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Posts tagged ‘Lolita’

Earning/Maintaining a Reader’s Trust: Character/Narrator Consistency and Reliability (part 3 of 3)


NOTE: This is the third and final installment in a three-part series on earning and maintaining a reader’s trust. The first part focuses on earning initial trust just at the start of a story, while the second part focuses on how world-building, consequential plotting, and story structure/pacing affect the reader’s trust. This part deals with character consistency/reliability, and I know it’s long. I do apologize for that, but there’s really a lot to talk about here.

Consistent Characterization and Reader Trust

When we write, we create a wide variety of characters, each of whom has different degrees of complexity. Like real people, our characters’ choices, attitudes, personalities, and decisions are shaped by their experiences. The most memorable characters are those that are shown to be complex, to have foibles and flaws as everyone else. Readers appreciate flawed characters, but what matters is that their flaws and behavior are consistent with the events of the story. Some people claim that they like to be surprised by characters, but there is a big difference between letting the plot surprise us, and letting a character do so. Character actions should be an inevitable consequence of their natures, and their experiences before and during the story.

Every decision a character makes must logically follow from the experiences our reader has observed through the story. In Les Misérables, Hugo shows us the moral quandary that Marius Pontmercy finds himself in on the eve of revolution: should he join his friends on the barricades or escape with the love of his life, Cosette? Hugo establishes this as a real choice for Marius, one that forces him to choose between two equally “right” values (according to his own value system). As the reader, we understand that he can believably go either way on the choice. Which makes his final decision and the reveal both a surprise (either of the two options would have been) and satisfying.

The seeds of every major (and most minor) choice should be planted well in advance. The hard part, is to plant seeds that allow for branches of equal probability. If the character only has one plausible recourse, then where does tension derive from? This is one of my most frequent complaints about portal/quest fantasies, in particular those of the “prophesied monarch” sub-type. As I’ve grown older (and more curmudgeonly) I have found it very difficult to get any emotional tension out of this kind of story. They become predictable and dull, because I know a priori that every complication the hero runs into will at some point be resolved, and that every mistake he makes will be fixed by the end. The prophecy (which is all too rarely actually ambiguous) will take care of matters in the end.

By setting up characters who have real choices to make internally, and who have real conflicts amongst themselves, we maintain the reader’s interest in the underlying story – which is a prerequisite for maintaining their trust. If the character does something that was not adequately prepared for, something so surprising that it comes out of left field, then the reader may be shocked into losing all trust in the story.

Consider for a moment Star Wars. Would the story have worked if in Return of the Jedi Princess Leia betrayed the rebels to the Empire? No. It might have worked (though yielded a very different story) if Han Solo had done so (for money), or if Luke turned to the Dark Side. But Leia? There was nothing in her character to make such a choice remotely plausible. It would have been a bridge too far, a leap of faith that the audience would have been unwilling to follow.

However, this does not mean that characters need to always be reliable. In fact, one of my favorite methods of playing with reader trust is the use of an unreliable narrator/character.

Structures that Enable Trusting in Unreliable Storytelling

Whether it’s in film (Rashomon, The Usual Suspects, or Citizen Kane) or in prose (Akutagawa’s In a Grove, Nabokov’s Lolita, or Larbalestier’s Liar), I love unreliable narration/characterization. It’s a lever on which my entire understanding of a story can hinge. Executed skillfully, it offers an exponentially broader story experience. But how does the reader trust in a story when the storyteller is shown to be a liar? That’s a question that has been on my mind quite a lot recently, as one of my current WIPs deals extensively with the concept of deception.

In thinking it through, I think I’ve managed to identify five different modes of unreliable storytelling, each of which plays with reader trust in different ways. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I’d love to know other examples:

1 Implicit Unreliability
The narrative voice is strongly imbued with the characteristics of the story’s narrator, thus adopting the inherent biases, idiosyncrasies, or fallacies held by the narrator. These may include a childlike naivete, a desire to rationalize/justify morally reprehensible actions, or strongly held opinions that color the narrator’s perspective. What matters in such stories is that the narrative voice must go beyond the merely functional, and present a particularly close “lived-in” feel.

The book’s character/narrator will likely be the most memorable aspect of the book, and this stems entirely from a reliance on the narrator’s voice. The source of the narrator’s underlying unreliability affects our emotional position vis á vis the character: we love Huck Finn or Evie Spooner for their childlike innocence, even as that innocence is shattered by their experiences. We love to recoil from Humbert Humbert, and his beguiling rationalization of his monstrous deeds. We judge Chaucer’s Merchant, and the Wife of Bath for the positions and opinions they hold. At no point in the story itself do we as the author insert ourselves and tell the reader about the veracity of our narrator’s statements. Our job is to present the story as if it were the narrator’s, with whatever inaccuracies or ugliness that entails.

The success or failure of these stories rests on their ability to draw us into the character/narrator’s viewpoint. To aid in this process, such stories are often told in first-person to accelerate us into the reader’s head, though that is by no means a requirement. Typically, the reader’s enjoyment derives from a multi-layered interpretation of the text. On the one hand, we can enjoy the events unfold as we share in the narrator’s experiences. On the other hand, we have an intellectual and emotional response to our own interpretation of those experiences based upon our own value systems. We take the facts of the story as given, and generally we do not dispute them. However the moral and emotional implications will be drawn from the reader’s own values and opinions.

So long as the narrator is consistent in terms of voice and characterization, the reader will trust that the narrator is supplying the basic facts of the events accurately. However, if the voice is distinct enough, the reader gains that degree of separation that enables that multi-layered interpretation. This makes apparent the fact that the reader is expected to have value judgments that are independent of the narrators’. As a result, the reader will supply their own emotional/moral “truth” , based upon the facts filtered by the narrator. In essence, the reader is expected to trust the facts of the story, but to question the narrator’s interpretation of those facts. The reader’s “trust” in this type of unreliable narrator rests entirely on that narrator’s voice, and its distinctiveness and attractiveness (even if the character is reprehensible).

2 Conflicting POVs
When we combine multiple implicitly unreliable POVs, the result is often an interesting structure which throws into doubt the facts of the story. Here, it is not only the moral/emotional implications which need to be supplied by the user, but the facts of the story as well. Most frequently this story relies on presenting a series of narrators, each of whom recounts the same or closely-related events from their own highly subjective perspective. This structure creates a more complex intellectual puzzle than most implicitly unreliable stories, as it requires the reader to parse and analyze what characters want, what they say, and what they do not say. By analyzing the gaps between what different narrators tell us, the reader can infer the “true” facts of the story.

The facts of the story are themselves in flux in such stories, and will never be explicitly stated by any of the narrators. And because the underlying facts are ambiguous, so too are the emotional and moral implications of the story as well. This mode relies more heavily on a careful analysis of the details included in particular narrators’ versions of the story. Who includes what details, who mentions what, who justifies what actions, who lies, and when they do so are all vital factors that we need to have carefully mapped out as we write the story. The reader’s trust relies on the non-obvious nature of the “truth”. Because this type of story is a puzzle-box, readers who figure out or intuit the puzzle within the first couple of chapters may lose interest: their intellectual investment will have been wasted. To maintain the reader’s trust, balance must be maintained between all of the perspective characters, in terms of level of detail offered and the reader’s expected emotional investment.

3 Explicit Unreliability
In many stories, we are explicitly told that we should not trust the narrator: that their words cannot necessarily be taken at face value. This may be because the character is a self-avowed liar, or is insane, or because a framing device tells us a priori that the story is untrue. In each case, this model puts the reader on alert that they are dealing with an unreliable narrator and forces the reader into a “problem solving” mode of story consumption.

This model seems to be especially popular in speculative fiction, where a number of authors (Gene Wolfe in particular) execute admirably. When we read stories like There Are Doors or Soldier of the Mist, we question every statement (however banal) that the narrator makes. In essence, we’re playing a perennial game of gotcha with a chimerical narrator: it is only through the narrator that we can glean insight into the author’s intent, and by catching the narrator out we hope to deepen our understanding of the story’s thematic implications.

This is my personal favorite type of unreliable narrator, as when done well, it leaves almost infinite room for conjecture. Books like Soldier of the Mist or Justine Larbalestier’s Liar leave us room for hours and hours of discussion and examination. These stories rely on a combination of factors to maintain reader trust:

First, we must balance the narrator’s stated unreliability against the need to ground our reader in the story. This balancing act rests on the idea of uncertainty. In Soldier of the Mist, Latro’s interactions with gods and monsters may be a result of the head wound that gave him his anterograde amnesia. The character acts as though they are real, because he is unaware of this uncertainty. We as the reader need to choose which interpretation we believe: the explicitly stated, skeptical viewpoint? Or the character’s credulous one? We face the same choice, though further complicated, in Justine Larbalestier’s Liar where on the first page our narrator tells us that she is a pathological liar:

I was born with a light covering of fur.

After three days it had all fallen off, but the damage was done. My mother stopped trusting my father because it was a family condition he had not told her about. One of many omissions and lies.

My father is a liar and so am I.

But I’m going to stop. I have to stop.

I will tell you my story and I will tell it straight. No lies, no omissions.

That’s my promise.

This time I truly mean it.

We are at first told that the narrator is a liar, explicitly letting us know that she is not to be trusted. But a moment later we are told that from here on in, everything she says is the truth (“No lies, no omissions.”). At first blush, we might be tempted to believe this. But then two paragraphs further we find two short words which again make us doubt: “This time I truly mean it” (emphasis mine). This push-me/pull-you dynamic is characteristic of these kinds of stories, even when the narrator’s unreliability is more of a background condition (as in Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

In the stories where this explicit unreliability is effective and maintains the reader’s trust, there exists a thematic consistency that encourages dueling interpretations of the text. We can almost look at it has having two separate ways of reading the stories: one where we accept the narrator’s word, and one where we disbelieve most of it. If each interpretation wrestles with similar themes, and if each remains plausible based on the text, the reader’s trust will be maintained. By making the narrator explicitly unreliable, we are entering into a contract with the reader, promising that we will consciously play with “truth” in the story.

This is one reason why I was disappointed by James Clemens’ The Banned and the Banished series: in the first novel, Wit’ch Fire, Clemens uses an interesting framing device to establish that the story we are about to read is (ostensibly) false, with hints that this stems from political revisionism. However, as we get into the meat of the story this frame becomes practically forgotten: the story devolves into a fairly standard portal/quest fantasy, with marginal attempts at exploring the ambiguity introduced by the book’s forward. For those of us who like unreliable narrators, ambiguity is like an awesome toy. If the author puts it on the table, we want to play with it. If it’s there, but we aren’t allowed to play, then we feel cheated.

However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Much as I admire Larbalestier’s Liar, I found the constant retractions and restatements tiring. When we craft an explicitly unreliable narrator, we’re asking our reader to pay constant attention to the various plausible interpretations we offer them. The more variants the reader must store in their head, the more tiring the experience will become. In most successful cases, the author introduces the narrator’s unreliability and then leaves us with just two ways of interpreting the story: either based on the narrator’s prima facie interpretation, or taking the narrator’s statements with a grain of salt.

In Larbalestier’s case, her story rested upon a narrator who explicitly contradicted her story some twelve times (by my count). This created a swirling cloud of possible interpretations, with many fractal branches to consider. Of course, this was Larbalestier’s thematic goal. However, neither the voice nor the story’s underlying conflict were strong enough to justify the significant investment of effort demanded of me. This may simply be a question of taste, and my own ability to identify with Larbalestier’s character. Regardless of how much I might admire the book’s structural ambitions (which – unquestionably – Larbalestier delivers on excellently), the narrator’s voice was not quite strong enough to maintain my trust.

Bottom line: for explicitly unreliable narrators, make sure that their unreliability relates directly to the story’s thematic concerns, be careful of asking the reader to keep too many plausible interpretations in their heads, and try to offset the inherent complexity through an engaging voice and conflicts.

4 Revealed Unreliability
Revealed unreliability relies on a moment of anagnorisis or discovery regarding the narrator. While more commonly an element in film than in novels, this probably owes its origins to Agatha Christie’s classic mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Stories with revealed unreliability rely on a twist ending where some fact is revealed about the narrator (e.g. their identity, mental state, etc.) which forces the audience to re-evaluate the entirety of the preceding story.

Twist endings of this kind are very controversial, and difficult to pull off. Badly rendered twists (text: “It was all a dream!” author: Bahahaha!) are considered a trite cliché. Debate still abounds in the mystery community around whether Christie’s classic is good or bad. That book relies on a narrator who purposefully leaves out vital clues and inserts many red herrings to obscure the killer’s identify – up until the very end of the book, when the killer is revealed. As an early form of this kind of mystery, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is ostentatious by most measures. Even astute and experienced readers of the genre have difficulty figuring out the mystery before the killer is revealed, which is no doubt one source of readers’ frustration.

Revealed unreliability has become much more accepted – particularly in the literary community. Nevertheless, it is a difficult feat to pull off effectively. To function properly, the author must take great care to lay the seeds of inevitability such that the “answer” becomes apparent on subsequent readings of the same story. Palahniuk’s Fight Club does this particularly well by establishing the tonal uncertainty of the narrator’s own mind: at no point before the reveal is the narrator explicitly shown to be unreliable, but the narrator’s own doubts as to his reliability create the possibility of the reveal near the end.

From what I can see, a revealed unreliability is easier to pull off in film, where the use of visual images can rapidly communicate the revelation to to the audience. Because the train moves very fast, the audience doesn’t have time to feel cheated. Prime examples of this include The Usual Suspects, A Beautiful Mind, and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.

In revealed unreliability, it is very easy for the audience to lose trust at the moment of revelation. The reader’s trust relies on a sense of not being cheated. This relies on the author salting the preceding events with enough hints that before the revelation are innocuous enough, but after the revelation make it seem inevitable. Furthermore, the revelation must fit smoothly and plausibly into the preceding events. If it does not (“It was all a dream!”) then the reader will feel like the author pulled a fast one, and cheated them of a satisfying experience.

Everything Relies on Everything Else

In conclusion, everything about reader trust relies on consistently and smoothly introducing the story’s building blocks such that the reader does not notice. I think the train metaphor is a good one for that trust: If the reader can count the rivets on the train, then the train isn’t moving fast enough. The speed at which it moves is only partially a question of pacing. The train’s engine is stoked by the cultural touchstones it relies upon, the narrative voice it is told in, and the author’s precise use of language. It runs on rails of world-building, and story structure, and consistent plotting. And it’s driven by characters who are internally consistent, whether they are reliable or not. If they’re not reliable, then at the very least they need to be functionally unreliable, to have that reliability carefully mapped out by the author so that the reader’s trust is maintained.

Speeding Train is Reader Trust

This is Reader Trust

Many good stories fall short on one or more of these components. And that’s okay. Honestly, I can’t think of any “perfect” stories that nail every aspect of this. It might be impossible (at least by us mere mortals). But even if they’re not all equally solid, the components do need to balance and work together to earn the reader’s initial investment, to earn their trust, and to keep them turning pages. Which is ultimately the goal: readers show us their trust by turning to the next page.

Earning/Maintaining a Reader’s Trust: Starting a Story with Cultural Touchstones, Narrative Voice, and Precision (part 1 of 3)


I mentioned last week about how I’ve been on a spy fiction kick recently, and all of the deceptions and double-crosses have left me thinking quite a bit about trust in fiction. Because really, every piece of fiction is a lie. And yet when we sit down to enjoy it, we’re willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt and offer some modicum of trust (on credit, of course). And this begs the question: why? How do writers earn that trust, and how can we manipulate it?

NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series of posts. This post is focused on initially gaining a reader’s trust with a story’s opening. On Saturday, I’ll post I posted the second installment focusing on how world-building, consequential plotting and story structure affect reader trust. And on Tuesday I’ll post I posted the final installment, focusing on character consistency and narrator/character reliability.

Reader Trust as the Foundation of Fiction

The act of reading is an act of profound trust: without ever articulating it, the reader tells us that they will approach our words as truth in order to derive some benefit (catharsis, enlightenment, etc.) at the end of the story. Coleridge called this a willing suspension of disbelief, and while I know many people have a problem with that phrase, I’ve always really liked it. When we read a story, we are giving the author the benefit of the doubt: we’re not scoring points and indicating every falsehood the author tells us. Instead, we’re accepting the author’s lies fiction at face value because we believe that at the story’s conclusion, the experience will have been worth it.

This trust is not automatic. Nor is it easy. Reading a story takes effort, and some (Italo Calvino, say) take more effort than others (Dan Brown). In speculative fiction, this trust is even more important because we ask more of our readers. When reading secondary world fantasy or far-future science fiction, the reader needs to internalize our world-building. To be immersed in our imagined environment takes more investment on the part of the reader (more new words to remember, more fictional context to internalize). When reading a locked-room mystery, the reader inherently trusts that everything will be explained at the story’s end. If the reader is to be emotionally invested in a character, they must trust that the character’s actions have meaning and consequence.

Trust is what gets the reader to read the next sentence, the next paragraph, to turn the page, and to read the next chapter. The reader needs to have confidence that the author will make their journey worthwhile: the moment they lose that confidence, the book gets put down and (at best) forgotten.

Reader Psychology, Reader Trust and Writer Control

Reader trust is only partially in the writer’s control. A reader’s willingness to trust an author is based partially in their own psychology, and partially in the writing itself. Obviously, a reader is likely to cut a much-loved author more slack than someone brand new to them. That’s because the author has built up a pre-existing level of trust, even if the text itself does not engender that trust. For example, I slogged through most of China Miéville’s Kraken despite the fact that I didn’t enjoy it because on past experience I trusted Miéville to make it worth the effort in the end. When the book didn’t satisfy, my level of trust in the author for subsequent books decreased (although so far Embassytown has been undoing the damage). Short of only writing books that don’t suck, there is nothing a writer can do about this: there will always be readers new to our books, so I figure it’s best not to stress over it.

The reader’s preconceived tastes are equally important. Many people know what they like and only read within that one particular genre or sub-genre. When reading outside of their comfort zone, their level of trust may be nonexistent. Someone who only ever reads police procedurals is likely to be a harder convert to Amish romance. As writers, we might deplore this kind of blinkered reading, but it remains a fact. And one that we can do very little about: there will always be readers who we can’t convert.

Equally important is the reader’s state of receptivity. While Frank Herbert’s Gurney Halleck might gripe that mood is a thing for cattle and love-play, the fact is that the reader’s state of mind affects how they read. Some days, I’m in the mood to be immersed. I want something fun, vivid, and escapist. Other days, I want the mental challenge of unreliable narrators and non-linear structure. And sometimes, I just want to read some dry non-fiction. If I try to force myself to read something I’m not in the mood for, my willingness to trust the author is decreased. However, the author does have some influence over the reader’s mood. Before the reader has even finished the first page, we have control over the book’s technical execution, its cultural touchstones, and the narrative voice. And all three affect the reader’s frame of mind.

Technical Execution: Sine qua non for Reader Trust

We’re always told not to judge a book by its cover, but the fact is that we do. When we see a book that is poorly designed, shoddily structured, or badly proof-read, the level of trust we’re willing to offer the author decreases. This, actually, is one of the issues I run into with self-published eBooks. When I see a traditionally published book, I know that a team of experienced people worked to make it the best book possible. That team worked for (typically) about a year after the book was finished to line-edit, copy-edit, proof-read, and design the final work. The fact that the editors actually acquired the book means that someone (actually a committee, more typically) thought the author worthy of their trust. Even if that book still has mistakes, even if it still has a lousy cover, the editorial team’s efforts contribute to increase my trust.

Many (and thankfully an increasing number of) self-published eBooks are well-edited, copy-edited, proof-read, and designed. But when compared to traditionally published novels, a greater share of self-pubbed eBooks are not. I have been burned so often by unprofessional self-pubbed eBooks that my level of trust for the entire category is (unfortunately) decreased by association. That may be unfair to those eBook publishers who work their butts off to execute well, but hey: that’s the capricious judgment of the consumer.

The quality of a book’s technical execution is the cost of entry to reader trust. A book can break all the rules of syntax (Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange comes to mind) and still be excellent. But there is an inherent difference between breaking rules by design and breaking them through inattention. That difference is precision, and the sense of the author’s ineluctable control over their words. If the reader cracks open the first page, and they see haphazardly misspelled words, broken clauses, and meaningless tense shifts, their level of trust will drop through the floor because we are asking them to work too hard to get to the story.

Language is the rail on which the story runs. Would you trust a train where the passengers needed to fix it while riding?

Cultural Touchstones, Clichés, and Psychological Baggage

Assuming the writing is technically well-executed, we still need to wrestle with the reader’s frame of mind. One of the tools for doing so is what I call cultural touchstones. Writers are told to avoid clichés like pestilential vermin, but I believe that clichés have a use in fiction. They are able to cast a concise and powerful spell on the reader, and used appropriately, they become a shortcut into the reader’s mental/emotional state. While they should not be relied upon to the exclusion of all else, they can be incredibly valuable for getting the reader into the desired frame of mind.

Imagine for a moment a preschool, where twenty toddlers (our readers) are running wild and screaming bloody murder. The teacher, a much put upon soul, claps and shouts “Story time!” All of the readers kids take their seats, and look up expectantly. In this idealized scenario, our brave teacher is able to shift her audience’s mental state just by giving them a practiced touchstone, a pair of words that establishes their expectations based on their past experiences. Clichés work the same way.

Consider the sonorous phrase “Once upon a time…” If we come from a western cultural background, this hackneyed cliché is steeped in history and associations. It brings to mind princesses, wicked queens, fairy godmothers, and wolves in the woods. It carries with it a host of psychological baggage associations, which we can use when we tell stories. If we start a story with that phrase, we set certain expectations in the reader’s mind. They can safely assume that we will be dealing with the tropes of fairy tale, that the story will follow certain conventions relevant to the subgenre. Unless the author subsequently shows us that they intend to subvert those conventions, we should not expect a cyberpunk dystopia to follow.

Famous clichés (“Once upon a time…”, “It was a dark and stormy night…”, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…”) only work effectively when put to use tactically and consciously. They are the literary equivalent of a cannon. If they sneak into our writing haphazardly, then our writing will quite simply suck. We will be pushing the reader’s emotional buttons not wisely, but too well. Used sparingly, they have the narrative effect of slamming the reader into the desired mental state. Their impact is fast and powerful, but lacks in subtlety and nuance. For more finely grained control of your reader’s mental state, consider using imagery as cultural touchstones and narrative voice as a modulator.

Cultural Touchstones and Narrative Voice without the Cliché

Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles are inherently concerned with the conventions of fairy tales, yet she has enormous discipline in avoiding the clichés of the sub-genre. Consider how she opens Dealing with Dragons, the first book in the series:

Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable. The climate was unremarkable. The knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show — it had been centuries since a dragon had come east. There were the usual periodic problems with royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers, but they were always the sort of thing that could be cleared up by finding the proper prince or princess to marry the unfortunate child a few years later. All in all, Linderwall was a very prosperous and pleasant place.

Cimorene hated it.

Patricia C. Wrede, Dealing with Dragons, 1990

Wrede does not use a single cliché, even though her subject matter is ostensibly fairy-tale related. Instead, she relies on imagery that is already associated with fairy tales (knights and dragons, royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers, etc.) to put the reader in a fairy tale frame of mind. But by avoiding a reliance on a hoary old cliché, Wrede also gains the space to employ the second tool for managing reader receptivity: narrative voice.

In her first paragraph, she describes a stereotypical fairy tale kingdom. But through the application of careful phrases she establishes a sense of whimsy (“…the number five was fashionable”, “knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show”). These images and concepts are not cultural touchstones the way dragons or fairy godmothers are. Instead, they are included to show the reader that the narrator has a sense of humor and acknowledges the inherent silliness of all fairy tales. This contributes to reader trust in two key fashions: juxtaposed against the fairy tale imagery, it establishes that the author is familiar with the conventions of the subgenre, which in turn establishes Wrede’s authority and instills confidence. Second, it undermines (though does not yet subvert) fairy tale conventions, telegraphing to the reader that the author intends to play with expectations. This second contribution sets the stage for Wrede’s masterful one-sentence second paragraph (“Cimorene hated it.”), where she packs characterization, theme, and pacing acceleration into three short words.

This use of voice draws the reader in through unity of character, purpose, and precise execution. Examining the text closely, every word serves a purpose. Even the design contributes to its effectiveness: we have three editions of this book in our house (and an eBook edition on my phone) and every single edition has the first and second paragraphs on the book’s first page. It is the totality of those two paragraphs that Wrede uses as a hook. If she dropped the first paragraph altogether, the second paragraph (the classically “interesting” paragraph with character and emotional engagement) would be meaningless and emotionally dull. It is that slow first paragraph that gives her second paragraph context, like a steep hill on a roller-coaster.

Timing and Reader Trust: When Should the Reader Be Hooked?

Just about every piece of writing advice tells us to hook the reader ASAP, preferably in the first sentence. Like all generalities, it is generally good advice. But there are alternatives available, which may potentially make more sense for our story. Wrede’s first sentence, while interesting, is not a classically interesting hook. It fails to introduce a character, conflict, dramatic action, or thematic factors. Yet the precision of its prose and the sense of whimsy communicated through the voice is likely to get us to the second sentence, which in turn brings us to the third, and so on. Until we get to the second paragraph, have finished the first page, and find ourselves thinking “Okay, Wrede, you’ve earned our trust (for now). Let’s see where this goes.”

When I write, I like to think of it as getting the reader to the next sentence, then the next paragraph, then the next page, then the next chapter. Every sentence and every paragraph is a chance for me to degrade, lose, or (worst of all) betray the reader’s trust. The more of their trust I’ve built up, and the sooner I do so, the better. If I can earn a page’s worth of trust in my first sentence, great. Sometimes, that is possible. But if not? Well, that’s not the end of the world. So long as I can identify the point by which I need their trust, and so long as the writing to earn and maintain that trust is precise, I’m ahead of the game.

I’ve read many stories that never really earned my trust and just meandered into the action. If you’ve read a lot of fantasy, you know what I’m talking about: front-loaded prologues offering backstory that only interests the author, epigraphs that I suspect most folks don’t even read, etc. Sometimes, slow beginnings are the best way to start a story. But the greatest tool an author has to get the reader through that slow start is the precision of their words. Nabokov pulls this off superlatively in Lolita, where even with a distancing framing device and an unreliable (and unsympathetic) narrator, every word follows inevitably and beautifully from its antecedent.

I generally don’t notice that precision consciously on my first reading of a text. When executed well, it should be invisible (if we can count the rivets on the engine, the train isn’t moving fast enough). But even if it’s not consciously noticed, it still affects how I perceive the story and the author. Precise control of language establishes confidence that the author’s expert hand is on the tiller, and thus builds reader trust. That trust isn’t limitless, and eventually the story must hook me. But precision will typically get me past the first paragraph, which in turn might earn the author the second paragraph, then the first page, and so on until I find myself immersed in the story. It’s a chain of chances, and precision connects the links.

Beyond the story’s opening, trust must be cultivated and maintained. In speculative fiction especially, that often hinges on how world-building is managed, or on the book’s plot structure, and the reliability/consistency of characterization and narration.

NEXT: Come back on Saturday Check out the second installment on world-building, story structure, and consequential plotting.

A Theory of the Hero: Story Archetypes for Heroic Characters (part 2 of 3)


NOTE: This is the second in a three-part series on heroic characters. The previous installment discussed how agency, voice, and sincerity are used to determine heroic characters, while the third installment focuses on narrative timing and the tragic and anti-tragic hero.

This past Tuesday, I wrote about how narrative voice, and a character’s agency and sincerity determine whether they can be considered heroic. But in order for those three components to mean something, they must be embedded within a larger story and then expressed through the plot. Any heroic story – whether Tolkien, Howard, or Nabokov – is principally concerned with the hero’s value system. I see three primary archetypes for a heroic story, and makoto (a character’s sincerity to their own values) is central to each:

Heroic Story Archetype Description
1 Aspirational Will the hero live up to their own values? Or will they fail and transgress against them?
2 Observational How will the hero apply their values within a particular set of circumstances?
3 Consequential How will the hero face the consequences of their choices?

Different Strokes for Different Folks, and Different Stories for Different Heroes

The archetype that applies to a particular hero need not be the archetype that applies to the overall book/film. We talk about books having “a story” but really each hero gets their own story. Some books might have no heroes (Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis), others might have one (Nabokov’s Lolita), or many (I count nine in Les Miserables).

As a quick example to start off, let’s consider Star Wars (the original trilogy, naturally). Han Solo’s journey is entirely different from Luke Skywalker’s: though they share many experiences (though they go through the same plot), the choices, subtext, and meaning is different for each character. Darth Vader likewise has his own story. Luke’s is aspirational: will he stay on the Light Side or go to the Dark? Solo’s story – particularly in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi – is observational: how will he apply his values under trying circumstances? And Vader’s story is consequential, focusing on themes of redemption and the consequences of choices he made before the events of the original trilogy. Each of these characters could be the “star” of the trilogy: that Luke’s arc gets the focus merely reflects the creator’s choice.

The hero’s story archetype determines the emotional arc of the story, the subtext that drives us to invest in the characters and keeps us tense. The hero’s value system and their behavior relative to that system determine the story archetype and set us up for the Aristotelian catharsis at the story’s climax.

Aspirational Stories: Portal/Quest Fantasies and Children’s Fiction

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy has a great entry on heroes and heroines which outlines a pretty extensive (though not exhaustive) typology of heroes. Looking at this list, however, it is clear that not every type of hero can support an aspirational archetype.

The classic model of an aspirational heroic story is the coming-of-age tale. Since so much of middle-grade and YA fiction is about helping characters negotiate and articulate their value systems, it should come as no surprise that children’s literature is rife with aspirational heroes. Taran the Assistant Pig-keeper in Alexander’s The Book of Three, Garion in Eddings’ Pawn of Prophecy, or Wart in White’s The Once and Future King are all great examples of aspirational heroes.

Hidden monarchs, ugly ducklings, changelings, and people who learn better are classic character models for aspirational stories. What is essential to this archetype is an evolution in the character’s choices. Unlike the observational archetype (see below), these characters’ are still struggling with their value systems. The “right” and “wrong” of their story is implied in the text: the reader understands what Taran must do, the reader knows what choices Garion must make, but the character does not. As the plot unfolds, the character gradually catches up to the reader and becomes able to articulate and act on their implicit value system.

Portal/quest fantasies are the most frequent structure for aspirational stories. The plot’s quest becomes the device by which the hero explores and articulates their choice. Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring is inherently tied up in his value system. The crux of his story hinges on the question of whether he will allow himself to be corrupted by the Ring, or whether he will stay true to his values and destroy it. The climax of this archetype is the moment when the hero makes that final choice: when they decide whether they will do right or not. That climax is the moment of maximum tension within the story, and it defines the hero’s success or failure.

One of the most satisfying aspects of aspirational heroes is that they often make the “right” choice. Aragorn, Luke Skywalker, and most heroes in MG/YA fiction all ultimately make a choice that more-or-less aligns with most readers’ moral codes. But that success is not necessary. So long as the hero’s moral code remains unchanging, whether he succeeds or fails to live up to that code has no impact on the story’s resonance. Failure can be just as strong a resonator as success.

For example, Frodo Baggins is a failure. Yes, he remains a hero, but standing over the Crack of Doom, he allows the Ring to corrupt him, and he cannot bring himself to destroy it. Tolkien’s use of eucatastrophe (Gollum’s convenient attack on the invisible Frodo) is the device by which the author wrenches a positive ending out of his principal hero’s failure. This does not weaken the story – in fact, I think it enhances it by adding a tragic dimension to the character of Frodo Baggins. Everything does not work out, certainly not for Frodo. For the rest of his life, Frodo will have to bear the knowledge that at that last desperate moment, he blinked. If Frodo’s story is aspirational, then at the end of the day he fails in his aspiration. Yet his story still resonates.

Observational Archetypes: The Classic Heroic Story

When we use the words “heroic fantasy” most of us automatically think of muscle-bound heroes along the lines of Beowulf, Conan of Cimmeria, or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. We think of the stories written by Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, Glen Cook, etc. Typically, these are immersive fantasies where the world of the story is assumed as a given. The heroes in question already fully live in their worlds, and their value systems are fully-formed and clearly articulated. However, what sets these stories apart from their aspirational counterparts is that they focus less intensely upon the hero’s moral code.

The climax of an aspirational heroic story hinges upon whether the hero will or will not live up to their values. But in an observational story, the hero will always live up to their values. These values are typically idiosyncratic when compared to those of other characters. Whether we’re dealing with loveable rogues like Han Solo, utter villains like the Brothers Grossbart, or introspective brooders like Elric of Melniboné, the hero’s value system always features some difference to those of the book’s other characters. Reading these characters’ stories, we are less concerned with will they or won’t they stick to their guns, and more concerned with how they will do so.

Observational heroes tend to be what The Encyclopedia of Fantasy calls Brave Little Tailors, Duos, or Temporal Adventuresses. Many fairy tale heroes, in particular the “Ivans” of Russian fairy tales or the “Jacks” of the British variety, fall into this camp. So would most of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, where his sword-swinging Cimmerian broods and simmers…but always acts according to his (admittedly sometimes rough) moral values.

The typical observational hero never ages: he or she is almost always portrayed in the prime of their youth, as the story’s momentum hinges upon their ability to act with physical or magical strength. Aspirational heroes and their stories tend to deal earnestly with stark moral black-and-whites. Observational heroes, however, tend to see more shades of grey. For Frodo Baggins or Taran the Assistant Pig-keeper, there is no middle ground: either they do right or they fail. For Conan, or Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, their moral codes and the choices they face are more ambiguous, allowing for compromise.

This ambiguity creates a great degree of space for humor in observational stories. Whether it is Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Conan, or Han Solo, the ambiguity of the hero’s moral code and their situational application offers the opportunity to inject irony and sarcasm into the narrative. This kind of humor tends to be quite infectious, because it perhaps deals with moral choices more accessible to the average reader than those common in high fantasy. The choices our heroes face, while expressed in outlandish fashions, tend to have fewer world-changing or soul-destroying consequences than those found in aspirational stories.

Duos in particular are a common type of observational hero. While I have already mentioned Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, I think a far better set of examples can be found in the mystery genre. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson represent the classic ur-duo, and their stories clearly show the application of Holmes’ rational worldview. In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, Nick and Nora Charles have a clearly ideosyncratic, “us-against-the-world” value system which they apply consistently. As in so many mysteries, the morality of their philosophy is not the focus of the story: instead, the focus is on how that philosophy is actively applied within the plot.

Generally, heroic stories whose narrative focus is on the action of their plot tend to skew observationally. These are the stories that are more exciting than earnest. Bullington’s The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is a fun exploration of how a set of villainous moral codes can be applied across a variety of trying situations. Super-hero comic books in particular are another great example of this kind of storytelling: the hero’s moral code (remember Truth, Justice and the American Way?) is always a given, but decades of continuity explore how the hero applies that code to all manner of situations.

Consequential Archetypes: Living with Choices

The third and final story archetype for heroic characters returns to deal with the moral choices more earnestly than in most observational stories. Consequential stories focus on the hero’s actions after a moral choice has been made. By its very definition, this archetype tends towards the Aristotelian and the tragic. Typical heroes that fit this mold are the Knight of Doleful Countenance, or the sinner seeking redemption.

Often, the hero’s nobility is established off-screen before the events of the story. We know Macbeth is a noble hero because Duncan, his men at arms, and the sergeant tell us so before we ever meet the thane of Glamis. But Macbeth transgresses against his own moral code by killing his king, and the rest of the play focuses on him living with and facing up to the consequences of his evil act. Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane stories do something similar, where we first meet Solomon Kane as a puritanical zealot obsessed with meting out stern justice and stamping out whatever he considers evil, regardless of danger. Through the stories’ subtext, we gradually get the sense that Kane’s obsession is redemptive: that by stamping out evil, he may purge his own soul of whatever past sins may stain it. In Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné stories, the hero must live with the guilt of feeding souls to his demon-sword Stormbringer.

Consequential heroes and their stories may be redemptive or tragic. Darth Vader’s is a redemptive story, where he is able to return to the Light by betraying the Emperor. Macbeth or Othello, by contrast, are tragic: no amount of contrition on their part can ever expunge their guilt. Typical of consequential stories is a constant revisiting and escalation of the hero’s original choice: Macbeth is forced to one-up his betrayal of Duncan with the murder of his friend Banquo, followed by the slaughter of MacDuff’s family. Elric has to feed ever more souls to Stormbringer so that he can do what he feels is right.

By their very nature, consequential heroes and their stories are tragic: if aspirational stories end on “and they lived happily/sadly ever after” then consequential stories are what happens in the ever after.

Story versus Story and Mixing Archetypes

Like so many aspects of storytelling, the borders between these archetypes can be blurred. For example, Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné combines aspects of the consequential archetype (the exploration of Elric’s guilt) with the observational (constantly re-visiting his moral choices in new circumstances). It is also possible, though very difficult, for a single hero to progress from an aspirational story, to an observational story, and then to a consequential story. I know of few examples of this kind of progression, but those that do come to mind are almost always some of my favorite stories. Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy shows us Theo’s aspirational story in its first book, and then follows the pattern of a consequential story in the second and third.

In Hugo’s Les Miserables, Valjean’s story opens as aspirational, proceeds to observational, and ends as consequential. In Hugo’s case, this masterful progression is strengthened by pitting Valjean’s moral code against opponents who are elsewhere along the archetypal progression. When Valjean’s story is in its aspirational phase, his antagonist Javert is in an observational mode. By the time Valjean has entered the observational phase of his evolution, Javert has “regressed” to the aspirational phase. When Valjean is in the consequential phase of his life, Marius Pontmercy is in the aspirational phase of his.

Hugo is arguably the master of this kind of complex hero construction: reading his works (in particular Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) I suspect that every single hero archetype and every combination of their oppositions, tragic and anti-tragic, can be found. The next installment of this series (on Tuesday) will focus on this aspect of heroic storytelling. In particular, I will focus on how narrative timing affects tragedy in heroic fiction, and on the differences between tragic and anti-tragic heroes.

NEXT: Come back on Tuesday for the third and final installment which focuses on how narrative timing affects tragedy in heroic fiction, and for a discussion of tragic heroes and anti-tragic heroes.

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:

An Argument for Writing Characters You Don’t Like


I’ve written before about some of the differences between novels and short stories, but for the past several days one of those differences has been sitting in the forefront of my mind: character. With only several thousand words to work with in a short story, there just isn’t space to really develop more than one character. But a novel needs at least a handful of well-defined characters, and the more complex the story’s plot, the more complex and varied the characters need to be.

My current WIP is more complex than any of the other (even novel-length) stories I’ve written before. With a Byzantine plot swirling with clockwork diplomacy, revolutionary intrigue, assassination, and Great Powers espionage, I’m juggling a more varied cast of characters than I’ve managed before. It’s hard work keeping their motivations straight, their voices distinct, and their reactions true. And while I would love to have coffee or play a game of chess with some of these people, others I’d want to throttle. And that brings me to the crux of the issue that I’ve been thinking about for the past week or two: how to tell a story from the perspective of a character that I don’t like?

Unsympathetic perspective characters are nothing new. They span a spectrum from the truly vile who we come to like despite our best instincts, like Vladimir Nabokov’s amazing Humbert Humbert (Lolita). Then there’s Charles Dickens’ amoral but ultimately redeemable Sidney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities). More true to life, the real Emma Goldman’s autobiography Living My Life comes across as unsettling today. And Gregory Maguire spends pretty much all of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West humanizing an erstwhile villain. And finally, Nnedi Okorafor’s powerful Onyesonwu (Who Fears Death), whose heart is in the right place, but whose personality often made me gnash my teeth in frustration.

Each of these authors uses a different technique. Nabokov fills the book with Humbert Humbert: the monster in a very real sense transcends the role of narrator or memoirist. Every single word, every punctuation point, and every pause between sentences is filtered through the all-too-human mind of Humbert Humbert. By drawing us in through such a unique and compelling voice, Nabokov slides in Humbert’s vile nature almost surreptitiously. It is subtle, and oily, and all too awe-inspiringly impressive. Thankfully my current WIP lacks an unrepentant, irredeemable Humbert-esque villain, and so I won’t have to try pulling this off (Yet! I’ve got another book I want to write someday where I’ll hopefully give it a shot…just because it’ll be a lot of fun to try!).

But the unsympathetic Sidney Carton, the zealous Emma Goldman, the tragic Elphaba, and the quick-to-anger Onyesonwu all have at least one central trait fundamentally tied up in their very nature that shines pure and noble. The traits might vary across the characters, and the authors may choose to present them using different techniques, but for all of their pettiness, their villainy, their zealotry, and their fury there remains something inherently noble about them.

Dickens paints Carton as a professionally-stunted, self-indulgent alcoholic. We can see his nobility in his reaction to Lucie Manette, and in his self-deprecating gallows humor. He is drawn in stark opposition to his double: Charles Darnay, whose inner nobility is readily apparent and who fails to evidence the slightest doubt in himself. By showing us Carton’s struggle, by showing us his doubts, Dickens makes us identify with Carton and look past the superficially unsympathetic traits: his biting humor, his self-pity, his self-indulgence. He is the underdog, and we want to give him a firm kick because we know that Carton is worth more, even if he does not realize it himself until the very end.

Emma Goldman – an actual historical personage – was as complicated as any real individual could be, and I believe her positive and negative traits stem from the very same root. Her autobiography paints a picture of an unsettling and strangely compelling zealot. Throughout her amazing life, she was an unrepentant revolutionary: mere facts and science would not get in the way of her convictions! She practiced what she preached, both politically and in her personal life. She forced herself to live true to her mission, even when it caused her much heartache. This unwavering belief in her revolution – however misguided, misattributed, or wasted – offers her a nobility that her (more hypocritical) contemporaries lacked. Goldman remains an unsettling person, and while I cannot agree with her views, I can respect the lifelong commitment that speaks so clearly through her words.

Maguire shows us the Wicked Witch’s perspective in Wicked. He takes pains to show the development of a conflicted character, with noble intentions that just work out unfortunately. Elphaba’s primary flaw is that she has human failings, of which her quickness to anger and her father-issues are just two examples. In many ways, I always found the book to be almost a revisionist apologia for the Wicked Witch, but Maguire makes Elphaba’s tragic rise and fall compelling precisely by showing us her internal rationalizations and the noble intentions that went so wrong.

And Okorafor introduces us to Onyesonwu, whose intentions are noble, whose heart is pure, but whose failing is simply that of being too quick to anger. Alone of the characters I’ve mentioned in this post, I do not believe we are ever for a moment meant to believe her unsympathetic. Okorafor makes us feel deeply for Onyesonwu. We meet her as a young girl, and we are shown painfully the development of her defensiveness character. We understand how she came to have that defensiveness. We understand that her anger is a part of her, and that in fact it helps her with her magic. I consider her “unsympathetic” simply because of how infuriating I found her. I wanted to tell her to get a grip: that her anger would hurt more than it helped. But the root of my frustration with the character was my understanding of what had made her: through an understanding how she developed into the strong, angry young woman she became, Okorafor grounded Onyesonwu’s “unsympathetic” traits in sympathy: she made the character so sympathetic that I recognize her flaws and want to help her learn to deal with her flaws.

This is a technique frequently used in YA (I suspect it may come naturally to Okorafor, considering her earlier experiences in YA). Maybe it means I’m getting old, that the little foibles of human emotion that are so frustrating to me come so naturally to teenagers. Harumph. Those kids should get off my lawn. Nonetheless, I can appreciate it when an author pulls it off the way Okorafor has, and I can also see how introducing that flaw was natural to the character, given her history. The net result makes me more invested in the character, thus raising my engagement with the whole story.

And that – I think – is what unsympathetic perspective characters ultimately do. They make us invest more in the story, either because we root for the underdog (Carton), respect misguided nobility (Goldman), lament tragic failure (Elphaba), or sympathize with the source of the characters’ flaws (Onyesonwu).

What are some of your favorite unsympathetic characters? And how did their authors make them appeal to you?

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