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A Theory of the Hero: Agency, Voice, and Sincerity (part 1 of 3)


For a while now I’ve been chewing on the concept of heroes/heroines, which at first glance looks simple. Say the word “hero” and everyone knows what we mean: we’re (stereotypically) talking about square-jawed men and kick-ass women who stab bad guys in the eyes with icicles, rescue intergalactic princesses, and Do The Right Thing. Heroes are “The Good Guys” that we root for in a story. But fiction – as life – tends to be more complex than that. For every Frodo Baggins we have an Elric of Melniboné. For every Peter Pevensie we have Steerpike. What then constitutes a hero? What makes one character or one story heroic and another not?

NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series of posts. This post is focused on what makes a given character heroic. On Saturday, I’ll post the next chapter, focusing on story archetypes for heroic characters, and the final post on Tuesday will focus on the difference between tragic and anti-tragic heroes.

Why do we need a Theory of the Hero?

If we want some sort of all-encompassing theory of the hero, we need to go beyond Campbell’s monomyth and Propp’s functional formalism. Regardless of how much I love both, a complete theory should be able to encompass both the classically-modeled Frodo Baggins and the monstrous Humbert Humbert.

In reading Ivan Morris’ excellent The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan over the weekend, something in my brain clicked. I think I might have figured out a secret ingredient that goes into the make-up of any hero, regardless of where they fall on a moral spectrum. Per Morris, heroes are defined at their core by the Japanese concept of makoto, which Morris translates as “sincerity” with connotations of self-contained philosophical sufficiency. In other words, a hero is a hero – regardless of their moral or immoral actions – if they act relative to a consistent moral code.

Hero vs Protagonist: Six of One, Half-Dozen of the Other

If you will forgive a brief moment of semantic pedantry, I think it is important to explain that I have never particularly liked the term “protagonist”. Since originating in Greek drama, I think the term has become incredibly muddled and imprecise. Etymologically, it means “chief actor” but a literal definition is too limiting to be functional. There are too many sweeping, epic novels like Hugo’s Les Miserables where identifying a particular chief actor becomes difficult (if not impossible).

Terms like protagonist and antagonist really describe the relationships between characters. The protagonist is opposed by the antagonist. This tells us nothing whatsoever about the characters in question, their value systems, moral codes, or courage. However, describing characters as either heroic or non-heroic does offer insights into their natures. Generally, for good drama in storytelling a hero needs to have an opposition: but a good hero can just as easily be opposed (antagonized) by another hero (the relationship between Hugo’s Jean Val Jean and Javert is a prime example of this type of opposition).

The Hero’s Function: Building Engagement through Agency and Voice

So what does a hero actually do in fiction? Besides saving the day, that is? As I see it, the hero/heroine is there to engage us on an emotional level. The hero draws us in and makes us care, and does so using the agency of their choices and the author’s narrative voice (which may be different from the character‘s voice).

The Hero’s Choices Make Us Respond

Can you imagine a hero with no agency? Would a character who just let stuff happen to them and passively reacted be at all engaging? Probably not. The hero/heroine’s choices determine how they change over the course of the story, giving us insight into their natures. Some heroes (Ayn Rand, I’m looking at you) are little more than two-dimensional symbols, a personification of some philosophical outlook with which we can either agree or disagree. Others are more complex, rounded (in Forster’s sense) characters for whom the nature of their choices actually matters. In each case, the hero’s choices cause some sort of a reaction in us. We may to some extent agree, sympathize, or understand the character’s dilemma and the outcome. Or we may view that choice as antithetical: we may disagree with it so violently that the strength of our dispute resonates just as strongly. Whether the hero strums our heartstrings up or down, the note still sounds. What matters is that the hero’s choices have an impact within the story, on the hero, and on us as readers.

It is this kind of approach that produces some of the most memorable heroes in fiction. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is replete with heroes who have to make choices: first, who will take the burden of the Ring? Then, who will escort the Ring to Mount Doom? Will Frodo actually destroy the ring? Will Aragorn take the throne of Gondor?

These are difficult choices that Tolkien’s heroes must make. Every member of Tolkien’s Fellowship is a hero, and every one of these choices resonates with us to a greater or a lesser extent. For some (Samwise Gamgee in particular) their choices are shown in a generally positive light: they are the classic “good guys” who make the difficult choices that the author (and presumably most readers) view as morally right. Other heroes – in particular Boromir, Gollum, and even Frodo himself – all make at least one morally reprehensible choice, transgressing against their value systems. But it is the uncertainty of their choices and their struggle to make them – for better or worse – that make us engage with the book. Whose breath didn’t catch when Frodo’s simple nobility fails him at the last second? Who doesn’t feel a pang of Bilbo’s pity as the villainous Gollum’s ugly history is slowly exposed? And who isn’t relieved when Aragon finally accepts his responsibility for Gondor?

But just like Gollum, not all heroes need to be good guys. Remember that old saw about every villain being the hero of their own story? Consider Milton’s Paradise Lost, Nabokov’s Lolita or Jesse Bullington’s more-recent The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. These books’ heroes are morally reprehensible villains.

Milton’s Satan is…well, Satan. He’s The Devil. The embodiment of all evil, at least according to the sensibilities of Milton and his contemporaries. Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert is a pedophile, a monster as vile as could possibly be imagined. Yet he still has agency, and his choices – reprehensible as they may be – never fail to provoke a reaction on our parts. Bullington’s grave-robbing Grossbarts, though less compelling than the other two mentioned, generally pull off the same trick. And all three of these monstrous heroes do so using the second tool of hero-construction: the author’s narrative voice.

Narrative Voice as the Sneaky Tool of Understanding

What could make us care about such monsters? We may disagree, sometimes vehemently, with their choices. So why do we continue to follow the story? We care because the author’s narrative voice is beguilingly engaging. Milton’s primary (initial) character – Satan – needs no introduction. We know that he is a monster: The Devil. But Milton’s narrative style makes Satan’s charisma a palpable force, not unlike the serpent’s beguiling silver tongue in the Garden of Eden.

Both Nabokov and Bullington utilize framing devices that unequivocally establish that the heroes in question are evil. But we get drawn into their heads, drawn into their twisted worldviews, by the authors’ compelling rhetorical structure. By the time the monsters perpetrate their evil deeds, it is too late for us. However much their choices may disgust us, at some level the narrator’s slippery words have given us a window into their souls. Through that window, we can catch a glimmer of the monster/hero’s intrinsic nature.

The Hero’s Nature, Moving Targets, and Sincerity

And here we come back to the concept of makoto: if the hero (whether morally laudable or not) fails to evidence sincerity, if they are not true to their underlying nature, then no amount of agency or rhetorical trickery will resonate. At the heart of a hero’s underlying nature lies his moral value system. Whether we agree with this system or not, or to what degree their value system aligns with our culturally-acceptable moral codes, is unimportant. What matters is that the hero’s value system remains immutable throughout the story.

If the hero’s value system changes within a story, then suddenly the hero’s choices lose their meaning. Whether they articulate their system explicitly or not, their values represent an aspirational target for their behavior. Han Solo, Humbert Humbert, or John McClain always know what the “right” action is, according to their own moral codes. And while they may not always live up to their moral codes, those codes do not change. If they did, if the hero’s moral target moves, if their definition of “right” and “wrong” shifts, then suddenly all of their prior choices become meaningless within the confines of the story. It would be like retconning Uncle Ben out of Spider-Man’s origin story.

Neither Humbert Humbert’s or Frodo Baggins’ values change throughout their respective stories. At no point do their concepts of “right” and “wrong” shift. Instead, their actions either eventually align with those (stated or implied) values or transgress against them. The hero’s choices must be mobile – not the yardstick by which they are measured. Whether we agree with them or not, heroic characters maintain a firm and unchanging set of values: they must be “sincere” in their worldview. It is the choices they make relative to that philosophy that affects the drama and resonance of a story, and which makes them heroic.

NEXT: Come back on Saturday for the second installment on plot structures and story archetypes for heroic characters!

Narrative Voice as Mind-control: Thoughts on Manipulating Reader Perception


Voice: Purpose, Function, Technique

A Conceptual Framework for Narrative Voice

I’ve always considered voice one of the most important tools when writing alternate history, and over the past couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about how that tool really works (both within and outside the sub-genre).

There are probably as many valid descriptions of voice as there are writers, editors, and critics out there. For my part, I believe that voice has three components: its purpose, its function, and its technique.

The Purpose of Voice: Establishing a Relationship with the Text

The purpose of voice is to establish the reader’s relationship to the text. Different stories, different narrators, call for different relationships. Would Nabokov’s Lolita be as powerful if we weren’t sympathetically engaged with the monstrous Humbert Humbert? Would Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories be as effective if the narration were as coldly dispassionate as the detective himself? Voice – both in narration, and in dialog – establishes how we relate to a story. At its most basic level, it controls the emotional distance with which we perceive it, and is most powerful when wedded to the story’s themes.

Nabokov wants us to view Humbert Humbert up close and personal. The power of his book relies on juxtaposing our the intellectual horror at Humbert Humbert and the visceral engagement his voice engenders. Had Nabokov employed a distancing technique, for example making Humbert’s story epistolary, or telling it from the dispassionate perspective of a court stenographer, it would not have the resonance it does.

John Crowley in Little, Big uses voice to distance us at once from our reality, and the reality of the text. The lyrical, metaphoric voice he employs puts us in a liminal state, somewhere on the borders of what is, what was, and what might be. In this, the voice employed is fundamentally aligned with the book’s themes.

Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men keeps the reader at arms length, so that we can view the events of his future history dispassionately, as if we were observing them from billions of years removed.

When Michael A. Stackpole employs a voice reminiscent of 17th century colonial texts in At the Queen’s Command it instantly links his book to that time in the reader’s mind.

The relationship created between us and the text is foundational in the act of reading. It sets the context for everything else, determining how we perceive a story’s pacing, how we engage with its characters, and how we identify its themes. In this sense, the purpose of voice transcends any individual sentence, or any paragraph. It is a combination of the voice’s expression in narration, in dialog, even in its epigraphs (shout out to @DDSyrdal for reminding me of this term!). But apart from its broad and abstract purpose, voice has a function within the story which is variable over the length of the text.

The Function of Voice: Manipulating the Reader’s Perception

I often think that it is the writer’s job to manipulate the reader, to take us on an emotional roller-coaster the author has designed. By influencing how we perceive events, settings, and characters, the narrative voice becomes the rail which guides us along the ride. It imparts the twists, falls, and rises. If well-constructed, it shouldn’t be noticeable (unless we’re looking for it). But if it’s shoddily put together, well…I’d rather not consider what happens when a roller-coaster comes off its rail.

Voice’s function can be modulated for specific effect. This is easiest to see in dialog, where each actor has their own voice, more or less distinct from the voices of other characters. Those differences exert a subtle influence on our perception of those characters. Consider the following exchange from George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones:

“Boy,” a voice called out to him. Jon turned.

Tyrion Lannister was sitting on the ledge above the door to the Great Hall, looking for all the world like a gargoyle. The dwarf grinned down at him. “Is that animal a wolf?”

“A direwolf,” Jon said. “His name is Ghost.” He stared up at the little man, his disappointment suddenly forgotten. “What are you doing up there? Why aren’t you at the feast?”

“Too hot, too noisy, and I’d drunk too much wine,” the dwarf told him. “I learned long ago that it is considered rude to vomit on your brother. Might I have a closer look at your wolf?”

From his short, staccato sentences we get the sense that Jon is direct, straightforward. He answers the question asked of him, but by offering little additions he avoids being brusque. He asks direct questions, wanting to know the answers. By contrast, Tyrion Lannister’s dialog is more complicated. His first sentence is broken apart by prose narration, imbuing a meaningful pause that – were the text read aloud – might suggest either humor, or shock. His second sentence, with its precise list and brutally honest self-assessment shows us Tyrion’s precision and self-deprecation. His third sentence gives us further insight into both his sense of humor, and his relationship with his brother.

The entire exchange is used to manipulate us into liking both Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow, though for different reasons. Even if we cannot articulate it, even if we don’t notice it at the first reading, we respond to Jon’s simple directness. And we appreciate Tyrion’s self-deprecating humor. And Martin achieves this subtle effect just using voice in his characters’ dialog.

Prose narration – descriptions of setting, of action – can similarly affect our perception of and emotional response to the story. Consider two brief passages, each describing the same actions (sorry for the quality of my example sentences – I’m coming up with these on the fly):

Version #1 Version #2
The rain-slick leaves left the tree like snowflakes, gently spinning to melt into the mud. Rain battered the leaves. Glop! Glop! Glop! And down into the mud.

Hopefully (if I’ve done my job right) the two example sentences establish an entirely different mood. The first is more laconic, gentler, quieter. While the second is harsher, more abrupt, and louder through the use of onomatopoeia. The events are identical, but the difference in voice puts the reader into a different frame of mind. Voice becomes the tool I use to control the reader’s response to a particular scene, passage, or sentence (even a particular word!). And like any tool, there are a variety of ways in which it can be applied.

Purpose and Function Applied: Techniques for Controlling Voice

The range of control that we choose to exert over voice lies on a spectrum. At one end is banally utilitarian prose – the bland monotone of “Dick and Jane run after the ball.” On the other end we find the inimitable mastery of Nabokov, whose fine-grain manipulation of voice makes its inner workings invisible to the reader. Most of us operate somewhere between these two extremes employing a variety of techniques that are universal:

Perspective as a Window to Voice
Every one of us uses perspective to imbue our story with voice, whether consciously or not. In terms of purpose, the choice between first, close third, omniscient third, or the rare second-person narration has an immediate and major impact on the reader’s relationship to the story.

First person narration – when executed well – earns the reader’s instant engagement precisely through its link to voice. The narrator is a character in the story, with their own perceptions, predilections, and foibles. They have their own way of seeing the world, a tendency to pay attention to certain aspects that others might not notice in the same way. One narrator might comment on people’s appearances. Another might pay closer attention to facial expressions. And just like a character’s personality should affect their speech patterns in dialog, the same affects a first person narrator. For example, in Lisa Yee’s excellent YA novel Millicent Min, Girl Genius the narrator (the titular genius) uses complex sentences, a refined vocabulary and sprinkles in a little Latin every now and again. Her defining characteristic – her intellect – is intrinsic to how the narrator’s voice is portrayed.

In first-person narration, we are generally locked into the narrator’s voice throughout the story. That’s the trade-off we make for building that super-close reader/narrator relationship. Close third-person narration trades a little more distance between the reader and the POV character, in exchange for greater latitude in vocal manipulation. With close-third narration, we can shift POV characters (typically at chapter or section breaks for decent narrative flow) employing different voices for different points of view, as well as make more gradual, subtle shifts in tone and mood within the confines of a scene. This facility to shift vocal strategy is a double-edged sword and must be used judiciously. Do it too often or too fast, and we risk either confusing the reader or putting too much distance between her and the characters. For a great example of this technique employed well, I recommend Tad Williams’ Otherland series.

The relationship between voice and distance is less clear-cut for omniscient third-person perspective. As the most emotionally distant of the perspectives, omniscient third may well suit our thematic or stylistic purposes. However, by requiring a consistent narrative voice throughout, omniscient third loses the vocal flexibility that close third enjoys. There are situations where this trade-off makes sense. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings requires an omniscient narrator and consistent voice to evoke its linkages to epic storytelling and myth.

Style and Structure as Voice
If we were to ask five writers to write one sentence describing something, we would inevitably get five different sentences. How those sentences are composed – how the writer employs clauses and adverbs and conjunctions and even punctuation – determine what is typically called the author’s “style” and represents one of the most influential aspects of voice.

Pick up any book from the 19th century. You’ll immediately see that the way 19th century authors put their sentences together differs dramatically from contemporary styles. When we say an old classic hasn’t aged well, what we are really saying is that the modern reader’s emotional response as controlled by the story’s voice differs from an original reader’s presumed response. The variegated, many-claused sentences that characterize 18th and 19th century texts have a distancing effect for the modern reader. Bulwer-Lytton is a great example of this at work. In his day, he was one of the most influential, most celebrated writers in the English language. Today, there are awards named after him that celebrate purple prose.

This is not to say that contemporary voices are simpler than their predecessors, or that such simplicity would be a good thing. Many excellent authors – John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, to name a few – write lush, complex sentences. However their structure differs substantially from what came before. For one thing, contemporary authors adhere more strongly to the principle of “show, don’t tell.” Consider the following two sentences selected at random:

Sentence #1: “But they were entirely ignorant of what had passed; and their raptures continued with little intermission to the very day of Lydia’s leaving home.” Jane Austen, Pride And Prejudice, 1813
Sentence #2: “Then an expectant silence, followed by a firmer start, and the station wagon backed warily out into the drive, making two soft and delible marks in the wet leaves.” John Crowley, Little, Big, 1982

Both come from excellent books. I would in fact argue that the Crowley sentence is more structurally complex than the Austen. However, the voices are quite dissimilar: the Austen voice tells us that their raptures continued. It does not show us those raptures, nor does it provide any metaphor or analogy by which we can emotionally connect to them. The voice is – by design – at a remove from the emotional significance of the events. Austen’s voice leaves it to the reader to establish that connection, through the implications of certain facts dropped and hinted at: the “little intermission” and “to the very day”.

Crowley’s voice, by contrast, employs evocative imagery to show the reader a prosaic event. His adjectives, and the order in which they are placed all communicate an emotional significance (which may or may not be important). By calling the silence “expectant,” the start “firmer”, and the marks on the leaves “soft and delible”, Crowley anthropomorphizes insensate objects, imbuing them with emotions. The sentence describes no characters, yet we still have an arc that rises from expectation (expectant), to action (firmer), and descends through denouement (soft and delible).

The complexity of sentence structures is of course infinitely varied. However, stealing vocal tricks from other authors is a good idea and can lead to some truly impressive work. In her 1973 essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” Ursula K. Le Guin calls Lord Dunsany “the First Terrible Fate that Awaiteth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy” – specifically because his mastery of voice and style is so inimitable and so frequently imitated. Lots of us fall victim to this trap (I know I’ve been guilty of it!), but this ability to imitate past masters, to emulate their voices and styles, is actually a skill for any writer. It broadens our vocabulary, adding new tools to our toolkit. Archaic voices have a place in fiction, as do Gothic voices, or Lovecraftian voices. Imitation is the finest form of flattery, after all, and a writer’s skill lies in deciding where to use which voice.

For example, The Phoenix Guards is Steven Brust’s homage to Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Of course, Brust’s story is an out-and-out fantasy, with dragons and semi-immortal elf-like people. But his plot structure has clear ties to the d’Artagnan romances and his sentence constructions echo Dumas’ voice flawlessly. Reading The Phoenix Guards today is an experience much like reading The Three Musketeers, and it is precisely because Brust not only built off of Dumas’ plot, but because he adopted Dumas’ vocal methods as well. Had he chosen to emulate only one facet (either the plot, or the sentence structures), the book would have rung off-true: somehow not quite complete.

As I’ve mentioned before, the best writers of alternate history and historical fiction employ such emulation to cement the reader in the time period depicted. Examples can be found in Michael A. Stackpole’s At the Queen’s Command, or Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought (see my reviews here and here).

But we can also have too much of a good thing. For example, in Freedom and Necessity Steven Brust and Emma Bull (otherwise, two masters of vocal technique) pull off their emulation too well. The combined effect of the novel’s epistolary frame and its flawless emulation of 19th century sentence construction create a sense that one is actually reading a genuine 19th century novel…despite the fact that it was written in 1997. Technically, it is a masterpiece of voice. However, I find that it establishes too much distance for the contemporary reader. The reader’s engagement with the events of the story is held at arm’s length, slowing the pace of what would otherwise be an amazing, exciting book.

The Invisible Voice
Voice is the ultimate mind-control, affecting how the story resonates with us, how we feel about the characters, and what we remember when the last page is turned. At its most impressive, it should be invisible. When we notice the voice, its influence on our responses and perceptions is lessened. I can’t think of anybody who has mastered voice more superlatively than Nabokov. His Lolita is the perfect union of purpose, function, and technique. No matter how many times I read the story, I still cannot figure out how Nabokov hooks me. I dream of finding the time to dissect his work word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph: to take it apart like clockwork and examine its movements and physics. Maybe someday I will. But until then, a more productive use of my time – and one which will probably get me farther – is to just imitate him. I’m sure anything I write won’t even approach the quality of his invisible voice (and I’m even more sure my practices won’t be fit for any editors eyes!), but by tracing over his lines maybe I’ll pick up a thing or two. And then when it’s time to apply those techniques, I’ll have some new and useful tricks up my sleeve.

What about you? How do you approach constructing and managing narrative voice in your own writing? What are some of the best-voiced books you’ve come across? If – like me – you’re looking for good books that use voice in interesting ways, below is the list of authors and books that I’ve mentioned in this post. I strongly recommend you pick up a copy from your local bookstore or library, and enjoy:

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