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In a first-person web novel, how to make the reader aware of a motivator the POV is unaware of?

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In my novel, the MC (and POV character) spares an enemy. He spared the enemy because he empathized/identified himself with them, but he was not aware of it. Later on he will understand his feelings and eventually make amends and the enemy will shift into a friend as they solve their conflict. (MC is dense).

Some readers questioned why he did that (spare the enemy). But I don't know how to expose this detail to the reader when the POV is unaware of it. What should I do?

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4 answers

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Ensure there's enough objective external cues to indicate precisely that. For example, did his throat start to sting or his eyes tear up when he saw his enemy in pain? In addition, perhaps have him confuse his feelings for a similar, but considerably less friendly feeling, like pity.

You can get creative too, talk about an internal conflict using his actions; for example, his weapon-bearing hand may shake as he raises his sword/puts his finger on the trigger, before ultimately he lowers his weapon. Perhaps he himself asks 'What am I doing?' - initially it may seem like he's asking why he's sparing them, but on a later read, will be more obviously asking why he was considering becoming a killer for the greater good.

There's lots of ways it can be done.

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Have a third party observe his actions and let them linger on the MC's reasons for doing what he did. This way you can let the MC be oblivious to his own reasons for sparing his enemy, while the reader becomes aware of it.

This technique is also seen a lot with unlikeable antiheroes. A third party explains why the things they do are for the greater good (or a lesser evil). And there you go. You can also find examples in the many interpretations of the stories of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

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Since you're telling the story in first person, and the MC does something without understanding why, you could lampshade it. That is, after the fact, your MC could be commenting

I don't know why I did it

Or something similar.

What you're doing here, is you're acknowledging to the reader that the MC is acting seemingly "out of character" - not in the way the reader would have expected them to act. You're letting the reader know that this is intended, not a "mistake" on your part, and that an explanation will be given later. If you think about it, we're quite used to this in literature: something happens, later we find out why.

Taking this route, you don't have to inform the reader of something your first person narrator is unaware of - the reader can come to the realisation together with the character.

Of course, talking of motivation, it is also a good idea to give some hint of what might be affecting the MC. If the enemy's story is similar to the MC's, the reader can draw the parallels without being explicitly told this is what affected the MC. If the enemy reminds the MC of someone, you can describe the two in similar fashion, so the reader too might be reminded of the same character. Etc.

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Perhaps he never killed before. His struggles against this enemy were something he had no problem with, but when the moment came, he just can’t. His weapon might drop as he considers what he is about to do - kill a vulnerable and unarmed man.

He might think that killing even this person could change him, make him no better than the enemy.

Or, if he is completely unaware of his own motivations, just have him unable because of his uncertainty.

Perhaps the enemy, seeing his hesitation, says something that tips the balance - or unbalances him further - allowing him to escape.

If the MC is rather dense, perhaps the enemy is not and suspects the reason. A ‘knew he couldn’t do it, we are opposite sides of the same coin’ situation.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/39938. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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