In an autobiography, the author is the story so there is no such thing as 'too much'. In fiction however, the author's presence can sometimes become too obvious, to the detriment of the story.
I don't know about you, but when I read fiction, I want to be carried away to another place and time. I want to meet new, larger-than-life characters who do things I could never manage myself. It's just me and the story.
When the author intrudes, however, all I get is 'aren't I funny? aren't I cool? aren't I clever?' To which my answer is inevitably...no. I want to read the story, not the author's ego fest.
'But how can we not be part of the story?' you ask. 'Everything we write ultimately comes from us!'
And that is true. Every thought, word, and deed that we write about springs from how we see ourselves and the world around us. That part is inevitable. Even when we write about things that completely contradict our personal values, those values were still the point from which we diverged.
To give you an example, in Vokhtah I created an alien culture in which every creature was some degree of sociopath. As someone with a wee bit too much empathy, I was constantly having to edit out the bits where my instinctive response made them too 'nice'.
Most of the time, however, we infuse our values into our work without even being aware of it. That's simply how we see the world.
Two famous works of fiction that illustrate this point beautifully are Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, and A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens created a hero who sacrificed himself for another, an act of nobility that still brings a lump to my throat. By contrast, Ayn Rand created a character who was noble because he embodied the ideals of capitalism.
As a 'progressive', I found myself arguing with Ayn Rand the whole way through the book. Nevertheless, the story was persuasive enough to make me question my own, long held views and beliefs.
Why were both stories so persuasive? The answer is simple. Both authors genuinely believed in the values and world view they presented in their fiction, and Readers responded to it.
That ability to persuade is the super power we authors wield. But only if we allow the story to be front and centre. If we project too much of ourselves into the narrative, it stops being a work of fiction and lurches towards autobiography, or worse, a dry treatise on philosophy, neither of which is particularly persuasive. Or immersive.
Yet isn't that precisely what fiction is supposed to be all about?
So how, exactly, do we create stories that are both persuasive and immersive?
One technique which has been done to death in writing circles is ‘show don’t tell’. In theory, the author is supposed to let the Reader see, hear, and feel the action for herself. I have no problem with the theory, but the implementation is often too painful to read. I don’t want to know every. single. trivial. boring. detail in a scene. I don’t want to know every time the protagonist scratches his rear, or rubs his nose. I only want to see-hear-feel those things that are important to the story!
Another thing authors could do is to avoid first person POV [point of view] unless they are sure they are not going to fall into the trap of identifying with the protagonist. Sadly, that is very hard to do when you’re constantly writing ‘I did, I saw, I felt, I thought...blah blah’. Even with the best of intentions, many writers end up creating a character who is the version of themselves they want others to see.
I cannot tell you how many stories I’ve read in which the protagonist is facing a life-or-death fight, and instead of focusing on the fight, he thinks about things that make him appear ‘cool’. Blasé quips might work for Han Solo [Star Wars], but it rarely works in books.
The opposite of the non-heroic hero is the earnest protagonist who is so busy being ‘honest’ that he/she comes across as a self-indulgent navel gazer. Curiously, seeing the protagonist from the inside this way usually highlights the flaws in his/her character without revealing many endearing characteristics. As a result, the Reader is given few reasons to care about the character.
In fairness, I have to say that first person POV can be done well, but it isn’t the easy option so many new writers think it is. If anything, it’s the hardest. ‘Me, me, me’ issues aside, in first person POV, the protagonist can only know what he/she sees directly. That means the author has to get very creative in order to present vital information that the protagonist cannot know. That’s hard.
Of course, third person POV is not immune to these pitfalls either, it’s just a bit easier to avoid them. Instead of having to write everything from the perspective of one character, the writer has the option of presenting information through the eyes of multiple characters, each of whom ‘sees’ a different side of the story. It’s a great technique, but the danger is that the author will get carried away and go head hopping.
For those who don’t know, head hopping occurs when the point of view keeps jumping from one character to the next, often with no way for the Reader to know who is doing/saying/thinking what. Instant confusion. Confuse the Reader enough, and they will fall out of the story. And you can’t be persuasive if the Reader gives up and stops reading, can you?
I don’t believe in hard and fast rules when it comes to writing because what works for one writer may not work for another, and the difference between the two is often very subtle. The only thing I would say with any certainty is that the story must come first. It’s not just a vehicle for us to tell the world what we think. Good stories have a life of their own because they transcend what one person, the author, may think, and instead say something important about all people.
Good stories are universal.
Have you discovered too much of an author’s voice in a story? Do you notice point of view plays into author intrusion?
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acflory is a science fiction writer from Australia who's passionate about technology, politics, psychology, pets, biology, gaming, music, and food. All of those passions seem to end up in her writing which is an eclectic mix of hard and social science fiction. Hard, because everything she writes about is based on some fact, no matter how obscure, and social, because she loves to explore what it means to be human, even when she's writing about aliens.
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Thank you! Lovely to see my post up and running. I'm now off to tell my friends to come check it out. Cheers!
[…] in the Storm asked me to write a post about writing, so my disgruntled Reader-self prodded and poked until I wrote about some of the […]
Excellent, excellent article. Clear and intelligent. Good use/choice of examples, yet not over-elaborated.
Not to mention the author’s own writing choices (from bio blurb) strongly reflect my own. Now I’ll have to look into reading her novels.
-grin- she is thrilled by your remarks! lol It's always lovely to meet a kindred spirit. Cheers. 😀
Recently, yesterday, in fact, I read a critique of one of my stories where the critiquer pointed out where she thought I (the author) was intruding. This was helpful as I hadn't noticed it myself. (Point: Critique groups are extremely useful.)
Thank you for this post which helps immensely.
I know from personal experience how easy it is to become part of the story instead of simply telling it. Thank you for sharing your own experience with writing.
A most interesting and entertaining article by Andrea. I agree with what she has said here about authors including to much of themselves and their personal views into their writing. I struggle with this as I have very strong opinions on things and I often write stories that revolve around issues that trigger my opinions and views. Of course, there are some books and poems that are expressly intended to convey the views and opinions of the author. My latest poetry book, Lion Scream, is one of those.
-waves at Robbie- I have strong opinions about just about everything too! lol I've also been known to leave a character high and dry, so to speak - just ask my wonderful beta reader! Sometimes we simply don't see the obvious, which is where a second or third pair of eyes is such a boon.
Lion's Scream is from your heart, and your heart has a right to be heard. -hugs-
I just put down a book where the author's agenda was so strong that it overpowered the story. I'd come to the story excited to read the story she'd led me to expect from the blurb and bits I'd read... but that wasn't the story I got. I'm one of those people who when they pick up a book, they finish it. But I gave up and just read the ending about 1/3 of the way in. Interestingly enough, it was written in first person POV.
Hi Lisa. 🙂 I read a book very much like that years ago, when I first started reading Indie fiction. I actually agreed with everything the author said, but I hated being beaten over the head with it every second page. Like you, I'm a read-to-the-bitter-end type person but...I just couldn't.
I think that was the first book I ever abandoned. And I still feel resentful about it! As Readers, we all invest a lot of faith in authors, and it feels like a betrayal when we're let down.
I'm sorry that you had that experience, but I'm so glad I'm not alone! Cheers. 😀
I've never read an article about this topic. Thank you.
You're very welcome. I'm a voracious reader, and this is something that's niggled at me for years. Cheers!
I read an ARC last Christmas which really left me perplexed. I even contacted the publicist at the publisher to see if the book was going through another round of edits before publishing because the backstory suddenly changed for one character midway through. Their editing team had completely missed it. It was going to print with the copy I read.
Plus, another character was introduced late in the book and suddenly had a POV.
Total lack of continuity. I only finished it because I promised to review it and I was obligated to complete the review.
Ouch. 🙁 That must have been painful. Makes you wonder how competent the editorial staff actually were. They were lucky you caught those glaring errors /before/ the book went to print.
I use first-person pov a lot, which might be why I have a hard time showing the worst of my characters or letting them off too easily. What you say about seeing a character from the inside making them unsympathetic is interesting too.
lol - your Herbert West series has to be one of the exceptions, Audrey! Curiously though, although your narrator 'spoke' in the first person, the character we were all intrigued by was actually Herbert West himself, and /he/ was [almost] always seen from the outside. I suspect that is part of what makes your series such a standout. 😀
I started with a principle of telling a story from the pov of three characters - with NO narrator (that's the author, often) - and have pretty much managed to split myself into those three characters only.
It gets easier - deep third person pov is a bit like first person with a rotating character in charge, but doesn't interfere with identification as much as using actual first person for the three characters.
I also write first person - but only for short stories. Then you can just pretend to BE the character, and it's not as obvious that you are not.
I like deep third person POV, but I bet it's not easy to do. You literally have to inhabit not just one person's skin but three. Speaking of, how's book three coming?
Slowly - because it takes all my attention, and that's been split. But I've begun, and it's starting to feel inevitable. Thanks.
That's excellent news, Alicia. Power to your pen! 🙂
I can see where this is a problem but I don't think I have ever noticed this while reading. Possibly I just wrote it off to not liking the story. Will look for it in the future. Thanks.
Hi Barbara.:) Thanks for joining the discussion. I suspect that some genres may be more open to these kinds of problems than others. Cheers!
A thought-provoking post, Andrea. I definitely infuse my stories with my values but have to be careful about infusing "me" into the story. I'm unmotivated and cranky and I would make a terrible protagonist! I do like first-person for its very tight POV, but like you spelled out - the story has to come first in terms of structure, pacing, character depth, and evolution of a plot. I think new writers tend to fall into tangents of all sorts (I know I did), and whatever form they take, however they come about, they can demolish a story. 🙂
Hi Diana! Apologies for taking such a long time to reply. I forgot to check for more replies. 🙁
I don't think I've ever read one of your stories that I didn't like, but you're absolutely right about new writers. Sometimes I go back a read the first story I ever wrote, the one that will never, ever see the light of day, and I breathe a sigh of relief that self publishing wasn't a 'thing' back then!
Yeah, write for the reader, always.
Sure, write what want, how you want, but always picture the reader's viewpoint in your mind -- at least when you edit. Kill all that self-absorbing preaching, or yeah, that "ooh, that's a clever girl," stuff.
What's this platform over here? WP?
Hi Mole! Apologies to you too. I've been slack with checking for replies. I don't know what platform this site uses. I don't think it's WordPress as there's no option to use our WP handles.
I never write 'for the Reader'. That first draft is always for me to 'discover' both the characters and the plot. Only after I'm satisfied with both do I go back and rethink everything so the story makes sense to a Reader. Once I think it all flows smoothly I send it off to my wonderful Beta. Thanks to him, I completely cut one whole chapter in one of my books. It was a nice chapter, but it had become completely irrelevant, and I simply hadn't noticed. Another time, my Beta noticed that I'd forgotten/neglected to resolve what happened to the 'villain'. I couldn't kill him off because I knew he'd be needed in the future so...I just forgot about him. lol
It really helps that my Beta is a fabulous writer himself, and in the same genre, so we catch each other's boo boos. 😀