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Wisdom of the Ages: Knowing and Growing Your Characters’ Knowledge

One of the joys of writing is when we become so immersed in creating the world of our story that we forget we’re working. But we can’t afford to check out on how much our characters know about themselves and the world around them.

Let’s consider the things characters know. To some extent, they know themselves and their motivations, what’s happening around them, and the other characters in the piece. One aspect of creating a believable character arc is paying attention to the person’s (usually) increasing awareness of these elements and their consequences. While characters may not know everything they should know about themselves, their world and the others in it, there’s a huge difference between intentionally keeping a character in the dark and not realizing that by now they should know more (or less) than they do.

So how does a writer manage a character’s awareness? First, we have to pay attention to what our characters know at the start of the story, and whether and when they should know more or less. To check your characters’ knowledge at each stage of the piece, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is this person’s age at the start of the narrative, and what age is the individual at each major turning point?

  • What will this person’s main stages of development be over the course of the story?

  • What does the character not know now that they’ll need to know at each new stage?

  • If the character doesn’t know something, such as why he betrays someone, is it due to a flaw that fits the character or because I’ve forgotten to develop the person’s awareness?

If you're wondering whether you’ve given a character more insight than is believable at a particular stage of life or point in the story, ask yourself these questions:

  • Has enough happened in this person's life for them to know this, and have they paid sufficient attention to realize it?

  • Does my prose accurately reflect the character’s personality, age and stage of life?

To add texture to both characters and story, consider charting what a character does and doesn’t know at key points in the story and the consequences of this knowledge or lack thereof. It can be daunting to do this for each person in your piece so start with your main character.

Two other points to consider in character development are how the person’s voice and wisdom mature (or devolve) as they move through the storyline. This can be trickier in middle grade and young adult fiction, where the characters usually start out young in age and/or maturity level. Even if you're not writing for younger readers, your story may include a younger character who matures over the course of the piece. While maturity results from the passing of time, the gaining of experience or both, we need to make sure that what the character realizes about their life and how they express that knowledge match who they are at each main point in the story.

Last, sometimes we don’t realize that we've expressed a character’s thoughts, emotions or dialogue more eloquently than the character would at that point. So when we read a particularly well-expressed insight, we need to make sure we haven't given the character more wisdom than they would have at that age or stage of life. While this is a common problem with main characters who are young, some protagonists are wise beyond their years. That’s fine, as long as we give the person room to grow and develop their insights at a believable rate.

There's nothing wrong with having smart characters who read that way at any age. But we can’t go on autopilot about how much our characters know about themselves and the world around them. Instead, we need to make sure that the wisdom we’ve put on the page matches the person's age, maturity level and stage of life.

Happy writing!

Adele Annesi is an award-winning author, editor and teacher. She will be teaching Write to Story Revise to Theme and Emotional Craft of Fiction this Fall.

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