Monday, January 26, 2015

Dialog to Avoid: "As a ____, I . . ."

Here’s an irritating little phrase that we’ve all heard or read some variety of in a story: “As a _____, I . . .”

     “As a mortician, I can tell you that her description of the embalming process is accurate.”

     “As a psychologist, it is my expert opinion that this man is completely off his nutter.”

     “As your mother, I cannot allow you to meet with that girl anymore.”

     “As lord of these lands, it is my duty to care for the needs of the lesser beings under my rule.”

     “As someone who blogs about prose and grammar, I am constantly showered with praise and entirely deserved adoration.”
"And money. Don't forget all the money."

Nine times out of ten, this phrase and its variations are unrealistic, unnecessary, or unintentionally arrogant. Unrealistic, because they tend to be a form of maid-and-butler dialog, where a character tells people information they should already know. Take that third example above—whoever the woman’s child is, they already know that she was their mother. She didn’t need to say it. It feels like breaking the fourth wall; the woman isn’t identifying herself as the other character’s mother for the purpose of speaking to her child, she’s doing it because the author needed to let the audience know that she was the other character’s mother (and even then, it was probably already obvious to the readers).

That brings us to the second problem—such phrases are generally unnecessary. You’ll almost never encounter a situation where a character needs to explain who they are or what qualifications they possess before they speak. Usually, if you’ve done your job right, you’ll have explained all that far more smoothly in some other situation.

So often, when this phrase pops up, it is because the author wanted to remind the readers who this character is or what their qualifications are. Maybe the character hasn’t been around for a while, or you simply haven’t mentioned their profession in some time. In those situations, find a smoother way to work a reminder in. Or, better yet, trust your readers to remember what you told them before. If they don’t, maybe you need to make the character’s profession or position a stronger part of their character so that your audience won’t forget who they are.

But what about situations where the people around a character genuinely don’t know who a character is? That would justify them beginning a sentence in this way, right? Well, yes . . . but . . . that brings us to the final problem with this phrase: unintentionally arrogant.

Writers tend to be a loquacious bunch—we usually have respectably large vocabularies and a great fondness for words. We tend to read a lot, sometimes far more than we actually speak to other people. Being insulated into a group that so loves wordplay and a well-spoken turn of phrase can skew our perspective on how people actually speak. It can also blind us to how we ourselves sometimes sound when we speak.

So, that said, here is a variety of ways to express the thought “As a ____, I . . .”:

     “Oh, I can answer that—I’m a nursing student at the U. I think she actually got the details of the procedure pretty close to perfect.”

     “Hon, I know you don’t like it, but it’s a father’s job to look out for his daughter. I don’t think you should go out with that boy again.”

     “Well, if you want an engineer’s opinion, I’m happy to give mine. That whole design is completely infeasible.”

     “As an artist, I am frequently misunderstood by those around me.”

Which of those sounds the most arrogant? Now, this could just be me, but I generally feel like “As a ____, I . . .” is pretty much the most puffed-up way of expressing one’s qualifications.

Of course it’s possible to use this phrase in a way that doesn’t sound arrogant. But in those cases, the lack of arrogance is generally conveyed through tone and body language. When you’re writing, you can’t rely on those tools. So you have the distinct possibility that people will supply their own emphasis and tone to words which make them think of these sorts of people:

     “Well, as a vegan, I don’t believe in hurting any creatures in any way, especially for my own mere comforts.”

     “As a Christian, I would never let my daughter behave in that manner. It’s just not right.”

Now, sometimes you’ll have a character who is rather puffed-up with their own importance, or who is very loquacious and maybe a little oblivious to how they sound. If that’s the case, then it might be worth busting out the “As a ____, I . . .” phrase. Most of the time, however, people just don’t speak that way—it’s redundant, odd, and often viewed as an indication of self-importance.

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