The Unavoidable Character
by Jason Black
What character is in every scene and on every page of your novel? Don’t be so quick to say “none.” I don’t care what kind of book you’re writing. Even a third-person omniscient book with dozens of characters has one who is in every scene and on every page.
Memoirists, I’m not talking about you; for you, that’s the whole point. I’m 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 they’re reading a story you wrote. It doesn’t 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 readers:
Author intrusion is when you insert something into the book that feels out of place. Typically, it’s an opinion on an emotionally or politically charged subject that isn’t 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 Susan’s 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. It’s wrong to kill yourself, and no one should ever do that. Susan squeezed her eyes against the inevitable tears.
The opinion isn’t attributed to Susan in any way. Since the opinion doesn’t obviously belong to the character, it can only belong to the writer. We get the writer’s beliefs and a bonus morality lecture thrown in for fun.
Here’s the kicker: it doesn’t matter if the reader agrees with the intrusion. It’s 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, it’s very hard for them to continue suspending their disbelief in the story. Here are three main credibility issues to watch out for:
1. Plot holes. Any kind of logical inconsistency—such as a cop confiscating a character’s gun in chapter three, followed by the character firing the gun in chapter 4 without first having gotten it back—tells readers that you don’t 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?
2. 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 haven’t any business writing a novel, or (more charitably) you haven’t 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. Don’t, for example, let your novel relocate the Hoover Dam from the Colorado River to the Mississippi.
3. 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 haven’t been well supported by the preceding narrative. An almost clichéd 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 don’t 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 don’t have to like you to enjoy your book, but they can’t 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, they’re 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 prostitutes—who were, by the way, uniformly defined in terms of their relative attractiveness—and the attitude exhibited by the male characters when interacting with these women was equally disrespectful to them all.
The problem isn’t that it’s impossible to imagine a set of characters who behaved in that way. The problem was that the characters didn’t 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 they’re 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 I’ve described here.
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 www.PlotToPunctuation.com.