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Posts tagged ‘Lord of the Rings’

Pacing and Narrative Structure: How The Hobbit and Django Unchained Screwed Up


At first glance, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained are fairly dissimilar. One is the tale of a beleaguered young man who is put on the path to a quest by an older, bearded wise man. The other has a dragon.

Jokes aside, both movies have come in for some criticism, though Django Unchained has gotten far less criticism than I think it deserves. Fans of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (myself included) were fairly incensed by the liberties The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey took with its source material. And some folks have been grumbling about Django Unchained on grounds of race, representation, and its indulgent depiction of violence (though why anyone would have expected anything else from Tarantino, I have no idea). But these criticisms (deserved or not) are not what I took away from the two films. Instead, I think that both movies – especially when taken together – can show us something interesting about the way that pacing stems from the story’s narrative structure and its presentation.

Where Jackson’s The Hobbit Fails

Tolkien purposefully kept The Hobbit short, simple, and very focused. This choice is exceedingly clear when we compare it to The Lord of the Rings, which features an epic scope and scale. The Hobbit – thematically and artistically – was never designed to be a big story, and its narrative structure is therefore constrained.

When Tolkien first wrote the book, and when his editor first edited it, they determined how best to communicate the narrative and its themes to the reader. They had to decide which information to include, what sequences to portray and which to leave “off-camera”. These are not – as Jackson’s The Hobbit would suggest – idle choices. They are the foundational choices any decent creator makes, sometimes intuitively and sometimes painstakingly, but always integral to the narrative.

Tolkien’s book focuses on a simple man hobbit, one Bilbo Baggins. Yes, on his adventures, Bilbo stumbles into other characters’ epic (Thorin Oakenshield) and tragic (Gollum and Thorin both) journeys. But Bilbo’s narrative is neither epic nor tragic. Tolkien chose to focus on the narrow, pastoral concerns of an anachronistic, pastoral character. Through Bilbo’s perspective, Tolkien looks in on Thorin’s epic journey and Gollum’s tragedy. But – like Bilbo – we remain outside looking in. The Hobbit as a result reads like an anti-epic, specifically presenting the futility of a traditional epic structure.

This fact – apparent, I should think, to most of The Hobbit’s readers – apparently escaped Peter Jackson et al. Whether out of nostalgia for Tolkien’s (actually epic) Lord of the Rings, or a desire to stretch a short book into three movies, or simply the belief that Tolkien and his editors got it wrong, the film makers chose to reverse what may be Tolkien’s most important creative choice.

When we read The Hobbit, we are invested first in Bilbo, and only secondarily in the other characters. Jackson tries to simultaneously earn an equal investment in both Bilbo (who Martin Freeman plays amazingly), and in Thorin Oakenshield (who Richard Armitage plays woodenly). These two characters’ narrative arcs are thematically and structurally incompatible.

By cramming his “white orc” plot line into the movie, Jackson weakens the narrative structure of Bilbo’s story. It makes the film painfully schizophrenic: one half is a version of The Hobbit which stays (relatively) true to the book’s themes and structure. But the other half is taken up by a story which contributes nothing to those themes. Because the events are largely constrained by Tolkien’s original plot, there is no opportunity for either a more complex exploration nor for a subversion of Tolkien’s original themes. If that were Jackson’s conscious intent, then an adaptation is not the place for it.

Jackson has successfully developed split narrative arcs before. The Lord of the Rings – which is an epic story – features this kind of split narrative. We have plot A (Frodo/Sam/Gollum) and plot B (Aragorn et al.). But as Diana Wynne Jones discusses beautifully in “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings” (recently collected in the fantastic Reflections: On the Magic of Writing), that “split narrative” is actually a complex weave, where each strand supports, relies on, and contravenes the other. And both of those strands are epic in nature. They are compatible, and the narrative structure relies equally on their compatibility and differences.

It would be impossible to develop a deeper narrative structure around Thorin Oakenshield without rejecting either the structure or the themes of Bilbo Baggins’ arc. This puts the audience in a difficult situation: We must choose which narrative we will actually invest in. This choice plays havoc with the movie’s pacing. If I’m only invested in one half of the film, that means I spend the other half waiting to get to the good bits. One half of Peter Jackson’s movie contributes nothing to its narrative, and so tries the audience’s patience.

Django Unchained and the Pacing Impact of Self-indulgence

Tarantino’s Django Unchained has a different lineage. It doesn’t stem from a book, and so its plot is unconstrained by outside factors. An unabashed homage to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone, as evidenced in the main character’s name (i.e. Django is a nod towards Sergio Corbucci’s excellent classic Django), offhand references (e.g. a character “Eskimo Joe” gets mentioned, probably a nod towards an often-forgotten spaghetti western Navajo Joe), and actor cameos (e.g. Franco Nero, who played the titular character in Corbucci’s classic Django).

From a narrative standpoint, spaghetti westerns tend to explore themes of moral ambiguity and the interplay between justice and vengeance. Tarantino’s Django Unchained plainly follows in this thematic tradition, with its heroes relying on both deception and nigh-superhuman gun-slinging skills to free Django’s wife and exert justice on a rich southern slave-owner.

In general, the narrative itself is satisfying enough. It absolutely lacks the moral ambiguity or character complexity characteristic of the best spaghetti westerns, and in essence is little more than a classically-structured heroic quest (as the movie itself acknowledges). But that’s fine, and I would be happy to experience that kind of story. Unlike Jackson’s The Hobbit, Django Unchained picks one narrative and thematic structure and sticks to it. Where it ran into problems for me, however, lay in quite a few self-indulgent directorial choices that diverted attention from that narrative and easily added an unnecessary forty-five minutes to the movie.

Here are two examples:

Through vivid experiential flashback and spoken dialog, Django establishes his desire to free his wife Hildy (Brünnhilde, more properly). We understand what he wants, and we identify with it. We want him to succeed. The story has us invested. Great. But from this point forward, Tarantino chooses to throw in scenes where Django imagines (hallucinates?) his wife. The action slows down for each of these moments, giving us a drawn out pause that grinds the story’s movement to a halt. No dialogue is exchanged, and Django never remarks on these moments.

How do they help the narrative?

They don’t. Django’s motivation – and his character – are sufficiently established through other moments in the film. The story has only one narrative arc, and it’s pretty straightforward. We’re not likely to forget what Django wants. So these hallucinatory interludes only distract from the narrative, bringing its forward momentum to a grinding halt.

There is a similar, though much longer sequence, lampooning the KKK (to be fair, it’s really a “proto-KKK” since the movie is set pre-Civil War) which adds little to the narrative. Taken on its own, the sequence is actually quite funny, and from a moral/ethical standpoint I am strongly favor of portraying prejudiced bigots as the idiots they are. But what does it add to the story? It is a momentary side-adventure, which does nothing to move the main narrative arc (Django’s quest for his wife) forward. And it fails to deepen our understanding of either Django or Doctor Schultz: we already know where both characters stand on slavery and race relations long before this scene. While it is a very well-composed sequence, it is didactic directorial self-indulgence. And it slows the narrative arc substantially.

Window-dressing and Economic Storytelling

Whereas Peter Jackson’s choices in The Hobbit actively broke the story’s narrative structure, Tarantino’s choices in Django Unchained merely distracted from it. But while the scope of their poor judgment may differ, their mistakes were of a kind: both confused the presentation of story with the story’s narrative.

Presentation is a technical concern. It might be prose structure, language style, camera angles, or shot composition. It is the technique – any technique – through which the narrative gets communicated. When we tell a story, regardless of medium, we have to choose how to present that story. We choose our words, our sentences, our shots. But if we lose sight of what that technique is meant to communicate, if – like Peter Jackson – we choose to present thematically and structurally incompatible components, or if – like Quentin Tarantino – we choose to present self-indulgent sequences which fail to deepen the narrative arc/themes, then we’ll be damaging our story’s pacing (and possibly breaking the story beyond repair).

In short, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained just reinforced for me that presentation should always be in service to the story. That’s what people are there to read/see/experience.

Surprise! Plausibility and Its Relationship to Tension and Plot Twists


Beyond the pages of fiction, I hate surprises. Their timing is invariably inconvenient, and more often than not I could do without the surprise itself (Surprise! Flat tire!). But in fiction, I love surprises. I love plot twists, betrayals, and the resonant resolution of building tension. Fictional surprises are on my mind just now because of a question in last week’s I Should Be Writing podcast, and so I thought I’d share my thoughts with you.

Plausibility as the Foundation of Surprise

Regardless of the story, irrespective of the genre, and notwithstanding the nature of the surprise, nothing kills a surprise faster than implausibility. We all know that moment in bad fiction when we exclaim “Oh, c’mon!” and throw up our hands. It is always a moment of the writer’s laziness, when characters and their choices become subordinate to the needs of unfolding action. In good fiction, those relationships should be reversed: it is characters and the choices that they make which drives action.

Consider one of the greatest “surprises” in fantasy: Gollum’s attack on Frodo above the Crack of Doom in The Return of the King. This one moment is such a significant surprise that it gave rise to an entire trope in fantasy, that of eucatastrophe: a deus ex machina event that reverses certain failure and saves the day. Now, as a critical or structural descriptor, I hate eucatastrophe. I think it’s a false device, which mischaracterizes what is actually happening in the story. But Gollum’s attack nevertheless remains a pivotal, climactic, surprising, and satisfying moment.

The resonance of that moment stems from the plausibility of the characters’ actions. That Frodo would refuse to destroy the ring is the first “surprise” – after all, he is the noble hero and his refusal is the explicit failure of his quest (see my earlier comments on that score here). But Frodo’s failure is not, actually, a surprise. Tolkien has been establishing its plausibility for three whole books by that point. Noble Frodo’s entire arc culminates in that one moment, when he betrays his own values.

Similarly, Gollum’s attack – when he “inadvertently” saves the day – is perfectly plausible given what Tolkien has shown us of his nature. We believe that Gollum would do it, and that makes the “surprise” possible. If Gollum had tried to reason with Frodo, it would have been patently out of character and therefore thoroughly implausible.

When I look for ways to model “surprises” in my own writing, I tend to look at the mystery genre. The classic “whodunit” structure relies upon establishing a logical, plausible chain of clues which lead us to the “surprising” culprit. In some cases, the reader discovers clues alongside the sleuth and the mystery becomes a game of wits. The surprise remains plausible because we are given all of the tools to solve the mystery ourselves.

In other cases, particularly in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, this type of divination is impossible because the author hides essential facts. But just because they are hidden from the reader does not, automatically, make them implausible. Instead, it puts pressure on the hero (in this case Sherlock Holmes) to convince us that he was aware of them all along. It is Holmes’ charisma and plausibility as a character that prevents his revelations from turning into flat statements of “Oh, by the way, here are essential facts that you had no way of knowing.”

Consider Agatha Christie’s classic The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It remains a polarizing book to this day, precisely because its surprising solution (which relies on an unreliable narrator) flouts the “accepted” conventions of the mystery genre. And yet, the surprise and the mystery itself remain satisfying (at least for me) because they remain perfectly plausible within the world established by the story. While the surprise forces a re-evaluation of the preceding text, one cannot say “I don’t buy it”.

If a surprise is implausible, if the groundwork has not been laid to make it “natural”, then it will fail. Failure does not mean that the audience isn’t surprised: it means that the audience throws up its hands, and rejects the narrative outright. This is a much more damning criticism, and one that consigns the story to ultimate irrelevance.

Plausibility and Its Relationship to Tension

Surprises and plausibility are indelibly linked to tension. A balance must be struck between establishing the plausibility of an incipient surprise, and telegraphing its arrival. Managing that tension is key to maintaining the reader’s engagement with the story. We want the reader on the edge of their seat. So how to get that? I believe the trick lies in information flow.

There is a difference between what the reader knows, and what a character knows. Slasher films love this tension-building device, and for good reason: if we are engaged with a character and we know that there’s a knife-wielding lunatic hiding in their closet, our natural instinct is to warn them (I admit to yelling at the TV during episodes of Criminal Minds). The tension in these scenes works because while we know what is coming, we share at least some of the character’s ignorance: we don’t know when the knife will fall. This selective knowledge keeps us antsy, and makes us jump when the knife finally flashes.

Outside of the over-exaggerated tension of the slasher flick, however, the same dynamic is at play. Steven Erikson’s epic Malazan Books of the Fallen features a dizzying array of political betrayals. But by telling the story from multiple perspectives, Erikson is able to show the reader the unfolding betrayals long before they are enacted. We know – in a loose, general sense – what is coming and what our heroes are ignorant of, and so when the moment arrives it produces a satisfying release of tension.

This same effect can be even more subtle, through the manipulation of reader emotions. In Ray Bradbury’s classic “The Veldt” we don’t need to know, exactly, what will happen to feel tense or be surprised. Instead, Bradbury builds a gradual sense of foreboding, a conviction that the other shoe will drop. What that means, what it entails, and when it will happen is not apparent. The onus of plausibility is spread across characters, events, environment, and most importantly the reader’s emotion. If the resolution of that tension did not satisfy the foreshadowed foreboding, then it would ultimately be an unsatisfying story: we would feel cheated.

The subtler manipulation of reader expectations relies on careful psychology, and an understanding of the reader’s familiarity with genre conventions. Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is controversial precisely because its surprise subverts those expectations. John Scalzi’s new novel Redshirts similarly relies on the reader’s familiarity with science fiction television tropes. Without the reader’s pre-existing familiarity, it becomes much harder for the reader to be one step ahead of the heroes…and as a result, the reader’s satisfaction will be diminished.

Fictional Surprises and a Rare (for me) Sports Metaphor

In essence, what this means is that readers don’t want real surprises. The true surprise, the one that we never see coming, lacks the foundation that makes it plausible. It is the flyball out of left field that hits us in the head and gives us a concussion.

By contrast, a good fictional surprise builds off of the foundations established in the preceding text. It builds off of the character, their personality, the trajectory of their narrative arc, and the structure of the overall story. If a true surprise is the concussive flyball, then a good surprise is the flyball out which the astute reader sees coming, that makes them race for the fences and leap to catch it just before it becomes a home run. It isn’t the inciting moment (the bat hitting the ball) that makes the surprise satisfying, nor is it the outfielder’s surprising leap. The surprise, and the satisfaction that derives from it, is the inevitable slap of the baseball hitting the outfielder’s leather mitt.

Thinning and Accusations of Nostalgia in Fantasy


The other day I came across a comment somewhere (alas, I don’t remember on what blog/forum) that enjoyment of fantasy stems from a nostalgia for the medieval era when lives were “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This view is typically delivered with the rather heavy-handed (though often unstated) implication that only children and fools would enjoy stories set in a time period lacking women’s rights, flush toilets, and antibiotics. I suspect if you’re reading this blog you would agree when I label such a view simplistic and rather asinine. And yet…this opinion has been around for decades, and its staying power suggests that – just maybe – there might be something more at work here than haters hating.

Romanticizing the Past versus Being Nostalgic About It

So why then do people today still say fantasy just romanticizes the ugly past? I’ve never seen a child of the late ’90s and early ’00s make this statement. That’s understandable when we consider that for that generation, Harry Potter was the defining work of fantasy, and that its appeal and reach extended far beyond fandom’s traditional minority. In my experience, the accusation of nostalgia is most often made by folks who matured in the ’70s and ’80s. Unlike the Harry Potter generation, many of those my age or older could have grown up utterly insulated from the boom in genre. They would likely have only been exposed to the unavoidable hits of the generation that preceded them: Howard’s Conan, Tolkien’s Elves, Lewis’ Narnia, etc. Those formative books established their expectations, expectations which a cursory glance at fantasy covers in the ’70s and ’80s would have instantly confirmed. After all, contemporary urban fantasy at that time was the bleeding edge.

So fantasy’s predilection for medieval settings (whether secondary world or not) is an understandable stereotype. By volume, I would suspect (though I have no hard data) it remains warranted today. If someone were to tell me “Most fantasy is set in a quasi-medieval setting” I would say that this is likely a fact. But if somebody says that “Fantasy is nostalgic for the medieval era” I would take exception.

Contemporary fantasy owes many of its roots to romantic literature of the 19th century. In the literal sense, quasi-medieval fantasy does romanticize the past: images of the past are used as a cultural short-hand to set the tone of the work, establish a framework by which its themes can be explored, and set reader expectations. This focus on the reader’s frame of mind and emotional state is in many ways the defining rhetorical device of the Romantics. Realistic fiction does the same, but through the use of different imagery: contemporary imagery, objective or ironic presentation, etc. Both romanticize their subjects (however strenuously the realists might deny it). Fantasy just happens to use quasi-medieval window dressing.

However there is a line between romanticizing the past (a sin of which fantasy, historical fiction, and well-written biographies are all guilty), and being nostalgic for it. In fantasy, that line gets blurred by the genre’s reliance on thinning.

The Thinned End of the Wedge: Thinning vs Nostalgia

In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute defines “thinning” as the weakening of some aspect of the world or character which then enables the story to be structured as a recovery fable. I won’t reprint the entire definition, but I strongly recommend you check it out: it’s a deep and meaningful concept, however fuzzy the borders of Clute’s definition. The classic way in which fantasy stories use thinning is to present a world in some form of decline. The reversal or slowing of that decline becomes the object of the plot or one of the story’s major themes.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is replete with thinned elements yearning for restoration: the elves are leaving the world and going west, the line of Numenor is spent, Hobbits are no longer easy to find, dwarves are locked in their mountains, and the Ents have lost the Entwives (just to name a few examples that spring to mind: there are more). In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe we first find a Narnia where humans have died out, the land is blanketed in perpetual snow, and the White Witch oppresses the land and its people. Thinning is even used in non-medieval fantasy, such as in Marie Brennan’s Onyx Court series (see my earlier review).

Thematically, thinning is deployed with a nostalgic tone. The pre-thinning state is never shown, so the reader never sees what this idealized past was like. But the narrator and characters leave us with no doubt that it featured characteristics that they felt were good. It is their nostalgia which permeates the text, not the reader’s or (necessarily) the writer’s. It is merely a rhetorical device, analogous in kind to the use of framing stories or unreliable narrators. It can highlight themes that the writer seeks to dramatize, and can plant deeper emotional hooks in the reader. This isn’t a tool unique to fantasy, and in fact has a long pedigree.

Remember the Dark Ages? Even though it’s an awfully imprecise term, Petrarch’s origination of it really lends a fantastical narrative to the Middle Ages: the Dark Ages were western culture’s own period of thinning after the fall of the Roman Empire, and the influence of the Renaissance (which itself idealized the classical era) remains a powerful force in fantasy today. Contemporary portal/quest fantasies are the descendents of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and characteristic fantasy characters (rogues, merchants, warriors, etc.) can often trace their lineage back to Bocaccio, Chaucer, or Malory.

What Comes after Thinning?

Thinning, and the nostalgic tone it engenders, is clearly nothing new for fantasy. This makes the accusation that fantasy pines for the medieval past an understandable conflation of the terms. Yes, it is wooly-headed. Yes, it is imprecise. And yes, the people who level this accusation are dying out. But if there is some poorly articulated truth to their criticism, then what if they really have a different and far more valid point: is thinning played out as a rhetorical device? Does it remain relevant for the thematic concerns contemporary writers wish to address?

The backwards-looking Renaissance gave way to the striving of the Enlightenment. Thinning and its nostalgic tone became rarer, and tended to be confined to the (already more fantastic) Gothic novels. Though there was much writing we might today call speculative, the thinning popular during the Renaissance was replaced by satire, philosophy, and utopian texts which raised questions about society in the moment and postulated future directions for its development. If thinning as a device has become cliché, what comes next? Can we expect a new Enlightenment in fantasy which replaces thinning and the nostalgic tone with satire? I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet, but I suspect we may be on our way there. And who knows? Terry Pratchett’s Discworld might just be the satirical canary in the coalmine that drags us kicking and screaming into the century of the fruitbat.

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.

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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