I have a premise (in detail below) in which I would like to set up some doubt in my main character about his own sanity. I think the situation is such that it's easy to make my main character doubt himself, but I find it's much harder to make the audience do so.

Generally speaking you know no matter how insane the situation is your main character will always be sane. If he is hearing voices and seeing things they really exist, if others tell him that his best friend never existed he did etc; the main character is always sane... In all the stories which tried to tell my my main character was crazy I am usually bored because I don't believe it, and without that uncertainty the plot seems pretty bland and overdone.

The only time I saw a story do a remotely interesting take on a possibly-crazy character was Final Fantasy 7, and I think it helped that he was actually crazy, just not in the way others were trying to make him believe. I'm looking for solutions like this, ways to modify the world and story to make the possibility that something isn't right seem a possible outcome to the audience, not questions of writing style or character depiction (ie, I want to modify the world, not how I describe the world, to make this more believable).

So I'm looking for advice on how one would to make a character seem less-then-sane in such a way that the audience may consider it. I'm happy both in general advice, and specifics to my case.

My situation:

Our main character's home farm is invaded by bandits planning to kill his family and pillage when a stranger appears in random light, mutters about wrong coordinates, then saves our hero, but not his family, before disappearing again in an explosion that knocks the hero unconscious.

Some time after the hero's leaving his destroyed home our hero wakes up in 'the future' and learns the stranger that saved him was someone trying to change the past, but who had to do so with unknown technology and ended up showing up at the wrong place in his only possible attempt at time travel. As a side effect of the accidents that occurred during that time travel the hero is now able to travel between the two time lines (without control). He died in the original timeline, and is now the one outlier between the way history had happened the first time and his current timeline; making him the only one able to avoid the outcome.

This is made harder when the eventually learn that the two timelines have split, changes to the hero present don't change the future timeline, and as the hero changes his present it drifts from the future timeline enough that their knowledge of the past is of limited use.

At a later point someone is going to suggest that the hero has never time traveled, the story is nothing more then a fiction made up by someone who couldn't handle the trauma of his home and family being destroyed. They claim he survived because he ran rather then try to help his family, and he created the fictional time traveler to explain his survival without his being a coward. He made himself out to be the most important person in his time (as the one outlier able to change the bleak future) to handle his feelings of uselessness at being unable to prevent the attack. It's suspicious how every time something bleak happens in his present he goes to the 'future' and plays hero, his mind compensating for bad situations by giving him a story where he was a hero elsewhere etc etc. The point out the fact that he can't predict the future, since timelines have diverged.

The problem is that the audience will never believe it, they will always accept that time travel is what is really happening. If I can't make the audience contemplate the possibility that something is wrong with the hero any drama I pull out of the "am I really sane" question starts to feel more like angst.

I toyed with making him actually be a little ...well not all there, that the process that pulled him between the timelines caused some bizarre effects on him, he sees things that aren't there because he's seeing glimpses of other potential timelines etc, but no idea I came up with felt interesting and not too distracting from the other plot points I planned out. I can't think of something that twists his viewpoint sufficiently to leave the audience willing to believe something was wrong with his view of the world while still leaving him 'sane' enough to continue a story that has many other themes and plot points that I don't wish to distract from by having the audience questioning every thing the protagonist perceives even in the present.

I'm looking for ways to make it plausible that the alternate explanation, that he is imagining things, is possible. I suspect this would involve actually messing with his perspective of reality, such that there is something legitimately wrong with the vision the audience sees, thus suggesting a scewed perspective from the protagonist. My question is what can be done to mess with his perspective or the world enough to make the audience agree that something is wrong without making him certifiably insane? Or are there other ways I can mess with the timeline to make him appear less believable?

I imagine by 1/2 to 2/3 of the way through the story I would like to provide evidence which strongly suggests he is sane, or at least that the audience can trust what happens on screen from here on out is really happening, so I need something to cause confusion early on but can be explained later.

I'm pretty open for any way to justify some real uncertainty in his view of reality as a time-traveler to the audience.


closed as off-topic by Cort Ammon, IchabodE, DaaaahWhoosh, HDE 226868, Frostfyre Sep 16 '15 at 1:01

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "This question does not appear to be about worldbuilding, within the scope defined in the help center." – Cort Ammon, IchabodE, DaaaahWhoosh, HDE 226868, Frostfyre
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a really interesting idea but what are you asking from us? $\endgroup$ – Green Sep 15 '15 at 20:30
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    $\begingroup$ Have you read The Wheel of Time series? Very good (if long) series and one of the major characters in that has distinctly dubious sanity but reading it you are never sure how much - especially since much of it is told from his point of view and he thinks he has good reasons... $\endgroup$ – Tim B Sep 15 '15 at 21:32
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    $\begingroup$ I think this actually belongs on the Writer's SE. It deals more with how to convey a concept than worldbuilding. Conveying a major story point like that may be better addressed with the wording used by writers than by world builders because it involves building tension into the writing, not just building tension into the world. That being said, I'd recommend watching A Beautiful Mind for a really good portrayal along the lines you are looking at. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Sep 15 '15 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ The first thing you could do is not let the readers be inside the main character's head. All plot would be driven by discussions, or subordinate character's viewpoints. Thus you see what he does, hear him talk but don't live in his head which would tip off the real situation early. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Sep 16 '15 at 0:03
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    $\begingroup$ I recommend watching "Shutter Island", it looks like something you are trying to do. Other than that, make create logical insonsitency - for example, the main caracter can read one sence from a paper, and then another sentace from the same paper - did someone switch the papers, or is the character going insane? Make sure the reader isn't confuded and start thinking they themself don't remember what was on the first paper. $\endgroup$ – kajacx May 27 at 13:01

I think the key to make the illusion believable as illusion may be to develop and highlight cracks in the illusion. In short, what you are trying to do is the opposite of what you normally do when writing a story: You want to intentionally break the suspension of disbelief for that specific story element. So you have to do what you otherwise have to avoid: Make it unbelievable.

You might look at how they did it in the movie "A Beautiful Mind". Basically, Nash himself notices contradictions between his illusions and the reality he later perceives after he learned that it's all been illusion, and later finding a logical error in a new illusion itself.

Now this will be harder to do when the illusion itself "naturally" contains contradictions (your two timelines), but even then, there will be an inner logic to the whole dual timeline illusion, and when things start to break that inner logic of the illusion, that's a giveaway that the illusion is not real.

The hard part will probably be to make, at the right time, a believable transition from the timeline story being believable to the same story being unbelievable. After all, you don't want to completely break suspension of disbelief, you only want to break it for the timelines and associated story arcs. And moreover, you don't want to break it too early; you most probably want the reader to initially believe the timeline story, until the point where the protagonist learns that it is not real.


I think this is the key:

This is made harder when the eventually learn that the two timelines have split, changes to the hero present don't change the future timeline, and as the hero changes his present it drifts from the future timeline enough that their knowledge of the past is of limited use.

The hero, presumably, isn't a physicist. He isn't going to understand time travel. He will probably assume that changes he makes in the past will impact the future. When that doesn't happen, he'll start doubting himself.

Think about the nature of consciousness. You don't go much into the mechanics, but it sounds like the hero might just be waking up with memories of the other timeline:

Some time after the hero's leaving his destroyed home our hero wakes up in 'the future' a ... As a side effect of the accidents that occurred during that time travel the hero is now able to travel between the two time lines (without control).

So when he "wakes up" he will remember the other timeline, but it will just be that - memories. Imperfect, mutable, human memories. He won't ever have a continuous experience from one to the other. Combined with the fact that his actions in one don't actually seem to matter, and you have a great recipe for self-doubt, especially as he finds more and more info in the future that contradicts what's happening in the past.

This is getting more toward writing rather than WBing, but to highlight this, you could present the past scenes (or the present scenes, depending on your preference) as memories. I'm no expert, but in my writings I've either done this by using italics, or by changing tenses between the two. And sometimes both.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm toying with his physically traveling between times, but he is a 'temporal anchor' of sorts to whichever timeline he is in (part of a plot point for why others start to dislike him). His present timeline starts flowing at a much slower timerate when he isn't in it, so slow that he can be away for days and have only minutes pass in his timeline, thus no one notices the changes (not 100% committed to this though, I have toyed with other approaches to make it harder to detect his travel like mental time travel). $\endgroup$ – dsollen Sep 16 '15 at 13:49

People always take conclusions from what a person does and says, that should be a simple enough advice. There is a difference of presentation in written and displayed information, however.

In written information, simply make your character do strange inexplicable, pointless things without giving the readers any hints about his thought process. That would imply your point successfully enough.

In an audiovisual setting, do the same, only now you will have to exaggerate it a bit. Since there is lesser amount of fantasizing involved with a movie or drama, so you would have to hammer your character's eccentricity enough into the minds of your viewers.


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