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.

14 comments:

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

The other side of this -- and Kate, thank you for hitting it right on. Do we share a brain? -- is that when you apply narrativium to your own life, it can get you in a lot of trouble.
For instance, I had a friend -- writer, natch -- who refused to get a job, because she thought (I wish I were joking) that "The universe wants to take care of me. Something always happens when I hit bottom."
On the other side of this amiable belief, is the certainty that someone is out to get you. In publishing, unless your editor tells you she hates you, assume she doesn't. Because sometimes circumstances will align to make you think she/the publicist/the distributors DO hate you. DO NOT tell yourself stories about this.

Brendan said...

Funny thing is I have just been reading an article about how early in life we understand the workings of entropy as a primarily destructive forceToddlers recognize entropy from messy bedrooms (at about 1 year of age).

If we see anything that doesn't match our understanding of the way things are we have to make up a story of how it can happen.

Daniel Casey said...

From personal experience, making up stories to explain the why of things represents the tangible (or intangible is it?) line beyond which madness lay.

If you insist (consciously or unconsciously) in finding a story for the why of everything, and you are ego-centric enough (I used to be, just ask any one of my therapists over the years) then when things keep happening, and they're usually not good things, then you find reasons why bad things keep happening to you...
Now I look and see chaos and other's motivations, but earlier.... well, see point about ego-centric, "Just because I'm paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get me... "
Sorry Sarah, but your third paragraph brought that to mind from my distant memories...
Have a sunny day..
DOC

Daniel Casey said...

Oh my, that seems to have come not quite right, I was trying to agree with you Kate, Life is nuts, making it make sense is instinctive.

The lesson I had to learn was that it wasn't all about me...

Anyhow, embarrassed and signing off.

Dan Casey.

Kate said...

Sarah,

If you don't want me picking up your thoughts maybe you should stop broadcasting them? Honestly, this brain doesn't come with an anti-Sarah filter.

And yes, narrativium only works in stories. If you try to apply it to your life either as "things work out" or as "they're all out to get me", it ends badly.

When the personal narrativium fields starts up, I find it helps to remind myself that no, it is NOT about me, and yes, there are plenty of perfectly sensible other reasons that don't mean X hates me.

Kate said...

Brendan,

It seems to be wired in to link cause to event. Things get interesting when the "cause" and the "event" aren't actually causally linked - hence narrativium and sometime really bizarre notions of the world.

The article about kids and entropy is a fascinating one - I love the way they work these things out.

Kate said...

Daniel,

It is terribly easy to forget that the randomness we see isn't part of some grand plan - and also in some ways a lot more comforting, because even if it sucks that still means that someone is in control.

There's a reason writers have a weakness for conspiracy theories - we're so busy manipulating our worlds it's easy to forget that the real one isn't like that.

Stephen Simmons said...

Kate, your responses (none in particular, just all of them taken in gestalt) drove me to remembering the bit from the beginning of Heinlein's Friday where she's insisting that the hotel in Kenya exploding minutes after she left it must be purely coincidence, couldn't *possibly* be related to her ...

MataPam said...

I don't dare comment. The last time I publicly mention how in-control of the Universe I was, proof of the opposite arrive swiftly.

Chris L said...

When my marriage broke up, many friends said to me that "These things happen for a reason."

And they were right of course, it did happen for a reason, just not the one they ascribed to the situation.

Cause and effect is still cause and effect, even when cause is apparently innocuous and the effect is completely unexpected.

Kate said...

Stephen,

Friday was acting like a real person. A real person would think things like that couldn't possibly be about them. Of course, in fiction, yes they bloody well can!

Kate said...

Matapam,

The Universe is like that. Any claim of control is promptly and ruthlessly smacked down (aka when illusion meets fact, it's not a fair fight - which is why the delusional go to so much trouble to avoid meeting fact).

Kate said...

Chris L,

They don't usually happen for a reason, but for rather a lot of them all mixing together and making interesting messes.

Life doesn't - usually - follow a nice clear plot. Although there are times when I start thinking I should start subscribing to the theory of God the Author.

Mike said...

Late at the Store
by Mike Barker

Harry started to turn the corner in front of the grocery store, then slammed his brakes on as a car darted out of the small street in front of him. He glanced at the clock on the dashboard. "That late?" He shook his head, then waved the other car forward. "What the heck is wrong with everyone today? This is ridiculous."

Then as he turned into the grocery store parking lot, he slowed down. The truck behind him honked. But he only needed to tap his brakes lightly when the man carrying the bag of groceries walked out in front of him without looking. And stay stopped as a woman stepped off the curb behind him. The beep behind him wasn't even worth looking in the mirror.

The car going the wrong way down the one-way lanes didn't surprise him at all. He just sighed, and waited while they swung forward, then back, then fiddled some more trying to get their car parked in the slot that was angled the wrong way for the direction they were headed.

He turned around the corner of the store, and stopped again to let a woman walk across in front of him. Without looking, of course. And her children trailed along behind her, a young girl and two boys, like ducklings, talking to each other and waddling.

He pulled into a slot. Put the car in park, pulled the emergency brake up, and turned the engine off. Then he took a deep breath. "Do all the idiots come to the store now?"

He closed the door, and locked the car. It beeped, cheerfully. He tugged the handle, just to check. Then he turned and walked into the store.

Inside the door of the store, though, there was a large group of people standing. Harry pushed into the back of the group and leaned sideways, trying to see what was going on. He heard a voice from the front.

"All right, all right. I know you are just off the saucers, and you are all happy to be here. But you need to learn a few simple rules. First of all, the local motivators do not have automatic controls, so you can't just step in front of them and expect them to stop. Yes, I saw some of you wandering around in the parking lot, not paying attention! Second, do not change shape while under observation by locals. Third, please don't ingest locals unless necessary."

Harry stared at the tall green furry creature standing in the middle of the crowd. It had one large red eye, and at least four tentacles raised from its shoulders. It opened a mouth full of pointed white teeth. "Oh, and enjoy your vacation!"

Harry shook his head. "Damn, I hate tourists."

Then he went on shopping.

The End