Are You Grammatically
Dismembering Your Characters?
by Jason Black
It's true. From time to time, writers dismember their
characters. I don't mean they do it with cleavers or chainsaws.
I don't mean that this happens in the plot. They do it with
grammar. When writers put a character’s parts in the grammatical
subject position instead of the character herself, the character
can come to exist not so much as her whole self but as a
collection of individual body parts that happen to be arranged
in a vaguely human manner.
Any portion of a character will do: Physical parts like feet,
ears, and eyes. Non-corporeal parts such as the mind, the
senses, and in paranormal or fantasy literature, special
abilities such as far-sight and the like. Here’s an example.
Susan’s worry rose, blocking her mind from any other thoughts.
Where’s Alex? He should be here by now. Her eyes scanned the
theater lobby, the sidewalk outside, the parking lot, looking
for him. They saw nothing.
On the surface, it’s not literally true. Susan’s worry itself
didn’t actually do anything. Susan is the one who did the
worrying. Similarly, her eyes did not elect to scan her
surroundings all by themselves. Susan scanned her surroundings,
using her eyes.
But the way the example is written gives the notion of Susan's
worry doing battle with Susan's brain. It suggests Susan's eyes
taking leave of her, to float around Susan's surroundings, doing
what eyes do but coming up empty. At no point in that passage is
the whole person of Susan in charge of anything.
It may seem like a harmless question of style. Reasonable
readers certainly do take the intended meaning just fine. They
don’t automatically jump to the erroneous literal interpretation
of those words. But every time you put a character’s parts in
the subject position of the sentence, you rob the character of
just a little bit of power. You take the whole character out of
control, in favor of a mere portion of her.
This is a case where the cliché is absolutely true. The whole
really is greater than the sum of the parts. A whole character,
a whole person, creates much stronger resonance with the reader
than the result of presenting the character’s parts one by one.
Even if each and every part gets a turn.
Every time you do this, you send a subtle message that the
character isn’t really in charge. That she, the whole person, is
but a slave to her parts. The cumulative effect of consistent
grammatical dismemberment makes the overall character seem more
passive, less action-oriented. When Susan’s senses reach out,
when her parts act while the grammar has her sit idly by, it
undermines the reader’s ability to believe in Susan as a strong
agent of action in the story.
It's fine to do this once in a while. This bit of grammatical
synecdoche is not problematic in and of itself, so long as you
use it in moderation. It's when an entire manuscript
consistently puts the parts before the person that you have a
problem. Keep your whole character in charge most of the time,
and you'll be fine.
There are circumstances when it is appropriate to put a
fractional character in the subject position. Chief among these
when a character experiences involuntary actions. When the heart
quickens, it does so without our conscious bidding. When a sudden
fright causes adrenaline to dump into our bloodstream, that’s
automatic. We do not choose to blush. We humans do experience
uncontrollable physiological responses to the events of our lives,
and there's nothing wrong with portraying those responses as they
Anything a character’s body does that is outside of her conscious
control is fair game to put into the subject position of the
sentence. In those circumstances, the whole character truly is not
in control. In such times, it is perfectly appropriate for something
else to occupy the subject position.
The other notable exception is the hands. Hands are so closely
associated with the exercise of ordinary human will as to constitute
a special case. At least in English, it is almost idiomatic that
hands stand in for our will. In situations such as the following, we
implicitly interpret a character's hands as tools the character is
using to express her whole self's will:
Elaine's hand flew across the page as she penned the lines of a
sonnet she was sure would win her the Frost Medal.
Reversing the pattern
Hands are so closely associated with the will that reversing this
expectation creates a powerful effect. Horror fiction and movies, in
fact, seem to delight in turning characters’ hands against them. One
of the most memorable scenes in the cult-classic horror movie The
Evil Dead involves the character of Ash fighting his own
murderous hand before ultimately dismembering it to save his own
Think about the reversal going on there, and how Ash’s response
portrays him. Ash’s hand becomes possessed, such that he no longer
controls it. It is now a tool in service of another entity's will,
and it attacks him. Ash is rightfully shocked. He is out of control
of his own body. To regain control and save himself he is forced to
physically separate himself, in an act of fully willful
dismemberment, from his own hand.
Ash's personal strength, his fitness to be the movie's protagonist,
comes shining through. Even when his hand took the subject position,
Ash remained the ultimate agent of action.
Such circumstances are clearly the exception. The rest of the
time—that is, when demonic possession is not involved—don’t
dismember your characters by accident. Leave your whole characters
as the agents of action, and let their body parts remain tools of
the will as they properly are.
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Jason Black is a Seattle area book doctor who helps novelists sort
out the thorny issues in their novels. He is a regular
presenter at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference, and is writing a
handbook on character development techniques. To learn more about
Jason or read his blog, visit his website at