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I find that when I write, I'm not always sure how to refer to the character of focus. You can only say "he/she" so many times before it feels choppy and repetitive. Constantly referring to character by name feels unnatural. I've tried using the profession of the character as well, but sometimes that just feels wordy if it is unusual (say if the character were a taxidermist).

Even with all the different ways to define the character you are describing action for, is there any methodology for choosing which particular reference to that character you use as the passage progresses?

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Some very good answers below. Another thought is, if you could pick out half a page or so where you're having this problem, and sic us on it, that might make for a helpful and illustrative critique question: meta.writers.stackexchange.com/questions/166/… –  Standback Apr 19 '11 at 22:04

5 Answers 5

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Here's a technique that can help: Identify each instance of he saw or he heard or he thought. If you're writing a close third person POV, you can often eliminate those by simply saying what he saw or heard or thought. Instead of:

He saw Sandra cross the room.

you can say:

Sandra crossed the room.

Other times the edit isn't quite so simple, but even then you can often eliminate them by recasting the sentence or paragraph.

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This is very good advice. Not only does it slim down your prose, but implicitly showing everything from a character's perspective helps the reader get under that character's skin, so to speak. –  sjohnston Apr 18 '11 at 16:08
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This +10. If you're in a character's POV, it's distracting and unnecessary to tell us that every observation is filtered through their POV. –  JSBձոգչ Apr 18 '11 at 17:58
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Unless the writing benefits from that POV (establishing some characters thoughts or views on her crossing the room in some meaningful way) it's unnecessary, so definitely agreed. –  Adam Caverhill Apr 19 '11 at 19:55

It does feel weird when you're writing, but you don't notice it when you're reading. Use the name the first time in a paragraph and the pronoun thereafter.

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To add to this, remember that reading is done much faster than writing. While you're thinking about every word while you write, "filler" words (like "he" and "she") go largely unnoticed by the reader. –  StrixVaria Apr 17 '11 at 11:19
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I don't think this is always the best advice. Following a rule like this will make your writing feel stiff. First, strive for clarity, and second, variety to keep things interesting. –  Lynn Beighley Apr 18 '11 at 14:22
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I wouldn't say you don't notice when you're reading - repetitive prose tends to exasperate me. –  matt lohkamp Apr 23 '11 at 0:12
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@mattlohkamp -- you must hate Tennyson and Browning with their "Theirs nots" and "Half a leagues" and "I love thees" repeated over and over and over ... –  Malvolio Apr 23 '11 at 1:09
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ah, but you missed the 'prose' qualifier in my comment - your examples are pretty poetic, which I'm more okay with. I'm thinking more along the lines of looking back over a paragraph and realizing you've used a word like 'looked' 5 times. –  matt lohkamp Apr 23 '11 at 1:23

This is a very hard question to answer clearly, I typical reread passages and anytime it becomes unclear who I'm referring to I will use their name and whenever it feels excessive use pronouns.

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In order to not get repetitive, make variable rules; that is, a sort of an algorithm that allows for variety in your writing as well as clarity/consistency...

  • Don't switch names when referring to the same characters within the narration from the POV of one character. Lt. Timz can't call his wife "Moya Zvizda" and "Ellen" in both the dialog and the narration when he's the POV of the scene. - Limited-third-person/first-person narration
  • When the scene has only two characters and they're of opposite genders, the pronouns "he" and "she" most often suffice.
  • With several characters of the same gender, mention by name the character that is the subject of each sentence except when the previous sentence either already had them being the subject or didn't have a subject of the same gender. - Wouldn't work in some languages with limited 3rd-p pronouns; eg. Finnish.
  • When referring to characters using pronouns, see if the setting/surrounding-action/... helps you as a reader identify them without rereading preceding sentences.
    • eg. A character reading by the fire talks to another sitting by the window. If either "looks up from his book"/"leans against the window" before talking, using one pronoun shouldn't be confusing but don't overuse it.
  • If the character is a major one that readers are supposed to pay attention to, refer to him/her either by his/her most popular nick-name used in dialog, or by his/her first or last name. Whatever you him/her to be remembered/though of as.
    • eg. "Peter Ivanovich Bobchinsky" and "Peter Ivanovich Dobchinsky" can be referred to as "Bob" and "Dob" respectively...
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Call your character by name, if that name is known to the narrator. Calling him "dark haired man" in one sentence, "the butcher" in the other and "the other man" in the third will confuse the hell out of the reader. It will lead the reader to believe there are three characters here, not one. Even if you refer to him as something else just once, it can still be confusing (just the other day someone here mentioned that he read the character being referred to as "the redhead", and he ended up going through the previous chapters trying to figure out if this was a new character or if the character in question really has red hair).

Instead of inventing nicknames for characters to avoid repetition, try arranging your sentences in a way that you don't need he/she. If the sentences are all of the same structure it doesn't matter how you call the character, they will still feel repetitive and monotonous. To demonstrate:

Jack opened the door. He tiptoed inside. He was afraid he might wake up Marry.

It's not just that "he" keeps repeating, but the sentence structure is the same in every sentence. Boring. Now imagine this:

Jack opened the door. The burly man tiptoed inside. The husband was afraid he might wake up his wife.

Can you tell me with absolute certainty how many people are there in the example above? And it still feels just as monotonous as the original example.

Instead, why not something like this:

Jack opened the door and tiptoed inside, afraid he might wake up Mary.


After opening the door, Jack tiptoed inside so not to wake up Mary.


Jack opened the door, then tiptoed inside. Mary was sleeping.

You can write these few simple sentences in so many interesting ways without using he/she, or at least reducing it.

If it just can not be avoided, I think a safe "formula" would be to call the character by name the first time he's mentioned in the paragraph, then "he/she" for the rest of the paragraph, or several more if no other characters are mentioned. When the next character is mentioned, use his name first and then "he" until another is mentioned and so on.

One way to keep the clarity is to make only one character perform the action per paragraph. For example, if Jack is opening the door, Mary is yelling and Steve is smoking a cigarette, they should all have their own paragraph for what they're doing, even if the paragraphs end up being no more than a short sentence. It avoids confusion. The same for dialogues, you should never have two people speaking in the same paragraph, that's confusing as hell.

Also, if you're writing from a close third POV, it largely depends on the POV character how the other characters will be referred to. For example, in Lois McMaster Bujold's "Mirror Dance", we have two POV characters, Miles and his clone brother Mark. When we see things from Miles' perspective, the character of Elena Bothari-Jesek is referred to as Elena, since Miles has grown up with her and was in love with her most of his life. When seeing things from Mark's perspective, she's referred to as Bothari-Jesek, as Mark barely knows her, and she also scares the hell out of him. In Miles' chapters his parents are referred to as "mother" and "father", in Mark's they're referred to as "Count" and "Countess" because in this book Mark meets them for the first time. This also serves as a reminder to the reader that even though Mark is impersonating his clone brother on and off throughout the book, he's a completely different individual.

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