Writing characters in denial is a tough proposition. This is a very nitpicky post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while.
Examples of Characters in Denial
One of my biggest pet peeves in fiction is characters 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.
Plant Seeds Without Being Too Obvious
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 characters in 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.
Let the Character Be Perceptive
Readers want to follow a character who is smart and perceptive. But putting characters in 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. If anything, you’re damaging your protagonist’s credibility and creating an unreliable narrator. (The unreliable narrator isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you don’t want to unintentionally create this kind of character.)
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.)
Don’t Be Obvious About Important Details
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 character 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.
How to Fix Characters in Denial
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. Writing characters in 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!)
If you’re working on characterization and wondering if your protagonist is coming across as an unreliable narrator when that’s not your intention, hire me as your developmental editor. We can dive into your manuscript together.