Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Filtering Characters

I see a lot of aspiring writers asking how they 'show' what their characters are thinking and feeling. Well, I refuse to indulge the 'show, don't tell' discussions that always come up in such discussions, as it's all a crock of shit, and instead will point out there are more important things to consider.

So, I'll put my [lack of] money where my mouth is, and divulge some of the other, more important things you should be considering.

First, if you're writing a character-based story, you'll probably want a limited and close perspective. I know, opinions vary and there are plenty of counter-examples, but if you can learn to write in an unrelenting close and limited pov, then you'll have that end of the spectrum to gauge when you want to widen your focus, as that will basically be maximum zoom. And what a close, limited focus does is cut away the extra filtering of character thoughts and feelings through a narrator (or worse, those writers who think they're important enough to make a 'stylistic' cameo in all their stories). You'll present the character's experiences directly to the reader, not just refer to them, which will create more empathy. This is generally a good thing.

The easiest example to demonstrate filtering a character's experiences is with basic sensory details, where we can often see the following style:

He saw the light skitter across the lake.


The light skittered across the lake.

The difference is in the first one, we're basically being informed of the thing the character is seeing, and it's an additional step removed (or filtered) from the second example, which presents the image directly.

The second example is 'closer' and generally builds more empathy, as we become the character. What the character sees, we see. Where as the first example we're still us, the reader, and a writer is informing us of what the character sees, which isn't as strong an experience from an empathetic point of view.

If you're writing in a limited, close perspective you can get away with presenting the world directly as the character would experience it. You'd never say to yourself 'I see a light.' It simply exists, is seen, processed, and registered. So, in fiction, just presenting the image directly is closer to the reality of how people see and experience images.

One notable exception for the sake of reality-to-fiction translations, is in prose when something is experienced that is abnormal. In such cases, it's often as or even more effective to note the exception simply with a 'could' which brings some focus on the rare and unusual ability to sense what is being sensed, as it's not necessarily a given that anyone else is even experiencing it. For example:

He could see a purple unicorn floating over the congregation.

See, purple unicorns aren't [usually] part of a church service, or what most people see, so depicting the 'reality' of the moment works by bringing additional attention to the fact the character can even see the darn thing.

But, other than those sorts of situations, if you're depicting a character in a limited, close sort of perspective, you wouldn't write

He felt the goose pimples rising on his arms

and instead they would simply occur, as if experienced, and be written as

The goose pimples rose on his arms.

You have to establish this sort of pov/perspective and style, and maintain it throughout, and control it, or it can get sloppy and confusing. But if you're working it well, you as the writer can then simply present the sound or image directly and not filter it through a writer or external narrator pointing out sounds are heard and images are seen (no sheep).

This also applies to direct thoughts. Doing this removes the sometimes cumbersome 'he thought' attributions that remind of it's a story, not really happening, and good fiction isn't read, it simply happens.

So we're all clear, I'll just demonstrate different levels of filtering.

You can have a thought cited directly:

What in the world is that, he thought.

or you have a thought reported:

He wondered what in the world that was.

or just give the thought directly in the prose, without attribution or reporting by the narrator or writer:

What in the world was that?

Instead of focusing on terms and mantras like 'show, don't tell' or 'free, indirect discourse, which is what the last is called, despite it appearing to me to be direct discourse, but I'm sure somebody more academic-er can explainate it, as I don't care. What I care about is the results and affect employing different styles and techniques can have.

For examples, if we put it all together, we have two different styles and methods of presenting essentially the same sentences and experiences:

He saw the light skitter across the lake. He felt goose pimples rising on his arms. What in the world is that, he thought.

and, assuming we're in a limited, close pov/perspective, so will understand these things are all in relation to only this character and what he's experiencing:

The light skittered across the lake. Goose pimples rose on his arms. What in the world was that?

Because we're firmly planted in the characters pov, we know that question is coming from the character, not the writer. And because that style of writing brings us closer and more empathetically into the character's experiences, we become the character and thus the thought [has a chance if the prose is executed well] of becoming our thought.

The result is generally more powerful and makes for better fiction. It's how, at times, good fiction can actually become so vivid an experience as to not just become information in your brain-box, but an experience you recall through memory, as if it actually happened. And remember, it did happen, because good fiction isn't read, it simply happens.

I do want to mention that there's no 'right' way to write, of course, as it all depend what you want to do. Sometimes this style, where the narrator completely disappears, may not be your best choice. For some readers, markets, audiences, subjects, whatever, you may not want to employ a close, limited pov in this manner. When 'bad' experiences feel too real about things a reader doesn't want to feel, they may be inclined to stop reading. Read as: in commercial fiction a writer may employ a distance of some kind, as then the material is faster and easier to consume and the reader doesn't get bogged down by 'feeling' the story, and instead keeps turning pages and just enjoying the plot line and being informed of the character's experiences, not themselves experiencing them, which I admit can at times be tiring and consuming as a reader.

It's a decision you have to make as a writer, though. You can't just write and hope to get lucky. I personally WANT my readers to feel and experience my stories, especially the tough subjects or moments they may want to pull back from. That's when I work extra hard to keep them focused, to force the reader to see things they may not want to see. In my opinion, this is how insights are born (and I write to incite!). I personally take it as a compliment if my fiction becomes too real and the reader has a hard time with it. You know, life sometimes gets too real, too, and maybe through fiction we can gain insights that allow us to not just look away when it matters most.

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