science fiction and fantasy writer

The Rumsfeldian Knowledge Matrix

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2014 at 8:45 am

The other night at the CSFG novel-writing group, El Presidente David Dufty led a discussion on making use of Campbellian and Jungian character archetypes and other advice on character from various literary greats. One thing he’d found in the course of his internet research adventures was a neat character knowledge tool that helps you quickly map what a given character knows and doesn’t know about themselves and what other characters do and don’t know about them.

I believe the original may be somewhere on one of the (many, many) Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) websites – will post a link if I find out which – [UPDATE] The reference to the original tool was found at SCBWI Southeast Scotland (thanks Dave!). It’s a cognitive psychology tool called the “Johari Window” and apparently its application to fictional characters comes  from this book by Roz Morris, but my immediate thought (out loud, because I have no internal monologue) was, “That’s Donald Rumsfeld’s knowns and unknowns!”

For those who weren’t paying attention at the time, Rumsfeld’s much-derided quote comes from a 2002 media briefing about the Iraq War/the War on Terror (noting the conflation of the two) as follows:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we know we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

According to my rudimentary research on Wikipedia, celebrity Marxist Slavoj Žižek added the missing fourth category: unknown knowns – the things which we intentionally refuse to acknowledge that we know.

My second thought was that the usefulness of this kind of tool in fiction writing is waaaaaaay broader than which of a character’s traits are known to themselves and others. You can use it to map what they know about any aspect of the story (themselves, another character, a particular plot thread, their world, etc).

One thing that’s easy to trip over when you’re writing a story is violations of point of view (POV); that is, giving your characters knowledge that they couldn’t plausibly have or that the story has previously indicated they don’t have. This can be a particular problem when you’re tackling larger and more complex stories, where characters need to know (and not know) a large number of things, and the known/unknown status of a number of those things changes over the course of the story. Plot threads develop, secrets are revealed and the characters themselves grow and change over the course of the story.

So, let’s say you’re thirty-five chapters into your epic world-spanning fantasy with eleven independent POVs (as a hypothetical example) and you find you’re struggling to keep track (surprise!) of what your characters know. As a trouble-shooting tool, at whatever point in the story and for whatever POV character you’re using at that moment, you can draw up a quick Johari Window Rumsfeldian Knowledge Matrix* to help you remember, like this:


* Yes, I’m going to call it that because I’m not enough of a wanker** to keep saying  ‘Johari Window’ without my nuts schrivelling and my left eye going all twitchy. It sounds like the incense-burning, civet-poop-latte-sipping hipster pinko kinesiologist of cognitive psychology terms And I think I’m making wider use of the concept anyway. Plus, Rumsfeldian abuse of the English language is fun.
** Well ok, just not the right kind of wanker.

What you might find, too, is that what your characters need to know at a given point in the story isn’t what they actually know – in which case you need to go back through your story and find the best point at which to give them that knowledge.

It strikes me that this is a useful planning tool, too. If you draw up two Rumsfeldian matrixes side-by-side for each of your POV characters – or for your protagonist and each of your other major characters – one for the beginning of your story and one for the end, then it becomes an easy reference guide you can use to plan out what  knowledge you need to reveal throughout your story, to whom and when. Thusly:


Remember that there should always be something important that your POV characters don’t know, right up to the very end of the story. A Shakespearean-type 5-act structure will tell you to identify the story’s intrigues before the inciting incident, set the intrigues in motion with or after the inciting incident, reveal some secrets right before the midpoint, some more right after, and withhold the rest until the resolution and aftermath of the final battle.

The last takeaway that I have from this exercise is that if you write ‘known’ and ‘unknown’ enough times close together your brain stops being able to read them as real words and then that starts infecting all the words around them. Trippy.

  1. As usual, clear, succinct and very useful. Thanks Ian.

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