Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Distancing Characters in Fiction Writing

Though you ordinarily want reader intimacy, sometimes it's best to keep the reader at arm's length — either from the story or from a character (even perhaps the protagonist) or both.

For example, especially in the opening of a novel, you don't want to the reader to feel accosted by something off-putting that is too close for comfort. He hasn't been hooked yet and may put the book down. So, if the story is grim or gruesome (especially in the beginning) or rattles the reader's cage, some authors distance it from the reader with a subtle reminder that it's fiction. Other writers, like Steven King, never pull back, except in the opening. For example, in the opening of Carrie, he pulls back by relating the rain of stones on Carrie's mother's house in the form of hard fact, but in a distancing way, as newspaper articles about the event.

Writers often do this when a story brings reader into a confrontation with the pure will to evil. The story needn't be too unreal: it may just as well be too real. For example, the story might turn the reader's world upside down by showing how evil pulls an image-switch with goodness. The reader can perplex on you and refuse to suspend disbelief, because what he's reading is a little too true and unsettling.

If a character is chillingly evil, the author might refer to him in impersonal and distancing terms instead of by character name or through a pronoun.

Distance is also good for a deliberately unrealistic, bigger-than-life character you simply don't want to diminish, like Sherlock Holmes. Or say he's an assassin — not the type of person you'd call by his first name.

Conventional wisdom says the reader feels closer to your lead character if you call him by his first name. You keep the reader at arm's length from a male character when you call him by his surname. But, be wary of trying to distance a woman or child by using their surname. Writers almost always get on a first-name basis with women and children (which is patronizing). So, referring to a woman or child by surname is so unusual that it overdoes the distancing, alienating the reader from a child or female character.

Multiviewpoint novels often call the protagonist by his first name and all other characters by their last names, even in scenes where they are the viewpoint character. This first-name label then becomes a literary "white hat" to designate the good guy.

The more you use any name, the more you distance that character. So, using pronouns as often as possible creates intimacy. In dialog use direct quotes and just enough s/he saids to avoid confusion about who's talking.

Using a subordinate character as a narrator — an Ishmael or a Watson — is a distancing device. Using a frame is another distancing device.

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