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Guest Post: Sowing Confusion for Fun and Profit by Bradley P. Beaulieu

My thanks to John for allowing me to stop by and talk to the readers of Grasping for the Wind. I really enjoy sharing thoughts on writing, so thanks for allowing me to gab for a little while.

What I’d like to talk about are the perceptions of characters in stories and how, as writers, we can play with them to both create compelling stories and to make the characters seem, well, real. And just why, you may be wondering, did I think of this subject? I stumbled across it while reading Patrick Rothfuss’s latest book, The Wise Man’s Fear. It’s a bit esoteric, I know, but it’s important, and it comes in two flavors: macro and micro.

And by the way, this is spoilery. I talk about some events in The Wise Man’s Fear. They’re early in the book, but please stop now if you don’t want anything ruined for you.

Let’s touch on macro perceptions first. As the book opens, Kvothe is once again ready to attend university. He needs tuition, however. His relationship with money has proven to be, well, about as well as a teenager’s relationships ever go, and he’s forced once again to resort to Devi the moneylender to raise tuition for the year. Devi was a former student at the university, and we learn from The Name of the Wind and A Wise Man’s Fear that she’s rather gifted in sympathetic magic. In order to force those to whom she lends money into keeping their promises, Devi requires a bit of blood, so that if the lendee becomes naughty, Devi has ways to make things … unpleasant. So she takes a bit of Kvothe’s and seals it in a bottle, and later in the book, someone is clearly using Kvothe’s blood to cause him some discomfort. Ok, it’s worse than that. Someone’s trying to kill Kvothe, using his own blood to do it.

At first Kvothe reasons away the possibility that it’s Devi. But later, through progressively more rigid logic, he becomes convinced that it’s her. It must be. So he goes to her with the intention of verifying this deduction. He demands that he be allowed to see the seal on the bottle, a request the Devi refuses. Kvothe, who had until this point still harbored doubt, is now fully convinced that it’s Devi. And frankly, so was I. I knew it was Devi, and I was ready for Kvothe to open up a can of whoop-ass on her. Devi resists, and in fact we find out just how gifted in sympathy she is. It’s no small feat to defeat Kvothe, but she does, and we see afterward that she’s incensed that Kvothe would mistrust her. She’s a woman of her word, and she would never give someone’s blood up unless they reneged on their debt. In other words, Kvothe was dead wrong.

This entire passage was brilliant writing and captivating reading, not simply because there was some great action going on, but because we got to see two characters struggle mightily with their emotions. Kvothe went from feeling suspicious to betrayed to contrite, all in a handful of pages. Devi went from confident to confused to enraged. It was beautiful to behold. Part of the story here was that by the time this scene unfolds, we already understand the relationship the two of them have. It’s one that has been built on tentative but carefully constructed trust. It’s respectful but playful at the same time, even a bit naughty. To see the two of them go through such emotional extremes—well, it was one of the high points of the book.

And how did Rothfuss accomplish it? Through misdirection. Through misunderstandings. Through leaps of logic.

And this is what I’m trying to get across. Our characters are human, but in writing it’s all too easy to forget this. Sometimes we become so linear in our thinking that we forget to make them act human. This is one way that you can do it. Have your characters misunderstand each other. Have them work at cross purposes. Have them talk in ways that make it clear their thoughts are moving along different lines. It can create a sense of tension that’s larger and more varied than you’ll get by just having them argue like two fencers endlessly lunging back and forth.

Ok, now let’s talk about micro perceptions. In many ways it’s the same thing as I talked about above, just on a different scale. Having the characters misunderstand, or simply hide things from one another, can create a sense of tension at the sentence level that makes the scenes read in a much more interesting way. Here’s one example where Kvothe is revealed as having used a trick to make a bit of money at the Eolian.

Manet smiled. “I can’t remember the last time I ordered a sounten,” he mused. “I don’t think I’ve ever ordered one for myself before.”

“You’re the only other person I’ve ever known to drink it,” Sim said. “Kvothe here throws them back like nobody’s business. Three or four a night.”

Manet raised a bushy eyebrow at me. “They don’t know?” he asked.

I shook my head as I drank out of my own mug, not sure if I should be amused or embarrassed.

A sounten, as it turns out, is simply water. Kvothe plays at the Eolian and while he doesn’t get tips directly, people often buy him drinks. Instead of simply taking the drinks and getting drunk, he orders a sounten, pretends it’s a real drink—so as not to offend his benefactors—and then splits the money later with the bartender. It’s a mini-mystery within the story that deepens the world and deepens the characters, particularly Kvothe.

Here’s another example where Kvothe has just gotten his appointment for his tuition interview. He’s speaking with Fela, another student, who’s also received her appointment.

“I’m starving,” Fela said suddenly. “Do you want to go have an early lunch somewhere?”

I was painfully aware of how light my purse was. If I were any poorer, I’d have to put a rock in it to keep it from flapping in the breeze. My meals were free at Anker’s because I played music there. So spending money on food somewhere else, especially so close to admissions, would be absolute foolishness.

“I’d love to,” I said honestly. Then I lied. “But I should browse around here a bit and see if anyone is willing to trade slots with me. I’m a bargainer from way back.”

This is another example of a straightforward lie. It shows Kvothe in a bit of an unfavorable light, but it also shows just how dire his financial situation is that he would lie about something so simple as this. More importantly, though, it shows him as human. We all tell white lies, so while this small bit of added tension comes and goes quickly, it deepens Kvothe’s character and it deepens the narrative.

One last example. Here, Kvothe is going through his admission interview, and Master Arwyl asks a question about healing.

“A patient comes into the Medica complaining of pains in their joints and difficulty breathing. Their mouth is dry, and they claim to have a sweet taste in their mouth. They complain of chills, but they are actually sweaty and feverish. What is your diagnosis?”

I drew a breath, then hesitated. “I don’t make diagnoses in the Medica, Master Arwyl. I’d fetch one of your El’the to do it.”

He smiled at me, eyes crinkling around the edges. “Correct,” he said. “But for the sake of argument, what do you think might be wrong?”

“Is the patient a student?”

Arwyl raised an eyebrow. “What does that have to do with the price of butter?”

“If they work in the Fishery, it might be smelter’s flu,” I said. Arwyl cocked an eyebrow at me and I added, “There’s all sorts of heavy metal poisoning you can get in the Fishery. It’s rare around here because the students are welltrained, but anyone working with hot bronze can inhale enough fumes to kill themselves if they aren’t properly careful.”

In this small exchange, there are several examples of confusion and misdirection. First, Kvothe tries to beg off of the question by saying it isn’t his place to answer it. Arwyl is having none of it, so Kvothe asks a clarifying question. This narrows in on the heart of Arwyl’s question, but it also creates a bit of a mystery. Why is Kvothe asking about this? Arwyl wonders as well and asks a question of his own, showing his confusion—What does that have to do with the price of butter?—which is merely an echo of the reader’s. Kvothe answers Arwyl’s question directly, but in essence answers the larger overall interview question he was asked. And finally, Arwyl cocks his eyebrow, an implied question, which Kvothe goes on to clarify.

This is a great example of two characters not quite understanding one another. It enhances the interview because by making it feel more like people actually think and talk. It also reveals the characters of Kvothe and Arwyl by showing how they act under (even this small amount of) duress.

These two techniques are ones that all writers should have handy in their toolbox. They’re techniques that most writers probably use already without thinking much about it, but it’s something that can be used consciously to gain the same benefits that Rothfuss gained here.


Bradley P. Beaulieu is the author of The Winds of Khalakovo, the first of three planned books in The Lays of Anuskaya series. In addition to being an L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Award winner, Brad’s stories have appeared in various other publications, including Realms of Fantasy Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Writers of the Future 20, and several anthologies from DAW Books. His story, “In the Eyes of the Empress’s Cat,” was voted a Notable Story of 2006 in the Million Writers Award.

Like any writer, Brad had a lot of influences along the way, but the ones that stand out the most are J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, C.S. Friedman, Guy Gavriel Kay, Tim Powers, and (last but not least) Glen Cook. Brad is a software engineer by day, wrangling code into something resembling usefulness. He is also an amateur cook. He loves to cook spicy dishes, particularly Mexican and southwestern. He lives in Racine, Wisconsin with his wife and two children. As time goes on, however, Brad finds that his hobbies are slowly being whittled down to these two things: family and writing. In that order…

Find him online at quillings.com.