1.22.2005

Consistency of Character

Matt Cheney has challenged the notion that characters have to behave consistently. This is good. I enjoy it when we challenge one another.

However, some of my comments have been turned into a strawman, a simplistic version erected to be knocked down. The main problem in this debate will be one thing: science. Some folk (Matt perhaps?) think folk who trust science fool-hardy because the science folk think they have it "all figured out." But this is a major misconception. You only have to work with scientists to know that they know much, but also know that they have many more mysteries to unravel. It's possibly impossible for one human being--even if he knew every permutation of nature--to have it all figured out.

But let's take down the straw man, point by point, and see where the difference between us lies (I suspect we're not so different). Matt writes:

"[I]f you believe human beings are fundamentally understandable, predictable, and subject to whatever you define as "the laws of nature" (apparently all figured out and bereft of mystery)."

"Fundamentally understandable?" I didn't say this, but yes, if you're willing to examine nature, you can understand it, assuming we have the time and intelligence to do so (and I suspect that anyone, whose intelligence hasn't been damaged through genetic or environmental mishap, can). Do we always understand ourselves? No, not unless we carefully examine the selves and environment impinging upon them.

"Fundamentally... predictable?" I didn't say this, but mmmaybe. If you had a godlike machine that could predict every element within nature and how every gene will respond to such environmental pressures, it's theoretically possible. But by humans? A highly dubious prospect. I suspect this may have been thrown in because we like to throw things together in threes, or maybe it was thrown in to "poison the well" for those readers who like to consider themselves unpredictable.

Again, I didn't say that we had nature "all figured out." Why is a mystery so intriguing to humans? It is a narrative hook, true (this is the kind of narrative hook that Cheney prefers although he doesn't like the term hook). But why is a mystery a hook that pulls us into narratives? Because we want to fundamentally understand it, as best we can. But as I said about predicting nature, you'd have to be godlike to do so, so how could nature be without mystery to the human being, there for us to explore and understand?

The comment on "the laws of nature" relates to Barth Anderson's comment that fiction exists outside of nature. But we humans too quickly forget we are a part of nature, as if our existence or the existence of the things we create is itself a divine existence. We seem to believe that we each appeared on Earth without procreative activity wholly natural to nature which is how every other creature on Earth appeared here. Fiction is yet another natural outgrowth of every human activity, to understand ourselves and the world we live in. It's possible to use fiction as a mystery to show that we may not understand everything, but that too is an attempt at understanding the nature of our limitations.

Matt goes on to say:

"human personality is nothing more (or less) than a congregation of chemical reactions."

This unfortunately does not back up his conclusion that "people have the capacity to be not only unpredictable, but fundamentally unknowable." But maybe Matt didn't take chemistry and finds the subject a mystery. The only possible link between these two ideas is that because we have so many chemical reactions, it is difficult to predict or "know" (problematic term with its many denotations) a human being.

(I'll step over the gratuitous cow excrement.)

Matt starts to make a good case here:

"But people do fall apart. People do things that they don't, themselves, understand, and that 20 years of therapy may only been able to give them superficial stories for. People are unpredictable, bizarre, wanton, extreme, contradictory, and utterly messy. (Shoot a railroad spike through their frontal lobe and their personality will change entirely.)"

You bet people fall apart (and don't I know it firsthand). Yet if people are inconsistent as Matt contends, how can they fall apart? This line of reasoning begins to unravel. If Matt does not believe in cause-and-effect, then why does he write, "Shoot a railroad spike through their frontal lobe and their personality will change entirely"?

It's difficult to name all the causes because nature is a huge place with interactions occuring at subatomic, molecular, cellular, organ, organism, societal, world, and other cosmic levels. But as Matt's example shows, we can narrow the possible causes down to explain their effects. (However, I highly doubt that a personality will change "entirely"--major aspects of a personality seem likely to be altered.)

Matt uses the term "unpredictable" again. Every "unpredictable" character I've known--and I hung out with quite a few that desired this attribute--behaved so for a predictable reason: attention, which hopefully led to the ultimate attribute, loved. (I ought not say every unpredictable character since the unpredictableness comes from outside the character, and I've been called unpredictable and the rest, with no intention of my being so. They just didn't happen to be in my mind when I made decisions they thought unpredictable.) Same goes for the bizarre (which is probably another term for an unpredictable character) and for the wanton.

But none of these attributes make up an inconsistent character. If you say "People are," your syntax speaks of consistency. It's quite possible to be consistently "unpredictable, bizarre, wanton, extreme, contradictory, and utterly messy."

You can even have a suddenly "wanton" character. I knew gals who suddenly became wanton in college. Why should that be? Isn't that inconsistent? No. They felt constrained by the demands of their parents while living under their roof, but once free, the girls wanted to catch up with other girls who hadn't felt so constrained or wanted to be wanted/desired/loved.

Matt writes:

"the mystery prevents readers from reducing the characters to simple, unambiguous interpretations"

Again, let's not build a strawman. There's nothing simple about understanding ourselves.

"[A] story about a pedophile who suddenly and inexplicably stops being a pedophile would be fascinating, particularly if the writer had the integrity to never offer a reason for this change of behavior."

If you take a minute to ponder this statement, you'll realize its impossibility. How can a story be about something it's not about?

Matt goes on:

"Characters in the story might try out various explanations, might offer reasons and justifications and hypotheses and guesses, but none would be adequate."

Now this might work, but it is still an attempt to understand though it probably won't be about the mystery. What the story would then be about would be that we sometimes cannot fully understand objects of mystery if you cannot identify its causes (but then one might wonder if this isn't merely another strawman: i.e. the fiction truly is a construct to justify one's personal politics or beliefs and diametrically not "mysteriously real" at all).

I need to read Cheney's reference to "Wakefield" and I'll get back on topic. Conceivably, this story will convince me of Cheney's argument. I also need to exercise and work on a story. Maybe tomorrow I'll finish up the topic. In the meantime, try to see these debates as ideas worth juggling and overlook the strawmen--unfortunately, more strawmen appear to lie ahead--to see what is at the heart of what each debater asserts.