Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Phedre no Delaunay: a Ridiculously Close Look

I've been talking a lot here about how people tend to speak and act in accordance with their histories, their culture and their language background. As a person who has always been somewhat frustrated to hear intangible things described on a general level, I thought it was about time for me to take this discussion to the level of words. So what I'm going to do is take a sample of a character's point of view and tell you why I think it works the way it does. In ridiculously close detail.

One of the nice things about real human discourse, i.e. the way people talk under normal circumstances, is that people can't stop representing themselves as they speak. They may try to influence that representation one way or another, but you can take almost any sample of recorded speech and pull meanings out of it.

My immediate thought: shouldn't the representation of a character's point of view be as rich, and as full of hints about background, world, and attitude? Well, it sure can be. I think this is what they call narrative voice.

Let's take a look at the character of Phedre no Delaunay, from Jacqueline Carey's novel Kushiel's Dart. I'll just start where her voice starts and give you a few analytical musings.

"Lest anyone should suppose that I am a cuckoo's child, got on the wrong side of a blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a shortfallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me."

This is awesome in terms of multi-layering. It's effectively a statement saying "This is who I am." Not much, right? But it's so much more.

First word: "Lest". This already places us in a particular type of environment, with historical/classic overtones. Add to this the use of "got" for "conceived," and the appearance of the words "peasant," and "shortfallen season." These are uses of dialect to place the protagonist in a historical setting, specifically one where there there are peasants working the land. That's pretty precise already, for never having said anything explicitly about the historical time period. These dialectal words also place the protagonist as a member of the culture in this time period, as opposed to someone observing it from the outside. Maybe even implies that she's a bit earthy, to be talking about the circumstances of her conception with such gusto. (Earthy doesn't begin to describe it, of course.)

Next: "cuckoo's child." This phrase places us pretty solidly on earth, because though there might be birds roughly translatable as cuckoos elsewhere, the metaphor drawn from the way the cuckoo places its egg in another bird's nest is uniquely earthly, and also historical. (As is the associated "cuckold.")

Next: "House-born." The idea of a great House is one that many people are familiar with, and it has appeared in many SF/F contexts, but it does reliably suggest nobility of some kind (an unusual kind, in this case), a keen sense of pride in breeding in the protagonist, and the importance of lineage in the culture surrounding her. Since the association with nobility is so strong, Carey does well to follow this with:

"and reared in the Night Court proper." This phrase immediately answers the question of what kind of nobility we're looking at - her choice to use the word "the" suggests that the Night Court is both unique and well-known to our protagonist, while the word "Night" rouses curiosity. What could the Night Court be? How can I find out? (Keep reading, of course.) Establishing curiosity is one of the most important things an author can do in the first paragraph of a book.

Okay, so far so good. Let's look at some of the larger constructions in the sentence.

"Lest anyone should suppose..." For this one I'm less concerned with "lest" and much more with "suppose." To use a phrasing like this implies that whoever this protagonist is, there is a distinct possibility that someone actually might suppose that she's "a cuckoo's child." Otherwise, she wouldn't even mention it. Funny how the denial of a thing admits that it is a possibility.

Next: "sold into indenture" If this phrase were less specific, we might be inclined to think that something bad happened to Phedre but that we're looking at a metaphor for her unfortunate status. But "sold into indenture" is so specific that I think we can reasonably assume from this alone that she actually has been sold into indenture. Another big source of curiosity, at least for me. I shake my head and say, "She got sold into indenture? How?" And I keep turning pages.

Finally (but not exhaustively!): "for all the good it did me." Love this. It says "I have good breeding and noble upbringing but despite this I'm in big trouble." And what is more compelling than an interesting (not to mention attractive), well-grounded protagonist in trouble?

So in one single sentence Carey has given us:
1. historical setting
2. culture of protagonist
3. attitude of protagonist toward: nobility, breeding, sex, servitude
4. current employment of protagonist
5. sense of urgency (being in trouble)
6. curiosity, curiosity, curiosity

It's no wonder I was hooked.


  1. This is an interesting observation with a great example. Thanks for sharing! :)

  2. You're welcome. I'm glad you found it helpful.

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  5. It's certainly well-written in that the word economy to reveal so many layers is amazing. Still, I suspect it's a matter of taste. I don't usually read this genre so I find it boring, and it seems that the writer tries too hard to cram as much information in a single sentence as possible. It loses some authenticity for me (meaning, the narrator is too writerly). It's also all tell, even though there are layers of information, since the narrator is TELLING us everything, and you have no idea if it's true or not. So it comes down to whether a) you like the character's voice, and b) you like this kind of narrative. Personally, I find it a bit boring and would prefer to be "shown" instead of a wholesale summary to reveal her background in one short sentence (cuckoo's child, House-born). It's just me. :)

  6. Hi, Ray, thanks for coming by. It is indeed a matter of taste. I will disagree with you that this is all telling. The part that is factually divulged, about her origins etc, is told - the part about her attitudes and her world view is shown. I can see how you'd get the impression of its being too "writerly"; however, it is an accurate representation of what you'll get in the book going forward. If her attitudes and world view (the shown information) don't matter to you, then it's not a book you should be reading, because this book works on the charisma of the main character. The funny thing from my point of view is that people cram attitude and world information into what they say all the time, but because it's "real world" information, it usually goes unnoticed.