OVERLOOKED FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING (PART III)

Passive & Active Character individuation

The accent, cadence, lexiconical reach and narrated description of a character all lend themselves to differentiating them upon the page from every other, however, the former three are oft neglected by burgeoning writers. This is usually a by-product of theme fixation and character repetition and should be guarded against. Having all of your characters speak the same is wrongheaded for obvious reasons and lends itself to a narcissistic reading (even if that reading is incorrect) by the audience; the assumption by critical readers will be – generally – that the author is simply asserting himself through a panoply of different avatars to better pound some pulpit or another. Very tedious and often, quite condescending.

Active individuation is any portion of a story which has a character actually doing something that differentiates him or her or it from the rest of the cast. Manner of speech (and thought, if there are to be internal monologues) here is paramount. If you are from a coastal US region the intricacies of other state accents will be largely foreign to you and likely be beyond your ability to reliably and authentically recreate. If you are writing a story surrounding a poor youth living in the deep south of the US and have little knowledge of the south, for instance, then you’ve some legwork ahead of you. You must study the language of the area, the collective mannerism and phraseology, hammer out the regional accents and home in on a very specific model of speech and stick to it throughout the entirety of the story. Linguistic active individuation is made doubly difficult due to the tendency for most people to write in much the same fashion in which they speak. Social media is a testament to this, where dialectical tendencies can be observed in real-time breaking down along fairly predictable national, ethnic and racial lines. Also of importance, after having garnered a handle on the dialects one wishes to employ within their story, is to take a measure of the dialect continuum to be utilized, where it becomes less intelligible to other groups of your fictional world and where it ends completely and trammels off into total unintelligibity.

A dialect continuum is any geographically contained series of varied language groupings which are all, to some degree, intelligible (though not mutually) to every other member of the total language block. In the US, the English language is the primary “block” whereas all of the various different variations thereof, such as southern, Ebonics, New York and the transcontinental accent, make up the variations of the block, or the sub-blocks of the primary language and though, not mutually communicable to all other sub-blocks, each block can be reliably understood to communicate on the most rudimentary of levels. Taking this real world example of language variability into your own stories will help to add a level of both immersion and believability which simply will not be able to be achieved without it.

Passive individuation, we shall define, as any portion of the story which defines a character through something other than their direct action, from some source that is beyond their agency. The most common form of passive individuation is narrative description of the character, such as, “Franklin was a stocky man, graying about the temples, some forty years of age, with a wrinkled brow and a surly grimace perpetually distorting his wind-chaffed and pitted face.”

Here it is important to establish visual motiffs, whether they are movements, some portion of their physiology or some notion or mythos concerning them which is propogated by some other portion of the cast. For example, in my latest (and as yet unfinished work) the novel, Tomb of the Father, there is a ominous character who stalks and hunts down criminals, he wears peculiar bracelets, adorned all with bells and everywhere he walks there is a faint jingling preceding his steps. I utilize this aural motif at subsequent sections later on in the story to establish both a eerie precursor to his appearance as well as a vector which forces other characters within the novel to recall their interactions with him; for example, one of the principal characters is passing beside a merchant who is hocking chimes and their metallic chittering reminds the character of the ominous man. Such symbolic motifs are imminently useful for establishing a particular tone or mood and are highly underutilized in modern literature wherein most authors will rather satisfy themselves on spoken themes and rigidly articulated talking points, this can be fine but is inherently inclined to wax either stale or obnoxious.

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Futurist, artist and published fiction writer whose work asks the question, Of what use is the art which does not ruthlessly seek to force life to imitate it?

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