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.