I don’t think I’ve ever actually thrown a book across the room, but I’ve definitely come close. Sometimes the narrator, and by extension, the author, just makes me so mad. Now, it can definitely work for readers to be mad at characters — even the protagonist — at times. Characters do dumb things because in order for a story to be interesting, they have to be in trouble and try to get out of it. Often they cause their own trouble, or at least make it worse in their attempts to fix it. It’s acceptable, and even expected — as long as it’s done the right way.
But there’s a difference between being angry at the character and being angry at the author. We can be angry and frustrated with the protagonist or supporting characters for a while — deliciously frustrated, if it’s done right — but as long as the narrator is guiding us through it, we’ll maintain the hope that propels us through the mess. It’s when the narrator doesn’t do his or her job that I become angry with the author. And that’s when the book is in danger of being hurled across the room.
So here are a few ways the narrator can drop the ball and incite the wrong kind of reader anger.
Withholding too much information for too long
I once read a book where the narrator-protagonist had a terminal illness that both kept her from wanting to form attachments and prevented her from doing her job well. In addition, she felt guilty about something that had happened in her childhood. Unfortunately, the reader didn’t get to be fully in on either of these secrets until the climax. A whole book where we’re in her head, yet we have no idea why she feels the way she does. The vague references to her guilt, her fears and her limitations were more frustrating than engaging — so much potential for reader empathy wasted.
Instead of being concerned for her, I was annoyed the whole time; feeling like I was being dragged along, teased by vital information withheld. Slowly revealing a backstory is one thing, but turning it into a guessing game will see you miss out on the opportunity to bring readers into the full emotion of your characters. Instead, let readers take the journey with your character.
Being unclear about who knows what
Readers always need to be aware of how much your protagonist knows about the situation. Even if the narrator doesn’t let me know what they know right away, I’d like to at least be aware that they know. For instance, we don’t usually find out what Sherlock Holmes knows as soon as he does, but we can usually tell when he’s figured something out. And if a character — especially the protagonist—doesn’t know something, I need to know that, too.
Basically, don’t make me feel like I’m missing something as a reader — as if I spaced out when something important was mentioned. If the characters know that someone else has a vital piece of information, that should be clear as well. And if they don’t, they should at least wonder about it, so that we as readers have a grasp on how things stand. It only takes a few words to bring readers up to speed.
Ignoring obvious problems or solutions
You guys, readers are smart. They think and wonder and guess and come up with solutions. Be sure to address the possible solutions they’re likely to think of. If there’s an obvious reason those wouldn’t work, then mention it. Sometimes, as readers, we don’t know if our ideas are possible in the world of the book — so you need to let us know.
If you avoid addressing an obvious solution because it will be the real one in the end, you have a problem. You’ll need to either think of a more complicated solution, or communicate the reason our hero is not seeing or executing that option at the moment. We need to understand their thought process– which leads me to my last narrator pet peeve.
Going against their morals
Every character has their own set of values and morals. These values won’t necessarily match those of the author or the reader, but they should at least make sense in the context. Protagonists will often go against these values to achieve their goal; it’s part of what causes the conflict.
Still, these choices have to make sense in their mind- and usually, we need to see that deep down they do feel it’s wrong. This can be achieved with just a hint of guilt, a little over-justification to self or others, or even a conscious decision to change their value system. All of these make for a great dynamic character, but having a character lie, seek disproportionate revenge, or abandon a relationship without justification or remorse will cut off a reader’s empathy pretty quickly.
Don’t get me wrong — you can play with a reader’s emotions by purposefully employing any of these tactics for a short amount of time, and then redeeming your narrator. Still, be careful about how long you do that to us — or your poor book may end up mangled in a corner.
This post was originally published on the Writer’s Assistant.