Author intrusion can be subtle or hit-you-upside-the-head obvious. As a writer, it’s easy to forget yourself and begin poking your nose in your characters’ business. As editors of our work, it’s important to recognize signs of an author break-in and self-correct when we can.
What’s author intrusion? It’s when the writer’s beliefs, knowledge, or opinions get into the mouths or actions of one or more characters. Here’s what it’s not: It’s not third person omniscience. Third person omniscience is a literary device that allows an all-knowing narrator to share insight that no other character has. Now, if that all-knowing narrator starts sounding a bit like the writer, then there’s a problem.
It’s difficult to separate yourself from your characters at times. After all, you are your characters. You’ve created them from the bottom up and infused them with whatever essence they have. But they should be a diverse bunch, in most cases. Not every character should have the same political, social, or religious philosophies. If they do, you’re intruding and readers can tell.
If your characters are all extreme about one topic, or make a character holding a dissenting opinion look especially dim or comical, your story reads more like a personal rant and less like a tale of warring factions or opposing views. Many stories showcase divergent ideals, emphasizing one over the other, without sounding like there’s a personal agenda being flouted.
I remember reading Under the Dome, by Stephen King and finding it odd that almost every character in his small, rural-ish town had a potty mouth. Now, I’m not offended by blue language, but it seemed odd that even the local grandmas were cussing up a storm. Then, I remembered attending a lecture by King right before his novel, Misery, was released. He ranted on about being censored for language in his books but, he said, “that’s how people talk.”. This may be how he talks. It might be how his family talks. But it’s not how everyone talks, and that little bit of his personal style seeped through his novel in a way that even a reader could notice.
It’s not just word choice that matters, it’s style, too. Some authors, including me, prefer a formal writing style. I tend to use a lot of “I am” instead of “I’m”, forgoing contractions in my everyday writing, even though I don’t speak that way. I have some characters that are formal and it’s okay for them to speak that way. But it would be weird to have a teen character in a story set in 2017 state, “I am going to the football game. Would you like to go?” He’d be more likely to say, “Dude. Going to the game — wanna come?” or some variation. Point is, don’t let your language come out of your character’s mouth!
I’m a research nut. I research everything — it’s just my nature. As a writer, though, you want to make sure that your copious knowledge about a particular subject doesn’t seep into your story in the wrong places. For example, if you’re writing a novel set in Victorian times, it’s important to understand a Hansom cab was considered the sports car of Victorian carriages, and that an upper class lady would not be seen in one because of its “racy” reputation. It’s another thing entirely for the gentleman owning the Hansom cab to understand how it works, how it’s maintained, or pretty much anything about it, other than perhaps the cost.
Some characters may have to have specialized knowledge: Scotty, the engineer from Star Trek, needs to know exactly how the warp drive functions to fulfill his role in a believable way. However, while Mrs. Harrow, the aging matriarch of a family who owns a salt mining business in my novella, Salt in the Blood, needs some business savvy to look after the family investments, she doesn’t necessarily know the technical details of salt mining.
Besides the tips mentioned above, try Method Writing to help keep your characters true to themselves. This skill is your first defense when tackling author intrusion and can keep it from happening in the first place. After your story’s written, make sure to have beta readers or other editors read through it to catch other instances of intrusion and don’t take it personally when they point out areas you need to clean up. After all, they’re readers, too. If you don’t have someone to look over your manuscript, at least let it sit for 48 hours to two weeks before revisiting it with “new” eyes. Removing author intrusion will make your writing more appealing to readers — something every writer strives for.
See you on the next page!