Sometimes I suspect that age only muddles things, so that in the end I’m more confused and bewildered than before. Life seems about going from absolute assurance to fractured confusion. Instead of clarity and understanding, I get a mental fog that I get lost in. I walk through it shouting and waving my arms, hoping to find some solid ground.
I think that my method of understanding people is this. I invent a character with a set of characteristic of something that I want to explore and think about. Then I attack that characteristic and attempt to find contradictions, pressure points. The old writing advice is: “Get your character up a tree, and then throw rocks at him when he tries to climb down”. That advice is about this method I’m using.
I tend to think of it as lab work. Shoot me. I’ve had my mother for eighteen years, and I’ve been influenced. Therefore the characters I create are little bugs in a Petri dish that I do experiments on. When you think about it, that is actually quite a good simile.
The most extreme example of this ‘method’ comes from the 19th century. In 1884 the English school teacher Edwin Abbot wrote a novella called ‘Flatland‘. It was about people who lived in a two-dimensional world, unlike our three-dimensional one. The narrator is a square, and at one point he has a dream about visiting a world of one dimension. He tries to get the king of that realm to accept the second dimension.
The reason to bring up that old thing, is to make an argument in two points. The first is to illustrate this method of the characters of fiction as a laboratory exercise where Abbot, in the most extreme way, shapes his characters to fit a certain proposition. Characters are bugs, and you can give them different base values, and then add influences and nourishment to get them to do different things.
If you create a glutton, you make him starve. If you create a miser, you make the miser depend on other people’s good will. The nourishment depends on the basic characteristic of the protagonist. Any character in a novel is an experiment like this, such as the two-dimensional Mr Square.
The second point I want to make is to illustrate the limits of understanding, particularly when you realise the difficulty that the one-dimensional king must have had to understand a second dimension. That same blindness afflicts the narrator of Abbot’s book, because he can not see the third dimension initially. When he can, he is imprisoned to keep from babbling about such a thing.
In the dialectics peculiar to fiction, the character is the proposition, the plot is the antithesis, and the climax is the synthesis. There, I just poured the weight of Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and Marx and Engels over your enjoyment of fiction, but I think that my view of the novel as a dialectic is a valid one. Not the only one, but a valid one.
And it’s this dialectic, much like Abbot, that make me play out different things in my head in order to understand them. It is such a game, and I get a lot of enjoyment out of it. Maybe too much sometimes, and maybe my mental palms are growing quite hairy. But sometimes, like now, I just question the value of it – because it doesn’t become simpler.
It becomes more and more confusing as new variables are introduced, and have to be balanced. Each new character seem to have more stuff attached; stuff that can’t be removed because it would make the character into a cliché. And that’s not because the method, the dialectics become more complex, but because you realise that people are really this complex.
In mathematics there is something that was hinted at by Henri Poincaré in 1890 already, and which was further explored by Edward Lorenz who coined the name for this thing, the butterfly effect. In a non-linear deterministic system a small change can result in large changes at a later state. A butterfly in the Amazon can cause a hurrican in India, as it’s describes quite crudely in the popular press. But there is another aspect of this and that is that the variables of a chaotic system are too many to be calculable. And I feel like my characters are starting to become complex systems where I have to employ Lorenz and Poincaré to make sense of them.
Even the simplest brute, the most plain fool, the most transparent naiveté are in fact complex things; much more complex than I imagined it just a year ago. The game I’ve played with myself is becoming inscrutable because life appear to be inscrutable, and I’m not sure that I’m intelligent or patient enough to leaf through all the skins of this onion. Or it may just be 3 am speaking to me.