Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
A reader of The Editor’s Blog asked me to write about author intrusion, to give examples to make it easy to first identify and then weed out author intrusion.
At their most basic, author intrusions are story anomalies, oddities, where the writer has projected herself into the fictional world. These intrusions show up as events or knowledge or words that don’t fit the story.
Or, to look at intrusions in a slightly different way, consider them places where the writer hasn’t sufficiently covered her tracks.
In fiction, any time the reader sees a trace of the writer imposed upon the story world or bleeding through the fiction, that writer has intruded—stepped into a place she doesn’t belong.
Intrusion is distracting. It’s interruptive. It’s annoying.
Author intrusion upsets the rhythms of a story. It upsets the readers. Author intrusion upsets characters who must adapt to the anomaly.
If one character starts spouting off in favor of the writer’s pet crusade, other characters must respond—even if the topic has nothing to do with these characters or their plot. Or, if the writer knows characters shouldn’t respond because the first character shouldn’t be espousing such a viewpoint, she may have other characters ignore what Character One is saying. And this, of course, creates additional problems. Characters should have a response to what others do and say. When they don’t, story ties are loosened. The pattern of action/reaction is broken. The story loses cohesion.
A tip to remember about intruders is that they are not welcome. Would you rather your readers were moved by your story or ticked off because you plopped yourself into the middle of it?
Readers come to fiction for the characters’ stories, for the make-believe that they can imagine is real. They don’t come to novels for a writer’s opinions.
Of course, not all author intrusion is about a pet cause or the author’s stand on an issue—
When a character suddenly sounds unlike himself for reasons having nothing to do with the plot . . .
When a character reveals knowledge he couldn’t or shouldn’t have—not necessarily about story events but general knowledge of the world— . . .
When a setting is burdened with details no one but a specialist (or a writer who overdid the research) would know . . .
When characters speak as though they all have MFA degrees . . .
When the plot is about a novice writer trying to pen a bestseller . . .
. . . the writer has intruded into the story and left her mark.
Identify Author Intrusion
Author intrusion can be difficult for writers to see because we’re used to our own opinions and knowledge; it’s part of us and we don’t usually see anything wrong with it. Seeing our opinions in others would not jar us.
To clearly see and evaluate a story as something independent of us, we must separate ourselves from our stories. Step back and study them dispassionately. The ability to do this takes practice and the willingness to distance oneself from one’s creation, a task especially difficult for beginning writers. Experienced writers should be doing this distancing as a matter of course as they create.
So, how can we identify author intrusion? Give yourself the distance I just mentioned by putting the manuscript aside for a time. When you get away from a manuscript—think about other tasks and/or work on other stories—you create the distance necessary to come back to a story as a reader would, to see it with fresh eyes. When you’ve been away long enough—and if you’re not writing to deadline, I’m talking weeks and not days here—author intrusion will be obvious when you come back to the story.
You can also listen to your beta readers. If they tell you they see your hand or hear your voice in a scene, believe them and cut out the author intrusion.
Another option is to do an editing pass solely to find examples of your opinions and your pet words in the manuscript. You know your social views and your favorite buzzwords. Look for them in your stories. If they don’t fit the character and the story, yank those words out. Your books will be stronger for being whole unto themselves, fiction adventures free of your real-world presence.
What to look for
Words that you, the writer, would use in places where readers should find only words the character would use
Knowledge that the writer rather than the character would possess—names of plants or flowers or animals or birds; names of body parts; sports trivia, history, and the workings of mechanical objects or technology; knowledge beyond what a person of the story era would logically have; knowledge beyond a character’s education or station or age or experience
Characters of the opposite sex—relative to the writer—who sound like characters of the writer’s same sex
Phrasing and rhythms that the writer rather than the character would use
Sensibilities, mindset, or a worldview common to the writer’s era but which should be foreign or unknown to characters in the story
Those items that a character notices (visually or in the words or actions of other characters) should be things that the character—because of his background or history or training—would notice. If he wouldn’t notice something, no matter how cool that something is, but he does notice and goes on and on about it, that’s author intrusion. That’s a writer including some fact he discovered, because he found it fascinating, even when the inclusion doesn’t fit the story.
Author intrusion can be subtle or grossly obvious.
If every character has the same political, religious, or social stand and those stands match those of the writer, the author has intruded into the story.
An author who gives all characters the same stance doesn’t yet know her characters as individuals, doesn’t care to make her characters independent of her, or doesn’t understand that story conflict arises from the differences between characters.
When most characters hold the same opinion and a writer makes a dissenting character look especially ignorant or clown-like because of his stance, the writer is revealing her own opinion and most likely using her story to pursue a personal agenda.
While the writer may be pitting the independent character against all others to show how strong he is and that he can prevail, the writer who makes a dissenting character look like a fool often wants to put down rather than champion the opinion put forth by that character, especially regarding political, religious, and social issues.
Author intrusion comes in when a writer has so researched a topic or issue that she can’t resist adding some of her knowledge to a story, whether or not the characters would pursue or know the same information.
Keep in mind that familiarity and general knowledge are not equal to specialized knowledge. A character can own a car and not know how it runs. And a time-traveler going to the past might be able to talk about the wonders of the future but not be able to explain how those wonders work or how they were invented.
Author Word Choices
Author intrusion can come into a story with word choices. Some writers like to pretty up their prose, add a dash of the poetic or use fancy words in place of cheap, everyday words. Now, if your character uses the fancy words—all the time—that’s one thing. When he or she only waxes poetic once or twice over the course of a novel—and it’s not done for a plot reason (such as making another character laugh)—then the author’s hand is obvious.
Writers often add a flourish to a character when they think they’ve been too earthy or common or just plain normal with their words. But if your characters are earthy or common or normal, let their words reflect their personalities. Don’t introduce purple prose or fancy words or intricate sentence constructions when the common serves the character, the scene, the story, and the genre.
Any time a reader can see the writer—word choice, preaching or teaching, a character who doesn’t speak or act as he should, setting details that overwhelm (because the writer couldn’t hold back after researching for days)—then the author has stuck a toe, a finger, a fist, or even his mind into the fiction. This intrusion distracts, draws readers away from the fiction and toward the mechanics and/or the author.
Note: Author intrusion is not an all-knowing narrator sharing his knowledge, knowledge that no one else in the story has. An omniscient narrator can know everything. But an omniscient narrator who sounds like the writer trying to teach a history lesson or preach a sermon is author intrusion.
Author intrusion is also not the skills, the special knowledge, and the personal style that a writer brings to story to give it richness and distinction. Author intrusion only becomes a problem when those skills, knowledge, and style point outside the story and toward the writer rather than drawing readers inward to the fiction.
Fixes for Author Intrusion
Remove traces of the author by replacing her words—your words—with words and phrases common to and appropriate for the characters, and by cutting out references to knowledge a character couldn’t possess.
Give characters their own personalities, personalities strong and independent enough to stand against the author’s will and interests.
Use setting details to color and enrich a scene, not drown it under facts—no matter how fascinating—that have no bearing on the story.
Your personality, your skills—your heart and hands and mind—will be all over your writing projects. Just don’t let the reader see the evidence of your touch. No footsteps or fingerprints or stray hairs. Don’t let readers catch you running around the corner just ahead of them. Don’t let them feel you peering over their shoulders, nudging them into noticing your excellent phrasing or pithy remarks.
Do your work without leaving physical evidence of your passage through the adventure. Let a reader imagine he’s the first human outsider to walk through your settings and fiction, the first to love and fear and laugh with your characters.
Write fiction that reveals your characters and their world, not your personality and your world.
Write involving fiction.
Write good story.