Friday, 27 January 2012

Why Do They Talk To Us?

This is not a blog post about the voices in my head. Or at least, not specifically, and not all of them.

I've been kicking this topic around in my head for a week or so now (since my post last week about the present tense), and while my thoughts aren't terribly polished, I think I'm ready to start putting them down.

The question is where the words that end up on the page come from within the fictional world of the book (at some point I really need to do a blog post on all books being about fictional worlds, even ones 'set' in the real world). This is wayyyy abstract, and possibly not of much help to most writers, but it intrigues and bothers me, so here goes.

Here's where I'm coming at the issue from: I like frame stories. A lot. I like stories about characters telling stories. It's the main reason I love Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles, while Scott Lynch's 'The Lies of Locke Lamora' left me cold because the blurb led me to think I would be getting a story with a clever framing device. 'The Non-Agency' has a framing device. I like frame stories (and framed stories) because it gives me a tool to evaluate the truthfulness of the story as it's being told; in the Kingkiller Chronicles, for example, it's very clear Kvothe is hiding something, not telling the whole truth, and that sheds a lot of light on the parts of the story he does concentrate on.

Take away the frame and the actual origin of the words on the page becomes mysterious (well, OK, they were printed there by a publisher according to some writer's design, but that's usually not particularly interesting from the point of view of the story). This isn't necessarily a problem, but I think it helps - certainly, it's helped me in the writing I've done this last week - to take a look at where your words are coming from, particularly in terms of writing with strong POV and voice.

At the crudest level, we're talking about a mix of person and tense. Obviously, if you're getting a first person narrative, then the words on the page are in some sense that character's, but it's a much more complicated question than that. For example, are we getting the character's reactive or reflective thoughts? How much opportunity has the character had to rationalise or even lie about what they've done?

Third-person narratives have even more options; you can take a God's-eye view, right down to very narrowly, tightly-focussed perspectives right next to the character. But are you getting the character's thoughts? We think in the first person (or I assume most of us normally do), so what are all these third-person sentences doing lying around?

This is where we come to the crux of the issue, I suppose. A narrative has to be both inside and outside a character's head (even the most carefully first-person stories I've read have required the narrating character to have a level of self-awareness and proprioception which is a little bit 'unrealistic'). To a certain extent, therefore, I think all (fictional) prose involves some sort of translation of facts from within the fictional world into words on a page.

It sounds obvious when put like that, but there are different ways this translation can occur, the chief variable being how much input the characters have into the result. There certainly are books (and while I can't think of an example off the top of my head, I'm aware this only reflects my ignorance and this morning's muddy-headedness) which start something like 'Listen well while I tell you my story...' There are books where no character at any point directly communicates with the reader (ostensibly, at least).

I'm not getting any closer to my point. Here's how I think about this in my own writing. This goes, by the way, whether I'm writing first-person or third. I start by working out what, at the given moment, the character is aware of, consciously and subconsciously, in all his or her senses (including whatever you want to call the internal, reflexive sense that tells us what we're thinking, and however we're sensitive to our emotions). That gives me a list of (fictional) facts, any or all of which can be turned into a sentence to put on the page; I then choose the facts that this character would notice/think about.

So, while the character isn't necessarily telling the reader directly what's happening, the reader is getting what's happening inside his/her head. I find the technique useful because it keeps me very strongly within the character's point of view, and hopefully that translates into what the reader feels. It vastly simplifies the choice of what the character actually notices and thinks, because it starkly reduces the number of options to choose from.

Of course, I don't go through this process consciously for every sentence, because that would take ages, but the process captures the ethos behind my prose. It's not the only process, by far. You may find you want to be able to include things in a scene that this or that character is unaware of (something William Horwood often does); equally, you may want to limit yourself to just what the character is immediately conscious of, producing something more like a stream-of-consciousness style (John Meaney uses this to great effect).

I suppose the ultimate point is this: the relationship of the words on the page to your characters doesn't have to be - perhaps even shouldn't be - purely descriptive. You are the creator of the characters at least as much as you're the author of the prose, and you need to understand their input (arguably, their feedback) into your writing.

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