Saturday, 28 April 2012

Author Intrusion

It’s one of those things that sometimes sneak into the narrative without the writer noticing and it’s not until an editor points them out that you realise you have a problem.

But what exactly is author intrusion?

Primarily, it is where the author personally intrudes the story, quite often unwittingly; they place a large proportion of themselves within the narrative, either through description, actions or through their characters and dialogue.  

Author intrusion is very common. In truth, there is always a tiny bit of us in our characters, but every character should be individual and different. And more importantly, they should be very different from the writer.

They key to spotting them is to understand what they are and how they affect your writing. There are several ways intrusion happens.

Firstly, writers very often use their own personal opinions, personal prejudices, their judgements or subconscious thoughts in their writing. Opinions, likes, dislikes, passions and pet peeves have no place in fictional writing. If, for instance, you are vehemently anti-smoking, you must not let your personal views on it pervade your characters by having them spout anti-smoking views, (unless you specifically have a character who, by his or her nature, is that way for a valid reason connected with the story – and only then their views should not invade the story). This is the most common type of intrusion.

Don’t like certain religions? That’s fine, but don’t let your personal view into your writing by having all your characters disliking religion. Can’t stand sport? Don’t let your dislike spill into your characters, their actions or the surrounding story.

Remember, you are not your characters, and they should certainly be nothing like you. That means having characters that are religious or spiritual, or they love sport, and that they do and think things very differently to what you do.

Never let your characters become your personal mouthpiece. If you have characters speaking your direct opinions and views, then you’ll find yourself moulding other characters to suit, because all of your characters are defined by actions and reactions. That means you’ll have characters responding to things that would, essentially, seem out of character for them. And the moment they start doing that, you start to lose the cohesion and integrity of your story.

The kind of things the writer really loves or is passionate about might also creep into the characters he or she has created. A passion for cars might manifest, or a love of animals etc, and then before the writer can control it, characters have turned into someone completely different – their creator.

Just because you might love different things, doesn’t mean your characters will. This kind of intrusion is indulgence.

Another sort of intrusion takes the form of knowledge and awareness; the kind of knowledge only the writer would possess, not the character. These kinds of intrusions allow characters to know preposterous things, such as a character having an intimate knowledge of computer technology, when she is merely an ordinary housewife bringing up baby. Or perhaps a lowly cab driver that knows all about hi tech weaponry by the time he turns reluctant hero in chapter 12.

If it sounds ridiculous and unbelievable, then it likely is, and the reader will spot this straight away, even if you don’t. If you step over the boundaries of what is normal and logical within a character’s experience – in relation to the story - then you risk writing something that is neither believable nor credible.

How do you identify and control author Intrusion?


Sometimes it is difficult to spot because we don’t really look for it when editing – we’re too busy looking at plot flaws, characterisation, grammar, dialogue etc, but this is where editing become an important and integral part of the writing process. You should look out for the following:-

Social views – views that you as the writer have in the real world find their way into the fictional world and have no bearing on the story or the characters. That means political, religious, strong social views etc. When they become prevalent, that’s author intrusion.

Knowledge and awareness – don’t have characters know amazing things (unless they actually work in a job that requires specialist knowledge) just because you are an expert in something. Avoid the same if you have period characters from a set era. People in 1911 won’t know about stuff that you do.

Dialogue - Using the kind of words and phrasing that you use in everyday life, rather than the character would use; how they would talk and react. Making them you won’t work.

Indulgence – Lavishing your knowledge of something into the narrative, even though it doesn’t fit the story or characters, like a love of art, or by endlessly going on and on about your love of trees for example, but done through your main character (who probably wouldn’t care much for ecosystems anyway).

False impressions – By having characters, usually the villain, that become grossly ignorant and especially foolish because of your own opinions – for instance a black character being made to seem stupid or criminal in contrast to the wonderfully angelic, God-like, white main character runs the risk of making them horrible, hideous caricatures that have no place in reality, let alone fiction.

Narration – you are telling a story, not preaching, not teaching, not converting.

Your personal opinions or your personal agendas should never find their way into your fiction.

Apart from damaging your credibility as a writer, such intrusions are quite distracting for readers. Some intrusions might seem distasteful, disrespectful, out of place, disproportionate, too much, and somewhat jarring.

The result will be that the editor won’t bother and you won’t be published. The golden rule of thumb: Narrate, keep it simple and tell the story.


Next week: Why titles matter.

4 comments:

  1. Ouch! and hands up - 'guilty' of giving a character an interest in/knowledge about art that I share! Done knowingly, with the intent to allow a conversation to take place, and referred to a couple of times later, to reinforce her interest. So, as I said, 'guilty' ... but it was only the once, and only a very small transgression, m'lud.
    Thought-provoking set of points made here.
    Oh - and excuse no. 2 - better to pad one character out with something I know about rather than something I don't and cannot be convincing about. :-)

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  2. It's easy to fall into this trap, though I seem to have gone to the other extreme. After I read something I'd written to my writers' circle last week, they asked me where on earth I got such an intimate knowledge of a paedophile's mind, and definitely looked at me a bit strangely.

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    1. Oh, this DID make me laugh, liz - sorry!

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  3. Been there and done it, I'm as guilty as anyone, especially when I first started out. But like everything, spotting it comes with experience.

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