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The Internal Conflict Games

No person is truly static. No matter how much we try, we still change. The person you were yesterday is different from the person you are today. The person of tomorrow may become someone yesterday’s self would never approve of. That which mattered more than anything a year ago may be utterly pointless next Tuesday.

Time, however, is not our only form of movement. We care – in an abstract sort of way – about the state of the world and what is best for everyone. We care – in a far more definite way – about the state of our loved ones and what is best for us. We do these things simultaneously. We expect the heroic character to, of course, sacrifice their comforts or take a third option for the sake of “the people” – that is; for US. It could be argued that human virtue – in the form of the desire to help others – is an entirely selfish construct.

This is supposed to be a post on writing. Somehow, it has become philosophy. Perhaps, that is, because philosophy (of ethics, of politics, even of metaphysics) is the nebulous ghost of theory, which is then put to the test in the thought experiment we call fiction. After all, “right” and “wrong” sounds all well and good in theory, but the entire concept tends to crash and burn when we attempt to put it into practise.

If there was a true answer out there, we wouldn’t have spent the entire history of the human species fighting over it.

Justice, right, wrong, good, evil, duty, worth, bacon, necktie, these are all social constructs. They are not universal truths. The general agreement in society is that good people try to help as many other people as possible – that the Good Guys are there to help the masses – and the general population will always support stories of this fashion, because it encourages others to protect them in times of crisis. In other words: the common view of right and wrong is inherently biased in favour of personal gain.

Apart from not upsetting your readers, there is no reason you have to hold to this point of view in your writing. If you write a protagonist who believes that people aren’t worth saving, but who saves them anyway, you are complying with this social construct. If you do not comply with this heavily enforced and entirely arbitrary ruling on what “Right” is, your character will be labelled as a villain and you yourself may gain a similar label.

So, what do you do? Do you do what is easy or do you do what is … well, it isn’t “right” is it? It’s just what you believe is right. Do you take the path of least resistance or do you do what you believe in?

Here’s the funny thing about that: it doesn’t matter.

Oh, it’ll certainly matter to you – if you even view the above dilemma as a dilemma at all. What matters in reality is: what you can live with (most people wouldn’t call it a dilemma because they stand to gain from the status quo of what “heroic” means, while I don’t view it as a dilemma because I’m fed up with the status quo telling me to sacrifice myself for others who will never return the favour – and often view it as something I owe them, not that I’ve ever done any hero-ing, but from the philosophical standpoint).

What matters in fiction is the existence of the dilemma itself.

We call this internal conflict. The backbone of character-focused works. The bloody, beating heart of a deep and rounded character. The thing that inevitably spawns dozens of alternative character interpretations and fan arguments about who was “right” – even if the work explicitly says that no such thing as “right” exists.

Internal conflict can be very subtle. What we believe about one thing may clash with what we believe about another – and we may go on believing both until something, from outside or inside, puts them visibly at loggerheads.

It does not have to be as showy as “who do I save” (maybe quit and go have pizza, instead? They’ll both be goners by the time you’ve decided anyway) or “who do I side with?” (again, maybe just go have pizza). It does not exist when a Hero is clearly The Good Guy and the Temptation by The Bad Guy is painfully obvious and the Hero would never do that anyway because he’s on the side of Good.

Internal conflict is subtle. It is murky. It is that grey area where right and wrong are entirely arbitrary ideals which the protagonist is creating, altering, and eventually judging all on their own. If which choice is “the right thing to do” is obvious, there can be no conflict because the answer is, again, OBVIOUS.

What is right? What is wrong? Is there right? Is there wrong? What do I want to do? What do I think I should do? Is what society thinks I should do right? What the heck would society know about it anyway?

Internal conflict – or, as Martin paraphrasing Faulkner put it “the human heart in conflict with itself” – is philosophy. Specifically, it is all those bright, clear theories mercilessly taken away from their loving academics and dropped into a giant, gruesome test simulator by the world’s authors. Because academic philosophy is all nice in theory, but it really doesn’t understand or know how to cope with humanity and reality.

Or, if you want to think of it that way, internal conflict is The Hunger Games for ideologies. Which, let’s be honest, makes it pretty bloody interesting.

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Posted by on October 18, 2017 in On Writing

 

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Commonly Misused Words

Allergy: Physical reaction of “cannot cope” from the body, in response to some object contact. Not “I don’t like this”.  Having an allergy means having an abnormal (and often serious) medical reaction to a certain stimulus (an allergen). If you tell the people employed in a restaurant that you are allergic to something, you are asking them to clean everything an extra time to make sure you don’t die. If you’re saying that you’re allergic just because you don’t like something, you are physically not allergic and are metaphorically being a dick. Try just asking politely if they could serve whatever it is you’re ordering without the thing you don’t like.

Anarchy: Without government. Rejecting hierarchy. Without leaders. Leaderless. None of that, you’ll note, includes “chaotic hellhole of violent rampaging survivalists who immediately turned on each other once there were no richer, higher ranking people to tell them what to do” which is how anarchy is typically viewed. See, that second definition – the inaccurate one – is entirely from Hobbes’ view of human nature. Namely, that class systems (yes, Hobbes was what we would call Classist) were necessary because human nature was a cruel animalistic sort of thing. Now, that’s a gross generalisation, but you get the point. Yes, some people calling themselves anarchists have caused political chaos and yes some people who have been called anarchists by others have caused political chaos (such as Guy Fawkes who explicitly wanted to replace the government with a theocracy – a desire which absolutely excludes anarchy as they are completely incompatible!). But most anarchists, despite the word being usurped to refer to militant groups in political wars who just happen to want a different government than the one American news stations support, are not in agreement with Hobbes on human nature. Anarchists think that society without government – without leaders – could work. As in: it could be a functioning society. In fact, that it could be a better functioning society than any governed society. Why? Because genuine anarchists take the opposite view to Hobbes: they think that without class systems and leaders (and countries) to divide us humans would actually be better to each other. As in: anarchists – especially anarcho-pacifists, which is one of the bigger sub-divisions of anarchists – are probably more optimistic and peaceful people than most others. Because in order to genuinely believe that people would work together in a functional society if there were no laws (and thus no threats) to keep them behaving, you have to be able to look at all the horrible injustice and evil that humans do to each other and still be able to truly, truly, believe that humanity is, by nature, better than that. So next time you’re about to write that “the battlefield was anarchy”, stop and ask yourself: Is the battlefield really a society without government? Or is it just a bloody, chaotic, mess full of screaming people who aren’t actually sure what’s going on right not and are just out to save themselves? For that matter, which one of those options actually evokes the image you’re going for? I’m betting it’s the latter.

Assault: Not actually the same thing as battery. Assault is an attempt or threat of harmful or offensive contact with a person. Battery is actually managing it. If someone charges at you with a sock full of batteries: it’s assault. If they actually manage to hit you with the sock full of batteries: it’s battery.

Ichor: Not actually the infallible touchstone of the seventh rate. Nor, however, a generic garnish for gelatinous oozes and other slimy horrors. Ichor has two very specific meanings and two alone. It is either an acrid and watery discharge from wounds or ulcers, or it is the blood of the gods in Ancient Greek Mythology – in which case it is golden in colour and poisonous to mortals.

Interpret: To construe, understand, construct or render in a particular way. To make a hypothesis about what something could be, rather than to give a fact about what it was meant to be. It’s fine for a literary critic or English teacher to say “the author didn’t mean X but a reader can apply X meaning to it” just so long as they don’t do what they all currently do, while bellowing about why the author is dead, which is to say “the author meant X” when the author has said they did not. It’s also perfectly fine to say “the author said they meant Y, not X, but they did a really shitty job of incorporating that into the text and so a reader can easily interpret it to mean X”, just not “the author, who has said they did not mean X, meant X”. The only person who can know what someone meant is the person who meant something. Or, to clarify the difference between what someone meant and what can be interpreted from their words or actions: “I didn’t mean to stand on your foot” “Yeah, but you’re still on my foot and it hurts so get the fuck off”.

Literally:  Despite what the internet may have implied at you, “literally” does not mean “metaphorically very much”. It means “really” as in actually in real life happening really. For example, if someone says “I am just venting about this topic and do not want any responses because it literally gives me blood pressure problems to just think about it for a second, and it triggers my anxiety problems” they are not saying that it like metaphorically riles them a bit. They are saying that bringing it up at them, after a direct plea that you not do that, is going to cause them real life medical issues and, thus having been warned, that if you choose to do so anyway you are knowingly and wilfully causing them medical problems. Similarly, Jon Oliver metaphorically destroys social issues on his show, but literally destroys a piñata (not multiple piñatas). No, seriously. Go look that up on youtube.

 Meant: In all its forms, meaning is an intention. A thing can mean something different to many different people, but no one can “unintentionally” mean something. Something can have other potential meanings than the one you meant (that is: can be interpreted differently) but you can’t unintentionally mean something. Meaning is by definition an intention. So when your English teacher or friendly local literary critic tells you that “the author meant X” when the author has explicitly said “I did NOT mean X”, they are a liar. They also think they know better than the original creator and yet, at the same time, they don’t understand the definitions of basic English words. What these people are trying to say, I presume, is; “The author meant X but it’s not explicit in the text and therefore it can also be interpreted by other people in way X”.  But they really need to actually say that.

Poisonous: Not the same as venomous. No, really. In the former case you die if you bite it, in the latter case you die if it bites you. Poisonous can also refer to gasses and liquids, but neither of those is going bite you. Typically the mix up here is writers describing snakes or arachnids as poisonous (which they technically could be, but in which case you need to show your character eating them) rather than, say, super-intelligent clouds of carbon monoxide swooping around and nipping at people.

Reign/Rein/Rain: If you “reign” in your horse, you are the ruling power inside your horse. If you “rain” in your horse you are a cloud precipitating in a most disturbing location. If, however, you “rein” in your horse, you’re just exerting pressure on the bridle in order to control the animal you are riding.

 

 
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Posted by on July 22, 2016 in On Writing

 

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What is Quality?

I suppose I need to apologise again for disappearing for so long. I seem to be doing little else but that on this blog of late. But now that the helping with someone moving house situation is over, I ought to have a bit more time for this. This post is more of a thought-piece than an opinion-piece.

 

Most people who want to be writers seek to be either successful (in finance and fame) writers or writers known for making quality writing. The word literature used to hold a connotation of being high-quality writing, as opposed to all other “lesser” writing, but now it just is pretty much synonymous with fiction and is applied to anything moderately successful. According to dictionaries, quality is many things, but the definition of it which is applicable to writing is “character with respect to fineness or excellence” – and that’s character as in “the aggregate features and traits that form the individual nature of a person or thing”, not as in “fictional person the author puts through hell for the readers’ amusement”. But the thing is: that’s a completely useless definition.

So what actually makes quality writing? Well, obviously not success because (this is the go to example, given the sheer amount of criticism it has received) Twilight and also the majority of the miszpellld fanfiction ob deh internetz!!!1! which get frighteningly large amounts of positive reviews in comparison to the well-crafted and properly spelled, in character fanfics. It’s also not a question, despite what many “serious” writers of tedious real-world-setting dramas may think, of genre because – while I am going on hearsay rather than personal experience here because I’ve never been inclined to read those genres (I haven’t read Twilight either, despite how often I take jabs at it) – there are plenty of quality romance and erotic works out there. They might not have the most philosophical of content, but if seriously questioning ethics, the universe and everything is the key to defining quality then no one’s written anything but trash since Kierkegaard. (Show of hands: who managed to not fall asleep while reading Kierkegaard? Has anyone here actually read Kierkegaard? Did you think, the first time you heard it, that Captain Kirk was guarding something?)

It could be argued that having deep characters or a lot of world building is what’s required for a work to be quality, but many of the great names in Science Fiction basically had cardboard tour-guide characters to show off their cool science ideas for chapter after chapter of math and baffling terminology, while world building is just as unfair a point in definition as genre as world building is the foundation of Speculative Fiction but mostly unnecessary in, say, real world drama or crime novels. Even grammar and spelling being used accurately is not a brilliant gage of quality, although the better the grammar and spelling the more likely a work is to be good quality, because grammar and spelling change over time (you may have been taught in school that starting a sentence with “And” is wrong, but many of the major quality authors out there who have begins with “And” sentences in their works – like George R. R. Martin, who is held up almost universally as an example of quality writing, the way Twilight is almost universally regarded as being very poorly written). Grammar and spelling is certainly a factor, but it isn’t the complete definition.

Often quality is associated with clever language use and choosing the best word, but not every work needs to be packed with juxtaposed antithesis and anaphora (ten points if you know which famous piece of literature opens with that particular pair of techniques) and other extravagantly named techniques or gratuitous amounts of exceedingly sophisticated terminology and units of language in order to facilitate that dubious and non-corporeal status of fineness and excellence. In fact, trying too hard to be clever with language and choosy with word use can, like in that last sentence, actually damage the quality and readers’ ability to comprehend what the hell the writer is trying to say. Likewise, it would be tempting to say that quality is about not using clichés, but what counts as cliché changes with time – in an almost cyclic fashion, akin to how water droplets become part of the giant masses called oceans, then rise to become clouds, rain down on everyone to make them miserable and the plants very happy, and then steadily grows in strength as it goes from stream to river and eventually back into the oceans. But, more importantly, clichés become so ubiquitous because when they are used well they don’t come across as trite (unless you’re stubbornly determined to find something wrong with everything or are suffering from some form of Mary-Sue Paranoia because the idea that female characters can be just as vivid, special, and powerful as the typical main male character without being “badly written” or “unrealistic” because the idea that women are people and capable of being competent scares you – in which case I’d like to suggest you try the perfectly cliché cliff to the left of the stage for you to go clichély jump off). To use my go-to example of good writing: A Song of Ice and Fire contains many things which could be considered cliché – the mad boy king who is a sadist, the heroic bastard, the purple-eyed princess with the pet magical beasts, and the ten million prophecies – but Martin makes them work. The mad boy king is from a far more violent society than we are and so less likely to view what he does as wrong or repulsive, while also essentially being a stupid teenage boy on a power-high, the heroic bastard has to live with the actual social ramifications and restrictions of being a bastard in that sort of society and is by no means viewed as a hero by everyone, the princess avoids being a Mary-Sue (despite having many of the traits often associated with them) because they are played out in ways that makes sense (the eyes are a racial trait, the pet magical beasts are far more beast than pet, being a princess only gets her assassination attempts, etc) and the ten million prophecies are both suitably confusing and free from any guarantees of accuracy or genuine fortune-telling.

I could burble for hours about how excellent his choice of words is (although I, who has repeatedly read entire dictionaries for fun, do keep a dictionary tab open on my computer when I read ASOIAF for when I run into the occasion rare or no longer used word like niello). I could talk about how he’s genuinely built a complete world and all the literary techniques I spotted while reading. I could talk about how deep and well developed his characters are and how he manages to give the readers all the pertinent information without breaking from the third person limited. But while all of those things are factors in what makes a work quality, I think Martin’s magnum opus is a good example of what makes something quality for a very different reason.

The story is king. Not the characters, no matter how much the author might like one better than another. Not the whims of the readers (trying to please readers is an almost universal guarantee that the quality of a work will fall), not the rules grammar and spelling, not what is or isn’t cliché, not the conventions of the genre, not any meaning or message carried within the work, not clever literary and rhetoric techniques, not even what the author might prefer to happen. The STORY is king.

Obviously, correctly used grammar and spelling, well chosen words and techniques, deep characters, significant world building, realism, the ability to dig the bones of a concept out of a dead cliché and make them work again, are all important factors in what makes Martin’s writing such an excellent example of, well, literary excellence, but it is the fact that the story is treated as the most important factor – that which everything else is part of and bends to, rather than which is part of or bent to some other factor – that makes quality.

Quality can never be defined clearly by one factor or another, because it is about how everything works together for the story. Quality is about how everything makes logical sense based on the rules of reality as presented in that story, about how everything that is (not just that happens) has consequences and causes, about how everything remains consistent to itself and coheres with the rest of the reality the story creates. Quality is about choosing to have, or not have, rhetoric techniques and this word or that based on how it works for the story rather than how fancy, plain, accurate, or cliché it may or may not be. Quality is about knowing your grammar and spelling so well that you can know how and when to deviate from it if the story so requires. Quality is about exploring or not exploring the depths of a character based on what the story needs.

At least, that’s my best guess. Quality is one of those annoyingly non-corporeal things which cannot be measured easily and just about everyone has a different opinion on what makes a work quality. What do you think?

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2016 in On Writing

 

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