Monday, July 15, 2013

The notion of 'I', objective vs. subjective

Sorry to anyone popping over from the 'Like a Virgin' contest, but I had already pre-scheduled a series of nerdy posts to go up, and this is number... 5? of 9? Something like that.

For those interested, they're posting the accepted submissions today, so jump over and critique away!

(and shred mine to bits. seriously. go for it. they cut out any personal stuff in the queries, but anyone hanging around here for a while should know which one is mine.)

Let's get into 'Voice' today.

I've already nerded-out on this topic in the past, like the one about emotional intelligence (which you might want to click/read after finishing this post), another one on obsessions, and another on decision making.

A couple weeks ago Carol Riggs linked another post about toxic personalities.

Sarah Fine also has some great psychology-based posts. I am going to re-read her series about trauma before returning to give ‘TRoRS’ another hard look/edit.

One reason I’ve heard people get annoyed by first-person narratives is the over-use of ‘I’.

Now, here’s my theory/perspective on using ‘I’, which I have never read/heard anywhere else... so, 100% opinion. Okay? Pitchforks down, grains-of-salt on hand?

1) ‘I’ personalizes an experience, so there is conscious/unconscious recognition within the character that they are filtering the world/experience through their own, unique point of view.

‘I’ = subjective.

Make sense?

So, not using ‘I’, implies objectivity.

To compare:

I think you are being an ass.


You are being an ass.

Why am I making this distinction? Because I think the level of self-awareness is the base of every ‘voice’.

Does the character believe themselves to be objective, or subjective? Which leads to:

2) ‘I’ takes/assumes responsibility for an opinion, rather than stating the ‘correct answer’.

Now compare:

I think plan ‘B’ is best.


Plan ‘B’ is best.

Depending how self-aware your character is, they may believe their view is completely objective. They would rarely use ‘I’ when describing the world around them, or the people they interact with. They would state, with confidence, this is the way things are.

In contrast, characters who are full of self-doubt, or who are deferring to another character, will inevitable tag on, ‘I think’, to clarify that they are not 100% correct.

Did you notice I did that earlier in this post?

I was intentionally clarifying that I do not believe I have ‘the answer’, I only have ‘my opinion’. There's a very good reason I never create posts with titles like, "The five ways to write better characters", because the connotation is that I have 'the answer', and even though I was in marketing (or perhaps, because of it), I always want to make sure the words I put out there are as true as I can make them.

Now, a character is not going to use ‘I’ every time, for everything, nor will they never use it. The question is, when are they confident, and when are they not?

If you are trying to correct someone’s behavior, whether it’s a boss correcting a subordinate, or a parent correcting a child, it’s a well known tactic that personalizing the bad behavior offers the highest chance of success.

What you said hurt me.


What you said might hurt someone.

The stakes are higher when they’re personal.

So, how does this figure into writing characters?

Here’s Jay, who is a famous artist at seventeen, ‘telling it like it is’ about his Art class. (Remember, ALL first-draft material) Note, there’s no use of the word ‘I’ anywhere in the first two paragraphs. In his mind, he is being completely objective:

Two girls are dabbing botched watercolor paintings with paper towels by the sink. One guy is trying to sculpt a naked women out of clay, but the disproportionately giant breasts are making it top-heavy, so it keeps keeling over at the waist. A group of girls are sitting on the desks by the window flipping through magazines, and someone else, can’t tell if it’s a guy or girl, is asleep on the floor next to the kiln. This class is a joke, full of stoners, slackers, and girls who think henna and nail art is hot shit.
Dreschner is at his easel, taking up in the only good patch of natural light in the entire room. He’s working on his own neo-modern-bullshit, which looks like several mass-produced IKEA prints threw up on his canvas.

Same scene, a little later. Note: Jay only uses ‘I’ when he’s doing something on purpose (and I will probably take out a couple of them during editing):

Around me, everyone starts moving. I yank my headphones off and catch the last reverb of the dismissal bell. Dreschner stays at his easel, a brush impotent in his hand as the classroom clears. 
I tear the page out of my sketchbook, ball it up, and whip it across the room, but miss the garbage can by a good ten feet. Dreschner doesn’t even twitch, not from my bad throw, and not when I slam my bag on the desk and shove in my sketchbook and headphones. I snag a peek at his canvas as I walk by. There hasn’t been a new stroke of paint on the thing in ages, but three times a week he sits at that easel for two hours, in the only good light, with a fully loaded brush in his hand.
Glad I’m not the only one going through a dry spell.
“See you Monday, Jason,” Dreschner calls. He sounds distracted, tired.
Washed up, maybe. Those that can’t do, teach. Isn’t that the saying?

Now, theoretically, how would this scene look if I re-wrote it from Mr. Dreschner’s perspective...? Or another student? If Jay wasn’t famous, again, I’m sure this scene would be completely different. 

Think about Jay’s conclusion in the first paragraph. Looking at his classmates, is it fair to believe they’re all stoners & slackers? Sure, maybe the kid sleeping is a slacker, or maybe he's tired 'cause he was up studying late. What about the girls with the watercolor paintings? Are they slackers, and, if they are over by the sink, can Jay even see enough of their paintings to know they are 'botched'?

Now, as a reader, did you think about whether he was *correct* about his assertions while reading that paragraph, or only now when I brought it up? And what about his view of the teacher, Mr. Dreschner? Do you believe Jay is right? Since Jay’s entire self-worth is tied into being an artist, do you think that’s playing into the way he sees his teacher?


  1. Interesting. You're right--a character that thinks s/he's being objective does suck the reader into their "objectivity", and their opinions become our own. Powerful tool, that I.

    1. I am... yes, go ahead and say/think it... I'm OCD about the strangest things... :) But I'm glad you found it interesting :)


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