Monday, October 17, 2011

It's good to be wrong - Or, why my characters use the scientific method

I was writing along on my latest story (which is almost finished!) and managed to iron out something that really made me happy. I was sitting there grinning and realized this was the sort of thing that I should blog about.

So here I am, to encourage you to let your characters be wrong.

Now, there are lots of good reasons to do this. For one thing, it keeps you from creating a Mary Sue character who can't do anything wrong and really ends up annoying readers. For another thing, it enhances your ability to create conflict between characters. I especially enjoy it when I've got two or three different points of view, and each of them is wrong about something, and nobody really has it right. It creates such great opportunities for conflict and learning and personal growth, and often makes the story that much more worth reading.

But my focus today is on having your characters be wrong in systematic ways. This is something that is particularly useful if you tend to write puzzle stories, or mysteries, or any kind of story where a group of people has to "figure things out."

In a story like this, generally there is a long list of things (like clues, or pieces of the larger puzzle) that your characters will have to put together before they "get it." As the writer of a story like this, you will often be paying attention to whether you are missing a piece, and where it has to go in, and how it can be fit into a scene in the background so that it doesn't appear to be too obvious, etc.

Well, one big problem that can arise in a story like this is confusion. Readers are getting barraged with information as the story goes along and they go, "Whaaa?" They don't feel drive in the story, they feel it's going in all sorts of different directions, and then by the time they get to the point where the main characters are supposed to put it all together (if they ever get to that point) they can't believe the characters would be able to figure it out, because they didn't.

It takes a certain amount of talent, and a lot of imagination, to put the correct constellation together out of a sprinkling of stars.

Here is my suggestion for how to manage this problem: Let your characters be wrong.

I find that my puzzle stories work best when I let my characters use the scientific method as they go. That is, they take what evidence they have at any given point and create a model for what is going on. Because they have a model, their lives seem directed, and their vision seems clear.

In my current story, the main characters arrive on the planet of the Poik and immediately see that there is a problem: the planet is being managed as a tourist destination by the Paradise Company, and as a result its environment has been damaged/altered, and its people are being exploited in a very demeaning way. So they immediately "know" what the problem is, and though they're trying to have a good time, their instinct against exploitation starts them into conflict with the Paradise Company from the start. Everything is clear, and actions are motivated.


I suppose you had already guessed that they're not seeing the entire picture at this point in the story. They make friends with one of the Poik, and this changes things. They experience a native ceremony, and that changes things. The further they go, the more they learn. And each time they learn something new, they change their model for what they think is going on. Not only that, but I make sure to have them articulate their current version of the model. Maybe it happens in character internalization, or in a conversation between characters, but there's always a spot where someone has the chance to say, "Because X is what's happening, we should now do Y."

The more complex the real solution is, the more valuable it is for you to break it down into smaller steps. I write pretty complicated puzzles, and I really need to make sure I'm keeping people with me. I need to make sure I'm showing exactly the thought process that leads the characters to the conclusions they draw. That's why this is so valuable for me. That's also why I get so gleeful when I discover a moment where the characters think they have it all put together. Readers will know we're close to the end, and when the characters go, "Aha!" the readers will likely go "Aha!" as well. But there's still something left to learn.

In "Cold Words" I loved it when Parker was trying to explain to Rulii that he felt the downy-furred aliens were being unfairly discriminated against and that he wanted to help them by taking their case directly to the Majesty... whereupon Rulii told him if he did that, they wouldn't have a relationship any more and Rulii would make sure that humans were branded as barbarians. Yeah, you might think you've figured it out, but now I'm going to show you why you really haven't...

This is one critical piece that can make a "twist" at the end really satisfying rather than annoying. The other piece is that you can (and likely should) be subtly telegraphing the larger picture to readers from early on, in pieces whose significance goes unnoticed by the main characters, and which readers are likely to interpret as interesting ancillary detail.

So here are the thoughts to take away as you look at your own stories:
1. Let your characters gather evidence and use it to create models that motivate their behavior.
2. Let your characters change those models in steps as they go through, so as to lead readers along their path of reasoning.
3. Let small pieces of evidence for the biggest picture be available throughout, though their relevance and significance should not be clear, so as to give your climax a better foundation.

It's something to think about.


  1. This sounds like the (rather successful) approach taken by tv shows like House (medical mystery) and Castle (more generic crime-mystery).

    I've also asserted that any story that has a non-traditional setting (fantasy, sci-fi) is effectively a mystery, with the setting as the puzzle to solve.

  2. lxndr, I know I'm not the first to come up with this! I'm just trying to explain my thoughts in an accessible way. Interesting opint about non-traditional settings. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I agree. In any mystery (of whatever flavor), there's got to be at least one 'meeting scene' where they mostly get everything wrong...but by making that hypothesis they direct themselves up the path to right.

    Of course, the meeting scene could just be them yelling back and forth as they flee the grue. That's a time-honored scientific technique, which often, but not always, leads to discovering the efficacy of a torch.

  4. David, when the story is complex enough, one such scene won't be enough, and that's why I emphasize going through intermediate models and steps. I think you've described a meeting scene with lots of action... hard to know what it would lead to!