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Monday, March 16, 2015

Characters and plots, in writing and life

I'm a writer. Sort of. I've written quite a bit. Once upon a time my writing was mostly confined to personal communications, intended for one person at a time. Then I became a blogger, and my writing became a sort of journaling intended to be shared with the general public.  After a few years of that, I began to start flexing my fiction-writing muscles. Then I got involved with a now-defunct writing group and decided to try my hand at poetry, something I hadn't done since college.

I haven't been writing much lately. I've been doing other things, some of which I can't really talk about - though if I could, they'd make great (yet preposterously unbelievable) stories. (I may turn one of them into an opera, if I can ever connect with anyone who knows anything about opera. It's full of heroes, villains, sacrifice, love, violence, and death. Needs music, I suppose.)

Through it all I've met a lot of people. Some have been nice, some have been awful. Some have come into my life, left their mark, and vanished.

We like to think of people as complex creatures, full of layers and surprises and hidden motivations. Characters in stories tend to be much simpler: they perform functions, serve as plot devices, do what the writer needs them to do to move the story along. Characters in stories can be summed up in neat character sketches, but real people are too complex for that.

I have learned that in many cases this is simply not true.

Over and over again I have met individuals who can be described in just a few sentences. From that basic sketch you can predict most of their future behavior with a disappointingly high level of accuracy. You can hope that they will prove you wrong, surprise you, pull out a spectacular twist that reveals depth and complexity: the inner hero in the villain, the good guy waiting to be brought out of the "bad boy", the strength and courage of the timid coward.

For the most part it's wishful thinking, naive at best, dangerous at worst. It sounds like pessimism, and maybe it is. It's certainly not a new idea. "The leopard cannot change its spots," the old saying goes. The scorpion saved from drowning by the toad stings the toad to death, and when the dying toad asks it "Why?", the scorpion responds "Because it is my nature."

Accepting this suddenly opens up new pathways for predicting the future.

From every moment an infinite number of futures are possible. But only one of those futures happens, as far as we can observe. Which future that is is based on an enormous number of factors, from the quantum scale on up. Some large-scale variables are based on the decisions made by people. If those decisions are dictated by a very simple set of rules, the number of possible futures becomes very small. For certain items under consideration, a single possibility becomes far more likely than all the others.

I was involved in a situation where this came into play some time ago. It's one of those things that I can't really talk about. It was a matter of life and death. Several other individuals were involved, with one of them largely in control of the situation. I had never met her. She had attained a status in my mind of a legendary boss monster, someone others had encountered and survived, but not me. And now she had done something - we weren't sure what - which could profoundly affect the health and well-being of another person. Shortly after becoming aware of the situation, I found myself in a police station, explaining what was going on in agonizing detail to a police officer. His face betrayed an increasing level of consternation bordering on disbelief as the story went on. (A quote from Shakespeare was running through my head the whole while: "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as improbable fiction." – Twelfth Night, Act III, scene 4.) Finally we got to the end, and I did a thing you're probably not supposed to do: I conjectured. I told him what most likely happened next in the story, where he would be most likely to find the person in danger, based on my understanding of the actions and motivations of a person I had never met.

Forty minutes and many phone calls later he confirmed that every conjecture I had presented to him was correct. Unfortunately, the person who we believed to be in danger was now well beyond our reach. A few weeks later, my worst projections turned out to be true. (The police officer never knew this, as far as I know. I have long hoped to be able to run into him again to let him know.)

It wasn't the only time in the last few years I've had a chance to watch a character play out true to their brief sketch. In fact, it has become disappointingly routine. Sometimes there are surprises, but these are rare, and not always for the better.

It seems to me that what we perceive as a good or interesting or well-written character is often unrealistically written, in that they are complex and full of hidden motivations, capable of changes of personality or great or noble deeds quite unlike their real-world counterparts. Iago, the villain from Othello, is frequently criticized as being one-dimensional. He is rotten from start to finish, and unrepentantly so. He feigns an appearance of trustworthiness and honesty, but this is a falsehood from the beginning.

In the same way, plots in stories are sometimes far more complex than in real life. Greed, lust, hate, jealousy: sometimes that's all there is to a plot in real life. But stories written with such simplistic motivations will not hold readers' interest long, on bring them back for more. So we weave intricate storylines and backstories to explain motives and consequences. Because, ultimately, fiction is more than a journalistic chronicle of the acts of individuals. It has its own goals, and serves a need in the lives of readers. Writers need to recognize those needs and create characters and stories that fulfill them.