I’m Here For an Argument, Part 3

If you missed the first two parts, they can be found here: (Part I, Part II) At some point I’ll put together an index page.

Two Dimensions of Argument

In the previous two parts, I first argued that you can divide arguments in stories up according to whether they try to argue a specific point or whether they try to explore the facets of an argument without coming to a conclusion. I then argued that you could look at the arguments in terms of who is making them: whether the points of the argument are borne entirely by the characters, or whether by the elements of the world (setting, things that are true in that story about human nature, physics, magic, etc).

Having sliced up the field crudely along two dimensions, and if I assume that these dimensions are actually orthogonal (that is, describing independent aspects) then we have four kinds of stories:

I. Exploratory stories where the characters make the arguments.

II. Exploratory stories where the world makes the arguments.

III. Persuasive stories where the characters make the arguments.

IV. Persuasive stories where the world makes the arguments.

The question naturally arises of whether these two axes really are independent. That is, is there something about the nature of making your arguments through characters vs. through the world that makes the story inherently exploratory or persuasive? Are arguments made by characters inherently exploratory, and arguments made by the world inherently persuasive? I want to say “No” and move on, but there’s this matter of authorial intent and distance that I’m having a hard time getting past.

When the argument is made purely with characters, there’s a certain distance between the author and the arguments. Hannibal Lecter can sound very intelligent, but due to the content of his character, I doubt readers think that Thomas Harris himself believes anything Lecter says. The context instead causes villains’ arguments to become a sort of challenge: “These claims can’t be true… but can you disprove them?” It adds tension at a meta-level, tension between the reader and the book.

Because of that distance, though, I think that there’s a sense that arguments made purely through what the characters say and do (even in 1st person perspective stories) are more inherently exploratory, that it’s harder to divine what the author really thinks from this sort of presentation. Call it plausible deniability, or the fictional equivalent of constantly saying “One could argue that…” Conversely, I think there’s a sense of Freudian slip to world-building, that the author is somehow making more subconscious decisions there, and so arguments made in that way are more visceral.

I think, though, that this is only tendency, and doesn’t actually reflect a deeper connection between the axes. Back in To Build A Fire, London is making the opposite argument that the character is. The character thinks he’s just fine out there, that all he needs to do is be prudent, and he acts accordingly. In fact, if you were to go through that story and strip out the lines with the character talking to himself, you’d still be left with London’s argument — but it would be less clear for lack of the contrast. It would basically just be some dude in the woods. That might be an interesting writing exercise, actually. (In some ways, that story contains not so much an argument as a counter-argument: The character explains one point of view, and the story demonstrates that it is wrong.)

Still, I’m not entirely sure that I can back up that statement that this is tendency only, so I’m going to punt the question for now. Do you have any thoughts on the subject, dear reader?

Having established what I hope will be a useful vocabulary for discussing the kinds of arguments found in stories, I now want to get into the arguments themselves. In the next part, I’m going to talk about the concept of stasis, the point of disagreement where an argument lies. (I’m not sure yet whether that post will be in one part or two)

2 thoughts on “I’m Here For an Argument, Part 3

  1. I think any of those four stories can exist, and which sort the story is will have as much to do with the reader as with the actual content of the story or what the author intended. If characters couldn’t make persuasive arguments, why would so many authors have to point out that the thoughts of the characters are not necessarily the thoughts of the authors themselves? Clearly that wasn’t the argument the author wanted the reader to take away, it wasn’t meant to be persuasive, but it was anyway. Or to go back to your Atlas Shrugged example from an earlier post – that world was definitely persuasive, but so were the characters. There’s not really anything exploratory about any of Rand’s work – she knew her answers and she wanted to make sure her readers knew them too.

    On the flip side, there are definitely stories where the world is just exploratory, or at least only meant to be. I think one of the most famous examples would have to be Starship Troopers. Hienlien’s been getting flack for being a fascist ever since, but he set up that world just to give his characters a reason to join the military so he could explore military relationships. Thus, and exploratory world read as persuasive. Lots of post-apocalyptic literature have exploratory worlds too, giving characters the room to find their own arguments as they cope with that world.

    1. One thing that I sort of left up in the air is that in stories where the world is enlisted in making the argument, the characters often are part of that. It sort of ruins my dichotomy, I suppose, but my gut says that they’re used differently. I should think about that.

      (And how could I have forgotten Heinlein! I should reread some of his stuff for the blog posts coming up.)

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