A Rule of Fictional Discourse

Fiction, of course, is governed by an entirely different set of rules than the rules for nonfictional writing that I’ve been outlining.  Nevertheless, philosophically minded people often inject various views into their stories, and philosophers sometimes write their pieces in fictionalized forms, such as dialogues.  In these cases, the rules of discourse and the rules of fiction begin to overlap.  For instance, in neither of the above cases would I recommend punctuating your point with a letter from Jesus.

The problem with philosophy in fiction is that it becomes slippery to define what’s okay and what’s not.  Is a logical fallacy still a problem when it’s made by a character instead of by the author?  Is it a straw man to have the character who holds the opposing view mischaracterize it or not support it very well?  How about if you, like Philip Pullman, create a fictional universe where the people you don’t like are all evil?

My rule is that if your view is strong, it will stand on its own.  Its own self-evident merit will shine through unfair accusations and poor defenses.  Therefore, in fiction, your view should get the weakest support.  The characters who hold other opinions should be smart and erudite so that no one can accuse you of unfairly representing those views, they shouldn’t be evil, and there should be enough variety to show that you aren’t reducing a complex issue to a simplistic dichotomy.

At the very least, the characters who hold different views should be equally intelligent, well-spoken, and non-evil.  If you make everyone who disagrees with you part of an evil conspiracy (Pullman, I’m looking at you again) or a bumbling fool, I call that a straw man, even though you’re in fiction, not formal debate.  It also makes your opinion seem weak if it needed to be bolstered by giving it to the wise, benevolent, ruggedly handsome leader of the rebellion, or whatever the case may be.

A violation of this rule came in a book I was assigned in one of my philosophy classes, John R. Perry’s Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality.  The topic is the survival of death, but as always, the real question comes down to personal identity: what makes you, you?  If it’s something physical, you couldn’t possibly survive death, but if it’s something non-physical like a soul, you could.

Unfortunately, this interesting topic gets horrendously cheapened by this particular author.  The dialogue is between an atheist college professor who’s been fatally wounded in a motorcycle accident and a chaplain who comes to visit her.  Objectivity has already gone out the window: the atheist (or, in personal identity terms, the one who views the body as the source of identity) gets sympathy points as she bravely faces her fate.  The bias doesn’t stop there.  As the professor firmly holds to her body-as-identity view, the chaplain is forced to defend all other views, switching to weaker and weaker options as the professor effortlessly “disproves” each one: soul as the source of identity, a  set of psychological states as the source of identity (bundle theory), and finally the brain as the source of identity.  By the end, a random graduate student joins the discussion to support the chaplain’s side because the chaplain is out of arguments.  Perry is basically using two tacks to support his view: first, the logical arguments that the professor makes, and second, the fact that the chaplain isn’t very smart.

On the pure narrative side of things, the same problem plagues Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Anathem.  The otherwise engaging story is undermined by his constant need to show that theists in general, and Christians in particular, are idiots, jackasses, or both.  Anathem requires a longer response, so I’ll deal with it in more detail later.



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4 responses to “A Rule of Fictional Discourse

  1. Pingback: The Fifth Rule of Discourse: Boiled Frogs « Chimaera

  2. bryce1618

    Of course, its even worse for the author when they aren’t even really attacking their opponent but some horrendous caricature that no thinking person could even fall for (I’m looking at Ayn Rand).

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