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How do I productively write a character being shocked and baffled?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Feo Takahari, Jul 29, 2014.

  1. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    This is something I've struggled with in the majority of stories I've written, and the more stories I've written, the worse I've gotten at it. Protagonist A is happily going along, experiencing her normal life, and then massive life-changing event B comes thudding in and changes everything. At some point, the protagonist will adopt course of action C to productively respond to B. But the protagonist had no idea that B was coming, and that means their first response will likely be confusion and bafflement.

    My problem is that I don't know how to advance the story or reveal character with someone who's shocked or baffled.

    I know this sounds like a stupid problem, but it often feels like I'm copy-pasting. Here's this scene in one story where a character has an event that leaves her shocked and baffled. Here's this scene in another story where a different character is shocked and baffled, and she's responding in exactly the same way. The more times I write this, the more bored I get of it and the less effort I put into it, and I've reached the point where the second most frequent complaint I get about my stories is that my characters take way too much in stride.

    (To give some examples of different variants of B: you just discovered you're not human, having had absolutely no suspicion of this beforehand. Your sister who died five years ago is alive and well and doesn't recognize you. You just watched a little girl blast energy out of her hands and disintegrate a monster.)

    I hardly ever see this complaint about other people's stories, so I guess most writers have ways around this. What do you do with a baffled protagonist?
  2. soggymuse

    soggymuse Dreamer

    I struggle with this, too. I'm assuming in this case you're talking about a POV character and the need to describe their thought process through the narrative (as opposed to a non-POV character for whom you can "observe" body language and physical reactions).

    Unfortunately, shock tends to come under the "fight or flight response" menu. That's not to say it's directly related, but when presented with something unexpected (a physical object, an idea that turns our world upside down, a humongous bill we can't afford), we tend to have the same sort of response. You are effectively trying to describe the same "object" in multiple ways.

    That said, there are always going to be underlying emotions and traits that will create a different set of patterns for each character and situation. For instance, when I'm faced with an unexpected problem that at first seems unsurmountable, I cry. I can't help it. It's the way I react to stress. My Dad, on the other hand, tends to get angry and rant. The reactee will have a "base line" that influences how they react in any given situation, and that tends to come out even more obviously through stress. The character who discovers they aren't human will react to shock differently than the character whose sister supposedly died (unless they're the same person).

    The situation itself will also influence how the character responds to the shock. I would imagine the character is happy to find out her sister is still alive, especially at first. There may be other things like curiosity (about where the sister's been all this time, what she's been doing), suspicion (with the same underlying questions: "why didn't she come back before now"), lingering grief, or even guilt if the POV character feels like her death was their fault or because they didn't know sooner that she was alive. On the other hand, they may struggle with prejudice against so-called "supernatural monsters" and be suspicious of this "new world", maybe even afraid. Those emotions will mingle with the shock to influence how the character responds. Tying them in with the "shocked and baffled" will help differentiate your instances of "shocked and baffled".
    Feo Takahari likes this.
  3. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    How she deals with being shocked and baffled will reveal her character. Does she go into denial or does she blab to anyone who will listen? Etc.

    To advance the story, you just have to make what ever choices she makes backfire in some way and get her in deeper.

    To take one of your examples. Mary just discovered she's not human. She goes into denial and hides from the world by staying at home and watching old movies and eating ice cream while ignoring all knocks at her door. What she doesn't know is the knocks at the door are people trying to warn her that her secret is out and The Agents are coming to take her away.
  4. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    I'll share an example of how I did it in my WiP.

    Just commenting on the background for this passage first. Enar's at a nice spot and and wants to take a picture of the view. However, local customs dictate that he's not allowed to use modern technology, which includes his cellphone with the camera on it. He's walked around the area and checked that no one is nearby to see him. He's standing on a bench trying to hide in the shadow of the tree when someone appears:

    So that's the text as it is in the first draft. What am I trying to do here?
    First, there's a bit of action showing Enar's reaction. He jumps, and then a bunch of things happen all at once: he hides the phone, steps away, and he falls of the bench.

    Enar's first reaction isn't about falling off the bench but about what had happened and what that would mean for him. He's more worried about that than that his arm is hurting, which is mentioned only later.

    Next up Enar gets a good look at the woman. I'm uncertain about how well this applies to the shock and confusion part - but it's the first look the reader gets of the woman so I want it in as soon as possible.

    Then he starts talking and I'm trying to show how he's anxious about what's going on and worried about what she'll think. He's also a bit confused and it probably doesn't help that he really didn't see her at all (this should confuse the reader too).

    I feel this scene fairly well shows the shock-confusion thing, even if it may not be a very dramatic scene in the bigger scheme of things. The reader gets a little closer to Enar, even if his reactions at this point should be familiar to them.
  5. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    I'm still a little bit uncertain about whether or not I understand the question correctly, but I'll try and theorize a little bit.

    What struck me after my previous post is that the moment of revelation - when the unexpected (shocking and baffling) event occurs - you have an opportunity to dive a little deeper into the character's psyche.
    Normally, they're acting in their normal way, they present their everyday image to the reader and the world around them. At the moment of revelation however, their grip on their facade slips and they act more on instinct. This gives you the opportunity to expose the character underneath the surface.
    This will probably only last for a short moment, a handful of paragraphs or so, but depending on how you spin it, you can keep referring back to it throughout the rest of the story.
  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    A few possibilities occur to me. One, the person learns the truth gradually rather than all at once. So they're never shocked or baffled; rather, it's a mystery they're unraveling. Or, it's a nightmare slowly becoming real. Or, they *think* they have it figured out but they're quite wrong.

    Another possibility: They are neither shocked nor baffled. So, what other emotions might they legitimately experience? For example, they might be thrilled. Hey, I'm not human. Awesome! Or, they might be sad, or depressed.

    Another possibility: what they think has happened, hasn't. They've misunderstood the situation. Granted, this means they start out shocked or baffled (not both, though, right?) but quickly things happen that make it clear to the reader the MC has got it wrong.

    In short, it sounds like you're reaching for the familiar recipe for Sunday dinner and its become routine and bland. The fix is easy: deny yourself the easy fix. Remove shock. Remove baffle. Reach for a different spice.

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