ABC’s of Fiction Writing: P is for Persona

Posted by on Mar 17, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

sc0022becaWriting involves a series of choices, many of them made before the first word is written. Will this story be told by in first, second or third person? Past or present tense? Do I start at the beginning or in the middle? For the experienced author these decisions are consciously made; for the novice, they may be accidental (“It just came out that way”). But there’s one decision that both beginners and veterans sometimes overlook: how close will I—the writer—come to the red-hot emotional core of the story I’m telling?

A story (or poem, or essay) is like the solar system. At its center should be a heat-giving sun—that is, a deep feeling. It might be fear, or rage, or love. So where in that solar system will the writer place the narrator’s orbit? Close to the sun, like Mercury? Millions of miles back, like Mars? Or even farther away, like the vastly distant Pluto? The answer will depend on how capable the writer is of connecting to the red-hot feelings without melting—i.e., coming across as maudlin, or overwrought.

Moving on to another metaphor: in order for the writer to approach emotionally resonant material effectively, she must assume a persona as the narrator, much like an actor takes on a role. Many performers, in person, are quiet, shy, fearful of the spotlight, but when onstage—when they take on a role—they transform into emotionally connected interpreters of life’s ups and downs. The persona takes all the heat.

Look at how some authors have assumed persona narrators at various distances from the red-hot sun to great effect. In “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes),” Lorrie Moore constructs a second person “How-to” story that effectively removes the narrator from the picture. Check out how the narrator delivers the news of the protagonist’s mother’s death: “Bury her in the cold south sideyard of that Halloweenish house. Your brother and his kids are there. Hug.” It would be difficult to construct a more distant narrator, and yet the power of the story remains intact, perhaps even more so.

In The Woman Who Walked into Doors, Roddy Doyle’s narrator, a battered housewife, uses the simple, pared-down language of an uneducated woman to deliver the horror of her situation: “I fell. He felled me … I wouldn’t do what he wanted, he was in his moods, I was being smart, he hated me being pregnant, I wasn’t his little Paula anymore—and he drew his fist back and he hit me. He hit me. Before he knew it? He drew his own fist back, not me. He aimed at me. He let go. He hit me.” Telling her story twenty years after the fact (creating even more distance), “Paula” uses simple, percussive language as insulation against the red-hot feelings, and, paradoxically, we feel the heat even more.

In Wartime Lies, Louis Begley’s autobiographical tale of growing up in Nazi-era Poland, Begley tries on a much older, emotionally detached first person narrator to confront the unspeakable horror of his distant childhood. In this scene, two Gestapo agents have arrived unexpectedly at the narrator’s home: “[Aunt] Tania put her fingers to her lips and in a whisper told me to hurry to the bedroom, leave the door open, and hide behind the door. I was to listen carefully. If they were taking her away or if they were going toward the bedroom and she shrieked, I should immediately take the cyanide. Keep it in your hand, she said, and keep your hand in your pants pocket.” Nowhere in this scene does the narrator mention the word “fear.” Instead, he coldly recounts the events as if they were happening a million miles away. And yet—we are on the edge of our seats, terrified.

If any of these three writers had allowed their narrators to confront their stories head on, the reader would feel much less—the emotions would be too hot, and would melt into sentimentality. The persona narrator provides the distance needed to both connect to the feelings and deliver them in an effective way.

This choice is not simply a matter of technique, however; it also requires self-awareness. How do you, in real life, handle intense emotions and conflict? If you tend to repress your feelings, you may want to avoid a narrator who is highly emotional in favor of one who creates mood and feeling indirectly, from a safe distance. It may require some trial and error to locate your narrator’s most effective place. You may need to switch from first to third (or second) person, or to make your first person narrator older and looking back from a distance of many years. You may need to eliminate interior psychology and simply let the characters’ words and actions do the heavy lifting. You may need to resort to a format that better accommodates strong feelings—a letter, a “How-to,” a fractured chronology. Whatever it takes to make the story land as powerfully as possible.

This can be a liberating experience. It’s not you telling the story anymore. It’s this other person, with a viewpoint all her own, safely placed between you and those terrifying emotions that could sink your story. Give it a try. Put on that mask and write.

Chris Belden is the author of the novel Carry-on and the story collection The Floating Lady of Lake Tawaba (winner of the Fairfield Book Prize). His novel Shriver will be published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster in fall 2015. A graduate of the Fairfield University MFA program, Chris teaches at the Westport Writers Workshop and a maximum security prison.

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