Oh No! A Common Pitfall that can distance your Readers from your Characters

A large issue I’ve been struggling with for quite some time had no name. Now, I know that it was the concept called “filtering.”

I’ve had an unholy amount of critiques/beta reads come back on my work complaining how the reader felt “distanced” from the main character.

“I want to know what she’s thinking! I want to get inside her head!”

Now, this confused me to great lengths. The work is First Person PoV and I even denote thoughts through italics. You are literally inside her head!

After receiving the same complaint over and over, I gnashed my teeth, and then dove into the critiques side-by-side. What did all of these have in common? I know the critiques are picking up on something I’m doing wrong. Something in the sequence of words are describing the events from far away, rather than from the main character herself.

Then it hit me. I was filtering. Below is an example of before and after revision.

Before

I felt annoyed that he would continually go over the same spot, but I didn’t speak a word of complaint. I felt sweat trickle down my brow as the smoldering fires slowly crept up the length of my back. The minutes dragged on endlessly as he continued his work. Minutes turned into hours, endless hours. I felt my heart racing as I panted through the pain.     

 After

 I gritted my teeth in annoyance that he would continually go over the same tender spot, but I didn’t speak a word of complaint. Sweat trickled down my brow as the smoldering fires slowly crept up the length of my back.

     The minutes dragged on endlessly as he continued his work. Minutes turned into hours, endless hours. My heart raced as I panted through the pain.    

I think you can see the pattern. Instead of saying she was annoyed through action, I told the reader than she felt annoyed. By doing that, we are stepping back and being told a factual state about the character. But, when we hear an action: she gritted her teeth, we can feel her annoyance. And in other cases, the “felt” could be removed entirely. It only served to distance the reader as secondhand information, instead of immersing them into the action.

Filtering is not just limited to the description “felt,” but also “saw,” “heard,” and even time lapses such as “suddenly” or “quickly.” Do you really need to mention that your character heard a voice in the distance? Or can you simply say that there was a voice carried by the wind?

Do you need to say: “Suddenly, the doorbell rang.” I don’t think so. It’ll be much more surprising and sudden if the doorbell rings without being verbally warned.

This concept is a bit more advanced. Comb through your manuscript and see where you can remove such notations that let us know the character saw or heard something, and just state it as a fact. If we are already in First, or Third Person Limited PoV, we are seeing the world through the character’s eyes. This means that any action being described is automatically seen or heard by the main character. In most cases it’s going to be redundant to point it out.

For concepts such as this and more, I recommend author Browne and King’s book on Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Happy editing!

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