Autonomous body parts act independently of the person to whom they belong. Like Frankenstein’s monster, this is something you’ll want to avoid!
Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein is a young scientist who creates a grotesque but sapient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. It’s a well-known story that doesn’t actually involve body parts being grafted together to form a whole, but that’s the version of the monster that became the most famous. It’s the perfect analogy for this blog’s topic: autonomous body parts in fiction. It sounds like this would never happen to any writer, but here is an example that might change your mind:
The car came around the bend at top speed and Mandy’s hand shot out. “Sarah!”
Sarah’s eyes flew over the frenzied group of people trying to get out of the way. Her foot slid back.
After what felt like an eternity, Mandy’s fingers got a hold of Sarah’s upper arm and yanked.
Every underlined action in the above example is a tiny Frankensteinian creation: body parts doing things without Mandy’s or Sarah’s permission. Body parts operating independently can create confusion, and they take the focus away from the character. Mandy and Sarah are doing all these things, after all, not their body parts. Autonomous body parts can also produce hilarious images in the minds of the reader, like those of eyeballs flying around the room, hands shooting off the character’s wrists, and feet clicking off ankles and moonwalking away.
Here is a rewrite of the scene above where the body parts of these characters stay firmly in place:
The car came around the bend at top speed and Mandy reached out on instinct. “Sarah!”
Sarah’s gaze flew over the heads of the frenzied group of people trying to get out of the way. She stepped back.
After what felt like an eternity, Mandy got a hold of Sarah’s upper arm and she yanked.
“Autonomous body parts can produce
hilarious images in the minds of the reader,
like those of eyeballs flying around the room,
hands shooting off the character’s wrists,
and feet clicking off ankles and
While autonomous body parts are frowned upon, there are instances where autonomous bodily reactions are all right to use. When we get angry, we might ball our hands into fists even when we have no intention of hitting someone. Our eyes fill with tears when we are sad, even if we don’t want to cry. When we are scared, like in the example above, our heart might race or pound, and we might start to sweat. These are reactions we can’t control, so they are, indeed, autonomous.
Mandy’s throat tightened. Her heart beat out of control. After what felt like an eternity, she got a hold of Sarah’s upper arm and she yanked her back. Mandy’s ears popped as the car blew past.
All of these bodily reactions are autonomous reactions to fear and stress, or in the case of Mandy’s ears, a pressure shift caused by air displacement. Mandy couldn’t stop them from occurring even if she tried, so they are allowed. Autonomous bodily functions can even draw the reader deeper into the experience, as long as you don’t overuse them.
“While autonomous body parts are
frowned upon, there are instances
where autonomous bodily reactions
are all right to use.“
In the same spirit as accepted autonomous bodily functions, there are situational exceptions to the ban on autonomously acting body parts. “Her eyes rolled” is an example of an autonomous body part action when we’re reading about a frustrated teenager (the correct version would be “she rolled her eyes”), but if we’re talking about Sarah’s eyes rolling back after the car hits her, it’s an accepted action because it’s an outward symptom of loss of consciousness.
Autonomous body parts are also accepted when the POV character doesn’t know who the body part belongs to. Let’s look at the example scene from before, but from Sarah’s point of view. She is watching a car speed toward her and suddenly someone yanks on her arm. There is a good chance Sarah won’t put two and two together and figure out Mandy was the one tugging at her until after the crash. Here, an autonomous body part mention is allowed:
A hand gripped her arm and yanked on it.
“There are situational exceptions
to the ban on autonomously
acting body parts.“
There is another Frankensteinian concoction that is best avoided: the self-conscious body part. These identifiers call attention to the body part in question and are always superfluous. The best examples are shrugging one’s shoulders and blinking one’s eyes. Shoulders are, by definition, the only parts of our bodies that can be shrugged; eyes are, by definition, the only parts of our bodies that can blink (and even then, it would be more accurate to say that one’s eyelids blink, which would make the sentence even more awkward). When you say “he shrugged” and “she blinked,” the reader will know which body parts perform the action.
Before I end this post, I must make note of one more, somewhat related, issue: even when it’s not technically an autonomous body part action, you can’t do things to body parts that are intrinsically interwoven with another. I read this sentence today, from the point of view of someone watching it happen:
His face hit the floor.
Unless it’s a horror novel in which the knife-wielding maniac cuts the skin off someone’s skull and that slab dropped to the floor, this is impossible. Your face is a part of your head. Your head can hit the floor, or you can fall on your face, you can even “hit the floor, face first,” but your face will never hit the floor unless it’s cut off. You also wouldn’t get your palm slammed between the door and the doorframe, for example. It’s a part of your hand that doesn’t stick out.
“You can’t do things to body parts
that are intrinsically interwoven
Once you start recognizing Frankensteinian actions like these, you’ll never be able to unsee them, either in your own writing or in anyone else’s. This is good! It’ll help you write in a way that keeps the focus on the characters, and their body parts where they belong!