28 July 2012 - 2:25 pm

CAC: Characters Avoiding Conversation

This is one of my bugbears when it comes to fiction (of any kind: TV show; movie; comic; book). I’m sure you’ve all come across what I’m referring to: knowing that if Character A just talked to Character B, they would sort out Major Issue X. But they don’t, because they’re CAC (characters avoiding conversation – pronounced ‘kack’).

For example, if only Gandalf had said, “Elrond! I know these big eagles that can fly us to Mordor; none of that walking crap is necessary.” But no, we had to have two and a half books more to go the long way.

For another example, how many times have you said to a character, “Why didn’t you say that four chapters/episodes/hours ago?”

 There are lots of ways to create challenges, control plot, and create suspense in a story. Surprise events, hidden motives, personality quirks, character history, conspiracy: these are just a few of the options available. All of them help to pick a story up by its skirts and run it along to the end.

Another way is to have characters not share information. Of all of the available options, this simple mechanism is one of the weakest and can be the most aggravating for a reader, partly because it’s so easy to do it badly. When the characters blunder around in ignorance because they won’t/can’t talk to each other, it is frustrating to watch.

There are two ways in which this occurs and annoys the reader:

  • When the audience is aware of the information not being shared and there’s no good reason for that not to happen. They spend time waiting for the characters to share their pieces, and the longer the delay, the more frustrating it becomes. It’s nice when the characters catch up and everyone can move on with the story together.
  • When the information is revealed to characters and the audience at the same time, and the immediate reaction is, “You couldn’t have said that earlier?!” Continuity can fall down here, which also damages the story.

Both of these can come off as contrived and manipulative. The author’s hand can be obvious (good fiction strives to make the writer as invisible as possible) and intelligent audiences will resent it. I know it annoys me intensely.

There are several reasons why characters might avoid conversations:

  • Events conspire keep them apart, making it impossible to exchange information. This is possibly the most forgivable reason for CAC, depending on how contrived the events are and how often it happens. Once or twice might be good to raise tension; more than that, and the reader will start tapping their fingers, waiting for the writer to stop messing around and get on with it.
  • The characters decide not to mention it. They speak but fail to share the information that would drive the story forward. It can be a valid part of characterisation: perhaps one character is trying to hurt the other, or is competing. This can work. 
    However, if not handled carefully, it’s often implausible: characters need a good reason not to mention the Major Issue in their lives. If it is in-character for someone to mention something, then they should.
  • Everyone is asking the wrong questions. Sometimes this is good and right. However, it’s similar to the point above: there must be a damned good reason for it or it quickly becomes lame and fake, as if there’s a pink elephant farting in the middle of the room and everyone is ignoring it.
  • They are interrupted before they can get to it. This is a specific application of events keeping characters apart, and not something to do more than once as it can easily slide into contrivance.

 Let me be clear: these can be valid tactics to use in a story. They can be used well and to good effect. But when they are used too often, it gives the impression that the writer is trying to string the story out. It’s a sign of not enough plot in a story and smacks of desperation. It’s often laziness and a lack of creativity on the writer’s part.

It can also be a sign of a lack of internal continuity. The example with Gandalf above could have been avoided by simply not having the eagles in Middle Earth (and making the Hobbits walk out of Mordor). It looks like the writer has made something up later in the story and forgotten that it might break the continuity or logic of earlier events.

As a rule of thumb, if you’re forcing delays into the story, you run the risk of making the plot and characters look contrived. The readers will most likely notice and be thrown out of the story.

Be smart about it. Be creative. Be plausible. Most of all, don’t make me want to bang your/your character’s heads together. No-one wants that.

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