The Disruptive Force in the Story

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The protagonist of my first novel, Nimri, has a personality that in real life would be Kryptonite to me.  (Whichever kind of Kryptonite it is that saps Superman’s strength.  Green, I think.)

On the MBTI, Nimri is an ESTP:

Extraverted

Sensing (i.e. concrete)

Thinking (no special desire to please people)

Perceiving (adaptable)

ESTPs are observant, energetic, and crude.  David Keirsey, in his book Please Understand Me II, calls them Promoters:

Witty, clever, and fun, they live with a theatrical flourish … Promoters have a knack for knowing where the action is.  ESTPs have a hearty appetite for the finer things in life … Promoters are so engaging with people that they might seem to possess an unusual amount of empathy, when in fact this is not the case.  Rather, they are uncanny at reading people’s faces and observing their body language … ESTPs keep their eyes on their audience, and with nerves of steel they will use this information to achieve the ends they have in mind – which is to sell the customer in some way.  Promoters can be hard-nosed utilitarians … they can keep their cool in crises and operate freely … although they ordinarily have little patience with following through and mopping up.

Keirsey, Please Understand Me II, pp. 64 – 65

How Did This Guy Get in The Story?

I’m an INFP.  I have little natural sympathy for this type. Thus, I didn’t set out to write an ESTP character.  But I also didn’t set out to write a likeable character, which perhaps helped open the door to a temperament I wouldn’t normally consider.

When I began writing the novel, I only knew that Nimri was smart, strong, snobbish, and involved in building the Tower of Babel (the ultimate project to promote).  I knew I was going to put him in a difficult situation where he’d be humbled and have a chance at redemption.   Once I put him in this situation (paraplegic, being cared for by people he once looked down upon, and unable to speak their language), ESTP is the personality that naturally emerged.

At first, Nimri behaves like a jerk, which is what we would expect of anyone in such a situation but especially of this personality type.  He first yells at his rescuers and attempts to order them around even though they can’t understand him. He then falls silent and begins to observe them.  Later, he tries to assault one of their young women, at which point they start treating him like a prisoner.  (ESTPs, remember, are crude and utilitarian.)

At this point, Nimri’s Promoter gifts kick in and start to serve him well.  He is energetic and adaptable, so instead of brooding, he starts a diary and occupies himself with things like arm exercises.  His ability to read people’s body language helps him as he observes his captors and begins to figure out their names and who is related to whom. When he eventually picks up a little of their language, he begins joking with them.  His concrete nature helps him find tasks he can do, such as music and weaving.

By the end of his time with his captors, Nimri does find redemption … but not by turning into an INFP.  Instead, the positive aspects of his Promoter personality start to shine.  He becomes what you might call a “good” ESTP.  Still a source of energy, but energy that’s a bit more positive.  Red Kryptonite.

Yet whether using his talents poorly or well, Nimri is a disruptive force in the story. 

Some People Are Like That

Perhaps you know a person like this.  Some people need only enter a room – or just walk by it – and chaos immediately breaks out.  Disruption follows in their wake.  They don’t even need to do anything (although they usually do).  In Nimri’s case, he causes a stir even when sitting imprisoned in his room not talking to anyone.

And We Need Them

Though I started out to write Nimri as an unlikeable character in need of redemption (as are we all), I actually needed his maddening nature more than I realized.  A story needs a disruptive force to keep things moving.  Jordan Peterson would say, speaking his language of archetypes, that we need a balance between the forces of order and the forces of chaos.  Too much chaos and society falls apart, but too much order can be stifling, enslaving.  And so in a novel.  You need a steady source of trouble or nothing will happen in your story.

(By the way, Peterson relies heavily on Jung for his archetypes. Concidentally, the MBTI is also derived – distantly – from Jung’s work.  I realize there are problems with the MBTI and there would certainly be problems with trying to draw solely on Jung for your complete philosophy of life.  However, both are useful when talking about stories.)

The disruptive force in a story is often the villain.  It can be that character that readers love to hate.  Or it could be something more abstract, like Nature.  In some stories of the sane-man-in-a-crazy-world variety, almost all the characters are colorful and disruptive, and only the protagonist is vainly trying to hold things in order.  This is true of Dave Barry’s novels, of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, and of the TV series King of the Hill (all of them comedies).  It’s a little more difficult if you’re writing a “serious” novel and wish to have a number of admirable characters.  You can’t make them all admirable, or no one will cause trouble, and then where will you be? Still, stories can accommodate more than one disruptor.  It’s often best if you have several, including some outside force and one or more characters closer to home.  In Beowulf, Grendel is the monster but Beowulf himself disrupts Hrothgar’s court by his arrival, and he is also challenged by Hrothgar’s designated mocker.

What’s a favorite story of yours and who is the disruptor in it?

When Life Organizes Itself Thematically

Another WordPress blogger, BlackSheep, was posting last week about “weird coincidences.”  He posed the question, “Do you think the universe reveals things to us serendipitously, or are the things that happen to us just due to mathematical chance?”

When I thought about this question, I realized that such coincidences happen to me regularly.  This is especially strange because I don’t believe in them.  

In fiction, I expect thematic unity.  If coincidences happen, I expect there to be a good narrative reason for them and I expect them to move the story forward.  But this is not fiction, this is real life.  Coincidences don’t happen, and events don’t organize themselves according to theme.

Except that they do, and … they do.

I have come up with the following handy taxonomy of weird coincidences for your enjoyment.  Afterward, we’ll talk about possible causes.

1. Striking But Trivial

Often, like BlackSheep’s example with the pizza, coincidences might be striking but they seem trivial and they lead nowhere in particular.

For example, once I was passing through Yellowstone and I knew I’d be seeing my sister soon.  On a whim, I bought her a stuffed raccoon.  There was absolutely no history involving raccoons between her and me; I just thought it was cute.

When I saw my sister, I said to her, “I have a gift for you in the car.”

And she said, “Is it a raccoon?”

You can’t tell me that wasn’t weird.

Nor could you convince me that it means anything. (Other than that maybe my sister is a mind reader.  But why did she read my mind about that, and not about much bigger things that I’d rather have had her instantly understand? Who knows?)

2. Foreshadowing Life Events

Perhaps, while reading above, you objected to the phrase “trivial.”  “How can we know which events are trivial?”  you ask.  Well, good point.  Sometimes a seemingly minor coincidence looks more significant (though still kind of baffling) in retrospect because of how things turn out.

When I was young and eligible, I met this guy.  He heard I was from Idaho (a relatively rural state with a relatively low population).  He said, “Oh, you’re from Idaho?  Do you know ____________?”

And just as I was preparing to say, “Not all Idahoans know one another, you know,” he said the name. 

And it was of a writer I admired and had actually met.

Furthermore, I ended up marrying the guy who asked the question.

And his first name is the same as my father’s.

Now, the tricky thing about these foreshadowing coincidences is this.  They don’t tell you as much as you’d think.

They don’t serve very well as guidance from God, at least not if they are your sole source of it, because they don’t happen often enough to guide you through every important decision in your life.

They are not a substitute for wisdom.  You still have to take into account Reasons.  I’d’ve been a fool to have married the guy on the spot. 

Sometimes these coincidences do, along with a host of other factors, seem to confirm you are taking the right path. But even then, it is possible to start down the right path and at the same time be making serious mistakes that will come back to bite you later.  And the stupid coincidences don’t give you any warning about your blind spots.  At least not in any form that you can use.

So what are these foreshadowings for?  I don’t know.  Perhaps their occurrence is not intended but is more of a natural law analogous to the laws of physics … “Future events cast backward shadows” or something like that.  But that’s getting into causes, and I’m getting ahead of myself.

3. When a Theme Emerges (over a short period of time)

This is when your attention keeps getting drawn to a particular theme, but it’s coming from different sources that are unrelated to each other.  For example, you are reading (or writing) a novel that has a particular theme, and then you also hear a radio broadcast on the same topic, and a friend also brings up the theme over lunch.

Granted, you are the missing link between all of these.  Maybe the reason the theme keeps coming up is that you keep bringing it up, or seeking it out.  But I think we’ve all had experiences where the theme keeps pursuing us, as it were, from the outside.  

Christians will tell you that this happens a lot with Scripture.  The Bible has a lot of verses and a lot of themes, as anyone who studies it knows.  So it does seem striking when, say, you have been memorizing a passage with your kids one week, and then on that Sunday, the sermon includes a quote from that very verse.  But this happens often.

The Psalms, by the way, are great for this.  There are 150 Psalms, most of them short.  This means that if you read five a day, you can read through all of them in a 30-day month (skipping most of Psalm 119, the really long one).  And I can tell you that if you do this, on about 25 days of that month (or possibly all 30), one of the Psalms you read will have a direct bearing on a situation you are in.  And this is not because the Psalms are filled with a lot of vague language that could be applied to anything.  I mean, some of them are worship, some are laments, some are imprecatory (calling down vengeance on one’s enemies), some are historical or prophetic.  Many are cries for help.  But these different types are not evenly distributed throughout the book in such a way that you’d be sure every day to get one of each. 

4. When People Become Magnets for Certain Events

This can be a really tragic one.  We’ve all heard anecdotally that once someone is struck by lightning and survives, they are more likely to get struck again – and again.  I don’t know whether that’s been verified, but I do know of two families each of whom experienced two or more horrible, life-changing car crashes within a few years.  And it wasn’t because they were drunk driving or anything like that. And they lived in rural, non-high-traffic areas.

You often hear about this phenomenon in cases where someone repeatedly runs into abusive situations – say, at home, then in another home, then at church, then at work.  Or at job after job.  The temptation is to seek the reason for this recurrence in the behavior of the victim: to say “She keeps marrying the same kind of guy” or “He has problems with authority.”  And there might be something to that, sometimes, sure.  But after looking at the families with the car crashes, I think there might be more going on.  It’s as if there is such a thing as a luck switch, and God help you if yours gets flipped in the wrong direction.

Unfortunately, all the examples I could think of for people being “event magnets” were bad ones.  Does anyone know of a case where a particular person seemed to attract a particular kind of event that was either good, neutral, or just funny?

Causes for Weird Coincidences

Ok, now back to the question asked by BlackSheep.

Do you think the universe reveals things to us serendipitously, or are the things that happen to us just due to mathematical chance?”

Mathematical Odds plus Pattern Recognition

We all know that the human mind is predisposed to detect patterns.  This is useful, as patterns occur in the actual world and we couldn’t act if we couldn’t detect them. In fact, experts on culture crossing will tell you that it is difficult to really see an object unless you know what you are looking at, and it is difficult to repeat back a string of sounds unless you know what they mean.  Our very perception is tied up with patterns.  We literally can’t function without them.

But equally, we all know that this urge to detect patterns is so strong that it sometimes leads us astray.  Every pattern that we perceive also forces us to ignore data that don’t fit it.  Everyone has heard of Confirmation Bias.  Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions points out that even scientists, supposedly very data-driven, will not give up on a previous theory unless they have been presented with a compelling alternative.  In other words, we’re not willing to say “there’s no pattern here” once we have seen one.  Instead, we will refuse to abandon a previous pattern unless there is a new one for us to hang our data on.

In some cases, our expectation of a pattern will actually cause us to perceive data that isn’t there, simply because it fits the pattern.  This is especially true when interpreting our spouse’s tone of voice.

I think pattern recognition plus mathematical odds might account for some of the weird coincidences we’ve discussed, particularly the thematic ones.  Once our minds have been awakened to a topic, we start to notice it more often, or even read it into things that are only tangentially related to it.  Perhaps such “coincidences” were happening around us before, but we didn’t perceive them. 

Pattern Recognition Ain’t the Villain, Though

However, let’s not go crazy with assuming that pattern recognition can only serve to deceive us as to the nature of the world.  It can start to sound like this whenever people get talking about Confirmation Bias.  It’s as if this weird quirk of the human mind keeps us from seeing the world “as it really is.”  But actually, pattern recognition often helps us to perceive things, as when we notice that our kid is always grumpier when he’s hungry or that the sun always rises in the East.  Just because the drive to perceive patterns sometimes deceives us, does not mean that the world does not operate according to regular rules.  It is not a completely random world we live in.  So, our pattern-recognizing minds are not alien to this world, but are designed to operate well within it.   

Also, despite our strong predisposition to see only what we expect and understand, we also have minds that are designed to meet and grapple with the unknown.  (Jordan Peterson has a lot to say about this. According to him, the left brain basically handles the known, and the right brain the unknown.)  We know that we are capable of learning surprising new facts, and sometimes we even seek out this experience.  In fact, that is almost the definition of the “weird” in “weird coincidences.”

The Universe is Mind, Not Matter

Let’s review two facts: our minds are capable of moving out into the unknown, and our minds are predisposed to seek patterns.  This opens up the possibility that our experiences, including weird coincidences, might represent previously unknown patterns.  That is, patterns not coming from our own minds but from somewhere else.

Now, this will be hard to swallow if you believe that the only real thing is matter.  On this view, all of matter is controlled by random movements at the quantum level.  On this view, the universe really is a random place and patterns are not real EXCEPT in the human mind.

All of us who have received a modern Western education believe that at some level.  That’s why I said above that coincidences happen to me “even though I don’t believe in them.”  I got a normal public-school education, so there are some materialist assumptions baked into my thinking. 

So that’s one level of our thought.

But on another level, none of us really believe the materialist/randomness/mathematical odds explanation.  We know that minds are real.  This is confirmed by our daily experience. 

If this is a universe in which human minds exist, then it must be a universe in which mind is a real thing.  Therefore patterns are real.  Therefore themes are real.  Even if they exist “only” in human minds, they are still real.  They are in the universe.

I would go so far as to say that the basic unit of reality is not molecules, but mind.  (That alliterates, which is why I chose it rather than “not atoms but mind” or “not quarks but mind.”  Or whatever tinier thing down from quarks has since been discovered.)

In the video below, you can see Stephen Meyer make this case to Ben Shapiro.  (It’s an hour long, but well worth watching. If you don’t have the time, he makes his point about mind in the teaser in the first few seconds of the video.) Our genes are, essentially, extensive libraries of information, digitally coded.  In all our experience, nothing has ever produced a digitally coded message – let alone a library’s worth of messages – except for a mind.

Now, Christians would say that the ultimate mind – the Mind behind all minds – the medium in which the universe exists – is the Mind of God.  I think, for many different reasons, that this is a better explanation than trying to say that “the universe” itself has some kind of emergent mind.  But for the purposes of our discussion about coincidences, it’s doesn’t really matter whether you call the Mind God.  It’s enough that you accept that mind is a real feature of the universe. 

Because if you accept that, then it follows that embedded in the universe itself could be things like: themes, goals, purposes, design, patterns, intent. Stories.  Maybe even jokes, which is what some of these weird coincidences resemble more than anything. 

I said above, “This is real life, not a novel.”  But – surprise! – real life is actually a lot like a novel after all.  It has mind and meaning. It might even be one big story, too big for us to perceive.  So maybe that’s why things sometimes happen to us that, if you saw them in a movie, you wouldn’t believe them.

Ew! Moments in Books

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Most books have a gross or horrifying part. When I was a kid, I disliked these parts. (I was an impressionable child. I had nightmares for what seemed like months after someone told me the story of how Odysseus used a heated log to poke out the cyclops’s eye.)

The ew! moments in books are sometimes all that people remember about them. I can remember a few occasions when someone would see me reading a book and say, “Ew, that’s the book where _________ happens.” And in the blank was always the most disgusting incident, which usually was just an aside and wasn’t even a major part of the plot. I guess you could say that grossness is salient.

Why Authors Include Ew! Moments

I never thought I’d include ew! moments in my own novels, but lo and behold, they have quite a few of them. It’s a matter of simple realism. My plots deal with sometimes desperate survival situations. They include death and birth (a lot of births). One of the characters is paraplegic, which comes with its own indignities. I try to handle any necessary grossness tastefully, but I don’t skip it entirely, because I don’t want to romanticize anything … not parenthood, not paralysis, not the nomadic lifestyle. Also, it is through these horrifying and humbling incidents that the characters grow. If I skipped all that, I’d be skipping the whole story.

It turns out that grossness is a part of life. We might not want to dwell on it, but we can’t completely avoid it either. And this is true for any book that aspires to being realistic.

Fantasy author Neil Gaiman titled his 2015 short story collection Trigger Warning for the following reason:

We take words, and we give them power, and we look out through other eyes, and we see, and experience, what others see. I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places? There are stories I read as a child I wished, once I had read them, that I had never encountered, because I was not ready for them and they upset me: stories which contained helplessness, in which people were embarrassed, or mutilated, in which adults were made vulnerable and parents could be of no assistance. They troubled me … but they also taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could. (page xiii)

Ew! Levels Are Culturally Determined

How much ew! to include in fiction is a convention that has changed over the years. One hundred fifty years ago, the standard was basically … none. Take The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I adore this book. It paints a perfect picture of the horror that results when we are enslaved to sin … whether through addiction to a substance or to some aspect of our own sin nature. (In Dr. Jekyll’s case, it’s literally both.) The horror in this book does not come from any gross-out scenes. It comes from the progressive loss of self-control and the dawning realization that you are the monster. However, I can think of one part of the story where Robert Louis Stevenson’s discretion causes some confusion. Dr. Jekyll mentions that his “pleasures” were “undignified” and that he created Hyde as a way to allow himself to indulge his pleasures without Dr. Jekyll suffering any “indignity.” As a modern reader, it’s not immediately obvious to me what this means. My guess is that Dr. Jekyll had started out frequenting music halls and had progressed to brothels. But I don’t know, because he is too dignified to tell us. Perhaps Victorian readers would immediately have known what was meant by “undignified pleasures.”

Nowadays, obviously, there are entire genres dedicated to ew!. Of course this is just as misguided as the Victorian standard. Grossness is a part of life and so must be included. But it’s not the main story.

It’s Good for Ew!

How much ew! to include in your reading is a personal decision. I can tolerate more of it now than when I was younger, and that’s as it should be. For example, it was just within the last few years that I read Stephen King’s Misery. I deliberately avoided it before because I didn’t think I could handle the horror at the time. I still think that was a good decision. The story is most famous for the scene where the rabid fan, Annie, amputates the author’s leg at the ankle. But as you might expect, the real horror in the story does not come from that scene alone, but from the increasingly complete picture we get of Annie’s mind. And the story is not only about horror. It’s about literary snobbery (really!), the creative process, the relationships readers have with books and that authors have with readers. But I doubt I could have appreciated all of those themes (or even the glimpses of Annie’s mind) if I had read it as a younger person.

Having said that, there was one scene in Misery, worse even than the amputation scene, which I skipped as soon as I realized what was coming. You gotta know your limits. You do not have any obligation to read every horrifying scene that is out there.

Yet despite that know your limits is a good rule, it has sometimes been the cringiest scenes in books that have done me the most good. Yes, even moral good. They bring home to the reader the details of what some people have to live through (such as sexual assault in Pillars of the Earth or leprosy in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever), thereby increasing empathy. For those of us fortunate enough not to have grown up suffering war, crime, or abuse, our first encounter with the reality of these things was probably through books.

Of course, some horrors are entirely fictional (vampires, zombies, aliens, portals to hell). Yet even these are telling us something that is in some sense true about the world. There really are evil spiritual powers, and they really do seek to affect human history, and sometimes it can get very bad. In the case of these fictional or metaphorical horrors, reading about them inoculates the reader against the shock of that particular thing. Hopefully we will never encounter it in exactly that form, but we are going to come up against the concept – and the power – again.

It is a wonderful thing to be able to encounter a particular horror for the first time in the context of solitary reading, where you have some space and time on your own to be shocked by it, go back and re-read it, meditate on it, and ultimately, to face that this is part of reality. And maybe to go for help.

Here is Jordan Peterson making a similar point about why you should invite Maleficent to your child’s christening:

Now, read the comments section at your own risk. It could really get away from us if people start telling their own ew! stories.