Over the weekend, I attended a convention for science fiction and fantasy writers. At one of the programs, a fellow audience member asked the panelists an excellent question: How do you convey important details to the reader through a narrative character who wouldn’t notice. If your narrator is a detective, s/he will probably be inherently observant, but not every character is attuned to every little thing that happens around them. In real life, people range from highly observant to completely oblivious. It’s no different with characters.
It was a question that particularly interested me, given the narrator of my novel The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn. Erica is the first person narrator, and while she’s far from oblivious to details, within the context of the events of the book, she’s incredibly single-minded. Her own goal is the only thing that she’s focused on, and, to her, everything else is sort of just background noise and distraction.
But I still had to get information across to the reader. More is going on with the other characters than Erica is putting together, and it was important to convey that to make them full, rounded characters to the reader, as well as helping advance the main plot. It was a tricky at points – I didn’t want Erica to come across as dense, but I also wanted to convey her state of mind and intense focus.
I handled it (I hope, anyway – LOL) by having Erica see details that she didn’t necessarily think much of. She didn’t put things together, but she did take note of things that laid the groundwork for the bigger picture. Other characters (who were putting things together) reacted based on their understanding of the situations that Erica was ignoring because of her “blinders” and I tried to make a point of putting in the narration what it was that was on Erica’s mind instead of what was going on.
For example, she’d be in a conversation with two other characters, but in between the dialogue, she’s trying to work out a plan to reach her goal. While the reader is getting information from the dialogue and putting it together, Erica is also stating outright in her narrative, “I wasn’t really listening at that point, though. I was trying to gauge whether or not I could get away with…” etc. That allowed me to do a lot of work within the scene (setup for the bigger plot as well as conveying subplot information about the other characters in the dialogue), and also showed Erica’s thought process and calculation (so she’s clearly not stupid, just distracted) and made it clear why she missed hints that were right in front of her.
An example of a character who just doesn’t get most of what goes on around him would be Rusty James from the novel Rumblefish by S.E. Hinton (there’s also an excellent movie based on the book). Rusty James isn’t so much oblivious as…well…dumb, but he’s a great character, and Hinton conveys an incredible amount of subtle meaning, emotion, and character depth in the people and events around him, despite how little of it her narrator actually takes in and processes.