Limyaael's Rants

Authorial Distance from the Narrative

Written on 2004-01-03; Read the original post on LiveJournal

These are things I try to do in my own writing, and which I feel I should do more of.

  1. Don't make the hero or heroine the most important person to anyone but yourself. I might have a character who angsts about everyone around her hating her- although I hope I wouldn't have her for long- but she shouldn't be right. Who's ever completely right about such things? We find out all the time that someone else's behavior was motivated by other than what we thought it was, that someone being snappish had good reasons for it, that someone we thought was concerned about us couldn't care less. A certain self-involvement is normal, but I think it should remain self-involvement, even for a character in fiction, and not for the whole world.

    Yes, that applies to fantasy heroes, too- something I need to work on more in my own writing, since I regularly write people who are important political leaders. At the very least, people who live a distance away and have never heard of this leader won't be concerned about him. And some of those whose lives are changed by his decisions won't care enough to get in his way. No matter how many enemies he has, the whole world is not out to get him.

  2. Don't play deus ex machina for any character. I've done this in the past, to my shame- spared a character I thought was going to die, for example, or done something smaller like spared them humiliation or a maiming wound. When the story's not riding on that one point, it may be all right. But when the whole thing seems tending towards a tragedy, and I interfere and give them a happy ending, it destroys the buildup for the sake of my own emotions. (Luckily, I believe I got over that most extreme example after the early stuff I wrote).

    It's usually very, very obvious when the author is interfering. Things that should have gone harshly in any realistic view turning easy, someone unattainable falling in love with the lead character at the end of the story, a friend who should have died being resurrected- those things reveal the author behind the scenes, and while emotionally I may be able to forgive that (and have pulled that), intellectually the dishonesty bothers me.

  3. Remain true to the world of the story as well as the world around you. This is something I have trouble with. I want the characters to think and react in ways that would make much more sense if they were products of a culture like my own. For example, at times I want the denizens of one of my fantasy worlds to compare their heroes to knights or kings. But there are no knights in that world, and very few kings or kingdoms; monarchy and nationalism are mostly distrusted. I try to slip in references to plays and stories that have those legends, but they feel distorted.

    In parody, of course, it's different, but there the author is deliberately breaking the boundaries of genre and the audience can accept the bringing in of ideas that might exist in our own world.

    Otherwise, I think the author should detach his or her own cultural mind from the story, and try to think and feel as fully as possible like someone of the fantasy culture they're writing, down to the level of metaphor and literary allusion.

  4. Empathy should be possible even if sympathy is not. Here, I have less of a problem than I once did. My first hero was a perfect maverick Marty Stu, and I had no sympathy or empathy for his "enemies," which included his abusive father and hateful foster brother. (Writing his story from first-person POV exacerbated the problem). Why should I try to see their sides? They were just evil, after all.

    Since then, I've written characters who had committed crimes they thought of as crimes, a master torturer or two, a warrior dedicated to genocide, a racist religious fanatic, a misogynistic sociopath, and several others. And I think empathy is possible, no matter how "dark" the character is. No, it doesn't mean that I have to agree with their actions, or ever forget how other characters in the story see them. But I want to understand. I want to try to know minds from the inside, and that doesn't include only the minds of characters whose principles I don't find objectionable.

    Some authors do this, a lot don't, but I think it's a good goal to work towards. At the very least, it moves the story away from two or three perceptive, intelligent, caring people who are apparently the only ones like that in the whole of the fantasy world.

  5. If you have an omniscient viewpoint, try to avoid making it superficial. This is exactly the reason I don't handle bouncing from head to head; I can't do it well. I would be too tempted to make some characters just mouthpieces for convenient actions, or nicely placed observers, or even brains full of clichés (something I think happens with a lot of villain viewpoints in fantasy).

    Also, too often there doesn't seem to be a reason to shift viewpoints. Why tell this scene from Jack's mind instead of Sara's? If you have a compelling reason to tell it from Jack's, why would you drift across the room halfway through and enter Sara's mind? Convenience may be the answer, but it can play merry hell with the story (Robert Jordan and Elizabeth Kerner are two authors who have a real problem with this).

    I'm much more at home with third-person limited viewpoints and some first-person. Maybe practice would let me be more comfortable with the omniscient one, but I have yet to have a story idea that needs it.

  6. The reader can only read the pages, not your mind. I have a particular problem with just cutting out options in a story, and forgetting that while I may know about the law passed long ago that makes that action too ridiculous to consider, the reader probably doesn't. Of course, I don't want to explain it all to her in a clumsy paragraph of exposition, either.

    This is the place for ruthless cutting and binding. If the information from another story, a song of that world, a piece of history, a character profile, is essential to explain something else, I try to find a way to include it. If not, I keep it out. I suppose in the end this might be why I have such a problem with obscure allusions in the first place; I would rather not explain something enough than shove in non-essential information like what kind of perfume my character likes.

    Probably the best thing to do is explain when necessary, and then in no more than one or two sentences. If you don't explain well enough, a reader can always contact you and ask for more details. And if something slips past unnoticed, such as a statement that's incredibly ironic in light of what happens to the character in another story, then the author can enjoy a private joke while still having it make sense to the reader.

Thinking about the relationship of author to story and the creative process is one of my favorite things to do.

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