Writing Excuses 14.22: Characters out of Their Depth
Key Points: Watson (aka The Howard, cabbage head, gateway character, Bilbo, the apprentice) can help by getting things explained to them. It gives readers someone that they can ride along with and get introduced to the universe. Writers can use this to introduce a concept and drive it home. It gives the audience someone to identify with, who is getting oriented and figuring things out. Give them an arc of growth. Avoid using them for “As you know, Bob” explanations. Sometimes make them (and the audience) work to understand things. Buddy cops are a good example. Make sure your Watson has agency! Sometimes you want the reader to be confused, but ground them first, show that they can trust you, then… hit them (and your Watson) with confusion. Don’t just bury the reader in confusion, pick the ones that are important. And remember, Watson, sometimes what’s important is that the dog didn’t bark.
[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 22.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Characters out of Their Depth.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m in over my head.
[Brandon] Yes. We’re going to talk about characters who are in a little bit or a lot over their heads. Let’s get right into this. I often really like the idea of a Watson character. This is a character who fills the role in the plot that they get things explained to them. Based, obviously, off of Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
[Dan] He’s also sometimes referred to as the Howard.
[Brandon] The Howard. Yes, the Howard. The cabbage head.
[Howard] That has been my contribution to…
[Howard] The body of world literature for the last decade.
[Mary Robinette] It’s appreciated.
[Brandon] So. Why, number one, would we want characters to be out of their depth and…
[Howard] I need a job.
[Brandon] Why, then, put them in and then take such efforts to explain things to them?
[Howard] The simplest way to explain this to non-genre fiction readers is if you are picking up genre fiction for the first time, these things are not going to make sense to you unless there is a character to whom it can be explained. You get to ride along with that character and get introduced to this universe. For people who are familiar with genre fiction, for people who love hard sci-fi or deep magic secondary world fantasy, often, they expect just to be immersed and having a Watson, having a Howard in the book isn’t all that important to them. But it’s still useful if you are trying to introduce a concept and drive it home so that it doesn’t get forgotten. Something with particular import.
[Mary Robinette] In children’s theater, we call this the gateway character. It is the character with whom the audience identifies.
[Howard] That’s much friendlier to me.
[Mary Robinette] The idea is that the character is going through a similar experience to the audience, so the audience doesn’t know what’s going on, they’re having trouble being oriented. So having a character who is doing that, who is actively proceeding through being oriented and figuring things out gives the audience a gateway into something that would otherwise be inaccessible. It’s an important character to have in children’s stage and fiction as well, because that’s basically a child’s experience of life.
[Howard] Everything is new to them.
[Brandon] This is why you see portal fantasies a lot in middle grade. Much more so than you see in science fiction and fantasy for older readers, just because the same thing, it lowers the learning curve. It also is shared experience.
[Dan] Well, that… I was going to mention fantasy, too. Because we’re calling this the Watson character, but that’s exactly the role that Bilbo plays as well. Hobbits in general. They have never left the Shire, they have never seen the cool stuff we’re exploring. Countless apprentice figures in epic fantasy are filling this role.
[Howard] Lines like… Now I don’t remember the line… Where Samwise is talking about he’s only heard of these things in songs. These things are only heard of in legend. Then he meets them and they are different, they are relatable. It’s incredibly powerful.
[Dan] Well, to get back to your question, why would you use this kind of character? One of the roles that it serves, if you’re doing this kind of apprentice, the Bilbo version instead of the Watson version, is that the character’s going to change. So suddenly we have an arc of growth. So we’re giving… We’re dropping someone in over their head, and then watching them learn how to swim.
[Mary Robinette] They also provide a really easy way to do exposition for your worldbuilding. So they serve a number of different functions. I’ve just been reading Becky Chambers The Long Way To a Small, Angry Planet. Rosemary, who is one of the major point of view characters, has never been on a long haul deep space ship. She grew up on Mars. She is in over her head. She’s very competent in one area. All of the other areas, she’s read, she’s got book learning, but she doesn’t know. Because a great deal of what this story is, is the long journey to the small, angry planet, what winds up happening is that as they get farther into the territory, more… It’s interesting, because more and more of the characters wind up becoming Watson characters.
[Brandon] This is where I was going to go next. You two have both pre-answered my question.
[Brandon] Because you are so smart. But, my question is, a lot of times, these sorts of characters, particularly when done maybe shallowly, become audience favorites to hate. The opposite of an audience favorite. Whatever that is. They pile on this character, because this character is so often… Dan and I have a joke about a certain property that we will…
[Dan] Oh, I was totally going to mention it.
[Brandon] Leave unmentioned where the Watson character… You just get so tired of having to have things explained…
[Dan] This person not knowing anything.
[Brandon] That you just check out from that character. You’re not interested in them at all. So. How do you avoid that? Dan pre-answered it by saying making them have an arc. Which automatically builds our interest in them. How else can you make one of these characters work without being…
[Mary Robinette] Avoid… A lot of times, the things that are being explained to the Watson character are really an As you know, Bob. They are things that the character should know, and sometimes there are things that the audience already knows. It’s annoying. It’s like, “But we know this.”
[Howard] Force the Watson character… Don’t give them as much information as you were planning on giving them, and give them the moment where they still don’t understand, and then they put it together. That’s… I wanted to bring up the… It’s almost a workshop in Watson characters and exposition, and that is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In which Arthur Dent knows nothing, and every time he asks questions, Ford says, “Read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Then the narrator reads the book to us and gives us the exposition. I’m not saying that this is a brilliant and perfect way to have done it. I’m saying that in terms of story structure, you can look at this and you can see, these are when we needed to know these things, and it’s very clearly telegraphed. If you look at it in terms of the outline of the story itself, there’s a lot to be learned there.
[Dan] Okay. One way to do this is the buddy cop. A lot of people don’t consider the buddy cop to be a kind of fish out of water character over their head thing, because really it’s two. You’ve got Jackie Chan, who doesn’t know anything about LA, and you’ve got Chris Tucker, who doesn’t know anything about Chinese culture. The two of them have to work together. So they’re each an expert, and in over their head at the same time, and are bouncing off of each other constantly.
[Mary Robinette] That is a really good example, because it equalizes the power dynamic.
[Mary Robinette] A lot of that is, when the Watson character can become annoying, is that they… Not only are they a fish out of water, but… In terms of knowledge base, but that also reduces their agency and hierarchy. It’s fine in a short story, like the Holmes things, because you don’t have to sustain it. But an entire novel of that can get draining.
[Brandon] You’ll notice… At least I’ve noticed, in different adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, Watson is dumber in some of them than he is in others. You read the original stories, he’s actually a very competent, smart person who is just not as smart as Holmes. So, you read this, and you’re like, “Wow. Watson’s smarter than me. Holmes is even smarter than him.” Rather than being like, “Oh, Watson, you idiot.”
[Howard] I dearly love the CBS Sherlock Holmes, the Elementary with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. Because Watson is so sharp. We get a character arc for Watson in which we are introduced to Holmes deductive methods very Watsonianly…
[Howard] For lack of a better term. But once you’re embedded in the series, boy, she’s smart.
[Dan] Well, what’s really going on there is the thing that we talk about all the time, is the elements are doing more than one thing. Watson is not just there to be the cabbage head. She’s there to do many other things as well. That makes for an interesting and cool character.
[Brandon] Let’s pause to talk about a time when I was a cabbage head.
[Brandon] Yes. This is very fun. I ran across, a little while ago, a video essay on YouTube by a creator called Super Eyepatch Wolf. This essay is called Why Pro Wrestling Is Fascinating. Why professional wrestling is fascinating. I am one of those people who always in the back of my mind smirked or even sneered a little bit about professional wrestling and all those people, all those fools, who would participate and partake in this media. I watched this essay. I saw someone who was deeply passionate and connected to something that was very outside my own experience. A lot of this essay is about Pro wrestling in Japan. The author’s love of this just beamed, shone through to the point that I was so invested in these characters in the Japanese Pro Wrestling Federation I knew nothing about before this essay. It just knocked me off my high horse. Taught me how someone loves a narrative that I am not familiar with but I could totally see myself loving. It just taught me a whole bunch about life and understanding other people’s passions about the world. So, if you, like me perhaps, have looked down your nose at some piece of media, perhaps Pro wrestling itself, go watch this essay. Because watching someone who is an expert in their field talk about something they love can really show you that we’re all cabbage heads sometimes. It’s part of life, and it’s a good thing.
[Brandon] There’s one more topic along these lines I really want to touch on in this particular podcast. That is talking about scenes where you want the reader to be a little confused. Because I’ve noticed, in a lot of new writers, when I’m reading their writing, they’ll often put in things that are intended to be confusing. Worldbuilding elements that haven’t been explained yet, and the readers, the feedback will be, “Well, I’m really confused.” The author says, “Aha. You’re supposed to be.” That’s a good instinct. You don’t want to give readers everything upfront, you want to leave them questioning and wondering. But it goes wrong when you’re reading it as a reader and you think, “I’m confused and I don’t want to read anymore because it just keeps getting more confusing.” As opposed to, “I’m confused, but the character’s confused, and I’m excited to find out the answers.” How do you distinguish between these two things?
[Mary Robinette] I think… The answer is actually somewhat embedded in the way you phrased the question. Which is I’m confused, and the character is confused. One of the things that does is it puts your reading experience in alignment with the character, which can give you a more intimate experience. The other thing is that it lets you know that it’s a design state. It’s like if the character is confused, then this isn’t supposed to be something that is easy to understand. That’s one of the functions that the cabbage head character can have for you, is that… To signpost that design state. For me, one of the other things is to… Is that you need to be selective about the things that you want the reader to be confused about. When I see this, a lot of times, the writer has delivered a bunch of different confusing things. So you have nothing to ground you. So, for me, what I do what I have something that I want… That is deliberately supposed to be confusing, is that I make sure that my reader is grounded on a couple of different things, so that there’s some trust and a little bit of orientation before I hit them with something that is confusing. One of my favorite examples of this is actually in Buckaroo Banzai, which is… It’s a throwaway line. But they’re on a tour of the Banzai house, with the Jeff Goldblum character. They walk into the room, and they’ve clearly been talking about other things that they have been touring through, and there’s a little bit of, “Oh, yeah. You did that thing with the flux capacitor, and that’s fascinating…” Flux capacitor is wrong, but we’ll just keep going. “Oscillation overdrive. You did that.” And then, “Why is that watermelon in the vise?” “I’ll tell you later.” They keep going, and they never actually come back to it. But what it does for you is it says there are going to be some things in this world you understand, and there are going to be some things that you don’t. But there are people here who will guide you through this. It is… It’s such a simple throwaway line, but it is very much a trust building thing.
[Brandon] It’s also a perfect example of something we talked about last month, which is using setting details to reinforce theme by having this setting detail that they promised to explain, but they don’t. It actually leaves you saying, “Ah, there’s just so much more to this world.”
[Howard] I think another good example of it is the 2016, 2017 BBC adaptations of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. There are scenes in there where it is an avalanche of this doesn’t make any sense. It’s a huge amount of information. It’s the sort of thing that you would put down the book, would turn off the TV, and then the Watson character says, “Wha… Dirk? What is going on? How is all of this related?” Dirk says, “I don’t know. I just know that it’s going to be.” Suddenly we get it. Oh. This is what a holistic detective does. The point of this is that all of this information doesn’t make sense now. You’ve just promised me that you’re going to tie it together later. I loved that. I was absolutely onboard at that moment.
[Dan] Another example that comes to mind is Thor: Ragnarok. When Thor first arrives on the crazy, weird planet with no powers and has no idea what’s going on, he’s very much in over his head, and all the initial stuff with like the people picking through the junkyard is very confusing and never really gets explained. What makes it work is when the woman shows up, when Valkyrie shows up. The fact there are now suddenly two factions stabilizes that world, and we realize, “Oh, I don’t necessarily have to understand all of this, because I know now that there are two different groups of people that can interact with it in different ways.” That makes it seem much smoother without really telling you anything.
[Brandon] We’re going to go ahead and break here. Howard, you have some homework for us.
[Howard] Yes. Pick something you haven’t read, something you haven’t watched, something that is new to you. If you got Netflix, you open up Netflix and turn to something maybe you just wouldn’t watch otherwise. Watch the first five minutes with a note card or notebook or something in your hand. Then stop and write down all of the questions you have. Make a list of the stuff that didn’t make sense. If it’s a book, five pages, 10 pages, I don’t know where the cutoff mark will be for you. But you consume a portion of the media, right at the beginning, write down all of your questions. Now, continue to consume. Continue to watch, continue to read. Look at your list of questions and see which ones got answered. See which ones turned out to not be important. See which questions you didn’t even get around to asking that turned out to be important.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.