Hey, uh, guys, if you write, can I talk to you about something for a minute?

Okay, I frequent a lot more kink memes and other pieces of writing by strangers than I probably should these days, and I’ve been seeing this A LOT, I mean A LOT, and it’s starting to crush my spirit a little? So.

Let’s say you’re writing something with two characters of the same gender, as I imagine is often the case in my neck of the fandom woods. When you do so, you sometimes run into the problem that pronouns don’t help you identify who you’re talking about at any given time, right? Like, say you want to indicate that character A, let’s call her Sue, is stopping character B, let’s call her Joan, from walking away, and you write

She grabbed her hand and turned her back around so she was facing her.

This is confusing! I think we agree. Also a little melodramatic but I’m just trying to make a suitably complicated example here, not going for a Pulitzer. So how do we fix it?

We identify the moments in the sentence where the character ‘her’ is referring to is changing. And, when those moments occur, we use the character’s proper name. So:

Sue grabbed Joan’s hand and turned her back around so she was facing Sue.

Sounds a little clunky, doesn’t it? Well, okay, on the other hand, I think we can trust our audience to know that by now we’re saying “her” about Joan, AND that people are unlikely to face themselves in ordinary circumstances, so:

Sue grabbed Joan’s hand and turned her back around so she was facing her.

Or even reword:

Sue grabbed Joan’s hand and turned her back around so they were facing each other.

Okay! So we’ve got a sentence that sounds basically okay! And it’s clear who we’re talking about at all times!

Now. The point I REALLY want to make in this post is: you can do this in every single sentence in whatever you’re writing. Every one. All of them. Proper names are actually some of the most invisible words in written language; you can use them as many times as necessary and it won’t seem like you’re overusing them — PROVIDED you ONLY use them as often as necessary for clarity. Observe:

Sue grabbed Joan’s hand and turned Joan back around so Joan was facing Sue.

Yikes! Yikes. But that’s easy enough to avoid, providing you follow the rule above: names when the person you’re referring to is changing, pronouns when it’s the same person you referred to last.

On the other hand, what should you NOT do, EVER?

Sue grabbed the blonde-haired woman’s hand and turned her back around so she was facing Sue.

Or

Sue grabbed Joan’s hand and turned the lawyer back around so she was facing the other woman.

Or, god help you:

The homemaker grabbed the blonde-haired lawyer’s hand and turned her back around so she was facing the older woman.

HOW MANY WOMEN ARE IN THIS ROOM???

By which I mean, okay, the problem gets clearer as I increase the number of instances per sentence, right? It sounds like you’re introducing new characters. Why? Because presumably you know these characters’ names, and there’s therefore no reason to refer to them by physical traits and role descriptions once you know their names. I mean, nobody thinks that way, right? When you’re thinking about your friend that you’ve known for ten years, you don’t think of them by the fact that they’re blonde, you think of them by their name. The ONLY time you should EVER talk about “the blonde woman” or something like that in something you’re writing is if you’re talking about a character whose name hasn’t been given yet, and even then, you only need to use identifying traits about them, again, as often as necessary for clarity. Otherwise:

Sue grabbed the blonde-haired woman’s hand and turned her back around so they were facing each other. “Why haven’t you told me your name yet?” she asked the blonde-haired woman. But the blonde-haired woman did not reply.

If there’s just one unnamed blonde woman, ‘the woman’ will do once you’ve mentioned she’s blonde once. On the other hand, if you have a blonde woman and a red-haired woman, neither of whose names you know, then yeah, you can include physical description to distinguish between them. As little as possible is still best, though.

Also, if you ever refer to anyone as “the teen,” for any reason, I will slowly and purposefully roll up a magazine and then bap you on the forehead with it. And I will keep doing it until you promise never to do that again. But that’s maybe more of a personal issue of mine.

Also “said” is also a totally invisible word and you shouldn’t use synonyms for it and you really shouldn’t modify it with adverbs either most of the time, usually you should trust that your audience can figure out the way people are talking from the emotional context of the scene and the content of whatever was said. But that is a longer essay! In conclusion: floss.

Notes

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