On Unobservant Characters

Anonymous asked: “Could I ask for advice about writing an unobservant character? All the characters I write are really observant people. I’m trying to write more variable characters, so I was curious if you have any advice for writing characters who aren’t that great at reading body language or miss things?”

A first person narrator by default is sort of asking to be an observer of the story. Whether they are particularly observant people or not is another thing up for debate, but they will likely still tell the story with enough detail that the reader won’t feel like they’re missing out. If they aren’t naturally observant though, likely they’ll become an unreliable narrator. 

An unreliable narrator is a narrator who tells “they’re version” of events. This may mean that they embellish the truth (or flat out lie), avoid telling certain parts, or just are not the most reliable source for any reason at all. An unobservant character likely would be kind of an unreliable narrator. We can borrow some strategies from unreliable narrators to show a character is unobservant. 

I advise against leaving out descriptions of people or places or anything like that. That’s more so just annoying. I would suggest that it read pretty much like a more observant character’s storytelling. Even a character who isn’t all that observant still notices what someone looks like when they meet someone new, or what a place might look like if they particularly admire it. A less observant character is going to see things but not really see them. 

For instance, let’s say there’s a hold-up at a convenience store and the not-so-observant character is there. If they don’t hear the threats and don’t see the gun, they might not notice anything has happened at first, especially if they’re caught up in other things like which flavor of beef jerky to buy. When their friend who is on the ground starts trying to signal to them to get down, then the non-observant character might actually start to notice the situation for what it is. They aren’t not going to notice, but they might be a little slower at catching on. 

With a character who is not so observant, you’re more likely going to have situations like that, or have other characters notice things before they do. What other characters notice and have to tell them is going to be really what tips the reader off that this character isn’t the most aware of their surroundings. It’s not that they just don’t see things, but really, I’d describe it more like tunnel vision – they see what they’re focused on. They don’t notice the details of other things happening around them. 

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