Writing Tips

Shatter Your Character’s Illusions

It sounds evil. But one of the most fun parts of writing is to complete shatter an illusion that your characters have. Typically, it involves a lot of evil laughter on the part of the writer and a lot of gaping mouths and intense emotions on the part of the characters. Someone might even die! As I said before, it is fun.

Before we get into the tricks about destroying your characters’ illusions, let me define “illusion” in this context. An illusion is any belief that your characters hold that is revealed to be false during your story. In Lord of the Rings, the hobbits have an illusion that nothing will ever go wrong in the Shire– they know about the wars, but the wars will never come to them. In the books (not the movies), Saruman and Wormtongue actually take over the Shire (after he is released from Orthanc by Treebeard.) This impacts all the hobbit drastically, but we see it when Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin return to find that they don’t have a home anymore. It is rather emotional– especially when Sam learns that Saruman cut down Bilbo’s party tree.

Shattering illusions is really powerful in storytelling. It is a great way to convey a message without preaching, generate sympathy for your characters, and connect with your audience.

Shatter Your Characters' Illusions

Now, that we have a firm grasp on what an illusion is. Here are several types of illusions to give your characters. In fact, you might find that your characters already have an illusion that needs to be destroyed.

  • Cultural illusions: This is an illusion that a whole culture holds. For instance, the example above from Lord of the Rings falls into this category.
  • Personal illusions: This is an illusion that a single character (typically your protagonist or point of view character) holds. An example in a popular novel is how Tris (from Divergent) believes that her mother is fully Abnegation. Tris’ illusion is slowly shattered as she learns that her mother was originally from (spoiler warning) Dauntless, is divergent/genetically pure, and came from the outside world into the experiment.
  • Illusions of safety: This is pretty self explanatory– it is when a character believes that they are safe when truly they are in danger. Most dystopias use this illusion. In 1984, there is a specific character, Syme, who loves Big Brother and would never think that he is in danger from his government. However, since Syme is so intelligent, it is a very realistic probability that Syme will be killed by the very government he trusts.
  • Illusions of danger: This is the exact opposite of illusions of safety. However, this one you see far less in novels. One example is in 1984, when all the citizens believe that they are in danger of a war, when truly no war is going on. Of course, the characters are in a different type of danger, but I already addressed that.
  • Illusions that protect the character’s psyche: Some illusions are formed to protect a character’s mindset. This commonly happens when a someone is forced to kill someone else or do something that they would normally be against their character. To protect themselves from the reality of what they are doing, they come up with an illusion that they end up fully believing. An example might be Caleb from Divergent (spoil warnings again.) When he betrays his sister, Tris, he relies on the illusion that Erudite is good because they are so intelligent (even though he has clearly seen otherwise) and that the system is more important than family (though he has seen evidence otherwise.) When he discovers the truth about GP and GD, he is forced to confront his terrible actions for what they were.
  • Illusions of evil: This is where a character believes a situation, action, group, or person to be “evil” when there is no such black and white truth (or the thing is question is actually good.) Typically, this idea has been implanted into your character’s mind by someone with alterior motives. Back to Divergent, many characters believe that divergents are evil when this is not the case.
  • Illusions of emotions: Sometimes characters (and real people) can trick themselves into think that they feel something which they truly don’t. For instance, Eowyn, in Lord of the Rings, fully believes she is in love with Aragorn when she really only likes her idea of Aragorn and the idea of being a queen of Gondor. Characters can trick themselves into thinking that they like a certain version of themselves or like a certain activity or anything else, when the truth is otherwise. It is complicated, but so are humans.
  • Cliches that are unrealistic: Sometimes, you can find an illusion in the cliches of your novel. For instance, many fantasy novels have a purely evil race (e.g. orcs) that the characters can kill without remorse because the race is purely evil and possibly can’t feel emotions. This is completely unrealistic. So you might consider making a cliche like this an illusion that you shatter in your novel.

There are several things to remember as you write your illusion. None of these are strict rules– one of the fun things about illusions is that it is so flexible. However, you should, at least, consider these tips and understand why I am suggesting them before you start breaking them.

  1. Your characters probably should not question the illusion. This makes it so that you have a really shocking reveal for your readers. When you have a character question the illusion, your readers will catch on right away and the reveal will not be as powerful.
  2. Look for good illusions in fantasy cliches. As I mentioned above, cliches are great illusions to shatter because your reader won’t expect it and it gives your novel a more realistic feel. No one expects a cliche to be broken once it is introduced, and you can make a powerful statement about reality by finding cliches to break in this manner. I have found that fantasy cliches are the easiest to use as illusions. Here is a post I made a while back talking about ten fantasy cliches. You might use that as a starting point for ideas.
  3. Putting your own experience into this really counts. You may not have had an illusion shattered just like the one in your novel, but we have all had the world slip out from beneath our feet. Remember when you discovered that something you believed was a lie, and remember how vulnerable, betrayed, alone, and insignificant you felt. Emotion in your characters is really what makes shattering illusions powerful, and a great way to put emotion into your story is by channeling your own experience.
  4. Be careful (or don’t) foreshadow here. Gasp! Don’t foreshadow? This goes back to tip number 1. If you foreshadow that an illusion might not be true, then your reader will almost always catch onto it. Unless, you are super sneaky, then I would stay away from foreshadowing the downfall of your illusion.
  5. Do not overdo illusions. It is good to disorient your characters by shattering their illusions, but if everything in your novel turns out to be a lie, then your reader might get so disoriented that they put down the book. In my opinion, Divergent did this. The final book was so different that I felt as if I had started an entirely new series in a different world. Also be careful if you keep “double crossing” your illusions (saying that they are not real and then having it turn out that they truly were real.) This can really irritate a reader if you overdo it.
  6. Do not use illusions merely to “trick” the reader— use them to enhance the plot or convey some truth. It is always a bad idea to set out merely to trick your readers. Use an illusion to reveal a truth about the world, break down a false idea, motivate a character, or advance your plot. Here is a great post I found that talks about why tricking your reader is a bad idea (be warned, the blogger gives some major spoilers for Age of Ultron.)
  7. You must provide some proof for the illusion. If you don’t provide a solid, factual reason why your characters believe this illusion, then it will be too weak to make a powerful impact on your characters. Before you can shatter the illusion, you have to build up the illusion and provide proof for it.

Right now, I am writing the second book in my fantasy series. I just got to write one scene where I completely shattered my character’s illusion that they had been using to protect their psyche. It was also a cultural illusion that had been supported by several thousand years of history. And I got to smash it on the ground and make my characters eat the remains. It was great! There was lots of crying, and several characters completely shut down emotionally.

So what about you guys? Are you going to shatter some illusions in your stories? Don’t spoil it for us in the comments, but if you can generally let us know about your illusions, then I would love to hear 😉

God bless,

Gabrielle

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20 thoughts on “Shatter Your Character’s Illusions”

  1. This is a brilliant idea! 😀 I actually did kinda do this in my WIP without really realizing it as such– but I shattered what might be called an illusion that one of my characters held to protect her psyche. Now I want to go back and polish it up a bit so it’s more impactful. Great post, I’ll definitely be experimenting with this in my writing.

    Also, I tagged you for the Milk Tea Book Tag, if you’re interested.

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    1. I find that those type of illusions are the most fun to shatter 😛 I am glad this post was helpful. I hope your experimenting goes well!
      Thanks! I will try and get to that this week, but I may not be able to until next Tuesday.

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  2. Great post! I’ll have to come back to this as a reference point. 😉
    In my WIP, I actually shatter one character’s illusions two directions on the same thing. I have someone die who she didn’t expect, and she’s devastated at that, but through the course of the book, gets used to the idea and takes life on going from that point. But then when she finds out the character’s alive… 😛

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  3. I love you said, “It was great!” about making your characters cry and shut down emotionally. How sadistic we authors are. 😉

    Anyway, this is a really insightful point that I will have to consider as I write. In my WIP, there is a major illusion-shattering, but I had the character questioning the illusion beforehand. I kept wondering why the moment of shattering wasn’t as powerful or dramatic, and I think that may be it. Cut out the foreshadowing. Thanks so much for the advise!

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    1. I know. 😛 We are completely psychopaths!
      I am glad this was helpful for you. You should be careful though when you take out the foreshadowing. Maybe give the different versions to different beta readers and then ask them about it? I think taking out the foreshadowing should make the moment of revelation more powerful, but it is always good to check 😉

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      1. Indeed!
        Mmm, that’s a good thought. I’ll make sure to save the copies with the foreshadowing if/when I go to change it and ask other people what they think. Thanks for the tip!

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  4. Another good example of an illusion of evil is in the movie Oblivion, where *spoilers* the main character thought he was fighting the invaders of earth, when in reality he was fighting the human resistance force, and working for the alien invaders.

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    1. Great example. I had forgotten about that movie. I found the basic idea very interesting (and I enjoyed the movie very much), but I was not a big fan of what they did with the clones’ memories. It just had too many problems for me to take it seriously, and they addressed none of them.

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  5. Great post Gabrielle! I agree that having one or more of your characters under some type of an illusion (and later shattering it) definitely adds to the story. One of my characters is under an illusion that falls into the 5th category. Deep down she knows that the technology she has helped create is evil and will not really fix anything, yet she has convinced herself that it will still help society, and it’s not until she’s dying (because of exposure to that same technology) that she realizes in full what she has done. Another one of my characters is under a personal illusion, they believe that they have no living family, but when a close relative walks into their life, it lives them totally shocked and bewildered.

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  6. Amazing post! This has me rethinking the plot of a story actually…Oh my. Back to the writing board! Thanks, Gabrielle 😉

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    1. Not the writing board! *Mortified face* You don’t know how many times I have to return to my writing board and rethink my plot or my world. In fact, I need to address one problem in my story which my editor brought up. It is going to take a little while, too. Ugh.
      Good luck with your plotting! I am glad this post (sort of) helped.

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