Saturday, April 19, 2008

Naming names

I've been working on a scene with two women, and have been editing with an eye to clearing up the confusion of the pronoun. So here are a couple suggestions:

Situation-- two women interacting, talking together in a scene. So "she" could refer to either of the two women. And you're going to have sentences that involve both of them. ("She handed her the two-liter bottle.") So think about what problems this would cause for your narration, and how you'd handle that.

1) First, I'd try to make the names not start with the same letter. Sophisticated readers probably often "read" the shape of the word on the page or screen, rather than seeing the letters. Usually, they'll see that initial capital and associate it with one character another, and then quickly go onto the next word. This subconscious process is impeded when two character names start with the same first letter. So reconsider "Jane and Jackie"... but do it early, before the name becomes bonded to the character. You know how that happens. "But she IS Jane!! I can't make her Eve! I can't!"

2) Who's in viewpoint in this scene, or at this point in the scene? We tend not to think of ourselves as our names, but rather "I," and the equivalent of that in third-person is the personal pronoun he/she. So one way is to make she/her/hers always refer to the woman whose viewpoint we're in. (This only works with tightly controlled POV that stays clearly in one character a long time, preferably the entire scene.) But then you have to refer to the other character by name, even when you're using the possessive case. So "She watched Jackie comb Jackie's hair..." Nahhh. :) Some variation of the POV-character "she," however, seems to be what most of us end up with.

3) Use their names when there's any confusion at all. Clunky, yeah, but clunky is better than unclear. So "Eve watched Jackie comb her hair" works because we're going to assume the "her" refers back to the last name (Jackie). How would you do it if Jackie's a hairdresser and is combing Eve's hair, and Eve can watch it in the mirror? "Eve watched Jackie comb Eve's hair" is TOO clunky.

4) Recast whenever you can't make it work. Try putting one person in a dependent clause and the other in the main clause, maybe: "As Eve watched the process in the mirror, Jackie combed out her hair." Arrrgh. This is always hard. Two sentences might be necessary. Well, so what? Not like you're limited to a certain number of sentences.

Supply some examples of tough sentences with two "she" characters, and let's see what we can do to make them comprehensible and unclunky.


Dave Shaw said...

Here's one from my current WIP. Sally's hand-to-hand combat ability is being tested; her opponent is Ilsa Podgorny, a Marine private who's a lot bigger than she is. Podgorny's commanding officer, Captain Henries, wants Sally to lose. Trying to keep straight who's doing what is tricky in this scene. This is from Sally's POV.

Podgorny curled her lip in annoyance, an expression Henries couldn't see, as she said, "Aye, Sir." She began circling to Sally's left. Sally turned her head as Podgorny moved until the woman reached her left rear quarter. She was about to pivot to face Podgorny squarely again when Podgorny attacked, swinging her right fist in a controlled strike at Sally's left kidney.

Sally stepped and pivoted on her left foot so that the fist missed her. She flowed inside Podgorny's reach and swept her right arm up under Podgorny's chin to throw the taller woman's head, and therefore her body, over backwards. Podgorny curled up as she fell and rolled over her left shoulder, rising into her combat posture as Sally took a step backward to resume her stance facing her.

Confused yet?

C.L. Gray said...

How I handle the she/she or he/he is to use Gore Vidal's very winning system of identifying who is who in a scene. In his novel Lincoln, Vidal writes a scene between William Sprague, the govenor of Rhodes Island who is drinking with John Hay, Lincoln's secretary at the bar in Willards. The conversation runs four pages, but Vidal keeps it straight by consistently identifying Hay as Hay. Sprague, on other hand, is identifed as: "hero," "boy-governor," "hereditary prince," or "Sprague." Plus, Sprague wears a nez pince and has a mustache. He is always fiddling with them. It becomes quite easy to follow the scene.

I've used that template in my own manuscript, which deals with military men. For example: Jeb Stuart in a scene with Robert E. Lee can be indentified as "Stuart," "Jeb," "Lee's young lieutenant general," "the young man," or "his cavalry leader." I may even employ Stuart's habit of tugging on his long beard when in thought, or his cheerful personality.

Dave Shaw (I hope you don't mind me commenting) can call Ilsa Podgorny: Ilsa, Podgorny, the private, the taller woman, the larger woman, her opponent, etc. And Henries can be the Captain, her commanding officer, etc.

But if I get really lost and confused in my scene because of the he/he or she/she thing, it is a signal to rewrite. Something has gone very wrong in my construction.

Anonymous said...

The point about refering to a character by a trait or age or something other than name was mentioned as a no-no in one of the writing books I read in the last year. I think the point was having multiple non-name identifications can confuse the reader rather than clarify. Doesn't make it true or good advice, but thought I'd throw it out there for comment.

Theresa? Alicia?

C.L. Gray said...

I think that referring to a character by trait or age or something other than name could be a no-no if those traits or names were not readily or already identifiable with the character. But, going back to my example of Sprague... When Vidal first introduces him in the book, he is drawn in those very phrases, so throughout the 657 pages, whenever the boy-governor is referred to, I know instantly who that is. He's the only character with a nez pince, etc.

My opinion only: But if the author takes great care with non-name identifiers, it works. Vidal proves that (at least to me). In my own manuscript, only Lee refers to Stuart as his young lieutenant general because that phrase belongs exclusively to the Lee/Stuart relationship. I wouldn't use it any other place. So, when Lee is observing Stuart, instead of the name or he, young lieutenant general works.

But I would be very happy to hear other opinions on this concept.

Anonymous said...

1) First letters are just one thing, and they've never confused me. There's the length of the name, its principal sounds and its origins to consider as well as the first name.

3) Interesting challenge.

"You need to comb each layer seperately."
Eve watched in astonishment as Jackie lifted first one strand, then another - she could hardly feel it, so gentle were the hairdresser's hands - and combed them with long, practiced strokes.

In other words, I have absolutely no clue how to rephrase that sentence.

I've been looking for awkward sentences, and found one that's not taken from fiction, but rather from my description of it:

He's hunting his father's killer, and in a roundabout way makes him responsible for almost every ill that has befallen him:

Without your post, I might not have noticed how awkward it was.

C.L. Gray said...

Ah, you learn something new everyday. Sprague worn a pince-nez and not a nez-pince.