And here I go being declamatory again. And using examples from my favorite authors to show how some people get around the pitfalls.
Maybe I should explain what I mean by ‘perceptiveness.’ I don’t mean sudden leaps of intuition. Those are a dime a dozen in crappy writing, fantasy or fanfic or any other genre. Nor do I mean the usual “Somehow, he knew he had to follow her” thing that makes me scream with hatred. I mean leaps of intuition that flow naturally out of the story, deductions that the reader can follow, and the ability of your protagonist to sense the other characters’ turmoil and emotions.
It’s much harder than a lot of authors who cling to the “Somehow” bit make it out to be.
1) First of all, keep in mind what your character could not possibly know about.
There are many authors who keep careful track of where their characters are, how long it took them to get there, who’s dead and who’s alive, and who’s related to whom. There are fewer who take into account that characters who make a decision or come to a revelation based on some knowledge of events in the story don’t have a solid basis for that decision or revelation.
Fantasy is different than almost any other genre in that you have few easy fallback positions, especially if your world is the typical medieval kind. In a contemporary or science fiction novel, I might be (cautiously) able to accept that a character who knows something she shouldn’t know was telephoned or e-mailed or radioed by the knowledgeable person in the last chapter, though I would still think the writer lazy as hell for not explaining it. In a fantasy world, though, there’s not often instant communication, much less communication that travels even half as fast as, say, a telephone call. I’m going to want to know how the Queen knows her husband is dead, when she’s three hundred miles south of him and he died just a few minutes before in the previous chapter. Unless they have a telepathic mage or something- and if it hasn’t been introduced before, it will seem to have been pulled out of the author’s ass- there’s no way. No messenger bird flies that fast, no horse runs so swiftly.
This is where a lot of fantasy authors fall back on the oh-so-mysterious knowledge bit. How does she know? Well, she felt him die. They were soulmates, you know.
Drag the soulmate idea into the wilderness and leave it there. Please. Using it to get around a tricky bit of plotting is nonsensical.
If you’re writing historical fantasy, you’re going to have to bite the bullet and accept that there wouldn’t be any possible way for them to know. George R. R. Martin handles this excellently in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. Several characters make wrong decisions that seem perfectly reasonable to them, since they don’t have any sure knowledge of whether other people are alive or dead; only the reader knows. And with the difficulty of getting through war-torn territory, they might not receive a message even if someone does set out to deliver it. Martin has the control and mastery of detail necessary for an epic historical fantasy. A lot of other authors don’t.
If you have a magical means of communication, make sure that it’s mentioned early and often, and integrated enough into the story world not to seem like a deus ex machina. Don’t fuck with its limitations, either. If your telepaths are rare and concentrated only in a few cities, don’t make one of them vacationing in the Queen’s army camp just so that she can learn her husband is dead almost immediately.
2) Do not tell the reader that your character is perceptive.
I’m serious. There are some traits that need to be told and not shown, such as backstory that the reader would be curious about but which doesn’t really matter to the plot. There are other things that can be either told or shown and will not affect the story; eye and hair colors are some of these. But tell me that your character is intelligent, perceptive, and has a great understanding of other people’s minds, and I will a) doubt it and b) resent being just told that instead of shown it.
One of the things that turned me off incredibly fast from Sara Douglass’s The Wayfarer Redemption was her insistence that the heroine Faraday had “intelligent green eyes.” First of all, that’s a stupid statement. How can eyes look intelligent? Alert, shifty, quick to narrow and widen, yes, but not intelligent. Second, Faraday acts like a twit. Telling your reader that the character is one way doesn’t make her so. And showing her as some other kind of person is just laughable.
I mentioned in my review of Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan that his Ammar ibn Khairan is one of the few convincing and perceptive characters I’ve encountered in a fantasy novel, and that remains true. There are a whole host of reasons, but a large part of them is the fact that Kay doesn’t bring Ammar on the scene and tell the reader that he’s known for understanding people’s hearts, then relate a whole bunch of stories about characters we don’t care about and will never hear from again. Instead, he notes that he’s feared for his power and having killed the last khalif, then shows him being clever and witty. Plenty of other characters are stunned at how Ammar responds, but it comes after the fact, when the response has already been made. And the most understanding moments are from Ammar’s point-of-view, without the narrator stepping in and poking the reader and saying, “See? See? Look how wonderful he is!”
Do not tell me. Show me.
3) Don’t confuse cleverness, especially verbal cleverness, with perceptiveness.
I’m sure all of us know people who are entertaining and witty, but don’t have a clue how to deal with others, especially if those others are different from them in some important way (such as being of a different religion, race, gender, or class). There are different kinds of intelligence. Perceptiveness is one of the most difficult to embody in a fantasy character, even with showing, and a lot of the time the author will think she’s succeeding in making the character intuitive when all she’s doing is showing a different kind of intelligence.
Take academic intelligence, for instance. The author writes a scholar heroine who has been cooped up among her books most of her life, in a secluded convent where she meets only other scholars and priestesses and the laity who’ve retreated there. Now, she will probably know a great deal about whatever subjects are in her books, about her religion, and about the hearts of the women around her. But will she know how everyone in the world acts? She shouldn’t. In fact, it’s entirely permissible and understandable for a character like that to be prejudiced against followers of a different religion than her own. The books she’s read and the people she’s talked to probably won’t offer her a different view. Put her out in the world and have her come up with incisive observations about men from another continent and another faith whose history she’s never studied, and I’ll close the book.
Characters who are experts in a certain non-academic field of study, like music or military strategy or magic as it’s written in some worlds, shouldn’t be mistaken as automatically perceptive, either. A military leader can guess how other military leaders and soldiers would behave. Would he necessarily know what a civilian farmer wants? Would he consider those farmer’s griefs as important as his own? Probably not. Yet many fighter heroes are written like that, as if they’d spent all their time studying the people around them instead of the weapons and tactics they’ve claimed to be studying. Consider your character’s history, and don’t mistake “expert” status for an expert in the human heart.
Another good example here is Seyonne, Carol Berg’s Rai-kirah hero. He’s an expert Warden, a job in which he goes into people’s souls and frees them from the demons possessing them. In the hands of a lesser author, this could have turned into some kind of maudlin crap-babble that Seyonne knows people because he’s been inside the souls of so many. Instead, Seyonne is perceptive for other reasons, the divided life he’s led and his own suffering foremost among them. Berg doesn’t take the easy way out. She shows what a high price Seyonne has paid for his peculiar kind of intelligence, and so when he relies on his gut and makes leaps, they’re believable.
4) Love is not a guarantee of perfect perceptiveness, nor should it be.
This is one reason why I become wary whenever romance shows up in a fantasy story. I’ve seen too many authors shove two otherwise incompatible people together, and declare that because they’ve experienced sexual attraction they must “understand” each other all the way through.
Wrong. Happy-sappy-crappy. In fact, most of the time I think characters in love are less likely to see each other realistically, especially when they’ve spent only a few days or months together. (I always wish I could peek in after the end of a fantasy story, and see how many of those sudden marriages or love affairs end in unhappiness. I’m the kind of person who thinks that Darcy and Elizabeth probably got divorced after the ending of Pride and Prejudice, or, if they didn’t, it was mostly because of fear of scandal).
Another good example to shine against the muck of bad ones out there: Steven Brust’s main couple in his Vlad Taltos series. Vlad marries Cawti, a fellow assassin, very suddenly, and then continues along, barely paying attention to her, in what he thinks is perfect bliss and happiness. It’s not. Cawti, bored and with a lot of free time on her hands, becomes involved with a socialist-like group fighting to free humans and Draegaran peasants from the grip of the Draegaran Empire. By the time Vlad finds out what she’s doing, they’ve changed and no longer understand each other, and a lot of fighting goes on. Though Teckla is a difficult book in many ways, I adore it for this too-rare portrayal. The only way that Vlad and Cawti can ever really understand each other is to realize, first, how much they don’t.
5) ”Birds of a feather flock together.”
Someone different from you can provide a lot of fascination, but that fascination is, I think, a poor ground for building perception. There’s a reason that so many attempts to spread empathy for people of other nations, races, genders, classes, religions, and sexual orientations focus on the commonalities between those groups instead of the differences. See them as human, and it might be possible for a person to understand why these “outsiders” are demanding equal rights, too. Focus on the differences, and they remain outside.
How does this apply to a fantasy story? Show me the perceptive character discovering that another person has had a similar bad experience, known a similar person (or the same person), fought in the same style, fought in the same war or for a similar cause. A road into the other person’s mind will convince me that your heroine knows what she’s talking about when she tries to comfort the grieving hero. If the other person always remains alien, I will be intensely skeptical that the heroine could find the words to heal someone who she doesn’t even really think of as human.
Terry Pratchett does a good job with this concept in Lords and Ladies. Trolls and dwarfs are understandable to humans, and therefore they can live in (more or less) peace with them. Elves are intensely alien and like to torture people, and therefore must be hunted down and killed or driven back to their own lands, the nasty buggers.
6) Show me other traits that run in accord with perceptiveness.
One reason that I tend to laugh when so many characters have Epiphanies or speak “words of comfort” is because those actions don’t fit with their characters. All along, they’ve been taciturn, inconsiderate of others, self-involved, insolent, witty at the expense of other people, and unaware of how the other characters thought about them (though probably intensely aware of who they liked and hated). The author’s attempt to change them comes far too late. The best perceptive character is one built that way from the beginning. If you know that your character has some intense, sudden realization, make sure she’s the kind of person who could believably have one.
How does this work? It’s subtle, but runs along the same lines as making sure your character’s perceptions aren’t the same as the objective story-world. Your reader has to know that your character can make mistakes, isn’t more important than everyone else even if she thinks she is, isn’t the center of the universe, and so on. Similarly, she has to see this person caring about other people, exercising some tact and caution, wondering what’s happening in other characters’ lives, and not making assumptions and always being right about them. It really doesn’t matter, I don’t think, if the person always cares in the right way or speaks the right words. What makes it believable is that she tries.
I’m re-reading Kay’s Tigana at the moment, and he spends a lot of time building the transformation in one wizard, Erlein, who is bound unwilling to the heroes’ cause and hates them intensely for that. He’s allowed to have moments of justified anger, especially right after being bound, and to say things that make the other characters wince. But later, when he says cutting things, the other characters strike out at him, and he’s forced to think from the heroes’ perspective several times. He’s also marked as a survivor, not the kind of person who would, say, starve himself to death just to make a point. By the time his transformation rolls around, it’s believable. An insolent teenager who kept saying bratty things and never noticed the heroes’ pain wouldn’t fit this role.
I’ve been thinking quite a lot about this lately- probably because I’ve noticed that the stories I most love are those where the author makes me see both the characters’ thoughts and the limitations of those thoughts, where everyone is a full and deeply complex person, though we may share only one of those minds.