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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