What Do Your Characters Falsely Believe?

by Jami Gold on September 26, 2013

in Writing Stuff

Text: How Are Your Characters (big red letters) WRONG!

Last year, I wrote a series of posts about a fabulous presentation by Michael Hauge on “Using Inner Conflict to Create Powerful Love Stories.” But the teachings I picked up from the presentation went far beyond being applicable only to romance.

Blogger extraordinaire Janice Hardy was in the workshop with me, and she wrote a fantastic blog post about how to apply Michael Hauge’s insights to non-romance stories. Any character in any genre can complete an inner journey from “living in fear to living courageously.”

If you’re thinking, “That sounds like a character’s emotional arc,” you’d be right. *smile* Janice’s post does a great job of summarizing the elements of Hauge’s inner conflict arc, so I’m not going to repeat all the details here, but the four main elements are:

  • Longing or Need: What the character longs for or needs (inner goal).
  • Wound: A past hurt that’s a current unhealed source of pain (backstory).
  • False Belief: What the character falsely believes due to the wound (character’s worldview).
  • Fear: What terrifies the character, often a fear of experiencing the wound’s pain again (stakes).

One of Those Things Is Not Like the Others

We read blog posts all the time about characters’ inner goals or backstory wounds or stakes, but what’s this about a False Belief? And how does it fit in with the other elements?

In my post about applying those concepts to romances, I explained:

“Michael talked about characters’ wounds, an unhealed source of pain from their past. That wound causes them to have an untrue—but logical—belief about how the world works. The character then fears experiencing the pain of that wound again.

On a simplistic level, this insight into characters would look like: Character wants to be loved (Deep Longing or Need), but the last girlfriend they had cheated on them (Wound). Now, it’s easier to think all women cheat (Belief) than to risk being hurt like that again (Fear).”

How Can We Integrate False Beliefs into Our Stories?

False beliefs are things the characters believe that we, as the author, know not to be true. They’re not really unlovable, a loser, unworthy, deserving of their pain, etc. However, their Wound makes them believe so, and more importantly, it makes them think they’ve reached this conclusion logically. They don’t think they’re being delusional.

The question then becomes, how can we show those beliefs? It’s not as simple as we might think.

While readers might occasionally see evidence of the character’s False Belief through dialogue, that method of getting information across would often be too “on the nose.” Normal people don’t usually state aloud, “Such-and-such happened because I’m unlovable.”

On the other hand, normal people might think or feel such things. Or those thoughts and feelings might color their perception of situations and interactions. Same with our writing. Readers will pick up on these false beliefs primarily through characters’ point of view/worldview (what they pay attention to) and internalizations (what they think or feel).

A Trick for Showing These Internal Beliefs

Even if we stick just to internalizations and descriptions, they can still be too “on the nose” if they’re not triggered by something in the story. Characters who think negative thoughts out of nowhere could be seen as (at best) a too-mentally-unhealthy character or (at worst) a victim of clunky, non-organic storytelling.

Instead, we need to follow the action-reaction chain of our story. A plot event can cause a character to react in a way that exposes their false belief to the reader. Now we merely need ideas for how their reactions can show their false belief.

Fortunately, I came across an article on PsychCentral about cognitive distortions, which is when our mind tricks us into believing something is true even though it really isn’t. Ooo, doesn’t that sound like “false beliefs”?

Let’s take a look at these common ways for inaccurate thoughts to take hold and see how we can apply them to our characters and our stories.

15 Ways to Show False Beliefs in Our Characters

(Note that these cognitive distortions are not exclusive. We can use multiple methods to show characters’ false beliefs throughout a story, so we don’t have to choose just one.)

If characters believe X about themselves (e.g., they’re unlovable), they might react in one or more of the following ways:

  1. Filtering: Magnifying the negative and ignoring the positive
    They’ll dwell on plot events that prove their belief right and they’ll gloss over those that prove them wrong.
  2. Polarized Thinking: Seeing things in black-or-white
    They’ll deem any attempt to overcome that flaw a failure if it doesn’t turn out perfectly.
  3. Overgeneralization: Basing conclusions on single piece of evidence
    They’ll pick out a single word, act, or event to reinforce their belief.
  4. Jumping to Conclusions: Assuming others’ feelings or motivations
    They’ll assume others’ actions are driven by their flaw.
  5. Catastrophizing: Expecting disaster to strike
    They’ll worry a minor mistake due to their flaw will cause great tragedy.
  6. Personalization: Taking everything as a direct reaction to them
    They’ll see themselves and their flaw as the cause for everything others do or say.
  7. Control Fallacies: Seeing themselves as a victim
    They’ll either think fate forces them to be a victim of their flaw, or they’ll make themselves into victims by accepting blame for everything because of their flaw.
  8. Fallacy of Fairness: Judging life by “fairness”
    They’ll expect things to turn out positively to make up for the pain “life” inflicted with their Wound.
  9. Blaming: Blaming others for troubles
    They’ll think others are responsible for the pain of their Wound.
  10. Shoulds: Prioritizing “rules”
    They’ll set up rules for how to deal with situations caused by their belief and feel guilty when they violate those rules.
  11. Emotional Reasoning: Believing feelings automatically true
    They’ll trust their feelings about their belief above all other evidence.
  12. Fallacy of Change: Expecting others to change
    They’ll expect others to change to accommodate their belief and think their happiness depends on meeting that goal.
  13. Global Labeling: Extreme and emotional mislabeling
    They’ll exaggerate and overgeneralize their flaw to the point of creating unhealthy emotions.
  14. Always Being Right: Being right is most important trait
    They’ll argue about their belief with the insistence that they’re right—no matter the costs (including to others’ emotions).
  15. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy: Expecting actions to “pay off”
    They’ll expect life to reward their sacrifice in the name of their belief.

How Can We Include These Methods in Our Writing?

In Michael Hauge’s teachings, characters start in their Identity, the false self they present to the world to protect themselves from their Fear (created by that False Belief). Over the course of the story, characters move two steps forward and one step back in their journey to overcome that False Belief and Fear.

It’s that “one step back” that brings out a character’s False Belief. When the arc calls for a retreat to their Identity or a return of their Fear, we can trigger it first with a reaction based on their False Belief. (My character arc beat sheet, based on Michael Hauge’s teachings, gives ideas on how to match the emotional arc to the plot arc.)

In the middle of the story (what Michael Hauge calls Act Two, Stage Three), the character wavers, doing the two-steps-forward-one-step-back dance. At the crisis point (what he calls Turning Point Four), the character fully retreats into their Identity. At each of those points, plot events can force the character to react in one or more of those cognitively distorted ways above.

(For example, in one of my stories, the crisis point of “boy loses girl” makes the hero jump to conclusions (#4) and personalize events (#6) even though the event has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the antagonistic forces working against the heroine. Regardless, he’s freshly convinced his False Belief is true and retreats into his Fear.)

Finally, in the climax of the story, a plot event that would normally trigger a character’s False Belief doesn’t, and furthermore, the character rejects their former belief, often stating for the sake of the theme or the antagonist that they now know it not to be true. Ta-da! The reader sees the character change and the emotional arc is complete. *smile*

Registration is currently open for my workshop on how to do just enough story development to write faster, while not giving our pantsing muse hives. Interested? Sign up for “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.” (Blog readers: Use Promo Code “savethepants” to save $15 on registration.)

Do your characters have false beliefs? Have you struggled with how to show this element of character arcs? Have you studied cognitive distortions before? Can you think of how some of them might apply to your characters? (Or to yourself? *raises hand*) Do you have other suggestions for how to implement characters’ false beliefs?

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30 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Stina Lindenblatt September 26, 2013 at 3:39 pm

Jami, this is a brilliant post. I went to a one day workshop with Michael, and you have gone into more detail than he did. 😀

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Jami Gold September 26, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Hi Stina,

LOL! Yeah, but I’ve had a whole year to think about what he said. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung September 26, 2013 at 7:35 pm

Hey Jami!

A lot of the cognitive distortions you put up there sound so much like all the reasoning fallacies I’ve learned about in my psychology courses! 😀 I especially find things like your emotions filtering what you notice very common in real life. When you’re very sad, everything around you is bad, you look terrible, everybody looks terrible, everybody’s mean to you, etc etc. But when you’re very happy, all is right with the world, and everything’s turning out perfectly, and there is almost NOTHING unideal about your life. 😀 Both my characters and I are susceptible to these common human reasoning fallacies/ cognitive distortions, lol.

One other cool thing I learned from psychology was the “availability heuristic.” When an event is especially vivid to you, you believe it occurs more frequently than it really does. So, I think adultery is an extremely sad event, and if I hear about it only a few times in my life (from the news, for instance), then I would feel that MOST people are adulterous/incapable of staying faithful to their spouses, or otherwise that adultery is SO common. However, in reality, at least from one survey done in America, only about 25% of men and 15% of women had ever had extramarital sex, meaning that 75% of men and 85% of women stayed faithful to their spouses! Of course, the sampling of the survey may be biased (as samples almost always are, lol), but I’ll just assume that it’s accurate and that the VAST MAJORITY of people DON’T cheat. (My parents also believe that most married people are in reasonably stable and happy marriages.) Therefore, it was the availability heuristic making me believe that adultery was extremely common even though it really wasn’t, just because adulterous cases are so super-charged with emotion and vividness to me.

But I do love the point about characters thinking that their beliefs are perfectly well reasoned and logical. With all our reasoning fallacies, we’re able to make just about anything “make sense” to us. That’s why we have so much trouble trying to help depressed patients. 🙁

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Jami Gold September 27, 2013 at 8:03 am

Hi Serena,

Yes, many of those cognitive distortions even have “fallacy” in their name. Did you see the psych article I linked to where I found the list? I bet they’re all just different names for the same things. 🙂

I agree that I find some of those more common than others. As I was working on examples for each of them, I kept thinking, “Oh yeah, I’ve done this one,” or “Wow, this one seems more unhealthy.” LOL!

Ooo, good point about how vivid events can seem more common. I find this especially true with the “small world” effect of worldwide reporting now. We hear about the people in outer-who-knows-where who didn’t make it home safe and don’t even think about the billions who did make it home safe.

I think the sad fact about how hard it is for people to change or to see beyond these distortions adds to the depressing “all is lost” effect of the Black Moment. Even if readers can see that things aren’t as bad as the character is assuming, we can still relate to their problems and understand their depression. And we can understand that the depression adds to the difficulty of their situation, as it’s yet another obstacle to overcome.

I figured you’d get a kick out of this post. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung September 27, 2013 at 2:21 pm

As a psychology major and nerd, I did indeed get a kick out of it. 😀

From reading the PsychCentral article, the “overgeneralization” bit caught my eye. So you see that you performed poorly at ONE thing in ONE SPECIFIC INSTANCE and in a SPECIFIC MOOD/HEALTH STATE, and you assume you must be a failure in ALL things, in ALL areas, and will CONTINUE to be such a failure for the rest of your life. XD It’s kind of laughable, really, this human fallacy, as well as very sad. In cognitive therapy, I remember this thing about how pessimists view bad things as permanent, pervasive, and personal. I.e. this bad thing will KEEP HAPPENING for the rest of my life, bad things happen in ALL situations of my life, and these bad things are all because of ME (because I’m a failure/ loser/ moral-wreck, etc.)

In contrast, optimists view these bad things as temporary, specific, and external. This bad thing only happened this time, it won’t happen next time/ won’t ALWAYS happen; it only happened in this specific situation, and won’t affect the other parts of my life; and it wasn’t really my fault, it was X’s fault.

Oh yes, the “all is lost” effect. 🙁 I call that a defeatist/ fatalistic attitude, though I can understand how they feel. I’m thinking about the books I’ve read when the character feels that there is absolutely NOTHING they can do to be happy anymore, because their situation is so hopeless, and thus they commit suicide in the end. O_O When discussing this issue with a friend, I said, “I understand that it’s extremely tough, but I’m pretty sure they could have found SOME way out of it, or some way to alleviate their sorrows. Suicide CANNOT be the way, because suicide is only the LAST resort.” And then my friend would argue, “Well, what could they do???” And we would just bicker on about it, with me insisting that there must be SOME way apart from suicide, and with my friend insisting that there is NO way except for suicide. XP

Anyway, interesting topic. I love psychology! 😀

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Jami Gold September 27, 2013 at 8:41 pm

Hi Serena,

Ooo, great point! Yes, “over-generalization” might affect optimists and pessimists differently.

I wonder how many suicides are carried out by optimists, or if feeling pessimistic would be a prerequisite to taking that drastic, one-time-only step. I haven’t ever known anyone who suffered from overwhelming thoughts along those lines (that I know of), so I’m not sure how they reach that point. 🙁

And you know I love this stuff. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung October 1, 2013 at 1:06 pm

It seems from stats and my psych course that most (I think 90%? Forgot the exact figure) of all suicides are committed by people suffering from depression. 🙁 So as depressives are severely negatively biased in their thinking, that would be pessimism, extreme pessimism. 🙁 It’s quite sad. I know a number of people struggling with depression, and there was at least one person who had such desperate thoughts. 🙁 They’re seeing psychiatrists, so I hope they’ll get better soon and be able to enjoy life again!

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Jami Gold October 1, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Hi Serena,

I hope so too. 🙁

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Amy DeLuca September 27, 2013 at 10:17 am

Hi Jami– very good, practical advice for applying what we’ve learned from Michael Hague (and you)!

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Jami Gold September 27, 2013 at 10:22 am

Hi Amy,

Thanks! Yes, I really can’t say enough good things about Michael Hauge’s workshop. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Rachel Funk Heller September 27, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Hi Jami, Fantastic post. Have you seen Lisa Cron’s “Wired for Story”? In it she explains that we take these “implicit beliefs” and the cognitive unconscious turns them into a default that runs in the background until circumstances (life or plot twists) force us to re-evaluate and change. Winderful job,looking forward to hanging with you at WANACon!

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Jami Gold September 27, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Hi Rachel,

That book is in my TBR pile, but I haven’t read it yet. That’s a great way of looking at it though–we don’t even know what we’re disillusioned about until something forces us to view it from another perspective. 🙂 Thanks for the comment, and yes, I’m looking forward to WANACon too!

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Haley Whitehall September 30, 2013 at 2:09 pm

I’m still hoping to catch one of Michael Hauge’s workshops. He was supposed to be at the ECWC writers conference last year but had to cancel at the last minute. It was a big disappointment!

I love this information/list. I will keep my characters false beliefs in mind as I’m preparing to write my next story.

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Jami Gold September 30, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Hi Haley,

Oh no, bummer! Yes, let me know if you have any questions about his concepts. I love talking about this stuff. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Laurie Evans October 1, 2013 at 8:06 pm

Thanks for going into more detail about this!

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Jami Gold October 3, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Hi Laurie,

Of course. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Laurel July 28, 2015 at 9:39 pm

Hi Jami,
This is great! Thank you very much. But I have a question…. What’s if your character has had an extremely bad Wound, has a strong False Belief and Fear, but does not really know her Longing/Need? In this situation, she is training for an organisation and all she thinks about and does is train. Train, train, train all the time. Nothing really matters to her anymore. But then, later something happens, and instead of continuing and finishing her training to move onto her job, she and all her ‘peers’ are lead to another (darker) organisation.

…. I was wondering, does your character immediatly need or have a Longing or Need, from the beginning, or can it develop through out the story? That she doesn’t really care anymore about life, but then her body changes unexpectedly into something similar to a mutation, and then finally gets a longing or need (eg, get rid of the ‘virus’ in her body)?
Or maybe she does have a longing or need, but has internalised it so deeply she doesn’t even acknowledge it anymore?
All she wants is a spot in the army, but her wound, fear and false belief aren’t hindering the oportunity…
I hope this isn’t too confusing….
Thanks, Laura

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Jami Gold July 29, 2015 at 7:51 am

Hi Laurel,

It’s not unusual for a character to not know what they really want. (Heck, that’s common in real life too. 😉 ) However, we can try to hint at what’s missing from their lives, so the reader might know before they do.

In your example, I’d say to dig deeper. “Train” sounds more like a goal, while a longing or need might be closer to a driving motivation. For example, why does she want to train and earn a spot in the army? Is she trying to prove herself? Better her life? Not be weak?

If you know that answer to why, you might see how that driving need carries over into her new goal of getting rid of the virus. And you might also see how that wound/fear/false belief are getting in the way.

For example (and this is likely completely inaccurate to your story, but it might help illustrate how this works), maybe her need is to not be weak, but she has a fear that she’s not strong enough on her own and a false belief that the army can be her strength. So those fears/false beliefs are getting in the way of her really becoming strong on her own because she’s using the army as a crutch. Then after they betray her with the virus, she finally learns to stand on her own.

I hope that helps! 🙂 Thanks for the great question!

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