Wednesday, February 15, 2006

"What's My Motivation?" Creating Character Through Narrative Voice

Creating believable characters is the essence of fiction writing. But how is it actually done?

First of all, I don't think anyone really knows. So much of writing is magic, after all. (I mean that quite seriously, but maybe that's a post for another day.) Even so, it is also a craft. There are tricks of the trade that help flat words on the page blossom into vivid, living imaginary creatures.

One such trick is what is called narrative voice.

I searched desperately for a good definition of what is meant by narrative voice and I didn't come up with much of any use. So, I’ll have to stumble through an explanation of my own. The narrative is comprised of the parts of the story that is not dialogue. That would include all of the description, the internal dialogue (if there is any), the action, and everything (except the bits in quotations). The narrative voice, therefore, is the way – the tone, if you will – in which those parts are written.

Your narrative will be in a point of view (the usual suspects: first or third). It will be in a verb tense of some sort (past or present).

The voice, on the other hand, will convey a certain kind of personality, such as chatty, sarcastic, militaristic, hesitant, or angry. Since your story is being told, in essence, by the main character, the narrative voice (remember: the bits in between) should reflect their personality as much as the character's dialogue and actions. It will be consistent throughout the text, ie. your chick-lit heroine will still be chatty even during the scary scenes or the sad scenes. She'll just be chatty in a scared way or a sad way. Though not necessarily when she's talking (dialogue), but when she's explaining things to us, the readers.

One of the big mistakes beginning writers often make is to underutilize the narrative voice. I don't know why, but a lot of people seem to approach those parts of the story as if they're the boring bits. He walked into the room, yada, yada.

No, no, no. The narrative is where your character LIVES. If your critique group is telling you that your characters feel flat, this may be part of your problem.

The narrative voice is the reader's main window into the mind, the emotional state, and the... well, character of your main character. So he walked into a room. Is it a room he's been in before? Does the room make him feel instantly at ease? Why? What about it? Is it the dried flower arrangement collecting dust in the sunlight that reminds him of his mother's house? Is the room warm? And, how does this reflect the plot (or the theme)? Is this room a place in which he's going to take shelter after having his world-view shaken after discovering his lover is a werewolf? If so, what about this familiar place suddenly feels wrong?

Plus, as I've said many times before I think one of the reasons readers read is to get a sense of what it’s like to be someone else. We want someone else's take on the familiar. So he walked into a room, is there something there I might understand, relate to? Okay, so I've never discovered my lover is a werewolf, but what is it about walking into a room you've been in a million times before after hearing some world-altering news that is universal to the human experience? Or maybe it's not even that close. Maybe it's like the feeling of wrong familiarness that you get once you’ve been overseas and come home, and you look at all the houses in the Midwest with their expansive lawns that you've grown up with all your life, and suddenly they seem far too far apart.

That's part of using narrative voice to its full potential.

The other part is word choice. Part of keeping your narrative voice consistent is remembering to always use the kinds of words your main character would know when describing people, places, and things. For example, a nuclear physicist would describe a garden in a different way than a ten-year old girl.

One of the more difficult parts of writing is remembering to always stay in your main character’s head – to think like they do. One of the reasons I don't like to read much horror, particularly the kinds of horror novels where there’s a serial killer who has p.o.v. chapters, is that I hate getting into the mindset of someone so damaged. And, when a writer does it well, that's exactly what happens. It can be kind freaky, actually. See my nephew's blog (Sunday, January 29) where he talks about reading American Psycho.


zaparozh said...

Hey, "Tate!" How's it going? I really have been a crappy friend in not checking out your blog in a long while.

(I think you'll figure out who this is in a flash. BTW, did you ever take a look at my film? Some interesting stuff going on there I should tell you about sometime.)

But, of course, after checking out your blog at this auspicious time, it's the urge to be CONTRARY that finally prompts me to write you.

Well, not exaactly contrary. Truth be told, I love love love a well-done narrative voice. Yours in particular.

Nevertheless, one thing that's contributed to finally saying "Fuck it! Enough!" to the sci fi print field--and yes, I'm using the derogatory term very, very intentionally--is the overwhelming trend toward on-your-sleeve narrative voice that's easily turned cliche.

I'll digress for a moment and give two related examples: the preponderance of comedies in high school drama and the sci fi-comedy trend that exploded in films in the 80s. Even though those are different fields, the motivations behind these culturaal phenomena are, I think, disturbingly similar.

Now, just about everybody in the know knows thaat great comedy is actually much harder than great drama. Yet why, oh why do high school drama depaartments--suffused with beginniner talent (some of which will always be second-rate) undertake comedy?

A simple reason. If you fuck up drama and the audience laughs, it kills the play. If you fuck up comedy and they laugh AT you--well, they're still laughing.

We saw a lot of this in the 80s in film, with sci fi played for laughs as much as action; back to the Future being a perfect example. Why, again? Same reason, in this case, I believe, intimately connected to the limitations of speciaal effects. SF was improving dramatically, so when a film succeeded in wowing the audience, great. But it wasn't a sure bet, so if an effect turned out cheesy--or in the middle of production the powers-that-be-realized that's what would happen--no problem. Mix the wow with camp, and you can't lose.

far, far, FAR too much sf, fantasy, comics and so on have gone down this exact path in the past couple decaades, however. Overwhelmingly first-person. Overwhelmingly with a "color" to the narrative voice--usually a humorous edge somewhere between hard-cynical-snide (even American Psycho plays to this so obviously)and quippy-w/-at-least-a-little backbone.

And I feel torn about it. Because some of my most favorite authors are so adept at it. You. Neil Gaiman. Michael Chabon. Harlan Ellison long before that.

Yet ...

Yet what about "voice" with gravitas? Why are so maany writers terrified of sounding serious? Oh, there are serious ideas often enough, but it's almost like there's a safe room they can retreat to, if the narrative voice is flaawed, tongue in cheek ... SOMEHOW. Within the naarrative or meta-fictionally.

So ... what about the good ol' omniscient POV? Playing it straight? we don't see so much of that aanymore, do we? Certainly not with aanyone "fashionable!"

We could argue, true, that even there there is a "voice," just like Midwesterners actually have an accent, whether they realize it or not. Still, on a far more relative baasis, why are Midwesterners--or those who caan fake the "accent"--so sought-after for news anchors? Because it's so subtle you can't tell it's there unless you specifically want to study it ...

... and the CONTENT of the communiction comes to the fore.

(Crappy as it may be on network news. But again, I digress.)

(Well, maybe not. see? Even in blog comments, I've been conditioned to throw in some self-depreacting comment to seem "flawed," to make a little IMHO tone.)

You know me. I love content. Need content. Need depth. My favorite authors with a unique narrative voice--including you--aren't my favorites because of the voice. If you really want to look at it, you could argue that it's in SPITE of the voice. ;-)

Meanwhile, however, an entire publishing culture has taken over where, "literary" OR "commercial," the need for an obvious voice has become de riguer that I honestly find it tiresome.

So, yeah, I'll be a little contrary. It might be that someone writing who hears that their writing is "flat" could benefit from pumping up the voice, in a conssistent and plausible way, of course.

But you know I've seen my share of these writers too--and I think for most of them it's putting lipstick on a pig.

In a way, aa disservice, because when there's a horde of them out there in print eventually, and it becomes cliche, the ones with actual talent with their distinctive voice start to get lost in the crowd.

I'd bet most of those writers reading "flat" are having that happen for another, more important reason. There just ain't shit there, idea-wise.

AuthorM said...

Voice and P.O.V.

Ahh...done well, heaven. Done poorly--throw the book against the wall.

I have to agree a bit with your friend, about how everyone having "a voice" is trendy and not always serves the best interest of the book (or film.)

It's tricky. Give your narrating characters their own distinctive voices, whether you're writing in first person or not, but keep your own, overall distinctive literary voice so as to satisfy your readers, who are, after all, picking up your books because they expect a certain style or tone. Even if they don't necessarily know what it is.

As for digging into the minds of damaged psycho killers, when I read American Psycho I was torn between rooting for Patrick and being disgusted, but not with him. With myself for eagerly turning the pages to find out what he would do next. It was the first Bret Easton Ellis book I'd ever read. I loved it, unapologetically.

But overall I admire that you were able to write a post like this, on craft. I always envy other authors who have a handle on stuff like that. I never have a clue how to "teach" anything we're supposed to know.

...could be because I don't know anything. HA!