On Thursday I posted the second part of Instructions Not Included, at the end of which I noted that some readers will see more significance in the discoveries being made by the main protagonist, Gavin, then he will. Gavin is a bright child, but he still has a lot of education and life experience ahead of him, which prevents him from seeing how his inventions fit into the bigger picture. I don’t believe readers will hold his ignorance against him, though, that ignorance is simply the story being true to his character.
If, however, Gavin had been written as a grad student at a University working on a PhD in molecular biology, things would be different. If he had had that background and still wasn’t seeing the deeper significance behind his discoveries, we would feel frustrated at him for not knowing the things that he should already know. And this, in fact, is the first guiding principle for how how much knowledge a story’s protagonist should have of their own world.
Characters Should Know What They Should Know)
Though it sounds obvious, there are many stories that fail to write characters whose knowledge or intelligence is consistent with their background. Consider the common complaint of horror films that the behavior of their victims is stupid beyond plausibility. The average viewer will say “I would know not to split up when a serial killer is on the loose, so why don’t you know not to do that?!”
Now, to be fair, the author of the horror film probably isn’t ignorant of their subjects’ ignorance, they know perfectly well that their behavior is unbelievably stupid. The thing is that the horror story has a unique requirement. Its purpose is to make you, the audience member, face situations that you wouldn’t subject yourself to in real life. It is necessary for you to be dragged into a situation that is uncomfortable so that you will become jumpy.
And one of the easiest ways to accomplish this is just to halve the IQ of every main character. Now you are tethered to a moron that will make choices you would never make, and put you in situations you would never want to be in. It works…but it also leaves the viewer in a frustrating relationship with the film.
Of course characters shouldn’t be too intelligent either. A child can be precocious, but once their wisdom stretches the limits of plausibility they start to be annoying. I admit this is one area I am worried about with Gavin in my story. I believe it is plausible for him to be curious and experimental, but I am anxious as to whether his scientific testing goes a bit too far. In the end I’ve just had to make a judgment call, and it will be up to the individual reader whether I rendered him in an acceptable way or not.
Choose an Appropriate Perspective Character)
The obvious takeaway from the previous section should be that you need to choose your story’s perspective with care. And to be clear, your “perspective character” is not necessarily the same as your “main character.”
For example, in To Kill a Mockingbird the main character is “Scout” Finch as a young girl. The perspective character, though, is Scout many years later as a mature woman. The story is being told to us as something that happened quite some time ago. This construct skillfully avoids the pitfall of an overly-precocious child, because the social commentary comes from the mature version of Scout, not the childhood one. This is a wise choice, because the story deals with heavy themes, including racism and abuse, which young Scout simply doesn’t comprehend. The end result is we get a voice of wisdom on these matters, but without having our illusion of younger-girl Scout compromised.
Another example of careful selection in the perspective character can be found in Moby Dick. In this tale Captain Ahab is the protagonist, but the story is told through the lens of Ishmael. This setup is well-chosen, because it allows for us to witness Ahab’s insanity from the grounded perspective of a rational observer. In fact this approach adds an element of mystery because the exact depths of that insanity are only made known to us as they become apparent to Ishmael.
Once a perspective character has been chosen, then the author needs to be respect the union that has been made between that character and the audience. The audience expects to be this person in this world, and they won’t take kindly if that relationship is cheated.
Don’t Show Things to the Perspective Character and Not the Audience)
So what do I mean by cheating the relationship between the perspective character and audience? Once the reader has identified which character facilitates their view into the story they expect to be privy to everything that that character is. Furthermore, they expect to be kept ignorant of everything that that character is, too.
Let’s look at an example of this in the Sherlock Holmes. In these Doyle has chosen as his perspective character John Watson. Sherlock Holmes, of course, is the star, but Watson is the one telling us things as he sees them. And Watson is extremely serviceable in this function. He is an intelligent man, but he is not the demigod of intuition than Holmes is. Watson observes only as much as the average audience members would observe if we were in these situations, and that allows us to be delightfully outsmarted by Holmes.
Take for example the often-repeated sequence where the great detective will reveal astounding things about a complete stranger, all deduced from the vaguest of clues. The audience is never frustrated with Watson for having overlooked those same clues, because they wouldn’t have noticed them either.
Sadly, though, this careful selection of the perspective character has somehow been lost on most film and television adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. In these the perspective has always been changed to be Holmes’s. In these shows and movies we hear Holmes thoughts, we zoom in on the object that he’s looking at, we see his problem-solving process firsthand. We don’t ever have these same insights for Watson, he is now just an unnecessary side-character.
This could still work out, but then the show/movie reach a climax with an ultimate revelation, one where Holmes pins the big badguy down by an amazing show of insightful perspective… And most often he does it by pointing to evidence that we never saw. Suddenly we feel cheated. Holmes revealing that he secured a clue while the camera was turned the other way is not impressive, it is insulting.
When we share the detective’s perspective, then we expect to be able to solve the case ourselves if we are intelligent enough to manage it. If they solve it and we do not, it needs to be because they were smarter than us, not because they had secret information. Again, it’s fine for them to have secret information if our perspective character was Watson, but not if it was Holmes.
Don’t Have a Character Perspective)
Of course another solution that some stories can employ is to just not give us a perspective character. Instead of seeing the tale unfold through one of its actor’s eyes we instead have the events recited to us by some omniscient narrator/author. In this setup the reader’s perspective is their very own selves. And here an interesting little development occurs.
From this setup it doesn’t matter so much what knowledge you do or don’t give to the reader, they will accept it. You can tell the story with the wisdom of a sage, or the petulance of a child. You can selectively withhold information, you can even tell the audience member that you are withholding information. You can tell them one thing, and later tell them that you lied and really it was something else.
And all of this is okay.
Consider the film The Usual Suspects. This film is shown to us entirely in flashback, the events explained by a convict taken in for questioning. He is our narrator, and what he tells to us and the police is a complete lie. At the very end his deceit is revealed, but the audience feels satisfied rather than cheated. Why? Because we weren’t actually there when these supposed events were happening, we only ever heard about them secondhand. The film has not broken the relationship it established with us from the beginning.
There is clearly a lot of power possible in a story that has no character perspective, though the trade-off is that it can be harder for the audience to immerse themselves in the tale. An author will have to weigh these different strengths, and choose what is best for their own situation.
On Thursday I will be posting the third section of Instructions Not Included. The perspective in that tale has been a little mixed, the voice telling the story seems to be a dispassionate narrator, but the events are limited to only what Gavin sees. The audience is absorbing the same facts that he is and there is a small bit of Gavin’s mental process on display, but virtually nothing of his emotional state.
I have been alright with this so far, because this whole segment has been meant as the introductory chapter to a theoretical larger work. If this were ever part of a bigger story this would just be the introduction where the ground rules are established, and then the real character-driven plot would follow immediately afterward.
I’m going to start signaling that transition by reintroducing Gavin’s brother with this next section. His presence will require us to settle more firmly into Gavin’s perspective, just in time for the dramatic shift at the end of this sequence.