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Character See-Saw

A common mistake that writers make is to insert the character into a scene too often. No story is improved by constantly noting that “Jim watched as…” or “I stared in horror as….” This may sound counterintuitive, but in the sense that narratives draw a reader into the story so that the reader forgets the world around them, repetitions of “I saw,” “I watch,” “I walked,” and other instances of noting that the character is in the scene, actually serve to pull the reader out of the scene. One of the things I try to reinforce with my writers is, “Don’t let your words get in the way of your story.” Any writing that jars the reader, reminds that reader that she or he is reading.

Your reader has a split personality when reading. The reader tags along with the main character, and (particularly in First-Person narratives) often engages in the story as the main character. The reader is pulled out of the experience whenever the writer notes the character’s reaction. When the writer reminds the reader of the character’s existence in the scene, the reader pulls out of the moment and the direct experience in order to find out what’s happening to that character.

This is useful when the writer wants to explore a character’s thoughts and emotions, but at the same time, overuse robs the writer of the chance to provide the reader the direct experience. Consider the following scenes:

I stare as the massive passenger dirigible, flames shooting from one of the main engines, veers to the right and crashes to earth in a tremendous explosion.

Lena watched as the Fae Queen, resplendent in her shimmering turquoise and emerald gown, began to glow, brighter and brighter.

The reader makes certain assumptions about the characters in your story. One of the more basic assumptions is that characters are in a default condition of conscious / aware. Unless the reader is told otherwise, she or he assumes that the point of view character is observing the action. Also keep in mind that it’s uncommon to write a scene where there are no characters there to observe it. The implication of writing about something happening is that there is someone watching it happen. Consider the same two scenes with the “observer” implied rather than included:

The massive passenger dirigible, flames shooting from one of the main engines, veers to the right and crashes to earth.

The Fae Queen, resplendent in her shimmering turquoise and emerald gown, began to glow, brighter and brighter.

I think you’ll agree that the character’s inclusion doesn’t do anything for the scenes. Instead, we’re giving the event a chance to speak for itself. If you want to add the character to the scene, do so in a way that adds content to the story:

The massive passenger dirigible, flames shooting from one of the main engines, veers to the right and crashes to earth. I grieve for the innocent people who have just been murdered, and vow vengeance on Lord Kricker, who I know is behind this disaster.

Lena expected something dramatic, but she had no idea how impressive the sight would be. The Fae Queen, resplendent in her shimmering turquoise and emerald gown, began to glow, brighter and brighter.

In both cases, we’re adding the character’s reaction or decision based on the event, rather than simply saying that the character was there when the event happened (something the reader already knows).

Looking for more tips? Here’s what’s up so far. More to come!

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