I sat down with my kids to watch Big Trouble in Little China this past weekend, and I was struck by how that movie went about solving a problem in very much the same way I did in The Mason of New Orleans. Here, let me (or, rather, someone else—I didn’t put this video together), demonstrate:

 

 

You may ask what problem, exactly, is being solved in that clip. (Go ahead, ask. I’ll wait.) The problem is that of immersing the audience in an unfamiliar setting filled with cultural nuance and iconography and intricate backstory, and getting that audience fully invested in the story without a lot of off-putting exposition.

Put another way, the writer has given us a bug dumb guy to act as a proxy for the audience. Every time the audience is likely to say “Huh? What’s going on here?” the big dumb guy can say it for them. Then someone explains things to the big dumb guy, and the audience gets the answers in the form of witty dialog instead of boring exposition. Probably before even consciously forming the questions.

Martin is my big dumb guy. OK, not really that big, and hopefully not really too dumb, but he’s sitting in the same role.

When I first started dreaming up the story that would become The Mason of New Orleans, it didn’t actually involve a time-traveling character. I had Madeleine and Stephan and Gaspard and an unbuilt castle and an antagonistic Count and satanic devil worshipers and Templars and pretty much everything else, but the story was contained within the 12th century.

But as much as I was fascinated by the setting and wanted to really breathe life into the medieval experience, I really didn’t want to saddle the reader with a tale that was too dry or technical or alien or all three. I didn’t want it to read like it was by and for history dweebs. I sure didn’t want a lot of exposition to explain things that would need no explaining to the characters in the book. So I needed a filter—a way to let the reader see this unfamiliar world through his or her own modern eyes. A proxy who could experience all this stuff on behalf of the reader, not just through what he sees and does, but also through how he reacts to it.

I do not recommend blithely adding time-travelers to your novel just to get this effect. (Hmm. Actually, there are a few novels I can think of for which this might be an improvement. . . . ) In my case, however, I had a bit of an “aha!” moment when this idea hit me. Although it’s not obvious early on, Martin’s presence in the events of this story—and the reason for his 800-year journey—fit the grand plotline like a particularly good-fitting glove. The story was improved, and I got a big dumb guy to say “what?” a lot on behalf of the audience.

Jack Burton may not have been put on this earth to “get it” (to quote Lo Pan), but the audience needs to. And that’s where a big dumb guy can come in real handy.

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