by Jason Black
What character is in every scene and
on every page of your novel? Donít be so quick to say ďnone.Ē I
donít care what kind of book youíre writing. Even a third-person
omniscient book with dozens of characters has one who is in every
scene and on every page.
Memoirists, Iím not talking about you;
for you, thatís the whole point. Iím speaking to novelists. You,
Mr. and Ms. Novelist, are inescapably present in your novel. Readers
will suspend disbelief about your premise, but they never fully
forget that theyíre reading a story you wrote. It doesnít matter
that you do not intend to be in the story. You are anyway.
The question is, does your writing
minimize your own presence on the page?
The better your writing, the more
invisible you remain to the reader. When the reader becomes aware of
you, it breaks the hard-earned reality of the story. Here are some
common and not-so-common ways that writers reveal themselves to
Author intrusion is when you insert
something into the book that feels out of place. Typically, itís an
opinion on an emotionally or politically charged subject that isnít
directly attributable to any character in the scene, and is written
in a style that seems directed toward the reader. For example:
The phone dropped from Susanís hand, clattering on the kitchen
floor. She gripped the countertop for support. John was dead, found
hanging from a light fixture in his apartment. Suicide is a mortal
sin. Itís wrong to kill yourself, and no one should ever do that.
Susan squeezed her eyes against the inevitable tears.
The opinion isnít attributed to Susan
in any way. Since the opinion doesnít obviously belong to the
character, it can only belong to the writer. We get the writerís
beliefs and a bonus morality lecture thrown in for fun.
the kicker: it doesnít matter if the reader agrees with the
intrusion. Itís still the writer trying to tell the reader what to
think, and nobody likes being told what to think. Any attempt to do
so leaves readers feeling negatively towards you.
It is very easy to make mistakes that
make readers question you as a person who has any business writing a
novel. If readers doubt your storytelling skill, itís very hard for
them to continue suspending their disbelief in the story. Here are
three main credibility issues to watch out for:
Plot holes. Any kind of logical inconsistencyósuch as a cop
confiscating a characterís gun in chapter three, followed by the
character firing the gun in chapter 4 without first having gotten it
backótells readers that you donít know your own story well enough to
tell it right. In which case, why should readers trust that the rest
of the story is going to be worth reading?
Factual errors. Similarly, when your narrative contains mistakes
about verifiable facts, readers may decide you are either an
ill-informed person, or are too lazy to fact-check. Again, it
suggests you havenít any business writing a novel, or (more
charitably) you havenít put as much work into the novel as you
should have. Factual errors are particularly ruinous when they
concern facts that are important to the
plot, are generally well known, or are iconic in the culture at
large. Donít, for example, let your novel relocate the Hoover Dam
from the Colorado River to the Mississippi.
Bad or missing emotional responses. In my opinion, these are the
worst. These are when your characters fail to react in emotionally
appropriate ways to the events they face, or when emotional
responses in the story havenít been well supported by the preceding
narrative. An almost clichťd example is a romance sub-plot where
one character is ostensibly madly attracted to another for no
discernable reason. Emotional response mistakes undermine your
credibility as a writer because they make readers believe that you
just donít understand how real people think, feel, and react. In
which case you should stay away from writing novels that have people
in them. Maybe you could write about robots instead.
Destroying your own reputation
Readers donít have to like you to
enjoy your book, but they canít dislike you either. At
worst, readers must be indifferent to you. Their opinion of you will
bias them towards or against your book. If the book itself makes
readers feel you are a loathsome human being, theyíre going to have
a hard time reading it.
Let me tell you about a crime drama
manuscript I once edited. The novel was set in modern times. But
as I read, I became aware of a couple of disturbing patterns. All
the important characters on the police force were white. All the
suspects were minorities. There was one token minority police
officer, whose sole function in the plot was to accidentally mess up
a piece of evidence that was crucial to the case. The only women
present in the novel were secretaries, waitresses, or
prostitutesówho were, by the way, uniformly defined in terms of
their relative attractivenessóand the attitude exhibited by the male
characters when interacting with these women was equally
disrespectful to them all.
The problem isnít that itís impossible
to imagine a set of characters who behaved in that way. The problem
was that the characters didnít match the image of a modern
police force, yet the narrative never even attempted to justify the
differences. The only explanation left was that the author was a
racist, sexist jerk. And the only reason I finished that novel was
because I was getting paid. Can you afford to pay all your readers?
You are in your book
Like it or not, you are a character in
your book, because readers never fully forget theyíre reading a
story you wrote. Your name is on the cover! Between the
covers, strive to keep yourself as invisible as possible by avoiding
the mistakes Iíve described here.
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Jason Black is a Seattle area book doctor who helps novelists sort
out the thorny issues in their novels. He is a regular
presenter at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference, and is writing a
handbook on character development techniques. To learn more about
Jason or read his blog, visit his website at