A Matter of Trust

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Standing now on the shoulders of giants, our enviable view across the vast literary landscape undeniably gives us, as writers, the upper hand on our celebrated predecessors. Not only can we take inspiration from the lucid prose and striking dialogue of a multitude of technically gifted past masters, but also from a great wealth of enlightening philosophical ideas and innovative psychological theories, all of which are readily available to us today through modern media.

In terms of characterisation, this 21st century advantage allows the present day writer to create highly complex, three-dimensional personalities, complete with elements of the human condition which were once elusive to even the most observant and insightful of authors. At least, that is what you might think. In reality though, it is the successful application of such fresh knowledge which truly counts, and as such, the literary greats of decades gone by indeed retain every ounce of their glory. It takes great confidence and no small amount of audacity on the writer’s part to create a deeply complicated character, whose actions affect the plot but whose reasoning is never fully explained.

A fairly vague, crime-themed example may help here. In the interest of keeping things focussed, let’s firstly make a necessary omission; at this time, we are not concerned with coincidental or abnormal plot occurrences, such as road accidents or extra terrestrial invasions, which may in turn trigger further events. The ways in which characters might react to such incidents, traumatic or otherwise, is something I will cover in a future post. Instead let’s assume that we have a male antagonist who, without any notable stimulus, engages in some kind of antisocial act; for the sake of this example, murder. Now we have the beginnings of a character-driven plot.

At this point, the key area of interest to the reader and most likely the fictional protagonist alike is inevitably the motive of the killer. Let’s make things interesting and round out the premise by making a further omission; the killer did not know the victim, nor did he have any justifiable reason the commit the crime. Therefore, we are left with a character who, for all intents and purposes, acted outside of the social norm without any provocation. It is the workings of this man’s mind which is of interest to us. Of course, the deed need not be a murder – it could be anything; an illicit affair, a bank robbery, a suicide attempt or even something socially acceptable but unprecedented such as the purchase of a powerful sports car. The important thing is that from an external viewpoint the man’s actions are irrational.

Now we run into a problem; the murderer in our example is not the narrator, and thus we have no clue as to where his motivation lies. This would perhaps explain why the protagonist in first-person crime fiction is so frequently an incredibly intelligent detective who is somehow savvy to the thought processes of even the most unlikely criminal. The reader requires an explanation, and this precocious, wisecracking sleuth is just the man to deliver it. But what if our detective fails? Can we, as writers, justify leaving our readers in the dark?

Clearly, this is a subjective matter, and the outcome depends on just how much trust we – and the editors of course – are willing to place in the audience. Personally, I favour a text left somewhat open to interpretation, but containing enough clues within for the attentive and discerning reader to discover something resembling a definite answer. Such an approach is likely to prove divisive among readers, some of whom will demand answers having thrown several hours of their lives into absorbing the story. On the positive side, it will certainly provoke discussion, and therefore priceless word-of-mouth PR.

In my next post, I will explore the ways in which such occurrences of seemingly irrational behaviour can be justified from a psychological viewpoint, regardless of whether or not the reader is informed. In the meantime, what do you think? Is it reasonable to completely withhold a sensical explanation of a character’s actions from the reader? Or is it the writer’s obligation to deliver answers in order to repay the faith which was placed in him/her by the reader upon investing in the text?

Is the ‘open ending’ akin to a compliment or a broken promise?

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3 thoughts on “A Matter of Trust

  1. I like subtle alluding to what the outcome will be, and then what is actually going on is nothing like what you expected. I like to be shocked – almost horrified about the depths of a persons psyche. I think that if there isn’t a resolution and you leave your readers hanging, they will be inevitably disappointed.

    1. Thanks for commenting Carrie. Yes, I think that the general consensus would agree with you. I suppose that by failing to explain the antagonist’s thought processes to the reader, you miss out on delivering the shocking revelations to which you refer. Assuming that you give the reader their explanation, then I guess it’s more a question of timing it just right for maximum dramatic effect. Would you agree?

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