Elements of Style: Biased Characters and Narration

The word bias usually has a negative connotation – I’m not going to lecture and say that everyone has a bias because for the moment we’re not in gradeschool, but everyone has their own unique perspective – even if two people are watching a movie and love it, they might love it for different reasons. How the idea of different points of view helps with writing is it allows the writer to take a distinctive tone and voice with their narration – the question is, is that perspective can be warped and not tell the whole story.

Now, when I started to write I thought this was a bad thing. I thought I had to tell the story objectively and neutrally to get the point across. I wrote what I considered were facts: The guy ran across the street, and he got hit by the car.

But novels aren’t about what happens by themselves. It’s about how it happens – much like how there are subtle differences between how a story plays from the movie to stage versions, novels can have different focuses – and the story is very different from the guy getting hit by a car then the guy driving the vehicle. Now, you might have a character who is, for argument’s sake, trustworthy – he happens to know exactly the make and model of the car and he knows his anatomy and his own physiology so well, he knows exactly what went crunch crunch.

However, if I ever get hit by a vehicle, I’m probably not thinking to myself, “The old corolla smashed into the lateral side of my femur, knocking me exactly thirteen feet into a cold ditch of water, about 10cm deep.  The minor scrapes along my hands stung in the dirty ditch water.” I’m probably thinking. “What happened? How did I end up in this ditch? The last thing I remember was this blue car… oh, my leg!”

Different characters will give you different narrator styles – your POV character might have a unique perspective that changes the story entirely – if only because they experience the same event differently from the person standing right next to them. Observer #1 panics and empathizes, observer #2 just got out of a First Aid course and wants to play hero.

That isn’t to say everyone isn’t going to be giving a completely different account  of the same event – if I get hit by a car, unless I happen to be a superhero, my account isn’t going to be much different then the next puny mortal getting struck by the same vehicle. However, if I happened to be drunk, or have a fear of going to the hospital, or happen to be a little kid with limited vocabulary, the accounts would be different from the idea of a neutral account giver.

What does this have to do with a Biased Narrator?

You may be thinking to yourself that you think this is nice and all – but you don’t want to have some clueless moron spouting a story, you want to deal with characters who are objective and, while they might add their own thoughts on the matter, for the most part, they’re not completely out in left field. If Bob says he gets hit by the car, your readers know Bob got hit by a car.

Often times, what bothers me when I’m reading a book is that there is an assumed white audience, and suddenly, every POC becomes exotic and their skin tone is referenced, whereas unless someone is very pale or has an atrocious fake bake, most white skin tones aren’t referenced. Now, I’m a Heinz-57 variety white person, and this irks me – the white Barry is some guy in a blue shirt, while the black Phil is some black guy in a different blue shirt.  Now, this might make sense if we’re in a racist society or one where we don’t see black people very often – however, if you are telling this from a neutral stance, how do you to assume that the audience assumed that everyone, unless referenced, is white?

I don’t want to come down on people too hard – when I’m reading Octavia E. Butler, I kind of assume that until I’m told otherwise, most of the characters are black. We all come with baggage, and we can utilize that same baggage to get across more complicated ideas – this allows us to enter the mind of a character who might not necessarily share our viewpoints.

So take this idea one step further – that your viewpoint has a reason for seeing things in a certain perspective – what if we take this to an unhealthy extreme? The character in question might not be mentally unwell or the scum of the earth, but they have baggage and perspective against a situation or a character – if we’ve already established that Bob hates hospitals and he knows that jerk doctor Clyde is working – he really doesn’t want to go. Suddenly your narration, if told from a warped perspective, allows you to say things without saying them, because it’s implied by what you’ve already established in your character’s arc. When the EMT’s pull up, Bob says, “Oh, it really wasn’t a direct strike, so much as a glance. The car was stopped, besides, and I ran into it. Just taking a nice break here on the side of the road.” Meanwhile his femur’s sticking out of his thigh.

Human Perspective Vs. Non-Human Viewpoints

Until we acknowledge personhood in non-human creatures (aliens, monkeys, robots) I think it’s safe to say that we can assume your audience is human. If you are writing about non-human creatures, you still have to make them relatable to people – and we see examples in literature all the time. Watership Down by Richard Adams, is a story told entirely from the perspective of rabbits. Rabbits live a short time, so they can’t comprehend why humans take years to build certain things. Another good example is Richard and Wendy Pini’s Elfquest, which has a very sophisticated world for their elves – they have four fingers, so they don’t base things around tens, like we do, but 8’s. So if you chose to write about characters that are decidedly not human, you face the additional challenge of not only considering a non-human perspective and how that can change pretty much everything, you have to relate the story back to us human readers.

Untrustworthy Narrators

My first real experience in an academic setting discussing a narrator I can’t trust was from What’s Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies, but there are countless other examples. Some times, the narrator is obviously biased and that’s the point (The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis) or the revelation of the narrator which changes the story entirely (The Turn of the Screw by Henry James) but relating untrustworthiness can be a difficult thing to achieve – if the character is the only eye we have into that world, how can we be sure what they are saying is really going on?

The thing is, we can’t. There are certain things that are objective – if Bob ends up in the ditch, we have to figure out how he got there, and unless Bob sees it occurring or we get a confession from the driver or a bystander – and these accounts all have to mostly line up – we have a hard time saying what happened exactly. Bob might have been skateboarding and ended up in the ditch. However, with character building – hints that we know enough about the character to start to make a few decisions as to how they view the world – the readers might very well know that they can or cannot trust Bob. If Bob is drunk and the car speeds off, he might have no idea how he came to be in the ditch. He might not even mention it, however the next day Sally mentions he’s limping as he’s got roadrash on his hands, and suddenly, your character has a lot of unaccounted time for the injury. If Bob’s untrustworthy, but from what we’ve seen from Sally, she is, we can draw our conclusions from what she says, even if we’re following from Bob’s perspective.

Will my Audience get it?

Once again, everyone brings baggage to reading. I’ve not liked good books because I was in a bad mood or because of small things – and not everyone will pick up clues, either – if you are very subtle with your characterizations, your audience might not put the pieces together and not understand all the pieces of the puzzle. There’s often a fine line between being obvious or being too difficult, but it depends on your audience. Picture books for children – generally speaking, are very obvious that you can tell what’s going on, and you can trust what the characters are saying.

But there are exceptions.

But like with all writing, it takes practice to get it right, and you won’t have everyone agreeing that you pulled it off 100%. We all bring our bias into our reading, afterall, and that’s a good thing. Trusting in and respecting your audience is the best advice I think I can give.

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