Thursday, September 30, 2010
Rational, Irrational, and Realistic
How often have you done something that left you wondering "what the farouk?" No, you don't have to tell me about it. I probably don't want to know. But if you're human, you've probably done a fair few things that seemed like a good idea at the time but made no sense, were downright stupid, and in extreme cases, should have got you into a lot of trouble or possibly dead.
Now, how many of those things have been the kind of thing that you couldn't put into fiction because no-one would believe it?
If you're anything like me, the answer is "most of them", and the reason is kinda sorta with a bit of a squint related to Sarah's post yesterday (Yeah. Blame Sarah. She's fine with it).
The short version is, we're wired for narrative - and wired at levels so deep we don't understand them. Something happens, and we're immediately putting some kind of story to it, whether it's that the driver who cut us off is in a hurry, the lottery association finds out your numbers and deliberately refuses to draw them (okay, that one's a joke - although there's probably someone who believes it, somewhere), that lightning strike that fried your hard drive was punishment for you not taking backups...
Of course, we're fitting the story retrospectively, so we can make it look neat and pick our options - rather like the joke about the bad golfer whose first tee off landed him in a patch of buttercups, where an angry spirit made it impossible for him to enjoy butter for a month. His next tee off he hit the pussy willow...
The thing is, when you look at it from the front end, you've got a ball going in a particular direction at a particular speed. It's going to hit something in a relatively defined area - but there's no way to tell exactly what because there are too many variables in play. So, it's got no less chance of hitting that single buttercup in the middle of the green than it has of hitting the blade of grass next door - so even though it looks like something special when the ball hits the buttercup, it actually isn't.
But unless you set it up as something special, you can't write the ball and the buttercup (oh dear... this is getting... low), because while we accept, sort of, that in life shit happens for no obvious reason, in stories it's got to have a reason. In a story, the ball has to hit that buttercup because of divine intervention, or because the golfer is insanely skilled, or even - demonstrating that human narrativium bears no relation to causality - because someone has a huge bet on the ball hitting the buttercup.
In fact, if ball meets buttercup at the end, and the hero has the bet, you have a narrative guarantee it will hit. If the antagonist is the one standing to win - especially from the hero - the ball won't hit. Narrativium rules are - as Pratchett wisely observed - so strongly wired we're disappointed when they don't happen in real life.
And what, you ask (okay, no you don't, but damn it, I'm writing this post so I get to make the rules) does this has to do with me?
Simple. If you fit your stories to the rules of narrativium, they'll seem realistic when they're not. If you write what life is actually like, it will seem utterly unrealistic, silly, and boring. Even when it shouldn't be (because let's face it, 90% of real life is the mundane stuff we'd rather not be doing).
So fire up the narrativium engines, Scotty, and pick a recent-ish bizarre event, then weave the story that makes it make sense. Just please, nothing that makes me want to claw my eyes out in self defense.