10

I'm writing a script for a short movie, but I'm not sure if the introduction sounds clear enough. For context, the narrator is supposed to believe in "old-fashioned" values. Specifically that women are supposed to be polite, quiet, etc. Since I'm voicing it myself, I don't want to come off as sexist or misogynistic.

9
  • 7
  • 7
    The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks is a prime example for a first person narrator most people would rather not identify with. The tension arises from the narrator reporting matter-of-factly the most outraging acts and events. The reader, assuming the narrator-proponent's perspective, is taken for a hell of a ride. Highly recommended, but not for the faint of heart. Feb 23 at 8:57
  • 3
    It would be easier for me to answer if I knew if it's a typical story movie or some other kind (say, a mockumentary), if the narrator is voiceover only or shown on-screen talking to the audience, and if the narrator is the same as a main character, or stands extra.
    – Divizna
    Feb 23 at 13:45
  • Is the narrator also a character in the movie, or just a disembodied voice?
    – kaya3
    Feb 24 at 12:19
  • Skill will get you through. I think Vladimir Nabokov did a pretty fine job in Lolita of ensuring that only the most stupid of readers would think that he himself was a paedophile. Unfortunately such people do exist. Feb 24 at 12:56

8 Answers 8

13

Basically this comes down to how you write any character without readers thinking that theirs is your opinion.

There are many novels and movies that give the general impression that the authors and movie makers endorse the questionable behavior of their characters because they portray it in a cool, funny or uncritical manner.

Bad behavior becomes bad behavior because it has effects that the audience perceives, or better yet, experiences as bad – on other characters or on the bad character him- or herself.

When a violent character is shown to have a great life and his victims are ridiculed and the narrative gives the audience positive emotions (excitement, joy, aggression), the violence will appear attractive to the audience (and the author will seem to endorse it). When the audience are made to sympathise with the suffering of the victims, pity the perpetrator and feel negative emotions (sadness, disgust, fear), the violence will appear unattractive to the audience (and the author will seem to condemn it).

Whether that character is narrated or narrator doesn't matter.

11
  • 5
    I would put a slight asterisk on the first and last paragraph, because narrators are generally expected to be objective tellers of facts, as opposed to characters who are much more easily presumed to have personal opinions. This answer's content isn't wrong, as this all factors into how to make someone opinionated; but there's more to making a narrator opinionated than there is to making a character opinionated.
    – Flater
    Feb 23 at 5:39
  • 3
    @Flater in my experience readers (or viewers) do not tend to have trouble dissociating such a narrator with an author provided that the rest of the story's framework (the consequences of the narrator's actions, the reactions of other characters to them, etc.) supports that. And arguably, the whole point of a first-person subjective narration is to communicate that the story as told is not an objective version of events. It really mostly becomes problematic when the narrator feels like a self-insert of the author, but there's more to it than just speaking in first person. Feb 23 at 8:19
  • 2
    @Flater There is a subgroup of fiction where the narrators are not objective (see the Unreliable Narrator trope). What can make those stories interesting is when you discover this in the middle (or end) of the story and now have reanalyze the story in light of this information.
    – Walter
    Feb 23 at 17:31
  • @Walter You're right (and my answer specifically uses the example of an unreliable narrator), but I'm focusing on the elemental narrative device rather than its subversion. Pretty much every narrative device can be subverted but that doesn't negate the basic device itself.
    – Flater
    Feb 24 at 6:28
  • 2
    @Ben: Your last example would be interpreted as the author being sexist, and that is precisely the situation OP is trying to avoid. What you say in your comment isn't wrong, but it is not addressing the specific question being asked here. The question is not whether narrators exist or how are they operate as a narrative device, the question is how you can give them an opinion without it looking like the opinion of the author.
    – Flater
    Feb 25 at 4:31
7

It is significantly easier to get away with this in the context of screenwriting than in the context of (say) a novel. This is because, in a novel, the narrator is the lens through which the audience experiences the story. The voice of the narrator is the voice of the story. If the narrator expresses a viewpoint, the audience will perceive it to be the viewpoint of the author, at least unless and until it is contradicted by events that the narrator cannot (convincingly) spin to favor their interpretation. Even then, if the narrator comes across as lacking self-awareness in relation to those contradictions, then the audience may attribute the problem to the author rather than the narrator. This can be overcome in a variety of ways, but that is getting a bit far afield from what you asked.

A script has a much smaller role for narration than a novel. Narration is, in fact, rather rare in modern film. The expectation is that you tell the story using techniques* such as dialog, continuity editing, cinematography, and so on. If you have a narrator, and they also appear as a regular character, the audience probably expects them to have their own voice, and it probably will not be the voice of the story as a whole, so not much has to be done in the first place - what you describe is already the default state of affairs. If you really want to drive the point home, you can pair the narration with shots that show the exact opposite of whatever the narrator is saying, line for line. More subtly, you can follow the narration with dialog or other content that contradicts it. Allowing the narration to go entirely unchallenged might be perceived as an endorsement, but as long as there is visible tension between the narration and the rest of the film, your audience will probably "get it."

The one part of this that does give me pause is your mention of doing this in the introduction. The problem is, some audience members may disagree so strongly with your narrator that they don't stick it out to watch the rest of the film. Presumably, your sexist narrator is going to be contradicted by some strong female character (or perhaps some other, less concrete story element). It would probably be a good idea to introduce that character or element relatively early in the film, so that the audience sees that your film does not endorse your narrator's position.


* We should acknowledge the distinction between a spec script and a shooting script. A spec script generally does not have the luxury (or burden) of describing exactly what the camera, actors, etc. should be doing with the level of detail that is expected in a shooting script, and so it might appear that a spec script cannot use these techniques. However, a spec script can and should tell the reader what the audience is expected to see and experience, independently of any (V.O.)-delineated narration, and so the script as a whole may contradict the narration.

4

Narrators are generally given the air of omniscience and moral framework for the story. This means that without indicating otherwise, the reader is going to infer that the narrator's opinion reflects that of the narrative. For the scope of the narrative as it is intended, the narrator is considered to be an objective source.

Narrators are generally not human (the adjective, rather than the species), they are opinionless omniscient tellers of objective facts. Sexism is an inherently subjective opinion (which may disguise itself as claims of objective facts), and therefore the usual narrator should be incapable of this kind of opinion.

In order to allow your narrator to have this subjective weakness and to not have it come across that this subjectivity is the author's intention for the narrative, you must deviate from the objective nature of the narrator's. Humanize them, give them flaws, have them deviate from strictly narrating the story and clearly get sidetracked by their own train of thought. Have them state clearly opinionated things, or find openings for them to comment on the narrative (or even outright disagree with something that happens in the narrative).

Anything that is not a dry retelling of facts will help you separate the narrator from the narrative, and that separation is the only place where the sexism you intend to inject can exist without it being interpreted as the author's personal opinion.

The best example that springs to mind, by far, is Lemony Snicket in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Even little inconsequential things can keep reminding the reader that they're reading a story told through the an opinionated narrator. For example:

[…] they purchased garlic, which is a sharp-tasting bulbous plant; anchovies, which are small salty fish; capers, which are flower buds of a small shrub and taste marvelous; and tomatoes, which are actually fruits and not vegetables as most people believe.

The bolded part is an interjection by the narrator that is unrelated to the facts of the story. We can argue that the other descriptions of garlic/anchovies/capers are an overzealously detailed narration but these descriptions are still on-topic and strictly factual, which is what a narrator's general tone should be at all times.
But the definition of a tomato subverts that idea, instead offering information that, while still factually correct, clearly is touching on a tangent that no longer contributes to explaining the narrative at hand and is just a personal gripe of the narrator (focusing on just how many people wrongly think that a tomato is a vegetable).

Other examples where Lemony constantly telegraphs to the reader that he is opinionated and you should not (fully) take his word as literal truth:

Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness.

Narrators shouldn't be judges of morality, the narrative should be an objective canvas. Narratives can quietly convey morality, and that's okay, but a narrator blatantly injecting it on top of the narrative makes the reader question the narrator's objectivity.

If writers wrote as carelessly as some people talk, then adhasdh asdglaseuyt[bn[ pasdlgkhasdfasdf.

This is a blatant reminder that the story is being typed by a person who clearly is writing down his thoughts and ad hoc commentary.

Strange as it may seem, I still hope for the best, even though the best, like an interesting piece of mail, so rarely arrives, and even when it does it can be lost so easily.

The narrator has hopes and desires for the story, they're not just narrating the dry facts.

The moral of Snow White is never eat apples.

The advice misses the mark. It's about trusting strangers (as they may have bad intentions, such as poisoning an apple) rather than eating any apple.

Overzealously applied advice that's being alleged to be a universally objective truth by the narrator is a good hint of a narrator who injects their own interpretation and presents it as if it were the truth. If their advice is subjective and misguided, so too can their narration be.

Honestly, almost every statement made by Lemony (the narrator/writer, not the character in the narrative, because he does appear in his own story as well) counts here, because Lemony's inclusion in the overarching narrative is specifically to keep reminding the reader that they're being told a story which is pieced together by someone. It's not an omniscient retelling of all facts, it's the story as it was pieced together by Lemony based on bits and pieces of evidence that he found during his investigation.


This answer is long enough already but I wanted to quickly visit a second example: How I Met Your Mother. This is a screenplay, but it's interesting to look at how older Ted's narration influences the story:

  • There are times where Ted stops the current narrative because he realized he needs to explain something else to make the current story make sense. This is done abruptly, and that abruptness is very intentional to remind you that this a story being told by a fallible narrator.
  • There are times where Ted intentionally censors the story, such as Ted and Marshall "eating sandwiches" during their college years. This is an on-the-fly rewrite from smoking joints, purely because the narrator doesn't want the listeners (future Ted's children) to know about this. The continued story clumsily integrates the so-called sandwiches into the narrative, such as the characters referring to "rolling your own sandwiches", being worried about the cops finding the sandwiches in their bag, hiding their sandwiches whenever someone walks in the room, characters commenting on how their dorm room is so stuffy that they feel less hungry by being in this room (i.e. the equivalent of a contact high), ...
  • There are times where Ted plainly points out that he doesn't know a particular thing because he himself wasn't there, and then continues on with what he imagines must have happened. This is a comedy show so his imagination is comically implausible, but that comedic tone is not inherently required.
  • Once or twice, Ted realizes halfway through a story that he's actually mistaken and the thing he was telling actually happens later in the story. This is intended as an unsatisfying cliffhanger / awkward foreshadowing.
  • Not frequently, but once in a while the story is interrupted by the children who ask for clarification or point out a seeming contradiction in the story so far.
  • Once or twice, Ted tells a lie to surprise the listener. Young Ted talks to a stripper, and old Ted (the narrator) abruptly says "and that is how I met your mother". When called out on it, he says he's kidding and continues the "real" story.

All of this serves one purpose: reminding the viewer that this story is being told by future Ted, the events are not happening "live", so to speak.


The comedic and whimsical nature of A Series of Unfortunate Events (especially the constant overtone of needless interjections and excessive detail and definitions) makes it easy for the narrator to comically inject opinions and comments, and the same goes for How I Met Your Mother.

If your story is more serious, which I would infer based on wanting to include a sexist narrator, it might be harder to justify why the narrator is interjecting so much.

But the principle remains the same: distance your narrator from strictly identifying with the narrative. They cannot be the same if you want your narrator to have opinions of their own.

4
  • "Narrators are generally given the air of omniscience and moral framework for the story." Nothing could be more wrong. First person limited narrators abound, and they are neither omnisicent nor moral nor, always, reliable. (This is at the same time also a reply to your comment to my answer.)
    – Ben
    Feb 23 at 6:35
  • @Ben: First person narrators are inherently humanized by virtue of what makes them first person. You're giving an example that fits the answer, not one that disproves it. But I should have pointed out more clearly that the phrase you quoted refers to the default expectation of a narrator, i.e. when no effort is made to indicate that the narrator is a person with opinions.
    – Flater
    Feb 24 at 6:26
  • You are wrong. The third person omniscient narrator is not the default narrator in fiction today. There has been a shift beginning with modern literature at the end of the 19th century from third person omniscient to third person limited narration as well as a rise in first person narration. Omniscient narrators are rare today, and first person narration is almost as prevalent as third. There no longer is a default narrator.
    – Ben
    Feb 24 at 7:18
  • @Ben: "default" does not mean "predominant". You are sidetracking the context of this question.
    – Flater
    Feb 25 at 4:32
1

Only naive people will confuse the author for the narrator (unless the text has an autobiographical air to it). I would not pay any attention to that perceived danger.

The question is then how to shape the story. The protagonist's moral wrongs may lead to bad outcomes: He makes others unhappy, loses important relationships or has economical disadvantages as a result.

You can also choose to let your protagonist go unpunished or even be rewarded. People will probably call that "provocative" because a desire for justice is a cultural constant across the ages, and it will go unfulfilled.

If you do not make your position as the author obvious, there is a certain danger that your character will collect "wrong friends". This happened to the author of Watchmen:

The creation of Rorschach [a masked vigilante who is one of Watchmen’s main characters]—I was thinking, well, everybody will understand that this is satirical. I’m making this guy a mumbling psychopath who clearly smells, who lives on cold baked beans, who has no friends because of his abhorrent personality. I hadn’t realized that so many people in the audience would find such a figure admirable. I was told—this was probably 5 or 10 years ago—that apparently Watchmen has quite a following amongst the right wing in America. [...] I think I understand fascism [...]. But if this stuff can be so fundamentally misunderstood, it does make you wonder what the point of doing it was.

Personally, I find literature that's obvious in its morality boring. Life is complicated, moral and societal norms are in constant flux, none of us is Jesus, and we all must navigate a complex reality full of complex relationships amidst conflicting desires and interests. Anybody who claims that there are simple answers is delusional or malicious.

By all means, write ambivalent, interesting stories that pose a challenge to the readers (or viewers).

0

One way is to have bad things happen to your narrator, precisely because of his/her sexist views, then have some characters (possibly even the narrator themselves) comment on it.

You can see how this works in this question I asked on Literature.SE. The narrator is clearly racist (since he repeatedly used the racially-charged word kafir), and the setting is clearly racist (since it dealt with a war between white men and black natives in the 19th century), yet the punchline was that after we die, everyone's bones look the same and you can't tell them apart. How can you justify racism then?!

Stoffel Oosthuizen added that, no matter what the difference in the colour of their skin had been, it was impossible to say that the kafir’s bones were less white than Hans Welman’s. Nor was it possible to say that the kafir’s sun-dried flesh was any blacker than the white man’s. Alive, you couldn’t go wrong in distinguishing between a white man and a kafir. Dead, you had great difficulty in telling them apart.

“Naturally, we burghers felt very bitter about this whole affair,” Stoffel Oosthuizen said, “and our resentment was something that we couldn’t explain, quite. Afterwards, several other men who were there that day told me that they had the same feelings of suppressed anger that I did. They wanted somebody – just once – to make a remark such as ‘in death they were not divided’. Then you would have seen an outburst all right. Nobody did say anything like that, however. We all knew better. Two days later a funeral service was conducted in the little cemetery on the Welman farm, and shortly afterwards the sandstone memorial was erected that you can still see there.”

Unfortunately, if the theme of your movie is not sexism, this might not work for your setting.

0

If the narrator is also a character (maybe one that's not introduced till later), make sure to include personal/opinionated phrases like

  • "If you ask me, they should blah blah"
  • "Personally, I believe that blah blah"

And also address the audience

  • "Don't you think it should be blah blah? Never mind you, I say it should be."

The distinction here being that a neutral narrator (aka author) would not state personal opinion so openly. Later on, the character (who voiced introductory narration), can say those exact things out loud to reinforce it was their opinion during narration.

Rick Riordan's "The Trials of Apollo" is introduced and narrated through the titular Apollo who is also a character, and an arrogant prick. However he develops into a better person over time, and the tone of the narration matches his development. While reading that book, never once did I think it was the author that was an arrogant prick, even early on.

0

Here is one idea of how to do it, which kind of echoes what Flater said in their post about humanizing the narrator:

Voice the sexist character as sexist as they need to be, without editing or trying to soften the language or adjust to the audience's sensibilities... capitalize on the attention grabbing effect this has.

Then immediately after the offensive dialogue, or even interrupting the dialogue, have something funny or embarrassing happen to the narrator that is unexpected. Suppose the narrator is describing how women are expected to do all of the cooking and that after all cooking is an easy task to do, and that he is disgruntled because there was no food waiting for him so he is just snacking on some bland cracker biscuits feeling bitter. Just then his wife returns, calling through the doorway that she is sorry that it took so long but she had to go to three different stores to find a spiral cut ham which is his favorite food that they traditionally always make on his birthday. Then as she is describing the ordeal he realizes that he forgot it was his birthday, and just then she picks up the biscuit crackers he was eating and says "I know you like to spoil Rex (the dog) but we mustn't feed him too many of these treats the vet says he needs to lose weight" and he realizes he was sitting in his recliner eating dog treats and that explains why Rex was giving him such a strange look.

By contradicting the seriousness of the arrogance of the narrator with self-deprecating humor or an unexpected situation that makes the character look foolish it disarms the audience's contempt for the sexist remarks, you give the character some instant karma so that in a way you are punishing the character on behalf of the audience, and then they can put aside their dislike, being reminded that it is only a character and not the overall message of your work or of the story. It could even potentially make the character likeable despite his sexist viewpoints.

-1

Why would you care at all how you are coming off for the intended audience? No matter how many techniques and disclaimers you put, someone in any larger audience is always eventually going to be offended. Focus first and foremost on quality of your writing and making a compelling and interesting story; readers could forgive you coming off as sexist, but they won't forgive bad writing. If you are going to take a controversial stance, grow a pair and do it with 100% commitment. Shielding yourself by the proxy of a narrator will give off vibes of you not having the balls to walk the walk.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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