Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ways in which protagonists can be wrong

I once read that a character whose perceptions are equal to reality is likely to be a Mary Sue.

In other words, when this character meets and likes Bob, Bob turns out to be a good person. When the character has an unpleasant feeling about Carol, or “somehow” decides not to trust Carol, it’s later proved that Carol is working for the Dark Side. There are no real surprises. Such characters are as right as they are dull.

So I decided to find some ways a protagonist can be wrong and still remain sympathetic.

Trust the wrong person

As long as the protagonist has reason to trust the wrong person, this works very well. If our protagonist has just moved to a new city where he was promptly robbed, but a stranger helped him out and offered him good advice, he might think well of that stranger.

The writer would know that the stranger was the mastermind behind a body-snatching business. The readers might realize it as well when the scene changes to the stranger’s point-of-view. But to the protagonist this is a kind person who offered much-needed assistance, and that’s how it should be until evidence comes along to change his mind. And it should be good evidence – people can be very stubborn when it comes to emotional attachments.

Believe what isn’t true

There’s a controversial view that the Aztecs believed the Spanish conquistadore Hernan Cortes was their god Quetzalcoatl. Whether that’s true or not, characters don’t have to go that far. They could practice small superstitions, such as leaving a candle burning through the night so that the sun will be sure to rise in the morning.

That might not only seem true to their culture, but it’ll contribute to their overall three-dimensionality. Modern readers may like them as a whole, but may not be enthused by their strange beliefs, especially if they hurt the character, e.g. believing that she must give coin to beggars and then not having enough left for a good meal.

Deduce something wrong

Sherlock Holmes’s and Hercule Poirot’s most memorable moments were when, despite their brilliance, they reached the wrong conclusions. I remember Poirot doing this in the short story “The Chocolate Box”.

Let characters work with the information they have, rather than the information the author has.

Misunderstandings that make sense

This isn’t about the heroine seeing the hero hugging another woman and jumping to the conclusion that he’s got a girlfriend, when the other woman is always his sister/cousin/stepmother. This is about the kind of misunderstanding that can’t be easily cleared up in two sentences, the kind that anyone might make.

The central conflict of Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel depends on just such a wrong assumption. After inheriting a large chain of hotels and a larger chain of debts, the penniless Abel Rosnovski learns that an anonymous beneficiary has provided financial backing that will allow him to own the hotels. Believing he knows who his mysterious backer is, he acts on that belief – and he’s wrong.

I love that kind of thing.

Many of the mysteries in Agatha Christie’s novels depended on small details that were taken the wrong way by protagonists, at least initially. Language barriers are also good ways for characters to be wrong.

And these can provide comic relief as well. I used to volunteer in a thrift store in the Middle East, and spent a lot of time picking up and rehanging clothes that customers had looked at and then dropped on the floor. At one point I got tired of that and told such a customer, in Singhalese, “Could you please pick up those clothes?”

My Singhalese is not very good. Apparently what I really said to her was, “Could you please raise your skirt?”

I was advised to speak to the customers in English from then on.


gypsyscarlett said...

"My Singhalese is not very good. Apparently what I really said to her was, “Could you please raise your skirt?”

Too funny! What was her response?

Marian Perera said...

She stared at me as if poleaxed, then complained to the volunteer staffing the cash register.

Thankfully that was my mother, so I escaped with just a talking-to once my mother stopped laughing.

Anonymous said...

Misunderstandings can be great. I based quite a bit of humor in my first book on miscues of language between a Puerto Rican speaking American English and his half-brother who spoke the Queen's English.

Hilarity ensued.

Also, you have to be very careful to segregate what the author knows from what the character knows. It can ruin a plot very quickly if you don't.

April Plummer said...

Great post! I agree with all things you listed. It's funny though - when I'm reading a book, and there's a giant misunderstanding, I get very anxious! Anxiety over a book! Drives me crazy, but definitely a good kind of crazy!

Maria Zannini said...

Ref: “Could you please raise your skirt?”

LOL! At least you weren't a man. Can you imagine the customer's reaction then? She'd have the cops on you.

Also, it's a shame you have to TELL people not to be slobs.

Marian Perera said...


"Also, you have to be very careful to segregate what the author knows from what the character knows."

Right. And sometimes this can be an easy mistake to make, especially when it comes to small details.

April : Oh, I feel anxious too - provided there's a good reason for the misunderstanding and it can't be cleared up in a hurry!

Maria : many of our customers were housemaids, so I think they spent their days picking up other people's clothes and didn't want to do so when they were shopping as well. Still, it was tiring to keep following them around to retrieve the clothes.

But not as bad as the day I saw some activity going on behind the racks and investigated to find a woman fitting clothes on to her small child. Her small naked child.

Shannon said...

"My Singhalese is not very good. Apparently what I really said to her was, “Could you please raise your skirt?”

Ahh humor ... one person's shame becomes another person's joy. If misunderstandings didn't happen, we wouldn't get memorable moments like this.