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People. People Who–Oh, Never Mind

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Yesterday, I virtually shredded the skin on the tip of the middle finger of my right hand, and today  I’m finding it  very hard to type. 

But let me get started.  Robert commented on yesterday’s post:

>>>Barring religion and multiple personalities, we are each of us alone in our own skulls, and I have only working hypotheses about what’s going on inside the others. That’s all any of us have<<<

And I couldn’t disagree more.  Some of us do indeed have much more than this, and they don’t just “imagine” themselves as something extrinsic like a 19th century cavalry officer.

Ages ago  I did a couple of posts on characters that write themselves–that do things writers do NOT decide to make them do, that do things that even surprise the writer who is supposed to be “inventing” them.

When this goes on, what is happening is not the writer inventing in any conscious or deliberate sense, and it is not the writer imagining what it must be like to be this person.  Instead, it IS a kind of multiple personality event.  You don’t become “a 19th century cavalry officer.”   You DO become someone whose mind functions entirely on visual cues, although in your everyday life you never notice visual cues at all.  You may even be blind.

This is the reality of point of view–the ability to step out of yourself and into somebody else’s skull, the ability not to be alone in your own skull.

If you can do this AND  replicate it on a page, you’re a good writer.  If you can do this and replicate it on a page for a broad range of human personalities and minds, you’re a great writer.  It is the job of fiction, and the job of writers of fiction, to allow people who cannot do this to step inside other people’s skulls and actually experience how they operate.

That’s what it means to write a character from the “inside.”  And no character written from the inside can be entirely invented, because the fact that that character is written that way is proof positive that at least one human being (the writer himself) is capable of thinking that way. 

You can complain that such characters are not representative of their class–that your run of the mill carpenter or jewel thief or police oficer does not think and feel the way this character does–but you cannot say that such minds do not exist, because the proof that at least one does is there in front of you on the page.

Characters written from the outside, on the other hand, can be entirely false, and usually are.  They’re the ones we tend to think of as silly and artifical whenever we don’t share the political/moral/social/cultural/whatever views of the writer who hammered them into being.  They’re the fictional equivalent of those people in the studies Mike Fisher posted the link to the references to.  We laugh at Topsy and Little Eva and Uncle Tom thes days.  We still step right into the skin of Bigger Thomas. 

Robert goes on to say:

>>>But we now know why our fiction reading barely overlaps. I’ll accept a fairly broad range of thinking and behavior from characters. The last time I can remember insisting that real people just don’t behave like that, it was Princess Amadilla in ATTACK OF THE CLONES. (I was OK with Yoda.) But I accept the posited thinking or behavior so the author can get on with the story. If guessing at someone’s thought processes IS the story, the book goes back on (someone else’s) shelves.

Well, I’ll say this.

I say plot is negligible in fiction.  There are only a few dozen plots and people do them over and over again.  They’re not particularly important in a book, although the underlying narrative arc may be important in a culture.

Nor is “guessing” at a character’s thought processes the point.  If you have to guess, the fiction has failed.

The point is EXPERIENCING those thought processes, getting into that other head yourself and actually being that other mind for a while.  It’s a matter of actually being able to think like that, of stepping out of the prison of your own blood and skin and bone and taking up somebody else’s. 

The best fiction is a kind of induced multiple personality event.

The (temporary) ability to do this, and the experience of the broadest possible range of human minds, is the great gift of the arts as they have been conceived and executed in Western culture.  And it is the payoff, so to speak of the serious study of the Humanities. 

It is virtually impossible for any one of us to be fully, completely and consciously human on our own.  Each individual human being is too limited, and there are too many altneratives out there in the form of other individual human beings.   To understand what it means to be human, we have to know ourselves, but we have to know a lot more than ourselves.

This is what all the arts are for, in the West, but it is especially what fiction is for.   And it is on the basis of whether or not a book does this kind of thing that it gets serious consideration as part of the canon. 

If it was political considerations that determined what a “great book” was, Isabel Archer and Daisy Miller would have been drummed out of the club decades ago, because Henry James may have been gay, but he was a stalwart social conservative especially when it came to the role of women.  Feminists tear their hair, and the kind of academic feminist who is tone deaf to fiction tries to drive The Portrait of a Lady off the curriculum in favor of The Women’s Room, but any feminist who is not tone deaf knows that The Portrait of a Lady is a great book, even though it’s telling her a lot of things she doesn’t want to hear, and The Women’s  Room is not, even though it’s so politically correct it hurts.

Plots will never change much.  They’ve been around for millennia, and it’s seldom that a new one enters the landscape.  One of the great advantages of genre novels, if they’re otherwise well written (see definition above), is that they make it possible to ignore plot more or less completely. 

The detective will dicover the murderer and in all likelihood the murderer will be caught.

Good.  Glad we got that over with.  Now show me what you’re offering that will let me live in somebody else’s skin besides my own.

Written by janeh

January 22nd, 2009 at 9:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'People. People Who–Oh, Never Mind'

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  1. Now show me what you’re offering that will let me live in somebody else’s skin besides my own.

    I’d send you to the Russian literature stacks. If you want to get into the mind of a hopelessly passive individual, read Oblomov (he doesn’t get out of bed for the first 150 pages), or Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin for the “superfluous man,” who has all the ability, intelligence, and privilege to do something with his life, but instead wastes it away in ennui (and making other people’s lives miserable). Chekhov has a lot of the kind of people you are looking for, although he doesn’t really tell you what’s going on in their minds. In the Ravine is probably the most horrifying “crime” story I’ve ever read. And then there are Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Crime and Punishment, although they describe a peculiar kind of criminal mind. However, there is something about the narrator in Notes that resonates with today’s America – the man who does things out of spite. Of course, 19th century Russia doesn’t have a lot in common with 21st century America, but there is, now that I think about it, an odd little thread connecting them. These characters were people who just couldn’t care less, who hurt people out of spite (“spleen”), who couldn’t get it together to do something, who committed horrendous crimes in a fit of anger or to become “somebody,” who thought they were above the law or didn’t much care if they ended up in jail or dead in a duel.


    22 Jan 09 at 10:08 am

  2. You know, I take some of the above back. I just reread your piece about the kids who didn’t get anything about racism/segregation etc., and of course, that’s not the superfluous man. (Although if you’ve never read In the Ravine, I still recommend it.)

    I don’t know what it is with your kids. It’s as if two things never happened: they never saw/experienced adults learning something or reading something or watching something “just because it’s interesting.” And they never had the dots connected for them — they never saw the connection between book learning, history, literature and anything in their lives. Most/many people suffer from a version of that; they don’t see that tossing picnic litter under the trees is part of the ecological disaster around them. They don’t see that their vote counts. Or that going to a town council meeting and voting on a playground will directly affect their lives.

    I don’t know what you do. It reminds me of the moment in The Miracle Worker when Annie Sullivan spells out “water” in sign language on Helen Keller’s hand, and she suddenly gets it. It’s language! You want to think of something that makes them “get it,” but I don’t know what that is.

    Nor do I know if a kid who didn’t, at an early age, experience the intrinsic value and pleasure of learning things, can ever acquire it.


    22 Jan 09 at 3:36 pm

  3. Whether a fiction writer has successfully replicated someone’s thought processes or simply made a more plausible construction than others is not something that can be proven–only asserted. Which was my point. Repeating the assertion does not prove the point.

    I quite take the point, you understand. T. E. Lawrence wrote that to fully understand two cultures was to be insane, and certain types of literature as multiple personality events makes sense. But as you observed with narrative drive, that’s not necessarily where the good stuff is to be found.

    There are indeed a limited number of plots–Heinlein said only three. There are alleged to be a limited number of narrative arcs, though until I find a list, I’ll hedge. But the number of stories is effectively infinite. One might as well look for the last music as the last story.

    And I have no desire to become a lycanthrope in my old age.


    22 Jan 09 at 5:40 pm

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