Real characters get confused sometimes
Too much fiction involves perfect communication. But miscommunication happens all the time, and including confusion in your characters’ dialogue and actions can make them more relatable and believable.
I find there are three main ways one can get confused. You can misread or mishear something, you can encounter a situation in which you might need more information to proceed, or you find yourself with way too many choices.
Sorry, I missed that
Sometimes when I get confused, I only realize it in retrospect. Often, at the time, I think I’m making a perfectly logical statement or observation. Shortly thereafter, I realize that I had read something wrong, missed some detail, or otherwise failed to understand what I was dealing with. I frequently ask a question that someone had already answered for me, but I had skimmed past that detail without noting it. Characters mishearing or misreading something can be an opportunity for humor, an opening to becoming vulnerable, a habitual blindspot, or a way to increase or initiate conflict.
You want me to do WHAT?
Other times I find that two pieces of information don’t match, and then I get confused about which is more correct or more applicable. That usually requires research to clear up. It’s like if somebody gave me two envelopes to deliver to two people, and the same name was on each; I’d have to ask if they had the same name and perhaps if it mattered which one got which. Characters dealing with insufficient information can reveal more about their problem-solving skills or be the target of a subtle ploy to make them look foolish.
Too many choices
The most-well-known case of confusion is when you have too many options, and you don’t know which to choose or pursue. Most choices are like that, so we encounter this type of confusion often: Most choices have both positive and negative consequences, and we evaluate them on the basis of the seriousness or number of disadvantages and the importance to us or the number of benefits. I’m most often facing this when I have large blocks of free time. When I have less free time, the most important thing to do is usually obvious. Some characters may be so laid back, they don’t sweat unstructured time and just pursue whatever strikes their fancy at a particular moment. Some characters always second guess themselves, sometimes to the point of inaction.
Go for epic confusion
Don’t go for the easy choice in inserting confusion. For example, a misheard statement and an immediate correction accomplishes almost nothing:
“I can’t see you right now.”
“Oh my god! Are you going blind?”
“No, I mean, I can’t spend time with you right now. Don’t be so dramatic!”
Let the confusion last longer. Imagine a character acting on incorrect information for several chapters. Put two characters together who are both confused, and use the clarification process to subtly introduce more world building. Confusion is also a great device for helping your reader to feel superior without judging your confused characters too harshly.
This essay is part of a short series of blog entries I’m writing on portraying emotions in fiction. You might also want to read Writing Fear, Writing Love, and Writing Anger, and check back next week for “Writing Sadness.”