Saturday, February 16, 2013

One Problem (With Writing) About People

            It’s raining, and I get to my classroom drenched even though I’ve only had to cross the street from my office.  We begin a discussion of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, and many students criticize a moment in the film where Ofelia eats grapes even though she’s been warned not to do so.  (The result is bad.)  They ask, “Why would she do that?” and insist, “She wouldn’t do that.  It makes no sense.” 
            We talk about possibilities. Ofelia is a child, and children disobey.  She had shown just moments earlier that she knew better than the fairies guiding her.  She’s hungry.  All of these point to rational reasons, and maybe they explain her action.
            But, there is another possibility, and one more difficult to accept.
            I point to my still wet shirt and say, “I’m soaked.  Why?”
            “Because it’s raining.”
            “So,” I ask, “What does that tell you about me?”
            They offer possibilities:  I’m unprepared.  I’m poor and can’t afford an umbrella.  My umbrella is broken.  I was caught by surprise.
            I explain that I knew it was going to rain.  I checked the weather, and I brought a very good raincoat and umbrella to my office.  I was neither lazy nor forgetful.  Then, when it came time to walk across the street, even though I could see it was raining out the window, I simply chose not to reach for either the umbrella or the coat on a nearby chair.
            People are irrational.  We make odd, inexplicable, decisions, veering off from logical paths.
            This can be difficult to convey in fiction and narrative.
            Most of us get annoyed when a character does something unlikely for reasons of plot.  Certain types of obtuseness or inconsistency are clearly the authorial hand manipulating the story.  And, yet, I’m also uncomfortable with how frequently in critique groups, I hear something like:  “She wouldn’t do that” or “I don’t think he would say that.”  We want, even demand, a consistency in our fictional worlds that doesn’t always reflect how we live our lives (and perhaps the former stems from the latter).  We all know people who make terrible decisions, ones they can’t explain.  Most of us have done it ourselves. 
            A friend and I once made plans to cook for a household.  We decided on a lasagna recipe together, went to the grocery together, and bought the ingredients together.  We went back to the house, and suddenly she decided that she didn’t want to use what we had bought or make it the way we had talked about.  It not only changed the dynamic of the evening, but of the friendship, and to this day, I don’t know what happened.
Consistency of character. 
Isn’t it pretty to think so.

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