Characters in Denial

This is a very nitpicky post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while. One of my biggest pet peeves in fiction is a character in denial. What do I mean by that? Examples:

Something about the way Rolf looked at me chilled the back of my neck, but he was just so darn cute that I followed him down the darkened alley.

Morgan firmly believed that she would never, ever get her first kiss.

The new girl gave me a pained, significant look but I just turned away and rushed off to class. She was probably trying to cry out a contact or something.

These types of little moments of denial in a book are understandable. A fiction writer’s job is to create “the fictive dream,” and to entice a reader to suspend their disbelief and jump into a completely fabricated world and story.

Often, a writer needs to work in events and people that will be significant later, but they don’t want to seem too obvious about it. Since novels are all about weaving in details that should grow in significance over the course of the plot, you have to jam this stuff in there somewhere and somehow.

But a character’s denial in the face of Something That We All Know Will Be Important Later is just not the way to go. My examples above are purposefully bad but I think we all know what’s going to happen. Rolf and his dimples probably aren’t leading our narrator down the dark alley to show her a box of puppies with big red bows around their necks. Morgan gets snogged breathless. And that new chick is giving Narrator #3 that look because she’s got bad news/is a demon/can read his aura/is his long lost sister/whatever.

Readers want to follow a character who is smart and perceptive. But putting a character in obvious denial so that you can layer in Something That We All Know Will Be Important Later is not the way you’ll earn sympathy and respect for your fictional people. Readers see right through that.

So what do you do? Don’t have your characters say never. If someone says in chapter one that they’ll never fall in love, I know I’m most likely in for an “unlikely” love story. (One issue I had with the upcoming DELIRIUM by Lauren Oliver is that there’s a lot of time spent reassuring the reader that the protagonist has bought society’s anti-love propaganda hook, line, and sinker…despite having a family predisposition for love sickness…and even after she meets Obvious-and-Rebellious Love Interest Dude. Riiiiiight.)

If you need to introduce significant details and make sure that the reader, not the character, notices them and understands that they’re looking at Something That We All Know Will Be Important Later, here’s an idea: don’t call the character’s attention to it in such an obvious way. Describe the new girl, then leave it at that until she pops up again. Don’t describe the new girl and then make a point of describing how the narrator doesn’t notice the new girl. Plus, that’s a lie. You have to notice something to be able to describe it.

If you need to make your character do something stupid or dangerous because it’s part of your plot, but what they have to do is out of character, like going down Rolf Alley, don’t try and justify their actions with denial, and don’t have them lie to themselves. Characters are always smarter, more interesting, and more believable when you give them layers. So to make these types of moments read as authentic, don’t be afraid to put a little doubt in the character’s head. For example:

I didn’t want to follow Rolf down that alley but Meghan’s snarky comment from last week, calling me a prude in front of everyone, rang in my head and I set out to prove her wrong.

That’s realistic, flat-out denial isn’t.

The art of fiction is the act of making the implausible seem plausible and relatable to readers. Denial is very often one of the cheapest and laziest ways to do that, and I never fall for it.

(Please feel free to point out that the agent who said “never say never” just said “never.” Looks like there’s going to be some pretty convincing denial in my future!)

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  1. Melissa’s avatar

    Great advice. This is one of those things that makes me want to put a book down–it makes me think about the writer rather than the story. I know it can be hard for the writer to step back enough to recognize those moments. Hopefully, a good crit partner will!

  2. Krystalyn’s avatar

    Just the post I needed to read today. Thank you.

  3. KDuBayGillis’s avatar

    Revising a chapter today that I wrote yesterday. Pretty sure I typed a “never” in there. . . thanks for adding to my Revision To Do List!

  4. Katherine Quimby Johnson’s avatar

    As Krystalyn said, this is just the post I needed to read today. Thanks, as always, for the great advice.

  5. Elizabeth May’s avatar

    Great post!

    Sometimes it seems like these moments of denial replace effective foreshadowing, or almost seemingly reassure the reader This Is An Important Moment That We Will Return to Later. If a character notices something and proceeds to make a denial-like statement, “I noticed THIS, but it couldn’t mean THIS, because that’s impossible,” it spoon feeds to the reader that this particular event is important, but “just not right now.” It dumbs down the reader’s ability to connect pieces together themselves and experience things as the character does.

  6. Carolyn’s avatar

    I’ve been reading The Morgue and Me, as it was suggested as an example of a tightly written ya murder mystery. I’ve enjoyed it, but last night I got to the chapter I’d been dreading for a good thirty pages. Don’t want to ruin it for anybody here, so I won’t call out the real plot point, but it’s tantamount to the protag saying, “I know this is a bad part of town and everything, but I’ll leave my brand new bike right here anyway, undefended, even when the bad guy specifically knows I have this brand new bike, and is likely to come looking for it. But I’m sure it’ll be safe.” Well guess what, once your brand new bike is stolen, I don’t feel badly for the protag, I feel irritated by the blatant stupidity of the protag, who, heretofore, has been bright. I will finish the book, I am invested in it and have enjoyed it, but it’s not a coincidence that I stopped reading at that chapter break last night.

  7. Harper’s avatar

    One of my biggest annoyances in YA novels is when we’re told that Main Character has always made straight A’s, has a scholarship to Yale, will undoubtedly be valedictorian or just graduated as valedictorian before the book began… and yet still has these moments of complete failure in perception and logic!

  8. Tracey Neithercott’s avatar

    Great post. I do get frustrated as a reader when a character suddenly goes stupid and doesn’t realize something that’s obvious to the reader. I’m thinking of one book in particular where I was thinking, “You’re an idiot if you do this. OK, you’re an idiot if you do that. OK, you’re an idiot.” It totally pulls you out of the story.

  9. Lois D. Brown’s avatar

    This is right on. Thanks for the reminder.

  10. Kim Reid’s avatar

    Good post. Question: What about denial NOT used as foreshadowing but as characterization? Can you think of any examples where this is done well? I notice that this tends to be when I resort to writing about denial–when my character doesn’t yet have the courage to face difficult truths. Or when something so insane is going on that denial seems like a logical response. For example, I don’t have trouble with Sam’s reaction on the first day she has to relive her last day after dying in a car accident in IF I FALL. Even though I know what’s happening because I’ve read the book jacket, I don’t think it’s surprising that Sam doesn’t get what’s happening yet. Opinions? Is denial a weak method of characterization too b/c it makes characters less likable?

  11. Melissa K’s avatar

    Thanks for the great explanation, Mary.

  12. Ishta’s avatar

    Great post! I hate it when I come across characters like that too, but I admit to feeling lost as to how to avoid that in my own novel. Thanks for your excellent example.

  13. MaryZ’s avatar

    Not nitpicky at all. Very helpful. But, uh,oh. The main theme of my wip is disproving a never. Guess I’m in trouble.

  14. Valeria’s avatar

    I´ve been thinking a lot about this lately. But all the points you made help clear up my doubts on the subject.

    Great post Mary!

  15. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Snog! That verb does not get used often enough.

    Interesting post. I wonder if there are readers out there who kind of like knowing what’s going to happen? Like the same people who rent those movies where it’s crystal clear that the bad guy is going to get the good girl? Are there readers like that?

  16. Lydia Sharp’s avatar

    I want to hug both you and this post. Love.

  17. Estee Wood’s avatar

    Um, am I the only one that read about DARN CUTE Rolf and want to follow him into the dark alley?

    Great post. Now back to my WIP to make sure my MC isn’t Too-Stupid-To-Live.

  18. Mary’s avatar

    Kim — Great question. There’s “I need something convenient because I’m writing a novel” character denial and true character denial, the psychological symptom. It’s been a long time since I read LIVING DEAD GIRL by Elizabeth Scott but I seem to remember some good denial (or Stockholm syndrome) on the MC’s part at times, and the first reboot of Sam’s day in BEFORE I FALL, as you say, is another great example.

  19. Ronni’s avatar

    This blog is so inspiring and eye-opening. :)

  20. Michelle Julian’s avatar

    Great example of how to do it properly. Thanks!

  21. Pam Torres’s avatar

    Your post was very enlightening. I totally agree with you about making me not want to finish the story or movie because it’s so obvious. Thanks!

  22. Peter Dudley’s avatar

    Great. Just great. Now you’ve got me obsessing about the first 83,000 words. Did I let any denial slip in there?

    Actually, the one thing about denial is that what rings very false in a story may happen in real life. I can cite several examples from real life where friends (or friends-of-friends) have ignored emphatic, rational advice from EVERYONE, only to do the one thing that will assuredly, without doubt, cause the ruin of everything that is good and stable in their lives. Then, these very real people go through years of rationalization of their bad decisions–staying in bad relationships, staying in bad jobs, staying in bad places. Sometimes I think they stay just to try to prove that all that good advice they got way back when was actually bad advice. Sometimes they stay because they still don’t see they’re in a bad situation. But I understand why that doesn’t work so well in fiction.

  23. Wendy Delfosse’s avatar

    Thank you for this, Mary! Great timing, too. I’m working on rewriting a project for which I think this post will be extremely helpful. :-)

  24. Sherrie Petersen’s avatar

    Can I just say that this post is brilliant? This is one of my pet peeves when I read a book and one of the (many) reasons I couldn’t get into Hush, Hush. Here’s hoping I never fall into this trap!

  25. Sherrie Petersen’s avatar

    Can I just say that this post is brilliant? This is one of my pet peeves when I read a book and one of the (many) reasons I couldn’t get into Hush, Hush. Here’s hoping my writing never falls into this trap!

  26. Anita’s avatar

    I recently read two very good books where I felt like the character was guilty of denying something obvious. It actually kind of annoyed me. But, then I thought that maybe it was obvious to me (because of my 31 wise years of being alive), but maybe it wouldn’t be obvious to a teen.

  27. LG’s avatar

    Great post! It all comes down to the nitpicky and that’s what really helps writers become better writers and readers become better readers – taking sharp notice of these things. It’s a shame to have to give up a book because of something like this (seemingly so small)- but I do it all the time.

  28. Becky’s avatar

    Oooh, I’m going to have to watch out for this when I write. Thanks Mary!

  29. Sue Ford’s avatar

    Thanks for sharing about nitpicky stuff, ’cause it is so important. Now to spot it in my own writing. ;-)

  30. Becky Levine’s avatar

    Yes, yes, yes! Adding that little bit of “explanation” to a hint/piece of foreshadowing doesn’t weave it quietly and unobtrusively into the story, it just calls our attention to it like a red flag. AND makes the character look more naive than we want them to be.

    Great post!

  31. Brandi’s avatar

    Great post. I jut recently ran across this exact issue in my current read. Thanks for explaining how a writer can fix it :)

  32. Sari Webb’s avatar

    Love this post. This is one of the main reasons I start to get fed up with a protagonist, but I’ve never been able to articulate it this well before.

    There is one situation where denial doesn’t irritate me, and that’s where the information the protag receives is so far out of the norm that it wouldn’t be realistic if they weren’t in denial. Example would be for a protag who lives in the ‘real’ world, has no knowledge of anything fantastical or paranormal, then finds out that vampires/fairies/angels do exist, oh and she/he’s one of them! I’d be a bit iffy if this protag wasn’t in denial.

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