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Hate The Surrogate

August 16, 2012

You know how that one character comes out and hands the reader a morality lesson wrapped up with a bow on top? I hate that. I can think of no greater insult to a reader’s intelligence than for an author to march a character out with the purpose of putting the work into the right perspective for those too dumb to get the message. I like to think that those of us who pick up a novel have enough gray matter to interpret the meaning of a story.

As far as I know, the most blatant use of an author surrogate is found in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. A character named John Galt speaks for an entire chapter. No matter what your opinion is on Objectivism (please, no politics), I’m sure any reasonable person will admit that this was not necessary. Every idea in that speech had already been expressed and repeated prior to that point.  It all boils down to this:  everyone needs to be responsible to only himself and Adam Smith’s invisible hand (and a bit of hard work) will transform this world into a paradise.

How about Michael Crichtons character of Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park? Malcolm’s constant anti-science rhetoric is prophetic of the blunders caused by the scientists.  While the movie dumbed Malcolm’s polemic down to nature will find a way”, the novel had a more reasoned objection that relied on inaccurate  science.  The moral of the story was pretty blatant in both the novel and the movie:  if you play God, a dinosaur will eat you!

Want me to blow your mind? The Ghost of Christmas Past and (especially) the Ghost of Christmas Present are Author Surrogates for Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol. I know, we all get the warm and fuzzies from this classic story of redemption, but Dickens wasn’t exactly subtle in his message. In case you didn’t get it: selfish bad, generosity good.

Geoffrey Chaucer and Dante Aligheri both used Author Surrogates (technically Author Insertions, but whatever), so far better than me have found this literary technique to be sound. I just hate the assumption that readers can’t get it on their own. I say, if an author treats his readers as idiots, there might be a self-fulfilling prophecy in action. I’m not suggesting authors should write pretensious prose. I just think that every author should trust his readers to come to their own conclusions. And if there is disagreement or confusion over the “true meaning of a story? Then well done author! You made people think for themselves. Socrates would be proud.

If you read The Tears of Things, you may come to the conclusion that one of my characters neatly sums up the central theme of the book. While I think determining the theme of a book is ultimately up to the reader (see above), I respectfully disagree. None of my characters speak for me. And neither will I interpret my own novel . . . other than to say that, in my opinion, the theme was never overtly stated in the novel.

I will say one thing (rather ambiguously) related to theme:  the ordering of scenes was deliberately done.

From → Writing

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