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What your characters don't know

The book I'm reading right now has gotten me thinking on one of my biggest peeves when it comes to story-telling: when the reader knows something really important to one of the main characters, that the MC doesn't know.

As I reader, I love it when I figure out some vital piece of information at the same time as the MC. It's a exciting bit of synchronicity, and it makes me feel even more connected to the MC and their conflicts.

Not figuring out something until after the MC figures it out is okay. It's great if it's an ah ha! moment, where the character says something and then all the pieces fall into place for me as well. When it's an 'are you really quite sure?' moment (because the pieces given don't seem to fall into the place the MC thinks), that's less good, because it often means the author made a leap that the story doesn't quite support. But I'm fairly forgiving of that, because I do read quickly and sometimes I miss stuff, and at least the MC knows what the heck's going on even if I don't.

On the other hand, it drives me crazy when I've figured something out and the MC is still puttering along in ignorance, making mistakes and taking wrong turns because of it, while whatever-it-is seems more and more obvious to me by the page.

Unfortunately, this happens more than I'd like. One of the problems with being a writer reading is that I know a lot of the tricks. I know how *I* would foreshadow certain things and set up others, and so I catch on pretty quick. So a lot of the time it's not really the author's fault (although there certainly are cases where an author foreshadows too heavily, and most readers are figuring the twist out well before the end, and I'm sure that annoys everyone).

So it's almost worse when the author has done this *on purpose*. In the book I'm reading right now (and in other books I've read in the past), the reader is clearly meant to know that a certain character is untrustworthy and up to no good. And yet one of the main characters is blithely ignorant of this, blinded by hero worship.

I suspect this is done as a way to generate tension. Readers will know something bad is going to come of the MC helping the clearly no-good character. What could it be? When will they finally figure out the character's true colors? etc. etc. But it's a kind of tension that I really don't enjoy. Because it makes me stop caring. If the MC is so stupid/biased as to ignore what's obvious to anyone with half a brain, why should I care what happens to them? I'm mostly just frustrated on behalf of the other MC, whose plans are going to be screwed up by the stupid one.

Of course, there are occasions where this can work. I'm perfectly fine with:

-The MC is briefly led astray but before long starts to catch on and suspect that the not-good character is not-so-good. The MC must have very good reasons for ignoring any initial signs of the character's not-so-goodness--the better the reasons, the longer they can go before they really really need to start catching on. For instance, this sort of scenario works in Avi's THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE because Charlotte is completely conditioned to trust the authority figure, and the men on the crew are so unlike the sort of people she's grown up with that it's unsurprising she doesn't trust them. For her to have changed allegiances any earlier would have been unbelievable.

-The MC suspects from the beginning that the character is up to no good, but purposely ignores their suspicions because of other benefits offered by siding with the character. Which means, even if the character is selfish or greedy, at least they're not stupid! (Though obviously if you stray too far into selfish territory, you risk losing the reader's sympathy for the MC that way.) Take Tally in Scott Westerfeld's PRETTIES--she knows the Special Circumstances people are scary and she wants to keep her promise to Shay, but she's finally convinced that she has to help them in order to have the life she wants. Her choice is completely understandable.

But when the MC remains completely ignorant for most of the story, especially if they have no pressing reason to ignore the evidence--blah.

The example of a not-so-good character can apply to any sort of ignorance. Basically, if you want to have the reader know something your MC doesn't, IMHO it's best to give the MC strong reasons for ignoring/not noticing the signs the reader will see, and/or to have them start unraveling the truth shortly after the reader will have figured it out. Sure, you may get some tension out of the MC's ignorance--but think of all the juicy conflicts that can arise once they realize they've been mistaken or misled!


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 7th, 2008 03:55 pm (UTC)
I completely agree -- of course, I seldom actually read all the way through a book like this (where we know the MC is an idiot), because I can't take it :)
Nov. 8th, 2008 05:18 pm (UTC)
Yeah, the only reason I've stuck it out with this one is there are two main characters (and the other isn't an idiot). :)
Nov. 7th, 2008 04:21 pm (UTC)
I just a finished a book where the boy that the MC likes obviously likes her back--and yet she spends the whole book insisting he doesn't like her & is just using her. At first it was cute--I was looking forward to watching her figure it out--but after a while it became almost absurd.

It is a fine line to walk. Great post. ^.^
Nov. 7th, 2008 04:39 pm (UTC)
I believe I was just about to mention this very book in my post. I suspect that it may have something to do with being hungry...?
Nov. 7th, 2008 05:19 pm (UTC)
Ahaha, actually no, I meant another book. But I agree with you--the MC of the book you're talking about had better figure it out by the sequel, or I will slap her. ;D
Nov. 8th, 2008 05:19 pm (UTC)
Ack, I hate that, too! Not recognizing a character's good intentions can be just as frustrating as not recognizing bad intentions. :P
Nov. 7th, 2008 04:39 pm (UTC)
I am so there with you on this!
Nov. 7th, 2008 10:49 pm (UTC)
AAAAA-MEN! I have experienced this so much lately! Sometimes I stick with the book anyway for other reasons (a genre I want to get into, an author I want to see what all the fuss is about, I paid for it...etc.) But it drives me crazy! I have to have respect for the MC on some level in order to bond with him/her and how can I do that when the author drags out the blind stupidity chapter after chapter?

It's almost like they need to fill space, so they rehash the same befuddled thoughts over and over and I think CRIPES, get on with it! It seems a good writer would be able to generate better devices to move the story forward with out relying on the ignorance of the MC to lengthen the story!

I'm going to link to this, because it has been on mind so much lately. Thanks for the backup!
Nov. 8th, 2008 05:21 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the link! And yes, it often feels like filler to me--gotta have conflict! Let's have the MC struggle with the same obvious issue for 200 pages! :P
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

My Books

Earth & Sky
(Earth & Sky #1, science fiction YA)
Skyscape/Razorbill Canada, 2014

The Clouded Sky
(Earth & Sky #2, science fiction YA)
Skyscape/Razorbill Canada, 2015

A Sky Unbroken
(Earth & Sky #3, science fiction YA)
Skyscape/Razorbill Canada, 2015

The Way We Fall
(Fallen World #1, apocalyptic YA)
Disney-Hyperion, 2012

The Lives We Lost
(Fallen World #2, apocalyptic YA)
Disney-Hyperion, 2013

The Worlds We Make
(Fallen World #3, apocalyptic YA)
Disney-Hyperion, 2014

Those Who Lived: Fallen World Stories
(Fallen World #3.5, apocalyptic YA)
self pubbed, 2014

Give Up the Ghost
(paranormal YA)
Henry Holt, 2009

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