Today’s post is the final installment of the four-part series on narrative voice, or an author’s style. Over the last two weeks, we’ve discussed how the way we use punctuation, and how the habitual choice of words shapes the tone of our writing. Every story, poem, newspaper article, or song has a recognizable fingerprint: the author’s voice and style.
The final aspect of narrative voice or style arises from our deeply held beliefs and attitudes. We may or may not consciously intend to do it, but our convictions emerge in our writing, shaping character and plot arcs.
Our values can be seen in the contrasts we employ in the setting and how we portray the layers of society. They are shown in the arc of growth we give each character, changing for good or bad as the story progresses. As a reader, I believe the characters are the story, and the events of a narrative exist only to force growth upon them.
The way a world is portrayed reflects the author’s innermost concerns and values. The author might have considered them at length or might not. Possibly they couldn’t explain them. However, these core values remain beneath the surface and influence how the written characters see their world. They shape a narrative’s actions, and reactions.
The hero embodies what the author considers right and moral, and the antagonist embodies the author’s perception of wrongdoing.
Some authors see good and evil as black-and-white. One is good or evil, with no middle ground. Often a simple story of good and evil is precisely what I want.
Other authors are more aware of the gray area between and write wonderful novels exploring that concept. Sometimes I’m looking for that sort of story.
Whether or not we are aware of it, our societal and religious beliefs emerge in our writings. Subliminal fears of climate change, worry about a world on the edge of economic collapse, and our hopes for a better society come out in our plot arcs and world-building. How they appear may have nothing to do with real life, but they add color to our worlds.
In many ways, writing is undertaking a pilgrimage. We go on pilgrimages for many reasons, often in search of moral or spiritual wisdom. Sometimes we go to a location that has significance to our beliefs and faith. Other times, we undertake an inner, symbolic journey. Creating a world and writing a society involves delving into our principles and values.
People are often changed by a journey to a different place and seeing how other people live. We evolve as human beings through our experiences and interactions.
Writing has the same effect on us as a journey. In the process of writing, we explore experiences that affect our emotions and challenge our values. We usually don’t realize it, but writing helps us identify our beliefs and firms our understanding of our own moral code. It’s as if we are brainstorming our principles and philosophies.
We each grow and develop in a way that is unique to us. Sometimes we are hardened by our life experiences, and our protagonists have that jaded sensibility. Other times, we accept our own human frailties, and our protagonists are more forgiving.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote fantasy showing the evil the world was capable of in the first part of the 20th century. He also laid bare his hope for a better future. He understood how the masses are swayed by charismatic leaders and how tenuous the difference between what is right and moral and that which is expedient and easily glossed over can be.
He understood how societies lie to themselves and justify their actions.
In the Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien put a face on the Engine of War. In our real world, the Engine of War is an evil that seems unstoppable, an endlessly hungry entity made up of faceless soldiers acting on commands given by faceless leaders, committing unspeakable violence against faceless people.
Tolkien had been a soldier in one of the most horrific conflicts in history – World War One. He wrote about his experiences and how they had changed his values but framed them in fantasy. Bilbo is yanked out of his comfortable middle-class existence. Over the next year, he experiences many things. Where once our hobbit was a little xenophobic and slightly disdainful of anything not of The Shire, he discovers that other cultures are as valuable as his, meeting people of different races whom he comes to love and trust. He experiences the loss of friends and gains compassion.
When Bilbo returns to the Shire, he is a different person than he was when he ran out his front door without even a handkerchief.
Whether we write fantasy, literary fiction, comedy, sci-fi, or romance—our characters must be changed by their experiences. Their long-held views of morality must be challenged or put to the test. How they are changed by these experiences is up to us.
Most of us don’t intentionally write to preach to people, but the philosophies we hold dear do come out.
The works that I love are those in which the events are the catalysts of personal growth for me, the reader, as well as the protagonist. In the process of writing, we might find ourselves looking at things differently. Our deeply cherished views might be challenged – and how will we react to that?
Historically, the authors whose works resonate down the centuries had opinions about politics, religion, and society in general. Their views were written into their work, sometimes more bluntly than others. Those values and motifs are why certain novels are considered classics despite having been written more than one or two centuries ago.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – Wikipedia challenges Victorian morality and addresses mental and physical cruelty, including domestic abuse.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – Wikipedia addresses society’s view of who is responsible for poverty and challenges the idea the poor are impoverished because they are lazy and deserve it.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – Wikipedia depicts how greed and selfishness are insidious and can destroy even good people. The Desolation of Smaug warns us against repeating the tragedies of WWI, which of course, we did, and do, and will do again.
CREDITS AND ATTRIBUTIONS:
Dustcover of the first edition of The Hobbit, taken from a design by the author, J.R.R. Tolkien.
The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey, Theatrical release poster © 2012 New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, WingNut Films, Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, Fair Use.