Monday Motivation: Don’t rush things
How do you communicate a character’s sense that someone they’ve encountered is somehow “off”, not right, not to be trusted, possibly even homicidal?
The question arose during a discussion of a plot issue in a novel-in-progress, where two women are required, by the story, to identify a toxic paedophile and then to murder him. As one does, naturally.
Two thoughts immediately occurred to me. Firstly, you would want to do everything in your power to conceal the fact that the murder-victim-to-be was a paedophile. If it were obvious, it would be obvious to everyone in the story, and so steps would, one imagines, have been taken to insulate him from his possible victims.
But if you’ve done everything possible to conceal his sexual predilections from the other characters, then how would you have your protagonist correctly identify those predilections?
Well, that’s what my second thought was about. You would have to reveal his true nature very subtly, incrementally, step by step. The protagonist would only slowly become aware of the possibility that the man had paedophilic tendencies. At first she would deny them, because wasn’t he celebrated for championing youth causes? Wasn’t he the most enthusiastic supporter of the town’s drive to upgrade facilities for the youth? Didn’t people frequently sympathise with the poor man for never having had children of his own? (“He would have been the most caring dad!” was something that your protagonist had heard more than once – and might even once have said herself.)
But then she would spot something, some small detail, that jarred. A hand on a girl guide’s neck at an awards ceremony where he, naturally, was the guest of honour, that lingered just a half second too long.
And then she notices him sauntering slowly past the school swimming pool where the junior girls are practising their diving. She would have understood his interest in the proceedings if he’d been the father of one of the girls, but…
And finally, she bumps head-on into him on the village street, their eyes meet and she knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt what he is, what threat he poses, and what must be done to rid the world of that threat.
Because readers are clever – easily as clever as the writers whose books they devour – hints and nudges are all they need. In fact, they’re so clever that a single hint, clumsily delivered, might be too much. So a large part of your challenge is to camouflage the truth.
To generalise: If you want your protagonist to identify any significant feature in his environment – something, in other words, that plays a key role in your story – then don’t make it easy for him. Take it slowly. Play it incrementally. Allow your reader to draw the same conclusions as your protagonist does and at their pace.