Author of Science Fiction & Fantasy

Why do writers have characters do things to themselves?

I’ve seen it many times. Too many. Characters in novels doing things to themselves.

For example:

He got himself out of bed.

Imagine you are Drax the Destroyer from Guardians Of The Galaxy. You would take everything literally.

To Drax, the prose above would be most confusing. How could he get himself out of bed? That would require there to be two of him. One to pull the other out of the bed.

Sure, everyone understands what is meant and so the prose is considered acceptable. Or is it? Just because such vernacular is commonplace in the English language doesn’t mean it’s good writing. In questioning this practice with other writers I have come to the conclusion this is a form of filtering, an issue I am constantly struggling to prevent in my work.

Filtering: “Filtering” is when the writer forces us to “look at rather than through” the point-of-view character’s eyes.

Filtering can inadvertently hold the reader at a distance, especially when working in a close 1st or 3rd-person point-of-view, and keeps the reader from sinking comfortably into the fictional dream. One moment the reader is hunched over the POV character’s shoulder, observing the world as if he is that character; seeing only what the character sees. But stumble across a “filtered observation” and suddenly the reader is looking at the character instead of with the character — watching the character as the character watches something else.

This all comes back to the desire to write in an active tense rather than a passive one. In striking the word himself from the example you end up with:

He got out of bed.

Same meaning, same intent, and yet, different. It’s a feel of some sort. Where the original example is passive and may reflect a struggle by the character to achieve the goal of getting out of bed, the revised sentence is active and direct. There is no question of what is happening.

So what is better?

I suppose it comes down to a case of use versus abuse. Like the occasional use of an adverb, (you know those -ly words editors are constantly asking writers to remove) the rare use of having characters do something to themselves may be acceptable, but like adverbs, too many is not a good thing.

With apologies to the author, Bradley P. Beaulieu, I became acutely aware of the issue when reading The Winds Of Khalakovo, edited by Ross E. Lockhart.

For those of you who by chance have a copy, on page 383, one third of the way down.

And so she found herself fighting to keep herself from sliding along the thwart, fighting to stay warm, fighting to prevent herself from heaving again, an action that brought only pain.

Wow. In one sentence the character did something to herself three times! As before, if I’m Drax, that would make… (counting on fingers) …four of her! You can see the conundrum such a statement would make.

Now either the editor found such prose acceptable or the author rejected the edit. I will never know for sure. What I can derive from this and other examples is such filtering is nothing if not pervasive.

In trying to decide how I should proceed, I’ve made the business decision to do my utmost to maintain an active voice in my writing and edit out all filters. That means, among other things, no characters doing things to themselves. How you choose to proceed is only a question you can answer for yourself! (wink wink)

One response

  1. Annamaria Bazzi

    this is great! I do agree with you and at the moment i’m reading Rivet your Readers with Deep Point of View by Elizabeth Nelson. narrating in a novel is something that happens so easily if the author doesn’t stay on his toes.

    December 23, 2014 at 9:08 pm

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