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So, the viewpoint and main character in my novel is a character who had a very bad beginning. Born as a slave, she was torn from her parents and subjected to many horrors, few of which I elaborate on, before being taken to her latest owner, the daughter of a prominent lord. The daughter is exceedingly kind to everyone, and to the MC, she is the only character that the MC can consider a friend.

Her father, however, bought her for an ulterior motive. The MC looks very similar to her owner, to the point the two could often be confused. The father bought the MC so he could also act out some...desires. I won't elaborate too much, as I want to get to the punch line.

So, after a long time of this, the MC lashes out when her owner was trying to comfort her, and injures her severely. The MC didn't mean to cause harm, as she though the person who approached her was her abuser.

Anyhow, the MC begins to believe that those close to her will suffer harm, and after escaping and fleeing the fiefdom, she becomes a pickpocket and manages to stake out a living before being recruited as an adventurer.

Here's the thing, I want her to be somewhat antagonistic. She's a bit of a bully, but she never wants to actually harm anyone. She's desperate for an emotional connection, a bond that she can cherish, like the one the other characters are forming with each other. But before she starts healing, how do I give off the impression that she's pushing others away not because she wants to, but is trying to keep them safe rather than any other reason?

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  • What about, she acts to push people away because she does not believe she deserves it. Would that be a strategy?
    – Boba Fit
    Mar 1, 2023 at 13:16
  • That's basically the reason she is trying to push people away from her, as well as her believing bad things happens to the people who get close to her.
    – Kale Slade
    Mar 2, 2023 at 16:51

3 Answers 3

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I'm not sure it's possible to literally answer "how" to write such a complex thing, but I think your instinct is correct: through story, not dictation, i.e. show don't tell. Also Unifying Theory of 2+2:

Make the audience put things together. Don’t give them 4; give them 2 + 2. The elements you provide in the order you placed them in is crucial to whether you succeed or fail at engaging the audience.

Additionally, there's the importance of thought ownership; a reader who comes to a conclusion of their own accord is more likely to embrace and champion that notion than they will an idea that was prescribed to them. If you explain a thing, you have to do the work of convincing. When you just show a thing, and allow the other party to come to their own conclusions, they do their own convincing; their ideas are their own, and they will defend their ideas.

Now they're invested.

And specifically to your scenario: when does a human person ever think to themselves "I better push that person away to protect them"? I'm no psychologist, but I find it far more plausible that they aren't aware they're doing it. So if the MC isn't aware, they can't rightly narrate it anyway.

And nor should you, as the author. That's writing on the nose; it's mediocre and uninspiring at worst, and lacks style at best. Perfect for a tutorial: literal and explicit, with no room for interpretation, but a story has substance between the lines. It engages the imagination, sparks your readers' minds with prose and metaphor, allows them to glean their own meaning, maybe even different from what you intended. Give your readers that agency. Give them a knot to unravel, or a mystery to decipher, and let them delight in the Eureka moment. After all, isn't the higher goal to write a story that your readers will enjoy? And how fulfilling would it be as a writer to see an impassioned fan debate about your MCs psyche and motivations?

That's engagement!

Getting back to how do you write it? This may sound prosaic, but the simple answer is over and over and over again until it's perfect! Simple, yes. But not easy. It's extremely difficult, and that's the work of a writer.

The good news is that you clearly already know.

If I tell them it won't have emotional impact

I know the readers will figure out [the story]

I think I need to [write] scenes where [the story] is shown

Paraphrased but I would say yeah, trust your authorial instincts.

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But before she starts healing, how do I give off the impression that she's pushing others away not because she wants to, but is trying to keep them safe rather than any other reason?

Why don't you just write that?

Usually the motives of characters are explained to the readers through the characters' thoughts or speech. Your protagonist could think: I need to push X away to protect him/her. Or she could explain to X: "I am so sorry. I just pushed you away to protect you."

Seems very simply and straightforward to me. But maybe I misunderstand your problem and you could try and explain it more?

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  • The thing is, I want to show the reader, and not just flat out tell them. If I tell them, I fear it won't have the emotional impact I want it to have. My character has a lot of deep trauma and in her mind, it's not just to protect herself or others, she's going through a lot in her mind that can't really be explained. I know the readers will figure out what she's doing long before she does, but I want to keep the suspense a little longer.
    – Kale Slade
    Mar 7, 2023 at 16:20
  • This part: "because they feel they don't deserve it", that's what the readers will never understand if you don't make it explicit. Outward behavior can be caused by many different internal motivations. I can give someone a present because I love them or because I know they need what I give them or because I'm afraid they will leave me if I don't shower them with presents or because I never was given presents when I was young or etc. You cannot show-don't-tell internal processes, or not unambigously. The less you tell the reader, the more you open up your story to the reader's interpretation.
    – user55858
    Mar 7, 2023 at 16:33
  • Well, I do have her have a lot of introspective scenes where she reflects on herself.
    – Kale Slade
    Mar 10, 2023 at 5:36
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I would probably try to use contrast between the character's public and private behavior. When she's around others, she pushes them away. But then afterwards, her behavior could show an emotional reaction where it's clear how it hurts her that she felt she had to behave in that manner. Maybe she breaks into tears as soon as the other character is gone, or lashes out at inanimate objects in anger, or sits and stews for hours, depending on her personality. Maybe she goes too far, and really hurts another character, emotionally or physically, and then immediately shows regret it some way.

And at times when other characters aren't looking, she can behave in a way that makes it clear she wants to be close to others. Maybe another character gives her a gift that she exaggeratedly throws away, but then later goes back to retrieve and keeps close to her. Maybe she makes a little trinket or something for another character, but never gives it to them.

Another option is to put one of the other characters into real physical danger and have the MC save them, then act like a jerk immediately afterward.

I think the main tool is that there should be a clear contradiction of some sort in the MC's behavior. It probably can be confusing to others, because they don't understand what's going through her head.

And if all that's not clear enough, you can have some sort of callback or flashback to the time when the MC got close another character that then got hurt, right before she acts to push someone away.

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  • I do have scenes planned where it is clear that she hurt someone close to her in her past. I think I need to plan more scenes where this contradictory behavior is shown.
    – Kale Slade
    Mar 7, 2023 at 16:17

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