I’m Here For an Argument, Part 2

In my previous post on argument, I talked about what I saw as one basic division in story arguments. I suggested that there were two basic kinds of arguments being made in fiction: where there is a point being put forward, and where the story is being used to explore multiple sides of an argument without really coming to a conclusion.

Who Makes The Argument?

Now I’m going to confuse things further and make another coarse division along the dimension of the form of the fictional argument in terms not of what kind of argument is being made, but how the story puts ideas forward:

  1. The characters make the argument.
  2. The world makes the argument.

In the first group, the characters, their actions, and their identities represent the argument being made. The world is mere fact. Think Goofus and Gallant, for example, or certain characters from Dickens, whose very names indicate the sort of people they are and instruct the reader (subtly or otherwise) what to think of the things those characters do. In Oedipus Rex, circumstances may conspire against the characters like crazy, but all the characters are free to act.

In To Build a Fire, Jack London states pretty much straight-up, “after fifty below, a man should travel with a partner” and goes into excruciating detail about exactly why that is, using a believable character. That part about the believable character is important to the argument: If anyone is going to prove that dictum false, the unimaginative, self-sufficient character in that story would. The argument would not have been as strong if the character were a child or an obvious idiot; it would have left the reader skeptical. The world in that story may have been at its harshest, but it acted fairly and predictably in response to what he did.

In the second group, there are the characters and their actions just as before… but somehow the laws of physics, human nature, probability, and just generally the events beyond the control of the characters all conspire to make things turn out the way the author wants in terms of the argument. I don’t mean so much Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “dark and stormy night” in Paul Clifford, where conveniently bad weather was enlisted to set the tone. Think instead Atlas Shrugged: whatever you may think of the very obvious argument being put forth, Ayn Rand enlists the world to help make that argument. Her characters go off to the mountains and the rest of society falls apart on cue and can’t get up. More subtly, human emotions in her story also seem to obey the needs of her argument: when Taggart’s affections switch from Rearden to Galt, the reactions of the people involved seem curiously muted. *

Or at the extreme, think of the Wizard of Oz, which is reputed to be an allegory about the switch to the gold standard. All the details of Oz, by that reasoning, are winks and nods to various aspects of an argument about monetary policy: the yellow brick road takes you to a fairy land, the silver slippers bring you home to good old Kansas, yada yada. The characters in the story merely react — or even ignore the argument being made in favor of being entertainingly distracting from the point. (I don’t actually buy that argument that the WoO was such a thing, by the way, but it’s still a good example.)

Think too of what it means to Neo to be The One in the movie The Matrix. In the first part of the movie, the assertion is made about Neo by other characters, and still other characters disagree or are ambivalent, but the world is silent on the subject. He gets beat up, and we cheer. Then in the latter part of the movie, the world weighs in: “Yeah… Dude’s totally The One.” So he lives, and we’re sad. (Then there’s two more movies and we’re really sad)

In that example, if the argument is about the nature of faith, the argument is very different when the world makes an argument by picking a side. If, on the other hand, the argument is about the nature of responsibility, then I think that the world really hasn’t picked a side, it’s just changing the conditions for the argument: first, what is your responsibility if you don’t know whether you’re The One? Then, what is your responsibility if you do know?

As with the question of kind of argument in Part I, the division here is also actually more of a continuum: My Jack London example is stronger, for example, if I admit that the world is conspiring with him just a little to make those arguments, especially that tree full of snow. Luck is a player here: I’ve said elsewhere as a rule of thumb that if the novel’s protagonist benefits from lucky breaks, the reader may feel cheated. But when making an argument, something that is bad for the protagonist and ramps up tension in wonderful ways, may be a convenient cheat in terms of an underlying argument. There is potentially a tension between the needs of the story and the needs of an argument being made. What’s narratively useful may undermine an argument, and vice versa: the desire to make an argument can wreck a story, as Count Tolstoy demonstrated. We’ll address this further, later.

It is also worth noting that people who are real partisans of an argument will be resistent to the suggestion that the world is helping make the argument. It can be seen as a slur on an author to say that in order to make their arguments they must misrepresent human nature. People who really dig objectivism may object to my characterization above about Atlas Shrugged; they may say, “But wait, my good sir! You have erred!” (I said they “may” say that, I didn’t say they would) “If the titans of industry really did take their belongings and go on strike, then society would surely collapse in precisely the manner described!” This leads to an important point: where on this axis a story lies may depend in no small part on whether the reader agrees with the foundations of the argument that the author is making. In this case, Rand and I failed to achieve agreement on what can be taken as a given about human nature, and as a result I find her argument less compelling. When I discuss the concept of stasis, we’ll revisit this issue.

On the subject of partisans, though, the subject came up in the comments of the last post of authorial intent: can a story make an argument by accident? I think so, yes, in a number of ways, just as a politician can stand up and wind up convincing the crowd of utterly unintended things. (Be proud of me, I resisted some serious temptation right there. As should you in the comments, please.) Unconscious assumptions can come through, the reader can interpret subtle or unclear hints in an unintended way (or even interpret things like names or word choice as a kind of code), or the writer can just argue badly. For example, I’ve written a short story only to be told by a beta reader that one of the character names was a slur in Portuguese: rereading with that in mind, the story came off very differently! So this is something that’s important to be aware of, that it’s easy for the reader to see an argument where none is intended. Other than discussing authorial intent a little later once I’ve thought about it some more, I’m going to steer clear of the accidental argument, at least until I have something more intelligent to say on the subject.

This brings an end to Part II. Thank you, everyone who commented in or linked to Part I! In Part III I’m going to bring these two dimensions together, briefly, then get on with the subject of argument parts in future parts.

* I don’t mean plot-induced stupidity here, necessarily, where people do things because if they don’t the author is stuck and the plot can’t move forward. The plot to Atlas Shrugged really would have worked just fine if Taggart had stayed with Rearden — it is Rand’s argument about how attraction ought to work that would have fallen flat. This is a choice, then: is the story subordinate to the argument, or is the argument subordinate to the story?

11 thoughts on “I’m Here For an Argument, Part 2

  1. Thanks for a series of posts that’s made me think. I have a friend who’s starting a writing career and I sent her a link to this series — she loved it.

    I’ll come back if my thoughts on this lead anywhere interesting, but for now I just want to say: that Jack London story was maybe not the best thing for me to read first thing in the morning with subzero windchill outside and austere thermostat settings inside. But a really lovely story all the same, and one I hadn’t read before; thanks for the link.

    1. I’m glad you both liked it, because there’s more coming 🙂

      Yeah… I think of that story every now and then when it’s bitterly cold outside. One of the few “had to read it in high school” stories I still think fondly of. I don’t think I’ve ever seen fifty below, but ten below feels close enough for me, thanksverymuch.

  2. This is part of why the older I get, the harder it is for me to be convinced by fiction. I’m too likely to wonder if the author simply got human nature or the way the world works wrong. It’s very easy to make a convincing seeming world with a convincing seeming point if it’s in fiction. But often things don’t work the way we think they do. Studying psychology is what made me fully break from Objectivism. I learned how much people don’t behave the way people think they do. And Objectivism is based on a whole bunch of premises about how people will behave in various ways in various circumstances that I no longer think holds up pretty much at all. But a well-written story can often be convincing, at least temporarily, even if the people aren’t realistic. Especially since people often want to think they behave differently than they do.

    Anyhow, I like non-fiction a lot better now. But it’s still hard not to be persuaded by a truly good story. Stories do have power. It’s part of why I have such a fascination with fairy tales. Embedded within a lot of fairy tales are details about what the culture valued and thought proper. And seeing how a story changed across centuries tells you things about the changes in what the culture valued and changes in what the culture thought made for appropriate stories.

    1. Having expertise in a particular area is a very good way, as a reader, to lose suspension of disbelief. The minute you come across something that you know isn’t true, presented in a way that makes it clear that the author thinks it is true, breaks you right out of the story. When that happens, it’s very hard to get back into it. The more you know about something that writers like to talk about (like psychology in your case or robotics in mine) the harder it is to enjoy fiction that’s… not as well-researched as it could be.

      Suspension of disbelief has a lot to do with both good fiction and making persuasive arguments. I’m not sure I have anything intelligent to say about it for these posts — it actually tends to undermine a lot of what I want to say about good arguments, because I think it lets good writers get away with bad arguments (for a little while) and hinders unskilled writers in making sound arguments.

      Fairy tales are interesting, especially in light of the changes you talk about. I’m really only familiar with the last hundred years or so for most of these stories, but I’ve generally seen the Grimms’ versions of stories (which I tend to think of as the “originals” though of course that’s not true), and then Disney’s versions, scrubbed of the darkness and gore. Lately I see a lot of fairy tales from modern adult perspectives: they restore a lot of the darkness and some of the gore, and instead scrub out outdated social roles and mores. I wonder how these retellings will change in turn. I think that musical retellings will make a comeback.

      1. I’m not familiar with the progression of many fairy tales, although I wish I were. The two I tend to remember interesting details about (as opposed to minor details like Rapunzel outing herself in later versions by saying something really stupid like, “Why are you so much heavier than the Prince?”, which she would know would reveal things and dumbs her down a bit versus in earlier versions where she asks, “Why is my stomach getting bigger?” which she has no reason to understand, because nobody has explained pregnancy to her and she has lived her entire life locked in a tower) are Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. Little Red (who doesn’t even have the color red as part of her story initially, although it sticks once added, because it is so appropriate) starts off in the earliest version I know of as a deeply disturbing tale that involves a strip tease and cannibalism, but Little Red is clever and rescues herself from the wolf. She has to run home naked to do it, but she does get away. This is notable, as very, very few fairy tale females save anyone, themselves included (there are others, but it is rare, and it bothers me that Little Red had this honor and lost it). In the next transition the story becomes a little less disturbing, except that the wolf eats her. Then there is the modern version where the woodsman is added to rescue her and grandma after they get eaten (and if it isn’t too cleaned up a modern version, they then fill the wolf’s belly with rocks to have him suffer in agony, if I recall correctly). I’m not really sure what to read into those changes, although I do understand why people wanted to clean up the story a bit. Cinderella is far, far more fascinating, because the entire moral gets reversed. The early Europeans versions (I have read and enjoyed an early Chinese version, and I wish I could remember it clearly, other than that it involves a magical fish who aids her throughout, I cannot, alas) always make it fairly clear that Cinderella is a person of noble birth, but that her stepmother is forcing her into a lowly position. The treatment is wrong, because it goes against her natural position. It is one of many fairy tales about how wrong it is to go against the natural social order and ends with the proper social order being restored, showing that even if you force someone high born into a low born position their true status will still shine through and make it wrong for them, and punishing those who seek to disrupt the social system. The modern tale always casts Cinderella as of low social status by birth, and makes it a tale about how it doesn’t matter what social position you inherit, it is who you are inside that matters and that will be recognized. We call it a “Cinderella story” when someone who is born with disadvantages wins the heart of someone who is rich and famous or whatever. But it is a complete rewriting of the point of the story, because the attitude of society has changed. It’s just funny that you can flip the moral utterly with so few changes to the story itself that the story has lasted almost entirely intact.

        But it is that ability to change and to reflect a society’s values that makes me find them fascinating. Oh, and in one version there’s a lovely little bit about the tree that grew over her mother’s grave bearing fruit, but it would only yield its fruit to Cinderella. Her stepmother was denying her food, but the tree was feeding her. It mentions, “When her sisters noticed her newfound beauty…”, by which, of course, it meant that she gained weight. Little details that would not last in a modern version. There is so much to learn about a culture from its stories.

  3. Yesterday someone linked to this web game: http://playspent.org/

    the point of which is to instill compassion for the homeless by demonstrating how easy it is to run out of money. As I was describing this game to Graham, I realized that the question you raise in this post — does the world the author creates conspire against the protagonist? — applies to video games like this one. It’s hard for me to tell what the answer is without either seeing the code or running it a whole bunch of times. The thing that knocked me out of competition in the game, while not implausible, did feel a bit like deus ex machina (you’re doing OK and suddenly, whoops! you run into someone’s car in the parking lot). It would be interesting to know if it’s actually POSSIBLE to win.

    1. Oh yes, that’s an excellent example. Games have to simulate agency in their world without really giving all the options, so often fall prey to the false dichotomy fallacy. This one doesn’t so much fall prey to that as jump. The one that eventually made me quit was it coming up and saying “You need to get more exercise! Your choices are to pay $25 to get a gym membership, or post something on Facebook!” Um, no. Hell no. There’s a valid point to be made that people often suffer when they don’t realize what their options are, but the game isn’t making that point. (Also, allowing someone to basically get a free pass in the game by advertising it strikes me as self-defeating. I understand why — they want people to play and “be educated”, but still.)

      It’s also subject to the suspension-of-disbelief issue that Rachel talked about. For example, it randomly kept popping up child-related stuff: “Hey, you want to do this, but we just remembered that your persona in this game has a child, the only function of which is to make you choose between fun stuff and money. And now you’re done with this storylet, so we’re going to forget about this child for a while.” Every time something happened that made me think the game was ill thought out (even though this particular thing made the game easier) I wondered what else they screwed up that I hadn’t noticed.

      1. Yeah, at one point it said, “You owe $350 for a pet fee” and Graham was like “Since when does my character have a pet!?”

        I think the main point was awareness-raising, so probably it would’ve been counterproductive to put more hours into making it a less bad game. But yeah, it’s got holes.

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