Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What your character doesn't know can hurt him/her (in dialogue and internalization)

To get this topic started, I'm going to start with an example. The following exchange is one I revised yesterday morning:

Initial Draft:
"Young master," said the First Houseman's quiet voice. "The Arbiter of the First Family Council..."
"Oh, thank you, Serjer," said Tagret. "Has he sent a reply?"
"He has come to see you, sir."

Revised Draft:
"Young master," said the First Houseman's quiet voice. "The Arbiter of the First Family Council..."
"Oh, thank you, Serjer," said Tagret. "What does he say?"
"He has come to see you, sir."

The difference isn't huge, but it is important. I changed Tagret's question from "Has he sent a reply?" to "What does he say?" The reason I changed it is because in writing the first question, I had lost sight of what Tagret knows and expects - specifically, that Tagret would automatically interpret his servant's mention of the Arbiter to mean that a message had been received. He would not ask whether there was a message. He would ask what the message was. That still leaves plenty of room for him to be surprised that the Arbiter has come to see him, and it keeps him from seeming dazed or appearing to point out the obvious. Here's my point:

What your character says and thinks will change completely based on previous knowledge and expectations. 

Possibly the mystery/police procedural writers know this best. Entire plots can hinge on a slip of the perpetrator's tongue, something to indicate the person knows more than he/she claims. "No, I haven't seen Grizelda's goldfish." "Aha, but I never told you what Grizelda had lost!"

This is also an excellent way to reveal a character's bias. Here's another example from yesterday: Tagret wants to reveal to the Arbiter that his brother has a congenital mental problem, but first he asks the Arbiter to promise not to blame his mother - a promise that the Arbiter readily agrees to because he's a nice person. The way he talks about it afterward, though, reveals his position on the underlying matter.

"You've already said you wish to protect your mother for her involvement..."

The Arbiter, helpful as he is, does believe that the mother is responsible for the problem with her son. If he did not feel that way, he would say something like,

"You've already said you wish to protect your mother from any accusation..."

When I'm critiquing, there are two types of problems I typically see which arise from the writer not keeping the character's knowledge and expectations in mind. The first one is when a character seems not to know basic parameters of interaction in his/her society. This is pretty common in early drafts where all the details of a world haven't yet been worked out, so it's not necessarily a huge problem, but it's still one that needs to be addressed before the final draft. If the character is speaking or internalizing on the basis of a relatively blank slate, in the worst case he or she may appear shallow or stupid. Watch out particularly for the less extreme case, when a character may appear younger than the age the writer specifies. This is very often due to insufficient evidence of social knowledge in the character's actions, speech and thought.

The second type of issue I run into is what I'll call over-instruction. The character doesn't naturally demonstrate bias or social knowledge through phrasing in dialogue and thought, so the writer realizes that the reader may forget that this person is biased and society works in the way it does... and has the character make overt statements of bias or explanations of social structure. This isn't always quite as obvious as "as-you-know-Bob" dialogue, but it's worth watching out for.

Avoiding over-instruction is not the same as avoiding instruction altogether. There are plenty of contexts when people (particularly young people, but also adults) get instructed about how the world is supposed to work. However, it's important if you're going to include instruction to make sure that you're not solely acting as an author instructing your reader, but that the context of instruction is also one that would occur naturally in your society. In my book, the Arbiter's job is something like that of a high school guidance counselor, so he's full of advice, even in the same conversation:

"Tagret, you need a manservant, and you need one now. Do you want to remain helpless until the end of Selection?"

"You'll need to write your own inquiry letter, but you may use this one as an example."

"You realize any manservant would have [saved your life]... You can't afford to let fondness influence your treatment of servants. Given your brother's current position, we need you to be as strong as possible, politically."

Notice that Erex is ready to tell Tagret that he's showing too much fondness for a particular servant - but he doesn't bother saying anything about where servants rank, or whether they have value, because he considers that evident (his own servant is standing right behind him at the time). He makes the instructional point in order to get to what he considers more important and central to the conversation, namely Tagret's reputation as a potentially strong political force.

This makes me think that I need to come up with another checklist post, for setting up social parameters. In any case, it's something to think about.

For those of you who have been anticipating my return to worldbuilding hangouts, I'll officially be resuming those next Wednesday, January 11th. I'm looking forward to chatting with you all again!


  1. I always love your posts because you touch upon nuances that can have a huge impact. Please do a checklist!

    I find what I call revision artifacts too -- bits of dialog that is no longer accurate due to a revision change. They're hard to catch because as a writer we're used to knowing it and reading it but it's so important to doublecheck things to make sure a character still knows that info.

  2. Thanks, Angela! I'll work on a checklist and see what I can come up with. You're right about revision artifacts (my friend Janice and I call it "revision smudge). Good things to look out for, and thanks for the comment!

  3. Wonderful post as usual, Juliette. I take it you figured out the problem with that interaction? I love how you provide examples, and I can't wait to see the novel :).

  4. Thanks, Margaret! Well, without examples it's hard to show what I'm actually talking about. I appreciate your comment.

  5. Possibly the mystery/police procedural writers know this best. Entire plots can hinge on a slip of the perpetrator's tongue, something to indicate the person knows more than he/she claims.

    This is why I consider my murder mystery fan fiction the most valuable writing exercise I've ever done. Crime fiction has a way of making the mechanics of writing and storytelling more visible.

  6. Heidi, thanks for commenting! I think that mysteries by their very nature require very tight and precise plotting. I'm sure responding to that demanding style would make for improvements in genres that don't *require* as much precision.