Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Trouble with Plausibility

Over at Achewood, Philippe joins the ranks of Chris Onstad’s characters who get laughs by failing to create plausible fiction with his novel “The Case of the Mystery”.

Onstad is great at creating characters who speak like regular, real people, but then say something crazy out of the blue. No matter how imaginative or well-observed the verbal conceits that he puts in his characters’ mouths, the reason you laugh is always the same: because the characters have created awkwardness by revealing how deluded or off-kilter they really are.

Even in fiction, it’s accepted that in order to write well, you have to write as if you know what you’re talking about. If you seem to be trying to imitate reality but you get a detail wrong, informed people will reject your writing. Even when you clearly intend to deviate from reality, if there’s an obvious inconsistency in your fictional world, most readers will be disappointed. For instance, consider the world of the Ben Affleck superhero movie Daredevil. In this reality, there are no criminal prosecutors. When people commit crimes, their victims hire private lawyers Ben Affleck and Jon Favreau to prosecute their attackers. This service is not free, but Affleck will accept soccer balls as payment. Unfortunately, all Affleck can think of to do when he gets the criminal on the stand is to let him give his version of the story. When the rapist doesn’t instantly confess, Affleck sadly gives up and lets him off, but hunts him down and murders him later on.

justice for barter

You mentioned, Mween, that many people are comfortable saying things on blogs that they wouldn’t be comfortable saying to a crowd of people. I think that’s because in-person communication has the additional function of ratifying a shared perspective on reality, which more generalized forms of communication like blogs lack. So, for instance, if Ben Affleck were to meet a lawyer at a party who said something like, “I work for a small firm representing disadvantaged clients,” and then Ben Affleck said, “Oh, that is interesting, have you convicted many rapists lately?” and then the lawyer said “Sorry, Mr. Affleck, it sounds like you’re thinking of a prosecutor which is a kind of lawyer that works for the government,” then there is a pretty good chance that Ben Affleck would be embarrassed or at least have people give him a hard time about it. In effect, Ben Affleck and the lawyer would have compared their subjective realities and Ben Affleck’s would have fallen short. Persistent failures to bring himself up to speed with consensus reality could label Ben Affleck as ignorant or even insane. And the fact is that everyone’s worldviews differ from both the consensus and from reality in many significant ways.

But I don’t think that Ben Affleck would have had any reason to be personally embarrassed if the lawyer had merely mentioned that he had seen the movie Daredevil. A work of fiction may be regarded as of low quality (perhaps intended for an ignorant or insane audience) if it fails to propose a plausible reality, but it’s rarely regarded as an invitation to measure the author’s understanding of reality against the reader’s, if for no other reason than because that would be a one-sided conversation. You might read a dumb book and say “I bet this guy has a really weird concept of reality” but you probably wouldn’t decide for sure without meeting him.

And why should we like Philippe’s and Ben Affleck’s work any less for its implausibility? Maybe for fiction to mean anything to us, it has to embody some kind of analogy to possible events, so that the incidents create a certain amount of friction with each other rather than being unconnected episodes. But isn’t it just as good if a story’s connection to reality is abstract, hard to articulate? That allows the author to include only the scenes and ideas that he wants, without bothering so much with the real-world justification. In fiction with looser realism, events can have less to do with the real world’s demands on the plot and more to do with the author’s vision for the story.

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