The Benefits of a Clueless Character

This week’s video discusses the pros of a clueless character who doesn’t know anymore about what’s going on than your reader does.

Video Transcription:

Often, authors enjoy writing about characters who are larger than life. We write about the kind of people we wish we could be: strong, beautiful, smart—particularly smart. We like our characters to be in the know and always one step ahead of the bad guy. But, in some stories, the most useful kind of protagonist is the clueless kind. A character who has to learn the ropes of the story right along with the reader is a character who is both easier for the reader to identify with and one who will make the necessary job of explaining the ins and outs of the story that much simpler for the author.

Roger Zelazny’s fantasy Nine Princes in Amber gives a good example of how this is accomplished—and why it should be. His story starts with the most clueless of all characters—one who has amnesia. The character spends the first third of the book trying to discover who he is and how the book’s fantasy setting, the beautiful Kingdom of Amber, works. Because the character starts out at ground zero, just like the reader, the author is able to coach the reader through the need-to-know of the story without being obvious about it.

Not every story will support a clueless main character, but whenever you find yourself faced with a complicated plot or setting, consider introducing, at the very least, a clueless minor character who can ask the questions your reader will be asking and thus spare you the added effort of negotiating your way around an out-and-out info dump. And, as if all that isn’t good news enough, don’t forget that clueless characters are often some of the most enjoyable and endearing.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever written a useful clueless character?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I’m distinctly prejudiced against a distant 3rd person, so this premise strikes me as the wrong direction for writers to take. When I read, I want to empathize, feel in the shoes of the protagonist. That would be difficult (if not impossible) to portray if the protag is clueless.

    The twist I would suggest, is a likeable narrator-character without a lot at stake, following along with the protagonist, describing (rolling her eyes) at how doofus her friend is.

    You get the benefit omniscient-like story telling without the disembodiment omniscient brings.

    Just thinking out loud, here.

    ;O) RMW

  2. I think the problem with a clueless character who learns stuff as the reader does (and in fact enables the reader to learn stuff) is just to obvious a device. It ends up feeling as contrived even when fairlly realistic because the writer’s intentions are too apparent.

    mood

    Moody Writing
    @mooderino

  3. I think clueless can help. Look at Harry Potter. A great way for the reader to digest things as your MC does.

  4. I havent done this but it sounds like a wonderful way to accomplish some things in a story line. A clueless character would be less complicated and yet very useful. I like it! Thanks KM.

  5. I think clueless can work, and in fact, I know it did both in Nine Princes in Amber and in Harry Potter, as well as many other books, the Narnia Chronicles as another example. It doesn’t mean the character is stupid, it just means they don’t know what’s going on any more than the reader does. And I LOVED Nine Princes in Amber. It has long been my wish to have the ability to work with shadow.

  6. @Mac: A clueless character doesn’t necessarily indicate a distant narrative. And it doesn’t have to indicate a “doofus” either. Your clueless character can be one smart whip who’s put into a situation he’s never encountered before (a new job, a new country). He can handle the new situation with aplomb while still allowing the author to use his unfamiliarity with the newness to coach readers along.

    @Mood: It certainly can be if the cluelessness isn’t inherent to the plot (or the character). However, many, many successful stories use this tenet – everything from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to Master and Commander.

    @E.: Harry Potter is also a good example of how the character and the reader can grow together. Harry started out “clueless” and grew steadily more confident, informed, and capable as the series progressed.

    @Jan: When done right, it can be both effective and a lot of fun for both writer and reader.

    @Mshatch: Clueless characters are found in every genre, but they’re particularly popular in fantasy, since the characters often have to learn about an entirely new world. It’s a great way to world build without being blatant about it.

  7. Clueless characters can be great when they’re done right. But done poorly, it can glaringly obvious that they exist solely as a lazy way around exposition and info dumps.

    In particular, it’s annoying when these “clueless characters” show up on television (such as the new recruit in a police drama who needs everything explained). I imagine it’s just as annoying in books.

    Could you write up a post on how to include clueless characters without making them seem info dumpy? I would be very interested to read that!

  8. Clueless characters are priceless. Without them, many novels would become boring.

  9. @J.J.: Making a clueless character work comes down to the same thing as does making just about *anything* work in fiction: it has to be organic to the plot. You absolutely can’t shoehorn a clueless character into the plot for the sole purpose of explaining facts to the reader. When that happens, it’s nothing but a gimmick. But if your story naturally supports a character who will have to learn about things as he goes, it works. That’s the bottom line, plain and simple.

    @Gideon: They can be great as comic relief.

  10. I once read a novel where the MC was clueless, but I had already figured everything out. As a result, I didn’t enjoy the book. The only way a clueless character will work is if the reader is clueless right along with him. Like you mentioned, Narnia is an excellent example of that type of novel.

  11. Clueless shouldn’t equal stupid (unless the author is going for a calculated effect, such as humor). Readers want their main characters to be smart and capable, but they also enjoy characters who, like them, have things to learn. It’s a careful balance, to be sure, but it can be pulled off without making the reader want to bonk himself on the head with your book.

  12. I think that there is always a danger that writers will assume that their readers will be unable to work out a plot point, thus making the clueless character seem stupid, but that doesn’t mean that the point made here isn’t a good one. Readers should, generally speaking, be in the same shoes as the main character; if the main character doesn’t know something, neither should the reader (again, generally). Of course if a character’s only purpose is to be clueless so that plot points will be explained, that will be a serious weakness, but I didn’t think the post was advocating that.

    It seems to me that this is actually more of a technique of deep third-person narrating rather than omniscient. If the reader is told what the narrator doesn’t know, the author is taking the omniscient stance. Anyhow, good post!

  13. Thanks for commenting, Abigail! As with any technique in fiction, this one is double-sided. If we take it too far, it will work against us. But, in the right situation, it can be used to deepen the reader’s experience. Zelazny’s book offers an extreme example, since his amnesiac character knows far less than most protagonists do at the beginning of a story. But every character, in every story, is clueless in some way. If a character knew everything right off the bat, he has no chance for a character arc and, as a result, will fail to be very interesting.

  14. The question is…would it work to have a clueless main character and a windbag in the same scene at the same time? 😉

  15. Hah! Only if you’re very brave and very skilled!

  16. Woohoo! Corwin of Amber! One of the great character achievements of the fantasy genre.

    To all the people casting doubt on the technique, yes, OBVIOUSLY it can go bad in unskilled hands. Everything can. But are we artists or mice? The only authors who achieve greatness are the ones who take chances and reach for it.

  17. Very true. We need to take chances, push boundaries, and scare ourselves silly. Experimentation leads to growth. Even if you don’t end up using a particular technique in a specific story, it may still help you grow in ways you didn’t expect.

  18. I love stories where I find out what’s going on right along with the protagonist. But I also like books where the readers know something the main character doesn’t and your biting your nails as you watch the climax unfold.

    Thanks for the great advice.

    Kathi

  19. Terry Murphy says:

    I recently read The Adoration of Jenna Fox where Mary Pearson used the POV of a character (Jenna) waking from a coma in confusion (partial cluelessness) as the mode of exposition. It’s a very effective mechanism in this instance and allows for some intriguing plot twists.

  20. @Kathi: One of most effective uses of the antagonist’s POV is just what you’ve described. When the reader knows the bad guy is sneaking up, bloody hatchet in hand, on the unaware protagonist, his fingernails will be practically gouging the book covers.

    @Terry: That’s another excellent example – one which would allow for the “clueless” technique and also, presumably, the character’s subsequent rapid recovery into awareness

  21. Oh boy, your post and their comments following were so informative! I’m in the baby stages of a book right now and the main character isn’t necessarily “clueless”, I would just say that she is slowly losing her naiive personality as she goes along and discovers the corruption around her. So, I guess, yah, I’m using that approach…but it’s also a way for me to learn, especially at this stage. In the rewrite, much later, I may change that quality about her, if it stalls the progress of the book…

  22. Another useful aspect of the “clueless” character is that it offers plenty of room for the character to grow over the course of the book. A character who starts out naive and grows into awareness and wisdom is often one who offers a powerful character arc.

  23. Yes I’ve used a clueless character and I thought it was very effective. The character was very intelligent but not universally so. Like most of us she had some things she was good at and some areas she wasn’t. And when she was put into a situation outside of her expertise she became “clueless.” I thought it worked well. Thanks for the post.

  24. Sounds like you utilized the technique perfectly!

  25. I enjoyed your post and the following comments. I agree with you, K.M. A clueless character can be fun. I was writing a story online where my main pov character was very confused and constantly grasping for which way was up. There is a bit of a plot twist in the story and I was so worried that my readers would see through my character. But they didn’t. When I posted the page with the twist everyone commented how shocked they were and they never saw it coming.
    It was fun to write. I recommend you try it.
    Jodi Janz

  26. Plot twists are always tricky, because, as someone wise once said, you can’t fool all the people all the time. But they’re great fun when they work – both to write and to read!

  27. I originally wrote my first novel with a clueless character. Because he was in the dark so long about a big surprise, however, my critique partners were frustrated. In the end, I kept him clueless, but revealed the secret much earlier in the book. I was surprised–and pleased– to find out that this actually increased the tension because the readers kept wondering when he was going to find out and how. It helped increase the pace during already tense sections as the readers would figuratively hold their breath wondering, “Is this going to give it away to him?” I did save some information for the readers to discover along with the clueless character though.

  28. In general, I like stories in which the character and the reader are on the same page, but that’s not always possible. And, as you say, sometimes allowing the reader to see things the character doesn’t actually serves to *increase* the tension.

  29. My MC is often clueless, and so is the writer! We’re both figuring out the story as we go along. I find this approach keeps the story fresh and full of discoveries — for both of us!

  30. My MCs often act much smarter than me, but I suppose that means they’re only faking. 😉

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