Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How to have fun with denial

Yesterday I bemoaned the evils of denial, and I am certainly unenthusiastic when denial is embraced by readers or writers. (Which isn't to say I never embrace it myself, on occasion. But I don't view it as a virtue.)

However, denial can be a great feature in a fictional character. It's a defense mechanism that can arouse our sympathy or our contempt, depending on the situation.

Chris Lynch's Keir, the narrator of Inexcusable, is one of my favorite examples of a character in denial. Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, in Lolita, is another.

It takes skill to tip off a reader that a first-person narrator is in denial. Once the reader sees it, she will often become impatient for the character's self-realization, so the pacing of that (and the decision about whether the character ever has that realization) can be tricky. Often we're clued in to denial by a gap between what the character says and what he does, or by a gap between his version of events and the other characters' versions. There's often a period of disorientation, where we wonder which version of the truth to accept, and then there's the point where we become sure of the truth. We break with the narrator's version. (I suppose we don't have to become sure of the truth, though--a book could leave us hanging, wondering which version of events is real.)

If the character comes out of denial, it can be an occasion for growth, but it has to seem natural. In real life, people are able to carry on living with incredible amounts of cognitive dissonance. People don't like to give up their defense mechanisms. And so the motivation for a character to shed denial must be compelling. It could be the result of a long-present vulnerability, or new safety in the character's life, or a consequence of having something very important at stake.


  1. Good point. A character in denial can be hugely frustrating for the reader.

  2. So true! Denial is often a integral part of a person's life at some point, either within himself or in dealing with someone else. Denial can be compelling, but tough to write into a sympathetic character given the complexity.

  3. Hmmm... This is making me think about something in my WIP... Thanks. *scurries to open WIP file*

  4. Angelina: Yes. I can imagine characters who are in such obvious denial that the reader wants to shake them.

    Cynthia: I think if we see a very injured character who's just trying to hold himself together, we can accept denial in that character. But ultimately we're going to want the character to move past that (which isn't to say the character has to, just that the reader is likely to want that).

    Happy writing, Mieke!