Tag Archives: characterisation

The Colour of Characters: Race & Ethnicity in Fantasy

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Picking up from last week, I want to talk a bit more about representation in fiction. For the purposes of disclosure, I should state at the beginning that I am a white Western heterosexual CIS woman, so the only kind of ‘minority’ issues I’ve ever personally encountered are grounded in sexism. But I have friends who’ve had to put up with the stupidity of bigots, I’ve done some research, and I’m capable of empathy. That doesn’t mean I know anything like all the aspects around this subject – if I’ve missed or misunderstood something, please educate me. The only way we can improve is through shared experience.

Reinforce or Resist

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Sign in an Australian pub in March 2014. Spot the stereotyping. And the racism.

I put ‘writing to reinforce or resist’ in the title of the previous blog post but I never really went into what that means. Basically, there exists a stereotype of every different section of society – be that based on colour, country, gender, sexual preference, religion, etc. When you’re writing about a section that isn’t the one you belong to, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of using the stereotype to build your characters. That reinforces the stereotype, perpetuating it in the minds of your audience. Sometimes it’s done out of laziness, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes by design. One of the best ways to ensure the status quo continues is to keep telling people that the minorities are lazy, or criminal, or perverted – some version of undesirable which justifies keeping them down.

When you write a ‘minority’ character (and yes, I’m using those quote marks deliberately because more of the world is, say, Asian than any other racial type combined), you either reinforce that stereotype or you resist it. Reinforcing it is, as I said, either lazy (do better), ignorant (research your story), or deliberate (your politics and mine are going to have serious disagreements). Resist the stereotypes.

Represent

I’m going to quote myself from last week: ‘Non-Western cultures and perspectives still get very limited representation in the English-speaking market, so every writer that uses them is making a strong statement.’ But it’s much bigger than just non-Western. There’s so few POC characters in SFF. There’s even fewer queer characters.

As a writer of mixed descent (half-Chinese, half-white) who was a voracious reader as a child, I never saw myself in the kind of books that I devoured: fantasy and science fiction, adventure and romance… It seemed like readers would rather accept talking dragons than a mixed-race princess… The only solution left for me was to write one. ~ Amy McCulloch, Guardian article

Go reach McCulloch’s full article – it’s not long and she makes some great points, but they all boil down to this: we need greater diversity of character. SFF writers are capable of world-building fantastic and complex societies. Surely we can do better than one skin tone. In fact, it’s essential we do because our audience is certainly more diverse. Anyone who isn’t sure about the importance of representation need only read this account of seeing autism in Guardians of the Galaxy, or this viewer’s response to Diego Luna’s accent in Rogue One, or look back to this photo of a child meeting one of the stars of 2016’s Ghostbusters remake:

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This went viral because it proved an ‘all-girls’ Ghostbuster film was not, in fact, a terrible idea no one would enjoy

We get our rolemodels from the people around us and the material we consume. If that material repeatedly shows us only white men are ghostbusters, or fire fighters, or woodcutters, then we assume no one else is allowed. But if we start to show people outside that narrow parameter getting involved then we give the world billions more who believe they can kick spectral ass.

Just because we write SFF, that doesn’t let us off the hook. We have a responsibility.

Historical Accuracy

The standard excuse for not including diversity in SFF based on real world periods is because it isn’t historically accurate.

  1. Is that an elf riding a dragon over there? I do believe it is. Didn’t see many of them around in 12th Century Germany.
  2. Shut up and read this: Diversity in Historical Fantasy by Mary Robinette Kowal
  3. Or this: Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy by Tor Publishing
  4. Or this: Gender & Sterotyping in Fantasy by Fantasy Faction

Now, there are some people who might say ‘that excuse stopped being used years ago’. I would love for that to be true. I really would. But I have a friend who, not all that long ago, was told she couldn’t be a military general in a LARP game because she’s a woman. This stuff doesn’t go away if we stop talking about it, and it certainly doesn’t stop existing just because you personally don’t see it.

“It’s amazing what you notice when you just look up for 5 minutes and see what’s going on.” – RA Smith, Representation, Whitewashing & Internationalism panel, LonCon 2014

And speaking of history, I’m going to get political. The US is just about to swear in a new president. One who is on record for making incredibly denigrating comments about women, the disabled, foreigners, and religions other than Christianity. As Meryl Streep said at the Golden Globes:

“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.” – watch the full speech here

It is more vital than ever that we show our readers colourful, varied, socially complex worlds – worlds where ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘wrong’ – before they start believing anyone who isn’t white, Western, able-bodied, straight and CIS male is less important and can be treated as such.

Don’t reinforce the stereotypes. Resist, research and represent.

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Class & Race: Writing to Reinforce or Resist

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The final few weeks of the last university term were all around certain aspects of character portrayal – notably, where are they from in both the economic and genetic sense. This is something it’s really easy to get wrong when writing characters. Especially if it’s a different one to yours.

Now, in the SFF world, you might think you’ve got a little more latitude. Who’s going to tell you how dwarves really speak, or the racial challenges greenskins face? But these things are much more powerful if you anchor them in something real and relatable. And even with made-up aspects, it’s still possible to do it badly.

Relative Distance

Distance between author, character and reader is something I harped on quite a lot about at the end of last year, and it’s still relevant here. If, for example, your character is from a very poor area, you still need to write about them as a person and not – as Somerset Maugham did in Liza of Lambeth – like a specimen under observation. Maugham used descriptive language that was completely alien to the slum setting, and clearly set the authorial voice at a distance from the lives of his characters. That automatically puts distance between the character and the reader, which makes it way harder for the audience to engage. 

Bear in mind, of course, that your characters can buy into the stereotypes about each other. That creates internal tension and lets you play with breaking them down – or not, if you don’t want to. Just be aware of what the stereotypes are and, if you use them, do so deliberately!

Incidentally, this doesn’t just apply to the characters’ views of each other. What stereotypes do the characters believe about themselves? Either on a personal level, or because society is telling them it’s true. By way of example, here’s a passage by black writer Zora Neale Hurston, who was talking to Harlem in 1950:

…the folklore of “reversion to type.” This curious doctrine has such wide acceptance that it is tragic. No matter how high we may seem to climb, put us under strain and we revert to type, that is, to the bush. Under a superficial layer of western culture, the jungle drums throb in our veins. ~ ‘What White Publishers Won’t Print’, written for Negro Digest Magazine

Speech & Dialect

Okay, this is a tricky one and there’s no right/wrong answer. The easy and obvious part is: use language that is appropriate for your character’s background. That may take some research. Don’t fall into the trap of assumptions and caricatures.

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The hard part is dialect. Do you write phonetically or not? Some people do, some don’t. The real challenge here is to get the reader hearing the right accent in their head without making it so hard for them to read the words that they’re jolted right out of immersion. If they have to stop and translate / sound out what you’ve written, you’ve lost them. Some dialect is easy to transcribe – ‘gonna’, for example, is clearly indicative of how the character speaks but also highly legible. But if you write the entire conversation in a phonetically transcribed thick Scottish accent, it’s going to slow the reader down at best and make them skip the whole passage at worst.

As for using different languages, the best thing I can do is refer you back to the lecture on foreign languages in SFF at Nine Worlds.

What is Normal?

This is the key thing – building up the background in a natural way. Bring out the cultural aspects of the character’s background without parodying them. Which brings me back to a very old refrain of mine: Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE). Put in the tiny details that are normal to a very poor/rich environment, or a different culture, but normalize those details by just folding them into the description. Don’t explain or highlight them. They become background noise, flavour, that makes the setting – and therefore the character – that much more believable.

If the character later leaves their natural environment, you can start explaining the new things they encounter to reinforce their strangeness in this new setting. In this way you can make what might be normal to your reader fresh and interesting, seen from a different perspective.

Mimicry, Difference, Hybridity

The literary criticism on race and ethnicity is huge in scope and complexity, focusing on both colonial representations of the ‘other’, distanced, denigrated and used to justify imperialism, as well as postcolonial examination of what tends to be termed ‘new writing in English’. At times, the term ‘race’ is placed in inverted commas… to indicate the writer’s assertion that this is not something natural or inherent, that “race” is a constructed cultural creation. ~ Middlesex University course notes

This ties more into lit crit and writing styles than character creation and representation. Basically, as a writer, what is your style and cultural starting point? Are you imitating the writing style of another culture? If so, are you doing it with a suitable amount of research to carry it off? If you are imitating, why? What does that culture’s perspective and language give that your own doesn’t?

Language is a fascinating thing. It pins down and formalises the way we think, the types of ideas we have and how we structure them. Different languages and cultures approach things from different angles, and shifting your perspective can reveal very interesting things. Take the word ‘hero’ as a simple example – across the world, those four letters mean very very different things. But beware of cultural appropriation. Non-Western cultures and perspectives still get very limited representation in the English-speaking market, so every writer that uses them is making a strong statement. You’re speaking for an entire culture. If it isn’t yours, do your research and treat it with respect.

Hybridity, a contemporary concept, argues that there is no such thing as racial or ethnic ‘purity’ no clear position from which anyone can speak, since every ‘race’ is a complex cultural mix that is constantly evolving. ~ Middlesex University course notes

Humans have always been really good at drawing ‘us against them’ lines. Class wars, racism, xenophobia, it all stems back to the same thing – a fear of otherness. But here’s the thing: the Other is the same. Same biology, same urges and needs. The differences are cosmetic, or experiential. But people tend to resist accepting this because it means they have to acknowledge they are the same as the Other, which challenges their view of themselves. Difference disliked is identity affirmed.

This is one of the trickiest minefields to navigate, because both class and race are so fraught with politics and the potential to seriously offend. Which is where the beauty of SFF comes in. You can address some of the issues via classes and races that don’t exist in the real world, which neatly sidesteps the offence whilst making people think about the politics. To quote Sir Terry Pratchett:

Racism was not a problem on the Discworld, because — what with trolls and dwarfs and so on — speciesism was more interesting. Black and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green. ~ Witches Abroad

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Or blue… 

Bias & Belivability: the Point of Narrative Theory

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I had a bit of a lightbulb moment, after three weeks of wading through narrative theory. I’d been wondering, quietly, what the use of all these technical terms was to a writer. And then, with a cry of Eureka!, I worked out how to structure my book.

The thing is, there’s different levels of reliability when telling a tale. These ties into unreliable narrators but goes further. How much do you want to suck your reader in and, more importantly, in what way? Because the way you use the narrative voice is absolutely critical for achieving this, and all the technical terms are a way of making us break it down to work out how to use it.

Author vs Narrator

In my current book there are two narrators. One is a detective in the Metropolitan Police; the other is a dryad prince. One of these is more instantly believable as a real person than the other. Now, previously I was writing them both as 3POV homodiegetic (in the action) narrators. Having looked at all this theory stuff around levels and bias and believability, I have now changed that. The dryad prince will continue to be narrated as 3POV homodiegetic, but the detective will become a 1POV conversational narrator talking directly to an audience.

By doing this, I achieve something very important. The reality of the dryad prince becomes as a statement of fact by the person with the most authority in the reader’s eyes – the author. By contrast, the detective is consciously presenting her personal opinions and bias which the reader has room to doubt or disagree with. Just by changing the narrative structure, I give the magical side credibility and the ‘real’ side unreliability. This makes it easier for the reader to buy in to the fantastical quickly.

Narrator, Protagonist, Hero

I’ve talked in the past about how the narrator, the protagonist and the hero are not necessarily the same person. Well, this also comes back to narrative structure and Bal’s levels. And again, I’m going to use my current project as the example:

  • The narrator is the detective – the character through whom we see the story unfold. The story doesn’t happen to her, but she is responsible for uncovering it, for solving the murder.
  • The hero is the dryad prince – the character we want to win. The story pivots on his growth and desires.
  • The protagonist is the niece of the murder victim – the one who triggers the events of the story. She never narrates, but she interacts independently in very different styles with both the narrator and the hero.

The new structure gives the opinions of the narrator, the behaviour of the hero, and – through their eyes – the consequences of the protagonist’s actions. So the reader has an intimate relationship with the detective, a close relationship with the dryad prince, and a distant relationship with the niece. At no point are the niece’s thoughts or desires made known – she’s only ever seen through the focalization, or bias, of the detective and the dryad, both of whom come from radically different backgrounds to her. By using this structure, the three characters are given very difference emphasis, or weight, in the eyes of the reader.

Equally importantly, it also means that the reader has more privilege – more knowledge – about what’s going on than either of the narrator characters. The action of the plot is constantly driven by the niece, but neither the detective nor the dryad know all of what she’s doing. This creates tension for the reader when the detective or the dryad behaves in a way which is flawed because of their ignorance. That tension helps to drive the story.

I was already doing some of this, purely on instinct. By learning the theory, though, I am far more aware of the impact I’m trying to achieve and what techniques are available to achieve it. It was worth slogging through unreadable lit crit texts for.

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Antimimetic Metafiction: Showing the Red Thread

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This week we’re looking at postmodern fiction. I can hear you groaning from here but bear with me. Now that I’ve had the term explained to me, I’m pretty on board with the idea (although still not keen when the idea is translated onto paper).

Postmodernism, according to my Middlesex University course tutor, is a rejection of generalising definitions and concepts which – because they are so broad, and made by those in a dominant position – marginalise a lot of other opinions on the same subject:

Patriarchal culture silenced and marginalised women during the nineteenth century; nineteen-seventies feminism, initially positioning itself as speaking for all women, was soon designated as speaking for white, middle-class, heterosexual liberals whose assumptions of what women needed ignored the specific and alternative demands of race, class and sexuality. Any claim to be, or speak for, a social or public position inherently excludes or marginalises. – MA course notes

I’m totally happy with that as a concept. Generalisation is marginalising and can be dangerous, so postmodernism sounds good to me.

Postmodern writing is an attempt to show this up, either through narrative constructions that are so obviously flawed that they can’t speak for everyone (unreliable narrators would fall into this category, as would two narrators with opposing views), or by being self-reflexive, i.e. deliberately drawing attention to the fact that the story is an artificial construct. This demonstrates the author’s awareness of the dangers of copy-cat representation and stereotyping as potentially oppressive, and their wish to distance themselves from it.

Metafiction is a literary device used self-consciously and systematically to draw attention to a work’s status as an artifact. It poses questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self-reflection. – Wikipedia

Antimimetic stories are those which challenge the idea that mimesis, or realism, is the main focus and refuses to follow the conventions of natural storytelling, instead ‘flaunting their artificiality’. Which is where most people go off them. We have a fairly ingrained notion of how a story is supposed to be structured, and expectations that all stories will follow those guidelines. Postmodern stories gleefully don’t and so it’s easy to stop recognising them as stories at all.

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It’s funny because it’s true.

The Author’s Voice

I’m not a fan of demonstrating my existence or cleverness to the reader within a story. It breaks their immersion, which I’m generally trying very hard to coax them into. I also tend to write in either 1POV or close 3POV, which means that I want the voice of the story to come across as the character-narrators rather than my own. The existence of an implied author is fine – someone has to write down the story, after all – but I don’t want to draw attention to it.

The concept of an implied author is especially important when discussing co-written, ghost-written, or anonymous works: political speechwriters all want to sound like the candidate who will speak their words; the multiple authors of a religious work, modern novel, or Hollywood movie want the material to sound as if it came from the same person. ~ Brian Richardson in Narrative Theory: Core Concepts & Critical Debates

I also have no problem with what’s call mask narration, where the author puts their own personal views into the mouth of a character, so long as it’s done with some finesse. I think this is actually an important role of genre fiction – it allows us to debate sensitive issues such as gender or religion without quite so much real-life emotion attached because it’s a conversation between, say, an atheist elf-queen and a pangendered halfling missionary.

Transparent narration, on the other hand, is a bit trickier. That’s where the distinction between author and narrator-character breaks down, and nonfictional statements are made within the story. That’s breaking the fourth wall, essentially, with the author poking their head in the window and saying to the reader ‘I’m going to interrupt your consumption of this narrative for a second, and talk politics/morality/cooking at you’. It can be done well in exceptional cases, but generally speaking I’m not a fan.

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Conflating Storytellers

Traditionally, the storyteller is composed of three aspects: the actual real-life writer, the implied author (the person putting down the words of the Narrated, when not in 1POV), and the narrator-character. Postmodernism deliberately disrupts that triad.

Kurt Vonnegut, Paul Auster, and Richard Powers all have written works of fiction that include characters bearing the author’s name and some of his characteristics; they deliberately conflate these different versions of themselves. ~ Brian Richardson in Narrative Theory: Core Concepts & Critical Debates

Someone on my course, however, made the point that even if those distinctions are pulled down by the author, there will always exist two storytellers – the one the author puts across, and the one the reader perceives, which will necessarily be different because the reader’s experiences (and therefore interpretations) are not the same as the author’s.

Postmodern Unreliability

Because postmodern authors are deliberately trying to do things differently, their narrators are a different kind of unreliable. Firstly, you’ve got the ‘real’ author themselves, trying to blur their identity with the fictional/implied author (and frequently the narrator). This blurring is a fictional construct, creating a fourth type of narrator – a new character masquerading as ‘real’. That masquerade is, by definition, unreliable. Vonnegut is one of the better examples of this, particularly Slaughterhouse Five.

Secondly, you’ve got antimimetic unreliability, where the author wants to break down the fourth wall and critiques their own reliability. They deliberately call into question the validity of their narrator’s (or even implied author’s) statements. Salman Rushdie did this with Saleem Sidai in Midnight’s Children.

Next, there’s the contradictory narrator, who tells a story that’s a mass of contradictions. This is a single implied narrator or narrator-character, rather than multiple narrator-characters who counter each other. The example in my text book is Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, which I haven’t read or even heard of before.

And finally a disframed narrator – a narrator-character who claims to have written other books which were actually written by the real-life author who created that character. Harry Dresden in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files just about falls into this category. I’m quite a fan of this form, as it blurs the boundaries between the character’s fictional world and the reader’s real one, which I think increases the reader’s ease of immersion.

In antimimetic fiction, you can also have narrator-characters that aren’t people, such as a horse (John Fowles’ Sweet William) or machines (Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad). Which made me realise that, by definition, all SF&F is antimimetic.

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Harry Dresden has a Twitter account. That’s dedication to disframing.

The Focalizer: I/She/They’ll Be Back

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More narrative perspective theory! Yay, I hear you cry! But this stuff’s important, chaps, so buckle up. We’re going back to that whole homodiegetic stuff from the end of last year, and taking it apart in a bit more detail, courtesy of Mieke Bal and Gerard Genette.

Redefining Perspective

As discussed last week, even 1st POV stories can have multiple types of narrator involved – implied authors, reflectors, disguised narrators, etc. What you as a writer always need to be aware of is the bias used by any of these narrators. The reader’s opinion of the story is naturally affected by the lens through which the story is narrated. What the narrator sees, the reader sees, and passes judgement in the same way. Genette calls this the focalizer:

‘…the focalizer influences how the reader perceives the character seen. But our game does not stop there: we cannot determine “who sees” without taking into account the medium through which we perceive that sight: the narrating. So we must know “who speaks.”‘ – Mieke Bal, Essays in Narratology

The narrator is obviously the person who speaks – what Bal calls the “author’s delegate” – and they are the focal lens by which the reader therefore sees other characters and places. Bal doesn’t seem to draw a distinction between the bias of the actual author and the bias of the narrator, as Booth does, but it’s an important one so don’t forget it.

Bal splits it down further – the actors (characters) produce the story through their actions; the focalizer places the bias or lens on that story by which it is portrayed; the narrator recounts it in words and thus creates the narrative for the implied audience. See the diagram below for clarity:

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Narrative Levels

This is where we come back to homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narrators. As far as I can work out, they’re all pretty much different terms for the exact same thing:

  1. INDIRECT: observer narration, frame narration, absent narration, heterodiegtic narration
  2. DIRECT: narrator agent, present narration, homodiegetic narration

If I’m wrong about this, and there’s important differences, do please enlighten me. Because this is a subject that critical theorists seem to love throwing multiple technical terms at, which makes it occasionally tricky to decipher.

One important point to note is that the homodiegetic narrator can exist in a heterodiegetic (frame) story. The frame narrator, as he’s not present and active in the events themselves, is always heterodiegetic, but as soon as the character who is or was present takes over as a disguised narrator, relating the events, that focalizer becomes homodiegetic.

EXAMPLE (because I’m confusing myself): In the story of One Thousand & One Nights, aka Arabian Nights, the primary level narrator in 3rd POV is the ruler Shahryār. His unfortunate and brilliant wife, Scheherazade, is the focalizer and heterodiegetic narrator (she was neither present at the events of the stories she relays, nor is she the primary level narrator). Within one of her stories, for example that of Aladdin, Aladdin is the homodiegetic narrator because he is present and active in the events of his own story.

On top of all that, you also have extradiegetic narrators. This is a particular type of frame narrative, where the narrator is outside the fictional universe of a particular text. ‘The Making of “Lord of the Rings”‘ documentaries, for example, are a type of extradiegetic narrative. In the example above, Shahryār counts as an extradiegetic narrator – the primary level of the overall story – as does the grandfather in The Princess Bride.

The reason for understanding the different levels of narrators is to determine how much authority they have for recounting these events, how much reliance we as readers can place on them, and also how close their relationship to the reader is.

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A heterodiegetic self-conscious narrator addressing an explicit ‘reader’

The Narrated

Genette turns the words of the story into an object, which he calls ‘the narrated’. These are the words that the narrator speaks, and are therefore ‘subordinate’ to the narrator or ‘dependent on the subject’ to exist in the form they take. Bal calls this a hyponarrative or hypodiegetic. That is to say, the dependent relationship between the story and its narrator. (I think – honestly, I started getting properly confused around this point.)

So when, in a frame story, the heterodiegetic narrator hands over to the homodiegetic narrator (i.e. the one who was actually there), the level of the hyponarrative changes. It moves from being a story seen through the frame narrator’s eyes into reported speech, or direct discourse – a story being told to that top-level narrator – and therefore the story becomes dependent on the new storyteller, or focalizer. And remember, in that scenario the story itself – the narrated – isn’t happening to the storyteller at that moment in time, so the events themselves remain a level below the homodiegetic narrator. Any characters within the reported story, however, are basically experiencing it in real time and are therefore also a level below, subordinate to the way the focalizer is telling the story and unable to respond to the bias being placed on their actions.

“Scheherazade tells that Jaafer tells that the tailor tells that the barber tells that his brother (and he has six brothers) tells that …. ” When such a change in level occurs, the reader becomes aware, if not of the presence, at least of the activity (and thus of the existence) of the narrator within the narrative… The narrated is everything located at the level immediately below the level at which the act of enunciating is located. ~ Bal

Yeah, see what I mean about lit crit essays? Headache-central.

The Focalizingfrom_my_point_of_view_king_681795

Like The Shining, but different. This relates to point of view, and has two definitions:

  1. External/perceptible focalization: what you can see or are looking at. Physical, usually tangible, things.
  2. Internal/imperceptible focalization: what can’t be ‘seen’ – dreams, feelings, personal perspective, opinion, etc.

A narrator character with limited privilege (restricted information) therefore has limited focalization – this is also called ‘restriction of field’.

The thing is, the reader doesn’t necessarily get all of a character’s focalization. A minutely detailed description of their surroundings, or the person they’re talking to, would disrupt the pace of the story (not to mention boring the reader). So what you as the reader actually get from the character’s focalization is their ‘centre of interest‘ (the things they have selected to mention, out of all the details available), plus their ‘gaze‘ (the things they actually noticed, rather than the things which are technically visible but the character just didn’t spot), plus their ‘presentation‘ (the way they put what they can see across, including bias). Combine the three and you get the narrated.

Focalization changes as narrator changes, and can also change from external to internal as the narrator shifts from telling us what they see to telling us what they think. When it comes to self-reflection, the focalizer themself becomes the object of focalization.

Narrator vs. Focalizer

A lot of the time they’re the same. Like, nearly all the time. But as you can have different levels of narration, and therefore different levels of focalization, so you can have levels of what is focalized.

Okay, so in a close 3POV story, you have the character-narrator – the homodiegetic narrator – and also the person doing the actual talking to the audience, who is presumably the implied author. With me so far? The homodiegetic narrator does a ton of focalizing, obviously. But they are simultaneously the object of focalization by the implied author. You as the reader are getting the story (and other characters) through the lens of the narrator-character, and the narrator-character through the lens of the narrator-author.

Immanent Rules

In simple terms, what is the narrative structure of a particular story? How many times does it change level of narrator? How often does it change focalizer? Who provides internal/imperceptible focalization, and does that change? Does it switch between hetero- and homodiegetic narrator? Who has the most privilege, in terms of information and insight?

Once we work those out – and usually it’s pretty instinctive – we can also spot if and when the story breaks its own rules. Then we can ask why it was done and what impact it created on the reader.

2068b8f11dda3fb1564bc67ae8074810What the hell is the point of all this complexity, I hear you cry? Believe me, guys, I’m crying too. I had to wade through this lot, unabridged. But I think it boils down to this: by identifying who is saying what to the reader, at what level, and with what information available, we can identify the bias of those words and therefore how much reliance we can place on the report. All these technical terms let us be really, really specific about that identification.

Narrative Voice: The Lit Crit Version

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Conveniently following on in the same theme as last week, this university module is currently looking at the narrative voice. More specifically, the detailed differences as according to one Mr. Wayne C. Booth who, in The Rhetoric of Fiction, had an awful lot to say on the subject in not terribly clear terminology.

“…to decide on first-person narration settles only a part of one’s problem. What kind of first person? How much aware of himself as narrator? How reliable? How much confined to realistic inference; how far privileged to go beyond realism?… the sensitive author who reads the great novels finds in them a storehouse of precise examples, of how this effect, as distinct from all other possible effects, was heightened by the proper narrative choice.” – Booth

The Simple Version

You can narrate a story in one of four ways:

  1. First person perspective, which can be divided into basic (you get internal monologue) and deep (you see the entire story through their eyes – for more on this, read Kristen Lamb’s blog post).
  2. Second person perspective, where the reader is complicit in creating details of the story. Really rare, with serious technical challenges. Not for the uninitiated. The only decent example I know of is Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, and frankly I’m not even a fan of that.
  3. Third person perspective, which again can be divided into distant (e.g. Jane Austen, Emma) or close (e.g. Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat).
  4. Omniscient, where you get to see a bit of everyone and all of no one. This used to be the staple of epic fantasy, but it’s falling out of fashion now.

The trouble with the simple version is that it doesn’t allow you to distinguish between very different types of, say, close first person, or between the narrator’s agenda and the author’s agenda. Or a whole host of other things. So hang onto your hats, because we’re going to take a crack at Booth’s terminology.

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The Less Simple Version

Firstly, Booth points out that you don’t just have one narrative voice in any given story. It’s much broader than that. There’s the voice of the narrator, the voice of the author, and the voice of secondary characters who narrate important information to both the audience and the protagonist. He used the following terms to distinguish all these:

  • Implied author – most commonly found in omniscient or distant 3rd POV. This is where the agenda of the author is distinct from that of the character narrator, or providing information/opinions the character narrator doesn’t have.
  • Dramatized narrator – found in 1st POV and 3rd POV, where there is an obvious character agenda/bias in how the story is being told
  • Undramatized narrator – found in 3rd POV and omniscient, where there is no obvious character agenda/bias
  • Disguised narrator – found in all forms, where a secondary character relates off-screen actions. Basically, a messenger who tells a story (factual or not) within the story.
  • Reflector narrator – usually found in 1st and 3rd POV, where the narrator conjectures or flat-out relates the internal monologue of other characters because the audience isn’t granted access to that information directly. This can also apply to the narrator’s own internal monologue from a different time (e.g. Pip in Great Expectations talks about his younger self’s thoughts).
  • Observer – usually found in 1st and 3rd POV, where the narrator has no direct impact on the action of the story. Basically the same as frame narrators.
  • Narrator agent – can be any of the above. Basically, a narrator who is directly involved in the story.
  • Self-conscious narrator – 1st (or, at a stretch, close 3rd) POV, where the narrator is aware that they are either writing or speaking to an audience. Even if that audience is just themselves. They are deliberately engaging in the act of narration, which therefore impacts how they convey the story. Unconscious narrators are, obviously, the ones who don’t know they’re narrating.
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A self-conscious, dramatized narrator. No, not the sheep.

Back to Unreliability

This leads me neatly back to what I was discussing last week. Self-conscious narrators are more likely to be unreliable because they have a conscious agenda. Helpfully (or, y’know, not), Booth defines reliability a bit differently. He describes reliable narrators as those that share the norms of the implied author, and the work as a whole. Unreliable narrators are not necessarily those that are being deceptive, but those who have a different agenda to that of the author/work. Any narrator that “makes stronger demands on the reader’s powers of inference” in order to work out the real path of events counts as unreliable.

That means that 1st and close 3rd POV for self-conscious dramatized narrator agents is particularly dodgy. The more we see of the internal monologue, the more we are presented with the character’s agenda and bias, and the more skewed our overall picture becomes. Which is great for getting the reader to identify with your narrator:

“Generally speaking, the deeper our plunge, the more unreliability we will accept without loss of sympathy.” – Booth

Booth reckons that the distinction between the implied author and the unreliable narrator is absolutely crucial. Once the narrator is discovered to be unreliable, the voice of the implied author enables the reader to judge that narrator. It also enables the reader to reject the narrator’s story without rejecting the work as a whole, because there is still trust in the implied author (who is distinct from the narrator). It’s a good point, but a tricky line to walk. Having an implied authorial voice can easily slip into showing red thread, which is poor technique and will turn readers off.

As discussed last week, unreliable authors aren’t just liars. Sometimes they tell the truth as they know it, which is incomplete or false. Booth calls this privilege:

“…privileged to know what could not be learned by strictly natural means or limited to realistic vision and inference. Complete privilege is what we usually call omniscience.” – Booth

So, basically, 1st and close 3rd POV characters have limited privilege which therefore gives the audience limited privilege. The more privilege you have, the more reliable your narrator.

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Calculating Relative Distance

Don’t panic, I’m not going to drag you into mathematical equations (because I don’t really know any). Booth has this thing called aesthetic distance, which is the distance between the narrator and everybody else, on any type of differentiator. Basically, you need to distinguish between your narrator, your secondary characters, your authorial voice, and your reader. Treat those four as separate entities. Now, work out what their norm is for a whole bunch of stuff, such as historical era, geography, class, fashion, speech pattern, morality, politics, etc etc etc. The distance between any of the four entities on any of the differentiators provides you with possible sources of tension.

Some of these tensions are good – the narrator and the secondary character have radically different politics, for example, or come from opposing socio-economic backgrounds. That drives plot.

Some of these tensions are structural – the narrator and the implied author have different biases, which implies an unreliability. Ditto the narrator and the secondary character(s).

Some of these tensions are bad – the narrator and the reader have radically different morals, and a failure to ease the reader into this leads to disengagement.

Some of these tensions are unavoidable – the author and the reader come from different eras or cultures, which means there’s a certain knowledge gap that has to be bridged in order for the reader to engage.

What I think this all boils down to is that choosing your narrative voice has way more decisions involved than I initially realised. Frankly, until relatively recently I was largely going on instinct rather than calculation. I hope that this has provided tools with which to make a better informed choice, rather than putting you off the idea of writing altogether!

Nine Worlds: Tricking the Reader

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Autolycus. Locke Lamora. The Magicians of The Prestige. Wade Wilson. Unreliable narrators are everywhere in genre fiction and the one question we always ask is why? What’s the appeal of listening to stories narrated by liars? What’s the difference between authorial mischief and shaggy dog stories? Why do we love the twist in the tale?

Genevieve Cogman, Jason Arnopp, Mark de Jager, James Smythe, Emma Trevayne, Catriona Ward

Back in December 2015 I did a very long, not very detailed blog on different angles of narration. The final panel that I attended at Nine Worlds was on a single aspect of this – the unreliable narrator. (That’s not entirely true. The actual final panel I attended was another world-building session but, as I didn’t learn anything new there and spent the whole time just building a world of my own, I won’t bother regaling you with that one.)

Types of Unreliability

The unreliable narrator isn’t confined to a single approach. There’s lots of ways your narrator can be unreliable, including:

  1. Changeable structure, such as time-travel, e.g. Everyone in Hal Duncan’s Vellum
  2. Amnesiac, e.g. Mary Jared in Jessica Richards’ Snake Ropes
  3. Naïve, e.g. David Dunn in Unbreakable
  4. Misled, e.g. Father Emilio Sandoz in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow
  5. Blinkered, e.g. Dr. John Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes
  6. Delusional, e.g. The narrator in Fight Club
  7. In denial, e.g. Dr. Malcolm Crowe in Sixth Sense
  8. Speaking with an agenda, e.g. Pi in The Life of Pi
  9. Lying, e.g. Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects

The way in which your narrator is unreliable throws light on both their character and their reaction to challenges. This ties strongly into voice – the words you choose and the way in which you style them should reveal a lot about your narrator’s personality.

When the narrator isn’t deliberately misleading, their unreliability can be highlighted by other characters’ reactions to them. To use my own work as an example for a moment, in my book Spiritus the narrator is wholly unreliable in the way she frames the character of her brother because she loves him too much to see his many flaws or question his actions. Those flaws are only brought to light by a third character, who challenges the narrator’s bias. The narrator doesn’t accept it but the reader is thus made aware of her unreliability on the subject.

A quick note on changeable structure: this is where none of the characters themselves are unreliable in any way, but the order in which the story is presented is deliberately misleading. The reader is encouraged to make false assumptions, not by the narrator, but by the writer.

Reasons for Misleading

Unreliable narrators don’t have to be unlikeable. In fact, if you want your reader to keep reading, they probably shouldn’t be. A lot of it can come down to who your narrator is lying to, and why. Are they lying to the reader in particular, or to their compatriots (and therefore the reader is misled as a side effect)? Are they lying for the good of others, or for selfish reasons? If the latter, does this impact their heroic status (see previous blog on heroism)? Are they not, in fact, lying but only telling the truth as they know it (which covers all of the list above down to ‘delusional’)?

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That brings us on to the question of subjectivity. All narratives are, to some extent, subjective and therefore unreliable. History itself is massively unreliable, the facts recounted by people with a heavy bias. Different country’s accounts of the same event vary wildly, depending on which side of the events they were. A lot of fun can therefore be had with opposing POVs, which narrate different ‘truths’ about the same events. A fantastic example of this is the film Hero, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. The downside of taking this approach is that the audience is aware that they are being misled in some way and therefore have to start working out who and what they believe to be reliable. This makes the story a puzzle to be considered objectively, rather than something they can fully immerse themselves into.

The Big Reveal

There needs to be some kind of twist or reveal at the end, if you’re using an unreliable narrator. As one of the panellists said, “why pick that technique if you’re not going to capitalise on its power?” This can either be big or gradual, giving emotional and/or intellectual closure. But you must play fair with the reader – none of this ‘it was all a dream’ crap. That’s not satisfying and carries a strong risk of alienating your audience. Lewis Carroll only gets away with it because he was writing for a very different era.

The twist has to feel organic, rather than a deus ex machina. Something crowbarred in is also deeply unsatisfying, and this is where some detective stories walk a very thin line. Those that have a big reveal which include information not previously shown to the audience throughout the story are, frankly, cheating their readers. This is unreliability through omission and, whilst it’s a valid technique, I don’t like it.

The important thing to note is that this reveal is for the reader’s benefit, not necessarily the narrator’s. For those who don’t even realise they are unreliable – the misled, the delusional, and so on – they don’t necessarily need a moment of realisation at all. In Spiritus, the actions of the narrator’s brother trigger the downfall of an empire. The narrator never realises this, partly because she’s blinded by bias and partly because (SPOILERS!) she dies before it happens. The reader, however, had their eyes opened earlier in the book and can therefore see it coming. More officially, Clare Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days provides the reveal to the reader but not the narrator, and that ignorance adds to the horror of the narrator’s ultimate fate.

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Best reveal I know. If you haven’t seen The Usual Suspects, go watch it. Go now.

To Lie or Not to Lie?

There are two main risks with using unreliable narrators. The first is that readers’ attention spans are shrinking and they might not stick around long enough for the reveal to make all the pieces fall into place. Unreliable narrators often mean apparent inconsistencies throughout the main story, which are only resolved at the end.

The second is a question of loyalty and trust. Readers will very quickly build up emotional bonds with the narrator (or at least, they should if you’re doing your job as a writer well). This means that they may not accept the narrator has been misleading them. That sense of loyalty might lead them to reject the reveal entirely. This largely depends, I think, on how organic the reveal is.

There’s a very simple workaround to both these risks. Have the narrator (or other characters) say early on that they are a liar, a la Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. Then dupe the reader anyway.

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Aaand that’s all, folks, from the Nine Worlds Convention 2016. Next week we are back to our regularly scheduled programme of notes from the Creative Writing MA.