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Handling multiple 'his' 'him' 'he'

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Holoman, Jun 9, 2016.

  1. Holoman

    Holoman Troubadour

    This may sound an odd question, but how do you handle references to people in a scene in which no one is named? I am finding that referring to 'his arm' or saying things like 'he fell', when referring to two unnamed people in the same sentence as they fight, it's hard not to make it confusing about who the 'he' is.

    For example, I'm currently editing my first chapter, it involves a MC who doesn't know anyone's name around him, and multiple other men are there. He doesn't even know his own name, and I am writing close 3rd person so do not want the narrator to name him or anyone else. I refer to the MC as 'him/he/his' etc from the outset, as he is unnamed, but then another man starts to chase him.

    The way I have tried to do it so far is for the MC to give the other man a tag. The one I have used is 'the giant' as he's so tall. So then I describe the other man as an 'it', so I say something like 'The giant ran after him, its breath heavy' rather than 'The man ran after him, his breath heavy'. But I am worried that, given this is fantasy, it will dehumanise the other man and give the impression he is actually some sort of giant. For other reasons important to the story I really need the other man to be unambiguously human.

    Are there other ways of writing something like this? I have tried writing without ever having to use his/he in reference to the other man, and just using the tag 'the man' but it is very difficult.
  2. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Well, think about how you think of people who you don't know the names to. I think we tend to ID people by what information we have to go on. Eg. The guy with the moustache, the girl in the red hat, the bald man, the old man with the beard, the portly woman holding the broadsword, the young kid who farted earlier, Beth's husband, etc.

    Yes, this can get a bit awkward, but if you design the scene well and write it well, it should work.
    Last edited: Jun 9, 2016
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  3. troynos

    troynos Minstrel

    "He took his arm and blocked the soldier's swing, grabbing with his free hand and using the other's momentum to pull him forward and off balance."
  4. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    "It" would work fine in this example if and only if the giant is actually a non-human giant. So I don't think it works here. One solution is to simply rewrite so that a pronoun isn't necessary: "The giant ran after him, heavy breath sawing through the dark at his heels." Maybe that's not great, but you get the idea.

    Using tags works great throughout a novel in third person, not only with fights. Look at the various types of tag you can use. "Giant" describes a physical tag. You can use nationality, profession, title, epithet, and so forth: The reaver ran after him; the slaver ran after him; the Merovingian ran after him; the prince ran after him. I was just reading an excerpt from Feist's Talon of the Silver Hawk in which "boy" and "soldier" or "man" are used to distinguish two fighters:

    Another attack, and the boy knew that he was overmatched, for he only narrowly avoided death from a dagger slash to the stomach. Had the soldier attacked with his sword instead of a short blade, Kieli knew he'd be lying gutted upon the ground.

    Fear threatened to rise up and overwhelm him then, but the thought of his family fighting for their lives only yards beyond the masking smoke forced it aside.

    Seeing the boy's hesitation, the soldier grinned wickedly and closed in. Kieli knew that his only advantage was the length of his blade, so he offered his already-wounded chest as a target and clumsily raised the sword with both hands as if to bring it crashing down upon the soldier's head. As Kieli had hoped, the soldier reflexively raised his shield to take the blow and drew back his dagger for the killing thrust.

    Kieli, however, dropped to his knees with a spin, bringing his sword down and around in a powerful arc which sliced through the soldier's leg, knocking him backward screaming. Blood sprayed from the severed arteries just below his knee. Leaping to his feet, Kieli stepped upon the man's dagger hand and struck straight down with the sword's point into the man's throat, ending his agony.​

    This passage also has the advantage of being able to use the name of the boy. But having unobtrusive and meaningful tags helps.

    Notice how the possessive for the tags also helps:

    "Seeing the boy's hesitation" instead of "seeing his hesitation." "Which sliced through the soldier's leg" instead of "which sliced through his leg."

    I would note also that those pronouns will be less of a problem if the scene is described in a way that makes the reference obvious. Plus, if sentences are written in a way that makes the reference obvious. Look at the first two sentences above:

    "His sword" obviously refers to the soldier's sword. "He'd be lying gutted" obviously refers to Kieli. The way the scene is constructed, the actions and descriptions already shown, make those references obvious. Later, "knocking him backward screaming" obviously refers to the soldier's being knocked back. So if you have a situation where pronoun usage is confusing, you should look for ways you can rewrite the scene and sentences so that they are not.
  5. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    I had a similar situation in a recent story I wrote. There were two men who weren't introduced by name in a scene. One of them wore a knitted hat and the other had a big mane of hair. I used these as identifiers for them, like:

    "Bla blah blah," said the man with the mane.
    The one in the hat turned to him. "blah blah"
  6. Trick

    Trick Auror

    There's a scene in my WIP where two named characters approach two unnamed characters. The unnamed men are guards for a criminal and each has a unique weapon. My WIP is 1stPPOV so my MC notes their appearances and their weapons and how they suit their owners. A rough-looking fisherman type carries a hook-pole. A blunt faced bruiser carries a billy-club. For the rest of the conversation, my MC refers to them by their weapons:

  7. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

    So, why not change this to first person POV? That should reduce half of the he/him and replace it with I. Much cleaner.

    Also, as the others have suggested, pick a defining characteristic of each unknown character. Gap Tooth, Baldy, Toad Face, Beak Nose, etc.
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  8. Holoman

    Holoman Troubadour

    Thanks for the advice. I think actually the main problem I have is actually switching back to the MC, because I can't see how to refer to him with a tag.

    So for example I tag someone as the man with the hat, and say 'he' walked over. Then, how do I switch back to reference the MC without the reader thinking I'm still talking about the man with the hat?

    I don't really want to put it in first person, as I'm not very keen on it, and I may want to change POV on odd occasions. It's only really the first few pages that are the problem as the MC comes across someone that tells him his name fairly quickly.

    I guess I could make it so he hasn't forgotten his name, it's not that important to the story, he hasn't lost his memory completely so I could probably get away with it whilst having him forget things that are important he not know.
  9. La Volpe

    La Volpe Sage

    Well, depending on the character, you could give him a tag as well.

    As per Fifth's example; the boy, or the soldier. So even if the guy doesn't know anything about himself, he might notice that he's wearing armour (soldier). Or he has a sword (swordsman). Or some other descriptive tag that another person might give him if they don't know his name.

    E.g. in The Road by Cormac McCarthy, neither of his two characters have a name. He just refers to them as "the boy" and "the man". So just find something that is obvious from the MC's appearance that makes him different from the other people in the scene (or chapter or however long he won't know his name), and use that as his tag.
  10. tbgg

    tbgg Sage

    Go back to the example used by FifthView. 'He' generally refers to the person you mentioned most immediately, unless context indicates otherwise. If you start a new paragraph each time the actor changes, it can help keep it clear who you're talking about. So, if you use tags because names don't matter and start new paragraphs every time the subject of the sentence changes, you get something like this:

    The tall man barreled down the mountain, screaming his fury, in a mighty rush toward the Andovarran.

    The Andovarran dodged in a dance-like motion, his every movement quick and graceful. "Surely you can do better than that!" he taunted with a mocking laugh.

    The tall man turned to face his adversary, pike at the ready. Giving no reply, he simply eyed the other, his eyebrow quirking sardonically.


    In the first and third paragraphs, the he and his are the tall man. The 'giving no reply' in the third paragraph helps to further keep it clear because it's a response (or obvious lack thereof, in this case) to the prior action, the taunt.

    In the second paragraph, he and his refer to the Andovarran.

    Sent from my iPad using Tapatalk
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  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    You might also re-examine the need to describe what each person is doing. Is every one of them crucial to the scene? Is every single one of them contributing to the tension? Could the scene be re-written with fewer people? Think of movies or plays. They rarely throw five or six named characters at us in the very first scene.
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  12. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    From context and the way the text flows, it should be obvious to the reader.

    For example.

    1 - He kicked the guy with the black hair down the stairs. He bounced and thumped all the way to the bottom until he smacked his head onto the floor.

    2 - He kicked the guy with the black hair down the stairs. He laughed as they bounced and thumped to the bottom and came to a skull crunching stop.

    Not in any way prose masterpieces, but they illustrate my point. Though there could be some confusion, from the context it's, at least to me, obvious who the pronouns refer to in each example.

    Edit: using your example.

    3 - He walked over to the man in the hat. He smiled at them and said, "Nice hat."

    4 - He walked over to the man in the hat. His hands were sweaty as he reached into his pocket for the gun.

    Example 3, you can tell from the language used. "Them" helps to orient the reader and the dialogue makes it absolutely clear.

    Example 4, you're writing from a POV that's not omniscient, so you can only mention sensations from the POV character, so it follows that the second sentence is referring to the POV character. It would be a POV head hop if the second sentence was referring the man in the hat's hands as being sweaty and to them having a gun.

    If you make sure to stay in the head of your POV character, you'll have a better time of it, because there are certain 'things' in narration that can only come from your POV character, like emotions, thoughts, personal anecdotes and information, etc.
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2016
  13. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    A couple further observations about using tags for characters:

    To some extent, these tags may be considered provisional substitute proper nouns and used accordingly. As others have mentioned, and something I've often noticed while reading, epithets like Hawk-nose, Smashed-face, and so forth are types of name a POV character might give to an unknown character. "Hawk-nose pivoted and came at me from the left while Smashed-face circled back around my right in an attempt to flank me."

    I would caution against choosing too many different tags for a single character because depending on the situation they can become confusing. If Hawk-nose is also a Merovingian and a hunchback, switching between those while describing a complicated scene could trip up a reader. I.e., you shouldn't always feel that you need variety, as some newer writers do. It's fine to keep saying Hawk-nose, while also using pronouns. Some other types of tag might be fine to use with those; as with my prior example, you could use "man" and "soldier" together and might even be able to use those with Hawk-nose:

    "Hawk-nose pivoted to my right, bringing his sword up for a downward slash. I shuffled back to my left while raising my shield, and the larger man caught himself at the last moment and tried to match my move."

    If you had two or three other male opponents for the POV character, and decided to use Hawk-nose and Smashed-face, throwing in "Merovingian" and "hunchback" for those same characters could become quite confusing if these are new, unknown characters for the reader.
    Last edited: Jun 12, 2016
  14. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Inkling

    Use something descriptive for each of the people for your MC to identify the people. You can also have a few actions take place for one person before switching to the actions of another.
  15. Holoman

    Holoman Troubadour

    Ok thanks for the help. As an example, is the following sentence pushing it too much?

    The first 'he' refers to the armoured man but the latter ones to Darius. I think the context hopefully makes it clear but the only way I could think of to remove the first 'he' is to do

    But isn't that passive?
    Last edited: Jun 12, 2016
  16. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

    If I'm allowed to rejuvenate this thread... No, the second example isn't passive. To me, it just reads like the action is happening at the same time as the dialogue, whereas in the first example they read more sequential.
  17. spectre

    spectre Sage

    If you have no names clarify a schtick or describing attribute. I'm referring to a man in one of my chapters right now as the man in charge.
  18. KBA

    KBA Dreamer

    Like La Volpe said, give him a tag as well. In one fantasy (have gone blank on the title) regarding a young woman who would be named later, she was simply called "the assassin" at first, because she had been trained as an assassin as we'd eventually find out.
  19. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

    It takes a certain character type of course, but it's very fun to have a character that gives nicknames to everyone they meet. Just don't go over board with it. Once you call somebody something in your story stick with it.

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