Let me ask you--who are our characters?
Doctors, lawyers, JAG officers, NCIS agents, Air Force officers, archers, and outlaws, just to name a few of my favorite characters. Yours may be Starfleet officers, office workers, wizards, vampire slayers, or the vampires themselves.
And now, who are our readers?
Our readers are people who watch the show or read the book and know who and what the characters are.
I've been reading a lot lately. I finally found a cache of stories in a fandom I love, and then I found a ship I wanted to read from yet another fandom.
What do these two fandoms have in common?
Absolutely nothing but me and an odd phenomenon. One I noticed more in the first fandom than in the second, but it did show up in the second, curiously enough.
So what's the issue, you're wondering...
Well, it has to do with how characters reference or describe themselves or one another.
Commander Harmon Rabb is a full-time JAG lawyer and sometime pilot. When I write fan fiction for "JAG," I rarely, if ever, describe Harm as the Navy pilot or the JAG lawyer.
Because my readers already know this about Harm. For me to keep referring to him as such is redundant, and it could become annoying to the reader.
In regular fiction--the kind you buy at the store or borrow from the library, an author may choose to use this tactic a few times at the beginning of the story because this is a brand new story with new characters the reader knows next to nothing about yet, and this is a fast and easy way to give the readers some background information.
In fan fiction, we generally don't have that issue, unless of course you're introducing an original character. Then the reader will need that bit of background info. Three is usually the magic number in getting a reader to remember something about your character. Please don't keep hitting him or her (or me) over the head with the info. And please don't use the same term over and over, either, if possible.
A couple of downfalls in referring to our characters by what they do or something that defines them is that...
a) You’ve pulled the reader out of the character's POV because a character isn't going to think of him- or herself in that fashion. And pulling your reader from the story not a good thing.
b) You’ve pulled the reader out of the character’s POV because characters who are close to one another aren’t going to think of each other in such distant or abstract terms. And that's one of the things that using terms like archer, outlaw, or Navy pilot does?it distances the reader from the POV character?and may just pull the reader right out of the story.
For example, Harm doesn't go around thinking of Mac as a recovering alcoholic even though that is a huge thing that defined her for several seasons. He thinks of her as a colleague, a comrade in arms, a friend, and maybe even a wife, girlfriend, or lover. And he's going to refer to her as Mac, Sarah, Colonel MacKenzie, or my colleague, my friend, my wife, or my girlfriend; whatever is appropriate to the situation.
c) There could be more than one archer, doctor, lawyer, etc., and you risk confusing the reader if it isn't absolutely clear which archer, doctor, or lawyer you're referring to. Using the character's name eliminates the possibility of confusion. If your reader is confused, he or she may stop reading to go back and figure things out.
And have I mentioned that anything that pulls your reader from the story is not really a good thing?
Here are some examples to show you what I'm talking about. A couple of the examples are from my own fics, doctoring them up for the purposes of this article. Example one, however, is a based on a passage from a "Stargate: SG1" fic I read. The descriptors I'm writing about are in asterisks.
# 1 – Sam stood to the side of the ruins as Daniel circled them, interest and delight on his face. She smiled as she watched the **archaeologist** at work. She loved watching Daniel work, to see his face and eyes light up with each new discovery.
All right, Sam would rarely think of Daniel, first and foremost, as an archaeologist. She thinks of him as her colleague and/or friend, but more likely, in this case, just as Daniel. Replacing "archaeologist" with "him" would be much better.
The next example is from one of my Robin Hood fics--my fave fandom at the moment. In this passage, we just have two characters talking to one another. Marian is dead, Much is dreaming.
# 2 – “It will be up to you, but just know that I will be with you. When you are weary, I will be there to help you, to ease your burden. To help you help Robin. You are not alone, Much; remember that.” She leaned over and kissed him. “And thank you.”
“For what?” the **former servant** asked, shaking his head.
Now it's hard to tell whose POV we’re in because there's not enough of the story here?but if we're in Much's POV, he certainly is not going to refer to himself as the former servant. And if we're in Marian's POV, in this story, she'd more than likely think of Much as Robin's faithful friend, but really just as Much.
The thing about dialogue tags is that their primary purpose is to help the reader know who's speaking. As the writer, always remember whose POV you're writing from and pretend you're in his or her head and write how that POV character is going to think of the other character.
The next example is one showing a good use of a descriptor, also from Robin Hood and one I made up.
#3 – Much chased **his master** from one end of the forest to the other. There was no he'd leave Robin alone when he was like this.
In this passage, Much refers to Robin as his master, which is perfectly acceptable because in the show itself, Much calls Robin master more often than not in the first series (season) and a half?even after Robin has freed him.
The final example is a short snippet from a Sports Night fic of mine, again doctored for the purposes of this article. At the end of the late season one episode “The Sword of Orion,” Rebecca invites Dan to a hotel. This excerpt is just after they've entered the suite:
#4 – Dan shrugged out of his jacket and loosened his tie and watched Rebecca wander about the large living room. “You all right?” asked **the sportscaster.**
She turned to him with large eyes. “Yeah.” She shrugged nonchalantly. “Wh-why wouldn’t I be?”
Dan is clearly the POV character and he is a sportscaster, but people just don't think of themselves in such an abstract way or in the third person like this. They just don't. And had we been in Rebecca's POV, she would not think of Dan as a sportscaster in this situation either.
So when you're beta reading (article 1, article 2) your own story or someone else's, be on the lookout for abstract or unlikely character references, but before you deem it as completely inappropriate, take into account the characters themselves and the situation they are currently in.
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