I was writing along on my latest story (The Liars) some time ago when I 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.
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.
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"The Liars," 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.
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.
"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...
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
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.
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.