Writing Character Growth: Characters in Denial

Writing character growth if the character is in denial is a tough proposition. This is a very nitpicky post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while.

character growth
So what if my paramour doesn’t like daylight and is suspiciously pale? He couldn’t possibly be a vampire…

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 (learn more about foreshadowing.) 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 (check out this related post: active protagonist). 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, character growth, 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 that will lead to further character growth 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. (Learn more about writing believable characters.) So to make these types of character growth moments read as authentic, don’t be afraid to put a little doubt in the character’s head.

How to Fix Stunted Character Growth

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. 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.

37 Replies to “Writing Character Growth: Characters in Denial”

  1. 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. KDuBayGillis says:

    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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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?

  8. Melissa K says:

    Thanks for the great explanation, Mary.

  9. 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.

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

  11. 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!

  12. 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?

  13. Estee Wood says:

    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.

  14. 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.

  15. Michelle Julian says:

    Great example of how to do it properly. Thanks!

  16. 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!

  17. 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.

  18. 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. 🙂

  19. 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!

  20. 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!

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

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

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

  25. 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!

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

  27. 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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