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Perception in Literary Fiction: A Challenge for Better Narration

William H. Coles

Story: account of people and events told for entertainment.
Fiction: literature in prose that describes imaginary people and events.
Literature: written works consider of artistic and lasting merit.

Fiction is imagined and created storytelling.  It’s not just description of reality.  And literature is an art form with lasting merit.  To fashion story as art in fiction, authors create illusions of characters and story-worlds and they structure story and shape characters to engage, entertain, and then enlighten, usually about new or renewed thinking about the human condition.

The challenge is to maintain a quality illusion that forms and lasts in the reader’s memory.  It is directly related to a writer’s skill in creating unique characters and images and expressing motives and emotions through imagination dedicated to story enjoyment and meaning. 

One way of achieving mastery of created fiction is excellence in narration (telling).  All writers know point of view and think of third person and first person narration.  Second person narration is rarely effective and not recommended to achieve artistic merit.  The structure of narration in fiction is: characters act, narrators tell, authors create.  Narrators are always telling the story, even when those narrators use character point of view.  And it is the quality of the narrator’s skill that measures story success.  Authors describing their reality from their worldview is the contemporary style, the literature-of-self, but this rarely contributes to excellence in storytelling as art. 

Of course the author is creating the narrator.  But authors, for fiction as art, must step outside their limited worldviews into the expanded understanding provided by imagined worldviews of narrators and characters.  Authors must learn about the real world outside their experiences and understand human nature in the real world through the eyes and ideas of others to be able to create significance in character development and plot construction and realization; authors must learn, experience, consider, and perfect technique and then create from outside what would be the default for average writers who restrict themselves to their own unperfected personas and worldviews; and authors should create a narrator as a distinct entity, a skill that forces the author to create for excellence, to make choices that are best for story, and ignore the average author’s goal of becoming a writer through personal aggrandizement through inferior prose or trying to impress with ill conceived pseudo intellectual displays of thinking and writing.

When creating stories, action, desire, motivation, credibility, reliability, accuracy of prose are all essentials of process.  The writer stays true to these fundamentals.  Creation of art is not ostentatious hyperbolic prose or dependence on bizarre plot twists or shocking disregard for societal norms, it is great characterization and story purpose and meaning all presented with clarity, credibility (for the story world) and reliability (or lack of reliability) of characters created by author for best support of story meaning and significance.

When narrating a fictional story, the narrator uses point of view and perspective of the narrator and characters as position from, in relation to the story, from which the story is viewed.  The point of view of the novel is from that of the protagonist as a child.  Perspective is important to orient the reader.  It is a defect in storytelling when perception is rarely considered.  Perception is related to insight and understanding.  How people with unique experiences, intellects, memories, and worldviews receive and interpret stimuli.  And it is different for each character and the narrator (if narrator is created as separate entity by the author.)  In a story for example, one character might perceive the killing of an endangered grey wolf as an illegal act that should be punished, another perceive it as just end to a annoying predator of domestic animals, another as just revenge for rumored injury to a human, and another as an assault on a noble and ecologically valuable species.  Each of these perceptions should change the prose and the storytelling when in the point of view of character (or narrator).

Perception is also valuable when in a narrator (and, on occasion, a character) point of view and another character is on “stage” in the story.   How the “stage” character perceives the story world embedded in the narrator’s point of view enhances character development, provides variety in the prose imagery, and helps elucidate motivations and actions in the plot.

Perception in narration

In this story, set in France during the revolution,  a boy’s father is killed and his mother suffers from a lethal neck tumor.  The boy seeks a miracle for his mother and takes her from Paris to a coastal town where a saint-of-healing’s bone is preserved in the vault of a cathedral.  On the way, he meets an out-of-work musician who’s benefactor was beheaded, and a teenage orphan girl seeking a family and love.  His mother, at first a sulking victim of her condition, becomes an enabling mother intent on providing a future for her son.

Example 1.

A. Narrator POV without regard to character perception.

Jean-Luc went near the northwest corner of the Place.  A girl his age walked along in front of two boys and a girl.  She came from the rich part of town by the quality of her dress.  Must have cost two thousand sous.

B. Narrator POV, but writing with worldview perception of the aristocratic girl–dresses, fashion, class, privilege slippers, pink, delicate, cheekbones, porcelain.  (These details would be natural and important to the aristocrat, but not necessarily the first choices of a narrator).

Jean-Luc went near the northwest corner.  An aristocratic girl his age paraded stately along the path followed by two boys and a girl, all fashionably dressed.  The girl’s full-length, white silk dress floated around her and the points of pink slippers peeked out from under the hem with each step.  How delicate she was.  Her high cheekbones spoke class and privilege.  Her brown eyes brooded in the frame of her light, straw-colored hair.  Her slender hands were as if fashioned in porcelain.

Example 2.

A. Narrator POV without thinking of perception on-stage character.

Emile sang of a new song and played his lute.  Charlotte and Jean-Luc rested. Sapphire repaired the tear in her dress.  She tied the fabric to conceal the hole.

Charlotte faced away from the others pulled up her dress exposing her legs. From her waist, she untied a string that held a small cloth sack. She removed a cloth pouch, knelt next to Sapphire, and unfolded the layered linen to expose five gleaming needles.”

B. Narrator (same) POV but with perception of a seamstress mother dying from a throat tumor: cooking fire, shawl, tear in dress, fabric, conceal hole, loose skin, buttocks, cloth sac, skirts, fine linen, folded, needles, gleam, reflections.

 Emile played the lute, mouthed the line of a new song, and picked a melody on two of the few remaining strings on his lute. Charlotte and Jean-Luc rested.  Sapphire, wrapped in a shawl, worked to repair the tear in her dress.  She had tied the fabric into a crude knot to conceal the hole.

Charlotte stood, turning so she faced away from the others.  She shamelessly pulled up her dress exposing her loose-skinned, wrinkled buttocks.  From her waist, she untied a string that held a small cloth sack.  She let her skirts down and opened the sack, removing a piece of fine linen, folded over twice and four inches long.  She knelt next to Sapphire and unfolded the linen to expose five needles.

Example 3.

A.  Narrator POV without regard to character perceptions.

“Emile turned to Charlotte.  “I can help,” he said.  From the cart, he retrieved candle stubs he melted and carried to Charlotte.

B. Narrator (same) POV but now utilizing perceptions the out-of-work court musician–goat cart, candles, pot, fire embers, wax consistency, testing temperature with finger.

Emile turned to Charlotte. “I can help,” he said.  He went to the goat cart and returned with candle stubs in an iron skillet that he placed on a few embers at the edge of the fire.  The wax melted.  He carried the skillet to Charlotte, testing the wax temperature with his finger.  He carefully covered her swollen red knuckles.  She smiled at the relief from her pain and flexed her hands able now to help Sapphire with her sewing.

The narrator is telling story in each segment, but as each character is on stage, the narrator- telling shifts and is filtered through character perception. This provides dominant details from the character’s person and worldview, (not the narrator’s or other character’s).  Doesn’t that seem an advantage for the best effect of prose-fiction storytelling?  The idea: perception and point of view (perspective) are different but both enhance story telling when used with precision.

Check out entire story.  You can see how use of perception works in the short story “The Miracle of Madame Villard“, source of these three examples (free).

This use of narrative perception is left to instinct by most writers, many successful, and the purpose for analysis  here is to provide alternatives for those writers seeking better storytelling and better prose. 

Dialogue and perception

Perception considerations in dialogue responses.

Accusation:  “You’re a freaking misogynist.”

Possible responses from different characters each with their unique perceptions of the story world that (1) reveals something about them and (2) when credible and specific builds characterization:

“That’s not true!”
“Screw you.”
“Your misguided in so many ways.”
“You’re mistaken.”
“You don’t know what you talking about.”
“I’ll kill you if you ever say that again.”
“You’re crazy.”
“You’re one stupid son of a bitch.”
“Bless you.”
“You might want to reconsider.”
“God forgives you.  I will too.”
“It takes one to know one.”
“Shut up.”
“You’re psychologically disturbed.”
“You’ve got a corncob up your ass.”
“I’ve never been so insulted.”
“Who exactly do you think you are?”
“You lack knowledge of what a misogynist is.”
“You ought to buy a dictionary.”

For every character a writer creates, the perception expressed in dialogue should be unique.  After all, a specific point of view is already established; the character is speaking.  It’s the perception that must relate to character (as created by the author) and the dialogue using speaker perception must be credible for the character in the story world and consistent with character as perfected for story.

Expertly created dialogue builds characterization.

Scene.  A very wealthy, materialistic older man is in his art-filled living room.  His young, wife, enters carrying their six-month-old baby girl.  She trips on a Tufenkian carpet crashing into a Ming dynasty waist-high vase that cracks into three large pieces as it falls from its black-lacquered stand.  As the woman braces for a face-front fall, the baby is thrust from the woman’s arms onto the stone hearth.

Here are possible characterizing responses from the rich man.

1. “How could you?” he yelled at the wife.  (Blame.  Lack of respect.  Not treated as equal.)
2. “She’s bleeding,” he said picking up the baby.  (Love and caring.  Concern.)
3. “My God, it’s irreplaceable,” he said picking up a jagged-edged piece of porcelain.  (Loveless. Materialistic. Thoughtless.)

Choosing to use perceptions in action instead of characterization.

Note how action, using the man’s perceptions of the world, can also characterize with the same scenario as the dialogue:

1. He rushes to the vase.  (cold materialism without love)
2. He picks up the baby, desperately looking for signs of life.  (love, caring)
3. He hits his wife with a closed fist.  (blame with no love or respect).

!st person; literature-of-self and perceptive limitations

When authors using 1st person narration choose not to create a narrator as a distinct entity, authors usually default to their own perceptions of their worlds and the story world.  This is when authors concede to using description of world memories and experiences, description limited to their perceptions, and ignore need for imagination and creativity that enhances characterization and invigorates plot. The result is dull prose and storytelling with missed potential for engaging, entertaining, and enlightening readers.  Yet, sadly, memoir-based “fiction” storytelling as “literature-of-self” is prevalent in the output of contemporary “fiction” writers.

2nd person narration


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