Using fallacies in your novel

At the university I attended, it was a requirement that all Arts majors take a first year Philosophy course called Reasoning and Critical Thinking. While I enjoyed this course, at the time, I didn’t see how it could possibly be useful in my future. I was wrong. Dead wrong.

The main point of the course was to teach students how to recognize errors in reasoning or “fallacies”. Fabulous but how was this supposed to help me write a novel? Well, in most novels, there is some kind of mystery that keeps the reader hooked. Something like, Why did Bob leave a great job to take a crappy job? While there are other plots going on, the point of this one is just to keep the reader interested in the answer. Because of this, you have to do everything you can to NOT give away the secret until the end or near end. After all, it wouldn’t be much of a mystery if you asked why Bob moved on page one and then told us it was because he got fired for stealing on page two. At the same time, it is not very interesting to just have the mystery unsolved because the MC doesn’t try to solve it or because no one will tell her the answer. You need it to be a quest for the answer. A quest with twists and turns; times when she thinks she know but doesn’t…that kind of thing.

So how can you prevent your MC (and reader) from finding out the secret? You can use a fallacy in the MC’s reasoning. There are many fallacies you can use (I’d recommend reading this page  if you want to see them all) but I am going to concentrate on four for now:

1) The Red Herring: This is a fallacy in which topic B is presented in order to divert attention from topic A. For example, maybe your MC wants to find out why Bob took this crappy job when he had a great job before. The logical assumption is that Bob did something to get himself fired, but then Suzie comes along and implies that Bob had a relationship with Linda, forcing your MC to divert her attention to Bob’s personal life rather than his work performance. The main character then spends the entire book trying to find out what happened to make Bob want to get away from Linda, only to find out that his departure had nothing to do with Linda.

2) Guilt by Association: This is a fallacy in which a person rejects a claim simply because it is pointed out that people she dislikes accept the claim. Using the same example, the MC wants to know why Bob left his job. MC’s worst enemy is Peter and Peter says Bob left because he stole money. MC dismisses claim because she hates Peter.

3) Poisoning the Well: This sort of reasoning involves trying to discredit what a person might later claim by presenting unfavorable information about the person making it. Using the same example, your MC wants to know why Bob left his job. Suzie lies about A, B, and C, so when she tells the MC why Bob left, the MC doesn’t believe her. This is very similar to #2 except the information is dismissed because of Suzie’s credibility rather than a dislike for Suzie.

4) Circular Reasoning (aka, Begging the Question): This is a fallacy in which the premises include the claim that the conclusion is true or (directly or indirectly) assume that the conclusion is true. Using the example above, Peter tells the MC that he is sure Bob was fired because everyone believes that Bob was fired. When the MC asks everyone why they believe it, they say because Peter told them it was true.

In all examples above, the MC needs to break down the fallacies as the novels develops. Using #4 as an example, Peter might tell her that Bob was fired in Act 1. Then, in Act 2, she might get suspicious and ask Peter how he knows. He would tell her that Suzie and Barb believe it, so it must be true. MC then goes along thinking she has solid evidence, but something makes her question it again so she goes back to ask Suzie and Barb how they know. That’s when they tell her that Peter told them and the whole thing falls apart.

In my next post, I will discuss how Trigonometry can help you with your character arc. Okay, maybe not…

Category: On Writing