Writing Excuses 9.3: Character Perception vs. Narrative Perception with Nancy Fulda
Key points: Characters and the narrative do not always agree. For example, historical characters may have biases that modern readers and narrators disagree with. Be careful about sliding into didactic storytelling. One approach is to make sure the story is not about the bias. Sometimes it’s just that characters have pieces of information that are wrong. You can use this to indicate what the characters don’t know, but often you need to hang a flag on this. Author’s notes, footnotes, and afterwords do not mean you don’t need to be careful in the writing. Listen to feedback.
[Mary] Season Nine, Episode Three.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, character perception versus narrative perception.
[Howard] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Mary] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And the part of Dan will be played by this amazing chocolate bar…
[Brandon] Maybe not.
[Howard] Could we use… Oh, no, don’t use the glass of water, either. Mary’s purse! I haven’t eaten Mary’s purse.
[Brandon] The part of Dan will be played by Mary’s purse. All right. We have Nancy Fulda joining us once again on the podcast. For the first time with me.
[Brandon] Both of us in the same room, conclusively proving we are not the same person.
[Nancy] I get questions about that all the time.
[Mary] I was… Yeah, I get that with Patrick Rothfuss.
[Brandon] You gotta work on the beard a little more.
[Brandon] Character perception versus narrative perception. This is how to write in such a way that if your characters are biased or have poor information, you can indicate in the narrative that the narrative itself doesn’t share the same bias. This is a hard one to circumlocute a bit, because what we’re trying to get at is often times you’ll be writing and your characters will be horribly racist. Can you write a story where the narrative is not horribly racist but the characters are? Is this even a mire you want to stick your toes into or not? Mary, you suggested this one. Let’s talk it over a bit.
[Mary] Right. One of the reasons that I’ve been very conscious of this is that the book I’m working on right now, Of Noble Family, is set in 1818 in the West Indies on a slave plantation in Antigua. So I have characters…
[Brandon] You’re just a glutton for punishment.
[Mary] I am just… It’s like whew. So the trick is that what will happen for… What I have to keep in mind is that I am writing for a modern audience. So I have to be aware of all of the modern tropes. I have to be aware of modern perceptions, I have to be aware of the history that has happened between then and now. And be aware that my readers are reading the book through that lens. But my characters have not experienced that. So in order to have characters that are true to the time, what I have to do is balance what I’m doing with their perceptions, with what the narrative structure of the book is doing. So… It is a very tricky line to walk, but one of the reasons that it’s… That I think it’s important and one of the reasons that I like writing historical fiction is because of that tension between the two. That it allows you to comment on things on the past, and it allows your modern reader to draw the parallels themselves, and then apply those parallels to modern situations that are analogous, without saying, “I have an agenda.” But the sit…
[Brandon] Right. I think that’s going to be just as hard, though.
[Mary] Yeah. It is not…
[Brandon] Avoiding the editorializing as a writer, to say, “This is really bad. Hey, everybody, we’re going to show you just this…” Well, you do want to depict it as not a good thing, because it wasn’t, but at the same time, the whole narrative slant becomes a story about showing how terrible this is. You get into that sort of didactic storytelling which most of us on the podcast, we’ve talked about, it’s not the type of storytelling we like to do. Some people do, and it’s fine. It’s great. I’ve read great stories. I mean, A Christmas Carol is this type of story. It’s a wonderful story. But it’s not what I’m looking to do in my fiction.
[Mary] Right. And so… One of the approaches that I take with it is that I have the story be not about that thing. So this novel, although it’s dealing with a lot of race issues, it is not about race. That gives me actually more narrative freedom because if I have… For instance, I have a moment where one of the characters of color is angry and is clearly suppressing it. Anyone who’s reading it, I’m relying on the fact that I have modern readers who will know exactly why this character is angry. My narrative line is Jane had no idea why she was angry. Couldn’t imagine.
[Brandon] Right. That’s daring, actually, in a way. I mean, it’s daring in that it’s requiring a lot from your readers. What you’re doing here… The reason that I said, “Wow, you’re a glutton for punishment,” is that it is so much work. To get a historical period accurate, and all the eyes are going to be on you. All the eyes…
[Brandon] Are going to read this and be like, “Oh. How is she handling this?” Which is actually really awesome, that you’re doing this. But this is a much more difficult thing than… Simply doing a historical novel is hard on its own because you have to get everything right and everyone’s going to be watching you. Adding in this element is going to bring… Make the scrutiny… The tines on that comb are going to be far more fine…
[Mary] Oh, absolutely. It’s something that I think… That I think it’s important for a reader to be thinking about, to remember that your book is being read in the contemporary and that you can’t say, “Oh, well, you know, history,” and get away with it. But it’s true regardless of what the narrative difference is. For instance, in Nancy’s… Nancy has a story that we’re going to be talking about a little bit later where there is a difference between the character’s science awareness…
[Brandon] Right. And contemporary science [writing?]
[Mary] Yeah. Anything that you have like that, anything where your character has a piece of information that is wrong…
[Brandon] Right. Oh, I’ve run into this in very simple ways. For instance, I’ve had characters who are not gun nuts refer to pieces of guns in the way that the common parlance refers to them. I just get these emails of…
[Howard] You said clip, didn’t you?
[Brandon] “That’s not a clip, that’s a magazine.” I’m like, “I know that’s a magazine, but they don’t.”
[Brandon] And I didn’t know it until people like you became my friends and explained the difference to me. And I had quote unquote loving friends who lovingly…
[Brandon] [garbled – gun nuts are always nice?] Explained you can use words like this to indicate that they don’t know.
[Mary] But sometimes you have to hang a flag on this.
[Brandon] When do you do that and when don’t you? Have you ever done this, Howard?
[Howard] Oh, yeah. It’s… All the time. All the time. I’m using some good 20th-century military doctrine type stuff. Then I’m also assuming that a whole bunch of military thought has changed around the shifting technology. So I will use words in ways that wouldn’t be appropriate. People said, “That’s not a tank. What you’re calling a tank is not a tank.” You’re right. What I’m calling a tank flies around a lot like a spaceship. But it’s really, really heavily armored, and language has shifted, and they just call it a tank. Oh, and I’ve drawn it so that it is enough reminiscent of a tank that… Because I didn’t want to call everything a fighter or a whatever. I’ve… Yeah, it happens. It happens all the time. It happens all the time.
[Nancy] This is really demonstrative of what language does, too. In speculative fiction, where we’re working with the entire spectrum of time and culture and all of the imaginary worlds that we can come up with, I think to a certain extent, the speculative fiction readers… At least I did as a reader when I was a teenager, I wanted to see the shift of language. One of my favorite books ever was The Ballad of Beta-2 by Delany. Where you have basically a novella that is an entire study of the shifts that language happens… The shifts in language that happen as a society is traveling to the stars. For me, that was one of the major draws of science fiction. So I think exactly the sort of knowledge of shifts… Making these jumps that the reader can follow is part of the appeal for a large number of readers.
[Brandon] Awesome. Let’s stop for our book of the week. Which is actually going to be one of your stories.
[Brandon] Tell us about Movement.
[Nancy] Movement is a story about a girl with a futuristic disease which is similar to… A disease is the wrong word. A futuristic condition which is similar to autism in some ways, which is then in the story presented analogously. She, in the process of coming to awareness of her own desires, of her own needs in this situation. It’s of course partially autobiographical because my son was being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder at the time. It’s one of the only two stories that I’ve ever cried while I was writing. Something in it worked really well. It was nominated for the Nebula and the Hugo a couple of years ago.
[Mary] It’s a wonderful story.
[Nancy] Yeah. It’s really worth reading. It speaks much better for itself that I speak for it. [Garbled]
[Howard] It’s not just worth reading. It’s worth having someone read it to you. Fair listener, if you had out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse… You’ve heard this spiel before… You can start a 30-day free trial membership and use your credit to grab Movement for free. But Movement… For crying out loud, it’s like two dollars right now.
[Brandon] On Audible.
[Howard] Yeah, it’s a short story on Audible. So if you’ve never listened to an audiobook before, if this is not a thing you’ve done before, I can’t think of a better place to start than with Nancy Fulda’s Movement. Who’s the narrator? Did we look at that?
[Nancy] Marguerite Kenner.
[Brandon] Yeah, and you can just buy it for two bucks.
[Nancy] And she does a beautiful job.
[Howard] Buy it for two bucks. No commitments.
[Brandon] You don’t have to join Audible. You can just try it out, spend a couple bucks, and have it read to you.
[Mary] It’s only 25 minutes long. So dive in.
[Brandon] All right. So in this book, we were talking beforehand about the character perception on glass. Did you like intentionally… You said include bad information because the character didn’t know or…
[Nancy] Well, it’s complicated because… We were talking before the podcast that the latest state-of-the-art scientific understanding of the nature of glass has actually changed in the past year since the story was written. What happened was that the character, as a part of the expansion of the story, she fixates on an analogy between glass and herself, that the idea… She concentrates on the idea of glass as an amorphous solid, as something that appears rigid but is actually able to move and bend inside. It was a perfect analogy. I fell in love with the analogy, just like I fell in love with Hannah. I knew in the instant that I wrote that into the text, I was going to run into major problems. Because of course, there’s two camps of public perception on glass. Or there were at the time. Right? You have one camp that talks about glass in old windows, it’s thicker at the bottom than at the top, which is clear evidence that over about 100 years, glass will slowly deform and flow and change shape. Then you have the actual scientific data on that information, which is no, those old windows really do have thicker glass at the bottom than at the top, but that’s an artifact of the manufacturing process 100 years ago. They put the thicker end at the bottom always because it sealed better against the rain when the rain ran down the window. So I had this situation where I knew readers were going to belong to one of two… Of the other camps depending on their experiences and their community that they had been speaking with. I did not know how to reconcile this analogy in a way that both sets of readers would be able to accept it and not stumble over the technical details according to their perceptions. Yeah. So I… You can listen to the story and find out how I handled that. But…
[Brandon] So what would your impression be, podcasters, about author’s notes? Because I’ve seen them occasionally in situations like this, where the author starts with a note saying something along the lines of “These people are not… Excuse me… Are not modern people. They don’t think like modern people. You will experience scenes of horrible depravity” or whatever. Or even just minor racial bias. They give this note at the front to say, “By the way, I’m not like this.”
[Mary] You know, I don’t actually think that that fixes the narrative problem.
[Brandon] Kind of cheating a little bit, huh?
[Mary] Yeah. Like I do put historical afterwords in the back of my books that talk about this is what was really going on in history. And sometimes with for additional reading. But that does not absolve me of any of…
[Brandon] Of having to do this well in the text [garbled. Because that’s your… You need to show?]
[Howard] I will cheat with footnotes. The… I love the boiled frog metaphor. Okay? The fact of the matter is, if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, the frog is probably just going to die immediately. If you slowly heat up a pot of water under the frog, it’s going to get a little too hot and the frog is going to jump out. So the metaphor works exactly wrong. In fact, it’s been tested and shown to work exactly wrong. Yet the boiled frog metaphor is so useful. So using it, I would footnote it and make fun of the fact that it’s exactly… It works exactly contrary to how the characters are imagining it.
[Brandon] I was going to guess that you would say, “They’re actually referring to frogs from this planet…”
[Brandon] “Which actually do get boiled as part of their life cycle.”
[Howard] That would work. That would work as well. But if I’m going to footnote something, I never footnote it in Howard’s voice as the author, I footnote it in the narrator’s voice who is going to say something additionally entertaining that educates you.
[Mary] So it’s still part of your narrative structure.
[Howard] Right. But it doesn’t break the flow of the story in the way that inserting a paragraph in which another character comes in and says, “You know, the frog thing doesn’t actually work like that.” “Yes. Yes. But the metaphor is perfect. Shut up. I’ve got a metaphor for you, too.”
[Mary] That’s a different joke.
[Brandon] This is something as a writer you will run into, listeners. You ought to decide on your own methods of dealing with this. I actually ran into it in my very early books I was writing, I… You’ll run into this idea of, “Oh, wait. This isn’t what public perception is going to be. How do I get it across?” It becomes one of these skills where in the narrative you’re able to hang these lanterns without the lanterns being glaring to indicate, “Yes, I know. Yes, I know.” But it is important to hang those lanterns. Because if you don’t, what’s going to happen is it’s going to distract the reader. Once a little thing starts distracting a reader, a lot of readers will fixate on that thing. It will s… It will grow into this big thing. Then you’ll read these reviews online where the readers like made a really deal of this thing, which is a very natural phenomenon. It happens in my writing groups all the time. Where something is not addressed long enough, it grows, it becomes this…
[Howard] Oh, yeah. If something knocks you out of the story, then even if it was a little thing, the story is now broken for you, because you started reading the rest of the story sitting outside of it.
[Mary] Yeah. I have someone who stopped reading Without a Summer because my character’s perception at the beginning of the book was unaware of the prejudice against the Irish. She thought that was the narrator’s perception. Even though the entire book was about… A lot of it hinges on the prejudice against the Irish. So she stopped reading it because I didn’t hang my lantern flags early enough.
[Brandon] Right. You can’t fix these all.
[Mary] No, you can’t.
[Brandon] But it is your job as a writer to try and fix them. Nancy. You were going to…
[Nancy] Yeah. This is where it becomes really important to listen to critique feedback, even from the critiquers who clearly totally misunderstood what the story was about. I’ve seen it lots. It happens to me all the time. A reader, like a very early reader, will comment on something. I’m like, “Well, they just misunderstood that. I’ve actually got the detail right. It’s okay.” I always think, “Okay, I can just let it be.” Then I’ll get my second round of feedback and nope, there’s two or three other people who got stuck on the same point. Then I’m like, “Okay, I think I need to explain this.” I think it’s a very common tendency when we know we have it right, when we know we’ve got the details right, to say, “Okay, I don’t need to listen to that feedback.” In fact, the opposite is true.
[Mary] Yeah. When I’m talking about providing context, because a lot of this is making the decision about when to provide the exposition context. A lot of times you know that that expo… It’s like if you would just wait three pages, I’m explaining this. A lot of times when you get that kind of reaction, you’re like, “Okay. This is not a place where I’m trying to build suspense.” The fact that they’re asking this question now means that I need to make sure that they don’t ask that question, so I need to put that exposition in front of the question point.
[Brandon] Exactly. We are out of time. This is a very useful podcast. But I’m going to require… Howard! You’re grimacing. Give us a writing prompt.
[Howard] Okay. Take something that you believe to be false. That you completely understand to be false. Write a character who has the absolute opposite belief. Do it in such a way that you take actual umbrage at the idiocy of your character. Now find ways to hang flags on that so that you’re not mad at yourself as an author.
[Brandon] All right.
[Nancy] Also, make it so that at the end of the book, you almost understand why your character believes that.
[Howard] So Nancy wants you to actually write a whole book with this prompt. It’s on. She has thrown it down.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.