Here is a quite good post at Writers in the Storm: Harnessing the Power of Pronouns

Sit with this simple sentence for a moment:

Look at what they are doing to my city.

More than likely when you read that sentence, your inner voice reacted. How did it make you feel? What did it make you think about?

Consider this sentence below and notice what changing the pronouns does to the tone, feel, and imagery.

Look at what we are doing to our city.  

The author of this post,  John Peragine, then goes on to discuss pronouns in some depth, spurred on, we find out, by his experience changing a third-person manuscript into a first-person manuscript.

And who hasn’t been there, right?

I’m glad to say I have never had to do this for a WHOLE manuscript, but I’ve done it for pretty big blocks of pages. Not recently. This was way long ago, when I first took a stab at writing a first-person novel and gave up because wow, that is just not the same as third-person. That’s when I found out several useful things:

a) verbs are harder to handle in first-person narratives, and

b) if you don’t know who the protagonist is telling the story to, that can actually screw up the writing process terribly, at least for me. I know that not all authors have this problem, but it messed up my initial attempts at first person.

I have mentioned the problem with first-person verbs before, in posts generally inspired by seeing yet another author handle verbs badly. The fundamental problem is that when you’re writing a third-person past-tense narrative and the protagonist thinks, “Vampires were a serious problem in Georgia,” this is fine. It implies nothing. But when you’re writing a first-person past-tense narrative and your protagonist thinks, “Vampires were a serious problem in Georgia,” this absolutely implies that now they’re not.

Most of the time, the author does not realize there is a problem, so this happens a lot and the reader experiences an instant of confusion over and over. Readers (many readers) tolerate this well, partly because the problem is extremely common, so readers have lots of practice tolerating it. But even if readers will put up with this, is still not a great thing to do.

The proper way to manage verb tenses in first-person narratives is to let the protagonist make general statements about the world in present tense and then switch back to past tense as the narrative continues. This requires the author to pay attention to which statements are about the world and which ones carry the story forward and are part of the narrative. This is hard.

TUYO is, as you may have noticed, my only published first-person story (other than “Vigilante” in Beyond the Dreams We Know). I found TUYO so much easier to write than my (very) early tries at this form that there is just no comparison. I’m not sure why that is, except I have read a lot more first-person novels in the interim, and have therefore had a chance to critically notice a whole lot of good verb use and bad verb use in the process. Anyway, whatever, the point is, the form was much easier for me this time around.

I also have a notion to whom Ryo might be telling the story. I might be wrong, but kind of having an idea about that also probably helped.

Anyway, I’m not saying I’m absolutely certain I never screwed up the verb tenses, but if you pay attention in TUYO, you should see that every time Ryo thinks about the state of the world or the nature of Ugaro people or whatever, he thinks about that in the present tense. Then the narrative goes on in the past tense. So he’ll think, “Everyone knows the Lau are a deceptive people,” and then immediately, “But there was no reason he should have lied to me.”

If you read lots of well-written first-person narratives, you will see that this is generally how the authors do it. For example, I just checked The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith because she’s such a fabulous writer, I knew she would handle verb tenses this way and sure enough, there we go, right away we see: The sidewalks around Inman Park are made from uneven hexagons … and then right back to a past-tense narrative.

Let me also just mention a different but related pronoun/verb issue that drives me up the wall whenever I see it:

Every single time the direct thought of the protagonist is reported to the reader, that thought should be in the present tense, regardless of whether the story is being told in first- or third-person.

Absolutely no one ever sees a puppy come up for attention, bends down to pet the puppy, and thinks, “Wow, that was a cute puppy!” That is as wrong and awkward as if a puppy ran up and jumped on you, and you turned and said to a friend, “Wow, wasn’t that a cute puppy!” while the puppy is actually still right there, still jumping and wagging and being adorable. OBVIOUSLY in both cases, you would think or say, “Wow, THIS IS a cute puppy!” I don’t understand what that is not absolutely crystal clear.

Yet a lot of authors working with first-person past-tense narratives put past tense thoughts in the protagonist’s head in exactly this way. It’s so common I had a copy editor once try to do this to a direct thought for one of my THIRD person protagonists. [I wrote a little note saying No no no and here is why and absolutely do not do this. It’s one of the few times I wrote a note instead of just STET.]

Anyway, the post I linked way at the top is more about things like the she-is-a-subject, her-is-an-object distinction. That is useful and I hope a lot of people read that post, because last I noticed every single grammar checker on the market absolutely cannot tell the difference and fails to mark things like, “My dad drove my mother and I to the park” as wrong, and wow is that an annoying mistake. So you can certainly click through and read that article if you wish; the examples are fine. I just got distracted thinking about changing a whole manuscript from third- to first-person, and wondering whether the author also took another good look at verb tenses in his novel.

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6 thoughts on “Pronouns”

  1. I wonder if grammar checkers are behind the misuses of ‘whom’ and ‘x-self’ I’ve been seeing recently, as well as things like ‘drove my mother & I” which have also escalated. But there were always some of the latter; the former are new.

    Nails on a chalkboard to read, too.

  2. Yes, it does. But even when the voice is super clear and strong, it would be nice if the author would also get verb tenses right!

  3. Mary, sure, it’s fine when a character is speaking and says “was” when it should technically be “were.” But NO ONE would ever in a million years think to herself “Oh, my, he was sure hot!” while actually looking at a hot dude right that minute. Never. All thoughts like that have to be in present tense. That isn’t an issue with the character’s voice, that’s an issue of the author getting it wrong.

    You’re making me think of a side issue: when the character says or thinks “effect” but meant “affect” or vice versa. Because the words sound alike, the character might make this mistake. But in print, it is obvious the author is making the mistake.

  4. Sometimes it’s really important to know when and to whom the first person narrator is telling the story: have the vampires been eradicated yet or not?

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