Get Your Characters out of My Way
by Kate Gerard, copyright 2002-2007
When writers put the narrator between the action and the reader, the result is a 'gawking' character. Kate Gerard explains the pitfalls of gawking characters and offered examples and fixes to help you improve your own prose.
My grandmother loved The Ed Sullivan Show, which was popular in America from the late 1950s through the 1960s. The vaudeville-like variety show featured comedians, musicians, mimes, acrobats, performers of all sorts, and my favorite, a smart-mouthed mechanical mouse named Topo.
When the show's theme music floated through our house, I dashed to the living room and planted myself directly in front of the television.
My grandmother would say, 'You make a better door than a window, child.' She wanted me to move so she could see.
Now imagine that instead of moving and letting her watch the show for herself I had stayed between her and the television and told my grandmother what I saw and heard.
'I heard Mr. Sullivan say he was introducing his next guest, Grandma. I heard him say they are a team of acrobats from Brazil and they...'
'I saw the acrobats make a human pyramid, Grandma. I watched as they climbed on top of each other's shoulders. I saw four line up to make the bottom row, and then I saw three more scurry up on top of those...'
Ridiculous, isn't it?
But that's exactly what we writers do when we allow our characters to gawk at settings or plot events. We put the narrator (the POV character) in between the action and the reader.
Here's what a gawking character looks like:
Robert followed Eunice into the library. He saw a pile of invoices scattered across the clerk's desk and noticed that the atlas, which had rested on a reading stand the day before, was lying open in Eunice's armchair by the fire.
Eunice approached the clerk, a bony, hollow-cheeked fellow who repeatedly wiped his hands on his tunic, and Robert heard her say, 'Leave us now, Petre. I need to consult Sir Robert in private.'
The reader is not allowed to experience the action as if she were standing in the doorway looking in. Her view is filtered through the character's perception.
As well as putting the character between the reader and the action, gawking characters are redundant. We tell the reader that the character saw what the character saw.
This could be the product of a writer who's over-cautious about her POV. She may believe everything she shows must be filtered through the POV character to avoid head-hopping or a shift into omniscient POV. Worse, some well-intentioned (but mistaken) critic may have told her that anything not blatantly filtered through the POV character amounts to author intrusion, where the writer editorializes or comments about plot events. The result is clumsy, POV-belabored narrative.
The elegant option is to let the reader observe the scene as it appears and witness the action as it occurs.
Here's the rewrite:
Robert followed Eunice into the library. Invoices were scattered across the clerk's desk, and the atlas, which had rested on a reading stand the day before, lay open in Eunice's armchair by the fire.
Eunice approached the clerk, a bony, hollow-cheeked fellow who repeatedly wiped his hands on his tunic. 'Leave us now, Petre,' she said. 'I need to consult Sir Robert in private.'
The POV question does not apply. The character is not relating events outside his experience, events that occur beyond his line-of-sight or hearing. The POV character is only describing what he sees and hears.
In 'The Art of Fiction,' John Gardner introduced a generation of writers to the concept of a 'vivid and continuous' fictional dream. The reader sees story events as if she were nestled inside the POV character's head. She sees what the POV character sees, hears what the POV character hears, smells what the POV character smells, listens to the POV character's thoughts. The reader's reality shifts. She doesn't just read the story; she experiences the story.
Gawking characters disturb the fictional dream. The reader cannot believe she's experiencing the story when plot events must be filtered through the character, no more than my telling her what I saw would have allowed my grandmother to experience The Ed Sullivan Show.
Gawking can occur with any sensory perception. We've seen gawking at setting (visual gawking) and gawking at sound. Here are examples of other sensory gawking:
JoAnn hesitated, her hand poised above the dumpster. She smelled the odor of rotten fish—and something worse—something vinegary and rancid.
The odor is coming from the dumpster, so the fix is to tell what the dumpster smells like.
The fix: JoAnn hesitated, her hand poised above the dumpster. It stank of rotten fish—and something worse—something vinegary and rancid.
Kevin bit into the biscuit. The sweet taste of fresh butter melted on his tongue.
Here, we've told the reader that the character tasted what the character tasted.
The fix: Kevin bit into the biscuit. Sweet, fresh butter melted on his tongue.
Lee felt an icy wind barreling down the steep walls of Breiche Pass. He tightened the straps on Sissie's litter and tucked the blanket under her chin, praying they could both survive the night.
We are in Lee's POV. How would he know the wind is icy, unless he felt it? We do not need to tell the reader what is otherwise obvious.
The fix: An icy wind barreled down the steep walls of Breiche Pass. Lee tightened the straps on Sissie's litter and tucked the blanket under her chin, praying they could both survive the night.
Gawking can also occur internally. The character may gawk at her own realizations, thoughts, or emotions.
Jacob threw another withering look over his shoulder and stormed into the night.
Zoe stilled her shaking hands, realizing she'd survived, even though standing up to him had scared her witless.
We are in Zoe's POV. We do not have to be told that the realization is hers. Who else would be realizing things?
The fix: Jacob threw another withering look over his shoulder and stormed into the night.
Zoe stilled her shaking hands. She'd survived, even though standing up to him had scared her witless.
Carrie watched Lawrence caper up and down the length of the room, bowing ostentatiously to every woman present, his posturing accompanied by giggles and more than a few flushes of embarrassment.
Carrie's face flushed with shame. The man was a fool, she thought.
We are obviously in Carrie's POV. It's not necessary to tell us she watched Lawrence. Had she not been watching, she could not report his behavior. Nor is it necessary to identify who the thought belongs to. Who else's thought could it be?
The fix: Lawrence capered up and down the length of the room, bowing ostentatiously to every woman present, his posturing accompanied by giggles and more than a few flushes of embarrassment.
Carrie's face flushed with shame. The man was a fool.
'I hate you!' Eric shouted. 'I wish you'd died instead of Dad.'
Bethany gripped the arms of her chair. She felt John's absence like a blow, the pain sharp and immediate. He would have known how to deal with this. He'd always had the right words, the right comfort, the right expression.
We don't have to tell the reader that the character felt what the character felt. We need only describe the feeling.
The fix: 'I hate you!' Eric shouted. 'I wish you'd died instead of Dad.'
Bethany gripped the arms of her chair. John's absence hit her like a blow, the pain sharp and immediate. He would have known how to deal with this. He'd always had the right words, the right comfort, the right expression.
Writing the Fictional Dream
We can't write the fictional dream if we allow our characters to intrude on story events. The reader must be allowed to experience the story as it unfolds, without having her concentration jarred by the narrator, without being reminded again and again that she is really only reading a story.
As an editor and the moderator of an on-line critique group, I open a book to escape writers, not be reminded of them in every other sentence. I ask only that you let me lose myself in your fictional world. Please get your characters out of my way!
© 2002, Kate Gerard