Writing: Narrative Layering


Writing: Narrative Layering

By Will Greenway

When portraying the human psyche in fiction the concept of layering is unavoidable. Humans are complex animals and our minds are never idle, continuing to process even when we sleep. Dreams are a raw example of our layers of thought and memory, haphazard tapestries of re-spun memories cast out of context and replayed in fragmented and off kilter scenes. Fiction isn’t a portrayal of real life, but a magnification of perceived life. In the reenactment of pseudo reality, characters need to be drawn in a extra lucid fashion, structuring emotions, surface reactions, decision considerations, justifications, and speculations.

Emotions are the first and highest level of a character’s portrayal.  They are the oblique aspect of character outwardly revealed to the reader.  Physical registers are the most effective technique for broad depiction of intense emotion. However, emotions have many nuances and couplings. These more subtle aspects typically require some kind of inner dialogue. This is the sub-emotional layer, the emotions behind the emotions or the rationalizations of the feelings. This behavior of hashing out emotional issues with one’s self is something often seen on stage and screen. It is a time-tested 4th-wall technique for helping readers (and viewers) to grow more invested in the conundrums of the every-man and every-woman.

Surface reactions go hand-in-hand with emotion.  Where emotion is largely a right-brain phenomena, surface reactions are more left-brained, and grow out of a character’s intellect and background.  An example of a surface reaction is prejudice. Strong prejudice can evoke emotion (thus this layer is beneath the emotional layer), but the bias is seated in memory, justified, and intensified.  In the typical portrayal, surface reactions are actions or decisions a character makes in response to a situation that affects that person’s needs or desires.  Example: the kidnapping of a loved one that engages the otherwise passive protagonist.  Like emotions, surface reactions are subject to nuance.  The hero who goes after the mob boss because his girlfriend is kidnapped, but also because has a secret grudge against the syndicate for sins against his family.

Emotions, reactions, and their nuance are the immediate narrative that the writer uses to the get the reader invested in the characters.  Like real life, fictional life rarely has just one thing going on.  Characters are often faced with a series of conflicts of varying degrees that they must navigate.  The choices they make say things about their character.  The pacifist who chooses to fight to save his love for example.  A simple fairly un-nuanced choice.  On the other hand, the assassin who decides to protect instead of kill can have many ramifications and requires setup.  Like the emotional discussions justifying feelings, there is the justification of action (or inaction).  Like everything in the human psyche they tie to and are biased by emotions, and interpersonal bonds.  A narrative that lacks the inner monologue of character agonizing over their tough choices can feel flat.

Justifications and speculations are the last aspect of layering.  They are the voices in the character’s head.  Shadows and specters sent by fate to torment the already beleaguered hero: nagging doubts, guilt, regret, vanished friends and family. These voices are texture trowelled in between the other layers.  Like cement, they hold the layers together, giving more weight and realism to the protagonist.  Readers more easily identify with a character that has doubts and forges forward against the pull of their misgivings.  At this level are also the moments of clarity, the inner dialogue that results in the ‘ah ha’ moment or the gaining of resolve to face the final enemy.

When developing characters, especially your protagonists, consider showing all their layers in action.  The depths of their psyche as well as the most obvious emotions and thoughts.


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