Have you ever paused while reading a story because the character’s body has suddenly taken on a life of its own? You know what I’m talking about: the rolling eyes and the wandering hands that no longer have an actual person controlling them. You probably find yourself with a comical image in your head, too.
As with passive voice, dangling modifiers, and simultaneous action, this phenomenon — known as autonomous, disembodied, or even animate body parts — is an issue of writing craft.
What are autonomous body parts?
A body part is “disembodied” when it acts independently of the character: “Her fist pounded on the door.” The sentient body part becomes the subject of the sentence and thus completes/does the action of the verb.
Why are they bad?
In reality, it’s not the body part that’s actually doing the action. We know that technically the character is the one making her fist hit the door. However, the ambiguous wording of the sentence makes it appear as if the “fist” has a mind of its own.
As with passive voice, autonomous body parts don’t emphasize the actual agents of the story: the characters themselves. By focusing on the parts of the character’s body, you’re — for lack of a better word — disembodying the reader, too, and drawing the attention away from the characters.
When a body part takes on a life of its own . . .
As with anything, I’ll start with an example I found in my own writing. (Edit: For context, please note that “engine” in the sample sentence refers to a train engine on a keychain, so it is small.)
Incorrect: “Her fingers closed around the metal casing of the engine, as if making a wish.”
Correct: “She closed her fingers around the metal casing of the engine, as if making a wish.”
The autonomous body parts in the first sentence are problematic in two ways. Firstly, her fingers are the subject of the sentence and are acting independently of the “she” character, which reads awkwardly. Secondly, the clause “as if making a wish” is now reflecting back to the subject of “her fingers,” so the reader doesn’t initially read it as the character making a wish, but rather as her fingers making the wish, which is technically impossible (and not the intended meaning of the sentence).
Incorrect: “Chronicler’s eyes opened to a confusing . . .”
Correct: “Chronicler opened his eyes to a confusing mass of dark shapes and firelight.” – from The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
For an extensive list (broken down by body part), check out this excellent post by Brita Addams: Call Them Sentient, Autonomous, Floating, Or Disembodies, They Are Still Detached Body Parts
How can you fix it?
The good news is your sentence simply requires a bit of rewording. First things first, the subject needs to be the character, not his body. As for the object, well, that will be dependent on context. For example:
Incorrect: “His body fell to the ground with a thud.”
Correct: “He fell to the ground with a thud.”
Change the subject to the person doing the action (in this case “he”). Since the reader inherently knows that falling to the ground generally involves the body, you don’t need to say what falls. The corrected sentence is already doing a better job of “showing.”
Is it ever okay to use autonomous body parts?
As with most things in the writing/editing world, there are exceptions to the rule. If you can justify the use of a particular sentence that uses an autonomous body part, then you aren’t necessarily wrong. There are cases where it may work better within the context of the narrative.
For instance, I’d argue for keeping a sentence like this:
“Bast’s eyes widened, then narrowed.” – also from The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Bast is reacting to whatever he’s just seen. It effectively shows what he’s feeling: surprise at first, then suspicion. Also, the alternative version would be rather clunky: “Bast widened his eyes, then narrowed them.”
Even though autonomous body parts may give a feeling of variety to the paragraph (rather than just general he/she sentence), they are often working against the clarity of your prose. Keep in mind that your characters are the heroes of your story, not their bodies. Your characters (probably) aren’t zombies either, so keep their hands, eyes, fingers, and heads attached!