Q&A

Are Conflicts Based on Misunderstandings Always Contrived?

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Hello Mythcreants, I am your Star of Hope again with a new question:

*Spoiler warnings for Assassins Creed Rogue*

How can I write a conflict based on a misunderstanding without making it contrived? For instance the hero hates a character for something they didn’t do, but due to very unfortunate events and carelessness, this person made themselves unwittingly a suspect as they made the mistake of helping (unwittingly) the bad guy or making the impression of being associated with them.

However, often in fiction, when something similar happens it feels contrived and makes the hero even more unlikable, like in AC Rogue where Shay mindlessly accuses Achilles of killing innocent people with some ancient precursor sites, despite having no idea what destructive power they hold. Had he explained properly what happened, all the deaths and conflict that happened because of that could have been averted.

How could I avert such a contrivance? If the entire trope is bad, I might as well drop it, so feel free to tell me your opinion, guys and gals and non-binary pals.

With Love,
Star of Hope

Hi Star of Hope,

So what we call a misunderstanding is typically something where someone gets the wrong initial impression and then the characters don’t communicate sufficiently to clear it up. This setup works great for comedies, because the stakes are lower (so it’s more reasonable that they don’t make the effort to clear the air), misunderstandings can be quite funny, and comedy audiences just don’t expect it to have the same level of realism.

In darker and higher stakes stories, misunderstandings can happen, but they are generally cleared up by the end of the scene. If it takes longer, it starts to feel contrived.

However, this can change if it’s not just an innocent misunderstanding. An antagonist may purposely keep characters apart and poison one or both against the other. This still has its limits, though. Mainly, the antagonistic character needs to be in a trusted position, so the protagonist(s) they are misleading has a good reason to take their word instead of trusting the other protagonist or their own impressions.

Any kind of misunderstanding works better if the protagonists involved don’t know each other that well and/or only have the opportunity to interact with each other briefly.

I hope that gives you an idea. Happy writing!

Chris

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I also thought about an intrigue right away. A third person who manipulates two others into believing wrong things about each other can work pretty well – provided that third person is good at what they do and the other two don’t interact much.

    Apart from that, misunderstandings really work better in a comedic setting, because the stakes are lower and it’s easier to construct scenes which will further the misunderstanding instead of clearing it up.

  2. Kenneth Mackay

    A situation where A suspects B of some secret wrongdoing could work. B might have some perfectly innocent explanation for their actions, but A is not going to ask them for it, as that would warn B that A suspects them!
    Anything good B does could be seen as a cover for their true intentions, while anything questionable would add to A’s suspicions….!

  3. Raillery

    I strongly agree with the perishability of this plot device; any conflict that can be eliminated or greatly lessened with one line of dialogue is not going to last long.

    I like the use of a misunderstanding as the catalyst for a more lasting conflict. The confusion can be momentary, but if the stakes are high enough and the damage can be done faster than the error realized and corrected, you can have a terrible accident that is not easily remedied or forgiven. Think of the ATLA S3 episode where Zuko is startled and burns Toph’s feet, or any number of tragic war stories with friendly fire.

    It seems like the concept itself is less the issue than the excessive, out-of-character reactions demanded for the plot. If any concept is being squeezed for more conflict than it should rationally provide, it will feel contrived. This concept, handled properly, can still yield minor conflict and guilt and anger and damaged trust for characters to wrestle with.

  4. Angelo Pardi

    There are lot of way you can make this work.
    One is a situation where both characters can’t trust each other with dangerous information. A typical example would be two people involved in secret rebellion of some kind against an oppressive government (think persecuted Christians in the Roman Empire, French people resisting Nazis occupation, spies during the Cold War). In those kind of set-up your protagonist has to be cautious about who he trust with his life-threatening information. In some cases he may have to pay lip service to his enemies to protect his life, and will be even more suspect for potential allies. A cunning spy trying to posture as a Nazi-supporting French engineer may be chosen as a privileged target by an other Resistance network.

    You can also make sure your characters never get a chance to clear things together. Half a sentence would suffice to solve every problem, but they simply don’t get two minutes alone in a room. This obviously work only for shorter works (or more precisely works that happen over a short time) – many tragedies by Racine (Bajazet, Phedre have at least some instance of this).

  5. Eli

    How you described how it should work Othelloin a serious story is basically what happens with Iago in Shakespeare’s . It’s not the best thing Shakespeare’s done but it’ll help if someone needs an example in action.

  6. Erynus

    If someone is forced to work with someone they don’t like, i doubt they would spend too much time clearing out the reasons of their grudge.Also, a misunderstanding can come from the actions as well as the motives.
    In my story, my MC is betrayed by someone close, to prevent him being killed (they arrest him to put into the safer place available, a jail with intention to set him free without the villain knowing) but my MC escapes and thinks that it was on the villains benefit. That cuts off whatever resources came with that person and let my MC alone to fight the villain. He will clear things eventually (close to the end; they weren’t the primary threat, so my MC went after them once the villain is out of the picture). It is a kind of epilogue but in the falling action (there is an actual epilogue to show the whereabouts of the other POV character)

  7. Star of Hope

    Hello Chris! Thanks for Honouring me with this post, I feel appreciated

    Now to the answer.

    I never thought of that, having someone manipulate the Hero instead of the hero being wrong on their own makes sense, I guess that Shay would have been much better written had he been an Sage and thus manipulated by Aita into betraying the Assassins.

    Now I wonder how if this rule also works with Conspiracy theories? Are they a good enough reason for creating an conflict based on a Misunderstanding, because the character believes bin ridiculous stuff.

  8. N

    You can have a misunderstanding between two characters who’ve known each other very well if you’ve put in the groundwork of a complete breakdown of their relationship.
    In Untamed, there are two brothers who have a falling out which is only partly engineered by an antagonist. One brother is a prodigy but reckless, and feels guilt for burdening his family with his antics. The other brother is the heir and consistently jealous of his brother, though he loves him very much. Also they both endure a war as recently-orphaned child soldiers, where the Prodigy invented questionable fighting methods that border on war crimes, and then turned to alcoholism, which put the heir in a difficult political position. So when they have their final unmediated conversation for 20 years, it’s easy to see how a lifetime of baggage (guilt and jealousy respectively) compound their respective traumas so that what they say to each other is not what they mean and what they understand of each other’s words is also not what the other means.

  9. Kinsley Castle

    I have a misunderstanding between two characters in the novel I just finished writing. I think I got away with it, because at the time, my main character believes he is absolutely guilty of the accusations and can’t really defend himself from them. He later learns the truth is something totally different.

  10. Dinwar

    A historic misunderstanding occurred between the Zulu people and the British army. After battle the Zulu would often cut the bellies of their opponents. The British thought this was horrific–they were mutilating the dead! To the Zulu, however, it was a sign of respect. They believed the soul resided in the belly, and by cutting it open they were allowing the souls of brave warriors–who, remember, were on the other side of the battle–to reach paradise, rather than be trapped on Earth.

    On a smaller scale, the phrase “bless your heart” is often misunderstood by Northerners. I’ve seen someone who thought they were having a pleasant conversation with a Southern woman, when in fact that Southern woman was issuing a not-very-thinly veiled threat. Similar miscommunications often occur in romantic relationships. I remember early in my marriage my wife complained that I don’t communicate, while I complained she didn’t listen. Turns out both of us were right–I was, by the standards I grew up in, openly communicating my feelings. My wife was interpreting my statements and actions by the culture SHE grew up in, which were very different. Learning to deal with those sorts of miscommunications–where neither side realizes there IS a miscommunication–can be really tricky, and makes a good sub-plot, as it provides a lot of room for characterization.

  11. Gwen

    Some misunderstandings can be tragic and work very well as such as long as the characters involved have reasons to keep up their beliefs.

    For example, in hunchback of Notre Dame one old woman lives in squalor and misery because she believes her daughter was murdered years ago and blamed it on the Romani. So she jeers Esmerelda and when Esmerelda is fleeing capture for being tried as a witch it is the old woman who leads the guards to her. Through previously established connections, it is revealed that Esmerelda is her daughter. The old woman desperately tries to save her but fails and is destroyed by the idea she caused her daughter’s death.

    That is an misunderstanding that works in my opinion. The tragedy of a misunderstanding causing your own failings and obsessions to lead to your downfall. Also Esmerelda and her mother had no reason except to hate each other, unlikely to share their quest for a long lost relative with their enemy.

    But it needs set up or will come off poorly.

  12. Arix

    They’re not always contrived, but they’re very easy to make contrived. The contrivance usually comes from the fact that a single line of dialogue would usually prevent the conflict, so to prevent the contrivance, just put them in a situation where they’re unable to say that dialogue. Alternatively, have the misunderstanding be between characters who already have a reason to distrust one another.

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