Tag Archives: lit crit

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!

Nine Worlds: How to Think About Historical Fiction


Historical fiction is the orphan of genre criticism, with a low-to-invisible scholarly profile despite its expansive reach, popularity and cultural penetration. Yet of all the major branches of genre fiction, it has always sat closest to the what we would now understand as the poetics of fan fiction, going back to Greek myth’s fictionalisation of the cultural memory of the Mycenaean world. It is possible to argue that fan culture is actually the superset of what scholars do: that historical engagement with the past and the interpretative narratives that we construct to compensate for its inaccessibility are themselves forms of unacknowledged desires for the unattainable other on the far shore of time.

Dr. Nick Lowe, Dept.of Classics, Royal Holloway University

I hadn’t originally intended to go to this talk but the one I’d planned to attend was completely full and this was just across the corridor. I’m so glad things played out that way. Dr. Lowe is a fascinating and energetic speaker, and a huge Greek mythology fanboy. My dissertation, way back in the day, was about the development of story themes from Ancient Persian epics into Ancient Greek ones so I went to chat to him after the presentation. It turned out he knew my old tutor and we geeked out together about how great the man is. Which was all kinds of awesome.


The Macrotext of Historical Fiction

The stories of Greek mythology are the first shared universe that we have record of. They were shared far beyond Greece (which wasn’t much more than city states until around 400 B.C.) to Macedonia and on (courtesy of Alexander the Great) into the Persian Empire. It was a rebootable, retconable corpus of stories which contemporary audiences were deeply engaged with and expert in. All the known poets and playwrights of the era created their stories within this shared cultural property. It was, basically, early fan culture. This creates a pressure towards the democratisation of created ownership. The mythological world belonged to no-one and everyone, and everyone could create within it.

History itself has become a macrotextual setting. Historical fiction measures the gap between what we claim to know and what we desire to know. It also contains nostalgia over unacknowledgable or inexperienceable concepts, such as imperialism, immoral sex, etc.

There’s no truth in history. It’s all competing theories. ~ Dr. Nick Lowe

The past is the macrotext, historical records and academic analysis is the corpus of canon works, and historical fiction is how we try to measure the gaps.

Remembering History


Definitely more fiction than history

Homer’s Iliad was the first piece of historical fiction on record. 500 years after the events of the Trojan War (or wars – archaeology suggests that the site we believe Troy was located, now called Hislarlik, suffered multiple wars over a relatively short time frame), the Iliad was an attempt to recreate the end of the Mycenaean era after a dark age when literary skill was lost and much of history forgotten.

We can’t date episodic memories in order, without writing them down. Human memories don’t work like that. The Iliad started life as a number of episodic oral poems which were stitched together to create the epic. Chinese and early Greek historiography, which ostensibly moved away from fictionalisation and towards reported fact, used episodic or fragmented stories in order to piece events together. Herodotus then used epic poem structure to try and revolutionise how history was remembered.

Early Chinese historiography was generally formed out of commentaries in annals. They weren’t sweeping narratives – that’s very much a Western tradition. The West “founded their history in drama whereas all other cultures of historiography are founded in lyric”.

Narrative structure, with first person retellings, are repeated throughout Western historical documents. This suggests narratological and ideological common approaches perpetuated down the ages. It also demonstrates a need to have an embedded character viewpoint in any story. This, combined with the Western understanding of story structure, forces it into similar shapes, which then become tropes.

Retelling History

You only need to read the first thirty books on Alexander the Great to realise the writers aren’t reading each other. Apart from Mary Renault, which everyone reads.   ~ Dr. Nick Lowe

Despite this macrotextual setting of world history, there’s massive potential for inconsistency. We can’t truly know what that world was like, so everyone interprets it differently. The repertoire of emotions is partly culturally constructed, so a historical novel written in 1950s Britain will inevitably differ hugely from one written in 2010s France. The past is another country and characters should behave as culturally appropriate, which is to say different from now. It’s hopelessly naive to think we can trust contemporary accounts or later academic analysis to give anything close to the true picture.

Historical fiction therefore allows us to experience many possible versions of the past. It also shows us how narrative structure pushes us to think about historical culture in certain terms, and how established events can be interpreted in wildly different ways.

Next week: heroism and morality in genre fiction.

Who Says: Styles of Narration


Okay, for the final academic post of the year, let’s plunge into some technical terms. Take a deep breath – this one gets a tad complicated.

Diegesis & Mimesis

It can get even more complicated than that but lets stay simple for now

It can get even worse than this but lets stay simple for now…

Choosing your narration style is absolutely critical to telling the story in the best possible way. I usually have to experiment with both first and third person for at least a chapter before I work out which one suits this particular tale better. With Corpus, I actually got about 20,000 words in before realising that 1POV wasn’t the best choice. Be open-minded, and willing to change. It’s for the good of the story.

Now, I previously thought that the options were basically limited to first person, third person (close or not), or omniscient. Strictly speaking, second-person exists but it’s frankly weird and the stories that it works for are so rare as to be on the list of endangered species. According to Jeremy Hawthorn, author of Studying the Novel, however, it’s a lot more nuanced than that. Fair warning – a lot of this blog post will be based on what he had to say on the subject.

First, what is diegesis and mimesis? They’re Ancient Greek terms that, according to the Wikipedia definition, mean ‘narration’ and ‘imitation’. Or, to put it another way, ‘tell’ and ‘show’.

Mimesis shows rather than tells, by means of action that is enacted. Diegesis is the telling of the story by a narrator. The narrator may speak as a particular character or may be the invisible narrator or even the all-knowing narrator who speaks from “outside” in the form of commenting on the action or the characters. ~ Wikipedia

So, basically, diegesis involves a narrator of some kind to tell the story whereas mimesis doesn’t. Mimesis is therefore non-personified omniscient POV. You can have personified omniscient – where there’s an actual person who sees and knows all, and is telling the story – but again, it’s pretty rare. Given that this post is primarily about narration, we can happily forget about mimesis and concentrate on diegesis.

Within diegesis, Hawthorn breaks it down into three sub-types: extradiegetic, intradiegetic, and autodiegetic. Confused yet? Totally fair. I’ll try to make it as simple as possible.

  1. Extradiegetic: the narrator is apart from or in some way above the story they are narrating. Usually means it’s a second-hand account and the narrator isn’t a character in the main action. Frame narrators are often extradiegetic (see below).
  2. Intradiegetic: the narrator is involved in the story they are narrating, but not the central character. A lot of crime books have intradiegetic detective narrators, as the protagonist is usually either the victim, the survivor or the criminal.
  3. Autodiegetic: where the narrator is also the main character. Like ‘autobiography’.

Note that diegesis doesn’t just apply to 1POV. If you’re doing 3POV, you’ll still make these distinctions.

Frame Narration

A frame narrator is a third person recounting what has been told or is being told to them. It can vary in how it’s done – either with an introduction of the framing at the beginning and end of the story, or with narrator’s comments interspersed throughout. The advantage is that you get the personal and emotional touches of 1POV, but with added authorial reliability (see below). The risk is the loss of tension and immediacy. It’s a less common technique these days although, having said that, it’s how both The Imitation Game and Interview with a Vampire were done.

Walton is the frame narrator for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Walton is the frame narrator for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, repeating what Victor Frankenstein told him

Authorial Reliability

Or lack thereof. Can your readers trust the narrator? It’s not just a question of whether the narrator is actively lying or misleading – you also need to consider questions of bias, and what information the reader will therefore take away that isn’t necessarily the whole picture.

Source affects the selection , the authority and the attitude towards what is recounted of the narrative – and thus, of course, the effect on the reader or listener. ~ Hawthorn

The closer the reader is to the narrator, the less reliable that narration becomes. What you lose in reliability, you gain in manner and emotion. It’s a balance you as the writer need to decide.

First person narrative is limited in scope… [but] unlimited in manner… Third-person narrative can hardly be subjective, but is basically reliable in the sense of being authorial. ~ Dieter Meindl

Is the narrator at ease or under pressure? Are they telling the whole truth, the partial truth, lying through their teeth – what do they gain by each? What does the reader gain by your narrative choice? These are all important things to consider.

Audience Complicity

This sort of ties into authorial reliability, and is mainly applicable to 1POV. Who is the narrator talking to, and why? Because that will impact the amount and type of information given. It may sound like a stupid question, but think about it. In Jane Eyre, the narrator is clearly talking directly to the reader – “Reader, I married him.” That’s unusual but not unknown. It could be that this is a written confession/will/letter to another character, who is also the reader, and therefore being addressed directly with a specific purpose in mind. It could be a lengthy inner monologue, in which case it’s likely to be far more honest. The point is that the style will be different for each recipient.

Then there’s narrative complicity, which works in both 1POV and 3POV:

A process whereby the reader is sucked into complicity with the narrator. We are amused with the narrator at [character]’s obtuseness and self-importance, and as a result of such passages we are likely to be far more malleable in the hands of the narrator, far more willing to accept his value judgements and assessments of characters. ~ Hawthorn

Essentially, it’s possible the narrator is aware of the audience in some way, and brings them on-side. This improves the amount of trust the reader places in the narrator, and therefore allows the narrator to manipulate that trust more. This technique can also be used to impact how emotionally connected the reader feels with the narrator. Frank Underwood in House of Cards is a brilliant example of a protagonist deliberately building audience complicity:

Types of Discourse

This also ties into authorial reliability, in that it depends on how things are reported. There’s three basic types of discourse:

  1. Direct: ‘He said “I love her.”‘
  2. Indirect / Reported: ‘He said that he loved her.’
  3. Free Indirect: ‘He loved her.’

There’s an important difference between Free Indirect Discourse and the other two. Direct and Indirect both have the character vocalising his thoughts, and he could be lying. Free Indirect is much closer to inner monologue – it’s a statement of fact, and therefore carries much greater weight of authorial reliability. More than that, it can be omniscient. The character in question may not realise yet that he loved her, and thus the audience is given insight before the character achieves it.

[Free Indirect Discourse] allows writers to move backwards and forwards between narrative comment and character consciousness, often with no apparent seams. ~ Hawthorn

Principle of Inertia

Basically, a fancy way of saying that readers will attribute statements or dialogue to the last named subject, so be careful of your labelling. Also called obstination.

Unless we are given good reason for changing the way we attribute statements to a particular source or consciousness, we tend to go on attributing them to the one already established as the operative one. ~ Hawthorn

Right, that was a bit of a gallop through a whole bunch of technical terms. To be honest, knowing the names is totally unnecessary, except that they help differentiate between concepts.

Anyway, thanks for your continued interest, have a lovely Christmas break, and I’ll be back in 2016!


Identity of the Consumer: Body & Mind As A Place


Lots of interesting stuff this week, and I may have got a little over-excited. Identity is high on my ‘cool ideas to think about’ list, particularly as the question underpinning my current book is centered around the balance of personal and social identity. When does taking care of oneself tip over into selfishness, what are the consequences of non-conformism, and is the individual more important than the community? I’ve touched on this before, a bit, but in the context of producing art rather than writing characters.

Conditioned IdentityConsumer-Society

In her essay on Consumer bodies, Elizabeth Jagger says that the rise of consumerism fundamentally changed the idea of identity, as media and cultural pressures began to dictate what people wore, ate, watched, read, how they behaved, where they went on holiday, and what they thought. I’m sure there were elements of this earlier in history but modern media channels make it far more pervasive. It removes an element of control over an individual’s identity, even if they don’t realise it. Those that choose to ignore current fashions are, to some extent, excluded from society as ‘odd’ or ‘other’ and thus the cycle continues. It’s not a new idea – Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a brilliant, sickening look at an extreme version of modern consumerist culture and identity.

Jagger also makes a big point about the greater impact of dictated appearance on female identities, which obviously plays into the behaviour and power dynamics of characters. She says (and I agree) that women use appearance to manipulate their social position. This isn’t new either – it’s a pattern of behaviour that can be tracked back throughout history. Women manipulated, using whatever tools they could but mostly appearance and sex (which are almost always intertwined) to get what they want because they were rarely in a position to just ask for or take it. Is that any different today? With that in mind, how will it impact how my protagonist behaves, dresses, and achieves her goals?

There are a couple of points which Jagger didn’t address, due to the time of writing, but which I think are important. The first is social media. The rise of global communities has contributed to the fall of the geographical community, as individuals are no longer dependent on locality for ‘contact’. But that decreases physical contact which impacts individual identity, making it more fragile and more needing of external validation from the global community. Without physical contact, this validation becomes more about expressing the ‘correct’ opinions. It moves identity away from appearance and imposes taste onto the mind.

Fat-Green-TrollIt also has lead to the rise of the anonymous identity, such as internet trolls, which fundamentally changes an individual’s behaviour and attitude towards the community. That identity is totally separated from the body, and also from the projected mental identity that is shared openly. It is a fragmentation of identity between private and public, with the freedom of anonymity giving rise to identity without the influence of taste or external opinion.

The second point that Jagger doesn’t really address (although she touches on it in the discussion of female body builders) is that of trans-gender identity. For trans-gender, the body is fundamentally NOT a part of their identity, it’s an obstacle to it. But appearance is the only way society can be made to understand, whilst at the same time making the individual vulnerable to attack and ridicule. Issues of trans-gender leads to situations where the body and mind are at odds in determining identity, and community can be very oppressive – even dangerous, in some societies – in resolving this question.

Individual Geography

Okay, moving past the theory (I warned you I got excited) and on to the practical. You’ve heard of the setting being written as a character? Where it feels like it has a personality/atmosphere (see all the stuff last week about poetic topography). I’m going to cite Kate Griffen again as a good example of this – the London of her Matthew Swift novels feels like a real, breathing place that actively contributes to the story. Right, now flip this on its head: now try writing the character as a setting.

The body is relatively easy. Take a step back and view it as a place rather than a person. This is where similes become your friend, although the usual warnings about overuse apply. What can your body do? What can’t it do? How does this impact who you are? And then, having worked all that out, what kind of place does that make it? By way of example, here’s my answer to that last one:

I am a boat, running free before the wind. The pale planks of my deck soak in the sun and the salt, weathering fairly. My sails ripple as the wind changes, sometimes furled tightly, sometimes – more often, lately – stretched high and wide to catch the breath of the world. My compass spins in the gimbal, dancing between logic and desire. The smooth keel is painted with the depth markings of friends and family, keeping the little vessel upright. The small cabin is low-ceilinged, curving over a patchwork of memories and words. It is warm with hope and affection and soft sorrow. The door is open but there are only seats for three; the fourth is broken in the corner. Water sings like crystal beneath the foot of the prow, the horizon is wide, and the tiller is master of herself.

I’ll admit that I found describing the mind as a place much more challenging. To me, the body is the least part of someone’s identity (although, granted, the easiest identifier). It can be stepped back from and described as a place without too much of a leap. The mind, however, is the person. It’s too big and abstract and uncoordinated to easily turn into a setting. I’m not even sure what language to use.

One of the exercises was the following:

Part of the mind as place is how it interacts with the world and processes all of the information that comes in and goes out, such as language, color, light, etc. Imagine yourself as someone else, someone completely different from you culturally or socially. How does that person—this new you—exist inside his/her mind? What kind of place is it?

Because I was struggling with the concept, I made a list of some primary cultural traits that I have (privileged, educated, capitalist, liberal, atheist), worked out what the opposites of each are, and then wrote. I actually did the exercise a couple of times, for characters either out of LARP or my own writing. I didn’t plan what I was going to say in any way – I just held the whole concept of the character in my mind and starting typing. What came through each time was a little surprising and gave a very clear indication of what was most important to them. I’m not sure if it constituted writing the mind as a place but it was a useful little exercise. Again, by way of example, here’s what I came up with.

TAMSIN (poor, uneducated, faithful, optimistic)

There’ll be something to eat at the end of the day, there always is. The god looks after his own. Besides, I wouldn’t swap the open road for all the cushions and cakes in the world. They don’t see past their stone walls, poor folk. Never seen a sunset fire the sky, or had a storm wash off the dirt of a week. Never got by on the smells of a bakery and crusts stolen from a bin. Can’t taste food right if you ain’t felt hunger. I’ve begged for my supper and let me tell you: pity-bread fills the belly just the same as any other kind. But poached meat cooked on an open fire under the god’s stars? Ain’t no oven roast can compare with that.

ALEX (poor, uneducated, feudal, belligerent)

‘Course I know what I want. You don’t know, you’re gonna end up in the gutter – or forgotten at the bottom of the pecking order, if you’re lucky. You can get nearly anything, if you know what you want and have the balls to go after it. Yeah, there’s dark places but I’ll stand in ‘em and shout just as loud as the light ones. This is my life, my turf. You wanna do something with it, you’re in for a hell of a fight. And if you get in my way, the bruises are your own fucking fault.

EDIT: Looking back, I wonder if maybe my description of my body as a place is more accurately my mind as a place. Which sort of highlights how blurry the line between physical and mental identity can be. Hmm. Any thoughts?