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.

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Excerpt from “Fierce Tales: Savage Lands” (From “Nox Invictus” by Misha Burnett)

Teaser from my story “Nox Invictus” now available in Millhaven’s Fierce Tales: Savage Lands.

Millhaven Press

Captain Marius bade his troops wait at the edge of the forest and went up to the hilltop alone. He moved slowly, scanning everything with a practiced soldier’s eye.

It should have been a good position. The forest was thin, trees starved and twisted from the wretched stony soil and the brutal winds that Marius had been told came with winter in these climes. The hilltop, though, was more than thin, it was bare, weathered rock and dirt so lifeless that it was scarce worthy of the name. The knob stuck up from the surrounding trees like jagged bone forced through a wound.

The Imperials had built a stockade fence from the scrub pines, sharpened poles leaning outward at a slight angle. The trunks didn’t grow straight here, but the poles had been lashed together firmly and the fence had held. The gate was hanging ajar.

There should have been…

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Millhaven Press is looking for 3 more westerns for next year’s anthology…

Millhaven Press

Millhaven Press is looking for five more short stories for an upcoming Western themed anthology due out in late Spring ’19.

What we want: Stories featuring Revenge, Boomtowns, Outlaw Gangs, Posses, Range Wars…essentially, tough people in a tough land.

We also want “Weird Westerns”…Paranormal, Post-Apocalyptic, Alternate History…all are welcome.

There is no closing deadline for submissions, but we only need three more stories and when we have them…we have them.

You keep copyright and all rights associated with the story.  You give Millhaven Press first North American print rights.

  • Stories should be between 2,500-8,000 words (we may accept something shorter than 2,500 words or something longer than 8,000 but it has to be phenomenal).
  • Do not submit a story for reprint.  We are only interested in previously unpublished material (a story published on a personal blog is ok).
  • No simultaneous submissions.  Please do not submit the story to another outlet…

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All Millhaven Press releases available for Kindle

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$.99 Halloween E-Book Sale

Halloween Sale!

Millhaven Press

E-Book for Fierce Tales: Shadow Realms and Home Sweet Home: A Millhaven Anthology are now only $.99 until Halloween.

Dark fantasies and haunted houses abound in these two collections.  Be sure to check them out before the prices return to normal after Halloween.

Get them here:

Fierce Tales: Shadow Realms
Home Sweet Home: A Millhaven Anthology

Fierce Tales Shadow Realms Covertext1hsh1

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Millhaven Press looking for Western story submissions

Millhaven Press

Millhaven Press is looking for five more short stories for an upcoming Western themed anthology due out in late Spring ’19.

This time out we are emulating the work of Louis L’amour, Elmore Leonard, Luke Short, and Archie Joscelyn.

What we want: Stories featuring Revenge, Boomtowns, Outlaw Gangs, Posses, Range Wars…essentially, tough people in a tough land.

There is no closing deadline for submissions, but we only need five more stories and when we have them…we have them.

You keep copyright and all rights associated with the story.  You give Millhaven Press first North American print rights.

  • Stories should be between 2,500-8,000 words (we may accept something shorter than 2,500 words or something longer than 8,000 but it has to be phenomenal).
  • Do not submit a story for reprint.  We are only interested in previously unpublished material (a story published on a personal blog is ok).
  • No simultaneous submissions.  Please…

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Issue 7 Out Today!

Broadswords and Blasters

Hey, guess what today is? I mean other than the first day of the rest of your life. Yeah, that’s right, we’ve got a new issue of BROADSWORDS AND BLASTERS for you.

Broadswords and Blasters Issue 7: Pulp Magazine with Modern Sensibilities (Volume 2 Book 3) by [Gomez, Matthew, Codair, Sara, Barlow, Tom, Francis, Rob, Kilgore, Joe, Reynolds, Z., Serna-Grey, Ben, Young, Brad, Rubin, Richard, Uitvlugt, Donald] Maybe we shouldn’t have woken it up? Richard Rubin first graced our pages in Issue 4 with “Commander Saturn and the Deadly Invaders From Rigel,” and now he’s back battling the space pirates of Ganymede. If you like retro sci-fi at all (we’re talking old school Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon), you’re going to want to check out this tale of experimental cloaking devices, double crosses and deception.

Tom Barlow gave us “Jigsaw,” a dysfunctional couple’s descent into horror brought about by a mysterious puzzle.

Ben Serna-Gray penned the twisted surrealistic sci-fi dystopia “Choice Cuts.” When everything (and anyone) is edible, conspicuous consumption takes on a whole new meaning.

Rob Francis is back this issue (last seen way…

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