Viewpoint Character as Author

Should it be the author or the character who tells the story? How should that story-teller sound in print? The answers make a walloping difference.

7-30-09 Mt Bachelor and Museum 007


I’ve read conflicting views. Rarely is the subject discussed directly and insightfully.

That’s not going to happen here, either.

In The Hunger Games, there’s a convincing answer demonstrated by Suzanne Collins, the best-selling author…

Katniss says (as she writes to the reader), “I peel off my mother’s blue dress and take a hot shower. I’ve never had a shower before. It’s like being in a summer rain, only warmer.”

Collins’ “voice” isn’t getting in Katniss’ way. Collins isn’t trying to achieve a voice for the sake of literary self-aggrandizement.

In terms of voice, Collins and Katniss are identical. In Collins’ next novel series, expect to hear a different “writing voice,” one that matches a new viewpoint character perfectly. Expect comments from the critics to emphasize the change in Collins’ writing voice. They won’t like the change, that’s a given.

They’re paid to criticise, for the love of sanity! What planet?!

When Collins tells the reader that Katniss is taking off her dress, she uses the verbs, the vocabulary and the style that anyone would expect from Katniss, a girl who talks clearly and simply, never puts on airs, hunts dangerous game, and probably wouldn’t get comments from her District 12 English teacher saying, “clever twist of phrase,” or “wonderful use of simile, Katniss!”

But if a hack were trying to get an A on a story assignment in a creative writing class, do you think I’d write, “I peel off my mother’s blue dress…”?

No, laddie, I would not.

I’d be looking for something like, “I throw off my mother’s cyan plumage…”

Gag me with a blunt instrument!

And in writing this way I’d be making a horrible mistake that might draw a good grade: I would be telling the story myself rather than letting Katniss tell her own story.

I would be placing a barrier between Katniss and the reader, creating a translator:  A man in a suit standing in front of her, paper in hand, translating her gruff, honest, simple words and raw emotions into the “elevated” verbiage of literary sophistication.

OK, I’d be trying desperately and not succeeding, but still.

This would ruin the consistency of Katniss as a character and make her less real.

The reader, in the back of her mind, would be asking, “Who the devil is telling this story? Isn’t Katness a teenager in poverty? Where did she learn big words?”

The rawness, honesty and directness of Katness’ emotions, the thrilling feeling that “she’s talking right to me,” the respect we have for Katniss and others who don’t put on airs… all of this would be lost.

Why would an author want to lose all this gold?

Answer:  Because she hopes that some supercilious critic will say of her, “What a powerful and distinctive voice!”

This is toxic motivation that yields self-consciousness, collapsing the wave function of your magic spell as a writer.

When you write in first person it all becomes clear. But when you don’t, it’s murky and critics may not understand. Especially if you have multiple viewpoint characters.

I know from painful experience…

In earlier drafts of my story, I changed viewpoint (vp) characters from one chapter to the next. One vp was a doctor, another a genius (Johanna), another had autism, another was an evil person of high intelligence, utterly mad.

I dared to let each vp character “write” his or her own part of the story in third person. Johanna, my genius vp used bigger words and longer sentences. She carried the mood of a brilliant scientist. The doctor – a pathologist – when he was vp, used comparisons to gross things with technical words, and carried an angry mood of discontent. The autistic boy as vp wrote with small words in short, often incomplete sentences that didn’t make adult sense (cause and effect were backwards sometimes). He carried the mood of an innocent child who was hopeful and trusting but bewildered. The villain as vp, carried a dark, depressed, angry, remorseful mood, and used aggressive verbiage with a vocab that reflected her ancient roots and the influence of her first language, now extinct.

Trouble was, I emailed a small piece of the story to a well-read friend. The small piece had the young autistic boy as vp. My friend read the thing and thought I couldn’t write. He probably thought that I needed to learn basic sentence structure, the meaning of word economy (tight prose), and a few zillion vocabulary words.

Although he’d read ten times as much fiction as I had, he didn’t understand what I was doing. I tried to explain that I’d attempted to write in the style and voice of each viewpoint character whomever it might be in the current chapter. He said, “Boy, you’re really getting into this, aren’t you?”

Yes, I am. It’s the thing I would do with my life – if only I could. (Update: now I’m doing it. Wheee!)

The rules and expectations of readers change from decade to decade. “Gone With The Wind” was a page-turner that raised eyebrows in its day. It was so “evil” to the missionary parents of one lady I knew that they disowned her after she read it. Now it’s literature. Try to convince a teenager to read it. Heck, try to convince me to read it. A few pages in and I’m done. (I’m not a gifted reader.)

Writing fiction is infinitely more art than science, so the rules change on cultural whims. To fight this reality is to tilt at windmills.

So I’m going with Collins and Katniss on this one:

I’m letting the viewpoint character tell her own story. As her writer, I’ll step aside. (Update: her story is in progress and starts here.)

If eleven quadrillion people should suddenly read my story and agree that it’s not literature, I will have accomplished everything I set out to do… to write a meaningful page-turner that my grandkids will open and finish without a bribe.

If fifty years later my story has reached trillions more, including the alien species in formaldehyde at Norton Air Force Base, then perhaps the critics will decide that my story was literature all along. Whoo hoo! Look, Mom!

But their decision will mark the end of my story’s popularity, putting it out to pasture as required reading for literature classes and those really smart kids who are always their own generation’s gifted readers.

M. Talmage Moorehead

(not “Talmage Eastland” anymore)

By the way, “Talmage Eastland” was my pen name for awhile, or – since I’ve never had any fiction published, it was my “fake name.” I used it because bad credit card charges made me suspect identity theft. I wasn’t paranoid. It’s just that I didn’t want the CIA to come and steal the UFO’s from my basement again. (Just kidding. 😉 They never found them.)