How far can we allow our characters or our narrative voices to be more ignorant than our readers?

I didn’t think this was a difficult question, but after listening to the latest episode of Writing Excuses I’m not so sure. In this episode they talk about the gap that sometimes exists between what the writer and reader knows of the world and what’s written on the page. I thought they were going to be talking about the dramatic potential in this, but instead they mostly discussed the pitfalls. The fact that, if a character says something inaccurate about science or a historical setting they’re living in, the reader may see this as ignorance on the author’s part and so be thrown out of the story.

True, sometimes this does reflect the author’s ignorance. But a lot of the time that’s not the case. Mary Robinette Kowal discussed a story she’d written in which a character was unaware of prejudices common in her setting. This was a deliberate move on her part as an author, and the book went on to address those prejudices and tensions. But for at least one reader she spoke with it became a block to reading the book. That ignorance on the character’s part seemed so implausible to her that she couldn’t go on with the story – she thought Mary was missing something crucial.

You can get around this sort of problem by lampshading it. Have the character be ignorant of something but have the narrative voice draw attention to that ignorance. But what if the character is providing the narrative voice? And how much lampshading can you do before that too becomes irksome to readers? Then it becomes much more difficult.

Of course this sort of gap can also be a powerful tool. Think of the dramatic ironies in J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, when characters at an early 20th century dinner party talk of the unsinkable of the Titanic and the impossibility of war in Europe. Or the tensions in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games books that arise from Katniss’s lack of awareness of her own circumstances.

But writer beware – it seems you can’t just throw those ironies around with glee. Be careful what your readers will think of your writing skills and how that will colour their reading of the book.

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Comments
  1. glenatron says:

    One of the cleverest examples of this I’ve encountered is in Gene Wolfe’s work. I mean he’s a reasonably bright guy ( I think Neil Gaiman is of the opinion Wolfe is the most intelligent man he’s ever met ) and he really loves an unreliable narrator. Because his settings are usually his own, this doesn’t risk breaking science or history, but because the books I have read ( in the New Sun series and the Wizard Knight ) are first person it his hard to judge what parts are or aren’t trustworthy. The New Sun is particularly clever being set in the distant future and in that case told by a character who makes no claim to intelligence but often observes that he is gifted with a perfect memory. It was only when I was reading around the topic later I saw an observation someone had posted that if you go through the books and find every point where the protagonist describes something we have already witnessed in the story, he gets it wrong. Once you know that is the ground you are on, it becomes part of the game, but I guess that the risk is that your audience is expecting you to be playing football when actually you are playing chess, and is then disappointed by the story that plays out.

    • I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with that audience expectations point. The more I learn about writing technique the more I realise how central the art of setting and meeting expectations is.

      I do love an unreliable narrator. Might have to read some Wolfe at some point – New Sun’s looking like the place to start.

      • glenatron says:

        I would say so. The Wizard Knight is also brilliant but very different- set in a high romantic setting of chivalrous knights and ogres, but told through the eyes of a young boy given the body of a man in this land very much based on the norse/saxon mythologies. I haven’t read any of his other work, but I certainly intend to.

        The thing I notice with the New Sun is that it is kind of episodic and dreamlike- the storytelling is indirect and diffuse, not like many other things I have read. I think it would be impossible to read it as a writer yourself and not to find elements of Wolfe-ishness creeping into your own writing. Really good.

        • Your definitely becoming my main source for recommendations on the more literary end of fantasy. I’d say I was putting these on the list for future reading, but it’s less a list now, more me coming back and reading these comments.

          • glenatron says:

            I find reading this inspires me to at least think about getting my writing back in order. It’s always nice when you discover common ground like this, although it makes me wish we had hung out more when we had the opportunity over the time we’ve known each other, as we clearly get along very well.

            • I’ve been thinking the same thing. Will have to make more of an effort when we’re in the same field together from now on.

              And if I’m inspiring you to get down to more writing then I feel like I’m doing something good. Huzzah, as they used to say in swashbuckling days!

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