Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, January 24, 2005

Consistency Of Character

An interesting discussion kicked off by Trent Walters:

has been carried on over at Matt Cheney’s blog the last few days:

Started me thinking:

It seems to me it all depends on how hard-assed your idea of "consistency" is. For some, I think, "consistency" does play on ideas of logic, of systematic ways of thinking which, if taken to the theoretical ultimate, should give us a "complete & consistent" picture of who and what and why a character is, rendering that character predictable. "Consistency" in that rigorous logical sense implies cause & effect, X-follows-Y, which doesn't sit well with those coming from a determinedly anti-deterministic paradigm, I’d guess. Some of us coming from a background in Humanities and Social Sciences tend to feel uncomfortable with absolutes, easy answers, an approach to “human nature” that might be seen as reductionist. Hell, some people don’t even like the phrase “human nature”. They put it in quotation marks.

Personally, I prefer to side-step the whole philosophical minefield of "consistency" and bring in two terms from linguistics instead - coherence and cohesion. I expect characters to be generally coherent - composed of chunks of action, thought and experience that are comprehensible in their own right and which relate rationally to each other to form a larger, also generally comprehensible, structure. There is a logic to affect, the way the world acts on us, the way we act on ourselves, and the way we act on the world. But in creating characters, I feel I tend to “discover” the larger structure, their personality, as I go along, from the way their small-scale interactions cohere. I think that may be true of us as individuals also, creating our own identities moment-to-moment.

If you're starting from the little chunks and wiring them together then (rather than starting with a concept of *character* and trying to break it down into how that character *would* act in this or that given circumstance), I think consistency looks like a bit of an artifice. Contradictions seem a natural result of basically making things up as we go along, whether it’s a fictional identity or a real one we’re trying to construct. There’s no reason we can’t end up with multiple higher-scale superstructures - traits, neuroses, self-images - that are in complete conflict. Still, there’s enough rationality about how these things come to be that I still expect psychological veracity in my fiction or in the fiction of others - the *consistent inconsistency* Jeff VanderMeer is talking about perhaps, in the comments on Matt Cheney’s blog entry.

What I find more interesting is the schizoid / poetic way of pattern-making, where poetic rhyme or schizoid word salad, for example, can be utterly incoherent but incredibly cohesive. Sometimes the pattern-making by which we understand ourselves and the world around us, and which informs our actions, is, I’d argue, truly irrational. A character undergoing a psychotic break is being “inconsistent”, and not in a neurotic, ultimately-sensible, internal-conflict kinda way. It’s less “consistent inconsistency” and more “inconsistent consistency”; when you start gleaning meaning from entirely arbitrary and coincidental similarities of sounds, words starting with the same letter, people having the same initials, then you’re in the territory of madmen and poets. And I’m not sure we really have to be either outright for that type of irrationality to be playing a role in our day-to-day lives.

Instead it seems to me that “consistency” is breached in two ways in characters: there is the conflict of incompatible attempts at coherence, different motivations, different self-images, irreconcilable wants and needs forming internal contradictions; but there are also, I think, points where inconsistencies of action seem to speak of strange, perhaps deeper responses that defy reason, where coherence has been abandoned in favour of cohesion, where rather than negotiate some resolution of internal conflicts, rather than attempting to maintain coherence - an integrity of identity - the character chooses to act in a certain way because they’re entranced by some highly cohesive but ultimately senseless Grand Pattern.

I can’t really comment on the character of Wakefield as described in Cheney’s blog entry, never having read the story, but it does strike me that there’s something of that process going on there, that the character undergoes a *break* from coherence, and that there’s an element of that schizo-poetic cohesive re-interpretation of reality in him seeing his wife as a witch. And I do think it’s possible to see similarly irrational *breaks* in rationality in individuals and even societies as a whole, running the spectrum from the tin-foil hat brigade, through conspiracy theorists, to otherwise rational individuals swallowed up in the Romantic pattern-making of fascism. A character study of a fascist might attempt to make that character “consistent” by showing them as a psychopath, an opportunist, a weak fool. It might show that character as “consistently inconsistent”, their views and actions a neurotic product of internal contradictions. In many cases, these views would probably be accurate. But I suspect that there was also that deeper form of inconsistency at work, a surrender to the simple rapture of unreasoned and unreasoning rhetorical technique. Simple repetition, the simple act of repetition, the poetic and rhetorical and schizoid technique of repetition, is a strategy which every orator uses because they know it works, because it gives cohesion; and speeches, the belief systems they express, and the characters who make them, hear them, hold those beliefs and act on them, can be utterly inconsistent in many ways, I think, when they capitalise on our willingness to sacrifice coherence for cohesion.


Blogger Trent Walters said...


It's hard to discuss this topic without knowing both sides, isn't it? I expressed my view, Matt responded, and I elaborated, with a discussion of "Wakefield" in detail.

7:27 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...


Oops. Though I came to your own post and response through Mumpsimus, I did read them and they're very much a part (the bloody _start_) of the "interesting discussion" I was meaning; but the way I've worded and linked the post above implies otherwise - and in a completely kack-handed way. Apologies. I'll sort that out momentarily.


7:51 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Having now actually read Wakefield and Trent's take on it, I'd have to say the depression motivation he traces in the story is pretty convincing. While I do think there's a difference between a hard-assed deterministic consistency and what I see as the requirements of effective characterisation (part rational coherence, part irrational cohesion), I'd have to say Hawthorne presents Wakefield's moment of mania, to my mind, as strange but not really irrational, as an attempt to escape his mental state, his routine life, his own torpor - to excite himself "to something like energy of feeling".

3:59 am  
Blogger RWM said...

This, to me, raises the question of character growth too. Usual people would look for 'growth' in a character thanks to their experiences in the story. (I'm putting aside the need to follow the Hero Journey - something I'm coming to hate.) But surely to grow in this way the character must step outside of its consistency and emerge into a new set of behavoural patterns. Which confounds the expectation of consistency, but meets the expectation of change.

I always liked Pirsig's idea that society (and I guess character) need people (and personality traits) to step outside the bounds of normal rules (and expected responses) and thus propel them forward as they are integrated into 'normal'.


9:11 am  
Blogger paul f cockburn said...

Wasn't it Oscar Wilde who suggested that consistency was the last refuge of the unimaginative? Consistency isn’t sexy. It isn’t exciting. Yet it’s what a lot of people seem to crave: a sometimes tepid kind of sameness, with a reassuring absence of risk and surprise. We like our fictional characters to be predictable and understandable, but isn't that just because the supposed advantage of fiction over reality is that it's supposed to make sense?

Yours, not yet having read any of the previous discussion...

8:10 pm  

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