11

I've noticed a quirk with the narrator voice of one of the two novels I'm working on. This narrator only describes the beautiful aspects of every character's features. You might think the women are all beautiful, the men are all handsome - this one has beautiful eyes, that one moves like a swan - a world of Hollinwood actors.

Only, it isn't. I have a character - the narrator mentions repeatedly his keen gaze and proud step, and once, when the character is first introduced - that he survived smallpox as a child, which thankfully spared his eyes. Other characters mention how this character appears to have two noses, and how enemies flee from the horror of his face. But the narrator - nope. Keen gaze, proud step.

The novel is narrated in 3rd person, omniscient narrator. I mostly follow four or five characters, all well-educated high nobles. They would consider it beneath them to think of a person as "ugly". If they look down on someone, it's in the "oh, they're less fortunate, I should help" way, which can sometimes be misplaced. Commenting on the shortcomings of another's natural appearance would be considered by them crass, a mark of bad manners, something fit for a commoner - not for them. So the narrator voice is in tune with the world-view of the main characters. (With how they believe they should act, not necessarily with how everybody always does act.)

Without sacrificing the narrator's voice, how can I make it clear that my characters do not live in a Hollywood film, that the people are regular people, who, it being ~5t century, do not have access to decent medicine or good dentistry, and it is a conscious choice to only speak of beauty?

  • You might want to learn about third person limited in case it would be more appropriate. – J.G. Mar 2 at 22:58
  • 1
    Well-educated high nobles would consider it beneath them to think of a person as ugly, and would instead want to help less fortunate people? That's unrealistic right there. – Rand al'Thor Mar 3 at 7:59
  • 1
    @Randal'Thor Only if their attempts to help are actually thought out and helpful. You wouldn't believe the kinds of hell good intentions can lead to. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Mar 3 at 11:35
  • I've seen many stories like that... – Xilpex Mar 4 at 2:06
17

Some people see beauty in the world outside of the perfection of conventional beauty standards that Hollywood portrays. Have your narrator fall into this category. (Okay you already decided that, so how do you do that?) Simple, describe something typically seen as a flaw or an imperfection and describe it in a loving way.

Don't ignore the imperfections. That doesn't imply that the narrator sees beauty in everything. It implies that the narrator is making a conscious decision not to talk about the elephant in the room. Describe a broken nose as a badge of honor that the character wears with pride for the time they stood up for what they believed in. Describe the acne that a character is ashamed of in shades of rose red and crimson sunrises. Describe the stretch marks on the womans abdomen as symbols of the nurturing that goes into their every action.

Its okay to recognize a flaw or imperfection and think it is beautiful. Sometimes it won't be easy, but beauty often isn't.

  • 2
    This isn't not only a nice way to write, but also a nice way to treat other people. The stretch mark aspect was one of the things that helped me to pull my SO out of a post-partum depression. – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Mar 3 at 13:52
5

The narrator can describe only beauty, but that doesn't mean you can't have a mean and petty character that (in dialogue or perhaps thought) describes people in ugly terms.

This doesn't have to be a main character, it could be a servant of an MC, that the MC overhears talking about such things, and then decides to reprimand the insulting character, or perhaps does not and just thinks that is the crass way that servants behave, and reprimands do nothing but cause resentment among them, so she lets it go. Her conscious thought can be just what you said, that it is incredibly rude to mention such unfortunate disability or scarring, and she doesn't understand how the commoners live beside each other, or can (gasp) laugh at such misfortune.

But the fact that the crass characters express disgust with the pockmarked face, or the drooping face of a stroke victim, etc, or the blinded eye and scars of a war hero, is enough to tell the reader the narrator is, like the royals, presenting a one-sided view of people.

3

I think it's ok to have a biased narrator.

But, it reminds me of Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man that used characters transparently based on real people she knew and admired (Lord Byron, her late husband, her sister). The novel is difficult to get through because for the first half the characters are smothered under purple praise. Similar to your descriptions everyone has a noble brow and an excellent continence and handsome features.

In Shelley's book, the first half involves transformative political debates (forward-thinking for the time) but there are no fangs and it feels like a non-conflict, like the story lacks structure. Her prose is beautiful, but it becomes Victorian wallpaper, featureless and repatitive. Eventually a plot kicks in, but it has to work harder to get around the eulogy.

I'll cautiously suggest the problem (if it's really a problem) may be too much of the same, as opposed to descriptions being biased to beauty. I suggest signaling your villains clearly as villains, and consider if too subtle antagonists are being obscured with a mixed message.

2

It's okay if your noble characters are so well mannered to avoid judging people bu their looks. Yet, this doesn't mean you can't describe the ugly bits.

First of all, as you mentioned:

They would consider it beneath them to think of a person as "ugly". If they look down on someone, it's in the "oh, they're less fortunate, I should help"

This is called being condescending. While it can be done in a naive, not-harmful way, some of your characters could be borderline patronizing.

Chaining one's appearence or a physical defect to the idea that "help should be provided* is, after all, a form of judgment: as Wetcircuit mentioned, this is probably the bias in your narrators.

Moreover, I'd argue that there is a subjective and an objective way to describe thing. Imagine a noble speaking face to face with a commoner. Let's suppose the commoner has a tobacco chewing habit.

A subjective, unfavourable POV could say:

... black stained teeth poked from under the man upper lip as he spoke, letting out the foul smell of low quality tobacco. Jon wondered how much of that blackness was due to the vice, and how much due to the general poor hygene.

A subjective, condescending POV could say:

... the man spoke with his upper lips slightly raised upwards, in an half smile. Yellow and black stains on his teeth testified the man's chewing habits: Jon knew that a commoner could keep chewing the same leaf of tobacco for hours, before spitting it out. A far cheaper habit than smoking.

But then again, you can describe things in an objective way:

... as the man smiled, Jon noticed a black and yellow tint on his teeth and on the internal side of his lips. The mark of a tobacco-chewer.

So, even if your narrator is on par with your characters, it still can take notes of objective details. Also, some physical features are really subjective - a certain bend of the nose or of the eyebrows may add character to a face, be considered interesting rather than out of place and so on.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.