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Social Media as a Totalitarian Framework

I read an interesting article over at the New Yorker titled “How George Orwell Predicted The Challenge of Writing Today”. One of the points made in the article was that totalitarian societies emphasize the intimate knowledge people have of one another. A sort of enforced closeness and awareness of the other person. Another aspect of totalitarian societies is that people are punished seemingly at random. It’s not so much who the person is or why the person is targetted, it is that anybody can be targetted for any time and any reason.

These two concepts stood out to me because, in essence, social media enforces both these ideas. Much has been made of the Facebook memo which declared that connecting the world is the most important thing, justifying any form of underhanded technique to achieve it. Further, anyone who has been online for more than a few months is aware of just how quickly denizens of the Internet will gang up on someone for the slightest misstep; no offense is too small for an overblown reaction. It strikes me, then that, however unintentionally, the social media tech giants have created a foundation for a totalitarian society. This is a foundation, however, with an important difference.

In previous totalitarian states, there was always a central body at the top. China is a perfect example of this. At the top of the heap is the ruling Chinese party in Beijing, which in turn is ruled by Xi Jingping. With the social media companies, however, there is no ruling party. It’s just a framework. Control goes to those who can game the system the best. Right now that would appear to be Russia. No doubt China will level its power on the world later as circumstances dictate. In the meantime, the tech companies will pursue their own, largely capital-based interests.

Silicon Valley has, for some time now, been in the thrall of a pseudo-Randian, neo-Libertarian philosophy in which making money is the goal and everything else is just a series of data points to manage. Despite outward appearances, Google, Facebook and others will happily make any deal that gives them more profit. Witness Google, which dropped their famouse “Don’t be Evil” slogan recently and only pulled out of a deal with the Department of Defense thanks to a public lashing generated by some of their own employees. Facebook, of course, has shown no such problem with ethics in general and Bezos has employees that pass out on the production line lest they be fired for missing a performance goal.

If the Trump administration were more aware of the possibilities it would quietly engage in back-room deals with these companies to give them the market profits they crave in exchange for access to the raw data that the tech companies have accumulated. Trump could protect them from legislative backlash and in return the companies could supply data, propaganda and surveillance. If the tech companies were smart they would quietly cultivate Trump’s favor. He’s not a complicated man. He likes people who idolize him and he does favors for them. It would not take much to learn how to control his favor. One could take things a step further and see the two forces working together to create a propaganda campaign for Trump as a permanent President.

I don’t actually think things would go this far, nor do I really want it to happen. It just strikes me American society is on the cusp of this idea, even if it is not the direction that things will ultimately travel. Still, one hopes one day some politician makes the same realization I have briefly made just now and works on legislation to prevent this very outcome from occurring. It’s clear things will likely not change without serious government intervention; the tech companies are just too entrenched.

The Misandrists: It’s… interesting…

The Misandrists by director Bruce LaBruce is… interesting. I’ve been mulling it over in my head for a few days now and I think in a way it needs to be taken more as an experience than a traditional story-driven film. By virtue of its director alone it is a transgressive film and an almost conceptual one. The closest analogy that comes to mind is Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void, which was about the death dream of a dying drug dealer. Both films are intense, visual, helmed by extremely creative outside-the-box artists and films I have no intention of ever seeing again. This is not so much because I don’t think highly of the films. Rather it is because now that I’ve seen each once, I just don’t need to do it again. I think for those, like myself, who are raised on a relatively mainstream diet of cinema, watching these kinds of films is a good exercise. It is a way to view the world of cinematic storytelling through a new lens and be exposed to new ideas. A nice place to visit, but perhaps you don’t want to live there.

What follows in this article is a breakdown of things I noticed as I was watching the film, supplemented a bit by an after-film interview by the director himself. Because I came to the theater expecting a more traditional work, I kept trying to figure out how everything fit together. If the film is understood as a more abstract work, however, perhaps the traditional complaints will fall away. It will still be an intense experience, but there might be fewer questions about what is going on.

Storytelling

Dancing Nun

My issues really revolve around choices in scenes that appear during the film. These choices, for me, amounted to a lot of unnecessary misdirection. This might be partially my fault as I tried to understand where the film was going. As I mentioned before, a better strategy might have been to just absorb the film and mull the overall meaning later. That said, the first scene to take note of was the “Dancing Nun” scene. This was a moment when a nun, whose face isn’t seen, walks very purposefully and slowly before looking around and then breaking into dance. This happens for a moment, then the nun returns to walking purposefully and slowly again.

A couple things to note here. First of all, it’s established earlier in the film that the nun outfits are mostly just ruses. Unless there’s someone in authority nearby, the outfits are never worn. Secondly, there’s no real connection in this scene to the rest of the film. It’s just a strange non-sequiter. Perhaps it could be taken as a symbolic moment (perhaps some idea of being reserved and disciplined, but being unable to prevent loosening up once in a while.) Even if that were true, however, there seems to be no immediate connection to the rest of the film. As mentioned earlier, the very idea of wearing a nun’s outfit on a regular basis seems odd given that it was clearly initially worn by characters in the film as disguise.

Secret Nun

The next issue revolves around a cameo by the director himself. In one scene, a nun’s face appears and looks out into a courtyard where an event is taking place. That “nun” is the director in a nun’s outfit. The pupose of this moment made sense in the interview after the film, but it completely misled me prior to that point. In the interview after the film, Bruce LaBruce mentioned that he liked to make the audience part of the film. This “secret nun” moment was part of that. Essentially, the camera watches the nun look out the window and then cuts to view the courtyard from the nun’s perspective. The problem here is that, without the benefit of the after-film interview, it appears as if the secret nun is an actual character. I certainly took it that way. Until the interview, I really kept trying to figure out who this nun character was. I kept expecting to find out that this secret character was in fact controlling the events of the film while hidden way. Watching the film in this context made me feel there was a real unresolved storyline.

Big Mother

Speaking about unresolved, I feel there were some issues surrounding the character of Big Mother that were not properly laid to rest. In particular, there were a number of cues that seemed to me to indicate that Big Mother was heading towards failure. The first indication is very early in the film when one of the girls, Isolde, openly voices opposition to Big Mother’s policies. Doing this so early in the film sets the tone for a tale of authority versus resistance. This thread continues on with a discussion of rules about smoking. This is forbidden by Big Mother in the film, but everyone, including Big Mother herself breaks the rules casually. Thus Big Mother’s authority is false, even to herself.

To be honest, the whole environment Big Mother has set up feels cultish and artificial. The girls are regularly told stories that revolve around mythology and could easily have been made up. The exercise regimen includes pseudo-militarized chanting. Educational material is delivered with such heavy modification that it is reduced to propaganda. In a replay of the false authority issues mentioned earlier, the girls are shown as not even listening to the teacher. In the meantime Big Mother is extolling the virtues of prostitution as she prepares to enact a plan to create a pornographic film. One she admits needs to be done for money while declaring that it will also be her group’s manifesto.

The Ending

The above issues seem to mean the film is headed to an ending of disappointment for Big Mother. In reality, the plan ends in complete victory. Big Mother makes her film resulting, among other thigs, an ending scene showing the audience of her film inspired into an orgy. This didn’t make much sense to me from the standpoint of a logical plot, but the reasoning behind it was made clear in the after-film interview. The interviewer noted that Bruce LaBruce tends to end his films with orgies. LaBruce confirmed this and indicated that he likes to end films on a positive note, which for him would be an orgy. This is fine, but it is a significant break from all the cues being delivered throughout the film. This more than anything else brings the film into the world of magic reality. Essentially, it is a confirmation that the film is a conceptual exercise rather than a more conventional tale. Were I so inclined to see the film a second time (I really don’t think I will be), I would try to view the film through that perspective.

Conclusion

None of the above should promote the idea that I think the film is bad. It’s certainly the product of strong creative vision. I also think it was worthwhile to see the film if for no other reason than to step outside my regular diet of cinema. It’s important to be exposed to new and alternative ideas once in a while. For purveyors of mainstream films, I would recommend taking The Misandrists as a magic reality film. I feel, after some thought on the subject, that it is more of a presentation of a particular idea or theme rather than any traditional narrative. Audiences, particularly mainstream audiences, should absorb the film as an experience and try to understand the events seen in a somewhat symbolic or non-literal manner.

Please be aware, however, that no matter how you approach the film, it will be an intense and, in some parts, deeply unsettling experience. If you’ve seen Bruce LaBruce films before, you know what to expect. If you haven’t, well… good luck.

A Late Review of Black Panther

Mea Culpa

Black Panther has been out for weeks now, so all the worthwhile reviews have already been posted and read. I can’t imagine I’m adding anything new to the mix, but I’m going to do it anyway, just because. In my defense, I was busy with a lot of stuff outside of movie-going. I do admit I was a bit worried going into the theatre about how I’d feel about the film. I had heard it was good, but the hype was building so fast I was worried I’d be let down. Sometimes I’ll just skip watching a film based on hype. Either I’ll have too high an expectation going in, or, as was the case with the Ghostbusters remake, the level of polarization on the film will be enough to drive me off. In the case of Black Panther, though, I was very pleasantly surprised. I really do think it’s one of the best movies Marvel has put out.

Overall Impressions

The cinematography is beautiful. I never once got the impression I was viewing a green screen backdrop. The film was incredibly colorful and I felt like I really had stepped into a world that was simultaneously urban and rural, technological and traditional. It was clear a lot of careful thought had been put into the world of the film.

Set designs were likewise impressive. I especially liked Shuri’s lab. One of the interesting things about portraying a technologically advanced lab is the use of a visually sterile set (as if tech mean medical-grade cleanliness). Another stereotypical portrayal is the messy lab with lots of tubes and pipes and gadgets lying around in a general mess. What was great about Shuri’s lab was that it went with fashionable look. It was clear immediately that this was her domain because of all the painted walls. It was kind of hip and cool and artsy. Kind of like how a lot of Silicon Valley startups like to portray themselves. I liked this because it showed how the filmmakers didn’t want to rely on convention, even in the smaller details.

The acting was top notch. There were some great talents brought to the film and it showed. Just one example is the relationship between T’Challa and Shuri. It’s established as soon as Shuri appears onscreen and felt very authentic and unforced. I enjoyed watching them interact with each other and I feel it’s a good representation of all the acting in the film. These were pros who knew how to pull the authenticity out of the text in the script.

This authenticity helped a great deal with events in the film. In the fight between T’Challa and his rival M’Baku, I logically knew it was too early for T’Challa to be dealt a serious blow. The film still had to establish his character. Despite this, however, I really found myself concerned about T’Challa’s fate. It did feel like he was going to lose his kingdom to M’Baku. When he did not, I felt relief. Of course, when Killmonger challenged T’Challa, that earlier victory made it clear he was going to lose, which in turn set up anticipation in the rest of the film. In addition to this, I was really invested in the scene between Killmonger and his father. This was a scene that would be easy to cut out in other films, but is so critical to showing how Killmonger has lost his way and the failure of his father. Mostly what struck me was the quiet emotion. This could easily have been a scene-chewing moment, but the script, the director and the actors correctly went for a subdued interpretation that spoke to the emotional struggle of the moment.

Quibbles

As much as I liked the film overall, there were a few minor points that broke me out of the film. For one thing, the final fight sequence was relatively hard to be invested in. The primary culprit was the fact that I could tell very easily that I was watching a CGI battle. When W’kabi runs through his opponents in a giant rhino, I could see very clearly that this was a digital effect. The smoothness of motion, the speed, the blur to hide any artifacts, it was all very clear what was happening. In addition, the battle between T’Challa and Killmonger screamed CGI, especially as they fell down into the underground subway system. Again, it was all about the motion, the smoothness and the attempts to provide a cool shot. All this did was make me think “Huh, CGI” and wait for it to be over.

Speaking of the subway, I’d like to point out a small logical error. Earlier in the film, Shuri explains that sonic generators are used to weaken or neutralize vibranium. If that’s true, then both T’Challa and Killmonger would have become permamently deaf. If the sonic generators are strong enough to visibly warp light around them (there were visible ripples whenever they turned on) the they were more than powerful enough to blow out eardrums. The fact that T’Chall and Killmonger were both enhanced by the heart-shaped herb is meaningless. At the end of the fight it’s clear that either can be harmed by bladed weapons. It stands to reason that sensitive organs like eardrums would be just a susceptible to damage. So, basically, T’Challa should be deaf right about now. Thank movie magic for that one.

One final quibble. I really didn’t believe that the CIA operative, Everett Ross, was in any trouble in the final battle. I just didn’t believe that the enemy aircraft was going to shoot through the windows in time to stop him. That meant his decision to stay in the simulator to remote-fly his aircraft felt hollow. The whole moment really just felt forced. It might have been better to just let him fly the simulator without anything attacking him as he did so.

Themes

There were a variety of themes in this movie, all of them worthy of discussion. For the sake of time, however, I would like to point out one interesting theme of inherited guilt. Just prior to watching the film I had been reading up on articles analysing H.P. Lovecraft. These articles pointed out that one of the themes of Lovecraft’s works is the concept of inherited guilt. That is, disaster coming to one through the sins of ancestors. This must have influenced how I saw the film, because I noticed similar lines of thought as the story wore on. The first notable instance was when Killmonger raided the museum, pointedly blaming the museum artifact expert for the sins of British imperialism that resulted in slavery and exploitation of natives on the African continent. Killmonger shows another aspect of inherited guilt in his battle with T’Challa at the waterfall. He points out his desire for revenge because T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka killed Killmonger’s father N’Jobu. In other words, T’Challa is receiving punishment for the sins of his father. Outside of Killmonger, we see this in Shuri as she refers to Everett Ross as “colonist”. It’s a casual reference, and not necessarily meant as a profanity, but it carries a history of guilt with it nonetheless. Finally, we see M’Baku air his grievances at T’Challa over an ancestral rivalry. This rivalry is based on the feeling of being snubbed by the ruling clans of Wakanda, which in turn caused M’Baku’s tribe be antagonistic towards T’Challa’s clan, thus creating a cycle of retribution.

Apart from the general “good guy/bad guy” dichotomy, it’s really this cycle of retribution that separates T’Challa from Killmonger. Killmonger is heavily tied to this cycle, mostly because he feels he can end it with enough violence and bloodshed. If he can kill enough people, he can suppress resistance and create a new world order. T’Challa goes the other way. In a critical scene M’Baku points out that for hundreds of years, no ruler of Wakanda has ever come to visit M’Baku’s tribe. T’Challa acknowleges this, but also points out that he is not his ancestors. One of the last scenes showing M’Baku among T’Challa’s circle of advisors completes the message; we all have guilt in our ancestry, but we are not our ancestors. Every generation has the chance to forge a new path. Furthermore, acknowledging the past while forging a new future leads to a more peaceful society. Killmonger’s way results in in near indiscriminate destruction. He instantly tears apart a stable political hierarchy and destroys the respository of the heart-shaped herb. This is an act that not only destroys an artifact of religious and cultural significance, but also serves the dual purpose of reinforcing Killmonger as the undefeatable leader of Wakanda and cutting off Wakandans from their heritage, thus making them easier to manipulate as a society. Killmonger isn’t interested in improving the world in any way. He just wants war and revenge, something that is destructive to all parties, not just a select few.

Wakanda as an influence on world politics

At the end of the film, T’Challa decides to unveil Wakanda to the world. Although there was a carefully constructed narrative of Wakanda as a poor country, T’Challa decides to throw this away in an attempt to lead by example. Since this is a movie, T’Challa’s decision is clearly scene as upbeat and positive. That said, and I know I’m doing more quibbling with this, I wonder just how effective T’Challa would be. I would argue that Wakanda, if anything, would become just another player in the great game of International Politics.

First of all, let’s broach the question of exactly how Wakanda would interact with the outside world. It can’t possibly be through any form of immigration. Wakanda has spent centuries as a highly insular country and would therefore not have the social, political, or logistical infrastructure to handle immigrants. There is evidence to suggest the population in general would resist this. W’Kabi, for example, early in the film states that immigrants bring their problems with them. I can’t believe he would be alone in thinking this.

So, Wakanda can’t build bridges through immigration. That part is out. The only other option is through outreach. This is in fact what happens. T’Challa, at the end of the film, points out that he’s purchased numerous buildings in order to build a Wakandan outreach center. But what effect will this have? First, let’s remember that it is stated early on that Wakanda has spies in every country. As long as Wakanda was thought of as a poor country, no politician would suspect espionage. Now that T’Challa has unveiled Wakanda as the most technologically advanced society on the planet, espionage must be at the top of everyone’s mind. The outreach centers just add to the problems. When the British landed in Africa, India, the Americas and Canada, they were the most advanced technological society of their time. We all know how that panned out for the natives. Wakanda will, in effect, be very susceptible to accusations of cultural imperialism.

Claims of cultural imperialism won’t just be used as general utterings of paranoia. These claims will be used as leverage for access to Wakandan technology. For all of Shuri’s brilliance, it’s absurd to think that Wakandan tech couldn’t be reverse engineered given enough time, enough resources and enough hardware to study. At the very least Wakanda and any representative will be the subject of hacking attempts, theft attempts, or other methods to obtain Wakandan technology, knowledge and resources. A couple things are inevitable from this. First, Wakandan representatives would demand a halt to the activities and, when it is clear nothing will stop, would probably start demanding concessions in the form of trade, treaties and so forth to offset the loss of Wakandan property. Second, the Wakandan tech would inevitably be used to harm others. This would give other countries the leveage they need to demand international regulations on Wakanda and possibly an opening of Wakandan society to outsiders.

This kind of behavior would put incredible pressure on the Wakandan leadership due to both internal and external pressures. On top of that, T’Challa is a superhero and is spending significant time saving the world. T’Challa might bow to pressure to close off Wakanda from the world again, but this would be a mistake. China already witnessed first-hand the results of being exposed to the outside world. In centuries past, the British wanted to trade with the Chinese who in turn just wanted the British to go away. Because of this, the British engaged in something called “Gunboat Diplomacy”. That is, “trade with us or we’ll attack you”. Wakanda would engage in devastating damage on its attackers, but no one country can stand against all the others forever. This means that Wakanda’s only option is to stay open and play the game of International Politics. Wakanda doesn’t become a leader of the world so much as one of the crowd. There isn’t enough vibranium in the universe to solve that problem.

Summary

Keep in mind, of course, that all this is pure conjecture. It’s just something fun to do after watching a good movie. In all, Black Panther really was a good movie. It was well-acted, had excellent visuals and it was clear that a lot of thought and care went into the story and the world the story inhabited. As I mentioned earlier, one of the top level Marvel films. For the Marvel films that focus on individual characters, I hope they keep it up. Infinity War is coming out this weekend, but that might be a different type of creature what with all the characters that have been crammed into it. We’ll see!

OspreyForth Update, January 12

OspreyForth is now on Sourceforge! I wanted to have OspreyForth be more complete before uploading it, but I decided to go ahead an upload it. An error with Git on my end caused me to set up a Mercurial repo, which is where the code is currently held (perhaps I can do some kind of repo-sharing in the future).

I still have to set up the wiki pages for the project, but first I’d like to work on some example projects to show off the usability of the code.

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 10

How Fiction Works is a book written by critic James Wood and is an examination of the techniques that fiction utilizes to immerse the reader and create an experience. This is the ninth of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.

Chapter 10: Truth, Complexity and Realism

In some ways the book has been leading up to this point. Wood immediately tackles the subject of realism. Wood starts out by offering quotes that denigrate realism in novels as a series of clichés. Wood suggests a different term: “commercial realism”. Here he suggests that what people are responding to are a kind of commonly accepted technique of using a lot of descriptive words that don’t reveal very much information at all. It’s just a sort of detailed description of what people are doing and what is around an environment but without anything to push a story forward in a relevant way. It also represents an interesting trope where where the same clichéd descriptions, scenarios and statements are used and re-used repeatedly.

Wood suggest replacing a focus on realism with a focus on truth. That is, he suggests that good writers don’t need to create a literary photograph of a moment so much as a sense that the moment is accurately depicting a truth within the reader. This is harder than it seems, however. He warns that writers must be constantly inventing new ways to unveil truth. Over time, clichés develop because writers start using the same techniques and ideas over and over again. This means what is truthful now, become empty convention soon after.


This is tip of the spear when it comes to the book. James Wood kind of uses this chapter to pull together the rest of the book  provide the framework for a truthful fiction. The word “Complexity” in the chapter title seems to mostly come from the complexity of words used in “realistic” novels. As mentioned much is said, but little is conveyed, leaving the reader to do a lot of work without much benefit.

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 9

How Fiction Works is a book written by critic James Wood and is an examination of the techniques that fiction utilizes to immerse the reader and create an experience. This is the eighth of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.

Chapter 9: Dialogue

This is a relatively quick chapter to read. James Wood begins with a 1950 interview of author Henry Green. Green asserted that he resisted authorial adverbs (“she said, gallantly”, for example), rarely explained character motives and never internalizes character thoughts. In his thought people don’t know the thoughts of others, so why should authors know the thoughts of their characters?

Wood doesn’t believe things have to be this way. He notes that Green’s views makes sense because Green likes to reveal information through dialogue. This is useful especially for dialogue that is layered with meaning. Wood’s counterexample is the characters in the story “The House of Mr. Biswas” where there are many examples of authorial descriptions of behavior and environment. Dialogue alone does not have to reveal everything. An example in the story is Biswas’ purchase of a doll house. There is no dialogue here, but the description of the action alone explains the nature of the situation and the relationship of the characters.


Although this was a relatively sizable chapter, the bulk of the content can be reduced to the points above. Primarily it was a back and forth on the relevance of dialogue. The most valid point is that talking heads are not necessary to relay information and just relating in terms of action can have powerful effects if the author knows how to do it.

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 8

How Fiction Works is a book written by critic James Wood and is an examination of the techniques that fiction utilizes to immerse the reader and create an experience. This is the seventh of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.

Chapter 8: Language

In this chapter Wood insists that novels must be written and read with a musical precision that should be equal to the beauty of poetry. The key, he proposes, is to write with simplicity or to focus on transmitting complexity in as little prose as possible. One tool is the use metaphors, which can spark a reader’s imagination with new meaning of the word. Metaphors are distinctly authorial, but properly done can feel organically grown out of the character’s world. The danger of metaphors is that they can be mixed in ways that just mix clichés, which can put off a reader. The best metaphors link to and replace their subjects in the mind of the reader.

When not using metaphors, think about avoiding the same phrases and idioms. To develop non-poetic beauty look to simple words to evoke color, time, action and so on. Unexpected rhythms can capture the reader’s eye and repetitions of words and phrases can reinforce ideas or suggest some kind of change. Gustave Flaubert himself loved to read aloud for this reason since it allows the language to be appreciated from a different perspective.

This brings a question of the difference between slick writing and truly interesting writing. When writing or reading, look for the variety in which the author is relating information. A truly interesting writer should be able to move from one voice to another for dramatic or comedic effect.


What makes this chapter interesting is the treatise on “slick writing” vs “interesting writing”. The chapter is not very long, but I do like the belief that prose should be as beautiful as poetry as well as the ideas on how to pull it off.

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 7

How Fiction Works is a book written by critic James Wood and is an examination of the techniques that fiction utilizes to immerse the reader and create an experience. This is the sixth of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.

Chapter 7: Sympathy and Complexity

Wood begins with a question of the value of fiction. Wood asserts that there are three major values. One is language, the exposure to vocabulary and concepts of speech and writing. The second is the world. That is, experiencing life through the eyes of others, even if they are fictional characters. The final value has to do with convictions and beliefs. This is the idea that fiction allows readers to reinforce pre-existing beliefs or develop new beliefs or ideas through exposure to a fictional world. Seeing the world through the eyes of another can elicit sympathy and understanding and this is no less true for fictional characters than real people. In addition, insight into a character can be shown by that character’s own ability (or lack thereof) to imagine the world through the perspectives of another.

Wood believes this is connected to moral philosophy. The ability to sympathize with others or see their perspectives can lead to a character forced to immediately deal with two equal and conflicting moral arguments. Wood cites Bernard Williams, who claims that moral philosophy about the emotional life of a character rather than basic talk about the character’s self or general perceptions. Wood argues this can lead to insight in the complexity of a society’s moral fabric.


This was a relatively quick chapter to go through. I think the insight about a character’s ability or inability to understand the perspectives of others was interesting. This is also interesting in light of the idea that it can be used to highlight emotional perspectives and general moral fabric.

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 6

How Fiction Works is a book written by critic James Wood and is an examination of the techniques that fiction utilizes to immerse the reader and create an experience. This is the fifth of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.

Chapter 6: A Brief History of Consciousness

In this chapter James Wood examines the idea of how characters evolved from essentially stock characters to developed entities that we expect today. In Wood’s estimation, this transition began with theatre, which he posits changed the nature of who sees the character. That is, is the character behaving a certain way for the benefit of the audience, or for some unseen force? That is to say, the author or some unseen deity. This becomes an highlight issue when taking into account theatrical soliloquies, such as Hamlet’s famous monologues. Who or what is the character talking to and what is the motivation? This begins the perception of dimensionality of the character.

For novels, the theatrical monologue becomes an internal voice, a form of mental speech, allowing readers to look into a character’s mind. In addition, theatrical characters can change over time due to dramatic effect. The dynamism of character in theatre caused novelists to experiment with their own medium, for example playing with time or perceptions within their stories in an effort to match and provide an alternative to the dynamism of theatre.

Wood also asserts that the modern novel owes much to the work “Rameau’s Nephew” by Denis Diderot. Diderot made the story completely about the internal lives of his characters instead of using the standard tropes of the time. This was also shown in the works of Dostoyevsky which focused on an analysis of human nature. His characters had three different layers: announced motives, unconscious motivations and a desire to be known and have their flaws revealed.

Just as an example of early storytelling. Wood cites a biblical story, David and Bathsheba. David as a character is transparent to God, but not to the characters, The readers can see his actions, but not his thoughts. This causes his actions to sometimes surprise readers, since they can’t see his motivations. According to Wood, such internal access doesn’t really come along in full until Shakespeare. In particular Wood cites Macbeth, which introduced the idea of retrospective thought, not just internal calculations. Dostoyevski’s character Raskolnikov acts as a kind of hybrid approach. Here the audience has complete access to the character’s mind and is all-seeing until God makes an appearance at the end of the novel.


This is an interesting chapter because there are pros and cons to the idea of being privy to a character’s inner mind. When a character is not internally accessible, the readers must create a narrative like assembling a puzzle. When a character is totally internally accessible, the readers can be more analytic.

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 5

How Fiction Works is a book written by critic James Wood and is an examination of the techniques that fiction utilizes to immerse the reader and create an experience. This is the fourth of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.

Chapter 5: Character

Wood points out that a minor character can be just as compelling as a major character. A good minor character need only surprise the reader once before disappearing to be memorable. This is because for characters in general very little personality detail is needed. What is required is just enough detail to highlight important personality traits. This gives the reader something to latch on to and build a personal narrative about without hitting the reader over the head.

The particular detail, however, should be related to how the character interacts with other characters, or the world in general. Sometimes an author can get away with a line on what the character is thinking. New writers tend to make the mistake of rendering this detail as if the character were the subject of a photograph. Rendering the character in motion is a much better alternative so that the reader doesn’t feel like the story has paused.

Another point is to make sure not to explain everything. Wood points out that author Muriel Sparks has the motto of “never apologize, never explain”. Character-defining behavior does not have to be explained or justified. This forces the reader to ask why the character is behaving in a particular way, which can lead to a reader imagining a narrative about that character. This is also important because the character involved may not be one that adheres to current moral standards or tastes. Spending time explaining the character’s motivations with an unsavory trait weakens the character and diminishes the reader’s incentive to think about the character.

Finally, it’s important that characters be determined to be themselves. Everybody in real life has a personal fiction that they tell themselves to put life into perspective. A framework of dealing with reality, if you will. Fictional characters are no different. In Wood’s estimation, good characters aren’t just determined to be themselves, they are determined to be themselves in a theatrical manner. They create a fiction all their own about who they are and how others should, or will, treat them or what their place in the world is. They then enact that personal fiction as definitively has possible in the given situation.


Admittedly, I never really thought about portraying a character in static or in motion, but I think Wood’s arguments are compelling in this area. The reader doesn’t want to pause. I’m also a bit relieved about the ideas regarding character details. Having to spend coming up with a high-detail description of a character is exhausting and never seemed completely necessary to me. Leaving a bit of mystery makes sense from a reader-investment perspective.