Dissecting a Rumor

I’ll be honest—when I first started writing this post, I’d been going to spell out steps for devising a single rumor. Then I realized it isn’t necessarily sequential; I, for one, start with the subject and message when I’m planning a rumor ahead, but a lot of the time I have to come up with one (or a few extras—more on this in another post) when a PC starts bugging an NPC with questions, meaning that I’m starting with the source and then figuring out what they’re likely to talk about. So instead, let’s look at some of the factors to take into account when constructing a rumor.

  1. Subject and message. Basically, who or what the rumor’s about and what it’s supposed to get across. When I’ve got a plot-important (or at least plot-relevant) rumor, this is what I usually start with; after that, I can figure out who’s going to deliver it and how obfuscated it’s going to be.
  2. Perceived truth and actual truth. Note that these are not the same thing—in the real world, for every rumor that is precisely as true or as false as it appears to be, there’s one that appears true but is completely false, one that appears false but is completely true, one that is overall false but has a grain of truth to it (and/or its true but from a false premise opposite number), and so on. Actual truth or falsehood, fortunately, is pretty easy for you to figure out. Perceived truth or falsehood, on the other hand, is going to vary with a lot of other factors, including how much the audience wants to believe it (and, if you’re writing rather than gaming or you’ve got really good IC/OOC separation, how much the characters want to believe it); what the source is; how probable the rumor is given the local history, politics, social flows, metaphysics, and so on; how the source is delivering the rumor, and—well, I’ll cover the ones that overlap with the others, but let’s just say one could probably get an entire post out of what might affect the perceived truth of a rumor.
  3. Level of obfuscation. Let’s face it, these are rumors. If something’s grist in the gossip mill, it’s not too likely to get to where anyone can make use of it without being ground down in the process. Rumors get changed because people want to hide or play up aspects of their messages, because the authorities cracked down on part but not the whole, because circumstances changed and people found bits more or less believable, and heck, because of the good old telephone effect. It’s a good idea to have some clue what happened to the rumor on its way to the characters, but knowing what isn’t quite as important as knowing how much you want it fuzzed up.
  4. Source. Who are the characters getting this rumor from? As with perceived truth, we could probably get a full post on how this is going to affect the rumor: not only is there the perceived truth issue (can we trust that this person is on our side? Can we trust that this person has any idea what he’s talking about? Can we trust that this person hasn’t been played for a sucker by someone else?), but there’s also what parts of the message the source will find important, the source’s overall voice, how willing they actually are to spill to the characters… yeah. One could probably get a full post out of this one, too.
  5. Relevance. They aren’t all going to be immediately relevant; the character asking or eavesdropping may be more concerned with where her incognito buddy has gotten off to, but the person with the rumors might be far more interested in how a friend’s child is turning out or that odd person who stopped into the factory and worked culinary miracles with a fellow laborer’s excess cucumbers.

What other factors have you run into?

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