What Your Narrator Doesn’t Notice

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.

Making Connections

One of the most common questions people ask writers (especially speculative fiction writers) is, “Where do you get your ideas?”  For me, the answer to that question is, everywhere.  The hard part is turning an idea into a story-worthy conflict with three-dimensional characters, and making sure the idea doesn’t overshadow the actual content of the story.

I’ve picked up the habit of keeping all my ideas (woefully unorganized), even the ones I will probably never use.  Notebooks with scribbled ideas in the margins, grocery lists with character concepts scrawled in next to the shopping, cut and pasted files in my writing directory on the computer, scrap files taken out of other stories…ideas everywhere.

Why?  Because having all that junk to look over helps me combine ideas, and combining ideas is fun, as well as useful for brainstorming full plotlines out of things that, alone, wouldn’t make much of a story.  It’s like going antiquing for a room you’ve only partially furnished – you browse around, find some good stuff, get ideas of what you do and don’t want for the room, remember something you saw over at the dollar store that would fit in perfectly, realize you want to re-paint the whole room, whatever.

The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, when I first came up with the story, was a combination of a dream, a question, an interest in mythology, and my desire to write something in a world where I could make all the rules from scratch but still have a modern, conversational narration style.  When I knew there was a book in my head was when this alternate-dimension dream I had combined with the hypothetical question, “What would you do with your last hour if you knew you were going to die?”  Once I had the basic setup in mind, I thought about what kind of book I wanted to write, what setting I wanted to spend a couple years in while I wrote it and revised it, and what kind of protagonist I wanted to spend all that time with.  The domino effect took care of most of the rest of the concepts for the book, since the tone required a certain type of narrator, the establishment of that character drove the action and events, the action and events would require these types of consequences in this world, etc.  It was really a very easy book to plot, for the most part, because I knew what I wanted the parameters to be before I even started it.

Now, the book I’m planning for NaNoWriMo is much more complicated – it’s not as linear, it’s a much broader scope, it’s in multiple points of view, there are interlinked subplots, and it’s the first of a trilogy.  Oddly enough, the first idea that sparked my desire to write it has now been cut entirely out of the book.  As it stands now, the things I’ve left in the plotline came from the following sources:  two characters I cannibalized from (terrible) novels I wrote as a kid (age 10 – 12), ideas from I Ching readings I did for my original character concepts, a brainstorm session of conflict mapping, research sessions on the historical scientific and technological effects on the development of societies, photos of Florence my mom brought back from her trip to Italy when I was young and impressionable, and – again – a clear idea of what kind of book I want to spend my time writing and what characters I want to spend my time with while I’m working on it.  Some of them, I want to spend time with the way you can’t help looking at a car wreck, but still, the fact remains that I’m drawn in by them.  If I’m still curious, even though I already know what happens to them and what choices they’ll make, I consider it a good sign that readers will be interested in them, too.  Let’s hope, anyway – haha!

Long story short (too late!) it’s not just where you get your ideas that’s the pertinent question.  A better question to ask a writer is, “How do you connect your ideas?”  Go brainstorm.  It’s fun.  🙂


While I haven’t yet started the hopefully-final draft of my current novel, I’ve learned a heck of a lot in the process of writing this book.  The last novel I finished (six years ago) is a big wad of mistakes tangled around some good ideas, and it’s beyond me still how to extract the good stuff from the mess.  So when I started the first draft of my new book – The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn – I took a very different approach.

In the past, I’ve agonized over rough drafts, trying to make them as close to final drafts as is humanly possible, the idea being to eliminate as much of the rewrite process as I could.  Truth to tell, that’s worked great with short stories, but a novel is a whole different animal.  The trouble with trying to write a perfect first draft is, it takes forever, and the content is not always as pertinent to the story as you thought it was at the time.  You get too focused on the details, and lose sight of the big story.  The details are much easier to go back in your rewrites and fix, though – mess up the big story, and you may never figure out how to untangle the good from the bad.

In addition to writing, I also dabble in graphite drawing.  One thing I learned from drawing is, if you get the whole picture sketched out and make sure that everything is proportionate and that the composition is strong, then when you add the shading, you’ll end up with an excellent picture.  If you start filling in shading before you’ve finished your outline, however, you’ll usually notice (eventually) that your perspective, proportion, and/or composition is off, and trust me, you will never get the picture to look right if you’ve already started the shading on a badly-done sketch.

So when I started my rough draft of The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, I applied what I learned from visual art to written art – I thought of the first draft as a sketch.  I did it quickly and stayed loose with it, making adjustments but not getting too attached to any one line, removed what didn’t work and didn’t fill in all the empty space (subplot) until I’d finished the main storyline.

My first round of rewrites was heavy work, but, for me, it’s much easier to add material than to cut it.  I had lots of ideas for subplots, and tons of notes about the secondary characters and their backgrounds that I didn’t know whether to include in the manuscript or not during my whirlwind first draft.  When I sat down to work on the second draft, I looked over what I had and made notes about what was needed, what felt like it was missing, where the characters came off flat, etc. and coordinated that information with what I had made notes about.  All I had to do was expand on ideas that had already occurred to me, figure out where it made sense within the story and how it would affect the larger plot, and shape the story accordingly with the new material.  Almost everything “missing” was accounted for in my notes, and although it was hard to come up with the stuff that wasn’t accounted for, it was muuuuch easier than cutting out the “extra” notes that I’d made for things that really wouldn’t have worked.

The third draft, which I just finished last week (weeee!), I had some beta readers’ feedback to work from.  The majority of the rewrites on that round were for clarity, consistency, maintaining the readers’ suspension of disbelief, pacing, and improving scenes that weren’t working or weren’t working well enough.  There were still a couple areas of major expansion, but for the most part, it was troubleshooting.  I imagine the next draft will be no expansion and all troubleshooting (though that may be wishful thinking – haha!) but I’ll have to hear what my theta readers (is that a term?) have to say about that!  *grin*

Shadow Characters – Part I

Psychiatrist Carl Jung, like Freud, defined the subconscious by breaking it down into separate “parts”.  In Jung’s breakdown, the Shadow self is the part of ourselves that we hide (or hope to hide) from others – things we’re ashamed of about ourselves, flaws, weaknesses, vulnerabilities – things we may not even want to admit to ourselves are the case.

In literature, it’s common to find characters who represent the shadow self of the protagonist, even when the author wasn’t consciously writing with that intent.  In high school, I took an awesome elective class on Shadow Literature, in which, essentially, we spent a semester psychoanalyzing books – not authors, books.  Ever since then, I’ve been finding shadow characters everywhere, and I notice the parallels and contrasts in my own characters and their experiences in a way I never did prior to that class.  At times, it’s just been fun to note, but sometimes it’s been extremely helpful in fleshing out characters, drawing out interesting dynamics between the characters, and/or providing intriguing role reversals in the storyline.

I’ve written here before about the importance of giving character traits a little balance – making it clear that your good guys aren’t perfect, bad guys aren’t pure evil, and keeping in mind that we’ve all got a little of our opposite within us.  It’s essential to making interesting characters.

What makes shadow so fun to play with is, you can externalize some of that opposite within and let it out.  Let me illustrate using Batman (hah!  I KNEW I’d get Batman into my blog somehow, someday!) and the Joker.  The thing that makes Batman my favorite superhero ever is the fact that he walks a razor’s edge between complete diabolical insanity and self-sacrificing heroism.  He’s a hero, but he’s always struggling to hold back his own demons, as well as the various super villains he comes up against in Gotham City.  Toward the innocent, he’s compassionate and philanthropic, but he’s a vigilante, using his own judgement as to who deserves punishment – and man, if Batman thinks somebody needs punishing, there is no compassion about him anymore.  He may manage to force himself to play by the rules of justice most of the time, but it’s often a struggle for him not to deal out retribution as he sees fit.  So you see, as a character, he already has an internal shadow clearly laid out (particularly in the graphic novels and the most recent wave of movies).

Now, where does the Joker come in?  The Joker’s favorite game to play with Batman is to point out how much alike he and Batman are, which, of course, Batman hates.  But in a way, the Joker’s right.  Batman is crazy.  He’s maladjusted, incapable of resolving his issues with the world, prefers to strive for his goals in an unconventional and unsanctioned way to actually working with the system that we “normal” people have to deal with….  Depending on what version of the Joker’s background you read (every graphic novel writer seems to have his own), there are often parallels or intersections of Batman’s back story and the Joker’s back story.  The Joker is a clear-cut shadow character – he represents everything Batman is afraid he might be, or might become, and everything Batman doesn’t want to admit about himself.  The thing is, Batman chooses not to become his shadow self, and the Joker revels in being what he is.  That choice is what makes them different.

It’s also important to note that Batman is also the Joker‘s shadow self.  The Joker mocks Batman’s heroism, and (again, depending whose version of the Joker’s back story you read) has spent so long ignoring his better instincts that they’ve essentially vanished.  The Joker does not want to be Batman, any more than Batman wants to be the Joker.  That’s why he loves to mess with Batman’s head every chance he gets.

Okay, I promise I’m done talking about Batman now.

There are lots of storylines in which the protagonist’s shadow character is his/her adversary (or at least is the antagonist).  There are others in which the shadow character is a friend or ally, or the relationship between the two shadow characters changes.  It’s crucial that shadow characters are connected through important similarities, such as strategic thinking, a parallel grief, a core tendency toward anger – deeply ingrained elements of personality.  If they have nothing in common, they aren’t shadow characters – they’re just opposites.  Anytime a character says, “No!  I’m not like you!” to his/her adversary, you probably have a case of shadow on your hands.

Long story short, there is a lot to be said about shadow characters, which is why I’m breaking this topic up into multiple posts.  More about shadow characters, and with different dynamics, next time!

For now, I’ll leave you with some pretty clear examples of shadow antagonist/protagonist teams:

  • Batman and the Joker, particularly in the graphic novel Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween and Haunted Knight, and The Killing Joke by Alan Moore
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Probably the easiest and most clear-cut example of the shadow in all of literature
  • Gollum and Frodo in The Two Towers, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series – I say The Two Towers in particular because that’s where the two characters interact directly for the first time
  • Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books
  • FBI agent Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter in the film of Red Dragon (based on Thomas Harris’s novel, which is too gory and graphic for me to be able to read it, although I’ve tried)


On Tuesday, June 15th (this coming Tuesday), I’ll be guest blogging at Marian Allen’s Weblahg.  Marian Allen has three novels published for electronic format through Echelon Press, many short stories published in magazines and anthologies – some of which are available at Amazon.  She is also, I’m proud to say, my mom.  I’ll be posting about giving and getting critiques, and how to get the most out of your feedback, on her blog this Tuesday, so be there or be square!

Fixing Flat Characters

While there are some fine examples of books/stories in which an “everyman” character can be interesting, there are many more examples in which an “everyman” type is…well, boring.  That’s not to say that stories about “normal” people can’t be awesome, but there’s no such thing as a perfectly neutral person, just like there’s no such thing as a perfect person.

Don’t you risk pushing away some readers if you make a characters’ quirks, beliefs, attitudes, or lifestyles different from those readers’?  Yeah, but, just like in real life, not everybody is gonna like everybody else.  There are people who don’t like YOU, but you’re still yourself, right?  And a lot more readers will be intrigued by and endeared to a strong character (even one of questionable morals) than a flat, boring character.  Look at Han Solo.  He’s kind of a rake, self-centered, and smart-mouthed.  But that’s why he’s an entertaining character – that juxtaposition of “not a NICE GUY, but a GOOD GUY nonetheless” keeps you curious about his next line, whether he’ll do the right thing or not, etc.

Now, there’s another way to make a character flat and boring, at the other end of the scale.  There is nothing more intensely BLAH than a character that’s overdone – he/she is a stereotype, relies entirely on a single central trait, or is so over-the-top that he/she leaves readers rolling their eyes and sighing in moments that are meant to be powerful or gripping.  This happens a lot with the all-good hero or all-evil villain, but it’s not a problem confined to good guys vs. bad guys.

The core of the issue, really, is when the writer himself/herself doesn’t know enough about the character.  Sometimes, characters just come out three-dimensional without any effort on my part.  I love it when that happens.  Other times, they develop depth and back story during the writing process (I also love that, although it usually means I have to tweak the first scenes or chapters that character appears in, to account for things I’ve “learned” about them along the way).  And then, some characters take momentous effort to make them come alive.  Actually, I love that process, too, although it can be frustrating when the characters just won’t work with me.

For particularly troublesome characters, here are some things to try:

  • Break up stereotypes.  If you’re writing a character who is one, reverse a few expectations, throw in some additional interests, or give us some reason that your character him/herself is TRYING to be a stereotype.
  • Ask your character any 10 questions, like it’s an interview.  Write down your questions and their answers, and see what new information you can uncover about them.  What was his favorite birthday present as a kid?  What’s her ideal vacation?  What STILL bothers him, even though it happened 16 years ago?  What’s the ability she’s most confident about in herself?
  • Write down 3 things your character is aware of about himself/herself (pick some good and some bad), and 3 things that OTHER characters would readily notice about his/her personality (some good, some bad) that he/she isn’t aware of about himself/herself.  Think about the things you’ve listed – are they things that would factor into events and reactions within your storyline?  Are they things that will change, or things your character will realize, within the storyline?  Are they things your character will have to call upon or overcome in order to make it to his/her goal(s) in the story?
  • Strengths and weaknesses are sometimes one and the same.  It’s often the balance of a trait that makes it a “flaw” or a “merit” in a personality.  Being stubborn is bad, right?  The flip side of stubbornness, though, is persistance, determination, tenacity, and/or constancy.  Many of the best characters are ones whose flaws and strengths are a double-edged sword, and the interplay of positive and negative side effects of their traits gives the narrative plenty of potential intrigue and tension.
  • Don’t make a character all anything – good, bad, cruel, confident, indifferent, whatever.  Even if it’s just a smidgen of contradiction, and even if it isn’t written on the page, you should have it in mind that no one is all one way or another.  The ultra-confident jerk at the office who always gets the promotions and the girls may be exactly that to your main character, but YOU, the writer, can know better.  Maybe the guy is secretly horribly insecure and is overcompensating, or has something to prove to his overly critical father, whatever.  But, whether that’s specified in the story or not isn’t as important as the fact that, as a writer, you’ve got to know all your characters, heart and soul, as if they were real people.  They’ll never be real people to your readers unless they’re real to YOU first.

You can probably tell by now that I’m a very character-focused writer, so you know I’ll be rambling about characters and character development again.  You haven’t heard the last of it yet!  Muahahaha!  😉

Ode to Internal Conflict

In real life, people have internal conflict all the time.  Sometimes it’s more apparent than others.  Sometimes it’s over a triviality, and other times it’s about something life-changing and complex.  But it’s there, and it affects our words, actions, moods, relationships, and worldviews.

If you want your characters and their problems to come alive for readers, you’ve got to give the people in your story some internal conflicts.  Of course, it’s most important to show in your main character(s), but secondary and “bit” characters can come through richer and stronger for a little dose of internal conflict, too.

How you go about showing that conflict will depend on a few factors:

  1. If you’re writing in first person, your readers get direct insight into the main character’s thoughts and feelings, even if he/she is an unreliable narrator.  Your other characters will be viewed through the lens of your narrator’s opinions and observations, but you, the writer, should know the real deal about your secondary characters – not just what your main character knows, thinks, and feels about them.  That includes knowing what makes them tick and what internal conflicts may be affecting them in any given scene.
  2. Third person can be done in a few different ways, but generally there’s some balance between omniscient narration and a sort of journalistic telling of the facts (just what is said and observed, with no direct insight into the characters’ minds or emotions).  If you go more for omniscient narration, you can reveal characters’ thoughts directly, and show inner conflicts that way.  If you stick with “just the facts, ma’am,” you’ll need to make sure to use facial expressions, hesitations, nervous habits, body language, tone of voice, etc. to communicate your characters’ thoughts and feelings, including their inner conflicts.
  3. If you have a character who just isn’t introspective, who doesn’t (or can’t) face his/her own flaws or mistakes, or who dislikes communicating his/her inner workings (even in his/her own thoughts), again, you’ll have to bring out internal conflict through responses to external factors:  other characters’ actions, dialogue, events, etc.

Now, about different kinds of inner conflicts.  There are inherent, long-term issues, such as the desire for freedom and independence battling with the desire for belonging and love (which could apply to a character’s family background or love life or both).  That kind of deep-rooted conflict is almost a character trait, and can be the foundation for the entire plot or can simply be a factor in your character’s behavior and attitude.  You can resolve it as a subplot, give your character new insight into the problem as the main story goes on, have your character come to terms with it by the end, or leave it hanging over his/her head.

There are also smaller, more specific inner conflicts (do the right thing, or the easy / profitable / fun thing?)  That kind of internal conflict is the spice of fiction, in my opinion.  When an author weaves together the events of the book and the conflicts and tough decisions of their characters, everything pulls together until you can’t separate THOSE characters from THAT plot.  It had to be [Character A] faced with [Event 1], because only he would’ve reacted by doing [this], which caused [Event 2], which set up [Character B] with [that] decision, and…so on and so forth.

So there are lots of reasons to give characters internal conflicts of various importance and scale.  It gives them depth, keeps them from being too predictable or stereotypical, lends tension to the story (because people don’t always make the right choices, or even know what the right choice is), plays characters off one another, and is an excellent catalyst for both main plot and subplot.

Even if you’re never going to mention a particular character’s hang-ups in the story, you should know what they are.  Your characters, dialogue, and story will all be the better for it.