Writing Right with Dmitri: Writing Contradiction
One of the things we strive for in our fictional characters – or our non-fiction characterisations – is consistency. We try to remember that if the character is kind of timid on page 5, he/she should probably still be timid on page 304, unless something has happened in between to change the character's outlook. That's as it should be: people are remarkably consistent in their character traits. Even if they join the army, or get religion, or are set on fire by a motivational speaker, a character who is meticulous will be continue to be meticulous, even with a new set of allegiances and skills. A full arsenal of guns won't make a fearful person less fearful: just more likely to pull the trigger unnecessarily than a more confident individual. (US police departments, take note.)
One thing we tend to do, though – and we shouldn't – is to make our characters too consistent in terms of conscious attitudes. People aren't consistent that way, you know. You and I are perfectly capable of having inconsistent attitudes. For example, you may deplore personal violence, but love to watch contact sports. My maternal grandmother was like that. She wouldn't let the grandkids get too rough. But I once came into her house to hear yelling. 'Kill 'em! Get 'em good!' I found my tiny granny in front of the television, watching 'studio wrestling' (the low-budget forerunner of WWF). She was a big fan, and what they called in the business a 'Ringside Rosie' – a (usually elderly) lady with a surprising enthusiasm for staged mayhem. So it goes.
The other day, I was startled by a woman at church who was vehemently against public welfare programs – and vocal in her support for the idea of getting rich. Why was I startled by this? I know, I shouldn't be, but this same person volunteers to teach kids, and is equally vocal in her support for religious causes. How is this consistent with following the teachings of a poor man who taught that it was almost impossible for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven? It isn't, of course. It's just that it's perfectly possible for a human to have two completely contradictory notions in his or her noggin.
More Power to the People! – Let's Elect a Demagogue Nitwit to High Public Office!
I Live on Welfare! – Let's Close Down the Government!
I Believe in Free Speech! – Let's Ban That Right-Wing Speaker from Our Campus!
I could go on, but you probably get the idea. All humans are like this. And I think I've figured out why: If we couldn't hold contradictory ideas in our heads, we couldn't function in this crazy world. Our brains would suffer irreparable meltdown. The ability to form hypotheticals in our minds is both the blessing and curse of humankind.
When I got up this morning, I had one of those aha moments I usually get before I'm quite awake. I call them DIT – Direct Information Transfer – because I think they come from whispering angels. Maybe the angels are shouting, I don't know, after all, I'm hard of hearing…anyway, that's my notion and you won't talk me out of it. My DIT this morning went like this: God wanted to make the world, see? And he knew that he could do it, no problem. It would be a perfect place – for angels and other perfect beings. But humans wouldn't be able to survive in a perfect world. He didn't want to leave them out. So he made this one first – knowing full well that humans would mess it up. ('Mess' wasn't the word they used, but there's a profanity filter on this website. Angels are pretty profane.)
In other words, this world's the rough draft. And the only way we can manage in a rough-draft kind of world is to be able to entertain contradictory notions. Particularly because some of those notions are deal-breakers. They're so awful, we'd die of mental gridlock if we couldn't move on from them and work on things from a different point of view.
That's the way all humans are, whether you buy into my cosmogony or not. Humans are frustratingly inconsistent creatures when it comes to what they believe about the world. Brendan Behan was as snarky as they come: he described himself as a 'daylight atheist', capable of getting religion when the going got rough. Abraham Lincoln was so gentle he stopped to play with kittens in the middle of a military conference – and then ordered men to battle and death, because he couldn't see another way out of the mess. That's the kind of world we live in. That's the kind of humans who live on this planet. And that's what kind of humans we need to be writing about.
Oh, gack. Is that another 'nuance'? I suppose it is. We may never get to the end of them.