23 August, 2008

In Which I Answer Another Reader's Question, and Explain a Few of the Mechanics of Writing

This is almost as fun as bashing stupid politicians, and a lot more pleasant. Keep the questions coming.

Atheist Chaplain (who, nudge nudge, has a delightful blog of his own) asks:

Just a question, are you telling the story from a first person perspective or as a narrative ?
Ah. That's a good question, and allows me to bludgeon you lot with some jargon.

There are, of course, a variety of ways to tell a story: first person, second person, third person limited and third person omniscient (which I do believe is what AC meant by "narrative"). I've used all of the above at one point or another. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, which I won't go into so much here. We'll just have the short-and-sweet (or perhaps just quick-and-dirty) survey:

First person: the I's have it. You're that character for the duration. "I said, I did, I'd better not get my ass killed because that's going to end things rather abruptly, innit?" That's the perspective Sue Grafton writes in, and why it was so funny when an interviewer once turned to her after asking Tony Hillerman if he would ever kill off one of his popular main characters and asked her the same thing. As related by my best friend, her answer was a derisive snort. "Yeah, right. I write in the first person. Like I'm gonna write, 'So I turned the corner and ack-'"

I've seen writers pull it off, but it's not recommended.

Second person: You are the story. "You said, you did, you might just get your arse killed but it would be almost as awkward as 'I turned the corner and ack.'" This is an incredibly hard viewpoint to pull off, because you're putting the reader directly into the story. Readers can distance them from "I raped a nun" or "He raped a nun." Not so easy when it's "You raped a nun." Second person is, understandably, rather rare in fiction, especially long-form, but many talented writers have made it work very well indeed.

Third person omniscient: Everybody's involved. The writer is a godlike being who can leap into the minds of anyone and everyone at will. The writer is the narrator, and that means the reader gets to know things the characters don't, hear everybody's thoughts, and often get the writer's musings directly on life, the universe and everything. The majority of fiction prior to the 20th Century was written this way. You'd often get chapters' worth of the writer stopping the story dead to opine on some subject near-and-dear to them. Think the cetacean chapters in Moby Dick. There's a lot of freedom in this viewpoint, and beginning writers love it almost as much as they love first person, but you also run the risk of ending up with a pedantic mess.

Third person limited: He said, she said - and that's it. It's a lot like writing first person, actually, in that you're limited to one head at a time, but the difference is that you can narrate from a variety of viewpoint characters. Spend a few chapters with Bob here, another few with Mary there, and so forth. When you're in their viewpoints, you're strictly limited to what they're seeing, thinking, doing and knowing. Also, no switching horses mid-stream: if you begin a scene in Bob's head, you don't finish it in Mary's, no matter how interesting her thoughts in regards to Bob's bastardry might be.

It's a supremely challenging perspective to write from, and the one I use most often. That's the POV for the story I'm writing now. It's why I can't use the word "chocolate" instead of "brown," and why metaphors are giving me fits.

Now, some writers aren't as strict as I am. They'll fudge the details and trust their readers to forgive them. "All right, so Jiahrkah wouldn't use a word like 'chocolate' to describe that rich brown color, but who cares? It gets the point across. I can always just say there's an Athesean foodstuff like chocolate, and that's the way this is translated."

Not me.

Oh, hell no.

I have to torture myself with, "Bu-bu-but he wouldn't think that!" It's an unfortunate fact that he'll sometimes think in ways that my readers have no experience with. When that happens, I either translate into something plain, like the boring description "dark brown," or I'm stuck trying to sneak in an explanation of what he means by the term he'd actually use. In a short story, I don't have room to introduce the brown item earlier so that the reader understands the word later. So it goes.

You wouldn't believe how many turns-of-phrase and common descriptions are biased by our experience. I've had to stop myself a thousand times, thinking, "Wait just a fucking minute. He doesn't have hands. So why would he say something like, 'On the other hand...'?" Even things as innocuous as smiles and laughs become a challenge. An equine doesn't smile like we do, doesn't laugh like we do, and so I have to reach for a description, whereas with a human character, I can just say, "He grinned and laughed."

The further challenge is that there's not one single, solitary Earthling in this story. So I can't take the coward's way out and narrarate from the viewpoint of someone just-like-us. It's even bothering me that my alien characters think a lot like us, but that's the conceit I'm having to go with in order to tell the stories I want to tell: sentient beings are, at core, remarkably similar in basic thought patterns. Why wouldn't they be? All social animals would have the same broad concerns. Or so the story goes.

It would damned sure be easier if I wrote this from the third person omniscient POV, so that I could be that Earthling among aliens, describing things with familiar analogies. But I'll tell you why I don't do that. First, it separates the reader from the story. Second, it wouldn't be half as much fun.

Good thing I like a challenge, innit?


Anonymous said...

WOW :-)
All that from my little ol' question :-) and as you said There are, of course, a variety of ways to tell a story: first person, second person, third person limited and third person omniscient (which I do believe is what AC meant by "narrative").
you are of course correct, I was thinking of that as "narrative"
and remember, I did say I have trouble writing a shopping list so your detailed description of the many different ways of writing a story is both enlightening and educational.
I should have known, of course, that you would take the hard way out. so I wish you all the luck you need in getting it just right.
When its published, can I get an Autographed copy, also when your on your World Wide promo tour, don't forget us little guys, I will throw you a proper back yard BBQ, Australian Style :-)

Anonymous said...

I've encountered another voice in a couple of 19th century novels. Call it "third person distant," or maybe "third person remote."

In I promessi sposi, (aka "The Betrothed), the narrator is a contemporary (1820s) historian who has assembled the story (set during the Plague of Milan in the 16th century) by poring over old documents and historical records. Ninety percent of the novel is standard third-person omniscient, but every once in a while the narrator emerges in first-person to point out contradictions, absurdities, and lacunae in his source documents.

Gaston Leroux's Phantom pulls a similar trick, except that the narrator is a journalist writing about ten years after the fact.

It's a neat way to have a third-person omniscient narrator become a minor character in the novel, and it adds a kind of verisimilitude, similar to an epistolary novel.

I'm not sure why this voice has become so thoroughly unfashionable, because I can also see where it might solve some problems that would be otherwise difficult to write around.

Jacob said...

"How on earth..."

I hate that phrase, when trying to insert it into Ally.

However, I figure, if we're writing a story in English, a language which certainly would never exist in our non-Earth universes, then we're already taking a few things for granted. Besides, I think the point of a story is the impression it gives to the reader, and -they- are human, and thus sometimes "chocolate" is the best term, in order to give them the correct impression.