1. C. W. Evon
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    C. W. Evon Member

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    Making sure the reader sees what my character doesn't

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by C. W. Evon, Jul 26, 2015.

    Sorry for posting so much so soon! But I wanted to test this out on real people. I'm writing in a very tight third person, so I'm trying to only state what Miles knows, and even be careful that the details I include are details Miles would have noticed (for example, he won't be commenting on the fabric and trimming of a girl's dress. It's just a dress). This is somewhat difficult because Miles is horrendously bad at reading people. So he is often very, very wrong about how the other characters feel. I want the readers to pick up on cues that Miles misses (or misinterprets), without making it so banging-over-the-head-obvious that it seems impossible for Miles to not notice what is going on and makes him just look like an idiot.

    So here's a scene I just wrote. Can you tell how Billy is feeling from this? Is it too obvious? Suggestions? Anyone else that has written from a tight third person (or a first person with an unreliable narrator) that can give me some been-there-done-that tips?


    Billy got up and strode to the window, hands behind his back. He looked out for a long minute. “Can’t?” He paused, then spun to face Miles. “Or won’t?”

    “Both. I can’t, so I won’t.” Billy’s dramatics annoyed Miles to no end, and he liked to snap a short sentence back at him, refusing to be his fellow actor.

    Billy balled his fists. They hadn’t had a proper fight in ages, and Miles was ready. But then his fists relaxed.

    “I get it. It’s your mother again.”

    Miles jumped to his feet. “You don’t understand the circumstances.” It was the kind of sentence Billy would use. But in his fury, he couldn’t manage the lofty tone with which Billy would have said it.

    Billy opened his mouth, then seemed to change his mind. He was quiet a couple of moments, then he smiled and shook his head. “All right. If you want to show up a whole month from now, so be it. I’ll just get set up, by myself, of course. But I can manage.” He spoke in a tight, clipped manner, which was unusual. “I’ll build a house, without help, and then you can stay with me while I help you build yours. It will work out just fine. For some of us.”

    Miles was relieved that Billy had come around to the idea. He was afraid he'd be angry.

    “Thanks for understanding.” Miles held out his hand to shake, but he guessed Billy didn’t notice. He waited a while, until his arm got tired.

    “You’re welcome,” Billy said, in the same peculiar voice. “Well, I have a lot of preparations to make. Since I’ll be leaving next week, by myself.”

    Miles decided he had better leave Billy alone. He seemed busy--maybe that was what the strange voice was about. And Miles didn’t want to wait until he had outstayed his welcome.

    “You know the way out.”

    Again, Billy didn’t seem to notice the hand Miles held out to shake. He was probably overwhelmed by thoughts of what he would need to bring. Miles said goodbye and left.
     
  2. AspiringNovelist
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    AspiringNovelist Contributing Member

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    Hi, C.W.,

    First, a quick suggestion: You're style is a bit odd for me, but I tell rather than show, too.

    For example: This is perfectly fine: "Billy got up and strode to the window, hands behind his back. He looked out for a long minute. “Can’t?” He paused, then spun to face Miles. “Or won’t?”

    “Both. I can’t, so I won’t.” but I found this, odd - -> "Billy’s dramatics annoyed Miles to no end, and he liked to snap a short sentence back at him, refusing to be his fellow actor."

    I would have written it as: “Both. I can’t, so I won’t.” Miles said annoyed with Billy's dramatics. "I refuse to get caught up in your little play."


    Also, here Billy opened his mouth, then seemed to change his mind. Should be: Billy opened his mouth 'to respond, to scream, to yawn', but changed his mind. You used 'then seemed' as an unnecessary pause that didn't change the state of his mind.


    To your question, readers to pick up on cues?...

    “You don’t understand the circumstances.” It was the kind of sentence Billy would use. But in his fury, he couldn’t manage the lofty tone with which Billy would have said it. < - I see what you're trying to say, but there is serous conflict in words and supposed fury -- I had to read it twice to get the gist. You don’t understand the circumstances -- isn't fury, but I think that's what you want me to pick up on - that disconnect. If so, I did get it, but only after reading it twice. I think many readers would give up.

    So let's break down - - >
    It was the kind of sentence Billy would use. But in his fury, he couldn’t manage the lofty tone with which Billy would have said it.

    It was the kind of sentence and the lofty tone are essentially the same sentence. I assume you're using lofty tone as a diction notation, that is: to indicate 'a formal way of speaking'.

    I would re-write to something like: “You don’t understand the circumstances.” Miles said attempting to mimic Billy's formal tone.

    Finally, as to the title of your post, reader sees what my character doesn't... <-- I think you're making this too hard. For example the handshake toward the end. You want Billy to not notice and that's fine, but Miles will notice that his outstretched hand was not shaken, so have Miles say/show it someway..."Miles' waited on the handshake to the point that it became awkward."

    One final suggestion that may help -- At the introduction to your story, share with the reader that Billy is, shall we say, 'socially challenged'. Maybe even create a small scene to introduce the odd behavior.

    "At a young age, it was obvious Billy wasn't like the other children. Boys, after a scuffle, shook hands, Billy never did unless forced to do so." < -- make a point to point out all of Billy's 'social challenges' at the onset, then your reader will follow...

    Overall, you're narrator is moving in and out of the scene to describe things that Miles and Billy can handle.

    Hope this helps,
    Good Luck




















     
    Last edited: Jul 26, 2015
  3. C. W. Evon
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    C. W. Evon Member

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    Eeek. Apparently I have a lot to work on because it seems you don't really understand this scene--meaning I wrote it very wrong. Thank you for this, it's really shown me that my style is a little (okay a lot) confusing and I need to figure something out!

    You have been immeasurably helpful. Thank you!
     
  4. AspiringNovelist
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    AspiringNovelist Contributing Member

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    I edited the post a moment ago to give some additional pointers -- may want to re-read it again.
     
  5. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Hmmm. A little bit of the problem is that we don't really know what has gone before, or what has led up to this scene, so it's difficult to gauge exactly what is going on. But there is obviously a difference between what Miles thinks is going on in Billy's head, and what is probably actually going on.

    It seems as if Miles is trying really hard to make himself believe that everything is okay between the two of them, when it doesn't seem to be. The ignoring of the handshake is well done, especially as it happens twice.

    I don't know if Billy is angry or worried, but that's because I don't know the context of the story. If Billy thinks Miles is having some sort of a breakdown related to his mother, he will probably be feeling a certain amount of uncertainty as to how to behave. On the other hand, if he thinks Miles is weaseling out of helping build a house, while taking advantage and planning to get help when he needs HIS house built, then he's probably angry. It's all in the context, and we don't have the context in this clip. But all in all, I think you've done a good job of sticking clearly to Miles's POV and showing us, via Billy's actions, that all is not well between them, despite what Miles wants to think.

    It's interesting also, that while Miles WANTS to think everything is fine, he's not sure ...is he? Miles decided he had better leave Billy alone. He seemed busy--maybe that was what the strange voice was about. And Miles didn’t want to wait until he had outstayed his welcome. That's not the internal thought of somebody who is sure of himself at all.

    This is a very intriguing setup. The only problem is, we haven't seen the rest of it.
     
  6. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm reading the scene as communicating that Billy is angry that Miles is reneging on some sort of offer of mutual help. Billy seems to be making rather a strong point of it, in an indirect passive-aggressive sort of way, doing everything but saying out loud, "You're reneging on your side of the deal, but I'll still provide mine, so FEEL GUILTY, DAMMIT!" His refusal to shake Miles' hand seems like a similar passive expression of anger.
     
  7. C. W. Evon
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    C. W. Evon Member

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    *Jumps up and down triumphantly because yes you got it all right!!!*
     
  8. C. W. Evon
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    C. W. Evon Member

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    Thank you for your response! I realise it's a little difficult without context, but you seem to have understood exactly what I was trying to convey.

    As for the whole thing with Miles' mother, it's kind of a long story, but to sum up: it's 1865 and Billy just returned from fighting in the war. He's pretty messed up, and I think on some level he resents the fact that Miles did not go to war. Miles isn't very emotionally mature, and he's obsessed with the idea of "adventure." So he wanted to go, but his mother is really emotionally manipulative and intent on keeping him at home with her (which is somewhat understandable in a twisted sort of way because he's all she has left by way of family), so she convinced him not to go (and he wasn't old enough to be drafted until right after the war ended). Billy kind of figured this out in a previous scene, and Miles was embarrassed/angry because he thinks that giving in to his mother all the time is a sign of weakness. (But he inevitably does it, because he's also obsessed with having her approval). So anyway, the two planned to go west together so they could help with each other's houses and farms, lend tools back and forth etc. They were supposed to leave in the following week. But Miles' mother convinced him to wait at least a month--so she could "get used to the idea." Now he's come to tell Billy about it. He wasn't going to tell Billy the reason why because again, he doesn't want to look weak, but as you saw, Billy figured it out pretty easily. He knows enough about Miles to know that he would never turn down a chance at adventure, so it must be his mother that's behind it.

    Sorry, that was a lot longer of an explanation than I meant to give. It's not that complete, but you get the idea.
     
  9. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Thank you for that explanation. It makes perfect sense.

    I'm intrigued, because I love historical novels—especially character-centred ones! (And my own novel is set in the American west as well, about 20 years later.)

    Is Miles a bit more than emotionally immature? He comes across as slightly autistic, meaning he might be missing things because he's not capable of reading people's body language correctly. If that's the case, it will take a great deal of work (for himself and Billy) to overcome his situation. Has he always had trouble with social skills? Is this partly WHY his mother is a bit overprotective of him, or is her concern merely selfish? (In some ways, I suppose a mother wanting to keep her youngest at home during wartime is somewhat understandable. Maybe, while the mother is obviously the villain of the piece to some extent, she might have a few understandable faults? What does she want of Miles? That he be a breadwinner? That he be a nursemaid? Companion? All these things factor in, don't they?)

    Often a person who is emotionally very astute can be emotionally manipulated. They wear their hearts on their sleeves, and are empathetic enough that they feel for everybody's situation, and want to be everybody's comforter and refuge. From this excerpt and what you told me in your additional post, that might not be what's going on here. Miles is struggling to understand his brother's reactions, and seems chronically unsure of himself. It's not so much that he's entrenched in his views, but that he doesn't really understand what other people expect of him or want from him. That seems like a form of autism to me. This would make a great character to explore. I think there are lots of people out there who have mild forms of this condition, and who struggle to mesh with the society around them. They want to do the right thing, but always seem to be on the wrong side of it somehow. Miles seems to be trying to please all people who are important in his life, and he can't. He doesn't seem able to make a judgement or to put his own interests and rights into the mix. This is upsetting for him.

    A very interesting situation you've set up. And while it's a historical novel, escaping an overpowering parental influence is a situation many people struggle with today. I'll be very interested to follow your progress with this story.
     
    Last edited: Jul 26, 2015
  10. C. W. Evon
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    I like that you point this out--that Miles might be slightly more than immature. I hadn't thought of it before but yes, I suppose it's very likely that he is on the autism spectrum. It would explain the fact that he does pretty much nothing but read dime novels about the west. Thank you--you just made me understand my character a whole lot better!

    Yes, I have a lot of sympathy for Mrs. Beamer (Miles' mother). I didn't explain earlier because I was trying to be brief, but when Miles was two years old and she was pregnant with a second child, her husband went off to fight in the Mexican war and was killed. Her baby was born a couple of months later, but it was very sickly and only lived for a few days. So she has pretty valid reasons for wanting to keep Miles with her. She was powerless before to keep her loved ones from leaving her, but she has power over Miles (because he really, really doesn't want to upset her) so she is going to use that power as much as she can to keep him with her.

    That said, Miles also has turned the father he never knew into the very epitome of all that is courageous, adventurous, honourable etc. So he's got this conflict between pleasing his mother and being someone he feels his father would have been proud of. On top of this, an overwhelming need to prove himself. So he does end up leaving his mother--even though she tries her hardest to stop him--and going west.

    He promised to her that he'd come back home if, in two years, he was struggling to get by, unsuccessful at providing for himself. (His mother inherited a lot from her wealthy family, and by being very resourceful with that money, has been able to support herself and Miles very comfortably. So Miles has never had to do any kind of work.)

    So, to prevent his mother from worrying, and to make it seem like he's doing okay, he starts to stretch the truth a little in his letters back home, and omit certain details (he tells his mother he built a house. He doesn't tell her that it's a dugout, for example.) Slowly, it progresses to flat out lies, and the repercussions of this are the main focus of the story.

    I think you are very right also, about Miles trying to please everyone. Because he doesn't truly understand other people's emotional states, however, he ends up hurting some of the people who care about him through the course of the novel. By the end, I don't think Miles will suddenly be this highly perceptive, empathetic person, because that's not realistic to who he is. But his relationship with his mother will have become healthier (on both sides of the equation), he will understand people a bit better--as well as the impact he has on them, and overall, he will have fleshed out in his understanding of the world and its complexity. Because his world view is pretty 2-dimensional at present.

    Anyway--sorry for the long post! You've been a great help, and really got me thinking. I'm already having some ideas as a result of your analysis. I'm glad you find my concept interesting. That's what I like to do--take a historical setting and try to draw out the things that haven't changed. What made some of the best historical fiction I've read so good is the fact that the author showed how, essentially, humans and the situations we get ourselves into haven't changed much. Which makes it relatable. I don't know if they meant to do this or not, But I like to keep it in mind when I'm writing my own novels.
     

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