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I'm writing a fantasy story in which a character accidentally travels into an unfamiliar fantasy coded world. However, I'm finding it difficult to find the voice for this character during this transition between real and fantasy worlds. I'm very conscious of info dumping, and so information is being conveyed through a secondary character, native to the fantasy world.

This issue I'm having, though, is that in the process of trickling this information to the reader through dialogue, the main character has a very constant questioning voice that comes across kind of whiny (ie, lots of "what are you talking about!?" "what does that mean?!" "I need help and answers!") Which I guess, on one hand, is justified - he's scared, confused and wants answers but, to sustain mystery and avoid tedious exposition, it needs to be trickle fed to him. It does, however, make him read as fairly unlikeable and irritating - which isn't the vibe I'm going for with this character.

Just wondering if anyone has any advice for writing a character in this kind of situation - and striking the balance between believably confused and upset, but not so much so as to be irritating to the reader.

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Make them proactive and enthusiastic

I think there are two reasons such characters can come across as annoying. Firstly, they seem passive, waiting for someone else to sort their problems out and tell them what to do. Secondly, they’re wet blankets. I wrote a character like that and one beta reader told me that they wanted to get all excited about this new world being explored, and the character put a dampener on it by ‘whining’, in the face of what (the reader thought) should have been an amazing experience.

If I were going to write a similar situation again I would aim for curiosity rather than confusion. Think about academic researchers: depending on their subject area, they might be seeking answers to some pretty big questions.  They might be confused and frustrated at times – a theory doesn’t work out; the answers are elusive or lead to more questions – but their curiosity is proactive and leads them down certain paths.

Even if your character isn’t an academic, there are different ways they might try to make sense of the new world, which can tell us about the character. Will they write notes, draw pictures, ask questions of all and sundry (even when it’s not appropriate)? Will they seek help, confide in friends, or try to make sense of it alone?

Of course, if your character is curious and interested in the new world, you then need to get your conflict in somewhere else rather than relying on the character’s internal conflict, but this is likely to make it all the more interesting for the reader.

Finally, I know they’re examples but I’d take out the exclamation marks from your character’s speech: "What are you talking about?" "What does that mean?" "I need help - and answers." They’re immediately less ‘whiny’.

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This exact kind of questioning, to the point that it helped make the main character unlikable, was a significant feature of Lord Foul's Bane The first volume of "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant". Of course the fact that the MC celebrated the renewed vigor that the fantasy world had brought him by raping the young girl who had first befriended him was a significant and unrelated factor there.

I would also recommend reading "The Man who Came Early" by Poul Anderson. In this story a US soldier stationed in Iceland during the 1950s is suddenly teleported to saga-period Iceland , probably somewhere between 940 and 980 CE. This is not a fantasy world, but the MC is as confused as if it had been. His failure to understand the world to which he has been transported proves fatal to him. The story has been cited as a response to Lest Darkness Fall and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

I would also suggest "Frost and Thunder" by Randal Garret. Here is an SFF.SE story-IF thread that discusses it in some detail. Here also the MC must figure out what is going on, but does it rather more smoothly.

I would also suggest Watchers of the Dark by Lloyd Biggle. This is SF, not fantasy, but here again the MC is suddenly thrown into a very strange culture.

There is also Household Gods by Harry Turtledove and Judith Tarr. The MC (a lawyer from about 1998) is transported by divine act into the body of an ancestress living in a provincial Roman town during the 2nd century CE. Her ignorance of history is stunning and she is very confused and often mistaken about conditions and customs in the past.

How this is handled will depend on the general nature and personality of the MC. It will also depend on whether the MC is also the POV character. The MC may fairly quickly understand what in general has happened but be confuse by details, or may for a long time fail to understand even that s/he is in a different world.

Showing the MC misunderstand or be confused by specific aspects of the new world, things that everyone takes for granted there, all work well. So can showing the MC assume that s/he knows better than the inhabitants only to be proven wrong. Internal dialog as well as conversation between the MC and the other characters can be important, but it is probably important that there should also be significant elements of the main story, whatever it is, going on, rather than spending many pages on the MC's transition into to the fantasy world and nothing else. But there are many right ways to do this.

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  • Didn't the Thomas Covenant series turn out to be an IWAJAD ending, so he really didn't rape anyone? The Leo Frankowski Cross-Time Engineer series is another example (he didn't get weird until late in the series).
    – DWKraus
    Oct 2 at 20:06
  • @DWKraus The author of the Thomas Covenant series was careful not to be explicit about whether the other world was "real" or not, but from the reader's PoV it was, and based on the events of the 3rd trilogy I think the other world should be taken as real, although i would need to reread to be sure, it has been many \years. As for Cross-Time Engineer series Conrad adapts very quickly, he also has a somewhat improbably exact knowledge of this period of history IMO. So it doesn't seem to me a good example to illuminate the OP's issue. Oct 2 at 20:15
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    Unfortunately for realism, I think Frankowski hit the nail on the head - he substituted cleverness and action for doubt and uncertainty. A real person would be freaking out, but that leads to the whininess the OP wants to avoid. Too much realism in fantasy isn't as much fun.
    – DWKraus
    Oct 2 at 20:21
  • @DWKraus No, the Land is real. Nov 6 at 8:31
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Another good series to watch is Disney's Owl House, which is about a middle school girl named Luz who accidentally stumbles into the magitech (it's a fairly meievel society, but magic is fairly common and replaces tech to a degree that they have magical proxies for texting apps and the internet internet (the Boiling Isle's children love to scroll "Pentstagram" on literal scrolls that are pocket sized and another scene in a library shows patrons at banks of crystal balls looking at various web pages, with one even getting frustrated by it buffering) demon world of "The Boiling Isles". Luz being a weirdo and Fantasy Genre fan, not only is not freaked out about the world (beyond a few shocks) but immediately starts to recognize tropes and elements staple to the escapist fantasy genre. But the kick is while witches and magic are real, they don't work like the books Luz has read.

For an example, when Luz gets enrolled in a magic school, she has trouble figuring out which magic track she wants to take and asks the principal if there is "some kind of article of clothing" that can help her make her decision, clearly spoofing Harry Potter's "Sorting Hat". The principal admits they used to have such a system, before cutting away to a kid sitting on a stool with a large brown witch's hat on his head. A face appears on the hat and... then it's eyes and mouth glows red and the hat announces in a demonic voice "I shall feed". Then quickly closes it's brim around the child's head as the child flips out. The scene cuts back to the principals office where they finish the coversation, and Luz leaves as a loud crash is heard. The principal then panics and says "Oh no, the Choosy Hat is loose!"

In another episode, Luz comes to find out that all games on the Boiling Isle have a mechanic similar to the "Golden Snitch" and rails against how the mechanic totally invalidates the hard work of all the other players as it makes their efforts wasted (At least the one in Harry Potter doesn't invalidate the effort of the game. Quidditch points are totaled for an over all league score that determines a season's championship team.).

Here, the Luz's pre-knowledge of how magical societies work because her questions are fueled by a fantasy fan like excitement that, yes, it could be like their understanding of magic from fictional works... but at the same time, Luz it allows a character native to the world to say "Well, yes, we have that concept, but it doesn't work that way." Often this is done with hilarious results, but sometimes it's a flat out denial... or even an admission that the concept is old fashioned (For example, Eda, Luz's mentor, once flat out admits that eating children was a thing Witches do... but it was "so 15th century" basically stating that it was akin to a person from the Boiling Isles coming to Earth and asking why we aren't wearing Powdered Wigs or Togas and listen to Disco music. Her statement isn't so much one of shame, rather than one indicating it's just a very dead trend.).

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