Help! My character is a close-mouthed bastard!

Last night, I was working on the third scene of a new story, working title of “Immigrant” and about halfway into the scene I realized that my main character is being a close-mouthed bastard. The story is third-person and limited to the point of view of the protagonist. But even here, he is alluding to things and then getting distracted before those things can come to the foreground. This is a problem.

When I was a less experienced writer, I thought this technique was a good way to increase the tension of a story. What I have learned through experience (read: many, many rejection slips) is that there is a fine line between holding back information to increase tension and holding back information to annoy your reader. A story is supposed to unfold naturally. These days, if I find a character of mine is being a close-mouthed bastard constantly, I take it as a sign that I am trying too hard and need to take a step back and ask what it is I am trying to accomplish.

In this particular story there is a kind of twist about midway through that I think will have a somewhat chilling effect on the reader. But if the reader guessed what was going on before they got to this point, it isn’t the end of the world because I still think there is an emotional impact to what is happening to my protagonist. There isn’t really a reason for him to be such a close-mouthed bastard, except perhaps in the first scene, because it works well there. In the second draft, I think I’m going to need to back away from this and try to get things to flow more naturally.

It occurs to me that I complained about this very phenomenon in one of the later Harry Potter movies, #5 I think. Whenever it comes on TV and I happen to catch a glimpse of it, I turn to Kelly and say, “Is this the one where Harry is a close-mouthed bastard?” If it annoys me, imagine how it must annoy readers.

So how to do you prevent your POV character from keeping too much information from the reader without sacrificing tension in the story? I’m not sure how I’ve done it in other stories, but I think it goes something like this: a story is a journey an as the author you are the guide. You want to make the journey as interesting as possible. If you are going to hold back a crucial piece of information, you had to lay some breadcrumbs that get the reader activity participating in the guessing game. If the reader doesn’t realize they are even playing the game and are swept away by the story, you’re probably doing it right. If they start to feel like they are playing a guessing game, that there is information out there that they should already know, you’ve lost them.

That’s about the best I can describe it. Usually, I work this out in the second draft. When I see it happening fairly early in a first draft, I worry a little.

What about my other writer friends? Do you ever find yourself with characters acting like close-mouthed bastards?

4 thoughts on “Help! My character is a close-mouthed bastard!

  1. Well, Jamie, in fact I deliberately avoid this at all costs. My alternate solution is distributing information that readers need across characters, and keeping my characters as myopic as possible. Thus if a character knows it, the reader knows it. But the character might not know it…

  2. In this case, the protag doesn’t want anyone else to know his secret, but the reader *should* know it. The tension comes from the other characters not knowing and the various implications. So I suppose I make him less “close-mouthed” with the reader and compartmentalize more. As you suggest: it’s okay for the protag to divulge to the reader while still keeping the information from the other characters. That will work!

  3. So I came to read the famous blog post…well not really famous, but since two people refrenced it to me last night I figure I aught to read it (Aught is really an awesome word, although I am using it incorrectly here)

    Anyway, we noticed that I have an aceptional tallent for being annoyingly vauge, or I should say I have a talent for making closed mouth bastereds out of my charaters. But here is my question, if its something that I have noticed readers getting hung up on, but really is something minor to the story, and something the MC wouldnt even think about how do I get that info to the reader?

  4. Sara, I’d respond with a question: if readers are getting hung up on something that is “minor to the story” then why include it in the narrative in the first place? It is really that necessary? And if it is, then perhaps it can be brought into the story later, when it matters, as opposed to hinting at it long before it will be used. Each of those “hints” have to be remembered by the reader, juggled in their mind, and the more of them that there are without going back and elaborating on them, the more likely the reader is going to be confused. Juliette Wade wrote a good post on this topic that you might check out.

    As for whether or not the MC knows the information and how to communicate it to the reader: you have to chose the window your readers get into the story. The piece in question seemed to me to use a close third person point of view. We were in one character’s head, but not the others. There are other options. For instance, you might choose a limited omniscient viewpoint in which you can see into any of the character’s minds in a limited way. Or unlimited omniscient: If you’ve ever read Stephen King’s stuff–particularly his longer stuff–this is what he tends to do. Any form of omniscient POV allows you to give information to the reader that any one character may not have.

    For the story about which this post was written, I decided that is was okay for my MC give away more information than I originally anticipated. The reason is because I’ve put the reader close into his head. You, as the reader, and the MC know the information–but you also know that he is intentionally keeping this information from the other characters and that action is what makes for some of the tension in the story.

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