Giving Out Information

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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. You see 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.

Second Introductions

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This last Thursday I posted the first third of a short story that starred a pretty deplorable character. Jake was either born without ethical restraints, or else he managed to sand them away over time. Also, he happens to be a jerk. Particularly vicious was the scene where he sees a stranger and proceeds to scathingly critique him as one of the lowest dregs of humanity.

And yet, I actually intended for that scene to ultimately make the audience feel more sympathetic to Jake. In time, as more of his character is revealed, it will become evident that that vicious mockery is more inwardly directed than outwards. Jake still has problems, and is still the story’s villain, but he is more of a victim of his actions than anyone else.

As I wrote the segment where Jake mocks a stranger I allowed myself to be crueler because of my knowledge that it was self-reflective for him. However I also knew that the reader wouldn’t have this information, and so might misread the moment. And that was intended.

It’s almost unavoidable at the beginning of a story for readers to make first impressions and take all that they are shown at face value. One of my favorite things is when an author is aware of these two facts, and structure their story so that it will support the readers’ in their initial perceptions upon a first reading, and then challenge them upon a second.

I could, of course, have opened the story by establishing how much Jake loathes himself, but then the audience would have been sympathetic to him from the outset. That would have limited their ability to despise him, so instead I let him introduce himself as he believes himself to be: creepy, unrepentant, and cruel. When at the end of my post he started applying these sorts of labels to himself, the readers only heard him echoing their own thoughts for him. Perhaps as they come to see how miserable he is they might feel bad for having made those initial judgments.

Or maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll feel he is only receiving his just desserts. Either way, the reader will be making a choice, thus be more actively engaged in the story, and thus be more affected by it.

 

A Christmas Carol)

In writing my story this way I’m actually paying homage to one of my most favorite tales of all time: A Christmas Carol. When we are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge we are not told first about his unhappy childhood, about how he was banished from his home by an unfeeling father. We don’t hear about his immense poverty and his drive to become something more. We don’t know the tragedy of how that misguided ambition ultimately lost him the love of his life.

No, we do not hear about those things until later, so that there can be nothing in the way of our reviling this bitter and cold man. All we know at the outset is that he is cruel, deservedly despised, and we very easily dismiss him.

But then, as these sadder elements of his life are unfolded, we find ourselves grieving for the lost child still within him and we are deeply relieved when his soul eventually finds its reclamation. From the first impressions we are able understand why the world is so disbelieving of his dramatic transformation, but by the end of our journey we are believing of it ourselves.

The fact is, if Charles Dickens had laid out the story to capture our sympathy for Scrooge first, then his reclamation would not have tasted nearly so sweet. To despise a character, and then pity him, and then joy for him is a far more moving arc than any other arrangement of those same sensations.

 

Citizen Kane)

Another favorite example of this is from the film Citizen Kane. Charles Foster Kane is not a very pleasant person. He happens to be rich, powerful, and a genius, but also pompous, self-righteous, and manipulative. He possesses a constant hunger for more, and by his obsessive and overbearing nature he manages to sour his every relationship until all that remain in his household are the servants.

We’ve seen how he demands control of every situation. He tries to force love and friendship from those that would have given it willingly. He wants to own happiness, to buy it. He lavishes the woman he loves with gifts until she feels smothered and ends the relationship. It is almost pitiable, except for the fact that he is wholly responsible for his own suffering.

Then he dies with a single word on his lips: “Rosebud,” which is revealed to be the name of a sled he played with as a young boy at his parent’s home. There he was happy, and it was a simple and authentic happiness. Tragically that moment of bliss was taken from him suddenly, and he has never since found it again. Just like that we understand his enigma.

We realize that he has been made afraid of all good things being taken away. He wants to be in control so that he won’t be hurt again. And, ironically, it has been his avid pursuing that has lead to his constant losing, a vicious and never-ending cycle of loss and clutching.

 

Empathy)

In all of these cases the understanding that dawns on the reader is not meant to excuse the main character’s flaws. What they have done is still just as wrong, but now at least we see the motivations that led them to do those wrong things. Actions can be both wrong and understandable, after all. and the beginning of prejudice is when we forget that there is a humanity behind the mistakes people make.

I think we can all agree that the world needs more stories like these. I’m not going to get political on this forum, but it is clear that intolerance for opposing ideals is a depressing epidemic of our lives. It’s not wrong to want this world  to be better, but society will never be improved via argument or insult. If someone doesn’t agree with your particular point-of-view then there is an understandable, even if misguided, reason for that. People don’t need to be forced into becoming better, they only need a sympathetic voice that truly hears, understands, and validates their concerns. When nurtured in this way people will naturally recognize their own faults and rise to their best.

When it comes to writing, though, this sort of sympathy for a negative character can be difficult to pull off. It’s difficult to do in real life, so of course it would be tricky in the written word, too. I don’t mind admitting that I’m nervous about tackling the subject with Jake. At the very least I do understand the template to follow: first introduce the character as they are perceived, then reveal them as they actually are.

Come back on Thursday to see how I iterate with that in the second entry of Phisherman.