Narrative Techniques: Audience Surrogates

A series exploring storytelling techniques. This essay looks at effectively creating characters which are surrogates for the audience.

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Audience surrogates exist in many, if not all, works of fiction. The author may place them intentionally, or they may occur by accident due to how the mechanics of the story unfold. You may find yourself wondering whether you have an audience surrogate within your work already, or you may be wondering how to best utilise such a character, and, well, it really is quite simple.

Audience surrogates are those characters you find who ask the same questions an audience would, or are confused by the same things an audience would: someone who can act as a proxy for the audience within the story. For example, Harry Potter acts as an audience surrogate, as he is taken from the normal world and introduced to Hogwarts as we, the readers, are. His complete lack of knowledge and consequent wonder in regards to the wizarding world is what the audience has when reading the novels. As Harry moves throughout the story he faces entirely foreign concepts to both him and the audience, and by having him oblivious, he is able to ask other characters and avoid the dreaded narrative exposition dumps. Though exposition dumps do technically still happen, they are provided in a much more digestible format in dialogue.

Having an audience surrogate swept from one world into another is a commonly used technique, particularly in fantasy, or even science-fiction. Take Bastion from the Never Ending Story, for example, or even just a simple traveller, like Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit. As these are dense worlds that are entirely new to audiences, it is advisable for fantasy and/or science-fiction authors to take care with their audience surrogates. If done improperly the dialogue will come as stagnant as an exposition dump in an already dense book.

Audience surrogates aren’t restricted to viewpoint characters, but can occur in any characters that ask what the audience would ask or say things the audience would say.

Your bird, there was nothing I could do. He just caught fire!

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by JK Rowling

You have a main character that is new to the village that seems a little odd. There’s a groundskeeper in a nearby cemetery that attracts his attention. A third person narrative would be tempted to write that the groundskeeper has always lived there for as long as the other school children and their parents can remember, but that would waste a good opportunity to build atmosphere and character development. Also, if it is first person, how would the main character know this? They have to ask. Whether this is a red herring, or he might be the eventual villain, don’t waste a good opportunity.

Despite people assuming audience surrogates to be a narrative tool within science-fiction and fantasy, it is quite popular outside of genre fare. Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories is an audience surrogate, often asking the brilliant and mysterious Mr Holmes how he came to his deductions and conclusions. It provides the audience a character outside of Sherlock with whom to identify and to then marvel at the wonder of the titular character.

While having an audience surrogate can often push a writer into clichés, it must be noted that this technique is extremely helpful when world-building or introducing audiences into stories that are dense with information. That is why it appears that pairing rookie cops with more experienced partners in crime thrillers doesn’t seem to be dying away any time soon. Having a rookie cop enables a gateway into the novel. Just like the reader, the rookie may not be sure what all the lingo coming from a confidential informant means, but if their partner is there to answer their questions it can help add a sense of realism to the dialogue as well as flesh out the characters.

It’d be pretty hard to find a fiction book without a surrogate audience, and, being truthful, it’d be pretty hard to write a book without one. They can be main characters or secondary characters. There can be more than one. While this is a tool, it is a very versatile one if you know what you’re looking at, what you want to build with it, and how to use it.

For example, in the Harry Potter series there is always new information being thrown at the audience in regards to the wizarding world. As Harry has not grown up in this environment his wonder lasts for quite a while, but eventually he’d no longer be amazed.

In the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss knows her district very well, but she is then thrown into a world that is in stark contrast to her own. While she is aware of what the Hunger Games are, she has no real understanding of the politics behind it, nor does she understand the otherworldly lifestyles of the rich that fund and sponsor the Tributes. Katniss acts as an audience surrogate, although not as often as Harry Potter, yet the information she learns offers retrospect to the beginning chapters when she doesn’t particularly act as one.

Now, as previously mentioned, audience surrogates don’t just ask the questions, but they say the things that the audience is thinking, such as, “this plan isn’t going to work,” because logically it shouldn’t. When utilised effectively, this can be used quite well in a comical way, or even has the potential to become quite meta. This character can either break the fourth wall or gently stroke it, depending on what is said and how they say it. Marvel’s character Deadpool is an excellent example of taking this beyond what many would think is achievable.

Whatever your story, however you wish to get your world and characters across, there is an audience surrogate for you. While a lot of writing advice nowadays tells you to avoid certain clichés, this is one that is almost impossible to avoid and, with proper care and consideration, can be a powerful tool under your belt.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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