R.J. Anderson (rj_anderson) wrote,
R.J. Anderson

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Unreasonable Expectations? (Part 2 of 2)

In yesterday's post we discussed whether or not it's a reasonable expectation that protagonists should always be pushing the plot forward or otherwise taking decisive action in order to justify their place at the center of the book.

There were some interesting suggestions in the comments about how that expectation might have arisen among certain readers, as well as some examples of well-known protags who don't fit the derring-do mold. But I think megancrewe brought up an especially good point about the crucial difference between a protagonist who is too passive to hold the reader's interest, and one who is believable and sympathetic in spite of not always being proactive:
Even if there isn't anything the MC* can do to change their situation at certain points, I want to know that they want things, and will try to get those things when they can.
I think that sums up the essence of a good protagonist really well. You can have an MC who is too reluctant or self-doubting or depressed to drive the plot forward on their own for a while, but if it's clear to the reader what the MC wants, and as long as there's hope that the MC will take action to get it when they have the chance, then you've still got a story.

It's not that I think those who find quiet or reluctant protagonists frustrating don't have a right to say so. But I do think it's a mistake to take what amounts to a personal preference ("I prefer MCs who are decisive and proactive") and voice it as though it were an objective criticism with which all right-thinking readers should agree ("The MC spends more time reacting to things than she does in making things happen, and that's a fault in the book").


Now on to today's Unreasonable Expectation!

2. Any development which is surprising to the characters must also be surprising to the reader.

Now, to be fair, I should have said "major development", because I think we all understand that not everything that happens in the book has to be a surprise. What I'm talking about is the expectation that when some significant discovery or revelation occurs in the plot, it has to be set up in such a way that the reader will find it surprising, or the author has failed in her duty -- and I don't think that's always the case.

Don't get me wrong, I love surprises. I love twists. Some of my favorite books of all time, the ones I read again and again, are ones where the author sets you up so you think you know what's going on and maybe even feel a little smug about it -- and then hits you with a totally unexpected revelation that leaves you reeling, but which makes perfect sense once you think about it. If a surprise like that is properly foreshadowed, so that I can go back on a re-read and see all the little hints I missed along the way, I find few pleasures in literature so delicious.

I also share many readers' exasperation with stories where the solution to the characters' problem or the big shocking truth that they are trying to uncover is evident from the beginning, but the characters keep missing or overlooking all the obvious clues until the end anyway, simply because the book would be over too soon if they didn't. It's annoying to spend twenty chapters tapping your foot waiting for these fictional thickheads to discover what you've known all along, especially if you can tell that the author thinks it's going to be a Great Surprise for you as well as them and it really, really isn't.

But there are a lot of perfectly good stories that fall in between these two categories. Ones where the revelation of the MC's true parentage or their secret destiny is meant to plausibly surprise them, but not necessarily shock the reader, who may well have guessed it some time ago. In which case, as long as the entire plot of the book doesn't hinge on that revelation, and as long as there are good plausible reasons for the MC not to have guessed the secret or to know as much as the reader knows about it, then it really isn't a flaw in the story. It's just not the kind of story the reader may have been expecting, that's all.

For instance, is anybody really surprised by the revelation that Percy Jackson is the son of Poseidon? Especially after all the watery stuff that happens to him in the first few chapters of the book? Well, maybe some 8-12 year old kids who don't know much of anything about Greek mythology are surprised, and if so, that's a bonus for them. But I doubt Rick Riordan really thought he was fooling his entire readership, and I doubt he cared -- nor should he. The point is that Percy has good reasons not to guess any of this, and that keeps the reader from getting annoyed and thinking him a stupid character. It may even become a bit of a thrill as the reader anticipates how he'll react when he finds out what they already know.

There's another example in a book I loved but won't name because I don't want to spoil it for anyone, in which we are introduced to a scruffy character trapped in a horrible environment, who seems like everyone else to have been born in that place, but frequently has flashbacks and visions of a different world. Shortly afterward we learn there is a group of people outside that environment who are looking for a prince who went missing some time ago. Now the automatic and understandable assumption the reader makes is that Scruffy and the missing prince are one and the same, and that the revelation of this fact is going to be the climax of the plot, because we've all seen that done before. And some readers have even given up on the book early in disgust because to them the "big surprise" was not surprising enough.

Except, if you read further, you find out that Scruffy's true identity really isn't the point of the book at all. In fact, it's an issue that never really gets resolved, for reasons which are well supported by the plot and don't require anybody to be an idiot. And I actually liked that aspect of the book, because it seemed to me a rather clever way of turning readers' expectations on their head. What you think is important is really not as important as you think it is.

So while I do enjoy being surprised along with the characters, I don't think it's a prerequisite for good writing that every surprise should be on the same level. All I think necessary is for the characters to have a plausible reason not to realize the truth until a certain time -- either because they've been misinformed, or because they don't have all the information that the reader does yet, or because other factors conspire to keep them unaware until that point in the story. So if Harry Potter spends the entire first book thinking that Snape is the bad guy, when we jaded adult readers know that would be way too obvious, we don't get annoyed with him (or J.K. Rowling), because Harry's only eleven years old and Snape is certainly doing some suspicious-looking things. And anyway, there are plenty of other questions to worry and wonder about, like whether Harry will face Voldemort by the end of the book and if so, how he'll get out of it.

All of which is to say that it may well be hasty and even unfair to criticize a book if you guess a certain "surprise" before the characters do. It may indeed be that you are more perceptive than the author gave you credit for, and that a better author would have handled that aspect more subtly and cleverly so as to surprise you. But it may also be that the author considered it only a minor revelation in relation to the rest of the plot, and wasn't expecting most readers to be surprised by it at all. The real question is, do the characters have good reason to be surprised? Are their reactions believable and satisfying, and do they contribute to the advancement of the plot? If they do, then I'm inclined to give the author a free pass -- even if I feel a little disappointed that they didn't trick me into being surprised as well.


But what do you think? Am I right in thinking it unreasonable to expect every twist to be surprising to the reader, or am I setting my own expectations too low?

Or if you agree with most of what I've said, can you think of some other books, movies or TV shows where a particular big revelation wasn't a surprise to you, but you found it satisfying all the same? What about books that do have a genuinely shocking twist -- without spoiling, can you give some examples for those of us who like that kind of thing?

* Short for Main Character.

And hey, nobody got my Big Country allusion from yesterday? Probably because I misquoted the first line of the song (it's "This time" and not "Sometimes"). But still, YOU ALL FAIL MISERABLY. (And also, I want that girl's hair, in the video. So pretty.)
Tags: books, essays, writing
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