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Props to E. Mack for this image and their article "Considering Pronouns and Antecedents."

The Pronoun Problem is what happens when someone who isn't paying enough attention tries to write about interactions between two or more people of the same gender. Highly detailed action sequences such as sex scenes are particularly vulnerable to inattention, so it's often encountered in bad slash.

It's easy to see how it happens: you get sick of saying (for instance) 'then Draco kissed such-and-such, then Harry touched this thing, and then Draco [CENSORED]', so you naturally want to slip in a few pronouns. The Problem occurs when you lose track of who's the subject and who's the object, i.e., whether you're talking about 'he' or 'him'.

The Pronoun Problem is not exclusive to slash (fight scenes are equally susceptible), and it can occur with any set of pronouns—singular, plural, gendered, and gender-neutral—anytime the same set applies to two or more parties in a scene. When handled particularly badly, the Pronoun Problem can lead to the poor over-stretched canon making both characters do the action simultaneously, never a good sight for an agent with a weak stomach and an inability to suspend disbelief.

How to Avoid the Problem[]

With Names[]

The simplest way to avoid pronoun confusion is to avoid pronouns. Don't be afraid to use the characters' names. Many writers fear repetitive language, but characters' names tend to become invisible to a reader's repetition radar, just like indispensable common words such as 'the', 'are', 'come', 'did', and so forth. You can still call unwanted attention to them with a stilted style, such as in the example sentence above, but that's easily remedied. Follow basic practices of good writing like varying your sentence structure, and it'll be fine.

With Epithets[]

You can avoid both pronouns and names by using epithets: short, descriptive phrases like 'the blonde', 'her sister', or 'the younger man' that stand in place of a name. However, these should be used sparingly, because they run the risk of being both incredibly distracting and confusing if used excessively or inappropriately. A good epithet should be short, should highlight a distinguishing detail of the character, and should be directly relevant to the current action. The latter can make the difference between mediocre and insightful prose. Consider the following:

  1. The brown-eyed man threw the first punch, but it went wild.
  2. The younger man threw the first punch, but it went wild.

The first epithet is functional, but the second epithet is much better because it informs the action. It makes sense that a character's relative youth could come with greater impulsiveness and less experience, and the epithet 'the younger man' in connection with the action tells us that is in fact the case. In contrast, having brown eyes has nothing to do with personality or training, so the detail is irrelevant and draws the reader's attention from what's actually happening.

You can also make good use of epithets to inform your characters by showing how your point-of-view character thinks of the other person in the scene. Choose details that are relevant to that character in that moment, suit their voice, and accurately reflect their relationship to the other person. For instance, let's say we're writing about two sisters:

  • The blonde had done it again.
  • Her little sister had done it again.
  • Little miss perfect had done it again.

Again, the first epithet is functional, but far too impersonal for siblings who know each other well. It would almost always feel out of place. The second is fine; it tells the relationship between the characters, and that information might be useful if the audience didn't know it before. However, it's a bit dry—on its own, its tone is neither positive nor negative, and it would require context to be understood. The third on its own, in three words, tells us how our POV character feels in that moment and suggests the dynamic of her relationship to her sister. This is good. Note, however, that it's a modern colloquialism and it wouldn't work outside of a modern setting.

With Metonymy[]

Metonymy is a type of figurative language in which something intimately associated with a character is used in place of the character's name. In the following sentences, the second is an example of metonymy:

  1. Willow feathered kisses up Tara's arm.
  2. Her lips feathered kisses up Tara's arm.

Metonymy is risky because it's possible to lose track of which parts belong to who if you're not careful. When that happens, you may give your readers the hilarious and/or disturbing mental image of a disembodied part acting of its own accord, and nobody wants that. Like pronouns, metonyms need clear antecedents to function properly. You couldn't use the second sentence above on its own without establishing that you're talking about Willow in a preceding sentence.

It's also important to be certain that the part described can physically do what you say it's doing. If Willow was last noted to be lying face-down on her bed, for example, it would be very difficult for her lips to reach any part of Tara without becoming detached from Willow's face. You'd have to describe her rolling over first, at the very least.

With Pronouns[]

Even though you could avoid pronouns altogether if you tried, no one is suggesting that you actually do. That would be weird! So, when you do use pronouns:

Double-check to be sure they're working the way you intended them in the sentence. It helps to wait for some time before you re-read your writing so your brain doesn't automatically fill in your expectations and miss the reality.

Be aware that readers automatically assume that actions take place in the order in which they are written, and keep track of where the mind's eye is pointed as you go. Changes need to be signaled clearly. It helps to pause and visualize the actions you're describing so that you know whose lips, or hands, or other parts are occupied with what at any given moment. If you struggle with visualization, try acting it out or using models. This will help prevent you from accidentally making a character kiss her own face, or something equally impossible.

Finally, get a beta reader. They will help catch any issues that you miss, and you will miss something. No one is perfect! But with a little effort, you'll do better than the fics in the following examples.

Examples of the Problem in Missions[]

Missions are listed in chronological order according to when they take place on the HQ Standard Timeline, as near as can be determined.