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I've been reading some books in French and I will sometimes see a sentence refer to a previously mentioned character by celui-ci or celle-ci, whereas most of the time it would be il or elle.

Coming from English I have a hard time understanding the purpose of this nuance. When is it appropriate to use, and what does it signify that distinguishes it from il / elle in such a context ?

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"Celui-ci / celle-ci" can be used when you want to place emphasis on one particular person in your presence or in your mind who somehow differs from (implied) countless others.

Or these pronouns can just as well apply to a particular thing/object placed near you or an incident taking place around you – in an emphatic tone, that is.

They sometimes have the additional connotation of "who shall remain anonymous", alluding to someone without naming them. I'd use "celui-ci / celle-ci" in saying the following, for instance:

(1): Avec sa beauté, elle aurait pu décrocher le cœur d'à peu près n'importe quel homme ! Pourquoi celui-ci ?

Why him / this one of all men?

(2): On dit que les Japonais sont nombreux à faire preuve d'indifférence à la politique, mais dès qu'il s'agit de parler de Trump, celle-ci s'empresse de le critiquer sur tout et n'importe quoi !

As for her / this one, as opposed to typically politically apathetic Japanese people

(3): Comment une femme métropolitaine comme Sarah a-t-elle pu échouer dans un bled comme celui-ci ? Voilà qui est drôle...

 The boondocks like this / here rather than a big city that is more her style 
  • Note that using celui-ci or celle-ci to refer to a person in your presence would be rude if that person can hear you. In such case, using a pronoun (il/lui/elle) or better, that person's name, would be appropriate. – jlliagre Jul 11 '18 at 10:42
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You can use celui-ci or celle-ci when you're talking about a specific individual into a group. In most of the time, you can point it out:

Tu as vu ces nuages? Celui-ci ressemble à un chat!

Oh, un groupe d'écolier. Celui-là semble fatigué.

On the other hand, il/elle should be used when you aleready pointed out a specific individual before hand.

Jean est malade, il ne viendra pas aujourd'hui.

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