February 16, 2021
By Tina Jenkins Bell
There are days when I get into the groove of telling a story and in my head the arc of the story is complete, conflict and character motivation are evident, and the characters will have taken on the reality of living, breathing individuals. Sometimes, though, I occasionally see myself in a character or hear my own words instead of theirs. It's a common mistake called author intrusion.
What is Author Intrusion?
In the 19th and 20th centuries author intrusion was a device writers intentionally used to break away from the narrative and address the reader directly. F. Scott Fitzgerald used author intrusion near the end of The Great Gatsby. “So, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” he wrote, penning his personal belief that the American dream was elusive. The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, an era when this devices was a common way to create relationships between themselves and their readers or to add dimensions to their stories. Then, it was “the thing” to do.
These days author intrusion is passé. Even when used correctly or intentionally, it’s a ploy that causes editors and publishers to lift an eyebrow. Often, however, writers are unaware they've inserted themselves into their own prose.
Whether an emerging, mid-career, or experienced writer we are all susceptible to author intrusion. We don't realize we're infusing our personal habits, language or opinions onto our characters or into our stories. A fictional drug abuser in the pits of addiction, for example, suddenly speaks with the clarity of the author; the dialogue for a high school drop-out with no personal leanings toward education might ring professorial; a domestically abused woman who's been kept in the dark about family finances suddenly knows about her husband’s off-shore accounts.
Another way to commit author intrusion is when our characters turn into personal crusaders over a cause we, the writer, are passionate about. I was once on the editorial board for a journal that received a short story from a Catholic high school female student. The student wrote about a pregnant teen-aged girl who had to decide whether to keep or abort an unplanned pregnancy. The young student’s work was good, and almost certain to be published since the editors of the community publication were in need of an age-and experience-diverse collection of stories. Her protagonist was relatable as a frightened teen-aged girl, alone in her decision, and her storyline was engaging. But toward the end it took on a preachy tone, an anti-abortion crusade, as the student writer chided her protagonist for making her unborn child pay for her mistake. When the rhetoric fell too far from tone of the piece the editors rejected the story. They believed she was too heavy handed in applying her personal beliefs to her story.
Beyond dialogue and character, author intrusion can also infect the story’s time and place: In a Chicago setting a character leans against a palm tree on a beach in Rogers Park; a group of adolescent protagonists in a 1970s coming of age novel gather in a circle to do the Dougie, a dance that didn't emerge until 2011; a character in a 1960s setting uses Google to research the grandmother who haunts her. These anachronisms or incompatible chronologies are also author intrusions, disconcerting errors that move readers from believing to questioning.
Tips to Eliminating Author Intrusion
First, don’t beat yourself up when someone points out your author intrusions. That's why we have editors. Just fix it. But first learn how to identify it by taking these steps.
Avoid the compulsion to edit as you write. Identifying author intrusion while creating is an impossible feat and maddening to write with an editor’s eye.
Complete a rough draft and then give yourself time (days or weeks depending on length) between the completion of the first draft and editing it.
Read the rough draft and ask yourself if anything rings untrue to the story or abnormal for the character.
Look for words, phrases and actions that seem more yours or that of a friend or family member than the character's.
Eliminate dialogue that seems too autobiographical or an information dump of knowledge the character would not know.
Root out opinions and convenient background and other information that you want readers to know.
Look out for characters or story lines that wreak of personal leanings, attitudes and personal crusades.
How does a writer fix author intrusion?
My friend L.D. Barnes constructs detailed character bibles to paint the boundaries for actions her characters would and would not do or would and would not say. I am not quite as formal. I jump in, write and then depend on editorial oversights --- my own, beta readers, and my critique group --- to weed my intrusions. Here are a few more suggestions for avoiding or eliminating author intrusion.
Review your story as a reader by allowing yourself a break between creating and reading your story. Make notations but avoid the urge to edit as you read.
Know who your characters are –their front and back stories and their needs, conflicts, and roles in the story. In addition to the character bible, some writers create character questionnaires to figure out the characteristics, motivations, roles, actions, and conflicts of main characters.
Review dialogue to eliminate authorly words, phrases or knowledge.
Finally, whether you use character bibles or are an outliner or a “pantser,” recruit a critique group or beta readers as a second or third set of eyes.
Just remember, to err is human but so is author intrusion. Happy writing!
Tina Jenkins Bell is a published fiction writer, playwright, literary activist, and President Emeritus and cofounder of For Love of Writing (FLOW). Bell’s short fiction has been widely published in journals and anthologies including: “To the Moon and Back,” which appeared in Hypertext Journal and was nominated for an Illinois Arts Council award; her mini-memoir, “Devil’s Alley,” Us Against Alzheimer’s anthology; “Looking for the Good Boy, Yummy,” They Said anthology; “The Last Supper,” Revise the Psalm: Work Celebrating the Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks. Bell is currently working on her second novel, Family Legacies.
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