Staying in character – don’t break the umbilical cord

And carrying on this whole character thing – yah, it’s that important – it’s that time of year again when I get a pile of advance submissions for an upcoming writer’s conference. One of the things I’ve noticed is the tendency to break the umbilical cord between the narrative and the character. Whether a story is told in first or third person POV, the author sets a tone, creates a voice that needs to stay “in character.” It’s like having a gun-toting gang banger sip tea out of a china teacup with his pinkie pointed toward the sky. It could be a fun affectation, but aside from that the action, in itself, isn’t logical because it’s out of character.

Here’s an example:

Joe wiped his mouth, spitting out the iron taste of blood. The cheap Coors Light neon billboard cast off a glow that reflected fury in the rabid beagle’s eyes. Her menacing growl dissolved the cartilage in Joe’s knees and cramped his gut. Damn thing is gonna shred me from stem to stern. He knew he should have served her a margarita, but for chrissakes, a beagle that drinks margaritas? What the hell happened to Kibbles ‘N Bits and a goddamned bowl of water?

Sucking in a lungful of air, Joe cracked a bottle on the bar, exposing the jagged end.  Come and get me, you drippy-fanged, rabid fleabag. A soft breeze floated on angel’s wings through an open window, carrying the delicate scent of gardenias and jasmine. The beagle’s growl grew louder as she slowly advanced. She tossed aside her Dooney and Burke handbag and leaped into the air toward Joe’s exposed jugular.

The voice is gritty and raw. Does it seem likely that the narrator would notice a lovely soft breeze on angel’s wings, smelling of gardenias and jasmine? Not a chance. The verbiage is all wrong, the tone is all wrong. It’s almost poetic and it fights against the grit of the scene and the established voice. It’s a clunk. It’s illogical. And these things make editors scream.

I appreciate keeping all the tactile senses going in order to enhance a scene, but it needs to stay in character. If you want that breeze coming in, make sure that it’s consistent with the rest of the voice:

A faint breeze wafted in through the cracked window, momentarily cooling the sweat and blood that mixed together on Joe’s gritty face.

Not Hemingway or Steinbeck, to be sure, but you get the idea.

Stay. In. Character.

And this is what I see in some of these submissions – and in submissions that cross my desk. I appreciate the urge to flex your muscles a bit and mix in something that says you have the chops to do all kinds of writing. But what happens is that you take me right out of your story because you broke the umbilical cord between the established voice that is tied into the scene. The narrator’s voice has to be consistent with the story you’re telling.

If you want lyrical , go write it. If you want gritty, go write it. But don’t try to convince me that a gang banger will notice the way the moon dances with the clouds during a knife fight. It just doesn’t fly.

As for the beagle? I recommend giving her the damned margarita.

3 Responses to Staying in character – don’t break the umbilical cord

  1. Scott says:

    Thanks for the advice and the laugh – “What the hell happened to Kibbles ‘N Bits and a goddamned bowl of water?” Too funny. TGIF and Margarita Night! Have a great weekend.


  2. Voidwalker says:

    Hey, I happen to know quite a few dignified gang bangers who enjoy a good cup of chai! lol 😛

    Just kidding. I agree with Scott. Thanks for the laugh and the perspective.

  3. Steve says:

    I think writing a teen character makes the problem somewhat easier. Most normal teens can be 5 different people in a day and barely even notice.


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