We’ve previously discussed how to use synonyms to avoid frequent repetition of a single word and the needfor description to remain true to the mindset of the perspective character. Today, we’ll discuss a point at which these two topics intersect.
I mentioned in this post that it is a common and useful practice to refer to a character by a short descriptor in order to avoid repeating their name too often. If you wrote a scene where a detective was interviewing a butcher named Mr. Giacomo, for instance, you might alternately refer to Mr. Giacomo as “the butcher,” “the witness,” or even simply “the man”:
“What did the assailant look like?” Detective Mullens asked.
“Well, he was short,” Mr. Giacomo replied. He held out his hand at about the height of his shoulder. “Maybe this tall. He was dressed in black.” The man shrugged. “That was all I could make out.”
However, a problem can arise when referring to characters by these sort of placeholders.
Piotr did his best not to cry as his mother pulled him into the closet and shut the door behind them. She sat on the floor and pulled him into her lap, stroking his hair.
“Shhh, you need to be quiet now,” his mother whispered. “We have to stay hidden, all right?”
Piotr nodded and bit his lip, throwing his arms around his mother’s neck. He was still sniffling, but he held in the tears.
There was a crash in the room outside. Piotr almost cried out, but his mother hugged him tight against her. He could feel that the woman was holding her breath, and so he did the same, trying to be absolutely silent. They sat in silence, trembling, as the men ransacked the bedroom outside.
The problem in this passage is a small but pervasively common one—it’s the point where Piotr’s mother is referred to as “the woman.”
In this post, we discussed the need for description to match the perspective of the character. In the example above, Piotr is our perspective character. How many children do you know that would ever refer to their mother as “the woman”? While his mother is, of course, a woman, for him to think of her by that term feels very distant and cold. It feels out of character.
|"I love my mother, but the woman wouldn't let me have ice cream for dessert."|
See how off that feels? This kid is either a brat or not being written well.
It wasn’t a problem for Detective Mullens to think of Mr. Giacomo as “the man” because the two of them barely knew each other—their relationship is not at all close or caring. But Piotr and his mother are too close for that.
This problem sometimes arises in the works of authors for whom English is a second language. In many other languages, referring to someone as “man” or “woman” is normal and carries no connotation of emotional distance. In English, however, it does; so watch out for this.
If you use a name placeholder, make sure that it is a word that fits the relationship between the character and the perspective character.