Thursday, August 12, 2010

Gawking Characters

What is a gawking character? I always picture the old cartoon shows. When Bugs Bunny encountered the hot, female robot bunny trap set by Elmer Fudd, his eyes would pop out of his head, the outline of a heart would beat through his chest and his tongue would drop to his knees. But if you want a more technical (and not, in my opinion, as sassy) definition:

A "gawking character" is a narrator who tells the reader what happens in a scene instead of letting the reader experience the action directly. This is called narrator intrusion, and it robs the reader of the full experience, thus distancing him from the story. Inspiration for Writer's, Inc.

A gawking character can ruin a story and is an easy thing to spot. Just look for the words: hear, see, feel, taste and all other variations. Not to say they can never be used, but using them sparingly will boost the quality of your writing. (And do a lot more show, a lot less tell.)

Example of a very bad gawking character:
Jimmy heard the wail of the train whistle as the engine pulled away from the station. He saw Margaret, sitting in the third car next to the window, her broad-rimmed wicker hat with the rose on the front pressed to the glass. Jimmy hated that hat, almost as much as he hated Margaret. He should have been glad she was leaving, yet for some reason, when he could no longer see that stupid hat, he felt sad. He tasted the bitterness of regret on the back of his tongue.

Jimmy managed see, hear, feel and taste all in one short paragraph. No Jimmy, no!

Jimmy's Rewrite:
The train whistle wailed as the engine pulled away from the station. Margaret was on that train, in the third car next to the window, her broad-rimmed wicker hat with the rose on the front pressed to the glass. Jimmy hated that hat, almost as much as he hated Margaret. He should have been glad she was leaving, yet for some reason, when the stupid hat disappeared from view, a weight dropped in his chest. The bitterness of regret washed over his tongue.

Neither one of these excerpts is a work of art, but which one of the two do you think paints a better picture?

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