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In a lot of books, movies, or TV shows, there will be a character that knows little to nothing about the subject at hand. Most cop shows and medical shows will have someone who doesn't know very simple things so that the story can be accessible by all. Another prime example of this would be Marty McFly in Back to the Future. He knew nothing about time travel (just like the audience) so Doc Brown explaining to him about the inter workings of "flux capacitors" and how fast one must go in a DeLorean to travel in time were to keep the audience from saying "heavy."

In all seriousness though, is there a term for that "literary device?" Is it a literary device?

To follow up, a few movies recently are deciding not to include that character in the interest of realism. They feel in order to keep things as true to life as possible, you would not have a doctor who didn't know simple medical terminology or a cop who didn't know the proper collection procedure. They focus on the story or relationships rather than the jargon. Is this a better way to write? Is it better to alienate some and connect with a few or write to the masses (with the character question in mind)?


  1. Is there a term for that character in many shows that knows nothing whose sole purpose for being there is so the audience can learn as he does?
  2. Should you use this type of character in writing?
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Related: writers.stackexchange.com/q/7537/1993 –  Monica Cellio May 10 '13 at 17:47
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6 Answers

up vote 16 down vote accepted

There is indeed such a term.

Phil Farrand of The Nitpicker's Guide to Star Trek called this "being the cabbagehead." Certain information had to be revealed to the audience, but it was information which the characters would reasonably already know.

So the writers picked someone in the room to be the "cabbagehead," meaning someone developed the I.Q. of a cabbage and everything had to be explained to him or her as though s/he had never gone through Starfleet training and years of spaceflight experience. (Counselor Troi got this role a lot on TNG.)

The cabbagehead doesn't have to be someone who abruptly turns stupid, however. (TV Tropes calls this holding the Idiot Ball.) This role can be more realistically played by a person who is on the job for the first day, someone "new in town," someone from another planet, a child, someone who didn't have sufficient clearance, someone out of the information loop, or a new in-law. These are not doctors who have forgotten med school, but people who could not be expected to know certain information, so the other characters must explain it to them (and thereby the audience).

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I'm going to accept this as the best answer. Whether a "Watson" or a "cabbagehead," I would say that there is no literary term in the way that a "foil" is a literary term. Would you agree? –  Jeff May 10 '13 at 18:25
@Jeff Depends on your definition of "literary." Cabbagehead is a casual term, but who's to say it couldn't be adopted in academic circles and thence to serious public analysis? –  Lauren Ipsum May 10 '13 at 19:11
Gotcha. Thanks for the help! –  Jeff May 10 '13 at 20:33
I'd like to nominate "neophyte". –  Mussri May 13 '13 at 19:09
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  1. According to the tvtropes entry for The Watson,

The Watson is the character whose job it is to ask the same questions the audience must be asking and let other characters explain what's going on.

A sidekick sometimes acts in this role. According to wikipedia,

Sidekicks can provide one or multiple functions, such as a counterpoint to the hero, an alternate point of view, or knowledge, skills, or anything else the hero does not have. ... And by asking questions of the hero, or giving the hero someone to talk to, the sidekick provides an opportunity for the author to provide exposition, thereby filling the same role as a Greek chorus.

2. Occasionally.

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I'm a computer technitian. Every week, here at the office, we joke about a NCIS episode where the hacker and another guy fight against another hacker by using the keyboard at amazing speed and writing random commands. Evertybody from IT knows that is ridiculous. Hacking does not work in that way, neither it's possible to stop an invader just by starting a typing race to see who is faster. But, on the other hand, it's really boring to use a real life hacking situations because they take a long time and deal a lot with social skills, even more than technical ones.

My opinion is that common sense is a great thing. Too much is something to avoid. What I mean is, it won't be good if you make really dumb real mistakes, but also it won't be good also if you make it so real that becomes boring.

Take Dr. House, for example. The show uses real life diseases, real life treatments, real life diagnostic procedures but, in overall, it won't work for a real life doctor. Even so, the show is good because in the extreme of luck, could work. Contrary to NCIS where the hacking procedure was completely absurd.

Recently I wrote a chapter where my character ends up being searched (I'm not sure this is the correct word) by airport personnel for drugs and smuggled money. I don't know how this is done, what the inner procedures of the airport police are, or even if they are police or just normal workers. I had to improvise. My way to do it was to get away from the details and describe everything in a way most people -- and even professionals -- could accept even knowing it was not perfect.

I guess your question can be answered by: It depends on the focus of your story.

If you want to write about medical stuff, like Robin Cook does, you need to know about medical stuff because that's the main focus of your writing. If you start to invent, it will become nonsensical. If you want to write about a normal character that needs to deal with specific knowledge in one chapter, it will be no problem at all -- as long as you do it right -- to overlook the details.

What I think you can't do at all, is to describe a specific procedure, like NCIS, in a completely wrong way. That goes for terms as well. If you don't know the name, use the description instead and skip the details.

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I've never heard an actual term for a character created only for the purpose of educating the reader, so I'll focus on #2.

It seems like it could turn into lazy way to introduce a large amount of exposition or backstory very quickly. This kind of touches that basic rule of showing, not telling. If you cover a complicated issue by having one character explain (tell) it to another character, then I'd feel like the "no telling" rule would be broken. As a reader, if there are large chunks of exposition about x world or practice or history, my eyes glaze over. Readers (and characters) should learn organically--over time. Revealing piece by piece of a dystopian world's history or a character's tragic backstory provides a more satisfying discovery rather than a huge info-dump.

If it's vitally important for your readers to learn something, then I'd use this device sparingly. To cite your example from Back to the Future, is it very important for your reader to know exactly how flux capacitors work? Or do they just need to know that time travel is scientifically possible? To your last point, knowing your audience is also important. If their enjoyment of your work is going to greatly suffer because they have no idea to what a character is referring, then find a way to work in an explanation. But I would use this device sparingly.

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TVTropes calls such a character The Watson:

The Watson is the character whose job it is to ask the same questions the audience must be asking and let other characters explain what's going on.

I don't know if it is desirable to have such a character (I'll let the more qualified people here answer on that one), but given the large number of examples (including from well-known authors) as well as the fact that TVTropes doesn't mention any downsides, I guess it is at least OK to have it.

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Welcome to Writers! I've added a short excerpt to this answer from the link you provided. (This isn't an answer that's just a link, but URLs can change over time.) –  Neil Fein May 10 '13 at 17:31
Thatnks for your edit; however I don't think that was just a link, because the information requested (the term for the character) was already in the post; the link was basically a reference to the source. However I agree that it is a good idea to cite a short excerpt here. –  celtschk May 13 '13 at 9:38
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I've never heard a name for it, but as to the second part of your question: I'd say that, like many literary devices, it can be done poorly, but if used well it can be a great asset to a story.

Let's say that there is some background information that you need to convey to the reader. Whether it's a detail about how the police department files DNA samples, why Uncle Harry and cousin Sally can't be invited to family gathering together, or how Trantor came to be the capital of the Galactic Empire, there are some facts that the reader may need to know to understand the story that happened before the story began or that are background that the main characters all know. How do you convey this information to the reader?

BTW I think this is especially a problem for science fiction and fantasy stories where there may be a whole history and culture that the writer has completely invented and that the reader cannot possibly be expected to know. In a conventional contemporary novel, if I was writing that the hero decided to travel from Los Angeles to Paris, I wouldn't think it necessary to explain that these are two major cities in two different countries, that the people there speak different languages, etc. But if in a science fiction story I said that the hero travelled from Dorsai to Kultis, I might need to give a lot of background for events to make sense. To a lesser extent this is also an issue for historical fiction or stories set in cultures that are real but unfamiliar to the reader. Like a story for American readers that is set in Russia might need to explain aspect of Russian culture.

But anyway, how to convey such information?

    1. Have the characters tell each other things that they all already know.

Often this comes across as really lame. Like, the first officer of the star ship says to the captain, "We're approaching the planet Trantor. That's the capital of our empire." Like, duh, does he really need to tell him this? Can one become a captain of a powerful star ship and not know what the capital of his own nation is? I've heard this called, "as you know dialog", because it often begins with a character saying, "As you know ..."

That said, sometimes you can slip some fast facts by this way if you word it right. Someone might say things that everyone around him already knows as a general complaint, or to point out that this fact is relevant. Like, "What time is it now? Do we have time to sneak out and return before the boss gets back at 3:00?" A sentence like that could convey what time the boss will return and also the implication that the characters will get in trouble if they're not back by the time the boss returns, even though these facts are likely known to all the characters, without sounding obviously pointless. Or, "Blast, we'll never get this done in time! It takes two weeks to get a DNA test back from the lab!" All the characters might be expected to know how long the lab takes, but it's not unreasonable that someone would say that in the course of making the point that it's too long to be useful. You may be able to just add a few extra words that are technically unnecessary but not obviously ridiculous. Like, instead of having a character say, "I saw Sally yesterday", have him say, "I saw your daughter Sally yesterday". Now the reader knows that Sally is the other character's daughter. The statement isn't obviously ridiculous -- we might even say that in context he might well have said "daughter" to avoid confusion with some other Sally.

    2. Narration. You can interrupt the flow of the story to give some background. Like, "'I suppose we have to invite Uncle Harry,' Bob said. No one wanted to invite Uncle Harry. He always showed up drunk and embarrassed everyone." Etc. In my humble opinion, writers are too quick to avoid this method. Yes, it violates the classic "show don't tell" and it interrupts the action. But if done right, it can get a bunch of background material in quickly and efficiently without having to come up with contrived reasons for characters to explain things to each other.
    3. The uninformed person. Include a character who doesn't know things that all the other characters would likely know, so that people have to stop and explain things to him, and thus, to the reader. As Lauren Ipsum says, this person doesn't have to be portrayed as stupid, just uninformed. Life if you need to explain family history, have a character bring his new girlfriend to a family gathering so he has to explain things to her. Instead of the doctor explaining medical procedure to another doctor who would likely already know it, have him explain it to the patient's brother. Etc.

I've seen this done lamely, like if it's clear that the ONLY reason this character is here is so things can be explained to him. I just saw a fragment of a science fiction movie the other day that has scene early on with a teacher giving a history lecture to her students. I didn't watch the whole movie as it was kind of lame, and that was an example of the lameness: As far as I could see, the class had nothing to do with the rest of the story, we never see them again, it was just an obvious device to get this background material in.

But when done right, it can be seamless. Make the uninformed character an important character in the story, someone who has a reason to be there other than to be ignorant. Make his ignorance natural and understandable -- he's not a doctor, he's not a member of the family, he's from another planet, whatever -- so that the reader isn't left thinking, "How could this person even survive if he's so dumb?" And in general, break the explanations up into small pieces. Don't have someone give him a two hour lecture on the history of the world. Have one person explain this relevant point to him and another person explain that.

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(I typed my bullet points as 1, 2, 3, but the software on this site automatically screws up the numbering if you have multiple paragraphs within a bullet. Thanks guys.) –  Jay May 13 '13 at 16:48
I am not sure what you mean, but if you use html tags, you can manually fix your list items. –  Jeff May 13 '13 at 19:44
I mean, I typed the text above with the numbers 1, 2, and 3, and the software automatically changed this to 1, 1, 2. I presume because the intervening paragraph made it think I was starting a new list. It's done this to me before so I'm quite sure I didn't just mis-type it. Is there a way to type in HTML directly? I don't know how to get to that mode. Would it then NOT edit my tagging? –  Jay May 15 '13 at 17:12
Ya, you can just type HTML in the answer and it will take it. –  Jeff May 16 '13 at 0:19
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