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Q&A

How to make the reader think that the *character's* logic is flawed instead of the author's?

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Following up on my previous question, "How to make the villain's motives understandable if his logic is flawed?", how can I let the reader know that the lack of logic is on the character's side, instead of the reader thinking that I couldn't give a better motivation to him?

Usually, to achieve that, I would simply make any character say something like: "That makes no sense!" However, the problem is that this villain doesn't even tell his motives. He keeps it all inside. It is shown (not told) to the reader, but not to the characters. Although the narrator knows what happens to any character, the narrator can't know what they think.

How can I manage this?

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9 answers

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One way is to have the character's plans that were based on that logic to fall apart later. Also, if you show other examples of the character having flawed logic, then the reader is more likely to put it into that pattern. Another tactic is to have the flaw be over the top. While you can't guarantee that some readers will fall prey to Poe's law, the more flawed the character's logic is, the more likely it will be perceived as intended to be flawed.

What exactly are your motives? Do yo think the story works better if the reader knows the author knows the logic is flawed? Or is it just an ego thing, wanting the reader to know that you don't think the logic is valid?

It sounds like you want the reader to attribute an in-universe explanation (the character's logic is flawed) rather that out-of-universe (the author couldn't come up with a better motivation). So make a valid in-universe explanation. Show what character-specific reason there are for believing in this logic. If the character believes the logic and you don't, why is that? What differences are there between you and the character? Is the character stressed? Limited worldview? Had previous experiences they're improperly generalizing? Less intelligent?

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/35984. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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In my experience with writing, I've come to see huge dramatic potential in the distance between a character's actions and a character's dialogue. Put some distance between what he says he will do and what he does, have him do something against his proclaimed goals that demonstrates the conflict in his nature. Simplistic example: villain who claims to be pure evil but can't quite outright kill the hero. Sure, he can leave them in a burning building... but shoot them between the eyes when they're unarmed after giving a whole speech about being the worst bad guy in the whole universe...?

If you don't have access to their thoughts, their actions are the next best thing, specifically in contrast to what they say.

P.s. I also think @cloudchaser's solution is brilliant. However, I have a personal issue with humanised villains that has been getting worse the more jaded I get; I sometimes want the bad guys to get away with it. Ocean's Eleven syndrome. Accepted wisdom is that the criminals can never win, but I've had some experiences with "wrong" logic being so relatable that I've ended up feeling just as cheated when the bad guy ended up in jail as if the author had ended with "ta da, and it was all a dream."

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Usually the narrator knows about the thoughts. And the narrator will know that the thoughts are illogical, and thus can distance himself/herself from the thoughts. Of course that only works if the narrator isn't the villain in first-person.

For example, you might write something like:

Dick thought about his problem. How on earth could he lock a door that did not even have a lock? Sure, he could block it from the inside, but that would mean he would have to be inside, and that was not possible. He could order someone else to stay inside, but his people were unreliable, so that was not really an option either. So what to do?

Finally he had what he considered the perfect idea: Just put a sign on the door: “This door is locked. Any attempt to get inside is futile.” Dick was sure: Yes, that would definitely work. He was absolutely convinced that nobody would ever even try to open that door. After all, it was written there plainly that trying was futile, so why should they waste their time? They couldn't know that it was a lie.

Dick was happy about that solution he thought he had found, and immediately went to ordering such a sign.

Note how the narrator always explicitly attributes the logic to Dick. The formulations should make it clear that the narrator doesn't think it is a reasonable strategy, and since the narrator knows that it is stupid, it is clear that the author knows it, too.

However, what to do if the narrator only knows the actions, but not the thoughts of the characters, as the edited question now states?

For that case, notice that even if the narrator does not know the thoughts, he/she can speculate about them, or draw conclusions from previous behaviour. Alternatively, the thoughts might be uttered by the character, and then the narrator can directly comment on them.

For example, with this restriction the door sign “solution” might be introduced like this:

Dick was wandering around, constantly murmuring: “How on earth can I lock that door?” It apparently was a hard problem for him, given the time he spent on it. And granted, locking a door that had no lock is not an obvious problem to solve.

Then suddenly his face brightened. He called out for his personal assistant: ”Order a sign, saying ‘This door is locked. Any attempt to get inside is futile.’ And make sure that sign is put on the door to the chamber.”

The servant momentarily looked confused. But that passed quickly; after all, it wasn't the first time he had been given orders of questionable utility. And he was smart enough not to contradict. Just to be sure he didn't misunderstand, he asked: “You mean the special chamber behind the storage room?“

“Sure,“ Dick replied angry, “what else should I mean?”

“It's as good as done,” the assistant said, as he hastened away. Probably not so much due to solicitude, as due to self-protection. When Dick was angry, it was not a good idea to be close.

Note again that the narrator makes it clear that the idea is flawed, implying that the author knows it, too.

While in the examples above the logic is bad enough that nobody would likely have considered the author to believe it anyway, the same techniques can also be applied to ideas where it is not that clear.

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The OP (now) specifies the narrator cannot know the thoughts of any character, including the villain (see question comments).

Human logic, both formal and informal, is grounded in self-evident truths, meaning things we believe to be true and require no evidence for that but common sense. e.g. Euclidean geometry claims the shortest distance between two points in space is a straight line; no non-straight line can be shorter than the straight line. There is no proof for that, it is self-evident.

The same goes for "parallel lines never meet." There is no formal proof. However, we can discard this and come up with new geometrical systems; and in mathematics we call these "non-Euclidean" geometries. For example, Einstein's space-time unification uses a non-Euclidean geometry.

But those are examples from mathematics; we work with many similar self-evident truths in our daily lives. A person cannot be in two places at one time. The past is fixed and cannot be changed. If a person is dead, they are not walking around.

So you must begin with the presumption that all people are always thinking logically from their self-evident truths. If I think my brother is not thinking logically, that is because he holds different truths than me as self-evident. What he thinks, about God, about politics, about women, about war, are logical conclusions given what he believes is obviously true and needs no proof.

For your villain to act illogically in the eyes of the reader, you need an internally consistent villain. They are not just "crazy" they just do not believe something nearly all readers will believe, or vice versa: They believe something is self-evident that nearly all readers will refute as self-evidently false. For example, the villain believes in some kind of magic or protective talisman or curse. Or the villain believes drinking the blood of a virgin every day will extend his life indefinitely. Or the villain believes they are the second coming of Christ, and protected from harm by God.

You want your illogicality to be consistent, even if it doesn't work. Then your villain can still be reasonably intelligent, but they are using the good part of their logic and intelligence to pursue an insane goal, due to something they truly believe is a self-evident fact, but virtually nobody else believes is a fact.

To complete this answer, since the narrator cannot know what the villain is thinking, you should try to limit the difference from normal logic to ONE specific thing they believe that nobody else believes. That way, both the reader and other characters might discern this discrepancy, the villain is being insane in one particular way, time after time. Then the actions of the cops, detectives, etc (or the reader) may figure this out. Even if the reader does not figure it out, by the time the villain is defeated, make sure somebody has figured it out and used that insight to trap and defeat the villain, and says so explicitly. Mystery solved, and retrospectively, the reader will realize it all makes sense; the villain believes X and that explains everything.

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So this would be where we would want to use dramatic Irony. Set up a scene where the hero is presented with a similar yet distinct logic question and takes the opposite answer. One of the best examples of this I've recently seen occurred in the recent Avengers: Infinity War Movie. As this is still in theaters, I'm going to be very vague as there are spoilers but suffice to say, that in order for the villain to complete his plans, he must make a sacrifice and it must be a living person. Naturally he accepts this because Villain.

But earlier in the movie, the heroes are presented with a solution to stopping the villain. All they have to do is make a similar sacrifice of a living person and the villain can't complete his plan. They refuse, pointing out that "We do not trade lives" which will stand in contrast to a similar statement that is uttered with respect to the villain's similar actions. The fact that neither party knows the other's thoughts or logic does not matter as they are given a goal that can be near impossible to win without making a sacrifice of a person they are close with. The similarity of the two phrases cement the two answers to the ethical conundrum presented.

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My answer to this is quite simple: Show proof that they're wrong in-story. Doesn't have to be blatant, doesn't have to be screamed, but if you have a reader who is detail-oriented enough to pick up the flaws in a character's logic, they'll be detail-oriented enough to pick up on the tiny consequences that foreshadow the big one.

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Have someone else reject the logic

Even if they don't have access to the character's train of thought, they may decide to try to figure out what's going on, based on their actions; simply have them concoct the very same reasoning that the character uses and then have them reject that reasoning for being absurd.

That way, nobody knows what the character is thinking but the author can still reveal to the reader that it's not their reasoning that's the problem -- merely the character's.

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Show the character's motives involves a fact the character believes to be true, but which the reader has earlier seen is false.

Example from David Weber's Honor Harrington SF series: the Grand Alliance believes the resumption of the war between Manticore and Haven (which they eventually settled) was the result of the Mesan Alignment manipulating the situation and then later killing the man responsible for altering diplomatic messages in a traffic accident. From their point of view, the logic is completely plausible; the Alignment has been manipulating things behind the scenes for centuries, a resumption of the war was in their interest, and killing patsies is a standard operating procedure for them.

The Alignment leadership, however, is surprised to hear this accusation because they had nothing to do with it, as the readers (at least those who read about the incident in question in an earlier book), already knew. The man responsible did it for his own selfish goals, but it spun out of his control and he was killed in a legitimate traffic accident before he could be arrested and the truth found out.

In this case, what the protagonists believe about the incident flows from what they perceive to be the truth, which the reader knows is incorrect because they've seen how the belief the characters are acting on is wrong.

Another example, from television, and perhaps closer to what you're looking for. On Agents of SHIELD, the Superior, Anton Ivanov, starts his vendetta against Coulson because he's connected Coulson to all sorts of incidents involving aliens and other potential threats to humanity, and has come to the conclusion that Coulson is therefore somehow involved or responsible for these incidents. His facts are right; Coulson is connected to those incidents, but Ivanov has mixed up cause and effect. Coulson was responding to the incidents, not instigating. From the audience point of view, Ivanov is nutty because they know the truth.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/35989. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Celtschk's solution works well for an omniscient narrative, where the narrator can directly comment on the character's actions or imply their judgment through their narration. You can not only write third but also first person omniscient, for example when the narrator looks back on his life and knows in hindsight that they had made a mistake.

In a limited narrative this isn't as easily possible.

If you write from a limited personal perspective, where the viewpoint character lives in the present moment and the reader strongly identifies with him, then what you would commonly do is

  • Convince the reader that the character's logic is correct.

    After all, you don't want the character to appear stupid, and – more importantly – you want the reader to identify with this character and to live with him through his plight.

  • Later in the story, when the protagonist's plan has failed, the reader will realize along with the protagonist, that they (both) were wrong.

This is a much more satisfying outcome than observing the idiocy of a character that you know is wrong. Knowing the character's logic is wrong will make you impatient, irritated, and eventually give up on the story. But if you (the reader) were convinced of the plan only to realize that you were wrong – that is a suspenseful and interesting read.

You can do this in first- and third-person limited narration. You should avoid it in omniscient narration, because the reader will feel that the author artificially withholds information. But even that is often done.

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