struggling with characters' false beliefs

Dragonlady

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I've worked out that something I struggle with in my writing is to do with a wider issue, so it's not just this particular plot i'm struggling with, and it might be worth putting some work in to build some writing muscles in this area. I find it hard to give characters false beliefs, and false beliefs are what many stories hinge upon. For example, in a romance novel, the heroine may misunderstand the hero's intentions. The detective has a false belief about who the murder is. And the example I have just read, Harry Potter jumps to false conclusions on reading a letter from Sirius. In the story I'm writing the protagonist's dad has false beliefs about his son.

Not entirely relevant, but I have ADHD, and this often comes with struggling with rejection, and I have realised this is likely why I struggle with this. Seeing characters being set up for embarrassment in certain types of comedy I find unbearable to watch. Deliberately writing a character who is getting it wrong goes against the grain.

So, I'm wondering if writing some exercises/short stories specifically around this issue would help. Has anyone else done something like this around a specific issue? Any suggestions for topics or how to come up with scenarios to write about or other tips on building my writing muscles in this area?
 

The Judge

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The "beliefs" in the title made me think the thread was about religious ideas or socio-political-economic ideologies, as I can certainly see how it might be difficult to give one's characters an opinion of that kind which you don't share. Since we don't discuss religion or social politics and the like, though, it's just as well you're not asking about them!

Seeing characters being set up for embarrassment in certain types of comedy I find unbearable to watch.
Ha! You're not alone in that! I've physically walked out of the room before now rather than sit and watch something of that kind, and only come back when my husband confirmed the situation was over. However, I don't have any problem in writing characters who are mistaken about people and situations, and I positively revel in writing about falsehoods of all kinds, making my characters dissemble and lie without actually speaking untruths, so I don't think the two matters are linked.

I'm not sure what to suggest, though, other than fully immersing yourself in your characters as you write them. After all, the ideas and understandings they have aren't false to them at the time, since they are sure they're right. So you, when writing them, must forget what the reality is and wholly live inside the characters' minds and become them.
 

Biskit

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TL;DR:

I think my recommendation would be writing short stories, a few thousand words, with the specific aim of putting a false belief/misunderstanding at the heart of it.


What follows is me thinking with my fingers on the keyboard...

It's not something I'd consciously considered before, but certainly all of my novels have one or more major misunderstanding in them.

"Hell of a Deal" has one big misunderstanding after another, largely down to the narrator failing to spot the bad guy, or making what appears to be the right choice only to find it was the wrong one. He thinks he is a "master of the dark arts" and spends significant chunks of the book showing that he really barely has a clue. If he really did know what he was doing it would have been a rather boring short story.

"Road to Hell"... yep, one big misunderstanding after another. He starts with assuming that the bad stuff is due to his "nemesis" (and former best friend) from the first book and takes a long while to work out that the guy is really a sub-contractor.

"Hell of a Bite"... as above, really. The narrator makes big, bad assumptions, the every-growing demon population in the Barrowhurst Helltide region seriously underestimate one of their own, and my two teenage troublemakers (obligatory in a vampireish book) are at cross-purposes from the start.

Once I start picking it apart, the plot and the character interactions are heavily driven by the misunderstandings, and a lot of the humour comes out of those as well, aside from the snarky observations from my narrator.

My current beast-in-progress probably contains the most in the way of deliberate misunderstandings, and many of those I have put in consciously, particularly in the thread where multiple forces are manoeuvring for supremacy whilst trying to avoid a messy situation degenerating into a war. The mc in those threads presents information to various parties as the story progresses, and the receiver jumps to the wrong conclusion based on their own prejudices. That includes the mc who ultimately makes a mess of her grand scheme because she was inherently unable to see how devious one of her opponents was. Without all of the false beliefs, it would all be over in a couple of chapters and everyone would go home for tea, aside from the toppled despot of course.

What I found interesting as I rambled through the above, is that although I've not done the misunderstandings consciously before, I still didn't really notice how much I'd done it even as I edit a novel where I did it deliberately. My writing and the way I do it frequently offers evidence that my head doesn't work the same way as most people's. :giggle:


Edited to add...
I'm not sure what to suggest, though, other than fully immersing yourself in your characters as you write them. After all, the ideas and understandings they have aren't false to them at the time, since they are sure they're right. So you, when writing them, must forget what the reality is and wholly live inside the characters' minds and become them.

This came in whilst I was writing. I do a lot of first person narrative which is perfect for doing as @The Judge suggests, immersing myself in the character.
 

Dragonlady

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@Biskit yes, it's only having realised it's something I don't do as much as I should I realise how much of fiction relies on it. The realisation came from struggling with the middle bit of a plot, and trying to work out why I didn't have enough conflict. Having things not go to plan doesn't always come naturally to me.
 

Luiglin

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Take hints from real life. I have a bad habit of people watching, not for being nosey or listening in on their conversations, more for how we all get on or don't at a subconscious level. I don't do it deliberately but find myself people watching when I'm daydreaming (sitting with a coffee is perfect). You'll be surprised how you can pick up on things and expand them.

Jumping to conclusions is a classic and I dare anyone to say that they've not done it. Often, things like this can be easily resolved, sometimes not, especially if the person who is at cannot swallow the fact that they got it wrong.

I do like embarrassing characters. Much of my humorous writing comes out of the absurd. The trick, just like in real life, is knowing the fine line between fun and bullying. Having pompous characters brought down to earth as a result of their own inflated nature is often worthwhile.

There's a classic skit from Only Fools and Horses (British sitcom if you're not from the UK) where Del Boy, acting the 'big I am' while trying to chat up girls tries to act cool by leaning on a bar hatch that has been opened. The slapstick, the timing and the embarrassment of bringing back down to Earth is brilliant writing and so simply done. So, don't give up on humour, even the most serious of tales have dashes.

Here's a trick that I've done before now that could help. Next time you're out in a social place try and let your mind wander. You'll be surprised how your subconscious will 'spot' something interesting. When you get back, write about it, don't stick to the reality, add you own spin on it. Don't edit, don't pause, just write.

Hope that helps.
 

luriantimetraveler

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I wonder if it would help to "level-up" the misbeliefs you're giving the characters. The heroine misinterprets the hero's actions because she believes that...(all men choose work over love, or relationships should be all passion and no practicality, or whatever) — a misbelief that's actually going to show up in all kinds of ways in her life, and can't be resolved until she is convinced by a counter argument/lets go of the source of her misbelief. Another example (with the detective): the detective might hone in on specific suspects or clues and ignore others because they believe...(X type of person commits this sort of crime, it looks like a crime they solved/didn't solve before, X type of person never commits crimes, X type of evidence isn't valuable).

Building on @The Judge 's short story writing suggestion — you could even write multiple versions of a conflict/short story, each time giving the POV character a different misbelief. For example, a surgeon who believes that medicine gives us power over death is going to approach conflict with a patient/patient's family very differently than a surgeon who believes in reducing suffering wherever possible.
 

Biskit

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@Biskit yes, it's only having realised it's something I don't do as much as I should I realise how much of fiction relies on it. The realisation came from struggling with the middle bit of a plot, and trying to work out why I didn't have enough conflict. Having things not go to plan doesn't always come naturally to me.
Funnily enough, I did a guest-blog on plotting with plans that go awry.
 

Ursa major

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Seeing characters being set up for embarrassment in certain types of comedy I find unbearable to watch.
For me -- and not all the situations you mention are unbearable to me (which, thankfully, allows me to watch many comedies where this is a key feature) -- this comes a (distant) second to people snooping around places where they are (or may be) in imminent "danger" of being discovered... and it doesn't matter if the potential discoverer may do no more than temporarily develop a poor opinion of the intruder.

Oddly enough, I find that both situations are only an issue with performed fiction (i.e. TV and, to a lesser extent, radio) rather than fiction I read... or, indeed, write**. I guess this is because:
  1. as a reader, I'm in control of both the pace (I can stop whenever I want to) and whether or not I skim read the passages that are evoking the sensation I dislike;
  2. as the writer, I'm in total control of what happens and to whom, so the tension (which is what gets to me with the live stuff) isn't really there.
So -- and this is, I admit, a long shot (and one that goes against what TJ has suggested, always a perilous proposition) -- perhaps, when creating the types of scene you don't like watching, you should bring to the fore in your mind your role as the creator rather than inhabiting your characters (as opposed to understanding why they are behaving the way they are) when they are doing the things you mention (or are on the receiving end of them).


** - I'm all for including layer after layer of deception, large and small, well intended or otherwise.
 

Dragonlady

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@Ursa major Books are definitely much better. I find i'm reading goblet of fire as a writer at the moment which I didn't intend, and makes me less bothered by stuff like that. You may have hit the nail on the head with the inhabiting, though I'm not quite sure what to do with that thought yet.
 

DLCroix

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According and how. Maybe you forgot that you are in a cafe telling a story to a friend; but in general it tries to tell stories where something happened; not where someone thought.
Either he believed, or supposed, or imagined that ...
Because there is also another problem, sometimes the author also begins to ramble or wonder about the immortality of the crab, and with that there are already two who are thinking, assuming, etc.
Imagine how scary it gets when you also have what they call a "Mexican approach", which, okay, it's very cordial, loving, there is no better literature on the world, but the guy who writes is like a millionaire who doesn't care about anything and neither he seems wrong because obviously he has no problem and as such he thinks that people have never read anything, so he writes wonderfully excruciating scenes where everyone greets each other or is very formal, or the MC goes to visit somewhere and the owner of home introduces him to the whole family. One by one.
We, I think, are a little smarter, and we write something like: "... and after meeting his large family ...", etc, but thus we save the reader having to swallow 3 or 4 pages.
I would say by there the shot goes. More or less.
Looloo looloo loooohhh ... :whistle:

I admit, yes, I cannot resist the temptation to put some scene where my heroines give the slugs men a ride although I also only summarize the situation, I do not go into the details. This need to make the reader fall in love with heroin lately is also showing improvements; for example, now she is the one who comes up with some clever idea, my best invention of the week was a scene where she says to a friend: "girl, even a guy with drool retention problems would know that."
Or I invented the villain detector, the villainmeter. :ninja:
 
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alexvss

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@Dragonlady The character's beliefs have everything to do with his arc (or maybe his "flat arc"). K. M. Weiland says that every character believes in a lie at the beggining of a story. The way they look upon this lie at the end of the story will define the story. Roughly, there are four ways to end a story. Maybe it's a semi-sweet ending, which the character--although never achieving what he wants at the beggining--fullfils his need and stops believing the lie. Or maybe it's a bittersweet ending, which the character gets what he wants, but don't satisfy his needs (he still believes the lie). He also can fullfill both his needs and wants, or fail at both. At every ending, the lie is central.

You can read Weiland's book. Or rather, if you don't feel like reading, you could watch this neat series of videos Studio Binder--a channel about film making--made about the four types of ending.
 

Wayne Mack

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One thing that I have found is that by stopping and writing a short (1 - 2 page) background story (not to be included in the actual novel), it helps me understand what is going on in the character's head and how I should expect the character to react in specific situations. Give the character a logical basis for his or her false belief and then make sure that in the novel, the character acts consistently.
 

tinkerdan

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I might have an advantage here, in that I have worked closely with someone who when I talk to them they will agree consistently with what I say and then at some point it becomes apparent that their conclusion drawn from all those agreements is almost 180 degrees from mine. I've tried back tracking to find out where we went wrong, but I've never found it and usually I make them angry if I pursue it too much. It would be funny if it wasn't so dead serious because we are talking about work and often something to do with quality and performance.

That said, and understanding that you don't mean religious false beliefs. I'm recently re reading Walter Martin's The Kingdom of the Cults. In the introductory chapters he talks about Cults who can read scriptures from any persons bible and somehow come up with different conclusions than they do, while consistently agreeing to the general nature of the the text itself.

Miscommunication and misunderstanding are the hallmark of many a conflict.

Also there are conundrums and you might benefit by understanding them. Hearing something, but unable to see or seeing something but being unable to hear, can lead to some interesting and sometimes disastrous conclusions.

Even from life we find these things.

I remember a time my boss, at a restaurant, found a wallet full of money, dropped by a customer who had already left. Almost around the same time a police officer walked into the restaurant and my boss assumed it was serendipity and approached the officer to give him the wallet. He said, "I'm glad to see you, because..."

"I'm happy to see you to.' The officer interrupted. He pulled out his handcuffs and said. "I've a warrant here and I need to take you in."

My boss often parked in the alley behind the building in a no parking zone and had a pile of unpaid parking tickets.
 

sknox

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>I find it hard to give characters false beliefs
Does this mean you find it hard to have characters be wrong? Your characters always see the world correctly, behave correctly, react correctly?

Another way to look at this is to consider the character's reaction (let's stick with that, for illustration) to be perfectly correct at that time and place. This is done in mystery novels all the time. The detective has only this much evidence and draws a conclusion. It's wrong, but it's the right one given the information at the time.

This could be applied to a romance. The guy thinks the girl is in love with him because that's how she's behaving at the time. Maybe she's lying and manipulating; or, maybe she just falls out of love. Either way, the guy finds himself still believing in the affair and at a loss to explain why she's not returning his calls, or whatever.

Most of us are out of touch in some aspect of our life. We're ahead of the curve or behind it (or at right angles!).

I know you said you were looking for larger themes here, but I do believe this only gets discussed in a meaningful way with specific story examples. Heck, it might even turn out that the thing you're worrying about isn't the thing you're really worrying about. Happens to me all the time. A failure of focus.
 

Amy-rose

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I would consider adding a second level that could also pull in your character's personality and maybe even society's views on things. The "lie" the character believes about the world around her and this fuels her belief of this man.
So maybe it's been her experience that 'all men lie' and this causes her to jump to a belief about another character.
 

Dragonlady

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@Wayne Mack i am not naturally a 'character bio and reams of back story' person, but have just started a jamboard where i can make notes about what is in characters' heads which should help. As you say @Amy-rose the deeper story is what helps and that should help me be consistent. @sknox , yes, in at least some ways, having characters be wrong doesn't come naturally to me, but is sort of crucial to the story. Currently, i'm 35k words into a story with murder mystery elements and needing characters to have false beliefs about suspects (which is partly tied to action, that causes those beliefs) and floundering a bit. I'm going to do some brainstorming, and some non-consecutive writing, and try and find my way again without (much) rewriting. Getting my protagonists' false beliefs about himself firmly stuck in my head will help. Got half way through a conversation where he was standing up for himself and had to back up - no, he wouldn't do that, at least not now.
 

Montero

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I think you can have relationship problems without false beliefs. It annoys the **** out of me when reading a romance and the middle section is all about she saw him with three kids and jumps to the assumption he is married, but was actually taking his sisters kids out for the day and she is snotty to him for weeks and he forgives her for being a total dingbat. Or the opposite way around. I generally don't read that sort of romance any more.
Couple of comments - Lois McMaster Bujold says that she thinks of the worst thing she can do to her character and does it.

For a romance with a lot of relationship troubles, but not exactly false beliefs. Or false beliefs done very well, try T Kingfisher. I'd suggest Paladin's Grace. It is effectively a serial killer fantasy mystery with a romance - and the romance is delightful. Both the people are in their thirties, with bad relationships in their past, and have very little belief in themselves as being attractive to someone else. You could call that a false belief I suppose, but it is all understandable and doesn't rely on jumping to conclusions and being a plonker. I think the essence of it is that you can have sympathy with the characters rather than thinking "what a plonker, why did you do that?" (Followed shortly by the book being dumped unfinished.)

So what I am saying is you need to make it come from the characters and the story, rather than "oh we've had three great dates, all going terribly well, insert problem here".

I'm someone who can't watch contrived embarrasing situations on TV. Or contrived "did you have to go down that corridor?" situations.
 

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