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The I of the Swarm

Photo by Max xx

This post concerns character and voice, but I’m going to start by discussing bees. And Denis Diderot.

In his novel Rameau’s Nephew, Diderot disputed the notion of a distinct and singular human personality. He considered this a holdover from the days of superstition—it smacked of a soul, and other discardable pieties.

Using as a mouthpiece a fictionalized version of the composer Rameau—who was constantly obliged to curry favor with patrons, placate audiences, appease musicians, hold off creditors, sweet-talk paramours—Diderot argued that we assume a given role depending on the social circumstances we face, with completely contradictory roles required in different places at different times.

[pullquote]Who am I supposed to be?[/pullquote]

Instead of being steadfast and certain—our “true nature,” or the image of God—human character more resembles a swarm of bees, comprised of dozens, even hundreds of individual poses or personas swirling around a void.

If one of those personas feels more solid or firmly rooted, that’s only because habit, created by the daily assumption of that particular role—dutiful daughter, friendly neighbor, taskmaster boss—has made it more routine, familiar, natural.

But all it takes is a sudden or drastic change in social setting and we find ourselves asking: What’s expected of me here? Who am I supposed to be?

Characters in drama and fiction owe their existence to the human capacity for personalization. Gods and monsters are the humanized faces of elemental forces of nature or the deeper aspects of the psyche.

In Why We Read Fiction, Lisa Zunshine argues that characters evolved from the need of ancient man to intuitively assess the motives of strangers, which over the millennia transitioned, as Diderot suggests, into the stereotypical social roles we assume to “play well with others.”

Whatever the source, we come pre-equipped and then further develop over our lifetimes an extensive inventory of internalized personalities who provide the raw material for our fictional characters.

Photo by Robynejay

Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle, compiled an entire catalog of characters premised on moral type—the flatterer, the coward, the newsmonger, the backbiter, the braggart, et cetera. This kind of classification helped form the comic characters of Theophrastus’s student Menander, and a century later those of Terence, but its influence continues into modernity. English writers especially found Theophrastian characters useful, all the way through the 19th century. Fielding, Smollett, Thackeray, and Dickens employed them—they suit nicely the satirical purposes these writers pursued—and one often finds hints of them in secondary or comedic characters even today.

Look no further than the website TV Tropes [3]. The section titled “Characters as Device [4]” is populated by contemporary Theophrastian characters: Always Second Best, Cop Boyfriend, Nazi Grandpa, Perky Goth. (One might add Elmer Fudd, Foghorn Legorn and Pepe LePew to the list.)

Even when we probe deeper, trying to make our characters more “real” by providing psychological complexity through contradiction, mixed motives, buried secrets and the like, we can’t help but rely on these mental simulacra, because they form the inner representations of personality we carry in our minds. They comprise the first level of language of characterization.

But if characters come from the swarm of bees Diderot identified, what of the void at the center? Is that the writer? Am I really nothing but the wind in a hall of mirrors?

[pullquote]Great writers have great voices[/pullquote],

This disturbing idea, that there is a strange insubstantiality, a kind of lack of gravity at the very heart of our lives, hardly vanished with Diderot. Nietzsche famously remarked: “The doer is just a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything.” Heidegger believed in a self but he argued it was an accomplishment, not a gift; it’s something we do, not find. Sartre, with his famous dictum “existence precedes essence,” dismissed any notion of a fundamental self, believing like Heidegger that we create our identities through the daily struggles of life.

Only a pinhole of nothingness—consciousness, a kind of watchful disembodied “I”—resides at the center, calling to mind the Buddhist concept of No Self, which in its faceless, bodiless calm escapes the ravages of desire.

Photo by Matley0

As my characters begin to feel more solid to me, more vivid and free and real, I sometimes experience that same sense of immateriality that Diderot and Sartre and the Buddhists describe. No matter how firm my grasp on who I think I am, another “me” hovers in the background, watching, appraising, keeping track.

Though this anchorless sense of self isn’t so extreme I’m afraid I might wake up one day to discover I’ve turned into a cockroach, I do at times feel a little south of steadfast. Something’s in play. If not my persona, my identity, my soul, then what? And yet who’s asking this question if not “me”?

Such questions no doubt delight philosophers, but for a writer they’re quicksand. And this is why so often great writing can be identified by voice.

Voice forms perhaps the most mercurial of all the attributes of writing. It’s the hardest to get one’s mind around, the most elusive to develop in one’s own writing, and the most difficult to teach. It incorporates style (diction and rhythm), worldview (choice of topic, time, setting, and approach to that subject matter) and attitude (blithely comic, bitterly satiric, ironic, tragic, nihilistic, fatalistic, philosophical, and so on). It’s the expression of your unique humanity through words.

For a writer, voice is the “I” of the swarm.

It’s often remarked that Joseph Conrad’s fiction truly matured with his creation of Marlowe as a narrator. The same is sometimes said of Junot Diaz and his fictional avatar, Yunior. Fitzgerald’s masterpiece owes no small debt to Nick Carraway, the unreliable Midwestern stand-in spinning the tale.

What these characters provided their authors was a fictional double to speak for them, which provided an escape from the wandering void at the center of the personality. These narrators with their distinct voices provided their authors with an anchor in the whirlwind—or, to use the more common metaphor, they provided the writer with a liberating mask, helping crystalize the style and perspective and intuition that generated the fictional world on the page.

Stephen Dobyns, in his essential book Best Words, Best Order, refers to this as the inescapable deceit of the writer. Through some curious magic the development of voice permits the putting aside of ego. I am aware both that the mask of voice personifies the most compelling, insightful aspects of my nature and that, at the same time, it isn’t truly me. It allows me to focus on the work, not myself.

Great writers have great voices, which is to say they have a distinct persona embodied in their language. They may or may not realize that voice is but another character, though I’d bargain most do. Regardless, it’s a stabilizing factor, a way to ground the writing so the dizzying whirl of personas in the psyche doesn’t take over.

Editors and agents routinely admit that what they’re looking for in every manuscript they pick up isn’t just a gripping story. It’s a unique and compelling voice.

Photo by flyzipper


If you’re struggling with this element of your own writing, try to identify who in your inner menagerie of characters could best stand in for you, representing your understanding, your command of the facts, your vulnerability, and most importantly your attitude. Then stand back and let that character tell the story — create a character who can be your mouthpiece. Or choose one or two characters within the story to serve that role. Step back and let go. Assume the mask. Speak.



Have you ever had a character come to you like a figure in a dream, and sensed that the character symbolically represents some aspect of your own experience?

Can you sense a distinct persona in your own authorial voice?

Do you find it easier to write through the voice of a particular character or characters?


P.S. Three months ago, my post here [7] concerned writer Richard Smolev, who battled ALS while writing two novels and numerous stories and non-fiction pieces. Sadly, Richard succumbed to the disease Saturday morning. He was a wonderful writer, a lovely man, and a cherished friend. He was profoundly heartened by the comments Writer Unboxed readers provided in response to that earlier post. I want to thank everyone on behalf of Richard for their generosity, kindness, and support.

About David Corbett [8]

David Corbett [9] is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [10], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.