Oh, the paradox. There’s something both marvelous and horrid about a statement that is true and false at the same time. Or seems to be both, anyway. It’s great for confusing characters, adding a little local color through common phrases (“awfully good”), or writing dialogue for elves.
Wait – what?
All right. All right. It doesn’t have to be elves. It could be any character who’s accepted as wise (beyond the other characters or beyond their years): the typical old wise woman/witch, a sage on a mountain, the young savant, elves, etc. There is a specific genre of “wise person” that can benefit greatly from paradoxes.
It’s an obscurity thing. Think about typical takes on elves. They’re usually really learned (because they live so long), and as a result, they give really obscure, seemingly useless or incomprehensible advice. The same is true of all those other types mentioned. Here’s an example from a powerful witch from the spirit world in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away:
“Nothing that happens is ever forgotten even if you can’t remember it.”
Huh? Rewind. I think I missed something. If you can’t remember it, doesn’t that mean that you forgot it? You know, by definition? At the same time, the statement sounds true in a deeper, hidden meaning kind of way. In a you-have-to-meditate-on-it-for-a-hundred-years-to-get-it kind of way.
That’s the power of the wise-seeming paradox. You can baffle the audience into belief. Think of the little boy’s advice in The Matrix:
“It is not the spoon that bends. It is only yourself.”
Uh-huh. But I just saw you bend the spoon. I mean, it got all wavy, and then, it snapped back straight. Are you saying my eyes bent instead? I don’t get it. You really need to work on your step-by-step instructions. Even Neo didn’t get it.
That’s because it’s a bafflying, mystical moment, and it’s meant to be. That was kind of the whole point. Besides, if the kid had come straight out and told him the truth (remember: you’re actually in the middle of a big computer program, and the spoon – bent or otherwise – is merely a perception sent to you by said code), 1. the audience would’ve gotten annoyed/bored with the infodump and 2. the plot would’ve been derailed because the hero’s epiphany would’ve been delivered rather than earned at the end of the hero’s journey (cause that’s the story type, right?).
So what do you do if you need to give the audience and/or the main character a big clue without giving away how everything works? Throw in an obscure, wise-seeming paradox. It’ll establish the character saying it as very wise (or possibly as mad as a hatter), and it will also give an essential plot clue without coming right out and saying it.