Self-Contradictions

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Disproving Your Own Point)

Very early on in The Matrix, we have established to us that the “Agents” are too powerful to be fought against. To stand your ground against them is to certainly die. Multiple times this idea is re-emphasized: “if you see an Agent…you run.”

And so it seems an unthinkable thing when Neo states that he is going to go back into The Matrix to free his mentor Morpheus, who is being interrogated by three of those very Agents. Neo feels that he must do this, though, because Morpheus has only come to this fate because of a misplaced belief. Morpheus is convinced that Neo is the One, the being that is destined to save mankind, the only individual who will ever stand a chance of defeating an Agent, and also the computer overlord that they represent.

But Neo is not the One. He is convinced of this, and he cannot have it on his conscience for Morpheus to die for an invalid cause. If he were the One, he would be able to go in there, rescue Morpheus, and save the day. But he is not the One, and so he will go in there, rescue Morpheus, and willingly die to make the trade.

What Neo is not accounting for is that is exactly the sort of selflessness that defines being “the One.” Being “the One” is not so much about having an inherent power, as the ability to break preconceived notions and rules. The rule is “if you see an Agent, you run,” and he is breaking it. He is not running, which means he isn’t the run-of-the-mill side character that he thinks he is. By proving his non-Oneness, he actually achieves the opposite.

Catch-22)

Which, of course, is a Catch-22. It is a rare thing for the title of a book to also be the definition of an entirely new term, but the idea at the heart of this novel is so engrossing and so succinct that it was inevitable. The story is chock full of Catch-22s, and it explains to the reader just what it means to be “Catch-22.”

It means a paradox. A very special situation where to obtain what one wishes, one must make the obtaining of that wish impossible. Yossarian does not want to fly any more suicide missions for the military, and he knows that he can accomplish this if he proves that he is mad. However attempting to be insane for the purpose of being thrown out of the military only proves how truly sane and fit to fly suicide missions he must be. If he were truly insane, he would undertake the missions with a cool head. Either way, he’s stuck.

Condemning Oneself)

This reminds me somewhat of a situation in the story Les Miserables. Here, runaway convict Jean Valjean has successfully created a new identity for himself under the name of Monsieur Madeleine. He has become known for his warmth and generosity, and has even been made the Mayor of a city. He has genuinely good intentions, and truly lives as a different man from the cold brute he was when in the labor camps.

Things become difficult for him, then, when his former guard at that camp comes to the city. Javert is initially unable to recognize the old convict in the guise of this refined gentlemen, but Valjean is still very careful to not reveal the truth.

Then, one day on the streets, Valjean’s deception is put to the test. A man has become trapped beneath a heavy cart. Monsieur Madeleine, the benevolent master, ought to try and help him, and Jean Valjean, the hardened criminal, has the immense strength necessary to lift the cart all on his own. But Javert is present at this scene, and if he witnesses such a feat of strength he will surely wonder where it might have come from. Valjean is a man divided. The only way to be true to himself is to condemn himself. Ultimately he rushes to the rescue, and just as anticipated, Javert realizes who this Governor really is.

The Tragic Wanter)

There is another example of this in the Disney animated feature Aladdin. Jafar has a terrible lust for power, one that constantly moves from one lofty goal to another. He is already the Royal Vizier, but now he wants to be Sultan. He becomes Sultan, but then wants to be “the most powerful sorcerer in the world.” Still that isn’t enough, and he craves the infinite power of being a Genie.

But as it turns out, while Genies do possess unfathomable power, they are powerless to control it. They are eternally enslaved beings, only able to flex their power at the behest of a master. Thus Jafar’s pursuit of his most enhanced self only leads to the loss of himself.

This, too, is the downfall of Charles Foster Kane in the Orson Welles picture Citizen Kane. The title character is intelligent and motivated, he possesses a winning personality and good looks, fate has even smiled on him with opportunity and fortune. He has it all, but he is miserable and distrusting even so. In spite of all his having, he is afraid of losing, and so he strives to have more firmly, and paradoxically it is due to that grasping that he ends up losing what he had.

Take, for example, his relationship to Emily Norton, and later to Susan Alexander. Each of these women is perfectly content to love him, but he keeps trying to buy their affections even so, to push them to greater happiness and fulfillment, smothering them until there doesn’t seem to be anything sincere left to their romance any more. And so it continues until each of the women that he has leaves him.

In my own story, I have written a character who has also painted himself into a corner. Julian gave in to a moment of temptation and ate extra portions of food that belonged to his shipmates. He assured himself at the time that they would not survive anyway, and no one could therefore condemn him for the crime.

But they did survive. Now Captain Molley has awoken, and Julian’s greatest fear is that he will be found out for his treachery. So he has lied, suggesting that Captain Molley has been asleep for a number of days, which explains why there are more portions of food missing.

As we will see in my next post, though, this lie will lead Captain Molley to give up on their search for the fabled Pirate’s Cove. He will assume that if they have drifted aimlessly for so many days, that any attempt to navigate to such a small destination is impossible.

Thus Julian finds himself in quite the pickle. Does he come forward with the truth, and damn himself as a food-thief? Or does he remain silent, and damn the whole crew to wander without any course? Either way he has broken himself. Come back on Thursday to see exactly how this will play out in the story’s finale.

A Proper Motivation

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Our Driving Force)

Motivation is the parent of action. All that we do in life we do because of our desire. Even the most basic of things, such as movement, would never occur unless we first hoped to obtain something by it.

Stories are much the same. Unless the characters want something, they never will do anything. If ever you’ve hit a lull in the action of your story, it’s probably because none of the characters have anything that they want at that particular moment. Often this is because they just achieved some milestone, and so for a brief moment they are content right where they are. It sounds like a nice place for them, but it is terrible for you as the author.

Unless, of course, you are at the natural termination of desire that signals the end of a story. “And they lived happily ever after” essentially means “and they have everything that they want, so they just kind of stay this way forever after and don’t do anything else of interest, so we’ll just stop talking about them now.”

This “storybook-ending” is one area where stories diverge from real life. In real life there usually isn’t such a total complacency where we forever cease to want any more. No matter how accomplished we have become, no matter how grateful we are for what we have obtained, there yet remains the compulsion to go further. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either, as it is this endless chase that drives us to ever improve and grow nearer to our most ideal self.

The reason why the storybook has an ending, then, is because the character has actually obtained that “most ideal self” which eludes us in the real world. Now that they are the full measure of the person they are supposed to be, there is no more need for motivation.

 

Ends Justified by the Means)

This would seem to suggest that it isn’t always so important what the exact motivation is, just that there is a motivation, and that it drives the character towards their ideal form. The only prerequisite, of course, is that the motivation is something that is “good,” something that is based on truthful precepts. Assuming that, the actual details of the motivation are superfluous.

Is the hero trying to bring peace to the land? Restore the balance of justice? Champion the cause of freedom? Then that’s all we really need to know. And so Piglet seeks to find a birthday present for his friend Eeyore, Prince Charming quests to rescue Sleeping Beauty, Shane resolves to stop the cruel cattle baron, and Thanos endeavors to bring balance to the universe.

Well, wait…hang on now. We seem to have stumbled upon a villain with that last one, haven’t we? Here we have a character whose motivation seems worthy enough, and that same motivation is indeed driving him to action, but it’s just that those actions happen to involve things like mass genocide. This is an example of a story in which the villain actually means to accomplish something moral, but to do so is willing to use methods that are immoral.

This represents one of the two main archetypes of villains in stories. The other, of course, is when the villain is just the embodiment of pure evil. Those villains do evil simply for the sake of being bad, whereas this one does evil with good intentions. Each of these two archetypes have their own place, each better suited to certain types of stories, but for the sake of this blog post let’s focus on the one whose evil actions bely their good intentions.

The imbalance inherent in these characters is by no means a work of fiction. Indeed they represent a moral dilemma that lies at the very root of our modern philosophies, namely the question of whether the ends can always justify the means. Consider the argument made by Socrates, as reported in Book V of Plato’s Republic. This discourse has long been a contentious topic for how it promotes an “ideal state,” one that is established only by first trampling down the most basic of human freedoms. It claims that the slaughter of infants, the dictating of when and with whom procreation can occur, and the separation of children from their parents could all be used to erect a more perfect world.

The natural response to such claims is repulsion. And it is important to note that it is natural to respond that way. It means that it goes against our very intuition to excuse any evil, even in the name of the greater good. Our inner nature recognizes that there is a paradox in this, much akin to trying to reach higher numbers by subtraction, or in traveling to a destination by ever moving away from it. At our cores we seem to understand that evil consequences will undermine all good intentions.

But while I say that all these principles are basic and intuitive, yet there are examples throughout all history of those that still thought they could achieve a better state of man through actions of mass evil. Names that come readily to mind: Hitler, Stalin, and Mao,  characters that chill us as some of the most destructive individuals the world has ever known. Is it any wonder, then, that this fear bleeds through to our creative works of fiction, and the villains we put into them?

 

Destructive and Constructive Cycles)

So what then is the difference between the hero and the villain? It is simply this: the hero is motivated by good, that motivation leads to good actions, and the consequences of those actions are in harmony with the initial motivations. The consequences bolster the original intent, and the whole course is one of mutual assurance and progression. Consider the tortoise who is determined to stay the course, no matter how far behind his competitor he appears to be. His resolve informs his actions, his actions ensure his success, and his success confirms the validity of his resolve.

The villain, meanwhile, can also be motivated by good desires, but then selects actions that are evil, the consequences of which will actively undermine the initial motivations. They are set up for failure, even before the hero shows up on the scene. It is their own hand that stands strongest against them. Consider the Foolish Emperor who wishes to be loved and revered by his people, but whose pursuit of that ideal results in him parading naked through the streets. Even before the young boy calls out the truth of the matter, by his own hand he has already been disrobed before all of his subjects.

Personally I think that many stories have been written without the author consciously intending to make philosophical statements on human nature. And yet so many of them do, and have done so over the millennia, and are so consistent in their implied moral.

When the same conclusions so consistently arise in the subconscious, it is only natural to assume that these stories are indicative of a truth that resides in us all. We find in stories the answers to many of the most basic questions of mankind. In this particular instance we see that they answer the query “how should I live my life?”

As an answer stories acknowledge that a man must have desires, ones that necessarily lead to action. But then stories caution that man must realize that his actions have consequences, either for good or evil, and it is therefore wise for a man to deliberately choose the actions whose consequences are in harmony with the initial desires. Then a man does not undo his own self, he discovers his own self. That is how a man should live.

 

On Thursday I shared a story where two characters were driven against one another by strong motivation. We did not know where their motivations originated from, but we could tell that they were powerful and very destructive. By that alone we could tell that they were villainous, and subject to eternal frustration.

In my next story I’d like to look at motivation again, this time coupled with its consequences. In it we will meet a character that is deeply motivated, but one that is driven by that motivation to actions that are brash, and probably not the most self-improving. By the end of the story, though, we’ll see how he is able to shift his desires and results into greater harmony with one another. Come back on Thursday to see the first portion of that tale.