Who would want to listen to a know-it-all? Even a good-tempered know-it-all gets frustrating after enduring an hour of catch-up information just to understand the joke they just made. However, experts in any field are often colorful, fascinating characters. From a writing perspective, expert main characters have a ton of potential! However, it’s a bit like playing with fire as there are difficulties with getting the audience to engage with them.
Here are some concerns that come up when writing for an expert main character, and some ideas on how to overcome them:
1. Info-dumping. This is a hazard even at the best of times, but having an expert character (and the research to back them up) makes sharing all the gory details even more tempting! One example I can think of is in the show House. When they talk medical jargon, the tone is often more important than the formal diagnoses being thrown around like dodge-balls in grade school. It often sounds like “blah-blah” (angry tone), “No, it’s blah-blah” (calm knowledgeable tone), to “You’re both wrong, its blah-blah” (patronizing tone) followed by very human emotional reactions to being contradicted.
For the material actually necessary to the plot, the details are simplified for certain characters. This allows the audience to follow what’s important without having done time in medical school. Some of these audience-friendly filter characters are: new med students, the patients, the patients’ family members, and other layman characters from the students’ family or friend circle. The expert characters are nested among a circle of more transient characters who serve as touch-points for the audience. These are the people with whom they can identify and who receive simplified, essential information in place of the audience. That way the characters are talked down to, not the audience.
2. Predictability. As the example dialogue above can attest, I personally find House to be a bit repetitive in its episode structure. This doesn’t take away from its successful following and good run of seasons, but it does demonstrate one of the difficulties with having an expert main character. If they’re an expert in their field, then few things in that field surprise or challenge them. This can directly undermine any sense of conflict or suspense in the audience, unless the expert can confront the strange and different on a regular basis.
To riff on a recently popular theme, consider the original Jurassic Park. Audience follows expert characters throughout the movie who are versed in paleontology and paleo-botany. In the opening scene they demonstrate their expert status, but then they’re immediately taken away from their comfort zone and dropped into a new context where their knowledge is only partially applicable. They’re not only taken away from the fossils and thrown in with living dinosaurs, but the doctors are also both given challenges that are specific to their weaknesses as the adventure goes on. Their expert status isn’t a full plot-changer, but is instead reduced to a character trait as the movie goes on.
3. Bizarre story structure. Sometimes, ignorance is necessary. Just as an example, consider how different a Sherlock Holmes mystery would look if the audience were in Sherlock’s mind? In the case of The Hound of the Baskervilles, we would know the whole plot a third of the way through the book! There would still be the difficulty of revealing the plot, but even that was planned out long before it occurred in action.
Even a brief conversation with an expert will show their thought process with respect to their field is both accelerated and optimized to an impressive degree. Their mental gears are greased and quick, and problems are solved with a vast store of information in long-term memory from years of experience. Just slowing down this process enough to articulate it often frustrates them (this is from experience with my brother, an aerospace engineer), and the mental leaps they make involve a million tiny connections between memory and example.
As a result, describing them at work is either hyper-exciting (which is difficult to manage) or nose-pickingly boring (too easily done). This challenge can be overcome with the same solution suggested for info-dumping: provide a character or characters who need to learn as much as the audience. However, as this addresses a story-wide issue, these characters are often more important to the story and longer-lasting. In the cast of Watson, he follows Holmes through the majority of his adventures, providing a character in whom the audience can invest emotion and connection.
While avoiding these pitfalls for myself, a fellow author quoted a common piece of writing advice to me, “Write for the character who has the most to learn.” True words, and ones to be considered when choosing a main character (or narrator).
To use the examples cited earlier, the majority of the medical drama in episodes of House surround the students trying to sort out a diagnosis that the expert already suspects. The experts in dead dinosaurs are shoved into a situation where their study subjects aren’t passive and fossilized, but are very much alive and unpredictable even for them. The speaker in Sherlock Holmes stories isn’t Holmes, but Watson, an individual who (while expert in some cases) has a whole lot to learn from the detective and police. In some of Holmes’ cases, especially the landmark ones with Moriarty, Holmes is out of his element and faced with challenges that push the scope of his expertise.
In all of these episodic narratives, the character in focus (in each episode) is in the position to learn the most from the events presented.