by Chantal Boudreau
Bruce Blake’s post on the unreliable narrator got me to thinking about narrators, or PoV characters, who are unreliable because of a lack of knowledge. Some readers are able to accept the character’s failing. Others find their narrow perspective hard to handle, especially if the reader is an expert in that area. Their ignorance, even if justified by circumstance, can be frustrating.
One example of this I ran into was when I had a test reader who worked in IT try out a story I had written involving technology gone wrong – a story where the protagonist was a technophobe and for the most part techno-illiterate. The character’s distaste for technology was a reasonable explanation as to why the protagonist had rejected the technology found in the story in the first place, which was an important component of the plot. My reader took issue with the main character’s technological ignorance, trying to impose his own understanding upon the unwary man (he should know this, he should expect that, he should be able to explain these things), even though as far as their technological knowledge base was concerned, they were on opposite ends of the spectrum. Technology was such a fundamental part of the reader’s identity that it created a disconnect between him and the protagonist that he just couldn’t circumvent.
I’ve seen this gap work the opposite way too, when a character is an expert and the reader lacks knowledge. I found this problem with Technicians and Scholars in my Fervor series and some of the more knowledgeable wizards in Masters and Renegades. The character gets excited about things that may not generate as much interest in the average person (think Sheldon talking physics to Penny in The Big Bang Theory) but his or her drive regarding a particular topic could be essential to the plot. As a writer, you may need to demonstrate that the character’s quest for knowledge can border on obsessive, but doing so can risk boring or even alienating the reader, so you have to tread cautiously.
So what can a writer do if this gap can’t be avoided? How does one bridge that gap for the reader while remaining true to the character and the story? How does a writer prevent that frustration or disinterest?
There are a few options. The first is being constantly aware that any difference is there. A writer can remind the reader of a character’s lack of knowledge through narrative or dialogue, at appropriate times, to reduce frustration. A writer can be conscious of when a learned character threatens to share to the point of an info dump. Listening to an expert blather on about a particular topic can put a less interested person to sleep.
Another option is to foil the gap with a secondary character – one more like the reader. That other character can point out an unknowledgeable character’s weaknesses with some sympathy or give the expert character a blank stare or a questioning look…or even a yawn… when they start going into too much detail. He or she can lend some understanding as to why the first character does what he or she does. This way, the impact of any knowledge gap on the reader is lessened.
As much as a writer wants the reader to get inside a character’s head and relate to them, this won’t always work when there is a significant knowledge gap between character and reader. Sometimes the relationship has to be sacrificed in part for the sake of realism. The character can still be likeable and may offer up other traits in common with the reader so they can sympathize with them to some degree, but there may always be at least a little disconnect on an intellectual level. That’s not necessarily a bad outcome. A writer will never be able to capture the full interest of every reader with every character. And sometimes lending a reader a new perspective is the whole point of the tale.
Just something to consider the next time a character in a story you’re reading makes you say: “why would he/she think that?”