Sunday, March 02, 2008

Revision to the First Rule of Fiction

Okay, maybe you don't want to do the worst thing to your characters, because the worst thing you can do to fictional characters (much less living, breathing ones) is to deprive them of their free will, the ability to make choices. And characters who can't make choices can't make decisions, which makes them pretty poor pilots of plot.

This is also why the best characters are usually the ones who insist on going in directions that surprise their creators. Note to writers: The character's always right.

This is also why a world where no one could ever do anything wrong, or where nothing bad ever happened (requiring characters to figure out how to respond) would be really boring -- which is one tiny part of the always-complex response to the everlasting issue of theodicy.

Also, compromised choice is why addiction's such a terrible condition, and why people who roll their eyes and say "Well, why don't they just choose not to drink (or snort or spend or overeat or gamble or shoot up)!" don't know what they're talking about. If someone has full choice over whether to do something, it's not an addiction. Addicts are people who can't, on their own, reliably exercise free will in relation to their addiction, which is why so much recovery emphasizes abstinence. This varies with the substance, of course: one shouldn't entirely abstain from food. The usual formula is that addicts can choose whether or not to initiate use of the substance -- i.e, "pick up the first drink" -- but that at some point after they've done so, the substance controls them, rather than the other way around, in a way that non-addicts can't understand because their own free will in this area has never been compromised. The threshold of choice has to be moved way, way back: choice is a concept that still makes sense for the first drink, but may very well have evaporated by the fourth or fifth. And it takes time to figure that out.

Yes, I know, this is a simplistic analysis, and many holes can be picked in it. At some point, I'll write a fuller post about why the rhetoric of choice in relation to deprivation -- addiction, poverty, homelessness -- makes me so crazy. For the moment, these are some random thoughts during a break in grading papers.

Back to those papers! Hey, I can choose when to stop blogging! And I haven't knit all day, although doing so will be my reward if I get all the papers done by my deadline.

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