I am fortunate to work in the same building as several other fiction writers. We have a discussion group that meets once a week, where we critique each other’s work. I’m presenting a section of Stacked to Death to them this afternoon.
One of the other members is the director of our college writing center. She writes urban fantasy – her first book was about vampires; now she’s writing about dragons, with a few vampires thrown in. She asked me a question the other day that got me thinking – do I know things about my story that my main character doesn’t? Her reason for asking was her concern about plot holes. If there is information that the reader needs, but the main character doesn’t know it, how do you tell the reader, if you write in first person POV (like I do) or third person limited POV (like she does)?
My answer to her: if it’s information that the reader needs to know, otherwise there will be a plot hole, then a character that does know the information has to tell the main character, or she has to discover it somehow. It may be awkward to create a conversation with another character to get that information to the reader, but it has to be done.
Our talk made me think about what my protagonist, Jamie, knows. Jamie isn’t omniscient. He only knows what he learns or sees himself, or what others tell him. This is especially true of off-page characters. An example – a character that was mentioned briefly at the end of Psyched to Death, Robbie Harrison’s wife. Jamie doesn’t know her, never met her. The only source of information he has about her is Robbie, who at the moment is very angry with her for having him followed – he calls her a bitch. Jamie tells him that’s not nice – but he doesn’t know the woman. For all he knows, maybe she is a bitch.
But she’s not. I know her – I created her, right? Ashley Harrison, a beautiful blonde, stay-at-home mom to her two girls. I based her on someone I used to know, a woman married to an insurance company executive – a great mom, loved to entertain, was very generous, but was hell on wheels when she was angry. Ashley is a great mom, but she’s not perfect. Her marriage hasn’t been good for a while, but she hasn’t done anything about it, because she likes not having to work and she likes the well-to-do friends she’s made as a result of Robbie’s profession. She likes her big house in a wealthy neighborhood and she likes spending Robbie’s money. She thought Robbie was having an affair with a woman, and the discovery that he’s been seeing a man has sent her temporarily off the deep end.
But there is no way for Jamie to know any of that, because Robbie doesn’t tell him. Ashley’s character is not germane to the plot, and I’m not going to put the brakes on what is the climax of the story for Jamie to ask Robbie to please tell him all of Ashley’s good points.
I got accused of misogyny by a reviewer because Robbie called Ashley a bitch. The reviewer even said that it was Jamie that called her a bitch, which of course it wasn’t. Jamie was raised better than that. :D
I guess there are two morals to this story. First – as a reader, remember that first person POV means that Jamie doesn’t know anything more than you do. Because you only see things from his point of view, you only have what he sees and hears.
Second, if you want to accuse a writer of a particularly egregious trait, don’t base your accusation on such a minor character. Take a look at the characters that are fully drawn. The characters that Jamie knows well and interacts with himself. In this case, Liz, Ali, Mel, Dr. Bibbins, Dr. Loomis, Valerie, Abby, Barb, Connie…etc.
And remember – if Jamie’s getting misled, so are you. :D