Communication in Fiction – The Lack There Of

So, while floundering around for a topic to get back into my general posts with, I was reminded of a discussion I had recently about pet peeves in fiction. One such pet peeve was brought up (not by me, as it happens), and I couldn’t help but agree whole heartedly that it annoys the heck out of me. Basically, the annoyance centers around a common writing habit, even with experienced authors who ought to know better. That is, the complicating of characters’ lives by either idiotic miscommunication or lack of communication at all. In essence, either miscommunications that are so blatant that the reader is left disgusted by the sheer stupidity required for them to occur, or else the utter lack of any attempt at communication at all.

To be honest, being a misanthropic cynic with very little faith in the basic intelligence (let alone common sense) of my fellow human beings, I can sometimes accept the case of miscommunication. Sure, it annoys me greatly when taken to belligerent extremes, given that any half-way adequate human being ought to be able to recognize fairly quickly when a major miscommunication has occurred. However, it’s really the latter issue that really chafes at me when I read it in novels. For some reason heroes and villains alike are often written in such a ridiculous way that they immediately jump to the absurd solutions instead of practicing the basic communication skills of a toddler.

Let me give you a practical example. In a recent novel I read, the main character wanted to visit a wizard who had been paid to secure a mountain. They knew the wizard’s name, had a recommendation to this wizard, and were coming to call a favor owed. Oh, and this was an educated main character, just for reference, a Duchess with all the proper training in dealing with people. Logically (haha) when stopped by the locals and fairly politely told that they couldn’t visit the mountain, they stowed away aboard a supply wagon to sneak into the mountain, eventually getting captured for their efforts. When presented to the wizard, they only had to speak the wizard’s name and their business with said wizard, and they were let go. So….why, exactly, was this a thing? Why didn’t the character simply ask the polite locals to carry a message to the wizard, asking for a meeting?

The only answer I could come up with, is that the author was an idiot who spent too many years playing bad video games, and too little time developing basic social skills. (I’ve no desire to bad mouth video games, just that the bad ones are prone to this sort of thing in their plots). It was lazy, unrealistic and out-of-character writing. There was no reason for any sane human being not to attempt a basic amount of communication, rather than attempting to sneak in. Yet, this sort of thing is common. Authors get so focused on the idea of action and sneakery that they utterly ignore basic regular-human methods in favor of something needlessly complex, resulting in their characters coming off as total morons to an astute observer. They dumb down their, supposedly competent, heroes and villains just so that their plot will survive the gauntlet of common sense. Can we please stop doing this? I have a hard time treating these characters seriously.

In doing a little research for this post, I came across a relevant TV Tropes page and I rather liked the way they put it.

“So what’s the author to do? They have the coolest plot twist or Climax Boss fight, but it absolutely hinges on these guys being, however briefly, unable to articulate their point. To solve this problem, the author reduces the characters’ verbal skills to those of three-year-olds. Shy three-year-olds, with a stutter. And then we see that poor communication kills.

All the characters involved go out of character for a moment so that they can’t (or won’t) tell their side of the story, or create a false urgency because there’s “No Time to Explain”, or just plain act like a disgruntled loner and tell their friends to Figure It Out Yourself when cooperation (or at least non-interference) is infinitely preferable. No matter which reason, it seems that at least half of the people involved have simultaneously gotten hold of the Idiot Ball, if not everyone.”

Of course, I feel that this falls a step short of defining the total problem. While it does a good job of not-so-subtly poking fun at the idea of out-of-character moments of miscommunication, it fails to address those times (like what I described above) that the characters simply decide not to try communication at all. How many book, movie, or video game plots would fall apart if just a single character decided to ask if they could see the proverbial (or literal) wizard, or if they stopped long enough to seriously lay out the information they had to someone who could help?

I don’t know about you, but when I read that sort of thing, or when I see ridiculous levels of miscommunication that any semi-intelligent trained poodle could fix in fifteen seconds, I struggle not to pull my hair out in frustration. Seriously, fellow authors I implore you, please stop doing this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *