By Jessica Murphy
A "gawking character" is a narrator who tells the reader what happens in a scene instead of letting the reader experience the action directly. This is called narrator intrusion, and it robs the reader of the full experience, thus distancing him from the story. A gawking character looks like this:
Gawking: "Adam saw the orange glow and the black smoke rolling into the sky from where he stood on the corner of the block. As he jogged down the sidewalk toward it, he felt a cool breeze and smelled burning wood. As he ducked under the branch of a tree, he saw the burning house. From where he stood, he felt the intense heat and heard the flames roar and pop. Adam stepped forward toward the open front door but felt the searing heat from the sidewalk drive him back."
The words in red show you where the narrator steps between the reader and the action and tells the reader what happens. This detracts from the reader’s experience. A scene must allow readers to experience the action directly in order to grab them. Would you prefer to watch a friend eat a hot fudge sundae and tell you how sweet it tastes, or would you want to eat it yourself?
A gawking character is also redundant. The scene is told from the viewpoint character's perspective, so we already know that we are reading his or her experience. Telling the reader that the character is experiencing the scene is redundant.
Here is the same sentence without the gawking character:
Direct: "Adam glanced up from the corner of Kingwood and Beechurst. The starlit sky glowed orange, and thick smoke rolled across it. He spun on one heel, crunching grit on the sidewalk beneath his shoes, and ran down the street. The cool autumn breeze carried sparks and the smell of burning wood past him. As he brushed the branches of a tree out of his face, the burning house appeared.
A rushing roar filled Adam’s ears, and a wave of heat lifted the hairs on his tan arms. Shading his blue eyes with his hand, he squinted against the blinding light. Flames engulfed every inch of the house and licked at the cloudless sky. They popped and crackled from inside the house, the sounds echoing down the empty street. Adam rushed toward the front porch, but the heat seared his face. He fell back."
This time, the narrator does not water down the scene. We see no "Adam felt," "Adam saw," "Adam heard." Instead, the reader is the one standing on the sidewalk, seeing the flames, feeling their heat, hearing their roar. This direct experience captivates readers and keeps them interested.
A gawking character can also filter internal experiences, such as thoughts or emotions. Again, if the scene is being told from the viewpoint character's perspective, we can assume that any thoughts belong to that character (unless he or she can read others' thoughts or sense emotions).
Gawking: "Blood soaked through the fabric, and Preston realized he had plunged the blade into Jack’s side."
Since this scene is told from Preston’s point of view, he can be the only one who realizes something. We don’t need to state the obvious.
Direct: "A red stain spread across Jack's gut, matting the shirt to his skin. The silver blade glinted from where Preston had plunged it in Jack’s side."
The same holds true for emotions:
Gawking: "I felt worried, but a breeze made me feel a little better."
This is told in first person point of view, so the narrator must be the one who felt worried. After all, he cannot feel another character’s emotions. So, stating what the narrator felt is redundant.
Direct: "My stomach churned, but the crisp air cooled my feverish skin and the nausea settled for the moment."
If you take out the gawking character, your readers can experience every scene directly. Any less cheats them out of the story and, in the end, loses them.