Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Character-driven Narration

Last Friday I was a cheerleader, but today I'm going to be a pedant and talk about craft again. That doesn't mean I'm not still High On Life and not still thinking that We Writers Are Superheroes. Because I am and we are. Just saying. Onward, though.

One of the things agents and editors go on about is "voice." Voice is mostly an undefined term, and possibly people mean a great many things when they use that word (I pause to think of Inigo Montoya in "The Princess Bride"). But I think that "voice" is mostly just the way the narration of the story works. How are we telling the story, as one person (the writer) to another (the reader)? Are we casual, formal, revealing, secretive, speaking like our reader or speaking like a stranger? What speech habits does our narration have? That's "voice," as far as I can tell: the style of narration, whether through a character in the story or directly from the author. So let's talk a little about narration, and how it ties to voice.

One thing about narration that we have to be aware of is that all of it should reflect the emotional tone of the story. You'll no doubt have descriptive passages, talking to the reader about places, things or characters in the book, and in these passages it's easy to withdraw into our authorial space and distance ourselves from the emotional lives of whichever characters are placed into the locales or action we're describing.

For example, suppose you have a character walking down a street in a big city. You describe the street as Stella (our character) goes along:

The buildings lining the avenue were modern steel-and-glass skyscrapers, reflecting each other over Stella's head, each side of the street seeing itself across the avenue. Workers in 15th-floor offices looked out and saw themselves mirrored sixty feet away, not really ever seeing the building opposite...

And stuff. Weak, I know, but it's early. Anyway, this passage reveals my own fascination with modern architecture and the phenomenon of curtain-walled glass buildings reflecting the facades of buildings across the street, but it's got nothing to do with Stella. As a narrator, I've withdrawn from the story and am just handing out some facts and observations that don't involve Stella, down there on the street between the shiny skyscrapers.

In character-driven narration, which is what this post alleges to discuss, these sorts of passages are written from a distinct point-of-view that come from the dominant voice of the novel. If the whole book is written in a distant, emotionless style like the above passage, then the above passage fits with the voice of the book. Which is fine, if we're writing a textbook. But if the voice of the book is not distant and emotionless (and let's hope it's not), your descriptive passages shouldn't be, either. When you withdraw emotionally from your readers, they return the favor and either start skipping ahead or start looking for something else to read.

So, you should tie your narration to character. What does the landscape have to do with the characters within it? Tell us that. Don't tell us your authorial impressions of objects, places or persons. Tell us what they have to do with your characters, what they have to do with the emotional lives of those characters. Have your characters drive the narration.

The street scene, driven by character:

Stella walked down the avenue. She looked up at the modern steel-and-glass skyscrapers around her, noticing how the buildings on each side of the street were mirrored in the glass of the buildings opposite them. If I worked in a 15th-floor office, Stella thought, I'd see myself when I looked out my window and maybe never really see the building on the other side...

We get the same physical details, but now they have meaning to Stella. We have put our character into the narration and are letting her drive the narration.

Remember that your POV character doesn't exist merely to give her perspective on the action and the conflict. Your POV character gives perspective on the entirety of the narrative. When you come across passages that seem cold or distant, don't let the first question you ask about them be "what's wrong with this sentence?" Ask yourself first if the passages are about your characters. The prose itself might be fine, or better than fine. What might be missing is an emotional connection between the prose and the reader: a character driving the prose.

I'll try to come up with some better examples, possibly from real books.


  1. Scott, nice post. When you first mentioned voice, the first writer that came to mind was Nabokov. Not to ruin too much of the book, but I love the disconnect he has between his voice and the subject matter. It goes to prove your point even more to see how important it is to have those two elements working together.

    When you read my book awhile ago, you had mentioned that there were a few lines that seemed random to you, or that you didn't understand their function. As I was revising, I realized that those were the places where my narration was disconnected to the characters. I was noticing details as a writer, but not through the character, and as soon as I fixed those lines, it made the prose work much better.

  2. Davin: Nabokov is all about voice (and manipulating the reader's expectations). Have you read The Real Life of Sebastian Knight? It alleges to be a biography of the writer's half-brother, but is actually all about the narrator, and the structure of the "biography" mimics the structure of books discussed in the story. It's amazing and infuriating (like all Nabokov), and is written very "closely" to the narrator, every detail seen through him and about him no matter who or what he's describing. When Nabokov speaks in a distant voice, you know that something is going on, and usually it's his narrator only pretending to be disinterested (or claiming to be innocent of some bad act he's committed). Everything Nabokov wrote was a tour de force, though.

    I realized that one reason my narrator in my last book seemed distant at times was for the very reasons I talk about in this post. When he'd discuss other people, he would recede into the background and disappear from his own story. I rewrote piles of it to pull him back into the narrative.

  3. Excellent. I was thinking while reading the two descriptions of the city that the first would work if the city and its aloofness was the central character, but most writing is about people and we need their emotions and reactions to environment. I can always tell when a writer is indulging in scene-setting as pretty word pictures rather than its effect on character and story.

  4. Ah, this is beyond true. The POV character needs to be central in all aspects of the writing. I especially liked that part.

  5. Great post.

    I've never really thought of phrasing description in such a light, but it does make the most sense. After all, we all see the world in relation to ourselves or those we care most about don't we?

  6. I have never thought about this. I bet doing so will help me reel in my stories.
    When reading others' books, I'll try to notice this so that I can see how to do it myself.

  7. I've been thinking a lot about voice recently. I once read a post by Janet Reid where she says she can fix the writing but she couldn't fix voice. In one of my very first versions of the query letter I wrote for my first novel a beta reader said that the query had no voice.

    I would like yours (and the other readers of this blog) opinions on when we should worry about voice. I am 70 percent done with the first draft of my second novel and terribly worried about voice, but I'm wondering if this is something to look at on the revising stage instead.

  8. Crimogenic, Very interesting question! For me, voice doesn't come in until the revision stage. In my early drafts, I tend to be more focused on just getting information down and learning about characters, so the language suffers in the meantime. But, during revision, I notice places where I don't sound like myself, places where I was too focused with what I was saying instead of how I was saying that. As I revise these spots, that's when I think my voice comes in.

    I can imagine a different scenario, one where the voice is absolutely critical to the story. The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time might be a good example. Here, the narrator is a bit odd, and so how he views the world is strange and really shapes the story. I'd imagine in this case you could imagine wanting to know your voice early on, but again, I think that could be done on revision as well.

  9. Crimogenic: When I wrote my last novel, voice was a concern at first because it's all in a sort of Elizabethan English-inflected speech, though I didn't really worry too much about it until after the first draft, when I began to go through and make sure that my narrator sounded like himself the whole time. For the work I've just started, I'm thinking about voice right from the start, because I'm interested in how I'm going to tell the story and what sort of things I'm going to allow myself as a narrator. Happily, I'm writing in third person limited omniscient (oh, joy! I will never write in first person again, as God is my witness!) so that frees me to do more things in this book, but I'm still playing with voice. But there is plenty of time. If you're only 75% through a first draft, I wouldn't worry too much.

  10. Nice post Scott. And I really love the idea of character-driven narration. I think it is something I have always tried to achieve - I just never had a good label for it. Thanks for making me think about this - a lot!

  11. Davin and Scott, both very good input. Whew! I was leaning towards not worrying about the voice at this point, but it was still nagging me.

    p.s. Scott, my current WIP is in the dreaded first person; perhaps, when I done with this novel, I will see why it is so dreaded.

  12. I've had trouble with voice. No in my novel but in mt query. For some reason I had a problem with bringing my voice from the book into the letter. I think I finally got it but I wonder why I was so stuck on it. It was so easy to show my voice in my story. Why is voice so hard for so many? I think because a lot of writers don't understand what it is. Wonderful post. :)

  13. Okay, a couple of typos in the above comment. I must be really tired. :)

  14. Oh, Scott, this is a great post! I didn't get to read it yesterday, sorry. I'm so glad I did this morning. As I finish Monarch, I know that some of my descriptions need a little tweaking from this angle.

    This is so brilliant. Such a simple thing, but I never thought of it this way. Thank you thank you!


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