Saturday, May 7, 2011

How big is Finn, anyway?

Finn is about two meters tall, for the record.

On a related note, much genre fiction these days is written in first person or close third person. In this point of view, the character, not the author, is the narrator. It's as if the POV character sat down after the events unfolded and wrote what happened, as she experienced it, using either "I" as the main character, or describing herself as a "she". This narrator knows that others are going to read the story - in fact, she's writing for a presumed audience.

Which makes me think about why someone writing for others would write a dramatic account of their very exciting life hunting vampires or saving the galaxy or whatever... and include graphic sex scenes.

In certain contexts these scenes strike me as misplaced. Don't they belong in the narrator's diary, where no one else will ever see them? I know why writers include them. I'm just not sure why the narrator would include them.

Again, I'm talking here only about first person and close third person narratives, where the character is the narrator. If the narrator is someone else (that is, some unspecified author who knows what happened and may have been privy to certain characters' thoughts), there's no particular reason not to include details about the sex, if he's so inclined. He's the narrator, he's in charge, and he doesn't need the characters' permission to write their story or describe the ins and outs of how they make love.

So, back to our character-as-narrator. We've all come across the POV character who describes herself as gorgeous or witty. (Advice to writers pretending to be characters narrating their own story: probably best not to do that.) I find it a bit irksome. I'm more inclined to believe that she, rather than some other writer, is the narrator of the story if someone else tells her she's gorgeous, and if she demonstrates wit in her prose.

And by the same token, I'm more likely to believe she's the narrator of the story if she shows a little restraint with the sex scenes. In real life there might be people who don't care that everyone knows who they slept with and how good it was and even what positions were assumed and who came first and how often. If that's the kind of person our fictional narrator is, then fine.

But for most fictional narrators I've come across (just like most of us for real), making all this public would be very much out of character. Even if we don't keep the whos and wheres and whens private (and most of us do even that), we don't write and publish the hows. Especially not five times, fifteen pages each, covering every microsecond of every encounter and describing every last tab A and slot B.

I'm not suggesting that authors tone things down to a more realistic narration, writing only what that character would actually write given that she supposedly knows others will read it. This is a case of where we suspend disbelief. While it's unlikely anyone would actually write their autobiography that way, we choose to ignore that little fact because we want to read every juicy detail, dammit. We are especially lenient, I think, when the genre is romance - that is, when the relationship is the main point of the story. A character who sits down to write the story of the Love of Her Life might be forgiven for expending 700 words on her orgasm.

When I was writing Children of Scarabaeus (which *SPOILER ALERT* has a couple of sex scenes, if you didn't know by now), I thought a lot about how Edie, the only POV character, would write about what happened. The story is third person but we never leave her head - either she wrote that book with herself as a character, or she told her story to someone else who faithfully recorded it. She was aware that it would be read (not by you, but by readers from her own time and possibly even Finn). Given her personality, what would she tell her readers and what would she keep private? And would she really dish the dirt on how BIG Finn is?

I don't think so.


MCPlanck said...

Stop being British!


Elizabeth Moon said...

Personally (and sex is always personal) I don't like overly detailed sex scenes. A large part of the joy of reading is filling out a narrative with my own imagination: what the characters look like, what they do between scenes, making them real for me, the reader. That includes using their reactions to events to back-fill the details of the events (such as sex.) Much better for the character to say/think "It was incredible," or "Well, that was a bust," and let me populate those reactions with my own notions of incredible or a bust, than to pile on the details (as if the reader were clueless about what went where when) and get them (from my point of view) wrong. I can only suspend disbelief so far before it reaches its elastic limit and snaps...and sex is so individual in its perceived realities.

Unknown said...

Ha! I write in limited third person, but I make it a point to NEVER describe the character, even when they're gazing into a mirror. It's like they already know what they look like, why would they need to describe it? Same with surroundings, if they're in a familiar setting, why would they describe it?

As for sex scenes, I don't care to read them as they're mostly boring, and prefer them short if they must be there at all. Good advice on sex scene writhing is to focus on the character's feelings, how they felt and how they reacted. Don't need to mention anything about anatomy, it's not biology class, after all.

Sara Creasy said...

If the book has captured my imagination, back-filling the details of events is definitely one of my favorite things.

Elizabeth, you have no idea what Ky Vatta and Gordon Martin got up to...

Sari Webb said...

I agree 100% about the characters who describe themselves in overly flattering terms. If you're going to be spending a few hundred pages in the MC's head you don't want them to be stuck up and in love with themselves. Painful!

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