Monday, May 5, 2008
Style and narrator disconnects
I’ve made this mistake in my own work, and I saw it again in a story I was critiquing. It’s not a difficult mistake to make, either.
Let’s say you have a simple, down-to-earth character. She’s not stupid, but she’s not very educated either. Her name is Jane and she’s looking for a local dignitary who’s gone missing.
“The Mayor stayed here? In such a place? I don’t believe it.”
Taking a pace back, Jane glanced up and let her gaze measure the crumbling façade of the inn. The image of Mayor Cariswell--foppish at the best of times--taking up residence in such a flophouse was incongruous. Yet the trail led there, and logic dictated that if he had indeed sojourned in the inn, it was for the purpose of avoiding anyone even near his own station in life. Ironic that she had tracked him down regardless.
Nothing about the excerpt jumps out as being technically wrong, and yet it doesn’t ring true to me either. If Jane is a plain-spoken, unpretentious character, she may well think logically, but her internal monologue shouldn’t resemble something written for Mr Spock. The sentence structure here is complex, with the polysyllabic words and comments on logic and irony, and that has two effects. First, it gives the narrative a cool, scholarly tone, and second, it prevents the reader from being completely immersed in Jane’s mind. Readers expect a viewpoint character who is a professor of philosophy to express herself in a different way from a viewpoint character who is a member of the Crips. And that goes for the narrative as well.
It’s a difficult habit to break, for me. I tend to be wary of absolutes and dogmatic statements, so my characters will think, There’s probably a hundred bandits in the hills, instead of thinking, There's likely a hundred bandits in the hills or even just, There’s a hundred bandits in the hills. I have to consider this when I edit, and decide whether the characters would qualify their statements – or whether they use the word “probably” as often as I do. Better that I wonder about this than the reader do the same, and detach from my story because of it.