Ecology of Story: Place as Character & Archetype

tree trunks coolA novelist, when portraying several characters, may often find herself painting a portrait of a place. This is place being “character.” Place functions as a catalyst, and molds the more traditional characters that animate a story. Think of any of your favorite books, particularly the epics: The Wizard of Oz, Tale of Two Cities, Doctor Zhivago, Lord of the Rings, The Odyssey, etc. In each of these books the central character is the place, which is firmly linked to its main character. How much is Frodo, for instance, an extension of his beloved Shire? They are one in the same. Just as the London of Charles Dickens spawned Scrooge.

Place ultimately portrays what lies at the heart of the story. Place as character serves as an archetype that story characters connect with and navigate in ways that depend on the theme of the story. A story’s theme is essentially the “so what part” of the story. What is at stake for the character on their journey. Theme is the backbone—the heart—of the story, driving characters to journey through time and place toward some kind of fulfillment. There is no story without theme. And there is no theme without place.

Things to consider about place as character begin with the POV character and how they interact with their environment and how they reflect their place. For instance is that interaction obvious or subtle? Is that environment constant or changing, stable or unstable, predictable, or variable? Is the place controllable or not, understandable or not? Is the relationship emotional, connected to senses such as memory?

I discuss archetypes in detail, particularly as part of the “Hero’s Journey” in Chapter J of The Fiction Writer. In summary, archetypes are ancient patterns of personality shared universally by humanity (e.g. the “mother” archetype is recognized by all cultures). When place acts as an archetype or symbol in story—particularly when linked to theme—it provides a depth of meaning that resonates through many levels for the reader. From obvious to subtle.

A subtle yet potent example of this is provided by Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News; Proulx uses subtle body language of her protagonist to provide a strong sense of place. The main character, Quoyle, displays a self-conscious gesture of covering his strong native chin with his hand until he leaves New York to his homeland of Newfoundland from where he is descended— a place where he can live a natural and graceful life without apology.

In Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Mars symbolizes a new Eden—though unimagined. Like Bradbury’s aboriginal Martians—who are mostly invisible—the planet is a mirror that reflects humanity’s best and worst. Who we are, what we are, what we bring with us and what we may become. What we inadvertently do—to others, and finally to ourselves—and how the irony of chance can change everything.

Martian ChroniclesThey came because they were afraid or unafraid, happy or unhappy. There was a reason for each man. They were coming to find something or get something, or to dig up something or bury something. They were coming with small dreams or big dreams or none at all.

The 1970 Bantam book jacket aptly calls The Martian Chronicles, “a story of familiar people and familiar passions set against incredible beauties of a new world … A skillful blending of fancy and satire, terror and tenderness, wonder and contempt.”

Written in the 1940s, The Martian Chronicles drip with a nostalgic atmosphere — shady porches with tinkling pitchers of lemonade, grandfather clocks, chintz-covered sofas. But longing for this comfortable past proves dangerous in every way to Bradbury’s characters — the golden-eyed Martians as well as the humans. Starting in the far-flung future of 1999, expedition after expedition leaves Earth to explore Mars. The chameleon-like Martians guard their mysteries well, but soon succumb to the diseases that arrive with the rockets — recapitulating the tragedies that European colonization imposed on our indigenous peoples. Colonists appear on Mars, most of them with ideas no more lofty than starting a hot-dog stand, and with no respect for the culture they are impacting and an entire people they are destroying. Bradbury weaves metaphor into the opening when the heat of a rocket ship turned an Ohio dark winter into summer:

Rocket summer. The words passed among the people in the open, airing houses. Rocket summer. The warm desert air changing the frost patterns on the windows, erasing the art work. The skis and sleds suddenly useless. The snow, falling from the cold sky upon the town, turned to a hot rain before it touched the ground.

Rocket summer. People leaned form their dripping porches and watched the reddening sky. The rocket lay on the launching field, blowing out pink clouds of fire and even heat. The rocket stood in the cold winter morning, making summer with every breath of its mighty exhausts. The rocket made climates, and summer lay for a brief moment on the land…

What unfolds is a profound and tender analysis of the quiet yet devastating power humanity can wield unawares. Bradbury paints a multi-layered tapestry of hopes and dreams through metaphor. To Bradbury everything a writer writes is metaphor. Metaphor is powerful through perspective. It makes the ordinary strange and the strange ordinary.

MemoryOfWater_Emmi ItarantaIn Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water—about a post-climate change world of sea level rise—water is a powerful archetype, whose secret tea masters guard with their lives:

The story tells that water has a consciousness, that it carries in its memory everything that’s ever happened in this world, from the time before humans until this moment, which draws itself in its memory even as it passes. Water understands the movements of the world; it knows when it is sought and where it is needed. Sometimes a spring or a well dries for no reason, without explanation. It’s as if the water escapes of its own will, withdrawing into the cover of the earth to look for another channel. Tea masters believe there are times when water doesn’t wish to be found because it knows it will be chained in ways that are against its nature.

ThePenelopiadWater, with its life-giving properties and other strange qualities, has been used as a powerful metaphor and archetype in many stories: from vast oceans of mystery, beauty and danger—to the relentless flow of an inland stream. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad is just one example:

Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.

MockUpEcology copyThis article is an excerpt from “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” released in June 2019 by Pixl Press.

From Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

Learn the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. Ecology of Story: World as Character is the 3rd guidebook in Nina Munteanu’s acclaimed “how to write” series for novice to professional writers.

 

 

 

 

Microsoft Word - Three Writing Guides.docx

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

Crossing into the Ecotone to Write Meaningful Eco-Fiction

If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”—George Bernard Shaw

 

naturalselectionAt Calgary’s When Words Collide this past August, I moderated a panel on Eco-Fiction with publisher/writer Hayden Trenholm, and writers Michael J. Martineck, Sarah Kades, and Susan Forest. The panel was well attended; panelists and audience discussed and argued what eco-fiction was, its role in literature and storytelling generally, and even some of the risks of identifying a work as eco-fiction.

Someone in the audience brought up the notion that “awareness-guided perception” may suggest an increase of ecological awareness in literature when it is more that readers are just noticing what was always there. Authors agreed and pointed out that environmental fiction has been written for years and it is only now—partly with the genesis of the term eco-fiction—that the “character” and significance of environment is being acknowledged beyond its metaphor; for its actual value. It may also be that the metaphoric symbols of environment in certain classics are being “retooled” through our current awareness much in the same way that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four are being re-interpreted—and newly appreciated— in today’s world of pervasive surveillance and bio-engineering.

darwins-paradoxI submit that if we are noticing it more, we are also writing it more. Artists are cultural leaders and reporters, after all. My own experience in the science fiction classes I teach at UofT and George Brown College, is that I have noted a trend of increasing “eco-fiction” in the works in progress that students are bringing in to workshop in class. Students were not aware that they were writing eco-fiction, but they were indeed writing it.

I started branding my writing as eco-fiction a few years ago. Prior to that—even though my stories were strongly driven by an ecological premise and strong environmental setting—I described them as science fiction and many as technological thrillers. Environment’s role remained subtle and—at times—insidious. Climate change. Water shortage. Environmental disease. A city’s collapse. War. I’ve used these as backdrops to explore relationships, values (such as honour and loyalty), philosophies, moralities, ethics, and agencies of action. The stuff of storytelling.

Environment, and ecological characteristics were less “theme” than “character,” with which the protagonist and major characters related in important ways.

Snowpiercer-frenchJust as Bong Joon-Ho’s 2014 science fiction movie Snowpiercer wasn’t so much about climate change as it was about exploring class struggle, the capitalist decadence of entitlement, disrespect and prejudice through the premise of climate catastrophe. Though, one could argue that these form a closed loop of cause and effect (and responsibility).

snowpiercer-posterThe self-contained closed ecosystem of the Snowpiercer train is maintained by an ordered social system, imposed by a stony militia. Those at the front of the train enjoy privileges and luxurious living conditions, though most drown in a debauched drug stupor; those at the back live on next to nothing and must resort to savage means to survive. Revolution brews from the back, lead by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), a man whose two intact arms suggest he hasn’t done his part to serve the community yet.

Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), an imperious yet simpering figure who serves the ruling class without quite being part of it, reminds the lower class that:

We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is.  snowpiercer-mason

In the beginning, order was prescribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you…Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”

Ecotones are places where “lines are crossed,” where barriers are breached, where “words collide” and new opportunities arise. Sometimes from calamity. Sometimes from tragedy. Sometimes from serendipity.

When environment shapes a story as archetype—hero, victim, trickster, shadow or shape shifter—we get strong eco-fiction. Good eco-fiction, like any good story, explores the choices we make and the consequences of those choices. Good eco-fiction ventures into the ecotone of overlap, collision, exchange and ultimate change.

water-is-webIn my latest book Water Is… I define an ecotone as the transition zone between two overlapping systems. It is essentially where two communities exchange information and integrate. Ecotones typically support varied and rich communities, representing a boiling pot of two colliding worlds. An estuary—where fresh water meets salt water. The edge of a forest with a meadow. The shoreline of a lake or pond.

For me, this is a fitting metaphor for life, given that the big choices we must face usually involve a collision of ideas, beliefs, lifestyles or worldviews: these often prove to enrich our lives the most for having gone through them. Evolution (any significant change) doesn’t happen within a stable system; adaptation and growth occur only when stable systems come together, disturb the equilibrium, and create opportunity. Good social examples include a close friendship or a marriage in which the process of “I” and “you” becomes a dynamic “we” (the ecotone) through exchange and reciprocation. Another version of Bernard Shaw’s quote, above, by the Missouri Pacific Agriculture Development Bulletin reads: “You have an idea. I have an idea. We swap. Now, you have two ideas and so do I. Both are richer. What you gave you have. What you got I did not lose. This is cooperation.” This is ecotone.

winter-birch-sunset-snowI think we are seeing more eco-fiction out there because ecosystems, ecology and environment are becoming more integral to story: as characters in their own right. I think we are seeing more eco-fiction out there because we are ready to see it. Just as quantum physics emerged when it did and not sooner, an idea—a thought—crystalizes when we are ready for it.

Don’t stay a shoe … go find an ecotone. Then write about it.

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Creating Great Characters in Fiction

 

renoir-table-close01Fiction characters have a dramatic function and a role in advancing the plot and theme of your story. They need a reason to be there.

Your characters need to appear real without being real. Characters in fiction fulfill a dramatic function in the story for the reader and are, therefore, more logically laid out. They may, as a result, be more coherent, consistent and clear in their actions and qualities than a person in real life.

In his 1995 article in SF Writer called “On Writing: Constructing Characters”, Hugo and Nebula award winning SF author Robert J. Sawyer reminds us that “story-people are made-to-order to do a specific job.” This notion goes back “twenty-five hundred years to the classical playwrights,” says Sawyer. “In Greek tragedy, the main character was always specifically designed to fit the particular plot. Indeed, each protagonist was constructed with an intrinsic hamartia, or tragic flaw, keyed directly to the story’s theme.”

When we begin to tell stories, our characters can often suffer from lack of distinction or purpose; they will clutter and dilute a story’s promise. You may wish to focus on fewer rather than many characters. One way to tell if major and minor characters are fulfilling their role in story is to assign one or more archetypes to them (see my earlier article on archetypes in the Hero’s Journey). If you can’t come up with an archetype for that character, he or she may simply be there, filling up unneeded space. You might need to merge two characters into one or nix a few altogether. This is especially important in short story. The most common thing new writers do is clutter a short story with too many characters and associated sub-plots. These stories are actually novel-wanna-be’s.

You achieve distinction in characters, including minor characters through a number of ways. One is “voice”. A character’s “voice” must be unique. Give your character distinctive body movements, dress, speech, facial features and expressions that reveal his inner feelings, emotions, fears, motivations, etc. Then keep them consistent.

It may also be useful to create character dossiers on major characters to help keep track of their distinctive traits and keep these consistent. Dialogue is an excellent tool to reveal a person’s education, philosophy, biases, culture and history. A character’s inflections and common vernacular can be used to identify them from a particular region or culture.

Fictional characters come to life by giving them individual traits, real weaknesses and heroic qualities that readers can recognize and empathize with. You play these against each other to achieve drama. For instance, a man who is afraid of heights but who must climb a mountain to save his love is far more compelling than one who is not afraid; same for a military man who fears responsibility but must lead his team into battle; a shy scientist impelled to discovery; etc.—the hamartia that Sawyer talked about.

Make your character bleed, hurt, cry, and laugh. This needs to be clear to the reader, who painted leaveswants to empathize with some of them and hate others. How characters interact with their surroundings and with each other creates tension, a key element to good storytelling.

“The lesson is simple,” Sawyer tells us. “Your main character should illuminate the fundamental conflict suggested by your premise.”

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

Ten Things to Consider When Revising Your Novel

streaming conifersNo piece of writing is complete without submitting it to the scrutiny of revision. A colleague of mine once shared the story of what a student of hers had said about revision: it’s “like beating up a nice friend. Why would I want to do that?” Because, my colleague replied, without a little pummelling all you have is a “nice draft”.

Here are ten things you can do to revise your first and subsequent drafts into something stellar.

  1. Let Your Work Breathe

Once you’ve completed your draft, set it aside for a while. This is key to helping you make objective observations about your writing when you return. The longer you leave it, the more objective you will be. Don’t worry about losing momentum or interest; they most certainly will return. But if hey don’t, then you didn’t have a story in the first place—and that, too, is a good thing to discover.

  1. Dig Deep

Now that you have the whole story in front of you, you’re in the position to restructure plotlines, subplots, events and characters to best reflect your overall story and its main theme. Don’t be afraid to remove large sections or even whole characters; you will likely add others.

  1. Take Inventory

Take stock of how each chapter and scene/sequel contributes to plotline and theme; root out the inconsistencies as you relate the minutia to the whole. You may decide to merge two characters into one or add a character or change a character’s gender or age to better serve your plotline and theme.

  1. Highlight the Surges

Some passages will stand out as being particularly stunning; pay attention to them in each chapter and apply their energy to the rest of your writing.

  1. Purge & Un-clutter

Make a point of shortening everything; this forces you to use more succinct language and replace adjectives and adverbs with power-verbs. Doing this will tighten prose and make it more clear. Reading aloud, particularly dialogue, can help streamline your prose.

  1. Check Point of View

This is the time to take stock of whether you’ve chosen the best point of view style for your story (e.g., first person, third person limited, omniscient). Many first manuscripts by my students have suffered from shifting or inconsistent point of view. Ensure that yours is consistent. You may wish to experiment with different points of view at this stage (e.g., changing your narrative from the third person to the first person, for instance); the results may surprise you.

  1. Make a Plot (Story) Promise

Given that you are essentially making a promise to your readers, it is advisable that you revisit that promise. Tie up your plot points; don’t leave any hanging unless you’re intentionally doing this. But, be aware that readers don’t generally like it. Similarly, if you’ve written a scene that is lyrical, beautiful and compelling but doesn’t contribute to your plotline, nix it. You can file it away for another story where it may be more applicable.

  1. Deepen Your Characters

The revision process is an ideal time to add subtle detail to your main characters: a nervous scratch of his beard, an absent twisting of the ring on her finger, the frequent use of a particular expression. Purposefully adding unique qualities to your characters, like vernacular, body language, and inflections grounds them in reality and makes them more personable and memorable. However, if you want a particular character trait to stick with the reader, you should repeat it a few times throughout the story. This applies to minor characters as well. When you paint your minor characters with more detail, you create a more three-dimensional tapestry for your main characters to walk through.

  1. Write Scenes (show, don’t tell)

Use the revision process to convert flat narrative into “scene” through dramatization. Narrative summaries often read like lecture or polemic. They tend to be passive, slow, and less engaging. Scenes are animated by action, tension and conflict, dialogue and physical movement.

  1. Be Concrete

Ground your characters in vivid setting and rich but unobtrusive detail. Don’t abandon them to a generic and prosaic setting, drinking “beverages” and driving “vehicles” on “roads”; instead brighten up their lives by having them speeding along Highway 66 in a red Carmen Ghia while sipping a Pinot Noir.

Remember to pace yourself when revising; otherwise you may become streaming conifersoverwhelmed and discouraged, even confused into incessant rewrites. Your story needs to settle between revision stages. As my colleague said, “you don’t need to beat up your nice friend all at once.”

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

Importance of Setting in a Novel

lamp-nature I travel, always arriving in the same place—Dejan Stojanovic, The Shape

Setting grounds your writing in the reality of place and depicts the theme of your story through powerful metaphor. Without setting, characters are simply there, in a vacuum, with no reason to act and most importantly, no reason to care. Without a place there is no story. Setting serves multipurpose roles in story. It helps with plot, determines and describes character and gives metaphoric links to theme. Setting, like the force in Star Wars, provides a landscape that binds everything into context and meaning.

Place Your Story

According to acclaimed novelist Richard Russo, if you’re not writing stories that occur in a specific place, you’re missing the opportunity to add depth and character to your writing. We are creatures of our environment, adds Robert Louis Stevenson. Our outlook on life is colored by the setting in which we find ourselves. Editors have told me that they have little faith in the vision of writers who don’t clearly depict the world their characters inhabit. Imagine Thomas Hardy’s characters without Egdon Heath or Scarlet O’Hara without her beloved Tara or Dorothy without the Land of Oz.

Setting includes time, place and circumstance. These three form a kind of critical mass that creates the particular setting best suited to your story. If you change any of these it will affect the quality of the others.

house in fogSetting as Character

Settings can not only have character; they can be a character in their own right. A novelist, when portraying several characters, may often find herself painting a portrait of “place”. This is setting being “character”. The setting functions as a catalyst, and molds the more traditional characters that animate a story. The central character is often really the place, which is often linked to the protagonist. In Lord of the Rings, for instance, Frodo is very much an extension of his beloved Shire.

D.H. Lawrence suggested that Egdon Heath was the most important character in Thomas Hardy’s book Return of the Native:

Egdon, whose dark soil was strong and crude and organic as the body of a beast.–D.H. Lawrence on Return of the Native

 

Setting, then, comes to mean so much more. Setting personified. Setting ultimately portrays what lies at the heart of the story.

Setting as Metaphor

When you choose your setting, remember that its primary metaphoric role is to help depict theme. This is because place is destiny.

In Bong Joon-Ho’s motion picture Snowpiercer, about a train careering the world with the remains of humanity, place and destiny are welded together in tight metaphor. The train “is the world”. This dark surrealistic allegory examines all iterations of place in a class struggle between the front and tail ends of the train. In an early scene, one of the the ruling class evokes her own metaphors to remind the lower class of their place:

“Order is the barrier that holds back the flood of death. We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station…Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat snowpiercer-mason-shoebelongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is.

In the beginning, order was proscribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you. Eternal order is prescribed by the sacred engine: all things flow from the sacred engine, all things in their place, all passengers in their section, all water flowing, all heat rising, pays homage to the sacred engine, in its own particular preordained position. So it is.

Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail.

When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”–Minister Mason in Snowpiercer

 

Russo tells us that place is crucial to human destiny and the formation of human personality. “The more specific and individual things become, the more universal they feel,” says Russo. This is not an oxymoron, but an example of the principle of a truism, which comes to us in the form of paradox (like all good truisms).

Detail provides the color and texture of your story and helps it resonate with a sense of place. This does not necessarily translate into lots of exposition; but it does require creative choice of words. So, instead of “John took a drag from his cigarette as he drove his sports car along a winding road in the country” (twenty words) try something like “Vinnie sucked on a Camel as his red Corvette careered the hair-pinned curves of Hell’s Gate” (seventeen words).

Setting & Emotion

The setting may amplify a character’s emotions or contradict them, depending on the circumstance of the character, her mood, disposition, tendencies, and observational skills. And the kind of story you’re telling. Either way, setting provides an “emotional landscape” upon which a character’s own temperament may play counterpoint or may resonate in a wonderful symphony. The writer should think of the less obvious, of contrast, and how you can increase tension and emphasize the character’s situation.

Setting as Weather

louisville-icestorm-jan09-16Weather conveys the mood and tone of both story and character. Weather is not just part of the scenery. To a writer, weather is a device used in plot and theme. A good example is Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and how he used the desert setting and the hot winds to evoke mood, character, tension, theme and ultimately story:

“The desert could not be claimed or owned—it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East”–Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

In summary, here are some suggestions that will help you create vivid, memorable and meaningful settings:

  • Don’t “tack” setting in; make it an integral part of the story; give it purpose
  • Describe selectively and with purpose—through integration in “scene” rather than exposition
  • Be specific (e.g., soft pink rose, not flower; beat up Chevy, not car; old clapboard cottage, not house)
  • Use similes, metaphors, and personification to breathe life into setting
  • Use the senses like sight, sound, smell, taste, feel
  • Don’t tell, show (e.g., don’t say the time is the 1920s; show the cars and dresses. Don’t tell the reader it’s raining; show them by describing the dripping trees, etc.)
  • Compare and contrast settings and relate them to the point of view characters
  • Don’t describe setting all at once in the beginning; work it in slowly throughout the story; let it unfold as the story does

 

This article is an excerpt from Chapter H of The Fiction Writer: Get Pubished, Write Now!

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

How Are You Telling Your Story?…Part 2: Voice and Narration

renoir-tableThe term “Voice” describes various aspects of a writer’s expression in story; it includes your unique writing style and the style you’ve chosen to adopt for the particular story you’re telling. The voice of your story is influenced by your audience—youth, adults, crazy people, etc.—as well as the subject matter and general overall theme of the story.

Voice is the feel and tone that applies to: 1) the story or book (narrative voice); 2) to each character in that story; and 3) the author’s own voice (authorial voice; in business it’s called the brand), which you carry with you in every work. It is the combination of all these “voices” that make each of your works unique. Think of a fine artist, a painter like Vincent Van Gogh, whose unique painter’s “voice” was apparent in all his Impressionistic works. The wild swirls of light and texture characterized all his paintings; yet, each individual work expressed its own unique message in Van Gogh’s artistic journey.

 

Authorial Voice

You express your authorial voice and the voice of your story through tone, perspective, style, language and pace. All of these reflect your intent and are ultimately expressed in the story’s overarching theme. The overarching theme is ultimately the author’s theme, the “world view” — the “so what part” — of the story. The principal character and minor characters will carry variations of the main theme, each with his or her unique voice. Invariably, the voice of the story reflects the author’s philosophy, biases and message.

Writers generally struggle in the beginning to obtain their unique “voice”, often adopting the voice of a writer they admire. Although this can help a writer define their own voice (by illuminating what they like and strive for), it can also retard an author’s unique self-expression. It is so much easier to use another’s proven formula; the danger is that you may never escape from beneath the shadow of your hero. In the area of science fiction, which I write, the internet is rich with “fan fic” (an endearing term for works based on already established stories, worlds, characters, and styles.) Many fan fic writers will not emerge from the shadow of unoriginality to find their own voice. So, take heed and be mindful of your own voice. Determine what is important to you and you will find your voice.

 

Narrative Voice

Narrative voice belongs to the persona telling the story. Which persona you adopt in narration depends on what kind of story you are telling, and the kind of emotional atmosphere you wish to achieve, says Crawford Kilian, Canadian author of over a dozen novels. The persona develops from the personality and attitude of the narrator, expressed through the narrator’s choice of words and depictions. Depending on your choice of POV (see my previous article on Viewpoint), the narrator of your story can be one or several main characters or you, the writer. More on this below.

 

Character Voice

It’s important to give each character a distinctive “voice” (including use of distinct vernacular, use of specific expressions or phrases, etc.). This is one way a reader can identify a character and find them likeable—or not.

In a manuscript I recently reviewed, I noticed that the characters spoke in a chaotic mixture of formal and casual speech. This confuses the reader and bumps them out of the story. Each person’s speech is typically consistent, reflecting their ethnic and regional background, who they hang around with, their education, history and biases. Consistency is critical; it helps readers identify with a character. They will abandon a story whose writing—and voice—is not consistent. So, my advice to this beginning writer was to pick one style for each character and stick to it.

Voice incorporates language (both speech and body movements), philosophy, and humor. How a character looks, walks, talks, laughs, is all part of this. Let’s take laughter for instance: does your character tend to giggle, titter, chortle, guffaw, belly-laugh? Does she usually put her hand over her mouth when she does? Does she do or say certain things when she’s nervous? See my upcoming article on body language for more detail.

 

Who Should Tell the Story?

When telling a story through the eyes of a single viewpoint character, it makes most sense to tell it through the main character, the protagonist, around whom the story usually revolves. She is the one who’s going to be chiefly affected by the events of the story. Ansen Dibell, author of The Elements of Fiction: Plot, asks the question: “Who is really at the story’s heart?” If you’re having trouble with the story of Sally and Norman from Sally’s point of view, perhaps you should try telling it through Norman’s point of view. Or perhaps your main POV character is a third person, looking on and, in turn, changed.

Narrating a story from an outsider’s viewpoint (the hidden protagonist as observer-narrator) —sometimes called displaced narrative — can also add an element of complexity and depth to a story. The Illusionist is a good example of this. This story, about Eisenheim (the Illusionist) and his beloved, is told through the cynical eyes of the city’s chief inspector, who learns to believe again through his “experience” of their story. Other examples include J.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Saving Private Ryan, My Beloved, Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and Joanne Harris’s Chocolat.

Using a displaced viewpoint character to narrate a story works particularly well if you want to keep your main character strange and mysterious. Having an “outside” character tell the story of one or two other characters, also gives the writer a chance to add another thematic element to a story (the one belonging to the narrator). A story told through the eyes of a dreamer will be very different than one told by a ponderous thinker.

Other kinds of narration include:

  • detached autobiography (narrator looks back on long-past events; e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)
  • letters or diary (narrative told through letters, also known as the epistolary novel; e.g. my short story, Arc of Time)
  • interior monologue (narrator recounts the story as a memory; stream of consciousness is an extreme form of this narrative, e.g., Ulysses by James Joyce)

 

How Many Should Tell the Story?

The use of multiple viewpoints is common among writers and adds an element of richness and breadth to a story. With each added character’s POV, readers are more enlightened to the thoughts and motivations of characters in a story. When you have several characters telling the story, this is called a rotating viewpoint. A few points to follow include:

  • Alternate or rotate your differing viewpoints clearly (scene by scene, chapter by chapter, or part by part)
  • Don’t change viewpoints within a scene
  • Separate different POV scenes within chapters with extra white space or some kind of graphic (e.g., ****)

 

References

Dibell, Ansen. 1999. Elements of Fiction Writing: Plot. Writer’s Digest Books. Cincinnati, Ohio. 170pp.

Killian, Crawford. 2003. “Narrative Voice”. In: Writing Fiction: http://crofsblogs.typepad.com/fiction/2003/07/narrative_ voice.html

Morrell, David. 2000. “First Blood, Third Person”. In: Fiction Writer. April, 2000.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY. 266pp.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of canyon path slovakiaaward-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Hero’s Journey: Part 2, Heroes and Other Archetypes

420px-Edmund_blair_leighton_accoladeThe world of fairy tales and myth is peopled with recurring character types and relationships. Heroes on a quest, heralds and wise old men or women who provide them with “gifts” or motive, shady fellow-travelers—threshold guardians—who “block” the quest, tricksters who confuse things and evil villains who simply want to destroy our hero and her quest.

Jung adopted the term archetypes, which means ancient patterns of personality shared by humanity, to describe these as a collective unconscious. An archetype models a personality or behavior; a mother-figure is an archetype. This is what makes archetypes, or symbols, so important to the storyteller. Archetypes are found in nearly all forms of literature, with their motifs mostly rooted in folklore.

Assigning an archetype to a character lets the writer clarify that character’s role in the story. Archetypes are an important tool in the universal language of storytelling, just as myth serves the overall purpose of supplying “the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.” (Joseph Campbell). Joseph Campbell went so far as to describe the archetype as something that is expressed biologically and is wired into every human being.

Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, lists the seven most useful archetypes for the writer.

The Hero

The hero sacrifices his own needs on behalf of others. He provides a character for us to identify with and is usually the principal POV character in a story, with qualities most readers can (or want to) identify with. The hero “transforms” through her journey as she encounters other archetypes on her journey, whether it is a physical journey or a psychological journey toward “home” (salvation or redemption) through sacrifice. The true mark of the hero, says Vogler, is in the act of sacrifice: “the hero’s willingness to give up something of value, perhaps even her own life, on behalf of an ideal or a group,” and ultimately for the greater good.

Heroes may be willing or unwilling. Anti-heroes are notably flawed characters that must grow significantly to achieve the status of true hero. Often the anti-hero starts off more like a villain, like Tom Cruise’s character in Rainman. The wounded anti-hero may be a “heroic knight in tarnished armor, a loner who has rejected society or been rejected by it,” says Vogler: Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. The catalyst hero shows less of a character arc, but precipitates significant change or transformation in other protagonists. A good example is David Adams, in Ben Bova’s Colony.

The Mentor

The mentor often possesses divine wisdom and has faith in the hero. He often gives the hero a “gift”, which is usually something important for the quest; either a weapon to destroy a “monster” or a “talisman” to enlighten the hero. A good example is in Star Wars, when Luke’s mentor, Obi Wan, provides him with his father’s lightsaber (Luke’s magic talisman).

The Herald

Heralds announce the coming of significant change, whether the hero likes it or not (and usually they don’t). They deliver the call to adventure. The herald is a catalyst that enters the story and makes it impossible for the hero to remain in status quo. Existing in the form of a person, an event, or just information, they shift the hero’s balance and change her world.

In Star Wars, Ben Kenobi issues the call when he invites Luke to join him on his mission to Alderaan. The herald also provides the hero with motivation. In Romancing the Stone, the herald for Joan Wilder comes to her as a treasure map in the mail, and a distressed phone call from her sister.

The Threshold Guardian

This archetype guards the threshold of “Separation from the Ordinary World” on the hero’s quest to achieve his destiny. Threshold guardians spice up the story by providing obstacles the hero must overcome. Threshold guardians are usually not the main antagonist. In the Harry Potter series, this role is fulfilled by Malfoy, Snape or Filch, even. They help round-out the hero’s journey and develop his character arc. The threshold guardian can be a “friend” who doesn’t believe in the hero or her quest. Ultimately, this is the role of the threshold guardian: to test the hero’s resolve in her quest.

The Shape shifter

The shape shifter adds dramatic tension to the story and provides the hero with a puzzle to solve. They can seem one thing and in fact be another. They bring doubt and suspense to the story and test the hero’s abilities to discern her path. Yoda in Star Wars is a bit of a shape shifter, initially masking his ancient wisdom with a foolish childlike appearance when Luke first encounters him.

The Shadow

The monster under the bed, repressed feelings, deep trauma, a festering guilt: these all possess the dark energy of the shadow. This is the dark force of the unexpressed, unrealized, rejected, feared aspects of the hero and represented by the main antagonist or villain.

Voldermort in the Harry Potter series; Darth Vader in Star Wars. These are shadows and worthy opponents for the hero, bringing out the best in her and usually demanding the ultimate in self-sacrifice (the hero’s destiny).The shadow force, if internalized by the hero, may serve as a threshold guardian, to overcome; ultimately challenging the hero to overcome her greatest weakness and prevail.

The Trickster

Practically every Shakespearian play contains a jester or fool, who not only serves as comic relief but as commentator. This is because tricksters are usually witty and clever, even when ridiculous. The comedy of most successful comedians touches upon the pulse of a culture by offering commentary that is truism (often in the form of entertaining sarcasm).

Recommended Reading:

Cameron, Julia. 1992. The Artist’s Way: a Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Penguin Putnam. 222pp.
Campbell, Joseph. 1970. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. World Publishing Co. New York.
Henderson, Mary. 1997. Star Wars: The Magic of Myth. Bantam Spectra. New York. 214pp.
Vogler, Christopher. 1998. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 2nd Edition. Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, California. 326pp.