1.25.2005

Consistency: Round-Up--Last Post

I predicted that the difference in perception would hinge on science and, lo, it did. I suspect, while it's nothing to wake Sigmund Freud from his slumber to analyze, we all have hidden or buried philosophies supporting our views, but it's difficult to speculate what, without getting to know all the characters better.

Jeff Vandermeer offers his view on character consistency.

Daniel Green has a few interesting posts on the purpose of literature: Love the text for the text only (kind of New Critic in tone--though I may be oversimplifying, yet it's hard to tell from just this) and similarly, more thoughtfully if not as forcefully wrought, reality in literature. These may in some ways be seen as challenging this view of character consistency. However, it is tiresome defending the plasticity of science from those who see it as rigidly black/white. Look at human beings. Are they built from nature? (Yes.) Are they simple? (No.) I'm all for reading the text as a text, but as they are written by human beings, they cannot escape being influenced by the culture of human beings. I'll talk a wee bit more about science when discussing Cheney's possible difficulty with the idea as presented.

Hal Duncan, who is said to have a first novel forthcoming from Tor UK, joined in the fun. The more the merrier. Unfortunately, he read Matt's commentary first and assumed I was enforcing some kind of stereotyping of characters: "A character study of a fascist might attempt to make that character 'consistent' by showing them as a psychopath." But later, in the comment section, after reading "Wakefield" and my take, he seems to see better this view of character consistency. After all, one can still be consistent with one's self even if he isn't rational, i.e. a character doesn't know why he almost OD'd on pills. It gives the character an imperative to understand himself. For whatever reason, we cannot see ourselves without distortion, so we readers have to, as Salman Rushdie said, step out of the frame and examine the picture. If our character who OD'd chose not to examine his actions, his narrative could simulate another kind of foolish Wakefield, living moment to moment, thinking only of where he'll place the next foot, never considering that the next step may lead to his demise--so that the doomed man's consistently not living the examined life.

I can also imagine someone desperate to break the rule, writing out a whole melee of characters who develop one characterization then suddenly develop a wholly different personality for no reason. At best, you could come up with an idea story, neglecting character, and at best distancing (and at worst alienating) your readers from the material. It'd be a novel experiment but limited in scope, ability, and interest.

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Recap of the story

I responded to Gwenda Bond's no-rules rule by saying that there are rules, they're just not anal-retentive ones. Matt reponded by turning my rule of internal character consistency into something rigid and inflexible and by giving some examples that break (not bend--most rules can be bent) the rule. I replied that science isn't rigid at all but describes the wide range of earth's complexity and after dissecting Wakefield, found the character well motivated and consistent to himself. At first Matt bought my reply, but then decided he's still not convinced after I said that it is not society's norm for character but the character's norm which is bound by its genes and changing environment.

(Side note: Again, it is not what society defines oddness of behavior but what is odd for that character. Alan DeNiro points out Coyote as breaking the rule when in fact Coyote is so consistent, he's an archetype.)

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Keeping it between the ditches

This is always chancy, but I'm going to speculate that what may be bothering Matt is that he doesn't consider himself at the whim of genes and environment. Maybe he thinks I'm suggesting we have no free will. I'm not. Consider genes and environment as ditches on one's wide road. The genes ditch is normally not very steep, but the environment one can be. The environment ditch might crossover and force you to drive into the gene ditch, i.e. you might never want to kill someone, but you might be goaded into doing so. However, for some, the gene ditch will be too steep and they'd rather die than kill.

(But then you can ask, Was the desire not to kill drilled in by society (environment) or one's natural inclination? The question, however, is irrelevant to this discussion.)

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Nature as author

Nature does a lot of experimenting with life. Consider them first drafts, the vast majority of which get tossed in the trash. But those lucky success stories succeed for a reason. Something in the environment was conducive to its existence. Science magazine recently reviewed a book that did nothing more than explain the design of teeth. There may be much randomness involved in creating life but its existence is allowed to succeed for a reason.

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Final Ethical Consideration

What's my buried philosophy? I worry that we may allow characters to become unknowable, so that we cease attempting to understand: be it understanding selves or the other. Certainly we have enough people fighting wars because the other is unknowable.