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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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 😉