Saturday, June 6, 2009

Hidden Knowledge

Kylie Q and I have been having an offsite discussion that I think raises some interesting issues. So I intend to turn this column over to Kylie:

"When does the bad guy’s identity need to be revealed? And does this depend on who else knows his identity?

My current manuscript has a bad guy supporting character. He’s a nasty, evil piece of work. Or at least, he seems to be. If you were to know him properly – to understand his motivations – you’d realise that although he’s doing some nasty, evil stuff, he’s doing it for reasons that are, to him at least, very important and worthy. Which brings me to my question – when should I reveal his identity? At the moment, I’ve introduced him as two characters. We get to know him in his public aspect, where we know him by name and learn about what is important to him. He has also come in anonymously in other chapters. This is where he’s doing his bad guy stuff. I didn’t intend it to be like this – with him appearing to be two characters – but it seems that this is what he wanted. I’ve tried to lead the reader to a gradual understanding of the two characters being the one man and hope that by knowing him in both aspects, they will be a little more sympathetic to him. That doesn’t mean he’s not still a bad guy – I just want the reader to understand why he is what he is.

I’ve recently had a partial manuscript appraisal done and it was suggested to me that if my POV character knows the bad guy’s identity, then the reader must also. So what do you think? Can I have an anonymous supporting character, even if other characters obviously know who he is?"

Kylie Q


If I may start the ball rolling. As a matter of principle, in my opinion, the answer to your question is 'yes'. The reader does not need to know everything that is in the POV character's mind. Many classic English mystery stories and American detective tales depend on hidden knowledge. It is a difficult problem for the author to navigate. The concealed information should be hinted at and foreshadowed so that the reader does not feel cheated by the revelations in the climax, as if the author had employed a deus ex machina.

Actually, I have just submitted a story to Black Library where the single POV character is not what he appears to the rest of the characters - a sort of reverse of Kylie's problem but presenting similar issues. The editor hates it, incidentally!


PS, the photo is Edward Bear with my wife. He is the third person sharing our marriage bed.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I like what Kylie has set up with her narrative -- two characters, two sides of the one person. It could be brilliant done right, or really annoying for the reader, done wrong.

I guess it is a matter of writing it and relying on instinct, which isn't any help, but I really like the premise, Kylie.

Chris McMahon said...

I like the idea, John. The only risk I can see is if the reader get to the reveal point and suddenly goes - hey, I used to like that guy & now I find out he's the guy I've been wanting to be taken down for his terrible crimes.
Otherwise I think there is a great symmetry in what you are doing. Seeing the outside and the inside - but not connected.
Do you think the reader will sympathise with one but have antipathy toward the other? I guess that's the key question, if both as disliked there no issue. Or is that disconnect part of what you are looking for?

Kate said...

Kylie asked

I’ve recently had a partial manuscript appraisal done and it was suggested to me that if my POV character knows the bad guy’s identity, then the reader must also. So what do you think? Can I have an anonymous supporting character, even if other characters obviously know who he is?

For my money, the answer is no way. If the POV character knows, then so does the reader. It's cheating.

There are ways around this problem, such as the POV character observing the key information but in a way that doesn't click with him or her so that readers can see the connection - maybe - where the character can't. Alternatively, there can be distractions that prevent the character revealing to the readers what he knows. It's much harder than to just hide the information but far more rewarding for the author and the reader.

A third option is to hide the information in plain sight: it's there, but it's not made much of. A side mention here, a note there, someone observes that so'n'so isn't half as nice when he's out of his professional 'persona'. That way the reveal doesn't leave readers feeling that they were cheated - and doesn't leave them thinking they won't ever buy anything of yours again.

It's a specific subset of the unreliable narrator problem. We have to have certain information stay hidden until a particular point in the plot, but to do so we've got to keep our characters from realizing they possess the information, or hide it in a way that the readers don't get blindsided when/if the characters do. This is horrifically difficult to do well. Usually the end result is exactly what John said: the editor hates it.

Just as a side note, if a character is sufficiently important to need two aspects of his personality shown, then that character isn't a supporting character. He might be a second string major, if not a major, but he's certainly not supporting.

Anonymous said...

I think it would hard to have the POV character know, and the reader not. Kylie might consider the POV character not being sure, or if the Bad Guy is deliberately being misleading, the POV character could think "Wow, clean that guy up and stick him in a suit and he'd look a lot like so-and-so." And have the POV slowly realize, with the reader, that, wait a bit that _is_ so-and-so. . . isn't it?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

First, I'd have to ask who did the manuscript appraisal... Not that I disagree with all of it, but...

Look, I went through the mill recently enough to know one thing -- the opinions you get for pay are not worth it. The reason is simple. I don't care if the person calls himself agent, editor or book doctor -- if he/she is getting paid for giving an opinion it's because he/she can't cut it as anything else. My agent and my editors do not get paid for "manuscript evaluations." They get paid for representing/buying the manuscripts and making money that way.

THINK about where this "manuscript evaluator" is making his/her money. Look, it might be MY experience but all the group members who paid for this ended up with a worse manuscript.

The second caveat is that a manuscript evaluation you get for free -- from a friend, group member, etc -- is worth what you paid for it.

What am I saying then? That you can't learn? that you can't grow? That you shouldn't learn from your more published friends?

No. I'm saying caveat emptor. I've had opinions that were right on the money. And I've had opinions that sent me out into the wild for years. Some people -- even some amazing writers -- are terrible at telling you how to fix what's wrong with your stuff. One of my favorite stories was a friend who was in a group with a very famous sf/f author and said this author's standard critique was "First your story needs to be about a child."

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

But even absent such blind spots, there's the fact we're all very different writers. Some of us get "hit" with plot. Some start with character. Some widen the plot from a concept. What this means is that unless the person evaluating the manuscript is very instrospective and privy to the process of a lot of other writers, they can hurt you, or just be utterly clueless.

Say you come to me and ask me about plot? Well, if you did that after my first trilogy, you'd have got a lot of "er... I think" because I was just learning plot. Now, you'll actually -- as I hope at least two of you can attest -- get fairly solid critique because I've fought for every inch of plotting knowledge I have. Otoh ask me about how to write a believable character and I'll say "Uh. they just arrive fully formed in my head. Beware if they bring a lot of luggage, you'll never get rid of them."

One of the funniest aspects of my talking with Eric Flint was his wanting to know whom my characters were based on and what the real people were like. First time I realized some people built characters that way (this was some years ago) and that it COULD work. I couldn't do it that way for all the money in the world.

And this is the thing, if both EF and/or I had been unpublished or inexperienced in how other writers work, we could end up having given the other advice that set him/her back ten years.

Okay, that's my long winded caveat on how to take manuscript advice. Always look at the source.

*Continued -- sorry. There was this soap box left lying around*

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Now on the unreliable narrator -- pardon me -- playing silly buggers with the reader. Not only no, but hell no.

Yeah, John, okay, it is a traditional narrative technique, but so are a lot of things you can no longer use because they'll annoy the living daylights out of the reading public.

Because I often write with found characters, I've come to realize there's stuff that has been done that we cannot get away with -- like, having a stupid character for comic effect. In writing my musketeers, I made Porthos dyslexic and non verbal but smart. Because people simply HATE dumb characters, something that used to be part of the stock in trade. Another is lack of description -- Jane Austen has almost NONE in her books. No sense of setting. -- it was fine in those days, but not anymore. TV and movies have made us want to pick up visual clues, even in our written material. Another would be the omniscient narrator or the one who jumps heads. Two characters arguing and you ping pong between the heads. Not acceptable anymore, except sometimes in Romance and even there it has to be well done.

And one of these is the character who knows something but isn't telling you. Acceptable -- sure it was. But I think people's reactions to books were different in a time pre-tv, radio and such. They viewed their books as we view those and they wanted "special effects and trickery." Sort of like a magic show, where you know it's fake, but you enjoy seeing the woman sawn in half anyway.

Besides lack of other entertainment, I think the idea that books had to be written by someone "one cut above" contributed to the reader's taking this well.

Nowadays -- and I could go on forever on this -- I think the advantage of books over the other media is that instead of watching someone else, we get to BE someone else for a while. We're in the character's head. Which means -- absent head injury, schizophrenia or another VERY GOOD (and I mean very good) reason NOT to tell us what he/she knows -- the character should not hold something back on pain of the book taking a flying lesson.

I think the last book I read where this was well done and the character had enough reason to hold back was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and even there I know people who still fume about it.

My advice? For a short story, sure. Maybe. A short, short story. But like a surprise ending, the "I know more than you narrator" should NEVER be deployed in a work over two thousand words.

Your mileage may vary, but this is my take on it.

PS - bear and wife cute. :) We have Teddy and Pingu.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Sarah

I don't buy the 'rules of modern writing' concept. Taken to extremes, it is a recipe for formulaic books.

I know the critics are well versed in rules and run every story past them but critics are not representative of readers.


KylieQ said...

Thanks for all the very useful comments. It seems to me that this is something that is really a matter of personal preference and, as Rowena said, depends on how well it is done. You've raised some points that I need to put some more thought into but I think I will continue with the two aspects of this character.