Dissociative Character Disorder

Dissociative Character Disorder, also known as Multiple Character Disorder, results when the author shows the thoughts of multiple characters in a single scene. The reader becomes dissociated from all the characters, because the author is bouncing between them so fast, the reader has nothing to latch on to.

One of the most important aspects where a novel differs from a movie is the ability to read a character’s thoughts. Movies are usually shown from the ‘Fly on the Wall’ point of view, because the viewers see what is captured by the camera, including noises. Narrators are usually not used in movies to explain things which cannot be seen or heard.

But in a book, the narrator is a very important part of the reading process. Who is telling the story? Is it the cook, working down in the kitchen? Is it the billionaire, running the world? Or is it the maids? All of these have been used as narrators in dozens of books. The important thing in writing a book is to understand there can only be one narrator per scene.

I’m speaking, of course, under the assumption that the novel is written with limited omniscience. This is again an area where aspiring authors need to understand the conventions used by others, so they can understand what their audience is expecting. Limited omniscience means the reader does not get to hear what everyone in the scene is thinking, or know why they did something. Everything must be interpreted by a specific character, and that character keeps no secrets from the reader. Each scene can have a different character which meets this criteria, but the reader is expecting to see things from the perspective of the main character more often than any other.

Once in awhile a novel or movie is told by showing the same events from different people’s perspective, such as Vantage Point (2008). Even in this movie, the camera follows one character’s journey at a time, as they live through the same events. Seven different scenes, covering the same time period, but not all being told at the same time.

Why is limited omniscience important? Because people, as a general rule, can’t hear what other people are thinking. Readers want to attach to a specific character, experiencing the world you create the way that character experiences it. Without this limitation, the reader is left with an out of body experience, dissociated from any of the characters.

Here is an example:

“That’s amazing.” John said sarcastically. He really didn’t like magic tricks, and Jerry’s method needed more work. It was too easy to see when he pulled the card out of his pocket.

“Well, you don’t have to be rude about it,” Jerry replied. He’d worked for days on this trick, but he was still trying to master misdirection. John was supposed to be his friend, but he was never any good at hiding his feelings.

“I thought he did okay,” Terry said. She actually liked the trick, but she was always afraid of disagreeing with John, who always seemed to dominate whatever room he entered.

William just sat there, watching the others. It was easy to see how petty John’s comments were. After all, he’d never tried to do magic tricks. William knew what it was like to work at something for days, only to realize he was no good at it. That’s why he never performed for others.

While this brief example is digestible, imagine reading this for two hundred pages or more. Who is the reader expected to care about? Or are they all equally despicable? Here is the same scene, written with limited omniscience:

“That’s amazing,” John said, his tone flat.

“Well, you don’t have to be rude about it,” Jerry replied. He’d worked for days on this trick, but he was still trying to master misdirection. John was supposed to be his friend, but he was never any good at hiding his feelings.

“I thought he did okay,” Terry said.

Her words sounded kind, but Jerry knew her praise was easily given, and therefore nearly meaningless. If anything, her hollow words only made things worse. Jerry looked over at William, trying to gather any clue of what he was thinking. William was so stoic, that even a raised eyebrow was significant. But he showed no reaction at all.

Here we get more of what Jerry is thinking, and his reactions to the actions of the others. Terry might have really liked it, but Jerry has to interpret her actions rather than read her mind. And that brings us back to what the reader expects. They don’t expect to read everyone’s thoughts. Stories are generally told by one person, not twelve. It’s how we experience the world, and it’s how we expect the books to be written.

One character at a time.

 

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