Editor’s Note: In addition to managing editor of Writing from the Peak, I volunteer for open critique liaison as Pikes Peak Writers the first Wednesday of every month. As such I’m always interested in guest “critiquers.” One such guest was J.T. Evans. I’ve been a member of a critique groups for many years, but his critique was so novel and beneficial and his buzz words foreign to me that I asked him to do a series of articles explaining them. Character filtering is the first. Next month he’ll address word territory. I hope you'll find them as useful as I do.
By J.T. Evans
Lots of phrases, buzz words, slang, jargon, and perfectly cromulent words are thrown about critique groups on a regular basis. Newcomers to critique groups can mentally stumble when they hear something along the lines of, "The POV in your WIP head hops through white room syndrome, and all of the narrative is written in passive voice with lots of tense shifts."
POV? WIP? White rooms? Is there padding on the walls of these white rooms? I feel like I'm going insane! I know I'm tense, but how is that shifting around? Well, have no fear. I'm here to help expand your vocabulary into the writerly world of the critique group.
This month, I'm going to cover character filtering.
Character filtering is a style of writing where some, most, or all actions in a scene are forced through a character's perception instead of letting the actions stand on their own. In most writing, we know who the point of view character is, so telling us that character saw an action is superfluous. It puts a layer between the activities going on in the scene and the reader.
Here are some examples:
• George watched as Melissa ran in front of the car.
• Harry saw the ball bounce down the road.
• Laurin watched Gerra see the arrows fly through the sky toward the two women.
All of these contain a character (presumably the point of view character) observing something going on. In the third example, we're double filtering (yes, I've seen this before), which is even worse than normal. In this case, two wrongs don't make a right.
Here's how I would fix the above examples:
• Melissa ran in front of the car.
• The ball bounced down the road.
• Arrows flew through the sky toward the two women.
See how succinct and to the point the sentences become? If you need to cut words, character filtering is a great place to start. If you've received feedback about complex sentences or sentences that are too long, cutting out filtering is a good thing.
What if a character is helpless and only able to watch what is going on around them? This might be a legitimate use of character filtering, but I suggest there are better ways of exploring being tied up, paralyzed, concussed so badly that coherent thought can't happen, and so on. I can see character filtering being used to drive home the point that a character is unable to act. However, repeating the pattern in close proximity might annoy your readers (and agents and editors).
I’ve had people suggest there are better ways to explore nonvisual senses, e.g. hearing, touch, and smell by way of character filtering. In these cases, make sense the primary actor in the sentence. Example: Instead of “Andrea heard the crunch of boots on the gravel behind her," delete heard and try writing it as: “Boots crunched on the gravel behind Andrea.” Yes, this puts your protagonist at the end of the sentence, but also puts the emphasis on the boots (and someone) behind her. This is a good chance to avoid filtering and increase tension at the same time.
Lastly, I’ve heard the argument that character filtering allows us to write our characters as reactive to something in the moment. Something like, “Zach winced as he watched the baseball bat thud into Charlie’s knee,” works well enough. I recommend a slight edit: “The baseball bat arced toward Charlie’s knee. Zach couldn’t handle the violence and closed his eyes hard against the thud of the bat into flesh.” Okay. Maybe the “fixed” part is a little overwritten, but here’s your chance to show something about Zach’s character as well. We still get the same effect. Poor Charlie’s knee will never be the same.
If you've heard a phrase or word in a critique group and you think others should know about it (or you're not sure what to think of it), drop me a comment below, and I'll add it to my list of Buzz Words to talk about.
About the Author: J.T. Evans writes fantasy novels. He also dabbles with science fiction and horror short stories. He is the president of Pikes Peak Writers. When not writing, he secures computers at the Day Job, homebrews great beers, spends time with his family, and plays way too many card/board/role-playing games.