Introducing First-Person Narrators

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I gave the first chapter of Featherfolk Draft II to one of my writing groups. The general consensus was that I didn’t introduce my main character very well. One of my groupmates was not even certain of the character’s gender.

I realized this is something I have long struggled with. How do I elegantly introduce facts about a first-person narrator?

There are plenty of (to my mind) inelegant ways, such as providing a convenient mirror within the first few pages for her to glance into, or otherwise having her dwell on her appearance at length for no apparent reason.

I did some research on how other authors introduce the gender of their first-person narrators. This involved pulling down twenty-odd books written in the first person from my shelves and reading until the author stated positively the character’s gender.

Sometimes this happened on the first page, or within the first paragraph. Often, it took a few pages. Always, it was within the first chapter.

And actually, it was fun to think about how and if the stories would have changed with a main character of the opposite gender.

I found six tactics that authors used to identify the character’s gender.

  • The main character told the reader his or her gender-specific first name.
  • The character identified himself/herself with a group of men/boys/sons or women/girls/daughters.
  • Another character spoke the main character’s gender-specific first name.
  • Another character spoke about the main character, using a gender-specific pronoun.
  • The main character described his or her clothing. (This only works if the character is part of a culture familiar to the readers.)
  • One author included a prologue in third person that described the main character.

As far as physical descriptions of main characters, some of the authors didn’t bother in the first chapter. A few gave full descriptions (one included exact height and weight). The most non-intrusive method I noted was comparisons to other characters’ appearances or to a desired norm, and these tid-bits of description came naturally in the flow of the story.

So, since my main character does not have a name that is clearly feminine, nor is she part of a familiar culture with western dress, I will try having her identify herself as one of the girls in her village.

And as she and everyone that she knows has black hair, brown eyes, and brown skin, I will have to find more subtle differences between characters to help bring out these facts.

Although, I really don’t care if my readers ever know that she has brown eyes. It doesn’t matter one bit.

Happy Yarning!

Book Report: Inheritance by Christopher Paolini

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First, a caveat: you may have guessed from previous posts mentioning Inheritance that epic fantasy isn’t my thing. My preferred method of escape is what I term “fluffy fantasy.” This tends to be middle-grade, shorter, more episodic books (as opposed to lengthy, involved books aimed at adults and sometimes teens, with plot points carrying over long distances between books in the series.)

However, I’m glad I finished out the series. Paolini has always been a hero to me, because I’ve had authorly aspirations since I was ten, and he provided hope that kids can get published.

What I liked about Inheritance:

This was a fitting epic finish to an epic series. Paolini didn’t balk at dealing with all the ramifications of a continent-wide, multi-racial conflict. He depicted the effects of a drawn-out campaign in detail and allowed painful things to happen to his main characters.

As always, Paolini is a good descriptive writer. The settings were well-fleshed out with sensory details. In addition, the dialogue felt natural, with each character using his or her own distinctive voice. I especially enjoyed the camaraderie and banter between Eragon and Saphira. The bond between them felt strong and real.

Inheritance satisfied many of my expectations as to how the series would end, and surprised me a few times as well.

What I disliked about Inheritance:

I felt that the narrative should have begun later, leaving out one or two of the battles that make up the first half. The second half had much more character development intermingled with the battles, and the characters are what I cared about.

(Pet peeve alert) I counted no less than four times Paolini had a character come up with a Crazy Plan That Just Might Work and explain it to other characters without letting the reader know what the plan was. I got tired of sitting there while characters said, “There’s no way that’ll work!” or, “You’re nuts, but I’ll stand by you,” without even knowing what they were discussing.

<SPOILER>While the climax was fitting and the denouement tied up numerous loose ends quite nicely, I felt the very ending was a cop-out. I really didn’t buy that there was nowhere on the whole continent he could raise the dragons. What does he think he’s going to find across the sea? More people who won’t want dragons in their backyard, that’s what.</SPOILER>

I recommend this series for teens and lovers of epic fantasy. Those who fall under both categories will love it.

P.S. Anyone else catch Paolini’s allusions to Princess Bride and Doctor Who? They totally threw me out of the story, but they were entertaining. (pg. 665, 814)

Happy Yarning!

How Much Worldbuilding is Too Much Worldbuilding?

Can you build your fictional world too much? Not really, no.

The more you know about the culture, customs, geography, dialects, religion, mythology, technology, creatures, magic, and what-have-you of your world, the more you’ll be able to make that world three dimensional for your readers.

You can think of your world in three “dimensions”: Geography, Culture, and Conflict. Pretty much any facet of your world can be stuck under one of those.

Here’s a lovely graphic:

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It’s important to develop in all three of these dimensions as you build your world. Also, the dimensions need to be balanced. Drawing a really neat map isn’t much good if it makes no sense in the context of the culture you built; coming up with a language for your main character’s society doesn’t help much if it’s incongruous with conflicts and changes in the society’s history.

Consider how the three dimensions affect each other. For example:

  • How do waterways affect your main character’s society? (Geography -> Culture)
  • How do barrier-type landforms, resource-rich regions, or climate affect current and past conflicts? (Geography -> Conflict)
  • How do religious or cultural differences between groups affect borders? (Culture -> Geography)
  • Do different versions of history create conflict between groups? (Culture -> Conflict)
  • What battle-scars or ruins have been left on the face of your land? (Conflict -> Geography)
  • What group does your main character’s society ridicule or fear because of past interactions? (Conflict -> Culture)

While we all like a well-developed world, character is almost always what keeps readers reading. Whether you build a character within an existing world or you build a world around an existing character, consider how the geography, culture, and conflict affects him or her.

You can’t do “too much” worldbuilding, but you definitely can do too little writing. Nobody’s going to care about your world unless you tell a story (even J. R. R. Tolkien had to tell stories to get people to care about Middle Earth). If you find yourself worldbuilding as a way to procrastinate writing actual words, stop. You’ve got enough to go on. Finish your first draft, and then go back to building the world. Revise accordingly.

In addition, while it never hurts for you to know more about your world, don’t bombard your readers with facts and histories that aren’t critical to the plot of your story. Again, nobody cares how such-and-such overthrew such-and-such unless there’s a story with engaging characters. Maybe you can write more books in the same world to tell those stories, maybe your readers will never know, or maybe someone will publish your notes Silmarillion-style after you’re dead. Either way, resist the urge to explain.

Happy Worldbuilding!

Withheld Information: Or, This Crazy Plan That Just Might Work

I’m part way through Inheritance, by Christopher Paolini, and it’s got me thinking about withheld information in narratives.

Megan Whalen Turner–you’ve got to watch her or she’ll pull a fast one one you. In the three of her books I’ve read (The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia) she leaves out one critical bit of information at one critical point. When it is revealed later, it changes your whole idea of a situation or a character. I loved it, once I caught on.

So I’m not sure why it bothers me so much when Christopher Paolini does something similar in Inheritance.

Here’s the scenario (spoiler-free): the point of view (POV) character is sent to take a city and end a siege. It’s hopeless, but he comes up with this Crazy Plan That Just Might Work. Only thing is, Paolini won’t tell us anything about the plan. Not during the scene in which the POV character explains it to his friends, not during the scenes in which the POV character oversees preparations, not even during the scene in which the POV character can’t sleep the night before it’s put into operation.

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I notice this kind of thing all over the place. To name a few off the top of my head: M. E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, the scene in which Lady Audley gives instructions to her maid, and the reader doesn’t get to hear what she says; Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones, when a chapter ends right before Alcatraz explains his Crazy Plan That Just Might Work, and we come into the next chapter as Alcatraz and Co. put it into operation.

All authors withhold information until key moments. Maybe the POV character doesn’t know it yet, or maybe the POV character doesn’t want to talk about it yet. Or maybe it’s not important to the plot, yet.

I think it bothers me in Inheritance because I can’t see a valid reason for that tactic in this case, at least not for as long as it goes on–chapter after chapter after chapter. Is it to avoid redundancy (we’re going to see how it plays out so an explanation is unnecessary)? Or is it a cheap trick to keep us flipping pages?

I don’t know. But it makes me mad.

I fear I’m doing something similar in the novel I’m revising. I try to slowly reveal that the main character’s view of the world and of his family is fundamentally flawed, but in order to keep it from being obvious from the get-go, I hold back on his motivations. I need to make it clear at the beginning what it is he thinks he’s accomplishing, and slowly show how wrong he is.

I definitely want to avoid making readers feel like I do while reading Inheritance, because honestly the withheld information turns me off the book rather than hooking me in.

When my main character comes up with his Crazy Plan That Just Might Work, I kindly have him tell his friend the gist of it before we watch it play out.

Happy Yarning!