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All That He Knows….


This post is an offshoot of a past post about unreliable narrators although it applies to characters in general but specifically character(s)-as-narrator or POV character. A question(s) that a writer must always ask himself is:

What does the character know?

And…

When did he know it?

Writers must be careful on how they doled out the information to their characters. Besides the fact that it can ruin a good plot twist if the character knows too much too soon, it also tends to break the willing suspension of disbelief leading to many a wall banger moment if the character knows something without some credible way that he should know it. Thus keeping track of that information is of critical information to the author. Careful control must be maintained in order to introduce a level of unreliability, one that enhances the level of credibility of the character.

Which leads to a third question:

What is he going to do about it?

Because knowing something is not enough, what the character does (or fails to do) with the information (or lack thereof) is key. Characters are expected to behave in accurate and consistent manner (what many folks call realistic) according to their life experience, age, career and intellect (to name a few key factors).  Thus a police officer would probably put his hand on his gun if he saw a trail of blood leading away from him, a soldier probably can tell where the enemy is by the sound of weapon’s fire and a fireman knows what kind of equipment he needs to battle a forest fire instead of  a fire in a chemical plant. Different characters will use the information given to them in different ways and deduce what will happen next with various degrees of accuracy. When done right it can lead to a great red herring but failure usually leads to dropping an idiot ball on the character.

Oh, and the pic above? Well, I couldn’t help myself. Creepy, isn’t it?

7 comments on “All That He Knows….

  1. “Because knowing something is not enough, what the character does (or fails to do) with the information (or lack thereof) is key. Characters are expected to behave in accurate and consistent manner (what many folks call realistic) according to their life experience, age, career and intellect (to name a few key factors)”

    Very true. And this is the very reason why I think it’s a terrible idea when I see some writers posting on forums, “My character is going through such and such a thing. What would you do in this situation?” It’s about staying true to your character.

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    • I think they want to compare situations but the thing is that it is the character that holds the answer(s). That’s why I believe in “interrogating” my own work, asking questions like: who?, what?, where?, and more importantly, why?

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  2. It’s sad that it took me a minute to figure out that that pic was. 🙂

    Good post, Ralph. I think knowing your character inside and out is a vital part of dealing with twists, reveals, etc: many of the “how do you think my character would handle X” questions I see on forums stem from, IMO, not knowing the character well enough.

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    • For shame Amy, for shame! 🙂

      As for the characters, the one true source of writer’s block for me is when I go against my characters ways. The moment I tell them to turn left when they really want to turn right the story comes to a screeching halt until we settle the issue. It’s a mix of instinct and lots and lots of questions.

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  3. That picture is INSANE. Ergo, I love it. 🙂 Too hilarious 🙂

    And yep, I find myself taking notes to make sure they only know what they should at a given time, that their reason for knowing what they know is sound–and sometimes to erase that knowledge from them when I realize it yanks at credibility’s blindfold. Takes a while to create a character; to forge him or her in the process of writing… 🙂

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    • Isn’t it. Kind of freaked me out the first time I saw it. I mean, a smiling Voldy? A sincerely happy (in a non demonic way) Bella plus they are arm in arm with Dumbledore and Harry?

      I mean, WTF!

      Keeping notes is very important, even though I have to admit I don’t do it very well. That is I write a lot of notes and then discard them. I think the act of writing down the notes is what does it for me. Keeps my thought process fresh and focused. And it’s a quick way of blasting past any obstacles that come along the way.

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  4. […] of a given event a certain way, then this might be the way to go. After all the reader can only know (for certain, smart readers will guess, sometimes wildly, what is really going on) for certain what […]

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