Many of my friends write rationalfic, in the vein of such works as Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality or Luminosity. As described on the r/rational sidebar, rationalfic features “thoughtful behaviour of people in honest pursuit of their goals,” “realistic intellectual agency,” and a “focus on intelligent characters solving problems through creative applications of their knowledge and resources.”
Rationalfic is really cool and I’ve enjoyed a lot of it (recommending people read Silmaril feels somewhat anti-social, because it will eat two months of your life, but Silmaril is so good). However, I personally am not interested in writing rationalfic. I write irrationalfic: fiction where careful attention is paid to the intricacies and subtleties of human irrationality.
Perhaps irrationalfic can be best summed up through a quote from Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essay on writing Level 1 intelligent characters:
The movie version goes like this: The thirteen dwarves and Bilbo Baggins have just spent one and a half movies fighting their way to the place where Thorin, leader of the dwarves, expects to find a secret entrance into the lost dwarven kingdom of Erebor. This entrance can only be opened on a particular day of the year (Durin’s Day), and they have a decoded map saying, Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the last light of Durin’s day will shine upon the keyhole.
And then the sun sets behind a mountain, and they still haven’t found the keyhole. So Thorin… I find this painful to write… Thorin throws down the key in disgust and all the dwarves start to head back down the mountain, leaving only Bilbo behind to stare at the stone wall. And so Bilbo is the only one who sees when the light of the setting moon suddenly reveals the keyhole.
That thing where movie!Thorin throws down the key in disgust and walks away?
I wouldn’t have done that.
You wouldn’t have done that.
We’d wait at least an hour in case there was some beam of sunlight about to shoot through the side of the mountain, and then we’d come back tomorrow, just in case. And if that still failed we’d try again a year later. We wouldn’t drop the key. We wouldn’t wander off the instant something went wrong…
We could say that these strange creatures lack a certain sort of awareness. The scriptwriter wants us to be yelling at movie!Thorin, “No! You fool! Don’t do that!” but it does not occur to the scriptwriter that Thorin might yell this at himself, that Thorin might detect his own idiocy the way we see it plain upon the screen. Movie!Thorin has no little voice in his own head to yell these things at him, the way that you or I are the little voices in our own heads. We could call movie!Thorin a Hollywood Zombie, or H-Zombie for short.
The rationalfic solution to the problem of Thorin is to write a Level 1 intelligent character who doesn’t do extremely obviously stupid things. The irrationalfic solution to the problem of Thorin is to justify why he is so extremely obviously stupid.
Perhaps Thorin is an impatient person, someone who gives up easily, who doesn’t put in the extra effort. Perhaps this is established throughout the movie series: he gets bored before they’ve checked that all the ponies’ bags are secure; he gives up when Bilbo tries to show him how to make some hobbit food and he doesn’t get it immediately; he decides on the kill-Smaug plan because he gets frustrated listening to all the potential plans there could possibly be. Sometimes it works for his benefit: he demands that the other dwarves hurry up and stop being so careful and they manage to leave just before a monster is about to attack them. Sometimes it bites him in the ass: maybe they leave the map at the campsite because Thorin didn’t double-check that they had it; maybe Thorin was in charge of preparing something for a fight and he only half-did it and some orcs they could have defeated easily almost kill them.
Once you have established all of that, Thorin is not an H-Zombie. Thorin is a person, an impatient and easily frustrated person, similar to many people you have met over the course of your life. And you might yell “aaa! You fool! Don’t do that!” at the screen, but your suspension of disbelief is not going to snap.
Following Eliezer’s convention, we can declare that an irrational character whose irrationality is always justified in some satisfying way and is of a piece with her entire character development in a Level 1 irrational character. A Level 2 irrational character is one where the character’s irrationality actually makes sense to the reader as a thing the reader would have done in the character’s shoes, perhaps to the point that the reader does not see the character as irrational until the full consequences of their actions are revealed. A Level 3 irrational character is one where the reader realizes some aspect of their own irrationality due to seeing it play out in the character’s life.
What makes an irrationalfic?
Irrationalfic protagonists are flawed. And they don’t just have grand, noble, heroic flaws either. Irrationalfic protagonists have the normal range of human flaws. They’re petty and careless and thoughtlessly cruel. They make big plans and don’t follow through with them. They suck at communicating with people they’re dating. They have anxiety and guilt issues. They don’t like doing things that are boring or involve a lot of hard work. They deceive themselves; they maintain intricate webs of denial of all their personality flaws and all the problems in their lives. They sell out their principles for financial gain; they stick to their principles even when it will cost other people’s lives. They make bad decisions when they’re hungry or tired or horny. They’re biased and prejudiced and xenophobic. They’re basically good people who fail to outperform the society they were raised in; they’re basically good people who try to outperform the society they were raised in and end up going off in a terrible direction and making everything worse. Obviously, I don’t mean that any character should have every one of those traits (…although if you manage to do it I want a link), just that these are the sorts of flaws irrationalfic protagonists should have.
Irrationalfic protagonists’ flaws make sense. Horror-movie characters splitting up and being picked off by the monster one by one is not an irrationalfic, it is just people behaving irrationally. At all times, the audience should be thinking “I understand why this character is behaving this way, even though I want to shake them.” One of the best ways to do this is by making the character get some sort of benefit from their flaws. This is realistic; people don’t usually do things that only hurt them and don’t have any good aspects at all. Try thinking about in what circumstances the character’s flaws are adaptive. What situation makes the irrational choice a good decision? For example:
- A character who ignores her problems and binge-watches Netflix doesn’t have to think about things that are scary or upsetting.
- A character who doesn’t do important but dull tasks isn’t bored as often.
- A character who doesn’t talk about their needs or set boundaries may have an easier time surviving certain abusive relationships.
- A character who agrees with her society’s prejudices is less likely to anger other people or make them feel guilty about their own prejudiced behavior.
- A character who never follows through on her plans doesn’t have to worry about failing.
- A character who practices self-deception doesn’t have to face uncomfortable truths about herself.
- A character who sells out their principles for financial gain gets money which she can use to buy things that make her life better.
Another way to add plausibility is by laying out the character’s reasoning process. Don’t just have Thorin stomp off; make us feel his despair about ever finding the keyhole, his anger that he’s come all this way for nothing, his shame that he got fourteen people to spend a year of their lives on this quest and failed because he believed some stupid map. Don’t just have a character decide not to ask about some important and incorrect assumption she’s making about her love interest; make us understand that her love interest clearly doesn’t want to talk about it, and she wants to respect his preferences, and she’s sure he’ll open up in his own time, and anyway from all the information she has it’s really obvious what the explanation is.
Irrationalfic protagonists have virtues. A person who is nothing but flaw is not a very interesting character, and it limits the field on which their flaws can play out. As C S Lewis wrote, “To be greatly and effectively wicked a man needs some virtue. What would Attila have been without his courage, or Shylock without self-denial as regards the flesh?” So give your character some redeeming qualities. Give her intelligence or compassion or a sincere and earnest desire to do good; make her witty or hard-working or good at people; make her brave or thoughtful.
Some virtues I think are particularly worth considering due to the interesting plot points they open up:
- Self-awareness. Most people who make bad decisions don’t know their decisions are bad. But scenes where the character goes “I recognize that this is a stupid decision and it is going to bite me in the ass” and then makes the decision anyway can be really interesting. Self-awareness can also allow the protagonist to explain why their decision is bad, which may be helpful for novice writers and increase the didactic potential of the story.
- A commitment to self-improvement. In irrationalfic, you basically don’t get a happy ending without this trait; I’ll talk about that more later in the post.
- Goals and agency. ‘Drifting through life without any particular intentions or plans’ is a perfectly cromulent flaw, but characters with goals make writing a lot easier. They spontaneously generate their own plots, whereas the other sort of character has to be forcibly dragged into a plot kicking and screaming. And there’s something particularly fun about watching a character destroy all the things they love and cherish because of their own poor coping mechanisms.
- Being a better person than she thinks she is. It’s true this is only on the list because it is one of my favorite tropes. But it is a really good trope! The character might identify as being selfish or cruel or mean, or she might share her society’s prejudices and flaws. But then she encounters a suffering person, or befriends someone from the oppressed group, or faces a problem that professionalism demands she solve… and suddenly, without really knowing what she’s doing, she finds herself rescuing slaves or hiding Jews from the Nazis or fighting the Big Bad. Maybe she thinks the good thing she’s doing is actually evil, maybe she’s baffled at her self-sacrifice for a cause, maybe she keeps thinking she’s going to quit but she never does. Anyway. It’s a good trope. There should be more of it.
Irrationalfic protagonists cause many of their own problems. How much this is the case depends on the irrationalfic in question. For some stories, the primary conflict is external, but the protagonist makes their situation worse. For other stories, literally the entire story would be over in two pages if not for the protagonist constantly fucking things up all the time.
Regardless, the character’s flaws must fuck them over. None of this shit where a character is an alcoholic but as soon as the plot starts they mysteriously never take a drink. If a character is an alcoholic, they should be drunk during an important fight scene, and it means their aim is wildly off and they end up hitting a little girl instead of the person who took her hostage.
Think about the most obvious and boring ways that a character’s flaws would create problems for her. If she makes cutting, snarky remarks that make the reader laugh, her victims probably shouldn’t also laugh– a lot of the time, they should hate her. If she is chronically sleep-deprived because she superheroes at night and goes to school during the day, she should make bad impulsive decisions and fail to think through the implications of her actions. If she skips important meetings, decisions she doesn’t like should happen at those meetings.
If irrationalfic protagonists grow, it takes work. If you have an epiphany that causes your character to realize that they’ve made some horrible mistake, it should take place in chapter three, and the rest of the book should be devoted to the slow and switchbacky process of putting that epiphany into action. Ignored epiphanies [cw: tvtropes] are also allowed. But the point is that in irrationalfic it never ever ever happens that a character has a sudden epiphany and it completely changes everything about their lives forever. I don’t want to say that sudden epiphanies never happen in real life but they’re definitely overrepresented in fiction and irrationalfic should push back against that.
A character in irrationalfic may decide that they’re going to stop being irrational. If they do, they might start off with a burst of good intentions and then a month later fall back into old patterns. They might give into temptation at exactly the wrong moment. They might half-change. They might start doing the new thing and halfway through just… stop. They might trick themselves into believing they’ve changed when they haven’t. They might have to come up with strategies to get around their own irrationality: a Facebook blocker, the Pomodoro method, bribing themselves with chocolate, locking away a tempting object and giving someone else the key, avoiding people who make them angry, taking deep breaths and counting to ten. They might try strategies and they don’t work. They might take medication or go to therapy. Regardless, it will take a lot of work and they will spend a lot of time aware of their flaws, trying to improve on their flaws, and being flawed anyway.
Irrationalfic pays close attention to character. You may notice the first five points in my irrationalfic manifesto happen to do with what the protagonists are like. My irrationalfic definition is different from rationalfic definitions, which typically include non-character things such as thoughtful worldbuilding and the fact that the plots can be resolved through intelligent decision-making. This is not an accident.
Irrationalfic, as a genre, is marked by its concern for character. In Orson Scott Card’s MICE system, they’re character stories: they’re concerned with who the character is, what she does, and why she does it. That is not to say that there can’t be world-spanning plot events or rich and detailed societies, but ultimately an irrationalfic is about people.
For this reason, I’ve found romance is a particularly good genre for irrationalfic, since romance focuses intensely on specific characters and the ways they interact with each other, and the conflict in romance often springs from the characters’ personalities rather than from some external force.
Unreliable narrators. In general, when you’re writing an irrationalfic, your viewpoint character should not be 100% reliable. She might misremember a scene that happened earlier in the story. She might incorrectly report what other characters’ feelings are. She might describe herself in a way that contradicts her own behavior. She might mention offhandedly as part of a list of six things something that the reader recognizes as extremely important. She might report the incorrect beliefs of her society as if they are actually true. Using an unreliable narrator requires a certain level of trust in the reader’s ability to realize that the narrator is not a completely accurate and objective reporter of events, but I think making the reader do that interpretive labor adds a lot to their experience.
Dramatic irony. Dramatic irony goes along with unreliable narrators, but can also come from other sources. If you have a character who is not particularly self-aware– as most irrationalfic characters are not– there’s a lot of opportunity for the audience to know something the characters don’t.
Every character’s actions make sense to that character. Expanding our focus beyond the protagonist, how do other characters in irrationalfic behave? Ideally, every character should be treated like the protagonist: they should have virtues, behave in a way that makes sense, and be someone the audience can understand and sympathize with, but they should have flaws that cause them to hurt themselves or others.
It is particularly important to pay attention to antagonists. Many stories will not have an antagonist: the protagonist is the cause of all their own problems, or the conflict is with some sympathetic person, such as a love interest. If you choose to have a villain, the villain should be characterized as carefully as the protagonist. In particular, since people don’t usually forget to give their villains huge flaws, it’s important to make sure that your villain is sympathetic and has redeeming qualities and that the audience can understand her point of view and why she’s making the mistakes she’s making. Give her the opportunity to speak for herself.
Irrationalfic characters have unhappy or ambiguous endings or earn their happy ending. This isn’t going to be true 100% of the time: sometimes, the most satisfying way for a story to work out is that the character gets the thing that they want, even though they do not deserve it at all. But if that happens in more than, say, one in twenty of your irrationalfic stories, I’d take it as a red flag that you should be meaner to your characters.
If the character is exactly as flawed at the end of the book as at the beginning of the book, then you have two options. You can write an all-out tragedy where their fatal flaws destroy them. (More books should be tragedies. I bet it would do great things for the prevalence of the just-world hypothesis.) But you can also write a story with an ambiguous ending: they get some of the things they want, but not all of them; they get the things they want, but at a high cost; they don’t get what they want, but they get something else that’s also okay; everything is terrible, but at least they’re alive, which was not a given at the climax.
If a character works hard on the process of personal growth and overcoming their flaws (even if they’re still imperfect), then they can earn a happy ending. However, you should strongly consider the possibility that the character should not earn their happy ending: even after a lot of hard work, the mistakes they made early in the story were large enough that they realistically should wind up with a tragic or ambiguous ending.
Careful attention to irrationality. Irrationalfic is, fundamentally, about human irrationality— about the ways that people come to have false beliefs or take actions that don’t advance their goals. Therefore, writing irrationalfic requires paying a lot of careful attention to the exact details of how irrationality works. The thought process must be plausible, the way that people making a particular mistake actually think. And a significant chunk of the story must be devoted to exploring the ways that characters are irrational, why they are irrational, and the consequences of their own irrationality. This point is the core of irrationalfic. If you have nothing else, but you have this, you have written an irrationalfic.
What are some good examples of irrationalfic? (My own writing is, sadly, too often unedited for me to in good conscience call it ‘good.’) Many tragedies are irrationalfic; so are many comedies. Many of the best characters in Amentumblr, such as healthesick and tidalwave-shiningsky, were excellent irrationalfic characters. A Song of Ice and Fire has some lovely irrationalfic moments, such as the death of Ned Stark and the fact that almost every character is ignoring the literal zombie apocalypse while they fight over who gets to sit on the Iron Throne. Amends by Eve Tushnet, a novel about an alcoholism treatment reality show, is a good earthfic example full of richly observed (and funny!) detail about alcoholics. I haven’t watched it personally, but from what I’ve read It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is a good example. Do other people have good examples?