
This doesn’t confuse me about who smiled at whom because of the construction “he smiled at him.” If Jonathan was the one who smiled, the sentence would read “Jonathan slipped his hand into his father, Jake’s, and smiled at him.”
I wonder if we’ve become so paranoid about not being understood unless we use proper names all the time that we’ve forgotten that there are other cues in the sentence–and there’s also such a thing as common sense.
Let’s play with Codex Regius’s rewrite a little:
Jonathan slipped his hand into his father’s, and he smiled at him.
Jonathan slipped his hand into his father’s and smiled at him.
Can you tell what’s going on in each of these sentences? Do the pronouns confuse you?
Even in this one, you can tell what’s going on:
Up ahead, Aunt Mary stood near her ranch gate, checking her mailbox. She smiled and waved at them. She pulled Daddy forward, trying to make him hurry. He quickened his step.
I wouldn’t recommend writing it this way, but if you did, the reader could still tell who the “She” is who’s pulling Daddy forward, just by logic and common sense. Aunt Mary is up ahead, so who’s pulling “Daddy”?
As I said, though, I don’t write rules. I just provide my observations, things I learn from reading others’ works that help with my own understanding of this craft. I share in case something I’ve learned will help my readers.
I am so thankful to Codex Regius for disagreeing with me, because I really didn’t know what I was going to write about this morning. He gave me a topic!