“Don’t annoy your reader” sounds like a harsh statement, but it isn’t meant to be one. Misunderstandings and lapses of judgment happen to real people, so they should happen in stories, too. The danger comes when your story hinges on repeated misunderstandings–in other words, there would be no story if your characters only spoke to each other! So, how can you let your character behave in a way the reader knows is wrong without making him or her want to throw the book across the room in frustration?
I see it happen all the time in romance novels, but it can plague any genre. Mary is talking to John, when he says something that can be taken in a way other than how he meant it. Of course, Mary immediately misunderstands, but she doesn’t say so. Instead she holds onto resentment over nothing, driving a wedge between herself and John. Then she sees John in a compromising situation that is, again, completely innocent–but she doesn’t ask! She just assumes the worst, and the conflict grows more and more heated til the characters have a huge fight and then everything is resolved… for the characters. The reader is often left wondering how the characters could be so stupid!
Misunderstandings are a fact of life, and they can be interesting plot devices when used sparingly. They can add interest, character development, and depth to a story. Characters should not be perfect, and it’s great for them to mess up from time to time. The problem comes when this plot device is used repeatedly throughout a story. If you’re too heavy handed with frequent character miscommunication, it can create an eye-rolling reaction of “really?” in your readers.
Of course, it’s fine to have a few moments where the reader gets so immersed in the story that they want to grab your character and shake sense into him or her. But if this is a recurring trend throughout the story, you run a huge risk of losing any reader interest in the narrative or sympathy for the characters. If there is one repeating plot element (that could be easily fixed), it becomes a nuisance rather than a plot point and starts to look suspiciously like poor writing.
It is also possible to annoy your reader in other ways. For example, characters behaving in a completely illogical way can cause varying levels of confusion and frustration. So can sloppy writing which glosses over obvious solutions to a problem. If you have your characters drive somewhere and then have them walk back to their homes with no further mention of the car, you may be starting to break immersion. If your character is supposed to be an awesome combatant but then hides the moment a fight breaks out, you run the risk of making your reader pause in confusion.
Here’s a few things you can do to try to minimize reader frustration.
- Know the solutions to your character’s problems. That way, even if you write your characters making mistakes, you can do it in a way that isn’t distractingly illogical.
- Ask yourself, “if my characters actually communicated with each other, would there still be an interesting story?” If no, the misunderstanding may be outlandish.
- Try not to repeat the same mistakes too many times in a row. Yes, mistakes are an important part of character growth, but if they just keep happening, you should try to liven things up.
- Constantly fact check your work for errors in continuity. Think of it like bloopers in a movie. Don’t describe a jacket as being red and then later refer to it as blue.
- Make sure your characters are what they say they are. If you describe someone as kind, don’t go on to have them be antagonistic without explanation.