Sunday, December 28, 2008

"They're staying away in crowds." Sam Goldwyn

zeitgeist--literally spirit of the time, a physical, emotional, and historical sense of a time and place; a personality ironed on to the t-shirt of setting. A writer's job--among others--is to convey through dramatization the feel of a particular place at a particular time, among a particular group of people. Characters, whether directly or not, reflect the zeitgeist of their setting, whether at a family reunion, a school reunion, an application for a job, or the angst of delivering parents to a senior living facility. Some zeitgeists are gay, ebullient, filled with optimism; others reflect uncertainty or a the-sky-is-falling terror of things unseen and the uncertainty of the future. Every story has a zeitgeist, but it does not have to be expressed directly, rather being allowed to refract through the behavior of the characters. Hint: at some point during the construction of a story, pinpoint the spirit of the time in which the story was set, then use that awareness as a pole star to guide the spoken and unspoken behavior of major characters.

third person narration--a story told from the point of view of a character rendered variously by the character's name and the pronoun he or the pronoun she. "Mary wanted for today what she'd come to want every day--a day without stress." "Jack Jones waited patiently for the sun to sink below the horizon before making up his mind. He knew his history of daytime decisions had been remarkably poor." Third person point of view shares popularity with the first person or I-centered narration, its choice being idiosyncratic, often reflecting the writer's unthinking preference. One of the technical problems associated with third person narration is the need for the narrator to be on stage in every scene in order to lend plausibility to the sense of awareness or knowledge being filtered through that character. There are quick fixes for this problem; the character overhears other individuals talking about an incident that occurred off stage, or the character discovers a letter, journal entry, blog post, or newspaper article discussing the off-stage material.

As in all narration modes except the authorial intervention approach, the material being ingested and commented upon must appear to come from the character, reflecting the character's experiences, prejudices, social standing, self-image, and agenda. The narrative will also reflect the observing character's vocabulary and any relevant mental or physical deviations from the norm.

A splendid example of numerous third person narratives being linked in one tale is Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone. One example demonstrating the amusing consequences that may ensue when third person narration appears to have lost control is found in Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Script Writer. David Lodge's estimable Deaf Sentences reflects the difficulties of a protagonist who is suffering among other things the increasing loss of his hearing.

Arguments critical and academic abound about which point of view "seems" of "feels" the most intimate; the goal of any point of view is to cause the reader to forget the presence of the author and invest in the realness of the character.

unreliable narrator--a story-freighting character whose dramatic account seems at first reasonable, interesting, even fair-minded, only to slowly emerge as biased, flawed, possibly to the point of nursing a grudge or hidden agenda. The main questions for the reader are: Whom do we trust? and Why? The main questions for the writer are: What purpose does the unreliability serve? Can and should the narrator's unreliability be extended over a greater arc before the reader "gets" the concept? Has the author gone too far? In the final analysis, is any narrator completely reliable?

The danger with any too-unreliable narrator rests with the reader's sense of belief. While not strictly speaking a narrator, the characters of Dogberry in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, and Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan's The Rivals were used to create the comic effect of what a character said being blunders that produced contrary or absurd meanings. Archie Bunker often shot himself in the metaphoric foot, comically undermining his bigotry with a malapropism, In a less comedic sense, an unreliable narrator may not reflect malice so much as pragmatism in the event of Becky Sharp in Thackeray's Vanity Fair. The unreliable narrator may be revealed at length as the antagonist, to be rooted against in growing fear that the antagonist will best the goals of the protagonist.

In real life and fiction, readers and audiences will, through their choices of relative reliability in narrators, reveal facets of their own personality and belief system. Spot quiz. Rank the following news commentators in terms of reliability: Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Anderson Cooper, Tom Brokaw, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Michelle Malkin. On the other hand, when we hear the likes of Yogi Berra say, "It's not the heat, it's the humility," our next best hope is that he goes on to say something else.


Matt said...

Shelly: do you take requests (re: subject matter)? I ask because I'd be curious to read your meditations on characters who come across more as "cyphers" than as real, fleshy (indeterminate) people. There's an argument both for and against, but I thought I'd ask in case you had a blog post at-the-ready on the subject.

Matt said...

Thanks Shelly. As always, there is much to chew upon in your insights (like beef jerky, only better for me).