39. The fourth wall – how readers collude with writers

A U Latif offers good advice to a writer – read, read with an author’s eye, study how the writers you enjoy achieve their effects.

I’ve been re-reading Michel Tournier’s The Ogre. His character, Abel Tiffauges, is a monster, a French prisoner of war who finds his vocation in Nazi Germany, carrying off on horseback Prussian children for a Nazi military school. I was powerfully struck by it when it was first published, almost half a century ago in a Europe still struggling to come to terms with the horrors of the Second World War. In an epoch when we are coming to terms with the magnitude of child abuse, the book resonates with new horrors.

This reading I made with an author’s eye. I wanted to understand how Tournier makes such a repellent character so fascinating. What is it about Tiffauges’ voice that arrests us? The basic answer is that Tournier meticulously creates his character’s world. At the core of that world is Tiffauges’ discovery of his obsession with portophoria – the ecstasy of carrying a child in his arms. A whole world view is built up around this, a philosophy, even a theology.

The curious thing about this authentic and utterly engrossing voice, is we know it to be false. I don’t mean that his belief system is a false belief. I mean we know that the erudition with which this world view is constructed is Tournier’s, not his character’s. Tiffauges, by his own admission, was an inattentive student at school and before the war liberates him to pursue his perversion, he works as a garage mechanic in Paris. Yet without demur, we suspend our disbelief concerning his grasp of philosophy.

The discovery of that suspension of disbelief was really interesting to me. We do it, of course, in the theatre, where the audience imagines a “fourth wall” through which they see the action on the stage. But I hadn’t realised that we do it as readers.

John Crowley, writing in Harpers, points to an even more surprising suspension of disbelief, where fiction is a simulation of reality rather than a real portrait of it. For us in the real world, time goes forward, with the ending of our stories unknown. Fictional characters inhabit worlds whose plots are events seen in the light of their endings. In our world, Crowley says, “causes produce effects; in novels, effects bring about causes.”

What are the limits of this collusion between writer and actor? Were Tiffauges to speak with a voice that was not of his time, if he were to say, for example, “whatever”, we would instantly detect something wrong. If a character has a heavy use of dialect or slang, or pauses and says “umm” or “like” too often, or speaks in the rambling and disconnected structure of real speech, the reader quickly lose interest and patience. Dialogue in fiction is more precise and polished than real speech. It is a simulation, not a copy, of how people really speak to each other. We don’t just accept the “fourth wall”, we insist on it. The odd slang word is enough to create in our minds the whole cadence of a voice. A few hesitations here and there allow us to form a picture of a character who speaks haltingly. A little goes a long way.

Equally, in stories written in the first person, we accept and expect that the narration may have an eloquence and flow that is absent when the character speaks.

So how do we, as writers, avoid a character’s voice becoming our voice? It’s a common problem, which I share, that our characters can all end up being us. The trick, for me at least, is getting to know your characters well. They’re not just ciphers for the author’s project. Of course, they’re all our creations, but they have their own lives, their own needs and obsessions, their own limits and strengths. You can’t make a character do something that doesn’t come naturally to them. Some are kinder than us, others are more skilful than us, and some are wholly alien.

A few tricks can create the illusion in the reader’s mind of an authentic voice. Verbal tics and mannerisms for example, remind the reader whose consciousness they are in. The opening lines of Catcher in the Rye are a good example:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, an what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

We instantly get a clear sense of voice. The rhythm of the speech is one long opening burst, sixty three words long, one tumbling over the other. Once Holden Caulfield has launched in, he slows down. The next sentences are shorter and more measured. We also hear the adolescent bravado in the dismissive adjectives “lousy” and “crap”, while the “if you want to know the truth” mannerism offers truculent placation.

Recurring physical mannerisms also reinforce our awareness of character. If the character twists her wedding ring around her finger, we wonder if she really wants to take it off. In my novel A Prize of Sovereigns, Byrom, the “bad” king persistently strokes the battle scar across his face that twists his smile into a macabre grin. He likes the scar because men fear it and it hides his youth.

What brings a character to life for us is entering their mind, understanding how he or she sees the world and interacts with it. That is what makes us forget the fourth wall.

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