Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Having Your Character Sound Like An Idiot For The Sake Of Your Story

I’m due to turn in another chapter for one of my crit groups tomorrow, and once again I find myself scrambling to finish it on time. Sigh… To be honest, I’ve avoided this chapter for the last several months, keeping my crit partners at bay by handing them revised versions of earlier chapters, but they’ve made it clear I can no longer get away with that. They want new stuff.

The chapter in question is a sequel chapter. Things have calmed down after the frenetic events the protagonist has just been put through, and now it’s time for her (and the reader) to catch their breath and be given some explanation (from the protagonist’s new partner) about what the heck just happened.

So here’s the problem. There’s going to be a fair amount of explanation at this point, and based on what my crit partners have dinged me for in the past, I know they’re going to complain that:

1). I have too much dialogue, and 
2). I’m dumping too much information on them at once. 

So I’m struggling with deciding how much to say now and how much to save for later.

My natural inclination is to answer all the protagonist’s (and reader’s) questions as soon as possible (at least the obvious ones) because that’s how things tend to work in real life. But there are so many obvious questions I know my crit partners will complain if I answer them all.

The general rule is that you don’t hand information to the reader until they need it, but that’s not always the best strategy. If you wait until you absolutely HAVE to give the reader some information, it often turns into an infodump that kills the pacing, and the reader barely has a chance to digest this information before it becomes relevant and the action begins. I’ve gone back over some of my favorite fantasy books to see how those authors did it, and to my surprise, they rarely waited until the reader absolutely needed the information. Instead, they sprinkled it out over the course of the story, kind of like a trail of breadcrumbs to keep the reader reading along.

But back to my dilemma. How can I go about having my MC not ask all the obvious questions? How can I save some of them for later? As usual, I ran to the TV/movie theater to see how those writers do it, and the answer turns out to be quite simple. Pretend the character is an idiot (or at least is so flustered their mind isn’t working as it should). I’m serious. I can’t count the number of times I’ve railed at a TV/movie character for not asking a few direct questions that would immediately occur to anyone with an IQ over 1.

For example, if the character has just been rescued by a stranger with superhuman powers, instead of asking who the stranger is or how does he have superpowers or why he was attacked in the fist place, the character will ask something like: Are you an alien? Kind of an off-the-wall question if you ask me. A question that even once it's answered, still doesn’t tell the character or the reader much. And, even worse, when the stranger answers no, the character usually kind of stops asking questions. Arg!!!!!

But as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, dialogue isn’t real. It’s written in a way that maximizes the entertainment value of the words. So who cares if a real person would have asked all these questions? If the author thinks it’s better to withhold the information, then they just don’t have the character ask those questions.

The trick for writers is to figure out how to do this without making the character sound like a moron or without pissing off your readers that have an IQ over 1.



  1. I've been accused of not giving enough information, thus confusing the heck out of my reader. One of the people in my group actually said she enjoyed the way I just dove in with a "you'll catch up" attitude. Another CP in Taiwan said "I am really impressed. This is usually pillow throwing, head banging, omfg levels of "WHAT IS GOING ON", but you're somehow carrying it through sheer force of personality." I take that as a compliment. :)

    Maybe between the two of us we can figure out a good balance.

  2. Giggling over your description of railing against characters that are idiots! I usually try to justify it as the character is in shock. I mean, why else do they ask the alien question?
    And, like Loni, I don't always give all the information - although I do stop now and then and have characters talking about stuff that feels somewhat obvious. I try to "tighten" the dialogue as much as possible, or have the dialogue take place in the middle of something else - like a fight scene, or a running away scene (hey, even heroes have to realize the odds are a bit against them sometimes) or a serious "we must meet with all of our allies" type of scene in which everyone is trying to argue (and catch each other up).
    But, as a reader and a movie-goer, I get what you mean - how long could a realistic Lois Lane not make the Clark Kent and Superman connection? At what point does the rescued person turn to his/her hero and freak out or expect answers? It seems like it has to happen sometime.

  3. Idiots! The world is full of them.
    I think you have your answer. Have the character ask questions that will give the answers you need to connect the dots, but make a lot of them dumb questions. Could lead to some fun dialogue.

  4. There are a few things to consider. 1. When someone has just been through something traumatic or frenetic, they may be in shock and not thinking clearly enough to ask all the questions. They will need to collect their thoughts. Stuff may only occur to them later, at which point they say, "Yeah, but . . .?" and ask it then. 2. They may have internal reasons for not asking. They don't completely trust someone. They don't want to look like an idiot. Whatever. 3. Often they may ask but then be interrupted. Something happens (attack!), or the person answering has reasons to dodge the questions or answer evasively.

  5. I figure hey, as long as the reader gets caught up in the plot and doesn't question it, it's fine.

  6. I know what you mean, and I see M has provided excellent tips for helping with this. My stories are usually high action, so characters don't have the time to think about those obvious questions.

  7. My advice is going to be: If this is the first draft, you are over-thinking it. Get the information in however and whenever you can squeeze it in. It is okay if your CPs complain. I'll repeat that. It's okay if your CPs complain. If this is the first draft, note their complaints and fix them in a later draft.

    First drafts are supposed to have information in all the wrong places!

    Now, I'm off to try and follow my own advice ... erg.