When I read this post after writing it, I was amazed at how much it sounded like a classroom lesson. Writers do this thing where they tend to become lecturers. This isn’t my intention, ambition, aspiration, whatever. I’d be terrified if I knew teaching was in my future! Why is this happening to me?!
Also, perhaps after or before this post, you should read my old post, The Author.
We Should Quote Characters
Some fictional characters are capable of saying some pretty profound stuff. And I think it’s perfectly okay to want to quote the things you agree with, or which resonate with you, from any book. The potential conflict arises between whether you’re quoting an omniscient narration, a first-person narration or a third-person character. These thoughts were inspired by some of the things I’ve seen floating around on social media, some legit conversations I’ve had (on social media) and this writing was ultimately fuelled by my deeper reflections upon these things I’ve observed.
Fiction, by its very definition, is not “true”. At the same time, an author cannot really write what (s)he does not know, or truthfully choose to be completely uninfluenced by what (s)he believes in. But the fact that “authorial intrusion” even has the name it does is evidence of two things for me:
- Clearly, not all fiction is exactly what the author thinks/knows. Otherwise all fiction would be 100% authorial intrusion, and authorial intrusion wouldn’t have to have a name.
- When an author injects his/her own self in what is meant to be a fictional story, it is as if (s)he is being an intruder in the tale; never mind that (s)he wrote it. Intrusion can only be performed by someone who does not originally belong somewhere.
Admittedly, there will probably be many, many times that narration or dialogue will reflect a raw, undisguised view of the author, or a character will say or do something exactly the way the author would have done it. But NOT all the time. This is why you should check yourself when you quote (things in general but particularly) fiction.
- You can’t ever forget to think about context! What are the other words and circumstances around whatever you’ve quoted? Where’s it from? What happened right before the narrator/character said that?
- Remember that the views of a narrator or a character may not necessarily reflect the exact views of the author.
Imagine how awful it would be if every single character was just a variation of the same person: the author. I don’t think that would make for a very good story, even though there’s probably someone on this planet who could manage to write and pull it off.
Characterization is an important technique both in creating an authentic plot, and creating credible characters. In order to be believable, they cannot all be the same. They must at some point have different or opposing views. After all, what’s a superhero story without a villain?
Yeah, sometimes too, quoting from villains is legit because Darth Vader and The Joker can say some pretty profound stuff – but the point is that even if they came out of the writer’s head, they are the character’s words. And characters too have flaws which may be entirely different form the author’s personal ones.
If, for example, I created a fictional character who was a sexist pig, I couldn’t let sensible gender-related stuff be coming out of his mouth. But would you then cut out the context and character from his words, declare that the words reflect my beliefs and run after me, the author, with a pitchfork, calling me unworthy of my vagina? Perhaps some of you would, too. After certain things I’ve seen about humans, I’ve all but given up.
Exaggeration is part of characterization. When I read The Princess Bride by William Goldman, I remember thinking that not one character was credible. But the writing and the story were brilliant and hilarious for particularly this reason! But of course, exaggerated characters would tend to say deliberately exaggerated stuff. It’s dangerous when people who consume quotes treat them as absolute truths, when they were really just meant to be comical – even if there is truth implied within the meaning.
Written stories are made of language, and if language has techniques, so does fiction. The techniques I am most interested in now, however, are the ones which are used for the actual message to be conveyed in a very backwards manner.
Take sarcasm, for example. You say the opposite of what you mean, in order to make a point. If you quote a character speaking in sarcasm, wholly believing in your heart in its truth, I wonder if your brain isn’t made of fruit.
LOL, no I’m not.
Some of the most incredibly sarcastic words I have ever seen come from Oscar Wilde’s book & plays. His characters’ personalities are so colourful and absurd that 90% of the time, I can’t even tell if they believe what they’re saying or not, much less whether Mr Wilde does. But Oscar Wilde is a fantastic writer, and usually when I want to quote him, I do it because I found something someone said funny or ridiculous, and most of the time, I would like to accompany it with a photo/screenshot, clearly showing who said what before and after what. It seems tedious but I feel like for a man as wild as Wilde, context is of the utmost importance. It’s the controversial people that you have to watch, you know?
I would also like to take this opportunity to say that Tyrion Lannister is a genius, and bless George RR Martin for particularly him and his quotability.
Quite similar to sarcasm, though this can be employed in the progress of events, rather than just in speech.
Let me reference myself here, because I can most accurately speak on my intentions as an author because I am the only author whose intentions I am entirely sure of. When I wrote Puppets, I wrote it with the intention of being ironic. Authorially (this isn’t a word, is it?), I intruded, only in the speech of a character called Solomon – which is weird because he was based on a friend of mine, who would probably never have said something like what he said in the particular dialogue I am thinking of. But aside him and Dawn, I hated nearly every other character I created, and downright disagreed with nearly everything they said. They were not being sarcastic in their speech. But the intention was to use them to highlight how wrong and stupid I believed they were.
I don’t need to tell you how dangerous it is to wrongly misinterpret metaphors. Especially if characters make them. Especially if the story is the metaphor itself. Because if you get one thing wrong, you’ve got the whole thing wrong. Like a follow-through maths question.
In summary, this is my message: I think it would be very helpful to alter popular culture to effectively translate the norm to quoting characters rather than authors when it is characters who need to be quoted.