Voicing Opinions

Opinionated
There are more subtle ways of sharing your characters’ opinions. (Photo credit: iceman9294)

Whenever I meet a new volunteer at the bookstore, I introduce myself as Loudmouthed and Opinionated (seriously, my rants are pretty much legendary). But you don’t need to be able to go on hour-long rants to have an opinion. In fact, most opinions don’t need to be stated outright, because often they’re so ingrained in your worldview and belief system that it bleeds through into your everyday language.

This is also true about characters. And hopefully, those characters don’t spend nearly as much time as I do ranting their opinions to anybody who wants to avoid doing work for the day.

An important part of narration (especially first person narration) is finding the character’s voice. A lot of people accomplish this by making the character off-beat, sarcastic, funny, or just plain weird– but that doesn’t always mesh with the personality of your chosen narrator. A great way of bringing out that personality and adding color to that voice is to let the narrator’s opinions take forefront. The way they see the world will inform huge swaths of their perceptions of the world around them.

Consider the following sentence:

I walked into a large building that stood on a wide lawn.

That’s bland. It’s unimaginative. It’s boring. Now let’s add in some personality. A few made-up-on-the-spot characters and their opinion of the same building:

  • The longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in E...
    The longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Architect: I hurried between an arrangement of Roman columns, glancing up at a vaulted ceiling so high I had to crane my neck to take in its full scope.

  • Agoraphobe: The building was a lousy shelter from the overwhelming expanse of the lawn; the pillars felt like some giant monster’s fangs, open wide to swallow me whole. 
  • Guerrilla: The openness of the green space was unnerving. The inside of the building wasn’t much better, but at least I could take some cover behind the columns.
  • Gorilla: Finally I find some trees– but there’s something wrong with these. They’re cold and hard and have no branches. This place smells wrong, like lemon and leopard piss.

For each of these, that one sentence (or couple of sentences) might very well be the only time the building is ever described, and none of these are particularly time-consuming descriptions. But each of these sets the stage with a setting, a mood, and an insight into the mind of the narrator.  The end result is often prose that is dynamic, compact and (hopefully!) just plain interesting.

Nitpicking Narrators – Part II: He gazed into the sunset

While I’m busy with grad school, I’ll be replaying some of the most-read posts from my old blog.

Some people instantly gravitate to one particular narrative style. The story they’re writing just naturally lends itself to one Point of View (POV) in particular. After all, who would want to read “That guy over there? His name is Jake,” as the intro to one of the Animorphs books? The same goes with Terry Pratchett’s stories– they just don’t work if you were to squeeze the whole story into a single person’s head.

Other stories, though, get a bit fuzzier, and we writers can get iffy on what POV works best for what stories. Hopefully, though, I can clear up a bit of that fuzziness. 

Third Person

This is the standard fairy tale narrator. It’s an all-knowing, all-seeing, omniscient being that intimately knows the thoughts, feelings and intentions of everything. The Third Person uses words like ‘he’ and ‘she’ and ‘it’ and ‘they’, rather than ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘us’ and ‘we’. As with the First Person, a lot of its pros are cons, and vice versa. Continue reading “Nitpicking Narrators – Part II: He gazed into the sunset”

Nitpicking Narrators – Part I: My name is Jake

While I’m busy with grad school, I’ll be replaying some of the most-read posts from my old blog.1st person

Some people instantly gravitate to one particular narrative style. The story they’re writing just naturally lends itself to one Point of View (POV) in particular. After all, who would want to read “That guy over there? His name is Jake,” as the intro to one of the Animorphs books? The same goes with Terry Pratchett’s stories– they just don’t work if you were to squeeze the whole story into a single person’s head.

Other stories, though, get a bit fuzzier, and we writers can get iffy on what POV works best for what stories. Hopefully, though, I can clear up a bit of that fuzziness. 

First Person

This is commonly known as I. I did things, I think things, I feel things. The reader feels like they’re in a conversation with the First Person. A lot of the times stories told in the First Person read like a diary, or a story being told by a friend. Continue reading “Nitpicking Narrators – Part I: My name is Jake”

Nitpicking Narrators – Part III: You are walking down a dark alley

While I’m busy with grad school, I’ll be replaying some of the most-read posts from my old blog.

Some people instantly gravitate to one particular narrative style. The story they’re writing just naturally lends itself to one Point of View (POV) in particular. After all, who would want to read “That guy over there? His name is Jake,” as the intro to one of the Animorphs books? The same goes with Terry Pratchett’s stories– they just don’t work if you were to squeeze the whole story into a single person’s head.

Other stories, though, get a bit fuzzier, and we writers can get iffy on what POV works best for what stories. Hopefully, though, I can clear up a bit of that fuzziness. 

Second Person

This is one of the most infrequently used narrators in fiction– to the point that a lot of people have never heard of it. I’m personally not a big fan of it, but this POV does have its uses, and the things that make it difficult in mainstream fiction make it work remarkably well in areas where it’s more common. That said, proceed with caution. This particular POV is tricky at best, and has a lot of pitfalls that you can fall into if you’re not careful.
On the positive side

  • If First Person is personal, this gets under the reader’s skin. If done well, the protagonist isn’t just some person talking to you about their adventures anymore, it is you, directly.
  • It works very well for short stories and Choose Your Own Adventure
  • You don’t necessarily have to fully develop the main character
  • If you do develop the main character, though, it can bring emotional elements up close and personal

On the other hand

  • While this gets up-close and personal at first, if it goes on for too long at a time, the reader stops identifying the protagonist as themselves and starts replacing each ‘you’ with ‘he/she’.
  • There’s a danger of putting words in your reader’s mouth. It’s one thing for them to read about Joe Schmuck laughing as he burns down an orphanage. It’s another thing entirely to be told that you, personally, are doing so. The same thing goes in reverse– there are some people who really would burn down an orphanage while dancing in the ashes, and they’d be appalled by any allegations of the opposite.
  • The reader, being a reader, has probably read a lot. There’s a good chance that they’re pretty creative, and inevitably one of them will think of solutions that you, the writer, can’t, and get frustrated when ‘they’ aren’t taking what appears to be an obvious path. If you’re a gamer, surely you’ve seen those agonizing puzzles where only one solution works, despite the fact that by any application of logic, you should be able to do the same thing at least a hundred other ways.
  • Your tastes won’t always coincide with your readers. You might think that a voluptuous blond woman is the epitome of sexual attractiveness, but your gay male reader might get uncomfortable after a few pages of reading about ‘themselves’ lusting over her– as might your straight female reader, or possibly even your reader who vehemently prefers flat chests and red hair.

Suggestions

  • Be short. It’s the easiest way to not worry about messing up backstory
  • Focus outward. The entire point of this POV is that you know nothing about the MC, so don’t bother describing them. Focus on the action that’s happening, and let them draw their own conclusions about how they feel and what they think.
  • If you’re going to give options, give them across the board. Do the logical thing, the thing only a complete troll would do, and something random (A favorite hobby of mine used to be flabbergasting my Dungeon Master with completely bizarre solutions to his most convoluted puzzles) and a few options in between. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a bit more organic.
  • In issues where opinions are important and polarizing– like sexual attractiveness, the likelihood of ComiCon patrons surviving a Zombie Apocalypse, etc– keep them vague. State the facts, and don’t let your own opinions lean in too much.

Variations

  • Choose Your Own Adventure. If you don’t know them by that name, they’re the book that, every so many pages, ends with sections like “If you shake the man’s hand, turn to page 213. If you hit him over the head with a rusty spoon, turn to page 27.”
  • Roleplaying games (RPGs). Whether it’s Final Fantasy, Zork, Dungeons and Dragons, etc.
  • Short stories.
  • Epistlary and conversational stories. For the record, these don’t count, but somebody’s going to argue that when the author talks to ‘you’, the reader, it’s second person. In reality it’s usually first person, but acknowledging that second person is still in the room and giving them the occasional wink.
  • NSFW: A really creative variation on second person: The Quiet Man by IvyBlossom. John Watson is the narrator, speaking to the presumably deceased Sherlock Holmes and trying to see the world through his friend’s eyes… and that mode of narration doesn’t stop even after Sherlock arrives back on the scene. Technically this counts as a conversational story, but I have yet to find another one that takes quite this angle.

DIY Editing: Seems? I know not ‘seems’!

I’ve got a weird favorite Shakespeare quote. While other people are off getting lovey dovey with Romeo and Juliet, or sniggering along with Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’ve got a thing for Act 1, Scene 2 of Hamlet:

List of titles of works based on Shakespearean...
I wonder if The Bard had this particular pet peeve… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shortly after the death of his father, Hamlet’s mother remarks that he seems sad. To which he replies:

‘Seems,’ madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’

In other words: “Why the heck are you telling me I ‘seem’ sad?!? Mom, I’m in freaking mourning!”

I often find myself quoting this particular line at people when I see the dreaded ‘seems’ in writing.

What’s wrong with it?

The word ‘seems’ (or any variation thereof) has a particular meaning: it appears to be one way, but it may or may not be that way.

In writing, where the conservation of words and detail are paramount, this translates into: it appears to be one way, but it’s not.

The problem therefore arises when somebody says that something ‘seems to be’ a nice gesture, or the dress ‘seems to be’ big enough. That ‘seems’ means that what you just said is suddenly called into question, and we’re made to expect that the opposite is true– after all, if it really was true, you would go right out and say that.

In Hamlet’s tirade against the word, he points out that anybody can fake being sad, with dramatic sighs and dark clothes and general brooding– such people seem sad, but aren’t. On the other hand, he simply ‘is’.

Why do people use it?

Often ‘seems’ gets misused because

  • Writers are trying to cut instances of ‘am/is/are/was/were’ and don’t realize they’re replacing one linking verb with another.
  • Writers are trying to to point out that a character doesn’t know something– for instance, the way another character is feeling. It’s obvious that Hamlet is sad, but flat out telling us how he feels (when we’re not in his POV) would be head-hopping.

How do I fix it?

  • Be bold. Don’t skirt around your verbs– give us strong, flavorful verbs instead. Instead of ‘Hamlet seems sad’ give us ‘Hamlet wept’.
  • Show, don’t tell. If you’re trying to avoid head-hopping, don’t tell us that a character ‘seems to be thinking hard’. Show us the physical evidence of concentration: perhaps narrowed brows, or a chewed lip. Trust us to make that conclusion on our own.

When does it belong there?

Not every instance of the word is an abuse of the word. Like I pointed out before, ‘seems’ can be a more subtle way of expressing irony or duplicity. It can also be used to point out something that the character legitimately doesn’t know.

Using the dress example: it seems to be the right size, but I don’t have time to try it on. If I take it home without trying it, I’m taking the risk of being dead wrong– and then having to stay home because I have nothing to wear to the zombie ball. In this case, that uncertainty would cause tension. Used too often, though, and the tension drains out and the narrator just seems wishy-washy.

DIY Editing: Changing the filter

Here’s another biggie in the self-editing world: Filtering.

What is it?

I saw, he heard, she thought, I felt, I smelled– the list goes on. Essentially, filtering is what happens any time we’re informed that the the character is observing the world around them, rather than letting us observe right along with the character.

What’s wrong with it?

At the most basic, this is the writer informing the reader that the POV character has functioning eyes, ears, nerve endings, etc. Thank you for the info, but we already assumed as much, and having it repeatedly shoved at us can be seriously annoying.

On a technical level, it slows the pace of the story and adds unnecessary words to your word count.

Beyond that, filtering puts an unnecessary distance between the reader and the action– instead of looking through the eyes of the POV character, the POV character gets shunted into center stage and we’re reminded once again that we’re reading a book, rather than witnessing this world for ourselves.

In other words: we’re not watching a beautiful sunset, we’re watching Bill watch a beautiful sunset.

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AImage by tommyscapes via Flickr

Let’s see it in action

With: Bill could see the city in the distance.
Without
: The city rose up in the distance.

With: Julie heard the robber’s footsteps coming closer.
Without: The robber’s footsteps moved closer.

With: She smelled sulfur whens he struck the match.
Without: She struck a match, and the sharp smell of sulfur stung her nose.

When is it a good thing?

Like being verbs, some writers will tell you never to use filtering, ever, but it does have its uses.

  • When you’re deliberately trying to distance your reader from your POV character.
  • To emphasize a disconnect between reality and what your POV character is observing– most effectively, when your POV character realizes that they’re observing something that isn’t really there.
  • If what’s being seen/heard/smelled/whatever is less important than the fact that the character is seeing/hearing/smelling it.

What can I do about it?

Like with linking verbs, the easiest way to start is with a good old-fashioned Find/Replace (Ctrl+F on the keyboard) for saw, and then another for felt, heard, watched, etc. But that can only really give you an initial count. After that point, all you can really do is go through it line by line and prune those suckers out of your prose.

Is there a common writing problem you’d like to see strung up and shot? Do you know any other good uses for filtering? Do you think I’m way off?  Tell us about it in the comments!