After 40 years as a writer, I have learned a new trick, thanks to the generosity of spirit of my writing friends. So, I am paying it forward and sharing this insight with others who want to improve their writing.
When I write fiction, I BECOME my character, and write as that person. This is approximately perfect in the first person. For example, please read this very short story, Jarro. All the text is Jarro speaking with you, or more exactly, me speaking with you while I am Jarro.
I have always treated third person writing in the same way. To my mind until now, every word was from within my character’s consciousness. The new trick is to realise, this ain’t so.
The problem was with a particular passage in the second volume of my Doom Healer series, in which I wrote from the point of view of a barely literate, drug-and-alcohol-using, wife-abusing Cincinnati resident who hates coloured people, Latinos, and everyone else he can.
My dear friend and writing mentor, Florence Weinberg, has done a beta read on the current version (approx. revision number 157 + or – 100) of the first two volumes of the series, and is now re-reading the third. To my delight, she has approved of all the content, except for this 3000 word chapter. My attempt at reproducing this man’s speech didn’t sound right to her.
So, I asked several American writer friends for advice, and am grateful for their response. The best of the wide-ranging though overlapping feedback is from that marvellous lady, Skye Taylor.
After many of our previous contacts, I was impressed enough with her to interview her on Bobbing Around, and you will still find our exchange to be interesting and even inspiring.
While others of my respondents gave excellent and helpful answers to the question I asked, Skye did a lot more: she also taught me a distinction between three components:
- Reporting on the internal events of the character like thoughts, memories, bodily sensations, perceptions, emotions. This includes that person’s observations of other people.
- Narrative, which is neither of these.
Even though, as I write, I AM the character, I need to distinguish my words from that of the person in the story. Skye illustrated this for me like this:
“I have one historical novel out with a man of Scottish birth, and I wanted to give him a hint of a Scottish accent or way of thinking, but was careful not to overdo it.
“There are plenty of books out there, some pretty popular, that write entire lines of dialog with a heavy Scots speech, but then it gets difficult for anyone who does not speak that way to read and sometimes even understand. So, I picked a few phrases that would be easily understood, or if not already known, easily inferred from the context where it was first used, as in Aye, or Nae, or dinna.
“But to write and entire line of dialog as ‘Dinna fash, lassie, I wilna skaieth ye’ is not helpful. Just ‘Dinna fash, lassie, I wilna hurt ye,’ or even ‘Dinna fear, I wilna hurt ye’ gets the point across without leaving the reader struggling to translate. And if I’m describing that Scot’s actions, I would say, ‘He did not hit her as she cringed, but lowered his hand to his side’ — All with no accent at all, because even though it’s in his POV, it’s narrative describing action.”
My character swears, and uses derogatory terms for people different from himself. So, my lesson is, I should use his terms when reporting his words or thoughts, but avoid them otherwise, when I am narrating the situation.
Several other writing friends implicitly made the same point by complaining about the n word, and too much swearing. They are right — and thanks to Skye, I now know why, and what to do about it.