Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Beware Absolutes

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Tonight’s blog post is simple: beware absolutes, especially when it comes to writing.

Look.  When we write, if we write about a character who has only one motivation, that’s going to be a one-dimensional character that’s tough to work with.  And yet the world is full of “shades of gray,” which you’d never know if you turned on the evening news or if you listened to political talk shows all day (as I often do; I do rotate from the leftward spinning ones of MSNBC to the rightward spinning ones of Fox News to at least get some variety in the coverage).

How people see things is often related to how they’ve heard those same things be described in the past.  This is just the way our contemporary, 21st Century world is; perhaps it’s because we don’t seem to have enough time to be able to think for ourselves after carefully studying the issues.  Or perhaps it’s just more comfortable for us to be around others who share our world view and belief system, which might be why so many of us look at the world in the most basic, absolute, black-and-white thinking imaginable.

For a writer, this sort of ultra-concrete thinking is deadly.  It creates dull, one-dimensional characters which populate dull, one-dimensional stories, and those are stories no one wants to read.

Now, there have been legitimate times in the world history where there was a really good system versus a terrible one — such as during the 1930s until 1945.  What Adolf Hitler did to Germany was unconscionable, but the reason we still read about him is because he wasn’t one-dimensional (no matter how much we might’ve wanted him to be).  This is a man who painted (though not well).  He loved music,  and was a devotee of Wagner.  He enjoyed comparative religion and religious philosophy.  And no matter how much you might loathe him (I know I certainly do), he definitely was a multi-faceted person with a huge amount of interests that fascinates readers even now due to both his psychological complexity and the fact that he was able to subjugate an entire country to his whims.

We writers must learn from history and remember that even the worst people thought they were doing the right thing by their lights.  (They might be the only one thinking they were doing the right thing, mind you.)  That even the worst people probably had occasional pangs of conscience.  And that even the worst people were not one-dimensional cardboard cutouts.

Mind you, you also need to be cognizant of the flip side, as there are very few angelic types in this world (Mother Teresa, Father Damien the Leper Priest, and a very few others).  These “earth angels” among us (or bodhisattvas, if you’d prefer that term) knew they were fallible, mortal, and just as guilty of having a bad thought or a bad day as anyone else.

Remember always to “beware absolutes,” and beware absolutism.  Because that is the enemy not only of good writing, but of good thinking as well.

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Written by Barb Caffrey

February 9, 2012 at 12:22 am

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