Saturday, 1 March 2014
How to Avoid Author Intrusion
I’ve written about this subject in the past, but I keep getting asked about it, so it’s worth another visit, especially if you are new to writing and you want to understand what author intrusion is, and more importantly, how to avoid it.
New writers, in particular, sometimes have a tendency to intrude the narrative. It’s not their fault – it is sometimes done without realising, and that’s because many new writers aren’t armed with a wealth of knowledge and experience to always know these things.
That’s where the beauty of editing comes in. We can spot the anomalies and correct them. Not only that, but all writers have done it at some stage in their writing careers, so it is quite a common occurrence.
What does Authorial Intrusion mean?
In basic terms, author intrusion happens when the author loses sight of the story and speaks directly to the reader through the narrative or characters. They inadvertently project their own beliefs, opinions or ideas into the story. In other words, any social, political or religious beliefs should come from your characters, in context with the story, and not from you directly.
It also means that sometimes authors unintentionally project themselves into the narrative. The author becomes the star of the show, not the characters. New writers do this a lot because the only true character they know is themselves, rather than creating a multidimensional character from scratch. Again, this is not uncommon.
How do I identify it?
The best way to look for author intrusion is to first finish writing your story/novel and then put it aside for a while, perhaps a week or two. You can then come back to it with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective, and treat the story like an editor would. You will soon notice any unwarranted intrusion.
Sometimes such intrusions are subtle and not always overt. They may consist of certain words or axioms that seem out of place within the context of the story. In other words, they just don’t fit within the story, and certainly don’t fit with your character – perhaps because they may not be words or phrases your character would ever use. Learn to spot these.
Other times, as mentioned, the author might drift into automatic mode and describe the things they personally enjoy, projecting their own likes, pastimes or hobbies into the narrative and characters, when in fact the main character they have created may actually be diametrically opposite.
You might find your characters going on and on about a particular subject throughout the story that has nothing to do with the actual story or themes, particularly in a judgemental way. That’s intrusion because you are using your characters as a mouthpiece for your own personal viewpoint.
Here’s a simple example. I personally have no religious belief. As an atheist I do not identify with religion; however that doesn’t mean I don’t like it. I respect those who do have beliefs, because we are all different. That means I should not have every single character that I create be a religious hater or someone who constantly rejects religion. We create characters with different beliefs and opinions to our own, because they should be as individual as we are. Therefore, if I have my characters going on about how much they are hate religion, then I would be guilty of author intrusion.
Author intrusion might also occur if your character has knowledge he or she wouldn’t normally possess in ordinary day to day life (unless it really is part of the character’s makeup and they just happen to be superhuman, extraordinary people). For instance, a lowly salesman in a story about greed and success won’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the latest military weapons or will know how to break into a high security facility armed with only a safety pin.
That kind of thing should stick out. It means the author has projected unrealistic knowledge and research onto the character and therefore compromised the structure and context of the story.
In real life we all have limited knowledge - we know a bit about a lot of things. We may learn about certain subjects that interest us, so we gain more knowledge. I know a lot about fiction writing, literature, art and the sciences, but I know nothing about car engines, engineering or how to carry out heart surgery.
Be particularly careful in historical fiction. Don’t let your modern views creep into the era you are writing about. It just doesn’t fit.
And one thing writers should never do is interrupt the narrative and address the reader directly within the story. This was once acceptable in literature, but over the last 80 years, literature has changed, and this kind of intrusion is no longer acceptable.
Learn to recognise these anomalies in your narrative, hunt them down and weed them out.
How do I avoid author intrusion?
One thing should always be clear from the outset when writing your story – it belongs to your characters, not you as a writer. That means your personal beliefs, opinions or ideas should never appear. For that reason, writers must never use fiction as a personal soapbox or crusade against something they oppose or don’t like.
In real life you may not like the way your government is running your country. You may not agree with war and conflict; however you must put aside these opinions when dealing with your characters and plot. Your main character shouldn’t hate one particular political party because you don’t like them, nor should they be a pacifist against war when it’s not in your character’s nature and they might have to engage in fight scenes as part of the story.
Writers should treat the narrative objectively and dispassionately. Your character’s opinions matter, not yours. Their beliefs relate to the story, not yours.
This might seem strange, considering that the omniscient narrator will know everything within the story, but it should not sound like the narrator is preaching a sermon to the reader. The narrator is simply relaying the story - objectively.
With experience you will learn to stand back from your fictional world and let your characters speak for themselves and to form their own views and opinions as part of the ongoing story – it’s a natural progression.
Your fictional story should never be about your personal agenda; otherwise your story will fail. Editors will easily spot it and reject on that basis, because it is a sign of bad writing.
Be thorough when you edit your work and learn to spot author intrusion.
Next week: Literary devices – Improve your narrative