1. terobi
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    terobi Contributing Member

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    Character vocabulary and narrative voice.

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by terobi, Jul 30, 2015.

    So, I've been working on a new project recently, and I'm having a stylistic issue.

    I'm switching between different third-person character viewpoints, and while most of them are reasonably well educated (two are scientists, another two aristocracy), one of them is a young child with next to no education, who largely avoids people like the plague.

    The trouble I'm having is how to phrase the narrative that happens from her perspective. While there are obvious point-of-view things like seeing an unfamiliar object and not knowing anything about it (so obviously my 'narrator' can't either), it seems like she would have a very, very limited vocabulary - though she'd still know about a lot of things purely from experience, she wouldn't necessarily know how to describe them or what the proper names for particular feelings or descriptive elements are.

    My question is, in these circumstances, should I attempt to "dumb down" my prose in those sections so that it fits more comfortably with a characters extremely limited vocabulary (and risk rendering it near-unreadable), or can my prose still use descriptive terms and complex grammar stylistically similar to that used in chapters from other perspectives?
     
  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    If it's 3rd person, no, I would not see why the vocabulary of the narrative need be dumbed down. The complexity of content, yes, perhaps, but not the actual choice of words in narrative. Your character would not have moments of the narrative addressing his/her introspection about his/her place in the universe and ultimate mortality, or descriptions of political affiliation, etc. But if she saw an unfamiliar cube shaped object, there is no reason a 3rd person narrator cannot use the word "cube" even if a two-year-old would know that word.
     
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  3. AspiringNovelist
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    AspiringNovelist Contributing Member

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    Yeah, that's a tough one -- how do you dumb down a spectrum analyzer without boring the reader who knows what a spectrum analyzer is? If little Jenny starts asking a ton of questions so that she can understand, then that may get old (unless you're writing the book purely from her POV.) But as you say, your not -- you're intermixing adult conversations with a child's.

    The only way I can see this is: For the more complex items -- portray them in narrative and action. For others, have the Dr. realize that he is speaking to a child and write your narrative so that it limits questions.

    i.e. Dr. Smith turned on the spectrum analyzer and let it warm up several minutes. "I'm using it as an equalizer," he said. He turned a knob here, pressed a button there, then suddenly, the room filled with sound of gentle brushes on a snare drum.

    That's all the pointers I can really think of at the moment.
     
    Last edited: Jul 30, 2015
  4. terobi
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    terobi Contributing Member

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    Well, the character in question is 14, but as I say, next to no education as she has been living on the street from a very young age, is largely terrified of people, and can't communicate very well. There are a few things I've put in to kind of hint at that; for example, she doesn't know or use any names, even people she should know the name of, she internally refers to as "the big woman", "the pale man", etc. She's also a bit erratic, with a lot of the things from her perspective simply second-guessing herself, panicking or chastising herself, and she rarely communicates with more than a timid nod or shrinking away.

    I'm hoping that kind of thing shows her character well enough, without me having to write the entire thing in infant-speak and bulldozing every other chapter of my book :p
     
  5. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is precisely why I hate writing in 3rd person. It's exactly the debate I have with myself whenever I try. In 3rd person, I'm constantly asking myself if the character(s) and narrator are the same person.

    In my head they're not, and yet a 3rd person narrative often describes the thoughts, feelings and emotions of the character... so who exactly is the narrator, and in whose voice should they write??

    Should a 3rd person passage describing an uneducated person be:
    Or:
     
  6. terobi
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    terobi Contributing Member

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    That second example reminds me of Feersum Endjinn.

    Nice to see someone from my neck of the woods, by the way!
     
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  7. AspiringNovelist
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    AspiringNovelist Contributing Member

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    Off the wall here... Can you include a translator by chance? Then have the translator explain to the child and vice versa. As you set this precedent, then you can just refer to 'explained'. i.e. "The translator explained." Then, I as the reader, will know the child understands. The turn around, have the translator interpret the 14yo questions. "Is that dangerous?" she asked (the translator said)..
     
  8. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Definitely not the second one, IMO. Your character isn't writing the piece, so there shouldn't be any spelling or punctuation errors. My only issue with your first example is that the character likely wouldn't know about hieroglyphics; my issue wouldn't be the spelling, but the concept.

    I also don't like phonetic reproduction of pronunciation, even in dialogue.

    So I might change this to:

    Thomas looked at the figures on the page and froze. They meant nothing to him; rows of scribbles from which he had to produce an answer. "Miss! I don't think I can do this."
     
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  9. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I wouldn't dumb down the vocabulary, just the concepts. For example, "ironic" might be "funny" and "nostalgia" might be "homesickness." But I wouldn't dumb down the general complexity of the language or sentence or paragraph structure.

    Edited to add: Though I'm not sure about my examples. If the character is feeling nostalgia, I'd use the word. If he's watching someone else and diagnosing how they're feeling, I wouldn't use it.
     
  10. Void
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    Void Contributing Member

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    Personally, I don't mind a bit of phonetic reproduction -- in narration it looks rather stupid, but in dialogue I'm fine with it.
     
  11. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    See, this is what I mean about the confusion. To me, your comments here are contradictory.

    If my character isn't writing the piece, why can't I use the word 'hieroglyphics' ?
     
  12. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    Because the character is the one who's thinking about them. So his thoughts should be in line with his spoken vocabulary.
     
  13. tanstaafl74
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    tanstaafl74 Member

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    Disagree. The narrator might know perfectly well about hieroglyphics and just explain that the character doesn't. The narrator is NOT the character, if in third person the narrator is possibly not any character.
     
  14. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    1/ In third person, the narrator IS NOT any character - no possibly about this.
    2/ When your writing the thoughts of a character, they are the thoughts of that character, and should be in keeping with his...character. The fact that the narrator knows is irrelevant.
     
  15. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    I sometimes wonder if 3rd and 1st should be separated even more than they are. As it stands, they're just different 'styles', but to me there's a much bigger separation. I look at 3rd person as traditional story-telling, and 1st person as 'first-hand experience' journalistic story-telling - even though the story is still a fiction.

    Or to put it another way, 1st person is like having someone relate something that happened to them, while 3rd is like having a film described to you.

    I see no reason to write in 3rd, I really don't. It's totally alien to me.
     
    Last edited: Jul 30, 2015
  16. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    No, but if the thought is clearly the character's, and the example seemed to be the character's thought (though not a literal thought), then the character's knowledge seems relevant. "Heiroglyphics" is debatable; some might argue that it's a simple vocabulary word for "shapes I can't understand" and that it doesn't reflect any understanding of the actual concept.

    So I'll propose a less ambiguous case:

    John looked up. Jane was wearing all white--a raw silk blouse with dolman sleeves and a boat neck, and a crystal-pleated skirt in satin. On her feet she wore the traditional galesh that she had purchased on her overseas trip last year.

    If John has no idea that Jane went on overseas trip, and no idea where the shoes came from at all, then I think that we'd all agree that the bit about the shoes is a POV violation. Inserting that knowledge makes this omniscient rather than third person limited.

    So we change the specific knowledge about the history of the shoes:

    John looked up. Jane was wearing all white--a raw silk blouse with dolman sleeves and a boat neck, and a crystal-pleated skirt in satin. On her feet she wore a pair of traditional galesh.

    If it's been well established that John knows absolutely nothing about clothes, then I would say that this also breaks the POV, and that it doesn't matter whether John is an adult with an extensive vocabulary or a four year old. A more appropriate rewrite might be:

    John looked up. Jane was wearing all white. Her blouse looked rough and primitive, with an odd shape to the sleeves that made him think of a science fiction movie. Her skirt, by contrast, was a slick shining white, glittering with pleats. Her shoes returned to the rough-woven, unfamiliar vibe of the blouse.

    I would say that the above would be fine whether John is an adult or a four year old--it goes beyond a four year old's vocabulary, but as long as he's seen a science fiction movie or two, it doesn't go beyond his knowledge. Now, one could further quibble as to whether the top garment is a "blouse" or a "shirt". And that's where I would say that the POV can use ordinary vocabulary words. The location of that cutoff between ordinary vocabulary words and words that reflect knowledge would be the writer's decision, but I would say that the writer should make a decision and remain consistent.

    Wandering back to add more comments: In this case, I kept "blouse" but evicted "galesh." I also evicted "satin", but that was because I felt that the character wouldn't be thinking of fabric types but instead of the overall appearance--if I needed the word ("He winced as the wine splashed on the pristine satin of her skirt.") I think it would be fine.

    I return yet again: Even if the viewing character knew a lot about clothes, would they be able to tell with any certainty that the blouse is raw silk rather than, say, linen? I suspect that even that fact should perhaps be removed--unless of course the character assumes that it's raw silk, in which case it could stay even if it's really linen. Hmmm.
     
    Last edited: Jul 30, 2015
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  17. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that the difference isn't that third is so different, but that there are many kinds of third person. The kind that you're describing sounds to me like third person omniscient. On the other hand, close third person limited can be pretty much exactly the same as first--you could pick up a paragraph in first person and convert it to third person limited without changing the meat of the paragraph at all.

    I grab two paragraphs from Marion Babson's Murder at the Cat Show (the first first person novel that comes to hand):

    First person:

    I can take cats or leave them alone--especially the four-legged variety. In fact, I prefer to leave them alone.

    Not that they spook me. And I'm not an aureliophobe. I have absolutely nothing against them. It's just that they go their way, and I go mine. I'd always found it a perfectly convenient arrangement.


    Close third person:

    John could take cats or leave them alone--especially the four-legged variety. In fact, he preferred to leave them alone.

    Not that they spooked him. And he wasn't an aureliophobe. He had absolutely nothing against them. It's just that they went their way, and he went his. He'd always found it a perfectly convenient arrangement.


    Third person can even be used for an unreliable narrator. We get a faint vibe of John being in denial here, as if perhaps he is phobic about cats. And that also works just fine in close third person. It requires it to be close, very close, but it works.
     
  18. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    But in your example, why would you use third-person? If it's to allow the writer (and reader) to skip between characters, then fine, but if the novel sticks with the one character throughout, why use third?

    As I've said, I can read 3rd, but I have major problems writing it.

    He studied the photograph and thought of Laura, as opposed to I studied the photograph and thought of Laura.

    Take the former, 3rd person example. From a strictly logical point of view, how can I, the story teller, possibly know that he thought of Laura?

    The only way I could possibly attempt to write in 3rd, was if it was done from a simple spectators POV, and one that never went inside the character's heads.
     
  19. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    A story doesn't need a "wrapper" that explains how the storyteller knows the story. Most stories don't have one. I understand that you personally may feel the need for one, but for most people, that's just not a factor.

    Sorry, I skipped the first question. First person is an issue for me because (among other things) I feel limited to the first person narrator's narrative voice, vocabulary, world knowledge, etc. Breaking that is a bigger suspension of disbelief than the lack of a wrapper in a third person story.
     
  20. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    But it's not a case of 'knowing' the story - they could have heard it second-hand. My problem is the describing of other people's thoughts and emotions. Things as an observer, I can't possibly know.
     
  21. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    But that's what I'm saying. There's no need for a concrete identifiable observer. The narrator knows what the viewpoint character is thinking and feeling and doing, and we don't need to know how the narrator knows that. A "wrapper" explanation of how the narrator knows ("the narrator is an insect from Venus that has taken up residence in the character's head, reading his brain waves, and he's reporting the story by typing on a veeeery small smartphone") isn't needed.
     
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  22. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    You're right, of course. The fact that so many books are written in third-person is testament to this. I also think and analyse more than is healthy, so accept my 'issues' with a third-person narrative are quite unique to me.
     

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