Proper Nouns vs. Pronouns

In this session of Copyediting with Keli, I’m looking at the use of pronouns vs. proper nouns in fiction when used to identity a main character.

As I learned from those who gave me feedback on my early manuscripts, the overuse of a character’s proper name can become distracting. Here’s a good bad example I wrote as an illustration.

Katie strolled down the street, enjoying her day off. The tantalizing scent of peach pie drew Katie into the corner café.

Minutes later Katie sank her fork into the flaky crust, savored the sweetness of the fruity filling, and asked herself why it had taken her so long to indulge in her favorite dessert.

When read aloud, such overuse of proper nouns often becomes apparent because we hear the repetition. Training ourselves to recognize this type of redundancy on the page can be a bit more challenging, but doing makes our stories more pleasing to our readers.

Here’s the example with pronouns used in place of proper nouns whenever possible.

Katie strolled down the street, enjoying her day off. The tantalizing scent of peach pie drew her into the corner café.

Minutes later she sank her fork into the flaky crust and savored the sweetness of the fruity filling. Why had it had taken her so long to indulge in her favorite dessert?

By using pronouns in place of unnecessary proper nouns, I avoided their annoying overuse of Katie’s name. In addition, I deepened the point of view, or POV as we writers say.

Using a character’s name repeatedly lends an authorial, narrative tone to our writing. Replacing proper nouns with pronouns whenever the character being mentioned is clear serves to deepen the POV, making a reader’s connection to the character stronger.

In addition to switching proper nouns to pronouns, I eliminated one pronoun—herself—by turning a line of exposition into a question. Since we’re in Katie’s POV, I can simply have her ask herself the question rather than telling the reader she’s doing so. This technique serves to deepen the POV and eliminate telling, thus being what I think of as a two-fer, meaning a two-for-one special.

By replacing proper nouns with pronouns whenever possible, we end up with stories that flow better and keep from bugging our readers. That’s another two-fer, wouldn’t you say?

• • •


Thanks to Jeannie Campbell for asking me to address this subject, which she did in her comment left on a previous Copyediting with Keli vlog post, “Two Notes on Names.”


About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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16 Responses to Proper Nouns vs. Pronouns

  1. Awesome post, Keli. It is very distracting when authors do this!

    I think I tend to underuse proper names rather than overuse them. Sometimes I find I have gone pages without using a character’s name. Sometimes this is fine, but other times I think the story needs a fresh use of the name, especially if other characters are in the scene.

  2. Loree Huebner says:

    As always, another outstanding vlog. I always leave learning something new. So fun to see you on video!

  3. Brandi says:

    That’s always hard for me, figuring out ways to avoid overusing the characters’ names.

  4. Keli, great editing post as always. Thanks to Jeannie for asking the question. Very early on, I read a piece at my Friday morning writer’s group. One member said … Antoinette, Antoinette, Antoinette … I know her name already. The following week, I thought I had solved my problem and the same woman siad … she, she, she … who are you talking about? The balance of the proper name of a character and the use of a proun needs to addressed in every sentence, every chapter and done … as you pointed out so well … as not to distract the reader.

    I have two nagging issues you might address in a future post. We are told never to end a sentence with a preposition, yet as the comical piece by Winston Churchill points out … people use them all the time in conversation. The other no, no … is seek and destroy all passive verbs. Again, I believe that this is how we speak and the much maligned “was” becomes natural in conversation. How do you handle these in first person, or in dialogue and what do you suggest is a logical balance?

  5. Cindy R. Wilson says:

    Glad you posted on this! I’ve noticed I do the opposite and put she did this and she did that and tend to leave out the proper noun a lot. Not a huge deal but there are times I have two women in a scene and I really need to remember to put which “she” is speaking 🙂

  6. Keli Gwyn says:

    Thanks for your comments, ladies. It’s clear I’m not the only one who wrestles with the issue of knowing when to use pronouns and when to use proper names. As several have said, under use of proper names can be as much of a problem as overuse, leaving the reader wondering who’s speaking and who’s being referenced.

    When my awesome editor read my debut novel recently, she marked some pronouns she thought should be proper nouns so that it would be clear which character was being referenced. Since the issue of under use of proper names is something I faced in my own writing, my next vlog post will deal with that subject.

  7. bethkvogt says:

    Enjoyed your vlog, Keli. Concise, helpful information with great examples.
    But now I’m curious: Who are the people in the two black and white photos up on the wall behind you?
    And I love the virtual bookshelf on your computer screen too.
    (Yes, I was listening!)

  8. Great tips, Keli! And now I suddenly have a craving for pie… 🙂

  9. Darlene says:

    Wonderful advice. This is something I have been struggling with in my WIP. Like Sarah, I want pie now!

  10. Eeeeps! I’m soo guilty. lol Love the vlog, Keli. You sound like a very natural teacher too.

  11. the writ and the wrote says:

    I have a question related to this: If someone is referring to someone related to them (ie: a granddaughter referring to her grandparents, should she always use the proper name or just said Grandma/Grandpa/insert cutesy name here)?

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Great question. What many authors do, including me, is to have the POV character think about other characters using the names they call them. In other words, my heroine thinks of her father as Pa in her thoughts. This makes for deeper POV. If she’s talking about him to others, she refers to him as Pa (capitalized) or my pa (lower case), unless she’s trying to be more formal, when she would say my father.

  12. Katie Ganshert says:

    Well…..there’s never too many Katie’s! 😉

    Great post and vlog, Keli. This is definitely something I see in writing contest entries and it does get very repetitive/hard to read.

  13. candidkerry says:

    Thank you for this helpful vlog! I loved, loved, loved being able to “see” you in person, and hear your voice. I feel like I’ve officially met you. 🙂 I’ll check out your other vlogs as well.
    I’m heading into editing Born, and I will keep this in mind as I work on POV.
    Thank you!

  14. okay…you’re going to laugh at this. i was excited to finally getting around to reading this post. i had forgotten about my question in one of your comment sections, so imagine my surprise to see my picture down at the bottom! lol!! great responses. 🙂

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