On Monday afternoon I was handed back an assignment. I’d submitted it about three weeks ago and, while I was curious (and more than a little nervous) about the score and feedback I would receive, I was surprised when the lecturer announced in the seminar that he had with him the marked and analysed copies to return to us.
In my first ever post here, Destiny’s Implacability, I briefly discussed the possibilities of a system of, I suppose, pre-recorded and pre-ordained existences. For example: has life already been woven unto the largest tapestry ever, a tapestry interminably growing? Is there an omniscient God, spirit, or physical format controlling everything that has happened, is happening right now, and is going to happen? Seems very dubious. Much of what human beings do is determined, I think, by needs, wants, tastes, ambitions. One person’s personality can be starkly different to the next. One person might believe in a utilitarian greater good, another might fully support the ‘here and the now’, might even be a proponent for individual liberty.
This particular assignment offered me the chance to look through the eyes of a prisoner with regards to liberty and collectivism.
Art — books, films, drawings, plays — is a channel, composed by one person (or a group), which can be used as a vessel to centralise a theme, an emotion, or a situation. Sometimes novels can be criticized for being too didactic. Excoriated for lacking real character development, for having a deficient plot; for focusing too intensely on expressing moral philosophical arguments through the channel of fiction. To a large extent, I agree. There are other methods available to encourage people to be thinking solely about the state of humanity. Blogging, philosophical writings, debating societies. Short videos on the internet. They can all be very efficient and powerful in sending a message. I believe that, if a theme is to be properly represented and expressed in fiction, it must be portrayed through strong characters who are shaped, often inexorably, by a plot that — at times — a character must be almost powerless towards. At times, never always, otherwise everybody would die.
A human being in this world (which we term the real world), is as susceptible to the vicissitudes of life as a fictional character should be to a story’s plot. This is where the point of people being realistic comes in with regards to the process of writing. People have weaknesses. Everybody does. If somebody can look me in the eye and tell me they don’t have a single weakness, well, then you’re in for one hell of a future, my friend.
People have weaknesses, and people can respond to weaknesses in others. We can place a hand on somebody’s shoulder and tell them, ‘I’ve been there, too,’; ‘I’m scared of heights as well, sucks, huh?’; ‘I know what it’s like.’ We can say all of these things. If characters in films and fictional writing can be like this — somebody who, in our heads, we can make eye contact with and share that moment which anneals an abstract friendship solely between oneself and the character, then the characterization has succeeded on some level. Our wants, needs, and ambitions are shaped by our experiences. A romantic weekend in Paris with your spouse during a time of financial stability and general happiness would be an experience uplifting to behold. It would be a time of joy and mirth, of laughter and joviality. A return to Paris on business, two years later, with the spouse six months deceased…how does the whole frame change? The recollection of the streets — once glowing with freedom and the sweet melodies of birdsong. Now strung taut with memories that tug at the heartstrings. Tug tighter and tighter until they snap. The violins and the open balconies; now just noise and nosey window-watchers. We are life and life is us. The world, as far as humans are concerned, can often be shaped by perceptions. Perceptions ever shifting as we go through emotional stage after emotional stage. The difference with fiction is that our imagination can empower these people. If the story is a crime novel, the writer has the power to ensure that eventually, the murderer makes a slight error. The detective stumbles across the right clue. Subtle details that mean life or death, unjust escape or just imprisonment. A fantasy novel, perhaps — magic, dragons, other weird and wonderful creatures and forms of the other which can endow people who (in the real world) would otherwise suffer, to rise up and make themselves heard. What about a romance story where the writer, through his or her belief in how events would play out honestly, composing the final chapter in such a way that there isn’t necessarily a gross ‘happily ever after’, but so that the characters have taken something from the experience. The tapestry might not be pre-woven. It might be wholly under the control of every one of us. As we live, we each contribute to that tapestry, until certain paths collide. Some might never collide — just think…seven billion people alive right now. How many will each of us never, ever, meet, befriend, and feel passion towards? At least three quarters?
Themes do not need to be boldly smeared across the pages of a book, nor the screen of a film, as long as characters are identifiable on some level. The characters don’t even have to be human. More and more research continues to come to the fore about the intelligence and, perhaps, sympathy that certain animals can feel. And what of magical and wondrous creatures so many imaginative artists come up with? Is there anything to stop these other non-humans from feeling something humane? If the opportunity to reproduce exists among a species, might there be the possibility of intercourse for pleasure rather than to simply reproduce? And, following on from that, can these creatures, like humans, feel a passion greater than sexual lust? Characterization can enhance any story. It can allow us to see the themes (be the theme love, the sister bond, the brother bond, hatred, vengeance, death, birth, fear, cowardice, justice) through experiences that can be written or performed in an honest manner. Honest — by characters who vividly represent humanity.
The assignment I received back was a science fiction short story entitled The Thinking Men. The story is set far into the future on an Earth which has destroyed itself by testing enhanced plasma weapons on the moon, thus rupturing Earth’s only satellite and triggering seismic earthquakes and mass flooding. The story homed in on a mainland village thriving upon a collectivist philosophy, led by a man who has been imprisoning intellectuals and scholars in order to prevent individualistic, liberty-driven thoughts from challenging this leader’s attempt to recreate a society that can function on a ravaged world like this. For reasons related to plagiarism, I’m unsure yet if I can post the story on here; however, if I can attain permission, I will offer it up, for any of you still riding this rollercoaster, to read.
Why? Why should I do such a thing?
Well, in Destiny’s Implacability, some of you might recall I discussed my essay collection process. Walking to the English and Creative Writing department to pick-up an essay or portfolio. Going through the different scores I might have attained; the moment when I’d tell my father I scored a 2:1, and how I’d only missed a First Class by only one or two marks.
Well, The Thinking Men scored a First. And that got me thinking — was I destined to score my first First in the Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy module? Needless to say, I’ve been given a lift, and if we are our own arbiters with regards to this tapestry, I’m going to be trying my damned hardest to score more Firsts in the weeks and months to come.