Friday, September 14, 2007


Okay, I'm a wine slob. My palette for wine is pretty hopelessly under developed. To me a burgundy tastes good, but in a sour, alcoholic sort of way. I can't detect the nuances and undertones a connoisseur finds in a good wine. In fact I can barely tell the difference between the plonk that comes in a box and a bottle of an excellent vintage.

This is true in fiction as well. Some characters are naturally keener observers than others. This is natural, but it's something you have to consider when you put words in a character's mouth. What a character sees and reports about the world around him/her/it (because this is SF and fantasy after all) says nearly as much about the character as it does about the world.

(And how do you know which characters are keener observers than others? If you don't you need to back up a couple of steps and work some more on character development.)

That's because what a character reports is an important way of defining the character to the reader. Authorial summation ('he was a thug') is the weakest method of establishing character. Reader experience, including what the character reports, is much stronger. If you call someone a thug and then go on for pages about his aesthetic tastes you're sending the reader a mixed message. Unless you're doing it intentionally, say for purposes of dramatic irony or to illuminate complexities of the character's society or personality, this is a bad thing.

Keep in mind character-reported observations, like any observations, divide into two classes. There are experiences and there are classifications.

Experiences are what characters notice in the around around them. They are sense impressions and summaries thereof. Often even crude and stupid people can observe closely. A psycho mountain man with an IQ of 90 who's spent years holed up in the hills may be a keen observer and sensitive reporter of the world around him. In fact a mountain man, no matter how stupid or how crazy, is likely to have an intimate awareness of the wilderness. To take another example, incarcerated mental patients and prisoners are often very keen observers of their keepers and even subtle differences in the world within their walls.

Classification is based primarily on knowledge and experience. Even very smart, sophisticated characters are likely to fall short where what's being described is outside their experience. A 13-year-old fan of whatever is being observed is likely to be able to classify much more clearly.

An unsophisticated character might say that another character is driving a "bright red car". Someone with more knowledge might recognize it as a "classic fire-engine red sports car. A buff might describe it as a "beautifully restored Mercedes 300 SL gullwing in the factory red paint job." (And guess what I lusted after in my youth.)

So what do you do if you've got a character who's a rough-and-ready type, or even a little stupid, and you want to convey a complex, sophisticated description?

This is where you switch to the omniscient narrator mode. You as the narrator don't have the limits on what you can perceive that hamper your characters. You can put a mindless animal in a breathtakingly beautiful setting and convey the beauty without breaking character.

Again, this is a small part of the thinking that goes into successful fiction. You not only create your world, decide how much of it to describe to your reader, choose how to describe it, but you also decide who will convey the information to the reader.

Hard? Yes. But anyone who says fiction is easy is a lair.

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