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:
- The characters make the argument.
- 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?