How to handle things that are normal to a character that really shouldn't be?

R.T James

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This is a question I've always pondered: how do you convey to the audience that something insane is happening when the POV person is so used to it. They're so numb to it all, they expect it to happen, and they're bored with it all.

And I'm not talking about picking what's for lunch. No I'm talking about being attacked by gangs, and or getting into knife fights, kicking a person out of a Zeppelin. Stabbing three goons and then throwing a knife. Events that really... really...really should not be normal, and aren't, but are to them.

I write in a first person perspective and the character has been through the valley of death so often he knows the shortcuts and where to get the best tea and biscuits. He's so numb to it all. It literally means nothing to him, but vague annoyance and waste of flesh.

So like a fight scene to him from his eyes is very simple. Break wrist, take knife, slam head into table. Punch gut, stab hand, drive skulls together. Where in reality he's doing this in fifteen seconds flat and throwing a person over a table screaming and breaking another person's jaw before driving a knife one inch deep into the table through another man's hand. Then he just dusts off his hands and leaves the building like he left a tip and nothing happened.

I'm trying to figure out the best way to convey what is going on through his eyes, so the audience has an idea of just how crazy this is.

I have another character who is so used to killing people and using a rifle her first instincts are to grab the gun use the bolt. She can cycle a bolt in a matter of seconds. To the MC this is normal from his war time experiences and he thinks nothing of it.

Do I even need to worry about conveying how insane this is? Or would the normality of it coming from these people's eyes add emphasis to just how messed up they are as people.
 

The Storyteller

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I think the contrast of their 'meh' attitude about these kinds of things would, as you said, add emphasis to how messed up they are as people. Your readers know that it is crazy for someone to be completely comfortable with taking life without any concern, so they don't need your protagonist to tell them something they already know instinctively, and it will create a far stronger portrayal of how messed up the characters are if we see them not really caring.

If you wanted to highlight 'not-normalness' of what they are doing, I would suggest it being in how other people react to them. For example, someone looking at the MC in horror, like he's some kind of monster, and the MC not understanding why, etc. It would also be easy to portray in dialogue, where a 'normal' person might challenge the MC on their views, or make known how astonished/appalled they are. The MC's cavalier responses could further highlight how, to them, it is routine and not something to make a big fuss over.

Hope that helps! Good luck. :)
 

R.T James

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it's not really a meh attitude. They're not psychopaths by any means. It's just a part of life. They don't like doing it, the MC even confesses he is just tired of it all, and the issue is they're being attacked usually by surprise in unpopulated areas which to them isn't even a surprise. I do have a third wheel character who is questioning life the universe and everything in-between after being with these two people and romantically involved with the MC, but she ends up killing somebody in order to protect him so her membership of the "LOOK! I haven't harmed a single soul" club has been voided.

People don't really see the MC as a monster because the people he tends to utterly destroy are far worse. But the MC views himself as a monster and evil and just a horrible person for the acts which he can do without a thought. If emotions get involved he takes the whole head for an eye. His companion, the one who was forced to kill for reasons I can't divulge without ruining a massive chunk of the plot. the MC is viewed as war hero and many view him as a man in pain. (Including the third wheel character who has empathy for him.)

The MC and his sniper companion are both being attacked by an enemy they both know. One which he has fought for centuries and has tried to exterminate with extreme prejudice while her whole childhood and arguably life was ruined by these people.

Other stories I can easily show other people's reactions with how the characters act. "Did you just peg that bird that was on that streetlamp... with a knife.. from across the street!? By Jove are you mad!?"

"Yes, the damn thing wouldn't shut up!"

Other stories are easier to show that using the people surrounding the characters, or even fear. But in the instances of this character's interaction it is life or death, it is pure survival, and the enemy they are being attacked by wants to kill them as trophies in order to gain fame and military ranking.

So I don't know.
 

TheDustyZebra

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It really is just a matter of describing it the way you did. It's normal to him, so describe him going about his normal actions. The reader will feel it because they will see how it affects (or doesn't affect) him. From inside his POV, you can't do otherwise -- he doesn't know it's not normal, or doesn't go around thinking about it if he does. Unless, of course, for some reason he does spend time thinking back on how things used to be.
 

Ihe

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Understatement works. Having the POV character noticing details that others freaking out wouldn't also works (while his street is being overrun by monsters, he notices with alarm that his favourite fridge magnet is missing, etc). It'll be better to show this jadedness than to tell it. Having the MC saying how jaded he is out loud is a wasted opportunity to write a good scene through actions.
 

R.T James

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Unless, of course, for some reason he does spend time thinking back on how things used to be.

He does think about the times when his life was simpler with regret, for he outlived his first love who was an escaped slave and they were together for 68 years. He also looks back at all of the people he outlived and all of the wars and just how everything is spiraling out of control. By this time he's 986 years old been through four wars, three of which of personally led, and has seen his home land die and be left to rot, debatably by his own hands. To say he's bitter and feeling a bit out of time is kind of an understatement. He's doing a lot of introspective thought because he's been running away from his problems with his traveling companion who is also running away from her problems, and now they have stopped and have to face them both. There is no more running, it just can't happen anymore.

He made a vow a few years before the story not to kill people. He was just tired of it, now that vow was forcibly broken and he is pissed. Also there's a lot of broken memories and flashbacks of the wars hitting him hard, memories of the past. Meeting people from the past, seeing areas where he knows he's fought in. His past is coming back and its a downward spiral. He's having nightmares again, and just the fact the enemy has come back again isn't helping. He's becoming a bit unhinged.

He wishes he just could have died back in his sea side nation. He wishes he could have passed on with his wife instead of waking up to find her body in his arms., a fact which he hates to admit, but he knows is true. He wishes he was dead because maybe, just maybe he'd see her again.

Yeah the MC is a piece of work. That's why I enjoy writing him.
 

DelActivisto

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People who join the military often get pretty whacked if they're involved in actual combat. Nifty, little known, and slightly controversial tidbit is that PTSD has probably been getting worse in soldiers since we figured out how to use simulations to get soldiers to kill people more easily. Yes, I'm talking about first person shooter games... they literally are used to train soldiers to stuff that "I can't shoot that person he might have a family and kids just like me" that typically causes people to miss more of their shots... subconsciously, they just don't aim as well. Unless they've been taught different before hand.

Point is, the more people you have to kill, the more it whacks up your normal human psychology. Even if they're not human, one must make a convincing case that their psychology is sufficiently different to arrest disbelief. Taking a human life is highly traumatic to the average person. Describe the light going out of their eyes, show them spluttering for their last breath, clutching their bloodied chest in shock and terror. Show us the blood that runs from their veins. Let us hear their sweet screams for their parents, their mommy. When they die, have them die well, so that we can feel the life ebb from their soul.

And then show us how little the main character cares.
 

Abernovo

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Yes, pretty much what TDZ says, plus you compartmentalise - you know X is abnormal behaviour in everyday life, but it's completely normal and required in certain circumstances.

You also come to practise detachment. That's not to say you don't care--you can care a great deal, and even have your actions eat away at your soul--but the dark humour, the clinical analysis of a situation, is the only way you can do your job. And, if you don't do your job, people get hurt, or worse. People you care about, people who depend upon you. If it's justifiable, you walk away with a clear(ish) conscience. And having a release valve is always better: talking to someone, or walking, painting, gym work.

Write it as it happens.
 

R.T James

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Detachment. There we go that was the word I was looking for to describe his and her situation. Detachment. They still feel it it's just they're so detached.

I think that's what makes it worse for him as he had to become a monster in order to stop the enemy that's end goal is xenocide.

And hearing people praise him even though he hates his existence is hard.

I like this place. It's nice seeing discussion and actual thoughts on the subject matter!
 

Ursa major

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A few points:
  1. This is no different to a character, in SF or Fantasy, living in a society that is, to us, alien, without batting an eyelid... as it is completely normal to them. (We don't expect characters in novels set in, say, current day Europe to go on and on about the wonder that is the car... unless they've unexpectedly come into possession of, say, a Ferrari or a Tesla. We don't expect anyone to mention how the engine works (well, give or take that Tesla's...), unless it stops working, at which point the character's reaction may simply to be to call for assistance.)
  2. If anything, writers can spend too much time pointing out things that are odd (but only to the reader), as the character wouldn't be giving them a second thought. Doing this is not being in the PoV character's head, but being in the head of an author desperate to explain things. (If things need to be explained, the author should find a more appropriate way of doing so.)
  3. By letting your PoV character literally think nothing about what's underlying what is happening -- as it's normal to them -- you're already providing a question to which the reader will want an answer, "Why doesn't the character see things in the way I would?" Having things in stories that intrigue the reader is usually a good thing, although you should avoid overdoing it, obviously...
  4. ... and you can get your character to address the seeming disconnect in (3) by putting them in a situation that the reader would find normal, but the character wouldn't, and then show the character's reaction to what is, to them, abnormal... perhaps by contrasting it to what they find normal (and the reader doesn't)....
We tend to notice (as opposed to see, hear, etc.) things that are out of the ordinary, or out of place, but pay little attention to other things (unless we have a particular reason for doing so). The same is true for your characters. Change something (something they can see, hear, etc.) and the chances are that they will notice it, and give it the thought the reader can then latch on to.
 

DelActivisto

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I think also it's a matter of showing vs telling. People who read are, well, more intelligent than the average person. They can figure stuff out for themselves, especially if it's presented in a clear and concise format.
 

TheDustyZebra

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A few points:
  1. This is no different to a character, in SF or Fantasy, living in a society that is, to us, alien, without batting an eyelid... as it is completely normal to them. (We don't expect characters in novels set in, say, current day Europe to go on and on about the wonder that is the car... unless they've unexpectedly come into possession of, say, a Ferrari or a Tesla. We don't expect anyone to mention how the engine works (well, give or take that Tesla's...), unless it stops working, at which point the character's reaction may simply to be to call for assistance.)
  2. If anything, writers can spend too much time pointing out things that are odd (but only to the reader), as the character wouldn't be giving them a second thought. Doing this is not being in the PoV character's head, but being in the head of an author desperate to explain things. (If things need to be explained, the author should find a more appropriate way of doing so.)
  3. By letting your PoV character literally think nothing about what's underlying what is happening -- as it's normal to them -- you're already providing a question to which the reader will want an answer, "Why doesn't the character see things in the way I would?" Having things in stories that intrigue the reader is usually a good thing, although you should avoid overdoing it, obviously...
  4. ... and you can get your character to address the seeming disconnect in (3) by putting them in a situation that the reader would find normal, but the character wouldn't, and then show the character's reaction to what is, to them, abnormal... perhaps by contrasting it to what they find normal (and the reader doesn't)....
We tend to notice (as opposed to see, hear, etc.) things that are out of the ordinary, or out of place, but pay little attention to other things (unless we have a particular reason for doing so). The same is true for your characters. Change something (something they can see, hear, etc.) and the chances are that they will notice it, and give it the thought the reader can then latch on to.

You just said that far better than I did. :D
 

ratsy

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Just pick up most any Lee Child to see this. :)

Ha, I was reading the thread and was going to put a note about Jack Reacher in here. Lee Child has him breaking knees, and gouging eyes like it's no big deal. Just another day at the office, but its believable.

I think about it this way. If you were reading about someone who does accounting all the time, they would understand and be very effective at doing it. If your MC was trying to do bookkeeping, and had never taken a class, and had no knowledge of it, the results would be very different. Seems to be along the same lines.
 

AnyaKimlin

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Sometimes telling is more effective than showing. You can still put in lack of emotion and describe it rather than remove the narrator from it.

"Oh seriously not again." To Fred it was just like playing a video game, well maybe Call of Duty might have been more exciting, as he smacked George's head against a wall.
 

TheDustyZebra

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Sometimes telling is more effective than showing. You can still put in lack of emotion and describe it rather than remove the narrator from it.

"Oh seriously not again." To Fred it was just like playing a video game, well maybe Call of Duty might have been more exciting, as he smacked George's head against a wall.


Fred pounded George's head on the wall, and sighed. He tried to remember if he had any pineapple left for the pizza tonight. As he turned to slam George to the ground, his foot slipped, and he looked down to see blood on his shoe. George's blood, on his new loafers. He growled, and smacked the man's head into the wall again for good measure, making a note to bill the client for his shoes.
 

AnyaKimlin

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Fred pounded George's head on the wall, and sighed. He tried to remember if he had any pineapple left for the pizza tonight. As he turned to slam George to the ground, his foot slipped, and he looked down to see blood on his shoe. George's blood, on his new loafers. He growled, and smacked the man's head into the wall again for good measure, making a note to bill the client for his shoes.

Now I'm hungry ;)
 

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