Writing What They Don’t Know

“I spent a week in Rio, once,” Russwin mused, picking at his bowl of green stuffs. “Just down the beach from Impanema, actually.”

I made a go on gesture with my eyebrows, my mouth being full.

“Rio would be a good place to retire. You can live pretty cheap there, if you’re off the strip. Maybe pick up some hours doing security work at one of the tourist hotels. Just stand around the lobby in a suit and look pretty.”

I swallowed. “Do you speak Spanish?” I asked.

He gave me one of his looks. “Portuguese, James. They speak Portuguese in Brazil.” Another lackluster bite of salad. “And I could pick it up. I’m good with languages. If you work at it, you can learn enough to buy groceries and ask directions in a week.”

This is a little bit of dialogue from The Worms Of Heaven. It’s just kind of throwaway scene between action sequences, but it illustrates a kind of characterization that can make a character interesting, in my opinion.

James doesn’t have much in the way of education.  He started life in a cult and spent most of his childhood escaping from a series of mental institutions.  Most of what he knows he learned by watching people from a distance, or from television.  He’s never been outside of the continental US and while he’s traveled around the country extensively, he’s always kept to cheap hotels and bad neighborhoods, living off the grid.  James knows that people in South America speak Spanish, and that’s about all he knows about South America.

Russwin, on the other hand, is well educated, a graduate of Marine Corps intelligence school, a world traveler, well read, a freelance secret agent.  He not only knows that Portuguese is the official language of Brazil, he has a pretty good idea of what dialects are spoken in what regions of the country, what native language groups survive, and where you would go to find English speakers in the major cities.

They are characters from very different worlds, and their knowledge base reflects that.  On the other hand, Russwin is kind of klutz with machinery and knows little more about cars than where to put the gas.

I think it’s important for us as writers to know not only what our characters know, but also what they don’t know.  Too often, I feel, we spend so much time doing research that we forget that writers, as a class, tend to have a very abnormal knowledge base.  You may have spent a long time researching how dairy farms operate, for example, but what does your character who is just off the bus from the big city see when she or he looks at the farm? A bunch of buildings, a bunch of cows, with no real understand of how they all fit together.

One of my pet peeves in books and movies is when characters suddenly know all about some specialized skill with no clear explanation for why.



About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in On Writing, Worms Of Heaven and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Writing What They Don’t Know

  1. Yes! Or when a character is labelled a “scientist”, and suddenly knows everything about every possible scientific phenomenon ever, despite them being a microbiologist trying to defuse a hydrogen bomb.

  2. Megan says:

    This is a good point to make! And if a character doesn’t know anything about something, it has to make sense, too.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Also true. I’ve been rewatching CSI lately, and there are a lot of scenes where Grissom explains what he’s doing to people who ought to already know all about it, just so the writers can explain something to the audience.

  3. Sue says:

    Ah – I love throwaways — sometimes they make it into the book sometimes not. Either way they’re fun.

    While this is a very rough draft I like it And yes it is the type of scene to draw interest in the characters

    People, in real life, often know more than you think they do like James. No formal education or being raised in mental institutions does not mean a person is ignorant. And people from all kinds of backgrounds do become friends with a common bond, as these two demonstrate.

    They need each other and like each other

  4. Abnormal knowledge base. I laughed. That’s all I could do. Yet, if we’re honest, you put that MILDLY.

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