Are You Grammatically Dismembering Your Characters?
by Jason Black
It's true. From time to time, writers dismember their characters. I don't mean they do it with cleavers or chainsaws. I don't mean that this happens in the plot. They do it with grammar. When writers put a character’s parts in the grammatical subject position instead of the character herself, the character can come to exist not so much as her whole self but as a collection of individual body parts that happen to be arranged in a vaguely human manner.
Any portion of a character will do: Physical parts like feet, ears, and eyes. Non-corporeal parts such as the mind, the senses, and in paranormal or fantasy literature, special abilities such as far-sight and the like. Here’s an example.
Susan’s worry rose, blocking her mind from any other thoughts. Where’s Alex? He should be here by now. Her eyes scanned the theater lobby, the sidewalk outside, the parking lot, looking for him. They saw nothing.
On the surface, it’s not literally true. Susan’s worry itself didn’t actually do anything. Susan is the one who did the worrying. Similarly, her eyes did not elect to scan her surroundings all by themselves. Susan scanned her surroundings, using her eyes.
But the way the example is written gives the notion of Susan's worry doing battle with Susan's brain. It suggests Susan's eyes taking leave of her, to float around Susan's surroundings, doing what eyes do but coming up empty. At no point in that passage is the whole person of Susan in charge of anything.
It may seem like a harmless question of style. Reasonable readers certainly do take the intended meaning just fine. They don’t automatically jump to the erroneous literal interpretation of those words. But every time you put a character’s parts in the subject position of the sentence, you rob the character of just a little bit of power. You take the whole character out of control, in favor of a mere portion of her.
This is a case where the cliché is absolutely true. The whole really is greater than the sum of the parts. A whole character, a whole person, creates much stronger resonance with the reader than the result of presenting the character’s parts one by one. Even if each and every part gets a turn.
Every time you do this, you send a subtle message that the character isn’t really in charge. That she, the whole person, is but a slave to her parts. The cumulative effect of consistent grammatical dismemberment makes the overall character seem more passive, less action-oriented. When Susan’s senses reach out, when her parts act while the grammar has her sit idly by, it undermines the reader’s ability to believe in Susan as a strong agent of action in the story.
It's fine to do this once in a while. This bit of grammatical synecdoche is not problematic in and of itself, so long as you use it in moderation. It's when an entire manuscript consistently puts the parts before the person that you have a problem. Keep your whole character in charge most of the time, and you'll be fine.
There are circumstances when it is appropriate to put a fractional character in the subject position. Chief among these are times when a character experiences involuntary actions. When the heart quickens, it does so without our conscious bidding. When a sudden fright causes adrenaline to dump into our bloodstream, that’s automatic. We do not choose to blush. We humans do experience uncontrollable physiological responses to the events of our lives, and there's nothing wrong with portraying those responses as they really are.
Anything a character’s body does that is outside of her conscious control is fair game to put into the subject position of the sentence. In those circumstances, the whole character truly is not in control. In such times, it is perfectly appropriate for something else to occupy the subject position.
The other notable exception is the hands. Hands are so closely associated with the exercise of ordinary human will as to constitute a special case. At least in English, it is almost idiomatic that hands stand in for our will. In situations such as the following, we implicitly interpret a character's hands as tools the character is using to express her whole self's will:
Elaine's hand flew across the page as she penned the lines of a sonnet she was sure would win her the Frost Medal.
Reversing the pattern
Hands are so closely associated with the will that reversing this expectation creates a powerful effect. Horror fiction and movies, in fact, seem to delight in turning characters’ hands against them. One of the most memorable scenes in the cult-classic horror movie The Evil Dead involves the character of Ash fighting his own murderous hand before ultimately dismembering it to save his own life.
Think about the reversal going on there, and how Ash’s response portrays him. Ash’s hand becomes possessed, such that he no longer controls it. It is now a tool in service of another entity's will, and it attacks him. Ash is rightfully shocked. He is out of control of his own body. To regain control and save himself he is forced to physically separate himself, in an act of fully willful dismemberment, from his own hand.
Ash's personal strength, his fitness to be the movie's protagonist, comes shining through. Even when his hand took the subject position, Ash remained the ultimate agent of action.
Such circumstances are clearly the exception. The rest of the time—that is, when demonic possession is not involved—don’t dismember your characters by accident. Leave your whole characters as the agents of action, and let their body parts remain tools of the will as they properly are.
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.