Friday, July 22, 2016

Your Narrator is Not a Realist

Glass of water? Half full or half empty?

“Four ounces.”

Not what I’m asking. And if you’re going to be “accurate,” it’s closer to four and a half.

You can’t ask the question of optimism or pessimism without dealing with the answer of “I’m a realist,” which, for me, is not an answer at all. A realist is a pessimist who can’t accept the reality he’s a pessimist.

If we were to be fair, of course everyone is sometimes a realist. And sometimes they’re an optimist and sometimes they’re a pessimist, and it’s healthy to fluctuate back and forth. When we ask the question do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist, the idea is what do you lean towards? Do you usually think positively or negatively?

Stating, “I think realistically,” is an obnoxious and unrealistic answer. You tend to assume things will go well for you. You tend to assume they won’t. You look at a situation and you see problems first. You look at a situation and notice the positives. Both have their benefits, but no one is constantly objective.

In order for a “realist” to truly exist, it would mean that he is better at perceiving the world around him than most. He can, with a glance, successfully gauge the exact amount in the glass. He has an accurate perception of himself and, for whatever reason, a good estimate of the qualities of the others who are applying for the same job. When he says the chair is blue, it is because that chair is blue. Anyone who would call it teal or green is wrong. They just don’t have the perfect grasp on reality he does.

We are all realists on some subject matter. We’ve done the research, had the experiences to effectively analyze likely outcomes in specific situations. We can sit back and objectively run through a list of positives and negatives of the situation and at times even manage to allow that logical rundown control our feelings on the situation.

But not often. Not on everything. And let’s face it, even if you are like that, it’s not necessarily a good thing. It’s boring. It’s awkward. It’s unnecessary.

“Pass me my glass. The one with four ounces please…”

When we say we are realists, we are claiming our own reality is the one true reality. Which brings me to narrators.

When I say “narrators,” I am referring to the narrator of all books, evens those which do not have an actual character telling a story. An important factor in this is what I call the “seeing orb” narrator and how the cold, analytical voice of a camera can tear a reader out of a scene.

(Notice I said “can.”)

Some authors naturally write from a third-party perspective. It is most often a “camera,” a “reader,” or “God.” When they envision a scene, they don’t see it as an over-the-shoulder shot from the protagonist’s (or narrator character’s) P.O.V., and they don’t describe details in the protagonist’s words. Or they do use characters’ words, but will move between “heads.”

This is called third-person omniscient and many times it is considered a mistake. And sometimes it is. It’s not uncommon for a writer to jump heads in a singular situation, or without warning, either because they forgot, the subconscious continuity changed, or it suited that one specific moment. If the reader can’t tell whose reality they’re experiencing the book from, or if the images are abruptly contradicted because the reader is “standing” in the wrong place, it can be legitimately argued that the choice was unsuccessful.

But it is also one of those things that we’re told to look out for, something we’re told not to do. The authors who naturally envision their books as an invisible character walking into a room are less than those who see it as inhabiting the body of the main (or narrator) character. How much less? Well, E.A. games did a survey to determine how many people “made themselves” as their avatars and how many didn’t. About 33% of people made a completely new character. If we believe there is a connection between who makes themselves in games, readers who envision themselves as a character and writers who write from the protagonist’s point of view, I’d say around two-thirds of authors are naturally inclined to write in first-person or third-person limited. That makes the third-party perspective the minority, which would explain why people balk at it as being an abnormal error.

Why does this matter?

Third-party writers are more inclined to make an inhuman P.O.V., trying to realistically and objectively dictate the events with no room for personal opinion. I want to preface this by saying that, artistically, there might be a reason to do this and I’m not poo-pooing it in general.

But from my experience, it is an unintentional and inhibiting choice made often by new writers. The harder part is, because we denote pessimism and optimism as bad things, praising realism and objectivity, many of these authors have been, though unconsciously, striving to be a “realist” rather than a distinctive perspective.

The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction can have one true perspective: the author’s.  Is the chair blue or green? The writer knows. Is the protagonist going to get the job? The writer knows. Who is right? The writer’s opinion is all that matters. In real life, where some things can’t be answered, there is no “truth.” In fiction, there is one.

Some of you have probably heard advice not to take sides and be biased, that a good author sees both sides of the argument, that the villain has reasons to think his actions are good, that the hero isn’t always right. This is all very true. But the point is the narrator is not the writer—unless you’re going to take it in that direction—and while the writer may understand the villain’s actions, it doesn’t mean the person describing them has to.

You may have also heard people talk about the other senses, as in taste, smell, touch, rather than just talking in sight or sound. Or having long sentences is bad. Or show, don’t tell. All of this can be an attempt to encourage an emotional response rather than a logical delivery of facts and events. A lot of new writers write factually and clearly, and many use these above suggestions to help them increase tension and voice.

The camera P.O.V. encourages a dictation of imagery and visual details. It offers up a few sounds, but not much, and tends to avoid other means in which we take in information. This is partially because of what we consciously remember and our dependence on vision, but it can also be noted that sight is more often measurable while the other senses tend to be more subjective.

Two reasons a narration might come off as cold and explanatory is because it 1) only discusses images and 2) it uses numerical measurements.

Using specific numbers and sizes can be effective depending on the circumstance, but there are moments in which the measurement isn’t natural—it’s not the way a person in that situation would see it.

You may describe a knife as six inches when someone pulls it on you, especially if you happen to be a knife aficionado, but it’s more likely, when telling the cops about your experience, you’d say “big.”

Pointing out specific details, like the fact that your attacker “pulled the six-inch knife with his left hand from his backpack,” can detract from the emotion—fear—of the scene. It’s the difference between reading a police report—meant to be unbiased and professional—and listening to the victim tell his side of the story. One will strike more empathy than the other.

Same goes for shorter sentences. A shorter sentence, by nature, is less risky than a longer one—the more words you have, the more possibility for mistakes and getting off on the wrong path—so there’s plenty of reasons people push that shorter is better.

I don’t always agree less words are automatically better, but the main reason I usually take issue with a long sentence (on the rare occasion I do) is it ignores the duration of the moment in order to be perfectly clear about exactly what is happening, typically at the beginning of the story. When the writer tries to shove the exact image into the reader’s mind as fast as possible, especially when something action packed is going on in the background, it slows the scene down.

Is John angry? John doesn’t feel the sensation of anger, but to Lenny he looks it. Would the character say his face is “contorted in rage?” “snarling in disgust?” “Put out?” “Constipated?” Would John’s wife agree with Lenny about the extent of the anger?

The writer says the character is mad, so he is, but would the people involved in the scene agree? Usually no. You’d be hard put to have every person with the same interpretation of events.

It’s easier to make telling objective (which sometimes you might want), while showing tends to require opinions. I can say, “John was mad,” and that’s the end of it. He was mad. Or I can say, “John’s lip rose, and he rolled his eyes.” The readers have more room for interpretation, but are also more likely to trust that interpretation and actually feel the tension.

John would say that he just frowned. Lenny would say that he snarled. John’s wife—who had seen John in real anger—would claim his lips thinned, that he looked like an angry man all the time anyways. Who does the narrator agree with? The author might know the “truth,” but the narrator will have an opinion.

The majority of adjectives and verbs—strong ones especially—are fairly subjective. Adjectives being descriptive words like “dark” or “long” or “purple.” Verbs are actions like “walk,” “stroll,” amble,” “frown,” “snarl,” or “thinning.” Not only can most colors’ labels be quibbled over, but size, magnitude, and connotation must be considered as well. Did he slam, shove, or push that guy into a wall? Depends on who is describing it.

We prioritize realism and accuracy over perception in our everyday lives, but facts don’t make a story. Understanding thoughts, exploring how different people see the world, and realizing that in many cases there is no one reality is a big part of why we read. We want to connect to characters, relate to them, and through them understand ourselves better.

You may end up deciding that your narrator is truly omniscient; he knows what everyone is thinking, he can tell the readers the absolute truth of it, giving them no room for speculation or interpretation, but make that a choice, not your default. By considering the little factors that go into decision making, you will show your audience the way you see life, depend less on their willing trust of you, and learn true empathy.

Not only is seeing the world through a lens natural, it is by far what makes humans interesting.

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