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Writing Believable Mistakes

Discussion in 'Fanfic Discussion' started by JHunt, Jun 26, 2017.

  1. JHunt

    JHunt Squib

    Oct 2, 2015
    High Score:
    I've been working on a new fic that takes place in the prelude to Voldemort's rise to power. It details the removal of Minister Leach and the ineffective prosecution of the war against Voldemort. It probably won't go until 1981, or at least I don't have it mapped out that far by any means. (I'll post it in the WbA when it's in a reasonable shape to be viewed by people)

    I've been working to keep it as canon compliant as possible while expanding on the characters.

    The focus is on information gathering, intelligence analysis and the discovery of Voldemort as a valid threat.

    The issue I have is that these characters are currently the best the ministry has, their skill is reflected by their positions. We know that mistakes happen all the time in real life. We mitigate it as much as we can. But at the end of the day people are fallible.

    So I'm looking for advice on how to competently write smart people making a mistake?
  2. Hush

    Hush Seventh Year

    Jun 7, 2016
    High Score:
    Limit their knowledge. That way they make reasonable decisions that may not be for the best. Heck, limit the reader's knowledge so that we think they're making the correct and logical decisions that turn out to bite them in the ass. Reading about omniscient characters is boring. So don't let them overhear conversations they realistically shouldn't just so they know the right moves to make when the time comes.

    Obviously mistakes are unintentional. So you can take the problem out of the character's hands. Something outside of their control occurs which foils the plan. I dunno, man, it seems pretty obvious what I've been saying. But if it's a matter of intelligence, give the smart characters bad intelligence. Or give the enemy better intelligence, a better plan.

    When you're writing a story you are the orchestrator of events, things occur that the reader, and especially certain characters, aren't made aware of. Use that.
  3. arkkitehti

    arkkitehti Professor

    May 31, 2012
    Just look at how real-life mistakes are made. There are a lot of mistakes done daily by really smart people having good intel.

    Here are some typical failure modes:

    Bad compromise: you have good information, but two different analysis. Both are seemingly valid, but opposite to each other. E.g. a situation where you can either respond to a threat with diplomacy or overwhelming force, and as a compromise use underwhelming force.

    Confirmation bias: you choose to ignore parts of intel because it doesn't fit the way you think (or want).

    Failure to prioritize: you have multiple things that are good but you lack the resources to do them all. Instead of focusing your effort and doing few of them properly, you make half-assed effort on all of them.

    Strong-willed idiots: one person with strong beliefs can convince others to follow them even if the others know the person is wrong. Typically this person is an expert on one field and thinks their merits on that field makes them expert on all fields.

    Information overload: you have too much information making analysis difficult. Even worse if the people in charge don't know that the bottleneck is in the analysis and not information gathering: that might make them overly confident on what they receive, believing it's based on all the information available, when in fact only a small portion of it has been analyzed.

    Being dependent on single sources: you have a really good source of information, and that makes you overlook other possible sources. E.g. you are listening to all email and phone traffic, but the bad guys use traditional mail. Also easily linked to information overload: you put all your resources to analyzing that one source you have leaving other sources understaffed.
  4. Joe's Nemesis

    Joe's Nemesis High Score: 2,058 ~ Prestige ~

    Jan 29, 2012
    High Score:
    You can add t to that such things as:

    Arguing a whole from a part: this is also known as a logical leap. Some logical leaps are good (this puddle of water is wet, I assume all puddles of water are wet), some aren't so good (this puddle of water is safe for drinking, I assume all puddles of water are safe for drinking). It helps if the person making the logical leap is more often right than not.

    Preparing for the last war: This is a major problem in military circles—at least it was in the 20th century where militaries prepared to fight the previous war while enemies prepared for a new war. This can translate to misreading information and intelligence because they're reading based on the an outdated template for understanding the information.

    Stovepipe Governing When you have an office of people who are all reporting to different bosses. They don't see all the information the others see and as such, there is never a true "big picture" drawn until it gets to the final layer of government. The problem then is that the pieces that would proper draw the picture together have been dismissed because on their own, they look irrelevant.

    What would make it even more believable, IMO, is if you didn't have a single, big mistake. Instead, you had a situation where, for instance, the Aurors and others who were tracking the rise of Voldemort were comparing him to the rise of Grindelwald, but the people working "intelligence" weren't sharing their information with the Aurors, who were tracking another element. And they were both a couple steps removed from the Wizengamot and couldn't see the slight political intrigue beginning there. Then, throw into that a bad compromise in the Wizengamot and a failure to prioritize for those responsible for intelligence. The Aurors are too dependent on the single source of their own arrests, and when it all comes to the head of DMLE or perhaps, the Minister of Magic, he falls into Information Overload.

    This way, no one is actively making mistakes. The mistakes are found in the inertia of government, which is completely believable.