Just don’t. Trust me, no one wants to hear that conversation. Ask my critique group, I have no tolerance for him.
Who’s Bob? You know Bob—every writer knows Bob, but historical fiction writers know him best. Bob is the gate crasher, the unwanted guest who always brings down the party, only instead of hanging out at the bar and being obnoxious, Bob hangs out in a story with the protagonist taking on the role as tiresome wingman.
At first, it’s all fun and games. Our hero is happy—no relieved—when Bob shows up. Finally the opportunity to trot out his knowledge of the world and dazzle the reader.
“As you know, Bob, the final battle of the English Civil War was fought at the same place as the first battle. That would, of course, be in Worcester.” Permission to groan.
Bob thrives because there is a contradiction in historical fiction. On one hand, the historical fiction reader loves history and genuinely needs to know certain historical details, otherwise they’ll get lost and frustrated; but on the other hand, they really don’t want a history lesson and they’ve shown up to be entertained. Employing Bob is a sign of lazy writing, and we’re better than that.
So how do you keep Bob out of the conversation and still get the information across?
Here are three tips for historical fiction, but they apply to any genre, because Bob can show up anywhere.
- Don’t give your reader a high altitude view of the world; instead take it down to ground level.
Unless your character is an eagle, don’t give us the view from 30,000 feet. If your intention is to educate the reader so they are well versed in all the socio-political movements of your world and can easily ace a history quiz, you may want to consider switching to non-fiction. Otherwise, never forget why you’re writing fiction—to tell a compelling story about a hero or heroine we can root for.
Readers love details, and historical fiction readers, in particular, love history, but that does not give you permission to run off a series of Wikipedia-style dates and events that do not have any immediate impact on the protagonist.
I know this is hard, especially if you’re writing epic battle scenes. Trust me, I’ve been there. You have your battle maps and your colour coded generals and you are so eager to share with the reader all the delicious details.
“But if I don’t mention the pontoon boats collected at the far shore,” you might say, “everyone will think I haven’t done my research!”
No, they probably won’t think that. Instead of reporting on troop movements, give us the experience of your hero. Let us ride beside him as he fights his way out of a mêlée. Let us smell the gunpowder and flinch at the sound of artillery whizzing over his head. You won’t present every angle of this battle, but the piece of it that you do show will be memorable.
- Don’t interrupt the action.
Roll the film: James Bond is chasing after the bad guy, through a busy construction site, up a skyscraper crane, then down twenty flights until he finally corners the baddie in the courtyard of a foreign embassy. Bond grabs the guy, holds a gun to his head just as a dozen automatic rifles are levelled against him. The sound of priming guns echoes in the courtyard.
This program will be interrupted so that we can bring a very important message from our sponsors…
Imagine Bob interrupting to let the reader know the precise make and model of the guns, or that the embassy had been situated in that city since the turn of the century. This is the moment that you reach for the converter and channel surf. All these may be fascinating details, and some may have a place in the story, though not at this moment.
I admit that I’ve used an extreme example to illustrate my point, but this can apply to any dramatic moment in your story. Stay close to your character—become their wingman so that Bob doesn’t step into the breach and take over your story. Consider what your character would be thinking in that situation; what questions would flit through his mind. Would it be architectural details or calculating the probability of survival? I’ll bet on survival.
Historical detail can bring a scene to life, but too many unconnected details (which mean nothing to the character) can just as easily kill a scene as too few details. Be disciplined enough to keep the details that are absolutely needed, those which reveal the nuances of character, and ruthlessly cut the ones that are meant for Bob.
- Create character driven dialogue.
There are times when we just have to get information across, and the best way to do it without Bob is to do it in character. Returning to James Bond, his survival usually depends on any number of gadgets that Q dreams up for him. But you can’t expect that, in the nick of time, he’ll just whip out an exploding pen. The pen may be mightier than the sword (I’m pretty sure Q said that too), but we need to know before he needs the pen that he has one.
So how to get across technical information you’re your reader must have?
Have the right character offer the information in the right context. Bond can’t stop and tell us, “As you know, Bob, there is at least twenty megatons of explosives imbedded in this single pen. All I need to do is pump in once to prime it.” If he did, we’d be rooting for the pen to explode in his hand.
But Q can get away with talking technical shop, because let’s face it, he’s a geek and it’s his job. In fact, we look forward to our visit with Q (long before Bond needs to activate the pen) so we can learn about the latest Bond gadgets. But then Q isn’t speaking to Bob, he’s in character speaking to Bond.
Another literary example where a great deal of information is handled expertly is Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series (Captain Jack Aubrey).
O’Brian wrote a series of nautical adventures, and being an experienced sailor, he incorporated a great deal of technical terms in his stories. But it works because the setting is a ship; to not immerse the reader in the winching of ropes and two sheets to the mast, and all that, would not be true to the story.
O’Brian keeps Bob off the deck, by using another character—Doctor Maturin. This guy knows nothing about ships and has no shame in asking Captain Jack why a certain thingamagiggy flaps around the way it does. Maturin is the fish out of water character; he’s the naturalist geek who knows every beetle and plant, but even after years of sailing, doesn’t know one beam from another.
This quirk makes him an endearing character and it also highlights the difference between him and the captain. Invariably, their roles are reversed when they’ve docked on land, and Captain Jack becomes the floundering fish. In the end, Patrick O’Brian has solved his problem (how to educate the reader without invoking Bob) through attention to character.
If you’re a writer, I hope that I’ve given you some ideas on how to banish Bob from your party, and if you’re a reader, you’re welcome.
I’d really love to hear from you. What are your story pet peeves?
If you’re interested in more posts about writing and creativity, check out these other posts:
And if you haven’t had a chance to check out my other writing, click here for an excerpt from Traitor’s Knot.