Writing As Respect

Recently I wrote a short story in which my main character took a position I personally completely disagree with. The details were unimportant; what is important is something that happened after I finished the story. Even though I ended up critiquing the mindset my character had, writing from his perspective brought something to mind.

Even though, by the end of the story, I still disagreed with the viewpoint, I respected it a bit more. It wasn’t that writing from his perspective had changed my mind, but rather it had shifted my perception–even if only a little bit. I saw the rationale behind the ideas he espoused. I understood the frustrations the ideas were born out of.

And really, this shouldn’t surprise me. It’s not anything new to say that writing is empathy–in fact, I’ve written on it before.

Pablo Picasso is often quoted as saying, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” I want to take that in a way that Picasso probably didn’t intend. When I wrote this character, which all his flaws, with all his opinions I disagreed with, I thought that he was lying in many of his declarations.

To put it simply, I thought, and still think, that many of the things he said were wrong–in the sense that they were not accurate representations of reality. But now let me apply Picasso to this story to explain precisely what I’m trying to get at. While this story was hardly art, it was, in a sense, a lie to (hopefully) tell the truth. My character may have been wrong, but through displaying the opinion of my character, I understood a little bit better the rationale behind that opinion.

Through writing what I believed to be a lie, I understand better the reality of why people hold the idea, or at least I hope so. So perhaps this is something else we can add to what is quickly becoming a list of “Writing As [Blank]” posts. Writing is thinking, writing is empathy, and maybe writing is also respect.

Could I be completely misguided in this? Absolutely, and because of that I’m curious to hear what you have to say. Is it valid to think of writing as respect?

The Strange Case of Mr. Chesterton and Dr. Frankenstein

In Romans 1:18, the Apostle Paul makes a universal–and quite startling–statement. He speaks of those who lack belief in God, and challenges an assertion often made by them. Many believe that atheists simply lack a particular belief. To put it differently, they believe in nothing. What Paul says is that atheists are a myth. There is no one who doesn’t believe in God. Paul tells us that all men, regardless of their stated beliefs, know God exists. According to Paul, people simply suppress this truth.

But Paul doesn’t just stop there, instead going on to say that those who suppress the truth “exchange the truth about God for a lie.” In other words, people do not simply lack a belief in God–they replace that belief with something else. English journalist and philosopher G.K. Chesterton got at this same point when he said, “When people stop believing in God, they won’t believe in nothing, they’ll believe in anything.” In other words, when people suppress the truth of God they don’t just forget about it, rather they replace it with something else–they replace it with a lie.

G.K. Chesterton Photo

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson I believe show their main characters displaying much of the same behavior that Paul talks about in Romans 1. Specifically, these two literary works deal with the concept of self-deception. Though they approach the subject in slightly different ways, it seems that the theme is quite obvious.

Frankenstein’s self-deception is blatant, ultimately leading to the destruction of his happiness and the lives of everyone around him. Dr. Jekyll’s self deception is subtler, and played out on a smaller and more intimate scale. But Dr. Jekyll’s self-deception leads to the same thing that Frankenstein’s does: it leads to his own destruction. I believe these two works show us different aspects of the concept of self-deception, as well as different consequences of it. Ultimately what ends up happening, I believe, is that both stories affirm Chesterton’s words, though slightly augmented. When people stop believing in the truth, it’s not that they believe in nothing. When people stop believing in truth, they will believe in anything.

Before we examine self-deception in light of these two works, a definition of self-deception is needed. Collins English Dictionary defines self-deception as, “the act or an instance of deceiving oneself, especially as to the true nature of one’s feelings or motives.” Only a few comments are needed on this definition. First, even though Collins Dictionary explicitly states that self-deception often concerns emotions or motives, this is not the only type of self-deception. Rather, one can deceive oneself as to just about anything, which is what the first part of the definition gets at.

The second thing that needs to be said is that the definition makes clear that this is a willful action. Self-deception is an act perpetrated by the self-deceiver. Those who lie to themselves do not do so accidentally–rather it is a definite and specific act of believing in a false reality.

With an understanding of self-deception set, seeing it in Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde should be fairly easy. Let’s start with Frankenstein, primarily because the self-deception is blatant, as I said before. Frankenstein’s plot is well-known: Frankenstein, an obsessive scientist creates a creature, then rejects that creature. The creature runs off, seeking to integrate himself into the world. But everywhere he turns he meets only sorrow and hatred–people do not accept him in the least. The anger and vitriol begins to build, until finally the creature goes on a murderous rampage, killing all of Frankenstein’s closest friends.

Where does the self-deception come in? It begins, I believe, when the first murder occurs. Frankenstein receives a letter telling him that his nephew William has been killed, and immediately sets out to go comfort his family. But on the way there, Frankenstein sees the creature and realizes that he must have killed William.

Immediately the self-deception begins. Frankenstein is sorrowful that he created the monster, bemoaning the sadness it has brought him. When Justine, a good friend of Frankenstein’s family, is framed by the monster the sorrow only increases. The guilt piles up, but even here Frankenstein refuses to face reality. Though he is sad he created the beast, he fails to recognize that he is directly responsible for both William’s death and Justine’s conviction.

His rejection of his own creation started the monster on a trajectory of murder and destruction. But throughout the story, as the bodies pile up, Frankenstein still refuses to accept this. The deception is subtle, but it is most certainly there.

Instead of taking the blame for the murders, Frankenstein shifts it to the monster. When he meets the creature in the mountains he reviles him, going on and on about how evil the creature is. The blame is no longer on Frankenstein–the murders aren’t his fault, they are the monster’s fault.

Now to be sure, Frankenstein feels guilty for creating the creature but there is never an acknowledgement that it was his ambition–his obsessive drive to control life–that led to the death of his nephew, his friends, his father, and even his wife. All that is the monster’s fault. Where does this leave Frankenstein at the end? At the end of the book Frankenstein is alone and lost. His obsession is still there, though it is reversed. Now he is obsessed with destroying the creature, but he still has failed to take the blame on himself. He believes that justice will be served with the death of the creature because he believes that all the murders are directly and solely the fault of the creature. He does not consider that he may have acted unjustly himself. His self-deception has left him destitute and tormented by grief.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, like I said, plays this self-deception out on a smaller scale. Due to the unconventional nature of the story structure, the deception only becomes obvious at the end. When Dr. Jekyll discovers a way to split his personality, incarnating all that is evil in him in the person of Mr. Hyde, he believes he can control it. After all, Jekyll reasons, Mr. Hyde will only appear when I take the concoction, and he will disappear in a definite amount of time.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Book Cover

Slowly, however, Mr. Hyde begins to take over. This, of course, relays a more conventional message: playing with evil is like playing with fire–someone is going to get burned. But I also believe it touches on something else. Dr. Jekyll, despite the slow loss of control the audience sees going on, still believes he can control Mr. Hyde. He tells himself over and over again that he is in control. Of course, this is all a lie. Mr. Hyde eventually completely takes over leading to the death of Dr. Jekyll.

Jekyll played with fire and deceived himself into thinking he was immune to the heat. But deception is just deception, and eventually he was burned. It’s a tragic ending, but perhaps an inevitable one.

Reflecting on self-deception as displayed in these two works brings something interesting to light. It seems that Frankenstein displays an outward self-deception, while The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde displays an inward self-deception. What I mean by this is that Frankenstein deceives himself about the true nature of events going on around him. He forces himself to believe that the murders occurring are not his fault.

Dr. Jekyll, however, deceives himself about his own nature and his own power. Instead of feeding himself a false reality about the reason and motive for events going on around him, he tells himself a story about his own abilities and desires. Frankenstein lies about the world around him. Dr. Jekyll lies about himself.

I do not believe it is necessary to ask the question as to which is worse. In fact, I believe doing so would miss the point entirely. Self-deception is dangerous and destructive. Whether that destruction touches everyone around us, or whether it simply wrecks ourselves can differ from scenario to scenario. But what these two works say loud and clear is that reality needs to be recognized, and when it isn’t Chesterton is right.

Frankenstein tells us that failing to recognize reality as it pertains to our own culpability doesn’t lead to us simply having no opinion as to who is culpable–it leads to us blaming the wrong person. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tells us that failing to accurately assess our own abilities doesn’t lead to us having no view of ourselves. Rather, it leads to us overestimating or underestimating who we are.

And so, from this cursory examination, it seems like Chesterton was right, as he often is. When we stop believing the truth–whether that truth is about our own guilt or our own frailty–we do not believe in nothing. Instead, we believe in anything. And that may be far, far more dangerous.

Is There a Story Without a Fall?

Stuart Kelly recently wrote an article entitled, “Do Good Characters Inevitably Make for Bad Fiction?” in The Guardian. The article is interesting, and well-worth a look. The basic question Kelly asks centers around the idea that morally upright characters–flawless characters, if you will–are usually boring.

I’ve certainly experienced this myself, and I’m sure you have. One of my main complaints with the Captain America series is that the title character is so incredibly boring precisely because he is so good. There’s so little development in his character because there’s nothing to develop. In fact, I have no idea how he’d become a better person than he already is.

There are numerous other examples, and they seem to follow a pattern. Morally upright characters seem to usually be boring. And so, I think Kelly has a point. We find Michael Corleone more interesting than Captain America. Or, to keep the comparisons within the same genre, Iron Man is more interesting that Captain America. But is Kelly completely right? Do morally upright characters inevitably make for bad stories?

Captain America was boring, to me, but why was that?I want to say something right up front: I take issue with the way the question is worded. Simply put, it seems odd to say that, “in fiction-writing X inevitably leads to Y.” The word “inevitable” implies certainty, and that often makes me uncomfortable. Fiction-writing is an art, and art is a tricky thing.

Unlike a science, art is difficult, in my opinion, to break down to the point where one can say that X always lead to Y. Sure, there are exceptions, but I’m not sure the question of morally upright characters is one of them.

So, if possible, it might be helpful to look at the question slightly differently: do good characters usually make for bad fiction? And my answer to that takes from two of Tolkien’s comments on stories:

“There is no story without a fall. All stories are ultimately about the Fall.”

This is an especially interesting comment. If there is no story, no narrative, without a fall from good to evil, it seems that our characters must be morally ambiguous. Good characters haven’t fallen, or if they have, they’ve already been redeemed. But there’s one more comment to take into consideration:

“You can only come to the morning through the shadows.”

From those two quotes, I think a tentative answer to the question is, “yes.” If the characters are not fallen or do not fall, if they are morally upright, then, according to Tolkien, there is no story. In the world that we live in, the morning must be reached through the shadows–and that’s where most stories live.

Most stories seem to live in that time of shadows before the morning. If you take out the shadows, if you take out the danger, the fear, and the struggles then you take out the conflict, it seems. And if you take out the conflict…what’s the story?

I suppose, at the end of the day, the question has to do with what Tolkien said. Is there a story without a fall? That question, of course, begs a far larger one: “what is a story?” I won’t attempt to answer that here, but I will say this: I think these are good questions, at least for me, as a writer, to ask. What is the effect of a good character? I have a tentative answer, but what’s yours?

The Wages of the Anti-Hero and the Almost-Hero Part 2

This is the continuation of a post that began here. I highly suggest reading that first.

The next plot point is “meeting the mentor,” and here is where things truly become fascinating. In the Hero’s Journey, the mentor is supposed to be the one who pushes the hero and gives him the resolve to finally do the right thing. In both Hamlet and Macbeth, this is turned on its head. The mentor in Macbeth appears to be Lady Macbeth. But Lady Macbeth doesn’t push Macbeth to do the right thing, though she does give him resolve. She pushed him to do the wrong thing, and therein we see Macbeth inverting the plot structure. Macbeth’s call to action is finally being fulfilled at the urging of his mentor–and the fulfillment of it is dark and evil.

Hamlet is an interesting case, since there doesn’t appear to be a mentor figure, per say. There is an event, however, that fulfills the same purpose as the mentor would, and that is the play that Hamlet puts on. In this play that Hamlet ensures Claudius is watching, someone is murdered in a way similar to how Hamlet imagines Claudius would have killed his father, if he did at all. Claudius reacts with guilt to the play, and Hamlet’s resolve is given to him. The play seems to act the part of the mentor, providing the push necessary for the rest of the plot, and the rest of the Hero’s Journey. For both Hamlet and Macbeth, they have crossed the threshold, which is the next part of the Hero’s Journey, according to Bronzite. They have both committed to their actions, and are now seeking to fulfill their calls. There is no turning back.

At this point the heroes have crossed the threshold, and are now in the thick of the plot. The next part in the archetype is what Bronzite calls “tests, allies, and enemies.” This is what most of us think of when we think of the middle of a story. Hamlet and Macbeth face many obstacles–Macbeth must find a way around the King’s guards, and must throw off any suspicion that he was the murderer. Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius and is sent away to England, making it difficult for him to fulfill his call.

The Hero’s Journey archetype now calls for “the approach to the inmost cave,” in which the hero must finally confront the enemy he has been trying to defeat. For Macbeth, the inmost cave appears to be the final battle, when his castle comes under siege. His perceived call to fulfill the prophecy is reaching its climax–will he remain King? For Hamlet, the inmost cave is slightly easier to pin down. Hamlet returns from England–literally “approaching” the inmost cave–and agrees to fight Laertes. He knows that King Claudius will be there and he has not forgotten his call. It doesn’t appear, based on a first reading of the play, that Hamlet necessarily believes that he will kill Claudius here, but from a bird’s eye view, this scene represents the inmost cave.

Next, the Supreme Ordeal takes place. This is the actual final battle, and it is easily found in both plays. For Hamlet, this is the fight with Laertes, his mother’s death, and his killing of Claudius. For Macbeth, this is the battle for his castle, in which he kills many characters, and survives up until the very end. It’s a brutal ordeal for them both, but they are both fulfilling–or seeking to fulfill–their accepted calls. Hamlet kills his enemies and avenges his father by killing Claudius, but not before he is poisoned himself. Macbeth survives till the end and it appears that the prophecy might come true. But then the structure is truly turned on its head.

Directly after the Supreme Ordeal, the reward, or what Bronzite calls the “seizing of the sword” is supposed to occur. The hero triumphs, his call fulfilled, and obtains his reward. The reward is meant to be triumphant–truly rewarding.

But where the reward should be, what do we find for both our “hero’s?” We find death. Hamlet survives the Supreme Ordeal, taking his revenge and thus fulfilling the call–and his reward is death. Macbeth’s fulfillment of his perceived call ends in his beheading. The reward is death.

There are actually three other parts to the Hero’s Journey, according to Bronzite. “The road back,” the “resurrection,” and the “return with the elixir.” It doesn’t appear that any of these happen in either Hamlet or Macbeth. The Supreme Ordeal leads to the Reward, and the story ends. Why? Because taking the place of the reward is death.

These are, without doubt, chilling endings. It’s fascinating that both of these stories follow the Hero’s Journey, albeit in their own twisted ways, up until this point where everything goes wrong. The hero is supposed to be triumphant, but the anti-hero of Macbeth and the almost-hero of Hamlet are not. What does this tell us? That is almost another paper in itself, but several questions are certainly raised. What happens when one is not the hero? What happens when the call to action is a call to evil? When the Supreme Ordeal is a bloody and brutal moment? Is the reward always death to these types of people?

Hamlet and Macbeth show us two version of the Hero’s Journey, it seems. And I cannot help but ask one question that, to me, overshadows all the others. Especially considering the Bronzite-named “Reward,” one must realize something. Viewed strictly through the lens of the Hero’s Journey, the reward of Hamlet and Macbeth is death. What am I getting at? Both Hamlet and Macbeth do evil in their stories. This leads me to one final question: do the anti-and-almost-Hero’s Journeys of Macbeth and Hamlet reaffirm the Apostle Paul’s words? Are the wages of the almost-hero and the anti-hero death?

Do You Want to See a Magic Trick? A Review (and Defense) of Interstellar

Random fact time: a few months ago I was really into illusions. My interest and abilities have tapered off, but as a magician I learned one thing very quickly. More important to a good trick than executing the moves is how you sell the trick. If you sell the trick as “the laws of science are being disproven,” it’ll usually fall flat. People won’t buy that. If you sell the trick as a question, though, people will usually accept it.

The question is simple: do you want to see a magic trick? Contained within that are layers and layers of questions. Do you want to see a mystery? Will you come with me on a journey? Will you suspend your disbelief so that I can show you something extraordinary? A really good magician, and a really great trick, capitalizes on those questions perfectly.

Christopher Nolan is a really good magician. Interstellar, his latest film, is a really great trick.

Interstellar hinges on the audience accepting one thing. I highly encourage you to accept it, because the journey is so very worth it.

I say that because of one thing: Interstellar is fundamentally different from many of Nolan’s previous films. Interstellar doesn’t invite you to scrutinize its plot half to death. Interstellar doesn’t invite you to rigorously apply the laws of logic to it. Unlike Inception, for example, Interstellar is something entirely different–and it knows it.

In Interstellar, Nolan tells a tale that hinges on the audience’s accepting one rule. That rule is stated up front, within the first ten minutes, and is hammered home throughout the film: within the world of Interstellar, anything that can happen, will happen. If you accept the rule, Nolan gives you wonders. If you accept the rule, Nolan gives you a breathtakingly expansive and thrilling plot. He gives you a beautifully developed relationship, fantastic performances, and a heart wrenching drama.

But first, you have to accept the rule.

If you do the film is phenomenal. Like I said, the plot hits all its beats perfectly, gliding smoothly along. Even when the science gets wonky and the exposition is unclear, the relationship at the heart of the film carries the audience through. And what a relationship it is.

Interstellar, simply and without spoilers, is about a man named Cooper, and his quest to find a new world for the dying human race to inhabit. He has a family and a life back on earth, but he leaves it all behind with a promise to his daughter: I’m coming back.

Interstellar hinges on the relationship between Cooper and his daughter. In fact, the film’s heart isn’t what it’s been billed as. Nolan seems to be less interested in humanity finding a habitable world, and more interested in Cooper trying to get home. And the way that desire for home is developed, is beautiful. Even as the team tries to find a new home for humanity, Cooper knows he’ll never be home unless his daughter, Murphy, is there.

The audience feels that ache, and that longing, viscerally, and Nolan takes that to new levels. For example, because of relativity, time passes far more slowly for Cooper than for Murphy and the rest of the people back on earth. Those people are, somehow, able to send Cooper messages, though Cooper can’t reply.

Every time Cooper watches those, the emotions rage–both for him, and for the audience. And like I said before, those emotions form the heart of the film. By the end, the audience, like Nolan, almost cares more about Cooper getting home than him saving the human race.

That takes skill to pull off, but Nolan rises to the task with considerable aplomb. Except for, of course, one thing.

The film, if nothing ielse, is most certainly visually stunning.

All of the drama, all the emotion, everything in the film past the ten minute mark necessitates the audience accept the rule–that anything that can happen, will happen. And so, at the end of the day, the feeling I have about the film hinges on what I said at the very beginning.

Interstellar is a magic trick, and Nolan is a magician. Like any magic trick, the magician can sell it as best he can, but the magician can only sell it. Nolan sells the rule the film is based on as best he can, but he can only sell it–he can’t make the audience buy the rule. So Interstellar ends up throwing itself on the mercy of its audience, and Nolan asks very similar questions to those asked by a magician.

Nolan asks you, the audience, right at the beginning of the film, do you want to see something extraordinary? Do you want to see emotions and relationships stretched across years and years, forcing a visceral reaction? Do you want to see a thrilling plot? And just like the magician, Nolan’s questions can be summarized into one. The magician asks, “Do you want to see a magic trick?

Nolan asks, “Do you want me to tell you a story?” I answered yes, and I encourage you to the do same.

The Effect of Stories

“Stories you read when you’re the right age never quite leave you. You may forget who wrote them or what the story was called. Sometimes you’ll forget precisely what happened, but if a story touches you it will stay with you, haunting the places in your mind that you rarely ever visit.”–Neil Gaiman

The Wages of the Anti-Hero and the Almost-Hero Part 1

Like Hamlet, the writer is often faced with a simple dilemma: rules or no rules, that is the question. Sometimes, however, that dilemma is rephrased: outline or no outline, that is the question. In other words, should one write an outline of a story before writing the story itself, or should one simply sit down and let what comes come? The battle between the two camps rages on. Some writers, though, have taken a different route. Instead of talking about whether or not one should have a preconceived outline or structure going into a story, they look back on already created stories and search for the common structures in all of them. People like Joseph Campbell, famous for his book A Hero With A Thousand Faces, have discovered an outline that emerges from myths and stories in all sorts of cultures. People call this outline, or structure, the “hero’s journey.”

Hamlet and Macbeth, two plays by William Shakespeare, have many things in common with this “hero’s journey,” and thus with each other. Yet at the same time, while they in many respects follow this narrative structure, they both represent interesting twists on it. Macbeth represents a sort of anti-hero’s journey, while Hamlet seems to portray a hero’s journey gone wrong. Or, if you will, Hamlet portrays the almost-hero’s journey. In order to explain these concepts and highlight the similarities and differences between these two plays, a point-by-point examination of the hero’s journey and Hamlet’s and Macbeth’s relationship to it is in order.

The hero’s journey starts out with what screenwriter Dan Bronzite calls the “ordinary world.” This is simply the world before the action–what happens before the plot kicks in. Here we are introduced to our characters and their hopes, dreams, and fears. Here is our first point of divergence between Hamlet and Macbeth.

Macbeth presents a rather normal “ordinary world.” A victory has been won, Macbeth is returning home to his castle–all is well. With Hamlet, on the other hand, the “ordinary world” is anything but. While Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, and his stepfather, King Claudius, see the world as ordinary, Hamlet sees a world filled with sadness. He himself is sad over the death of his father, and he sees no end to his grief. Immediately, then, Hamlet appears to deviate from this story structure. It may seem that Hamlet has nothing in common with the Hero’s Journey. Or at least, it may seem that way until the second plot point of the Hero’s Journey narrative structure.

The second part of the Hero’s Journey is what Bronzite names the “call to adventure.” This is precisely what it sounds like–a call to action, to do something. The hero is told that he or she must act, for whatever reason. Whether that call be to defeat the Empire, as in Star Wars, or to take the ring to Mount Doom, in Lord of the Rings, the call is there. Here, Hamlet and Macbeth fall perfectly into the archetype.

Macbeth receives a proto-call to action. His encounter with the Weird Sisters, and their prophecy that he would take the throne, calls him to action. Of course he wants to take the throne! And of course, Macbeth is a little taken aback by this call. This leads directly to point number three in the Hero’s Journey, the “refusal of the call.” Macbeth reacts against the Sister’s prophecy:

“By Sinel’s death I know I am thane of Glamis/but how of Cawdor? The thane of Cawdor lives/a prosperous gentleman, and to be king/stands not within the prospect of belief.”

This is a clear refusal–the declaration that Macbeth being king does not even stand “within the prospect of belief.”

In Hamlet the same happens. Hamlet receives a call to action by a ghost who appears to be his father. The ghost tells him that he was murdered by King Claudius, and calls Hamlet to avenge his death. But Hamlet immediately second guesses himself. Is this ghost telling the truth? Is the ghost really his father? Was his father really murdered by Claudius? Bronzite says this about the “refusal of the call:”

“Although the Hero may be eager to accept the quest, at this stage he will have fears that need overcoming. Second thoughts or even deep personal doubts as to whether or not he is up to the challenge.”

This personifies precisely what Hamlet and Macbeth go through, but here we already see the twists coming on. The “call to action” is almost always a call to defeat evil. Both Hamlet and Macbeth are called to do dark things–Macbeth to do an outright wicked thing. Both seem to be stunned by the violence, perhaps physical violence and perhaps simply emotional violence, required by their calls. And so they hold back, thus falling into the structure perfectly.