Creating Ambiguity

Yesterday, I talked about how ambiguity in the creation of a world can make it more interesting than clear right/wrong binaries can. But how does one go about making a world in which these things are clearly ambiguous?

To understand that, it helps to understand how not to do it.

It’s pretty easy, and pretty common, to demonstrate that such and such a thing is patently false. Show no evidence whatsoever that it might be true, make sure that everyone who believes it is a fool, clearly brainwashed into it, or of no importance whatsoever (unless, of course, they’re a major character being set up to learn a lesson). If you’re not willing to go quite that far, then at least ensure that anyone who would argue in favor of the False Thing has to fall back on strawmen, ad hominems, non sequiturs, and generally bad argumentation, so that even people who don’t know from rhetoric know he sounds like an idiot. Turn the full scorn of your narrative voice on the concept and those who support it.

And of course, with those things that are definitely true, you do the opposite. Those who believe are noble, and intelligent, and well-reasoned—those who do not are clearly in denial, as they are ignoring the mountains of evidence right in front of their noses and coming up with convoluted explanations that Occam’s Razor cuts through like a bastard sword through taut tissue. And of course, it’s played up with terms of certainty, and… well, you get the idea.

Now, with ambiguity, it’s a bit tougher. Remember how in logic class, disproving statements like “All x are y” or “No z are q” was pretty easy? All you had to do was find one counterexample. But in the real world, it’s not that easy; people have an annoying tendency to call that counterexample a fluke, argue for reasons why it really does fit with the rule, or just plain ignore it. The characters are likely to, and so is the audience. So for any given element of the world which may or may not be true, you’ll need several counterexamples for both truth and falsehood. You’ll also need things that could be taken as evidence for both sides, and people who fervently believe, and people who don’t really care but wish these other people would shut up about it already (preferably spread out among both major and minor characters, and even among both protagonists and antagonists). If they argue, or when they argue, you can make one side more convincing than the other, but make sure both have enough good points that one can’t be completely sure.

Yes, ambiguity is hard. But it’s a good way to demonstrate your skill, and can be beautiful when done well.

1 comment

  1. UZ says:

    You mean like that whole “millennium = 2000 / millennium = 2001″ thing, and how it mostly makes you remember that the calendar was invented by the pope (one of the earlier ones), and so it should have sounded a bit odd back in public school when someone described the formation of the Earth as happening around “4,000,000,000 BC” when the people who invented the “BC” part believe it’s a heresy, and that most people still don’t use the Common Era notation and that even the Common Era notation is still kind of bound to a particular religion, and that even so I still don’t care whether the millennium started in 2000 or 2001?

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