The Invisible Character

Recently two posts over on The Emporer’s Notepad, one on Deep POV and one on 1st Person Narrators, helped clarify some thoughts of my own.

Fiction is a conversation between people who don’t exist. I’m not talking about quoted dialogue between characters here, but the basic structure of the artform. It is, essentially, a story told by someone who doesn’t exist.

I have written about the issue of “voice” in fiction in terms of the identity of the narrator before, here and here and here.

What Emperor X got me thinking about, though, was that there is another side to the fictive conversation. Voice is determined not simply by who is talking, but by whom is being talked to.

Imagine that you are relating the story of an accident that occured at your workplace. You are going to tell the story very differently to the police, to your boss, to a coworker who was off that day, and to a friend who knows you, but has never been to your work.

Even assuming that you tell the absolute truth in all instances, the way you tell the story, which details you include or leave out, how you describe the actions and personalities of the people involved, the order in which you describe the events, all of these things will be determined by the person listening to the you tell the story.

Hence the “Invisible Character”, the Listener.

Now, the Listener is not the same as the readers of the completed work of fiction in the same way that the Narrator is not the author. The best way to describe the difference is to examine a work in which the Listener is specified.

Lovecrafts’ “At The Mountains Of Madness”, for example, is told in the form of a presentation being given by a survivor of an antarctic expedition to the organizers of a new expedition, in order to convince them not to go. This is laid out in the first few paragraphs.

In many places, for example the inventories of supplies and the technical details of the drilling rig, I can “see” the unsympathetic faces of the Listeners, sitting at a long table, taking notes. (And I can imagine their uncomfortable fidgeting towards the end of the tale, when the Narrator goes over the top and is eventually led away by security, still raving about alien monsters in the frozen south.)

That overarching conceit helps to keep the story grounded, for the most part, and while it is one of Lovecraft’s longest tales, it’s also in my opinion one of the fastest moving and most readable.

Another example is an often used conceit from True Crime Pulps that the story is being told as a statement to the police. (A technique I shameless stole for my own story, “The Silk Of Yesterday’s Gown.”)

Many adventure stories or traveler’s tales are written in a “3rd Person inside 1st Person” voice.

“I was in a bar in Marrakech, killing time while I waited for the mechanics to finish servicing my airplane, when this old man approached me for company. I bought him a drink and he repaid me with the following story. As fantastic as it sounds, the man’s calm demeanor and serious face convinced me it was true, or at least that he believed it totally.

“Did you ever hear of the Evelyn B? It was a tramp steamer out of Algiers, bound for South Africa.

“I thought back and said that I did recall. It was lost in a squall at sea and went down with all hands.

“No, the old man corrected me. It wasn’t a squall, and it wasn’t lost with all hands. In fact, he went on, he himself had been on Evelyn B, and he proceeded to tell me the story of what really happened to it…

This kind of setup may seem quaint to modern readers, but it keeps the story focused. It provides the author with a way of determining what details to include and what to leave out.

In my example the Narrator is a sailor, the Listener is an aviator, and so the Narrator is going to describe navigating on the water in a way that highlight the differences between water and air navigation. The reader–who may not know anything about navigation on land or air or sea–will be fed the relevant facts in a way that feels natural, because there is a reason for the Narrator to go over the basics of maps and compasses.

On the other hand, both Narrator and Listener are familiar with coastal Africa, and the Narrator would just say, “We were a day out of Dakar at the point” without going on to add “which is the capital of Senegal, settled by the Portuguese in the 15th Century and taken over by France in 1677…”

Info-dumping, that bugaboo of genre fiction, is in my opinion often a consequence of an author having no clear idea of who the Narrator and the Listener are, and hence no feel for the shared knowledge base of those two invisible characters.  Since the author is speaking to the reader and can’t know what the reader does or does not know, the temptation is to explain everything.

Information regarding a fictional world can be delivered in a naturalistic fashion. In Glen Cook’s Tales Of The Black Company, the narrator is the archivist for a military unit and describing the lay of the land is part of his job. In Michael Shea’s Nifft The Lean the novellas are introduced by a professional cartographer who has a tendency to lecture (but has such a delightful voice that we don’t mind.)

In practical terms, my advice to any authors who are struggling with finding a voice for their stories is to invent a Narrator and Listener character. I’d even go so far as to write up the specifics of where and when and how the story is being told. You don’t have to include it in the finished work, or even let anybody read it. This is just for you. The idea is to go from thinking, “how do I explain or describe this to my readers?” to “how would this Narrator explain or describe this to that Listener?”

Something to think about.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing, pulp revival and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Invisible Character

  1. Mary says:

    Infodumping in a problem whenever the readers has to be clued into something there’s no natural way to introduce.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      In my experience what the reader really has to be clued in on is far less than most authors think. When you’re telling someone about a car accident you saw on the way to work, you probably wouldn’t stop to explain that the street where it happened was named after the mayor who died in office in 1917. That’s an interesting fact, but your listener doesn’t need to know it to see which car was turning against the light at the intersection.

  2. Having done a quick read of the several linked posts, I think the current thing I am writing might actually be more of an omniscient POV in past-tense that just happens to be spending all of it’s time inside the head of one particular character and directly transmitting the significant thoughts and impressions to the reader.

    Maybe it’s like that “deep POV” but I’m still putting in “I said” and “I thought” in places where it might confuse the reader if I didn’t. It’s my first attempt at using “I” after writing several stories in 3rd-person past tense (except for one thing I tried to write years ago that was more obviously the recollections of the protagonist. I couldn’t pull it off at the time and rewrote it in 3rd-person).

    This is something to maybe take into consideration when planning future works, though.

  3. Pingback: On classic vs modern writing. – BARBARIAN BOOK CLUB

  4. Satoyama says:

    These PoV discussions were very helpful to me right now.

    Some of the projects I’ve been thinking over are action and involve focal characters quite a bit more socially oriented than I am.

    The assumptions I had drifted into about PoV were probably not ones that would serve those stories well.

  5. Pingback: Voice Direction | mishaburnett

  6. John Boyle says:

    I must agree with you, Mr. Burnett. When I was plotting out my fantasy series “Children of Khetar”, I couldn’t make any headway until I had decided on a Narrator/Listener pair for my stories (grandfather/granddaughter in my case). It has had far reaching effects.

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