Mar 04 2008

Why Maintain Authorial Distance?

This article discusses why it is critical to think of your characters as distinct from you.


1. Authorial distance will help you keep all your characters from sounding alike (like you).

2. It will help remind you to respect your characters. They all have their own feelings, traits and tendencies. As a rule, you should give every character at least one trait that you do not find endearing and will not expect readers to find endearing in the context of the story. (Being violent does not count: violence is almost always justified within the story).

3. If you insert yourself into the story, you may inadvertently draw characters you don’t like as nasty, villainous cartoons and your protagonists as gleaming heroes opposed only by the heartless and cruel. Readers generally like plots and characters that are deeper than that. Frequently, cartoonishly evil characters can even breed contempt for the piece. For example, in X-Men most of the explicitly Christian characters are wildly evil, which squanders much of the story’s dramatic potential. Readers deserve more than “AH HATE YOU CAUSE YER A MUTANT AND AH’M AH SOUTHERNER.”

4. It will help you keep your world consistent with your audience’s expectations. If you’re writing a character as a drone rebelling against that jerk boss you’ve always hated, you may inadvertently bend reality to help your character. For example, if your protagonist were to tell his boss to screw himself, the audience would expect that he get fired. Period. If the boss just sits there and takes it, we will wonder what rules guide your world. Also, if the boss is so tolerant and forgiving that he refuses to fire his obnoxious employee, why should we hate the boss?

5. It will help you keep your plot complicated and satisfying. When the rebel “wins” by telling his boss off and his boss just rolls over, that’s not satisfying. Everyone knows that real-life doesn’t work that way. In contrast, if you show us how your rebel wins by subtly sabotaging the boss and turning the company against him, then the rebel will look like a real stud. The more your hero is constrained by observable rules, the more impressive his victory will be.

If you absolutely need a scene where your employee tells the boss to screw himself, have him get fired. Your readers will expect that. That will also develop the employee’s convictions and his willingness to stick up for his principles. In contrast, that’s missing if the employee gets off without being punished.

6. Several relationships are particularly prone to wish-fulfillment fantasies.

  1. A spurned lover gets revenge against his or her ex (First Wives Club).
  2. Sympathetic underlings get revenge against their cruel bosses (Office Space, Spiderman).
  3. Heroic underlings fight for what’s right against evil or criminally incompetent bosses (police dramas, Captain America and The Day After Tomorrow). This often takes on political undertones.
  4. Geeks stick up against nasty jocks (Soon I Will Be Invincible, among many others).
  5. Characters facing prejudice/mistreatment based on the author’s life.  “I want to write a book where a protagonist with my mental disorder teaches people that everything they know about my mental disorder is wrong!”   Usually, people that buy fiction are looking for entertainment, not education.

Getting too close to the story is a problem because it cues the readers that this story is about you rather than them. That makes it a lot less immersive.

It also leads to in-jokes and self-absorption. The author’s life is almost never as interesting or funny to the audience as it is to him. Even those that have a great amount of information about a field that is widely interesting, like Tom Clancy’s depth of national security information, will get bogged down by hopelessly arcane details about submarines that no one cares about. One of our contributors suggests that the funnest way to read a Tom Clancy book is to skip any chapter that’s set on a submarine.  (But don’t get confused if an enemy ship suddenly disappears from the plot–just chalk it up to the submarine and move on).

6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Why Maintain Authorial Distance?”

  1. […] Please don’t use any mental disorders you have. It will probably be harder for you to determine what your readers will think about the character if you’re on the inside looking out.  Using your own conditions also raises severe authorial-distance problems. […]

  2. Bretton 22 Oct 2008 at 8:34 pm

    when did spiderman get revenge on his boss?

  3. B. Macon 22 Oct 2008 at 8:36 pm

    When he rescued him from the supervillain. I think that was Spiderman 1 but it may have been Spidey 2.

  4. Rajat Agarwalon 11 Nov 2014 at 9:25 pm

    Really? What would you call David Copperfield then? There’s a whole list of award winning autobiographical novels here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autobiographical_novel.

    I totally disagree with maintaining authorial distance.

    Anyone here agree with me?

  5. Dr. Slavicon 12 Nov 2014 at 6:55 am

    I would just be concerned about a novice writer trying to sell to publishers a book about themselves without having other content out first. However, this article isn’t about autobiographical pieces, which is something different. It’s about making characters that are their own character, not just a manifestation of [what you think of] yourself. It has a tendency to create less realistic, Mary Sue type characters.
    The only other thing about autobiographical pieces is that it seems to be difficult to pull that off in a superhero story. I’m sure there’s a way, but it seems way less autobiographical than it does novel (Unless, of course, you actually do have superpowers! In which case, power to you, good sir.)

  6. Cat-vacuumer Supremeon 14 Sep 2016 at 9:38 am

    I had the most useless powers ever. 1. Magic (some other people have it too) It’s really only good for creating small beams of light. I can still do this, but I can’t see them. 2. Touching a plant and telling what it can be used for. I lost this power. 3. Sharing dreams, but only if the other person (I never tried more than 1) would meet me in a certain place in their dreams. I lost my powers after a dream about demons identical to one someone I knew had had before. It would be interesting to use minor powers like those to save the world, if anyone wants to try . . .

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