Once again the internet fails me, and I resort to a feature image that doesn’t actually illustrate my point. Ah, well. I guess I’m relying on my silver tongue and dashing good looks to get me out of this mess. But hey, who doesn’t like Republic Commandos? (Random: my fingers are so frozen they can barely type!)
And as follows to my customary first (and useless) one-paragraph introduction, I’m here to discuss the Author Surrogate, or the AS as he/she/it will be referred to for the rest of the article. This is what DMs resort to after putting as many hints as they could possibly manage into the adventure, and has to smack the players with a two-by-four before they actually decide to visit the lost mine. (I’ll explain in a moment)
First of all, what exactly is an Author Surrogate? The AS is a character within a story that voices the thoughts/concerns/sentiments of the author. In D&D, this would usually be known as a DM NPC (as you can see, I’m adept with my acronyms), or Dungeon Master Non-Player Character.
The AS has two uses: the right way and the wrong way. The right way is that the AS helps the story in some way by motivating things and pointing out problems that need to be solved. The AS is usually that one guy in the party who’s always saying “but guys, what about this” and points out the problems with a certain plan or plot. An AS done right serves to highlight the story’s conflict for the reader without them knowing that it’s actually the author in disguise.
An AS done poorly is when the author is obviously puppeting them to talk about certain things. For example, Ariadne from Inception (great movie, but this character was a bit more annoying than the others) is an author surrogate for most of the story, but in some places (like when she takes advantage of Cobb’s distraction and sinks deeper into his subconscious to find Mal) she’s making moves that don’t seem characteristic of her. Like, who would want to delve deeper into your teammate’s creepy subconscious?
But she did it so that mah boy Chris Nolan could tell us more about Mal. Her writing is better in other places, but that’s one example. When the AS is going out of their way to ask questions about the world, characters’ motives, and the conflicts, the reader feels like they’re being herded.
But is there even a good reason to have an AS at all? Yeah, there actually is: especially in stories where there’s a lot of worldbuilding or a lot of mystery (or both) you need someone to guide the reader through the tougher parts. Recaps, explanations, and easily answered questions are good for this. Watson is an invaluable part of Holmes’ adventures, because without him we’d be as clueless as everyone else in the story.
Someone needs to ask questions about Holmes’ goings-on, and Watson’s the perfect outlet for explaining things to the reader. So, the inevitable question is posed: how exactly do you craft a good Author Surrogate? Welp, it’s my job to give you some tips on this, so brace for impact.
Inexperience is key when making an AS. Someone who’s competent won’t ask questions and highlight problems. A student will do that. This is why a lot of fantasy stories have a master-apprentice plot: the apprentice asks questions about the great, wide world, and the master answers them. Ignorance or inexperience is mandatory for a good AS.
Avoid someone who’s predisposed to unintelligence (or in other words, someone who’s stupid). While it may seem like a good idea at first, stupid people continually having to have things explained to them just get really annoying in the long run. Plus, it’s harder to identify with them. Picking a young, curious, stubborn adolescent is a lot of writers’ first choice. The next best would be someone who’s just had a lot of extremely bewildering things happen to them. Focus on what the reader doesn’t know, make the AS have the same ignorance, and make them predisposed to ask questions. Simple.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!