Tag Archives: lit crit

Nine Worlds: Look Who’s Talking – Me!


UntitledI’m going to start my write-up of Nine Worlds with the presentation I made, purely because a number of people asked for a copy of my slides and I promised to put them up here. The subject was ‘Choosing your narrative technique in order to have the desired impact on your audience’. I deliberately used the word ‘audience’ rather than ‘reader’ as it’s more applicable across different media (although I forgot to take games into much account, for which I must offer particular apologies to Ian Thomas of Talespinners).

As I said last week, this is the first time I’ve done public speaking in about two decades so I was super-nervous but the audience were lovely and engaged (because this is Nine Worlds, and that’s what Nine Worlds audiences are). I also learned a couple of things in turn – like uses for 2nd POV, which I’ll be looking into more in a later blog post – so wins all around, really.

A lot of what I talked about are things I’ve covered here in the past, so what I’m actually going to post about today are the things I *forgot* to say at the weekend, or skipped over in minimal detail. To make any sense of what follows, you’ll need to look at the slides.

Slide 2: Immanent Rules

This relates to your choice of narrative structure and voice. In simple terms, what is the default structure of a particular story? How many times does it change level of narrator, and when (are flashbacks always in someone else’s voice, for example)? Is the timeline linear? 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 audience.

Slide 3: Dividing Narrator, Hero & Protagonist

The benefit to doing this is that it takes some of the pressure off the narrator. It makes them free to not be a hero, and for the hero not to be a narrator. That offers greater freedom to act appropriately in both places. A good example of doing this badly is Captain Kirk, who is both hero and narrator. As a result, because the audience is seeing the story through his eyes, he leaves the ship for dangerous front-line expeditions a frankly irresponsible amount for a captain. If he weren’t the narrator, he wouldn’t have to do this and would be free to act heroically in accordance with his rank. It also gives you the opportunity to have an unsympathetic hero or protagonist (Sherlock Holmes, I’m looking at you) via the softening, sympathetic narrator – something you can later subvert if you wish.

The downside to dividing the roles up is that there’s more characters to keep track of.

Slide 5: Defining the Hero

Read the introduction to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, where he talks about cultural differences in the meaning of heroism. In Australia, for example, generations of sending their youth off to fight in other people’s wars (mostly Britain) in response to heroic-themed marketing, has resulted in the word ‘hero’ carrying an overtone of stupidity. Again, this is something you can play with and subvert.

Slide 9: Giant Snails

I did say this on the day, but it isn’t on the slides so I’m going to repeat it here because it seemed to go down well.

  • Heterodiegetic – ‘Some guy down the pub told me he was attacked by giant snails.’
  • Homodiegetic – ‘I was involved in a giant snail attack.’
  • Intradiegetic – ‘I saw my friend get attacked by giant snails.’
  • Autodiegetic – ‘I was attacked by giant snails.’
  • Extradiegetic – ‘I’ll tell you a story about giant snails.’


Slide 11: Narrative Levels

For those who attended on the day, the text I used to illustrate the different levels was Read This First, which is my post-apocalyptic anthology about the curators of the last library, now available on Amazon. Minor book plug. 🙂

Slide 14: Privilege

‘Privilege’ is a technical term for the amount of information a character has access to and therefore can provide the audience. Mieke Bal is a good source to read up on this. The more narrative levels the story has to go through (focalizer, narrator, implied author, etc.), the less privilege the audience will end up with because some will be lost with every level.

A way around that is to play with opposing narrative levels that offer different ‘truths’ about the same events. A fantastic example is the film Hero. 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.

Slide 15: Authorial (Un)Reliability

When using changeable structure as a method of unreliability, the audience is encouraged to make false assumptions, not by the narrator but by the author. The order in which the story is presented is deliberately misleading. Arrival is a great example.

Slide 16: Twist It

Again, I did mention this on the day but remember that the twist/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 need a moment of realisation at all. Clare Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days provides the reveal to the audience but not the narrator, and that ignorance adds to the horror of the narrator’s ultimate fate.

Twists also add to your story’s rereadability. The audience will experience the story differently a second time around because they have greater privilege than any of the characters. So if you write a twist, try to ensure you include things that will provide the breadcrumbs for people to spot when they go through again. It turns the story into more of a puzzle-experience but, speaking as a reader who does this, it’s great fun.


Slide 19: Relative Distance

I didn’t include this slide in the original talk at all, because I was tight on time. Wayne C Booth, an American lit crit writer, has a theory called aesthetic or relative 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 audience. 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 tensions are structural – the narrator and the implied author have different biases, which implies an unreliability. Ditto the narrator and the secondary character(s). This can be good (tension drives plot) or bad – for example, the 3POV narrator of Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maughan is a working class London girl but the audience finds it difficult to really get a feel for her because the language of the book is upper-class male.
  • Some of these tensions are bad – the narrator and the audience have radically different morals, and a failure to ease the audience into this leads to disengagement.
  • Some of these tensions are unavoidable – the author and the audience come from different eras or cultures, which means there’s a certain knowledge gap that has to be bridged in order for the audience to engage.

Slide 20: Getting the right reaction

Again, because of time restraints I didn’t really go into cause and effect properly with this slide on the day. So here’s my take on it:

  • Frame: Emotional engagement to narrator and distance from story. Enjoyment and introspection.
  • Epistolary: Implied reader which means easier suspension of disbelief and engagement.
  • Unreliable: Enjoyment of structure, possibly more privilege.
  • Diegetic level: How involved is narrator? And therefore how involved is audience?
  • Narrative level: How many levels of privilege and bias does audience get story filtered through?
  • Relative distance: What sources of tension are in the story? Which do you need to make easier for audience to work around?
  • Self-consciousness: Emotional engagement with narrator, implied reader, levels of manipulation
  • Narrative complicity: Audience is drawn into story, brought on-side emotionally and intellectually
  • Authorial reliability: Manipulation of audience, either knowing or not, which creates tension but involves risk; can offer greater insight into characters and relationships
  • Privilege and bias: Is the audience able to see the whole story? If not, why not? Tension, plot, emotional engagement and manipulation
  • Plot twist: memorability and rereadability, involves risk

What Next?

As I mentioned above, I clearly have some more research to do around 2POV regarding games and Interactive Fiction, so I’ll come back to you on that in a while. I might even, if I’m very very lucky, catch Ian Thomas at a less-insanely-busy-than-usual moment and beg a guest post off him on the subject.

I also had a wonderful moment with Adrian Tchaikovsky afterwards, in which he expressed interest in the relationship between 1POV/3POV and past/present tense. Particularly, if the narrator is speaking in past tense they clearly have knowledge of the whole story (and there’s a strong indicator they’re going to survive the experience), which therefore surely impacts their account. If they’re speaking in present, how are they narrating (especially if they DON’T survive)? This conversation was the highlight of my Con. It’s not every day extremely successful SFF authors ask for my opinion on something technical. So yeah, I’ll definitely have a think about that and do a follow-up blog post.

On a more personal note, the whole public speaking experience was less terrifying than I thought it would be and I realised after the fact that I’d rather enjoyed myself. Since this is a subject I love to learn and talk about, and since in a perfect world I’d actually like to end up lecturing on this stuff, hopefully I’ll get to do it again in the future.


Chronotopes: Time and Space in Literature


A bit more from Mikhail Bakhtin this week. Another one of his essays concentrates on chronotopes, which is a fancy way for saying ‘the depiction of temporal and spatial progression on the page’. Different genres have different approaches to the use of time, and Bakhtin seems to consider this an important identifying feature of those genres.

In literature the primary category in the chronotope is time. The chronotope as a formally constitutive category determines to a significant degree the image of man in literature as well. The image of man is always intrinsically chronotopic. ~ Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel, Bakhtin

Yeah, it’s all like that. Aren’t you glad I’m condensing this stuff down for you?

Adventure Time

Not just a cartoon, but also a technical term. Adventure-time was originally a feature of classical epics, but it’s not uncommon in lesser SFF works. Adventure-time denotes the passage of time in which adventure happens. Sounds obvious when you say it like that, but there’s a little more to it.

In the classic epic trope – such as Heliodorus’ Aethopica – the story starts with boy meeting girl. It ends with boy marrying girl (or finding her again, or variations on that theme). In between, boy loses girl and has to go on various adventures to get back to her, or boy and girl are persecuted and go on adventures together. If those adventures happened in real time, when they finally got to the wedding they’d be in their late 40s. Slightly less ‘young love conquers all’ and rather more ‘staggering to the altar with most of our limbs still attached’.


So adventure-time is a linear progression of time within a bubble, during which adventures happen. When those adventures stop happening and the heroes return to the ‘normal’ world, less time has passed to allow them to still be the young, beautiful people required for the photo finish. Which is an indicator that there’s been basically zero character development.

Adventure-time leaves no traces – neither in the world nor in human beings. No changes of any consequence occur, internal or external, as a result of the events recounted in the novel. ~ Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel, Bakhtin

You can use adventure-time in modern fiction, but only if you explicitly acknowledge it’s a manipulation of time or biology. Otherwise your readers will consider it to be lazy writing.

Romance Time

This shares some similarities with adventure-time, in that the events undergone by the hero do so in their own little bubble outside the passage of ‘real’ time. The difference is that, in this version, the hero does change. It really started with medieval courtly romances like de Montalvo’s Amadis de Gaula, where the knight undergoes tests or trials and returns to court a better man. This has since developed into a standard step in the heroic journey, which sometimes happens in adventure-time and sometimes happens in real time.

The issue of space is important here, too. During the tests and trials of romance-time, the hero is removed from society – they are alone, tested as an individual. In adventure-time, other people move in and out of the bubble. In romance-time, there is a bubble of space as well which is largely impenetrable. As the style of romance-time developed, so did things like inner monologue and character introspection.

Characteristically it is not private life that is subjected to and interpreted in the light of social and political events, but rather social and political events gain meaning in the novel only thanks to their connection with private life. ~ Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel, Bakhtin

Mythological Time

cosmologymeta750Also called folk-mythological time. Basically, the world splits into folklore/myth and history. Myth happens Before, and is generally unquantifiable. If you can stick a date on it, it’s history. Importantly, mythological time generally Before but Here. The events of mythological time happened on home ground rather than abroad but, because it’s Before, that home ground is slightly alien – without being foreign. Mythological time is a way of invoking that very specific ‘familiar but different’ feeling that using Welsh as a mystical language also achieves.

Everyday Time

Time and space are constant and linear everywhere. Nothing happens in isolation. Events are sequential. It’s, like… normal. And you know what happens when nothing happens in isolation? People change the world, and the world changes people. So the idea of metamorphosis or transformation is important in everyday-time.

This transformation doesn’t happen smoothly, though. It tends to build up and take place in lumps:

…that unfolds not so much in a straight line as spasmodically, a line with “knots” in it, one that therefore constitutes a distinctive type of temporal sequence. ~ Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel, Bakhtin

Which is how you get things like distinct ages or epochs, specific stages in the heroic journey, and so on. It also means that you don’t get a story unfolding in what Bakhtin calls ‘biographical time’ – it focuses on the important or exceptional moments. These moments happen in ‘real time’ but we jump between them. This is where David Herman’s theory of attentional prominence comes into play – by choosing which moments to show on paper, the writer tells the reader which moments are important.


All of these labels are, like so much in the lit-crit world, largely unimportant except to serve as flagpoles for the various techniques available. You may well be doing much of this stuff instinctively. But if you know precisely what technique you’re using, and the impact that technique has, you can probably wield it with more precision. As Dolly Parton (sort of) said:


From High to Low: the Point of Novels


It’s been a while… half a year, in fact. Apologies for the radio silence. Uni has been almost entirely focused on writing my book so I’ve had very little non-book related stuff to share and even less time to do it in. But things are starting to move over the summer, so it’s time to get back on the horse. 🙂

The Evolution of the Novel

I was pointed towards the essays on The Dialogic Imagination by Mikhail Bakhtin by my tutor recently. Bakhtin was a Russian philosopher and literary critic writing in the early 1900s, and he had some interesting ideas about the novel as a genre. Until now I’d assumed that the novel was a format, and things like horror, romance, SFF, etc were genres which used that format. Not according to Bakhtin. He classes the novel as its own genre, separate to the epic, the elegy, the lyric poem, and all the rest of the classical literary styles. These styles were rigid, with strict formats and defined subject matter. The novel is much more fluid, defying categorization because there’s always multiple exceptions to any rule you try to impose. It essentially bastardized the subject matter of the older genres, turning it on its head:

The “absolute past” of gods, demigods and heroes… is brought low, represented on a plane with contemporary life, in an everyday environment, in the low language of contemporaneity.   ~ Epic and Novel, Bakhtin


This did something important. The older styles were very much for the elite – the educated upper classes. Within their stories, the world might change on a cosmic scale (the end of the Age of Heroes in The Iliad, for example) but not on a day-to-day level. This is because the intended audiences were the people in charge, and they had no interest in social change. The novel messed with that. It began the move from elite audiences to everyman audiences, bringing the subjects within reach of the general public. And the general public were very interested in social change, oh yes.

The novel was a way to push boundaries, to discuss the issues of the day in a relatively safe medium. And, because it was so flexible, it could incorporate all the favourite subjects of the old genres – such as love, war, death and heroes – without breaking a sweat. It took over from the old genres, in fact, because it could cover those subjects with greater freedom and exploration.

…the unfettered and fantastic plots and situations all serve one goal – to put to the test and to expose ideas and ideologues.  ~ Epic and Novel, Bakhtin

The rise of the novel also meant a shift in focus. The epics and elegies were focused on the past; lyrical poetry was, at best, focused on the present. The novel allowed speculation about the future. How things could change. It was the genre of evolution.

Genres Today

The novel is now such a ubiquitous format that we don’t think of it as a genre. We sub-divide it into themes or subject matter or style, and call them genres instead. Some of them still talk about contemporary issues and push boundaries; others are purely for entertainment’s sake, and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that.

I think, though, that SFF has an important role to play in pushing boundaries. As I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before, it’s a step back from the world which means we can talk about problematic areas like religion and race without falling foul of prejudices or sensibilities. It’s also a way to discuss social problems in a very bold way, with less risk (I’m going to point you back to the lecture on Chinese SFF from last year). And it is, absolutely, the genre of the everyman audience.

efc698a5b975dc9d9004847b051308ce--ink-express-frankensteins-monsterUrban fantasy, which is what I’m currently writing, straddles the line between reality and fantasy. It makes this balance of open discussion vs removed engagement a little trickier, but it also allows us to make more pointed observations. Urban fantasy isn’t new, incidentally – it has its roots in the gothic novel. Arthur Machen, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, they were all forerunners in the fantastical. And they were all making observations about the society they lived in.

I’ve had to define the issues I’m deliberately trying to tackle in London Under, and to be honest they aren’t what I thought they would be. I thought I was writing about love and duty, and what those forces can do to us when they’re in opposition. It turns out that, rather without meaning to, what I’m actually writing is a story about the threat of terrorism and the fear of loneliness in a big city. The whole ‘love and duty’ thing is still there, but more as an undercurrent. I didn’t plan that, it just seems to have happened. Which shows that your subconscious can sometimes be the better writer.

Our era is characterized by an extraordinary complexity and a deepening in our perception of the world; there is an unusual growth in demands on human discernment, on mature objectivity and the critical faculty.  ~ Epic and Novel, Bakhtin

Fact vs Fiction: The Psychology of Storytelling


There are, according to Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner, two ways of processing ideas and understanding them, of ordering experience and constructing reality. One is based on logic, verifiable fact or empirical proof. The other is based on how it feels and resonates. Or, as literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin put it:

Only the storyteller can transmute information — be it in the form of “objective” fact or “subjective” experience — into wisdom. ~ How the Novel & the News Killed Storytelling

Knowing vs Believing

There’s a fundamental difference between knowing something, and believing it. One is rational, one is emotional. To get personal for a second, it’s a major disconnect that I struggle with when dealing with depression. I know I can put words on paper in a way people enjoy – there’s empirical proof in the feedback from readers, in the fact my short stories are getting published, in the number of Twitterature followers I have. But I don’t always believe it.

I know 2+2 = 4. That’s information which engages my brain but absolutely no emotion. (I’m just not that into maths. If algebra does it for you, who am I to judge?)

I believe sunsets are beautiful. There’s no empirical evidence to support this statement, but watching a good sunset fills me with happiness. The response comes from my heart, not my head.

We live in the Age of Information. There’s more data available than ever before, more stats and numbers and analysis. It’s easy to forget people can use that information to tell stories, to makes us accept things emotionally by presenting them empirically. And belief is much stronger than knowledge.



History According To Hollywood

There are a number of films which my friends can’t watch. Dr. Nick, naval architect, frowns at U-571; Andrew Knighton, historian, shouts at Braveheart; I, classicist, throw things at Troy. A lot of people have a film, or a book, which enrages them because it’s inaccurate. But for those who aren’t experts in that particular field, it’s their source of information. And because it’s told as a story, engaging them emotionally rather than cerebrally, they believe it.


You need people to believe your stories. Emotional engagement is how you keep them reading to the end. But by tapping into their emotions, you’re also teaching them, however inadvertently. If you’ve done your job as a writer, they will walk away believing in your world, in your characters, in their moral struggles and social acceptances.

That means we have a responsibility to know what it is our stories are teaching people, and to ensure it’s something we want to teach. To turn cognitive thoughts into emotional wisdom, via words on the page. So how do we do this?

In contrast to our vast knowledge of how science and logical reasoning proceed, we know precious little in any formal sense about how to make good stories. ~ Jerome Bruner, The Psychology of What Makes a Great Story

Thanks, Jer. Real helpful.


Class & Race: Writing to Reinforce or Resist


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.


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


Or blue… 

The Focalizer: I/She/They’ll Be Back


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:


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.


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


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.


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.

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.



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!