Willing ignorance

How far can we allow our characters or our narrative voices to be more ignorant than our readers?

I didn’t think this was a difficult question, but after listening to the latest episode of Writing Excuses I’m not so sure. In this episode they talk about the gap that sometimes exists between what the writer and reader knows of the world and what’s written on the page. I thought they were going to be talking about the dramatic potential in this, but instead they mostly discussed the pitfalls. The fact that, if a character says something inaccurate about science or a historical setting they’re living in, the reader may see this as ignorance on the author’s part and so be thrown out of the story.

True, sometimes this does reflect the author’s ignorance. But a lot of the time that’s not the case. Mary Robinette Kowal discussed a story she’d written in which a character was unaware of prejudices common in her setting. This was a deliberate move on her part as an author, and the book went on to address those prejudices and tensions. But for at least one reader she spoke with it became a block to reading the book. That ignorance on the character’s part seemed so implausible to her that she couldn’t go on with the story – she thought Mary was missing something crucial.

You can get around this sort of problem by lampshading it. Have the character be ignorant of something but have the narrative voice draw attention to that ignorance. But what if the character is providing the narrative voice? And how much lampshading can you do before that too becomes irksome to readers? Then it becomes much more difficult.

Of course this sort of gap can also be a powerful tool. Think of the dramatic ironies in J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, when characters at an early 20th century dinner party talk of the unsinkable of the Titanic and the impossibility of war in Europe. Or the tensions in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games books that arise from Katniss’s lack of awareness of her own circumstances.

But writer beware – it seems you can’t just throw those ironies around with glee. Be careful what your readers will think of your writing skills and how that will colour their reading of the book.