Character Complexity through Cognitive Dissonance Theory (P1)

I am a firm believer that all stories, but speculative fiction specifically, should be character driven. This does not mean that every character needs to spend the last half of the second act crying over his problems, but it does mean that character should feel like real people so that when they make choice that center around the more speculative parts of the fiction, the choices still feel real.

Everyone has seen that romance story where someone breaks the relationship for no apparent reason or the Western where a character declines a job or help with no clear motivation, but there are also places where both of these scenarios work very well.

One convention that can help balance characters and their veracity (true-to-lifeness), is the use of Cognitive Dissonance theory in the creation or after-the-fact assessment of characters in the story. Cognitive Dissonance Theory was proposed by Leon Festinger in 1951 after studying a UFO death cult’s response to the world not actually ending when their leader had prophesized (which is a pretty interesting story by itself.)

Leon Festinger defines cognitive dissonance as “a reference to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.”

These initial attitudes beliefs and behaviors are cognitions. There are three ways that these cognitions can interact: Consonance where the two cognitions agree, irrelevance where they do not relate, and dissonance where the two cognitions are at odds.


Cognition 1: Wendy’s Frosties are delicious
Cognition 2: I am eating a Frosty


Cognition 1: Wendy’s Frosties are delicious
Cognition 2: Fake Churros drop massive amounts of crumbs


Cognition 1: Wendy’s Frosties are unacceptably fattening
Cognition 2: I  am eating a Frosty

The theory proposes human beings are unconsciously uncomfortable with dissonant beliefs and actions and, upon recognizing the inconsistency, will attempt to resolve the dissonance in one of three ways:

Change beliefs or Actions

(Change beliefs)

Luke Skywalker believes his father was killed by Darth Vader, who Sith Lord chief executor of the Imperial Army. Luke joins the rebellion to avenge his father, uncle, and aunt.

Luke Skywalker discovers Darth Vader is his father

Change: Luke Skywalker decides his father cannot be all evil and firmly believes there is enough Anakin left in Vader and that he will turn on the Emperor

(Change actions)

Black Widow killed people and committed attocities in service of the Red Room

Black Widow believes the Red Room’s purpose and tactics are wrong.

Change: Black Widow works for S.H.I.E.L.D. and uses her skills to stop terrorists and threats, even though she still believes she is a monster.

Change perception of Action

(By adjusting a cognition)

Bella loves attention from Edward and begins a relationship with him

Bella loves attention from Jacob, who eventually wants a relationship after Bella is with Edward.

Change: Bella continues to seek the same level of attention from Jacob but decides Jacob is being immature when he wants more from the relationship. (Bella could have stopped seeking attention from Jacob or decided to alter her feelings or reactions to either of boys)

(By adding new cognitions)

Batman’s parents are killed by someone breaking the law.

Batman is a vigilante, which is against the law.

Change: Batman continues his actions but adds a cognition by refusing to kill and turning criminals in to the police (Batman, however, still has to break the law as a vigilante for either of these caveats to be relevant)

Ignoring or denying conflicting information in the cognitions

Thanos believes that conflict exists in the universe because of overpopulation and therefore believes its population should be cut in half.

Thanos achieves ultimate power, including time manipulation, and uses that power to cull the herd himself.

The character does not see the dissonance consciously. Here the character has told himself that “he is the only one with the will to complete the task,” however, Dr. Strange with just one of the stones is able to see 14,000605 possibilities.

The dissonance here is that with the gauntlet, Thanos literally has all the time in the universe to find a less morbid solution and all of the power in the universe to enact that solution (with all the stones, he would not need to touch people with Loki’s staff to change their minds), and yet he still believes the only solution is one he came up with when he did not have the gauntlet–therefore ignoring the conflict created by practically infinite power.

In my novel Dusk, there is a defining scene where the main character, Cyrus, right after receiving, literally, the most shocking news he has ever received in his life, has a soldier threaten him with a rifle. After the soldier taunts him with the weapon by poking him in the chest with the barrel one too many times, Cyrus kicks him and knocks him unconscious while surrounded by other soldiers.

This action seems ludicrous out of context, but we are presented with several aspects of Cyrus’s character that combine to make the action shocking, but less nonsensical.

Cyrus cannot abide by bullies and refuses to show fear even when he is overwhelmed by it (supported by dialogue-based backstory and character interaction before this point), but the more afraid Cyrus is, the more likely he is to attempt to overwhelm the source of the fear.

Cyrus’s apparent strength here actually becomes an exploitable weakness. He seems to show extreme bravery and resilience, but directly stated or not, attacking the soldier is a representation of him balancing those two dissonant cognitions.

He cannot abide by the soldier bullying him, so he values that cognition more than his fear of death (the other soldiers he ignores are just as likely to kill him as the one in front of him, but his laser-like focus renders them irrelevant, therefore justifying the dissonance). He is able to overcome obstacles that might stop the average person, but he is also vulnerable to having his pride or fear used to distract him.

Some of these choices when dealing with dissonance can be used as motivations for believable villainy or attractive anti-heroism.

Both the Punisher and Thanos believe killing people is an acceptable means, but the Punisher realizes that he likes to kill people and adjusts his actions to confronting only violent criminals. Thanos, however, ignores the fact that with the gauntlet he has both the time and ability to enact a less grisly plan.

Attempting to articulate these ideas can become a bit wordy, but in reality, we often incorporate these ideas in character organically–especially if our characters’ motivations and actions are based on real-life observation. The most important thing is to look at the basics when you need your characters to do something rash or you want to round and flesh out the characters more. A great many of subtle story elements can be used to enhance both the narrative and the character by applying CDT-based observation on just the surface level of character generation.

We will explore this in more detail in Part 2.

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