The Benefits of a Clueless Character

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 readers is a character who is both easier for readers to identify with and one who can 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 Act 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 readers, the author is able to coach readers 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 readers will be asking. Done cleverly, this may spare you the added effort of negotiating your way around an out-and-out info dump.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever written a useful clueless character? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. 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

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

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

  7. Adrienne Horky Nesiba says

    My MC of my first book is slightly clueless! Funny you should mention it. Now I’m more determined than ever to get the story out of my Carbonite! ha ha.

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