Sunday, May 3, 2009

Playing fair with readers




Playing unfair can take different forms, but these are all likely to be unsatisfying for the readers.

When the character has esoteric knowledge

My favorite mystery novels and stories are those where both the reader and the detective have access to the same information, but the detective draws the right conclusions from it. For instance, take Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Silver Blaze”, which features the famous statement about “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”. Holmes simply realizes that when watchdogs don’t bark at visitors, it’s probably because they’re familiar with those visitors.

In contrast, there’s an Agatha Christie novel – The Murder at the Vicarage, IIRC – where the antagonist fakes the timing of the murder by using picric acid, which is explosive and sounds like a gunshot when it’s detonated. I admire Christie’s use of chemistry and toxicology in her books, but this came completely out of the blue. There were no clues that the reader could have used to at least try to figure this out (a good example of such a clue occurs in the novel Sad Cypress).

When the character has intuition

Gavin de Becker’s non-fiction The Gift of Fear focuses on intuition and how people can listen to this subconscious warning. What’s interesting, though, is that in all the examples he provides, there’s a reason behind the intuition, although this reason may not be immediately obvious at first.

For instance, if you’re made nervous by someone who crowds you in a subway, it could be because they’re in your personal space although there’s plenty of room, or it might be because they’re dressed far too warmly for the weather. That kind of intuition is fine. The kind I dislike, in stories, is when the character just happens to know something that the reader doesn’t – and no reason is given for this.

Very often this special knowledge is introduced through the word “somehow” (as in “Somehow she knew she could trust him”) so that word has become a red flag for me. There has to be some reason for this – evidence, experience, logic, reasoning, telepathy, what have you.

When the character has read the script

This can be a little more difficult to spot, but it’s an even greater problem. It’s when the character never even considers an idea or a course of action, despite this being what most reasonable people would do under those circumstances.

This isn’t the same as rejecting such an option because the character has access to secret knowledge that the reader doesn’t. It’s when the character seems to have read the book beforehand and knows that they won’t gain anything by that course of action.

I like it when a protagonist doesn’t choose the logical, reasonable course of action for good reasons – for instance, not calling the police about a stalker because there’s some evidence that said stalker is actually one of the cops. And it can be even more enjoyable (though painful too) when the protagonist faces the negative consequences of their actions or is even shown to have made the wrong choice entirely.

But when the character has this kind of author-like awareness, they’re always right. And that’s not playing fair with the reader either. It’s one thing for a character to be very intelligent – readers can usually imagine that – but to give the character omniscience is going too far.

This one can be tough if you’re the writer, because you have to separate your own awareness from that of the characters. You have to be solidly in their minds, so that even if you-the-writer know something terrible will happen to them if they make a certain choice, the characters genuinely believe they’re doing the best thing and they walk into the trap. George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords has a great example of this.

And that’s playing fair. It’s playing hard and merciless and maybe hurting everyone, but it’s playing fair.

8 comments:

GunnerJ said...

Interesting corollary to the idea of characters having "esoteric knowledge": you can use this to make a protagonist more sympathetic by making the antagonist completely aware of all the behind-the-scenes plotting and scheming the protagonist finds himself/herself in.

There the reader is, following this poor main character through all sorts of trouble for an inexplicable reason, and then the bad guy comes out of nowhere almost taunting the good guy with tidbits of information about what's really going on, without actually giving anything away.

At this point, both the reader and the protagonist will want to (a) know more, and thus (b) have few problems with going after the antagonist to beat (literally or otherwise) that knowledge out of him/her.

What do you think?

blakemp said...

This is exactly the reason I hated The DaVinci Code. I don't care about the controversy, I get irritated when the author conveniently leaves out the name of the painting that evidently is the clue to unlocking Puzzle #274 in a series, but which Langdon -- naturally -- is totally aware of.

Then the characters congratulate each other on how smart they are.

ralfast said...

It is important to know what characters know or don't know, to avoid leaps (or gaps) in logic and having them act in ways that make little sense.

I prefer my villains to make educated guesses about what is going on and try to exploit the situation there in as opposed to having them play Palpatine (I really hated that part of the prequels, among other things).

kimmirich said...

Great great post! Hope all is going great for you.

gypsyscarlett said...

Good post. (per usual)

The one thing I'd have to disagree with is: "Very often this special knowledge is introduced through the word “somehow” (as in “Somehow she knew she could trust him”) so that word has become a red flag for me. There has to be some reason for this – evidence, experience, logic, reasoning, telepathy, what have you. "

- I have no problem if a character in a book instantly feels something towards another character (whether it be trust/distrust, like/dislike. Because that's how it often is in real life. We get these intuitions, but often don't know where they come from. So, I wouldn't expect an author to say, "She knew he could be trusted because he reminded her of her kindly uncle."

Marian said...

Hey GunnerJ,

Sorry I took so long to reply to this. The antagonist being smarter isn't a problem for me. As you mentioned, it's great when the villain is intelligent (one reason Tywin Lannister was such a memorable character).

It also makes the protagonist into the underdog, and most readers can't help rooting for those.

And especially if the protagonists are very brainy, they need antagonists who can at least equal them in wits. Sherlock Holmes would have looked ludicrously overmatched if his nemesis had been Watson rather than Moriarty.

Marian said...

Hi blakemp, thanks for commenting!

Another reason I probably won't read The Da Vinci Code. There just seemed to be too much hype about that book.

Marian said...

Hi Tasha,

I have no problem if a character in a book instantly feels something towards another character (whether it be trust/distrust, like/dislike. Because that's how it often is in real life. We get these intuitions, but often don't know where they come from.I have two caveats about such feelings. The first is that the feelings are not perfectly correct all the time, unless the character is an empath or a telepath. And maybe not even then, because it’s no fun to have a protagonist who’s right all the time.

The second is that the readers should be given a chance to figure out or confirm what the character knows through his or her feelings (again, playing fair).

For instance, if the heroine feels that her new traveling companion can’t be trusted, but there’s no evidence to support this feeling and the reader has to take it on faith, that’s not the same as having a scene from the companion’s POV or showing little “accidents” happen to the heroine after she joins the companion.