The unattributed pronoun rule
Here’s a slightly contentious “rule” that I personally loathe, the “unattributed pronoun” rule. Don’t start a book with “he” or “she” without first having told the reader what the character is called, the rule goes. I think it’s a load of rubbish and the clue is right there in that phrase “without first having told the reader”. So we’re back, in a subtle and easy-to-miss fashion, to telling instead of showing. The author is “telling” the reader something about the character, in this instance her name. It’s absolutely unnecessary, screams “amateur”, and should be avoided at all costs. There, I’ve said it.
“Amber Green sat down on the sofa and opened the box with trembling fingers.”
“She sat down on the sofa and opened the box with trembling fingers.”
What’s important in this opening line? Is her name important? No, it isn’t, not in the slightest. Her name tells us nothing about the person; it’s mere nomenclature. What’s important is that she’s opening a box. She’s obviously very nervous or excited or afraid of what’s in the box. She has to sit down to open it and her fingers are trembling. Naming the character actually intrudes on the tension in the line and distracts from getting the reader to focus on the opening of the box and the character’s emotional response to it. So why begin the sentence with it?
Instead of telling the reader the character’s name, you could easily show it, just like any other piece of information. You could make the next line “Lying on red silk was a small card. She picked it up. ‘To Miss Amber Green, on the occasion of her death'”
The usual response is “But the reader won’t know who she is”. So what? The reader will find out soon enough, either when someone talks to her, or she tells someone else in dialogue. Let them naturally find out what the character is called, rather than dump it on them awkwardly in blatant authorial intervention.
I call as first witness Hilary Mantel, and the opening of her Cromwellian epic Wolf Hall. In the opening chapter, a violent beating is being given to an unnamed male. We find out the beating is being administered by his father, who is called Walter. We know he is called Walter because the character being beaten names him (not the author, note). Later, as his sister Kat ministers to him, we eventually (page 5) find out that his name is Thomas. How does Mantel let us know this? In dialogue. Even that is possible to do clumsily. But Mantel has Kat saying, to her husband, “You don’t want bits of Thomas on your London jacket”. Beautifully subtle.
Second witness: J D Salinger. The entire first chapter of Catcher in the Rye is related in first person by an unnamed protagonist.
Third witness: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s page eight before Jem, her brother, refers to Scout by name, and that’s in natural dialogue introducing her to Charles, the new boy who’s just moved in. The previous seven pages were all Scout’s observations of her family and her town, but Harper Lee never interrupts her gentle talking and says “My name is Scout” or something equally inane.
Fourth witness: F Scott Fitzgerald. It’s a long time before you find out who’s talking in The Great Gatsby. Try it.
I could go on, interminably, but I don’t want to belabour the point. Are there any exceptions? Yes. There are no hard and fast rules, remember? But you should have a good reason for naming a character at the outset.
Phillip Pullman starts Northern Lights with “Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall”. I’ll forgive Pullman this, because there’s no more concise way to say that the girl Lyra, and her daemon who is not human or strictly animal, and to whom she is uniquely linked in ways that become crucial to the plot of the trilogy, are sneaking about the halls of Oxford. He still doesn’t say “Lyra Belacqua and her daemon” obviously, because it would be clumsy in the extreme.
I think I’ve made enough of the point. The next time you start writing a book with your character’s name out in full as if you’re writing an entry in a telephone directory, cross it out and start again. “Unattributed pronoun rule” – snort.
But feel free to disagree! And Happy New Year!
Couldn’t agree more. There is a lot to be said for putting faith in your readers to figure things out.