Wednesday, January 16, 2013

TTYU Retro: 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 some time ago:

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

The difference isn't huge, but it is important. I changed Tagaret'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 Tagaret knows and expects - specifically, that Tagaret 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: Tagaret 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:

"Tagaret, 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 Tagaret 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 Tagaret's reputation as a potentially strong political force.

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 tomorrow, Thursday, January 17th. I'm looking forward to chatting with you all about how to keep rich worldbuilding from bogging down your story!


  1. Lovely nuance - and so appreciated by the reader when it's noticed.

    Which is the job of the writer to provide, not to just go with the first acceptable version that gets most of the facts into evidence.

    My biggest complaint with fiction I ALMOST like is exactly that: it needed a couple more passes by the author for the subtleties and the niceties and the nuances and the little gifties.

    Things readers may not even notice until the nth reading.

    I love fiction which allows an nth reading. I have my lists - I'm sure others have theirs.

    Mine includes The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and the later Dorothy Sayers mysteries, and even the original Sherlock Holmes.

    1. Thanks! I notice that a lot, too. I appreciate the comment.

  2. I look forward to the hangout because I was going to ask you anyway - in relation to this post - how does one work in world detail without it seeming encyclopedic? You've already kind of answered that, but more examples would be lovely.

    PS thanks for following ;)

    1. Yes, there will be more at the hangout (and in the report). You're welcome!

  3. This was particularly timely. I'm in the middle of doing a second layer on a novelette to flesh out the way the world works from INSIDE a character's perspective and it's... eye-opening. Will check all the interactions against this. Thank you.

    1. Well thanks, I'm glad to be of help! Good luck with your project.