A Case for Ambiguity

One of the things I’ve noticed about many created worlds, and felt that it might be good to reverse the trend of at some point, is that there isn’t much vagueness. In our world, you have a lot of things that may or may not be real or effective depending on who you ask, from as big as religion to as little as dice superstition, but what’s all the same is that some people believe, some people don’t, and both sides will cheerfully provide massive piles of evidence in both directions but can never prove anything.

But in a created world, as often as not things are either Definitely Real or Definitely Not, and if they’re Definitely Real they’re either All A Lie or Exactly What It Says On The Tin. (….all right, I’ll quit with the caps now. Just had to get it out of my system.) Either you can read the future in the stars, or it’s all delusion; when religion comes into play, the god is real and active or it’s all a lie, though it might be that instead of there being no god there is something else masquerading as a god. All I can say is, where’s the fun in that?

Ambiguity is useful in part because it allows for more suspense, particularly with regards to things like the interference of gods (if they can, they probably will, particularly if they like the character), anything to do with divination of the future (100% accurate divination, if it gives both the results and how one gets there, is rather prone to spoiling plots), or whether that little ritual the one character does in free moments is a bit of color or Chekhov’s gun.

It’s also got the advantage of creating true moral dilemmas. After all, if there’s a definite way things are and a definite way they aren’t, then it’s not that hard to make the right choice, now, is it? Even if it’s just the audience who knows and not the character, the existence of the definite right and definite wrong makes it pretty clear which choice the character is going to take (particularly if the character’s already demonstrated herself to be the type that doesn’t screw up unless it’s for reasons outside her control anyway). Likewise, in a game situation, if what you’re after is making it difficult for the characters to decide what to do, or if something you want to run requires them to make a ‘wrong’ choice, ambiguity means you might still be able to give them a headscratcher or even take them onto the path of greatest long-term consequences because they can’t be sure that the reasons not to do a certain thing are valid.

Another advantage of ambiguity is that one can get away with including potentially sensitive issues without it starting to sound preachy. Many people dislike fiction that serves as the vehicle for a definite message (especially when they disagree with it!), and a good portion of them are likely to see message fiction in anything that takes a definite stance on a touchy issue. But with enough narrative ambiguity, it can come out not as what one should do because that is how the world works, but as how these people are handling this situation according to their own views of the world. Much less preachy; much less off-putting.

In short, clear-cut facts of the world may lead to a simpler creation and structure, but ambiguous beliefs make for much more interesting plots. Sure, you can’t make everything a gray area, but you can certainly gray out the major issues.


  1. UZ says:

    I find that introducing vagueness for actual plot points is a bit of a difficult errand, mainly because leaving said plot points ambiguous doesn’t often fit with the story.

    For example, consider a situation where a theoretical god is actually a construction created by a real person of the same name. Things done in the name of said god might therefore be holy and pious, or just following the agenda of a mortal with none of the vast nuance that duties to a god entail.

    But, if the difference governs some part of the plot, it will probably eventually be explained and ambiguity goes Ex Fenestra. As such, ambiguity gets relegated to background much of the time.

    I find that many stories go one step further – most beliefs that people have are not only demonstrably true, but also have some practical value. The twinkly healing of the old RPG priesthood – the atomic superpowers of the new D&D clerics – the telekinetic fringe benefits of The Force… I recall in one old JRPG you called on the power of Arawn (interim Lord of Death after Gwyn ap Nuth IIRC) to save your game. Even the Old Gods of Lankhmar, who no one worshipped, could still be called on if you needed their help badly enough. (People usually didn’t.)

    In most fantasy stories, if you’re a god with nothing to offer, you’re left out like last week’s potato salad. What’s worse is, generally the more the story leans toward science fiction, the more the religion has to put out to be believed in. Ambiguity isn’t even on the table.

  2. UZ says:

    Hm.. maybe I just usually introduce things with the intent of explaining them later. I’ll have to think about this.

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