Writing Excuses 9.3: Character Perception vs. Narrative Perception with Nancy Fulda

Nancy Fulda, who was a guest on the cast clear back in Season 2, joins us to talk about using the narrative to call out or offset character perceptions. Sometimes the POV character “knows” a thing which is not just incorrect, it is something the reader will recognize as incorrect, and if this isn’t written correctly the reader may get knocked out of the story by the concern that the author might have his or her information wrong.

For instance, one character might refer to a small-arm magazine as a “clip,” while other characters in the story, those more experienced with firearms, know that the word is “magazine.”

Mary talks about the historical fantasy novel she’s writing, set in Regency-era Antigua, and which steps squarely into issues of race. Nancy talks to us a bit about language drift, and about how our understanding about lots of things will change. Brandon then raises the question of using “author’s notes.”

Speaking Of Things The Characters Got Wrong: One of those episodes Nancy was in back in 2009? Yeah, we all got it wrong.



Take something that you believe to be false, and write a character with the opposite belief.

Movement, by Nancy Fulda, narrated by Marguerite Kenner

18 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.3: Character Perception vs. Narrative Perception with Nancy Fulda”

  1. I come from a fanfic writing background and in fanfiction it is quite okay to write author’s notes that detail or deal with character perceptions, or provide references to deal with this issue, at the beginning or end of the chapter. I have even seen them in the body of the text. Maybe that’s not a good idea. You can’t put them at the end of the story as an appendix because people can’t navigate to the end; the story isn’t finished yet.
    I agree that it can throw the reader out of the story and that is never a good thing. I do laugh when I see reviews that complain that Georgette Heyer’s characters are racist or Raymond Chandler’s are sexist or whatever. Looking at the past with modern eyes.

  2. If you have to explain something that you’re doing in your writing with an author’s note, you’re probably not doing it well enough.

    Often it is the little details in books that will throw a reader out of the story, for example, in Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies, his main characters end up sailing for a decent portion of the book. When they’re being taught about how to sail, they’re taught that starboard is the right side of the ship and larboard (not port) is the left side of the ship. If the main characters came up with this on their own, it would be annoying, but understandable because they don’t know any better. But the fact that they’re being taught this by an experience sailor made it stand out that much worse for me and it really clouded my opinion of the book as a whole.

    On a side note, Nancy’s story Movement was also featured on the EscapePod podcast, you can find it for free here: http://escapepod.org/2012/05/15/ep314-movement-hugo-repost/

  3. can I ask a question?
    I want to write the stories I have, but people keep telling me I suck (like, every time they read my stories). They keep telling me to take English classes, to read all the time, and write “WELL” as though that were some standard everyone but me understands.
    I like writing, but all of this nitpicking has killed my momentum and my desire to be an author. It just seems I’m too unskilled to do it and should wait until I’m “good” and rich so I can graduate college before I can write.
    I know you’re just going to say something like “don’t listen to them” or the nonsense of “believe in myself”, but that doesn’t help me. My problem isn’t listening to people trying to destroy me, but wanting writing to be fluid and portray the characters/stories/ and feelings that I want to project.

  4. @ Paul Winchel

    Practice, Practice and Practice.

    Read good books/stories that are similar to the stories you want to write. Go look up ‘show, don’t tell’ examples online (there are plenty and can help you realise when your telling a character is tired instead of showing it by actions.)

    Also realise that people aren’t ‘nitpicking’ your writing but giving you crictism so you should consider what people are saying.

    Also how often to you draft your work? Drafting is important part of writing (which I use to hate when I was a kid and teenager but trust me you need to do it!).

  5. @ Paul Winchel

    I can sympathize with your discouragement. This podcast kind of explains the problem that readers are all very different in what they want.

    I a remember having a conversation with a person about Brandon’s Mistborn series where the person just couldn’t get past that the magic system required ingesting metal. That just freaked out this person and caused her to be unable to read the books. They are great books in my opinion and I feel that this person’s dislike of the magic system was very nitpicky, but there is nothing that I can do about that.

    Part of writing for a market is understanding who your audience is and who is is not. The truth is that all readers wants a book that is custom tailored to everything we want to read. All readers are nitpicky, but we know we won’t get everything we want. It’s when we see too many little nitpicky things that we don’t like that we put down the book. That is different for all of us. For me, it takes a lot of grammar errors and misspellings before I will put down a book, but I know people who will put down a book after one error being found. I think those people are missing out, but they probably think I’m unrefined. I have a much lower tolerance for writing that is “showy” or “poetic” since I find that style of writing to distract from the story, but I know many would disagree with me on that.

    So when you hear people nitpicking, you have to weigh what that person is saying. Not all criticism has the same validity. If you think the criticism will help you create a story that you would enjoy more, then take that and use it. If the criticism would take the story away from what you would want to read and write, then you may want to think about what that reader is not getting in your story and if that is something you can help or not. What the reader is not getting may be something indirectly related to their criticism.

    And it could be that you need some time just to write stories for you and not worry about writing stories for other people. Writing for enjoyment for yourself needs to come before writing for publication. A lot of writers write stories with no intention of publishing them even after they have published in a paid market. Because writing for a publisher will never be as much fun as writing for yourself.

  6. @Paul?

    I was thinking about this. It seems to me that often we think the craft part of writing — words, grammar, point of view, all of those nitty-gritty details — should just sort of happen without us having to pay much attention to it or do much work or practice. After all, we’ve been reading and writing English for years!

    But stop and think about this. If I said I wanted to be a jazz pianist, what would you advise? Unfortunately, I suspect it would be hours of sitting, practicing scales, learning fingering, and all of that, before I get to the part where the craft “just happens” and I can really enjoy the art I wanted in the first place. Singing, painting, every creative field that I can think of and know about, you need to spend a lot of time getting the craft right first, so that it comes smoothly without a lot of attention. Then the art builds on that base.

    Similarly, writing has a whole set of craft basics that you need to nail down so well that you handle them without attention so that they don’t distract you or your readers. There are lots of ways to work on those basics. Reading, taking classes, practicing writing with mentors or critics, writing groups. Ray Bradbury talked about copying old masters, much the same way that artists start by copying masterworks.

    But the key to all of this is to buckle down and practice, practice, practice. Take the time to learn and reflect, listen to your mentors and critics and readers. Heck, you could join one of the fanfiction groups online and practice there. Or as Robert Heinlein suggested, write, finish, submit, and keep submitting. But don’t expect that there is some magic age, some secret initiation, a magic formula, or something else that will make writing come naturally and smoothly.

    Or better yet, consider that the secret is really simple. Practice and hard work. That’s what gives you the skills, the craft basics, so that you get “writing to be fluid and portray the characters/stories/ and feelings that I want to project.”

  7. I don’t know if you discussed this on a previous podcast, but I would like to know your take on beginnings that go on 60+ pages, assuming there are 250 words per page. I’ve written myself into uncertain territory, and I haven’t arrived to the first turning point yet, having established motive and character (without purple prose, adjectives, and exposition). Let’s assume the beginning is well-written and the dialogue is fun.

    I need some direction, here. If you haven’t done a podcast on this as of yet, that would be much appreciated.

  8. @Adam

    “Larboard” was once the term for the left side of a ship. Port replaced it, but (according to Wikipedia) it didn’t disappear entirely until the 1850s.

    That being said, if “larboard” threw you out of the story, then Lynch might have been better off using “port”. He’s writing a fictional world after all, he doesn’t need to hold to historical accuracy.

    I do find it worth noting that Lynch made several blatant departures from earthly sailing tradition (most notably that he made it bad luck to NOT have a woman on board), but the departures were blatant enough to clearly be authorial intent, not neglect, and therefore were much less of a problem.

  9. Katie:

    They haven’t done anything specifically on long introductions. A good author can make an introduction last a very long time without losing anyone. Fellowship of the Ring has 2 full chapters that are largely exposition prior to Frodo, Sam and Pippin leaving Bag End. (By the way, Frodo’s 50, and Pippin was helping Frodo move to Buckland; Merry, the ferrymaster, was supposed to meet the other 3 at the ferry.) Many of the Wheel of Time books have over 100 pages of Prologue (though admittedly, that’s brushing up on situations with pre-established characters).

    Also, keep in mind that a first draft can have some major issues in it. Stories are often _very_ broken in the first draft – major structural flaws, not trivial things like overly verbose introductions.

    You might find that some of the stuff you’re establishing in the introduction gets re-established in later scenes in a much more powerful and dynamic way. MacBeth already had the ambition to become king before the Weird Sisters told him their prophecy, but it has more impact to introduce that driving motive later on in that much more interesting scene.

    Once you’ve written your full draft and done the necessary corrections for the story structure (hammering out the plot holes, etc), listen to this episode of theirs on Line Editing: https://writingexcuses.com/2010/07/25/writing-excuses-4-29-line-editing/
    It covers the process of taking the book apart, line by line (well, paragraph by paragraph or sentence by sentence – individual lines are arbitrarily defined by the size of a piece of paper, thus not very conducive to editing well.) and refining things so they contain the same information in a more interesting and condensed form. (One example they touted in this is the book they plugged, in which they chopped every page of their draft down by about 50%)

    Good luck, and try not to worry too much about how long things are getting. Don’t turn your internal editor off all the way, lest you come up with an incomprehensible mess, but first drafts are supposed to be broken unless you’re _really_ good.

    You might be able to rein things in a bit using an outline, but if you have trouble making or sticking to an outline, you’re better off embracing the chaos and fixing it later. Writing has a lot more room for post-production fixes than movies do (and these days, movies have a _lot_ of options in post). Outlining is for people who don’t like big editing jobs; big editing jobs are for people who don’t like outlining.

  10. @Katie? I think it depends. During the first draft, you may very well be “writing yourself into” the characters, setting, and so forth. Later on, during revision, you may want to apply the notion of “In late, out early” so that you start as close to the action as possible or even in the middle of the action and then backfill where needed. You can always rearrange things later. You might want to look at some of the podcast sessions where Dan talks about writing himself in. They have on occasion mentioned the fairly common need to cut or rearrange beginnings during revision.

    Hum… Season One, Episode 4 was about beginnings.
    Season Two, Episode 15 is knowing when to begin.
    Season Four, Episode 27 Major Overhauls to Broken Stories
    Season Four, Episode 28 Brainstorming the End and Working Backwards
    Season Five, Episode 29 Rewriting
    Season Seven, Episode 37 Pantsing
    Season Seven, Episode 49 Beginnings Revisited

    Might help, too?

  11. Late, but @Paul

    I’ll give you the smack down version of it:
    Throughout this industry you will get a lot of no’s before you get a lot of yes’s. Probably this is a lot harsher than any other industry in that regard. Even in acting you are more likely to get a yes compared to the 50+ no’s in this industry. And even when you succeed, someone out there will still say that you weren’t good enough. (The critics)

    Currently if you fail to read instructions, and just submit, your rate of success to get an agent on average from Agent query is .001%. If you take in publishers, that’s not a very good success. Though personally, I think 80% of submissions are sent too soon or simply don’t follow directions. From there a lot of them simply do not fit the magazine in question.

    AND the pay is lousy too. (for the first few years).

    I think what gets you through all of the hard work and people constantly telling you no is that you love stories deeply. So it doesn’t matter how much they say you suck. You will prove them wrong some day. It doesn’t matter they say that you are writing the wrong genre, because it’s not something they would read. It doesn’t matter that you read something from a long time ago and you cringe. If you keep working at it, chipping away at it, your style, your voice and the things you really care about in stories will come to you.

    This industry is tough because it’s isolating a lot of the times, lonely and you sound like a man person, even to yourself. But without an internal voice and the gumption to be patient, keep working and see it through I don’t think success is going to come. The time you get to interact with people is usually the time they tell you that you are wrong in places (though they might say you did something well). And then at book signings (from Terry Brooks) even that is a lesson in humility.

    However, I will say that getting 50+ no’s for your stories and naysayers, makes you very, very glad when you go job hunting that there are none of the same restrictions when you are applying for jobs. (The whole waiting for the rejection.) I think being in writing makes you a whole lot stronger and much more patient since this industry is very, very slow. (Even a movie comes out faster.)

    Practice and consume stories will get you there. Deep passion will drive you forward.

    Practice, keep asking for opinions, develop a thick skin and keep on moving forward. ’cause ultimately, especially in this industry, only you can believe in you and your ability to reach the level you want. No amount of pep talks can give you that. And I do say this as a person that went through a ton of people saying I suck from the time I was little and I still worked hard and got published (with a story that got three yes’s and I had to reject 2! How is that for a twist of fate?)

  12. @Kate

    I think a long introduction is fine as long as there is action, character development and conflict in the beginning. The basic things before you switch. It’s what I like to call the bait and switch. You make sure there is a conflict going, and character development, but it’s to introduce the characters, their world, etc. Lord of the Rings started with smaller conflicts while it introduced the Shire. Then Gandalf came, which was a switch of conflict. And then the conflict switch again and then one more time before we got to Frodo. (Natural progression of switching) But all those little conflicts bought time to introduce the character and the main conflict. You’ll find this technique in other books with a long beginning too. There are other conflicts to solve, but they aren’t as huge as the main one later on.

    Also, have faith that editing can fix mistakes. But also recognize when you’ve reached a dead end and need to reread and back it up. (Which is craft and the fuzzy intuition, I know) Anyway, that’s the technique.

  13. Great podcast – this is some of the best discussion of craft on the web, so thank you Writing Excuses! I’ve noticed when books do great contrasts between the character and the narrative perspective, so I’m glad to have tips on how-to.

    @Paul: Neil Gaiman writes in the intro to Good Omens that he only had time to write 500 words of that book a day. You can do 500 words per day. You’ll never know if you’re going to be an author, but you can know every day that you’re a writer.

  14. Authors notes sound to me perfectly absurd. When you’re reading fiction, the reader should know that what happens in the following pages has NOTHING to do with our reality. So, why would the author want to take another page and remind the reader of that very point? Concur with Mary – unnecessary.

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