This advice is intended mostly for stories or novels where there’s just a single viewpoint character. If you have multiple ones, I maintain that the simplest and easiest way to show that one of them is wrong is having another comment on the same event or object or situation with a different perspective.
Why is it so important to show that a viewpoint character’s perspective is not the same thing as objective reality? Because, otherwise, you have a character who is never wrong—someone whose view of the universe really is the way the universe works. This is death to reality, to a world that exists for itself instead of revolving around the protagonist, and to an entertaining character. People who never make perceptual mistakes come in two types: vindicated heroes, the more common, and selfless martyrs, whom the vindicated heroes may be in certain set-pieces. They are extremely unentertaining, are often the pets of their authors, and are almost always canon Mary Sues.
So, to get away from that, the following might help.
1) The obvious first: Limit the damn magic.
This includes telepathy, empathy, telempathy, and the soulmate bond—excuse me for a moment.
*Limyaael quietly shoots the soulmate bond and drags it off somewhere where no one can find the corpse*
As I was saying, it includes all the magic that authors use to let one character know another’s minds and emotions. These powers are clearer, more accurate, stronger, and faster than speech, and, far more irritating, they are almost always right. An author might claim that a telepath suffers because the minds all around him mutter and chatter ceaselessly, but she nearly never claims that the telepath hears false mutters, or self-deceptive ones, or ones that he can’t quite make out, which are all natural disadvantages of speech.
If you’re only making a character an empath because you can’t think of any other way for him to learn the truth about someone else’s emotions, you’re taking a lazy shortcut. If you’re doing it because you can’t bear for him to be wrong about whether someone’s good or evil, stop right there. People make mistakes (see point 2). No perfect Author’s Darlings, please. Let them make mistakes.
There are all sorts of ways that you can limit mind-reading and emotion-reading magic. It could fade with distance. It could be cut off entirely by a certain material, such as steel or lead. It could read only the most emphatic thoughts from someone’s mind at any given moment, which would include things that are immensely important to a character at the time, but aren’t necessarily, well, characteristic of his or her concerns, and would lead to wrong impressions. It could read everything, which would include rationalizations and excuses and all the other little white lies we tell to get through the day, and could confuse the telepath into believing that what she heard was truth. No magic in fantasy should be an absolute guarantee of truth just to smooth a plot point—and if it seems to be, I hope that people become complacent in its use and then the author reveals it’s fallible.
2) Reveal the mistakes. (Like duh).
As I noted in my little preface to this rant, perceptual mistakes are less common to fantasy protagonists than they should be. Factual mistakes, the kind that someone makes out of ignorance, are far more common. Sure, your heroine might not know the history of the world, due to growing up in a backwater. But the people who blame her for being ignorant are usually presented as wrong-headed, and the author encourages the reader’s sympathy to lie with the heroine. And as soon as she learns the truth about the history of the world, you can be sure that she’ll make all the right decisions with it, instinctively sorting out bad guys from good guys and going to work on the side of the good guys.
I am sick to death of emotional geniuses and intuitive characters, as well as the ones who aren’t elaborated in either of these ways but “somehow, just know” things. I’m sorry, but if she’s grown up in a backwater where pretty much everyone behaves the same way, I don’t trust her to have seen the full range of human behavior. She’ll still walk into situations blindfolded; she’ll still stick her foot in her mouth; she’ll still judge new situations by her old morals and beliefs, and be wrong in doing so. And she’ll still make perceptual mistakes. Now all you need to do is treat these as mistakes, rather than equate the whole world with the heroine’s limited perception of it.
Show scenes of her misjudging someone else’s motives, and that person snapping back at her. Show her doing something that readers of the book would instinctively groan at, and getting groans, or the equivalent of them, from her companions. Show her making Freudian slips and malapropisms, or, if the language issue prevents either of those, talking about things that really aren’t appropriate or applicable to the situation. Show her jumping to conclusions and taking wrong actions because of them. Show her still making mistakes of ignorance because, while she may know certain facts, she doesn’t know the whole context they’re rooted in.
Don’t treat her as a paragon of perfection, and don’t gloss over the scenes where she gets her perceptions adjusted with throwaway lines like, “She had apologized to him, and he had understood,” and your story will be much better for it.
3) Let the protagonist self-contradict to salve his conscience.
This is especially easy to do with a first-person protagonist, who can start out the story with one set of beliefs and then reflect on the difference between his new ones and his old ones more directly than a third-person narrator can. And yet, first-person protagonists seem to be the ones who are most often instinctively right, making pronouncements from on high like oracles, which just happen to turn out to be true. Gee, I wonder why that is? (*coughcoughlazinesscoughcough* *coughcoughoverattachmenttoprotagonistcoughcough*).
Real people lie to themselves about the reasons behind what they do all the time. “Well, I skipped the boring meeting because I needed to be at home to water the flowers, not because I didn’t want to go.” “Well, I punched him because he bullied me, not because I’m oversensitive on the topic of my parents.” “Well, I didn’t write today because I had to wash the dishes, not because I’m dreading the rewrite.” Almost all of these lies have the same purpose: to let us do what we want and live with ourselves, usually by believing that we served some higher purpose with our actions or that the more difficult course of action would have harmed us more.
I would like to see more of these justifications and uncomfortable realizations in fantasy, which has a problem with overheroic protagonists. Those protagonists’ wrestlings with conscience tend to be either overly abstract (they start pondering deep issues of ethics when the situation seems straightforward), or about situations that the writer has carefully weighted so that the reader can’t blame the protagonist for making the decision he does (of course he can’t continue to help his sister when she’s been revealed as a baby-eater and a puppy-kicker). Both tend to the extreme. A bit more ordinariness, a bit more mundanity, would help.
And then, when the protagonist trips over one of his own justifications and has to wrench his perceptions in a different direction, the reader is likely to adjust her own perceptions as well. The writer doesn’t have to recall each and every incident where the protagonist made a self-justifying decision in one of those crappy ten-page internal monologues. A few examples, or even just the one that tripped the protagonist up, will suffice. The reader can blink, realize how the character hangs together, and come up with new theories and new ways to respond.
4) Careful sentence-level wording can also help.
Here I raise the “It’s wonderful when it’s unacknowledged” banner again. Among the most common forced epiphanies of fantasy are ones where a character—usually a minor one, of course, not the great and wonderful protagonist, unless it’s one of the leads contemplating his or her Designated Love Interest—sits and masticates over how he’s changed his mind about his companion. He recalls thinking of her as an irritating young girl, then an unexpectedly competent one with a lot of flaws, then as not so bad, then as nice, then as wonderful. He recalls his altering perceptions of her eyes, her smile (I particularly hate the paragraphs that the smile sometimes gets), and all those times she confessed her sobworthy history to him. He’s frog-marched through all the changes he’s made, and so are the readers, who have, pardon the expression for what is sometimes wonderful writing before the mastication, waded through this shit once before. Then, of course, he goes and holds the heroine in his arms and tells her how much he loves her.
But you can show that a character’s judgment is not so flawless without internal monologue or forced mastication. Change the way he refers to the heroine, the verbs he uses to describe her actions, how much shit he’s willing to put up with from her before he snaps back, what excuses he makes for her, and how he feels about her, by all means. And if you do it so that the change is an unconscious process, visible to a reader but not to the character who’s living through it, you’ve got a character who very obviously not 100% right, understandable and amusing—often when he’s most smugly convinced that he’s felt this way all along—and, best of all, not self-contradictory. If he hasn’t thought at all about his feelings for the heroine so far, hasn’t displayed a tendency to muse on feelings in general, and doesn’t have a perfect memory, what prompts him to go into this forced epiphany full of careful emotional analysis, comparisons to other relationships, and flawlessly recalled moments of time he shared with the heroine?
The answer is most often, “Author’s whim.” And I think you know by now that that’s not a good answer in Limyaael-space.
5) Let the character be wrong about fullness and complexity, not common stereotypes.
I roll my eyes the moment that the author starts telling the story from the perspective of a man prejudiced against women, and then a spunky woman who wants to do things the boys do enters the picture. Of course she will turn out to be competent and prove his estimation of her wrong. Of course there is never the slightest chance that he makes the right judgment about her.
Understand: It’s not that I wish more authors would write misogynist men who turn out to be right. It’s my frustration with the vehicle those authors choose to prove those men wrong. They don’t choose a plain woman, or a quiet one, or one who hasn’t shown much competence so far and then dazzles everyone by being in the right place at the right time, or one who shoots to the top and then has to contend with continuing male resentment and sabotage even after she’s “proven” herself. They choose the beautiful, outspoken, daring woman who’s being ignored and foiled by everyone around her just because of her sex, and to whom males submit in cowering awe or utter love the first time she displays competence. In the worst cases, this woman is so atypical that the authors undermine the very point that they’re trying to prove. Excuse me for finding it hard to believe that a noblewoman’s gaining more freedom to practice magic is going to help peasant women who want to practice magic. Her class has a fuck of a lot more to do with things than most authors acknowledge.
Similarly, having a character be wrong about someone quiet and artistic and dreamy, or the person who dresses all in black and writes suicidal poetry, or the person with an endlessly abusive family, is a cheat if that is all they are. It’s easy. They’re underdogs already. We know how we’re supposed to feel about them. They have no flaws, most of the time. The quiet, artistic, dreamy person will be the one who is the “real heart” of a village, no matter how little practical work she does. The person who dresses all in black and writes suicidal poetry turns out to be a witch who can help the urban fantasy protagonist solve his problem. The person with an endlessly abusive family is never affected by the abuse except for the “usual” physical and emotional wounds that the reader is supposed to hate his family for; he is certainly, for example, not the kind of person who would grow up to abuse his own children.
This is as good as announcing that the protagonist is going to be wrong before you say he is, and we know all the reasons why he is, too, without your having to spell them out. (The weepy, angsty scene in which the author takes great delight in spelling them all out anyway often makes me sick to my stomach, assuming I get that far). It’s another shortcut, another laziness. It’s the equivalent of having one character be a racist and the other a non-racist; you don’t even have to make the arguments to prove the racist wrong, because your audience knows them already. It’s a twist on message fantasy, in fact, and that automatically makes it something I want to destroy.
Make your protagonist wrong about a situation or a person or an event that has some goddamn complexity to it, where there are arguments to all sides that have some plausibility to them, where there are flawed people and not simply perfect victims, where the protagonist moves slowly and reluctantly from one position to the other, and the fact that he’s the viewpoint character doesn’t make him 100% wrong any more than it makes him 100% correct.
And did some people say “beings of extreme power” was next? Why, yes, in fact, I think they did.