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This always confuses me.

Example:

Louise and Jizanthapus were sitting on the floor of her room.

Louise is the main character, so I assume she should go first? Or should I put her after Jizanthapus so it becomes clearer that her room refers to Louise's room?

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2 Answers 2

The difficulty in the example is that Louise is clearly a female to me, while the J. appears be an alien or animal. Or is that a human name? So to me "her" can only refer to Louise.

In Louise and Anna were sitting on the floor of her room, "her" refers to Louise, because Louise is in the syntactically dominant first place.

In Peter and Louise were sitting in her room the obvious gender overrides syntax, because Peter cannot be female (in my culture).

In a text the ambiguity might be more clearly resolved, for example by picking up the subject in the next sentence:

Louise and Anna were sitting on the floor of her room. Louise pointed at a picture showing her at the beach with her parents. "That's my mom."

You would not write:

Louise and Anna were sittting on the floor of her room. She pointed at a picture showing her at the beach with her parents. "That's my mom."

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Personally, I would never write that, unless the room's ownership were obvious from the preceding context. Assuming it isn't (otherwise the question is pointless), I would leave "of her room" out of the statement altogether.

Louise and Jizanthapus were sitting on the floor. Jizanthapus leaned back against her bed, ....

With no introduction it is now strongly implied that Jizanthapus is female and that the room belongs to her. (Or at least to both the females. Later text could clear up the slight ambiguity.)

Technically, Jizanthapus could be male and the "her" could be referring to Louise. But that would jar the reader, violating a major dictum of fiction writing -- the very thing I was trying to avoid in the first place:

NEVER GIVE THE READER CAUSE TO WONDER "WHAT DOES THE AUTHOR MEAN?"

This is not to be confused with "what did that character mean" or even "what does this story mean," which are totally different. You never want to take the reader out of the story, unless your narrator is doing it purposely for dramatic effect (and you've got to be careful with that). Messing up the suspension of disbelief without good cause is a violation of the contract between reader and author.

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I'd qualify that 'never' to this: if you deploy ambiguity, make sure you do it intentionally, and that it contributes to rather than detracts from the work as a whole. –  micapam Apr 28 at 1:13

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