16

I have a character in my story who has the habit of making philosophic observations about life and the functioning of things, or his opinion/vision about something.

Although most of his observations make the story better with them, some don't or not much, but they also don't make it worse, it's simply dispensable.

I, however, added these "unnecessary" observations because I found them interesting and fitting in the context of the situation, but they don't help progress the plot or add to the story, it's just his observation.

So can I add/keep these or should I keep only what is necessary?

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    FWIW once I realized the songs in LOTR weren't relevant to anything I skipped pages and pages of tedious dwarven poetry. But maybe your character's musings are more interesting ;) – Wayne Werner Mar 31 '18 at 19:59
  • Why not? Heinlein was successful in spite of the multi-page sermons poorly disguised as dialogue. – WGroleau Mar 31 '18 at 20:22
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    How long are these observations? – Mr.Mindor Apr 2 '18 at 14:55
  • @Mr.Mindor It varies from a single line to around three paragraphs equivalent of text. – Yuuza Apr 2 '18 at 16:04
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This will largely depend on the kind of book you are writing and your writing style.

Contemporary genre fiction is often rather focussed and almost concise. The rule that everything you write should either serve the plot or characterization is reflective of that. Many readers appear to be impatient with anything that isn't either action or provides an insight into why the characters act that way. They often skip all the worldbuilding, backstory, and philosophizing of the narrator and complain about this in their reviews. On the internet you apparently have four seconds to convey your information, and many readers read novels with a smiliar hecticness. They lead stessful lives and when they have ten minutes to read on the train, they want to get right at it.

Older fiction on the other hand, and non-genre or "literary" fiction (a distinction in style and content, not quality) often takes its time and allows itself to meander and philosophize. These books aren't usually about narrating a "story" or sequence of events, but rather their aim is to portray a way of life, a person and their circumstances, a society, and everything that is a part of that can (or even must) be a part of that book. A philosophic observation that would be an irritating detour to the reader of an action-packed thriller, is the reason to read a book for those who seek to be stimulated intellectually.

Of course, as always, there are many possibilities in between those extremes: philosophical action thrillers can and have been written, and where you want your book to fall on that continuum is completely up to you. Whether what you do works will depend on your craftsmanship and who you market your book to.


But some concrete advice:

The fact that you ask a question here is an indication that you have the feeling that there is something wrong. I have found that when I have such a gut feeling, it is almost always right. So very likely you are overdoing it. Maybe a few philosophical observations help flesh out your character and are fun for the reader to read, but when they become compulsive and your character can no longer utter even a single straightforward answer without drifting off into reflections on life, the universe, and everything, then maybe you have lost control of your writing and allowed your character to take over the story you intended to write. So rein them in.

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    "Many readers today appear to be impatient with anything that isn't either action or provides an insight into why the characters act that way." This is not new and it's not a failure of the readers. Aristotle wrote more than 2000 years ago that all of the events and dialog in a story should be necessary to the plot. – Todd Wilcox Apr 1 '18 at 4:49
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    @ToddWilcox I deleted the "today". – user29032 Apr 1 '18 at 8:29
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Find Consequences.

It depends on how "dispensable" it is. Conversation, beliefs, philosophy, loves and hatreds, likes and dislikes, sympathy's and passions, are all parts of being a real person; what you are doing is character building, for a character that appears repeatedly and has something to do with the story.

Character and setting building are important and not always directly related to the plot. They can be, for example in Star Wars the setting and nature of Cloud City, where Luke gets his hand cut off, is important to the escape of all the good team. The setting of Hoth (ice planet) plays a role in Luke's developing command of The Force.

The important thing to remember is that you are trying to guide your reader's imagination of what is happening in the story, so a certain amount of leeway in the name of entertainment is permissible, but always keep in mind the pacing of your story. To illustrate with an overly obvious example, a fight to the death is not the time to be opining on whether prostitution should be legal or not. The best time for such opining is as filler during otherwise idle time, such as a necessary journey.

Make An Argument, a Challenge, a Conflict

I try to make such conversations at least friendly arguments. Conflict is a spice that can go a long way in turning bland assertions into something interesting. Even in ideas, even among friends. Disagreements in philosophy (I have them with my own best friends) are a form of battle, sparring or wrestling that usually results in a stand-off.

Find Consequences

What you write should have consequences in the story, but that doesn't mean it has to influence the plot, per se.

It can influence the behavior of the hero without changing the plot, it can get readers invested in your philosophical character so they understand his actions at a crucial moment: Self-sacrifice, bravery, or cowardice or betrayal. So whatever he does, however he helps or hinders the protagonist, does not come off as a deus-ex-machina or too convenient choice, but as part of who he is and what he believes. If I am going to have Allen sacrifice his own life for "The Cause", I want Allen to do this out of true belief, and how do I show that? By showing several times throughout the story that Allen is a true believer. At the time I show this, it doesn't have to be apparent to the reader why I am showing it, but the point is character building: I want the reader invested in Allen so his later (and perhaps life-ending) actions seem plausible: Yeah, Allen would do that.

If somebody has gone to the trouble of adopting or developing a philosophy (as I have) then this should have some kind of consequences in their behavior (mine does). For good or evil. That helps make a memorable character.

It can also make a good foil, by finding arguments against this philosophy (that aren't infantile, dismissive, or too easily dismissed), the hero arguing against your philosopher is defined as well, and perhaps converted on some points.

Debate is a part of life, and a part of friendship. Typically amongst friends, allies and coworkers, there is a strong interest in not alienating the opponent or dissolving into insults and vitriol, so such arguments end before somebody gets angry. (Unlike the Internet, where a lack of any significant consequence in group cohesion lets insult and vitriol spiral out of control.)

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4

Plot and story are not necessarily the same thing - if the story is about a change (or absence of change) to a character, the thoughts they are having would be relevant.

Even if it's not fundamental to the story and the character is not one of the major characters, their thoughts might work in a similar way to a comedy sidekick's activities (though both of these have potential to become distracting and annoying, so I'd urge caution if this is the case).

It's always worth wondering whether something moves the story along, but it might be that the things with the greatest relevance are a casual word spoken over dinner or a surprising thought. Whether this is a good idea here will depend on how significant the thoughts of this character are to what really happens between the beginning and the end.

There's certainly a case for deeper thoughts, but it will depend on what kind of story you're writing. Without philosophical musings Thoreau's Walden would have read like a camping manual, and Pirsig's Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenaince would have been about Buddhism and bikes.

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4

Presumably you write in a way that speaks to your experience, and your experience will be unique from everyone else's. I appreciate those sorts of things, when I read. Some of my favorite books deal with philosophical points, for example, the role of class in society. Star Trek TOS was particularly good at tackling issues.

So yes, this can work well.

Also, putting in your unique perspective may arguably be what sets your story apart from others. Even though my story might be bad, I know that I'm the best person to tell it, because I see the story. I see it because of my life history. You see your story, and if your philosophical ideas are relevant, then add them in. I'd also say, don't be afraid to add more to your story, such as a subplot (or another subplot!), through which you can state your ideas and add more complexity at the same time.

Using a specified character to voice the ideas is one approach to introducing your ideas but it's not the only approach. This is the approach I'm using - and it helps distinguish that particular character voice. But, my beta readers wanted me to pare down some of the ramblings. I think they were written in too much of a dump.

--> A good example of what I think you are describing is seen in Mistborn. One character, Sazed, sprinkles information about different religious philosophies throughout the book. Sazed has the knowledge, because part of his magic is to store all history. He shares the knowledge because a main character, Kelsior, is trying to start a new religion to overthrow the evil empire (this part of Kelsior's plan is unknown to the reader until the end of the story.) Sanderson did a nice job of constructing a wide range of fictional religious philosophies for Sazed to draw from.

It works extremely well.

My answer: Construct an in-story reason for the philosophical points that you are writing.

(Sanderson's is described above. Mine is less sophisticated - it's simply that this character has a highly relevant back story to the book's plot, and his philosophies all come from that. They are shared through revelation of his backstory.)

Add in all that you feel are right, and keep an eye on them during revision and critique.

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4

Everything you put in a story should have a purpose. What that purpose is can be flexible.

Your reader's attention span is limited, and should not be wasted unnecessarily. Everything you put in a story should serve a purpose. But the list of purposes is long. Even if a piece isn't advancing the plot it can be exploring a character, or outlining a theme of the story, or setting a scene.

If a piece can fulfill several purposes at once (e.g. letting a character describe a location can provide setting information and character information at the same time) that's even better.

Your philosophical observations sound like an excellent place to develop character. It's not enough to say that a this character likes philosophizing and leave it at that. Why does this character choose this particular moment to interject this particular detail? How do the other characters react?

A particularly entertaining philosophic observation can in theory be it's own purpose. But this is dangerous, because not all readers will be entertained by the same things. I can guarantee that at least one reader will hate your philosophizing character, and will not be entertained in the slightest by their musings - if those musings don't have other relevance you will alienate this reader the more of them you add.

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2

Yes.

These observations may not advance the story, but they are a part of this character. They contribute to fleshing out the character and are your version of "show, don't tell" - instead of describing that the guy is always philosophizing, you show him doing it.

Also yes, if you, the writer, feel that this is something you want to share with the readers. Remember that the story is only the vehicle of the meaning that you are trying to convey. If this observation contributes to the underlying meaning, and can be given in this way without being part of the story, go ahead and do it.

For example, there is an entire second book hidden inside "1984" by George Orwell. Entire pages from it are read by the protagonist, and while they flesh out the background of both the world and the character, they are not strictly necessary for the story. But they transport the actual meaning of the book.

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