This craft issue—and I just made up that “generic character” business, because I’m not sure what to call it—has been around as long as I’ve been editing, but it seems to be getting worse. I see it all the time now, and I dislike it.
It’s one of my editorial pet peeves, kids.
This is how the big chill happens. I’m immersed in a manuscript, I know who the central characters are, I’m intimate with them, and then the narrative comes along and refers to a known character as the young man or the old woman or the aging hippie (or any number of cold, generic nouns).
Here’s an example. In this story, our main characters are Suzy and her teenaged son Cal, newly bereaved of their husband and father. We know these facts already.
In spite of her widow’s grief, Suzy was proud of Cal. Every day the young man rose before dawn to do the milking on their small farm and for the Smith family down the lane. He was back in time to grab a quick breakfast and catch the school bus when it arrived at eight. And his grades were holding up.
It’s that “the young man” that bugs me. Please tell me, author, why this character, who has been …
• introduced in the narrative
• described, including gender
• active in the plot
… is being referred to as “the young man” by the POV character? It’s redundant. We know Cal! The POV character knows Cal! So when you refer to him with some generic noun, it breaks the fictive dream. That is, it jars the reader right out of the story.
We use said in dialogue tags (when we must have tags) rather than said substitutes because all those growls and barks and rasps and grunts take us out of the story and make us aware that we’re reading. It’s the same principal with generic characterization.
Don’t cast about looking for different ways to refer to your characters. Call them by their names, call them by their pronouns. Keep it simple. When you use a generic noun rather than a proper noun, we readers are distanced from both characters—the one being referred to and the one in whose POV we are hearing/observing the story.
Sure, there are exceptions. If your POV narrative doesn’t know the character very well, I won’t object to a generic noun, though I’ll discourage repeated use of it. The character’s name or a pronoun is still my preferred choice.
In the example above, Suzy is Cal’s mother; she definitely knows him. So I find a reference to her own son as the young man lacks feeling, lacks connection. But even this tweak makes the reference more personal:
In spite of her widow’s grief, Suzy was proud of her boy. Every day Cal rose before dawn to do the milking on their small farm …
See what I mean? These are characters you want me to like or to be interested in. To feel warmly about. So why would you use an impersonal, uninteresting, redundant generic term that leaves me cold?
Tweet: Generic nouns for characters we readers know are redundant … and boring.
Tweet: When you refer to a character we know with some generic noun, it breaks the fictive dream.
Tweet: Use a generic noun rather than a proper noun, & readers are distanced from both characters.
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