Archive for the ‘Lessons’ Category

Lessons from Mistakes Were Made #1, Dissonance Theory and Osama

May 2, 2011 1 comment

Warning, I get a tad religious and political. If those things make your brain catch fire, you have other things to do today than read this blog. Go do them.

I’ve been reading Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) (Amazon). It’s a fascinating look at cognitive dissonance, which is, briefly, a discomfort that arises from holding two different thoughts simultaneously. Dissonance theory is predicts that we then modify our experience of the moment or our memories to reduce the dissonance. The book is full of case studies and scientific evidence I won’t go into over much, but I will provide a summary of one example.

The book discusses an experiment where people were given a description of a girl. In the description she does one generous thing and exhibits one annoying trait. Some of the people were then asked to write a letter of recommendation for the girl. Others were asked to write a letter of complaint to the housing authority. The remainder of the people (the control) wrote nothing. The people who wrote the letters invented facts about the girl in question to flesh out their letters. Regardless of which they wrote, when they were later asked their opinions, their opinions on the girl had changed (recommendation writers favored her; complaint writers disfavored her). They remembered details they wrote as if those details had been in the original essay. The control remembered the girl more accurately and had no opinion.

The books is interesting and definitely gives me ideas for how characters should interact. I’ll pull more things from it and discuss narrative implications in the coming days.

Today, though, I wanted to use the book to discuss my own dissonance. As a Christian and a man who likes to think of himself as moral, I’m anti-killing. Jesus had a fair amount to say on the subject of killing, and none of it would find itself in the ‘pro’ column. I believe in Him and His message. Even if you don’t, you, dear reader, probably aren’t going to kill anyone today or any other day, so, to varying degrees, you likely are anti-killing humans and consider yourself moral. (Note the caveat, ‘likely’) But today, we have news the US has finally killed Osama bin Laden. As an American, I’m pro the killing of the man who led al-Qaeda and, along with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was behind the attacks on 9/11. People, good people, worked toward this goal for a decade, and finally, we got him. There is, I think, an apparent dissonance here. I’m anti-killing except when I’m not. My mind tries to resolve the dissonance, as is its wont.

“Hey”, it says, “God is always killing people in the Old Testament. One of the Judges is even an assassin. Take that!”

“But wait,” my mind also replies, “vengeance is God’s. He’s pretty clear on that. The people who kill in the name of the Lord, but without His permission, meet harsh ends.”

It continues on like that for some time. I’m unsure how my brain will resolve the issue other than to let the event fall into the past and then stop worrying about it. That seems likely.

I don’t bring these things up to discuss either religion or politics on the Internet, I don’t debate that here. It’s an ugly forum for it. I bring this up mostly because it’s topical, and it’s happening in my head.

From a writing perspective, it gives me fuel for the writing fire. In the novel I’m currently working on, my characters all consider themselves moral. They also all belong to systems designed by fallible humans and so are on the wrong side of certain issues. Issues that will result in the death of innocents. Most of my characters will feel dissonance very much like what I feel today. Some will move past it quickly— either the killing was perfectly justified or it wasn’t. Their response to their dissonance will ‘radicalize’ them into sides. One or two, however, will feel sharply the sting of their own hypocrisy. These few will wrestle with these ideas. The heart of their struggle will not be won with swords, but when they come to understand which virtues and ideas they hold most dear, for it is the idea we hold more dearly that always wins.

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Game Theory and the Narrative #4, Battle of the Sexes

April 27, 2011 2 comments

A Battle of the Sexes, in game theory terms, is a game where two players have no perfect solutions. They only have acceptable and unacceptable solutions.

The common example, from which the scenario derives its name, is this:

A husband and wife have agreed to go out for an evening. Neither can remember where they have agreed to go. They would both rather go anywhere together than be apart. The husband recalls they agreed to go to a boxing match, which he would prefer; the wife remembers agreeing to go to an opera, which she prefers.

In this scenario, the husband achieves maximum happiness in only one condition, going to the boxing match with his wife; and the wife only achieves maximum happiness at the opera with her husband. Neither achieves any happiness if they go their separate ways. In the end, there are two ‘best’ solutions. They both go to either the opera or the boxing match. Mathematically, it doesn’t really matter which, though of course to people it matters whose preference is observed.

In a narrative, we want to see protagonists aligned this way. We want all of the protagonists rowing in the same direction, but we don’t want them all perfectly happy about it. We want some to think they’re going the wrong way or at the wrong speed. Dissatisfaction is human, and to see it in our protagonists reaffirms their humanity. Sticking together despite their disagreements is part of what makes them protagonists. They are willing to sacrifice for the greater good. They get more satisfaction from going with the team than striking out on their own.

We can think about the Fellowship of the Ring. Merry, Pippin, Sam, Frodo, Gandolf, Aragorn, Boromir, Gimli, and Legolas often disagreed about how the should get to Mordor, but once a decision was made, they, while the Company lasted anyway, stuck together despite their individual reservations. Different characters determined the direction the Fellowship took, too. At different points Gandolf, Aragorn, and Frodo all pick a course and the rest follow.

For our heroes, being together is strictly better than any outcome where they are separated.

Game Theory and the Narrative #3, Stag Hunt

April 26, 2011 Leave a comment

A Stag Hunt is a game similar to the prisoner’s dilemma, in that it is a game about trust and working with a partner (or partners).

Jean Jacques Rousseau proposed a scenario wherein two men went hunting a stag. They could either lay in wait for the stag together, or either one could hunt a hare. The stag will feed both men and provide a surplus; a hare will feed only the hunter who kills it with no surplus. Hunting a hare ends any possibility of catching another hare or the stag. In order for both hunters to eat, each must trust the other to continue to wait for the stag. It is clearly the best solution to the situation, but as time continues each hunter must continue to gamble that the other hunter will not grow too impatient. There are variants of the game where the hunters may, or may not, talk to one another, which can have an important effect on their coordination.

For the narrative, we should understand that readers want protagonists to work together for the greater good- for them to make the best choice in this scenario and wait for the stag. Dramatic tension can be inserted by making it look as if the protagonists wont wait for the stag, or, better yet, making one of the hunters an antagonist, which would lead the reader to believe the protagonist will lose the game based on his overabundant trust. The antagonist might, believably, choose to wait for the best solution, or he might, also believably, choose to be selfish after waiting ‘long enough’.

In effect, the final book of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy has two, or more, protagonists engaging in a high-stakes, non-coordinated stag hunt. The effect is thrilling, because the reader is never sure all protagonists will all continue to seek the best overall solution (the ‘stag’). Sanderson does a great job of giving different protagonists options that seem appealing but less full-filling (‘hares’).

Game Theory and the Narrative #2, Prisoner’s Dilemma

April 25, 2011 1 comment

I’ve decided to spend some time exploring how game theory can inform an author’s perspective on the narrative. I started this in my discussion of dragon-slaying, and I enjoyed writing that. My intent with these is to learn a bit about human nature and how that can and should impact my writing.

Today, I’m going to focus on one of the best known game theory problems: the prisoner’s dilemma. As Wikipedia tells us a classic example of the prisoner’s dilemma is this:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

Rational players, in repeated experiments, consistently choose to defect. While being silent and cooperating could have a nice payoff for both, too much trust is required to take that gamble.

What does this mean for the writer? Generally speaking, people will choose some bad over the possibility of a good if they can also defer a greater bad. In the realm of fantasy, we might rephrase the dilemma to this:

Two protagonists are captured by the antagonists and are separated. Each is offered a deal: each can choose to join the forces of darkness. If one defects and join the forces of darkness and the other stays silent, then the silent one will be killed and the defector will remain in place, perhaps to affect the final fate of the world. If both remain silent, the forces of darkness will keep them prisoner, but won’t kill them- the knowledge they have is too valuable. If both defect, the forces of darkness will have all of the knowledge it needs to destroy the world, but they are both still alive and in place with the small hope of affecting the final fate of the world.

As a translation, that’s a bit rough around the edges, perhaps, but it tells us rational protagonists may do things we, emotionally, don’t want them to do on the hope that they can achieve a pyrrhic victory.

Another thing this tells me is this: antagonists are often rational actors, protagonists rarely are. Emotionally, we want to boo the person who makes the rational choice here. Conversely, a fantasy protagonist will often hope and trust beyond reason. This is something we enjoy in them. We respect them for it. Trust and hope in others in the face of betrayal is Christ-like. Christian and non-Christian alike want such in their fantasy protagonists. Which means, in this case, a protagonist will likely short-circuit the prisoner’s dilemma. The best narrative would be to establish such a dilemma and have it seem as if the protagonist will do the rational thing. Then have him do something unexpected and heroic.

Dragon-slaying and Ballroom Dancing

April 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Today, I came across this article (PDF). It’s a game theory research paper discussing the circumstances under which an individual will provide a public good. In other words, it examines the math of when one person will, having had enough of a dragon killing people, rise up and attempt to slay said dragon.

The math isn’t, for me and what I do, all that interesting, but the conclusions we can infer from the math point me in the direction of things I do care about. For instance, the people who have the most to gain from a public good (e.g., a slain dragon) are also the people who are least able to provide the public good. This makes sense. Poor farmers cannot slay a dragon as easily as adventurers, who could also just walk away from the poor hypothetical village.

The math also indicates the pressure to provide the public good increases over time. This pressure is weighed against the cost of providing it until someone decides he can no longer wait. This is the inflection point of adventurers. Math tell us adventurers are people who have low costs for dragon-slaying and the highest valuation of the lives of those they save.

Heroes, even reluctant heroes, are playing a game of chicken- they wait for someone else with a lower cost to step forward. In a narrative, that is unlikely to ever be the case. It is my job to demonstrate to the character, and the reader, what that cost is and how much the character values life. All heroes will wait until the cost of waiting is unbearable. The key to interesting heroes is to make that pain point fairly high. We don’t want to read about heroes for whom the cost of dragon-slaying is minimal. We want to read about heroes whose cost is almost everything. And it follows, if their cost is almost everything, they will wait a long time to see if anyone else steps forward first.

No one else will, though. Because I, as the author, have chosen these characters for action. Whether they like it or not.

Edit: Ballroom dancing, the economists note, is similar to dragon-slaying. The music starts and there is a pregnant pause. Everyone waits for the first couple to step onto the floor. Until one person (or couple) reaches his cost point. Once the public good has been provided, more people step forward to dance as well.

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I’m Back

April 20, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m back from a nice, long, relaxing, unannounced vacation. I’m recharged and raring to go. The first bits of feedback are coming to me about the latest draft of Wolf. Generally, it’s better. There are still issues, but they are more minor in scope. Though, I do still have at least one character whose name I change halfway through the narrative. Gah.

I’ve started on what’s next, now. I’ve worked on it the last two days. I’m pretty jazzed. I don’t think it’ll fit all of the things I really wanted for what’s next, but it should fit many of them. I’m kicking around elsewhere in the Five Nations. I’ve spent the time to give the world a history and to invent, or cobble together from disparate sources, a system of magic I find interesting. It would be a shame to waste that. So, I’m write a novel about a mage from the northern nation of Syt. His life is not as great as one might think. I’m only a few thousand words in and I can promise you that.

The working title of my next novel is The Mage’s Price, but, really, it’s too early to know what I’ll end up calling it. For now, the above will work. I’ll keep plugging away here, too. With tidbits and thoughts.

The highlight of my day yesterday was the discovery of ‘contranyms’. Contranyms are words that are their own antonyms. The word ‘contranym’ is a neologism, but it works. The specific word that caused my exploration was ‘unravel’. I , innocently enough, wanted a synonym and an antonym. I was a little surprised to find ‘ravel’ as acceptable for both. Apparently, the idea with ‘ravel’ in particular is that as threads become unwoven, they oft become tangled. The act of unraveling and raveling is one and the same. It’s very yin-yang. Words are the bomb.

Categories: Admin, Lessons

Pronouns, Pronouns- They are everywhere.

April 4, 2011 Leave a comment

Some days I have to struggle to come up with a topic to write about her. Other days, a topic hits me in the face. Today was one of the latter.

I highly overused pronouns in my novel. I think it’s only becoming apparent to me because the novel is only beginning to become genuinely readable. As it approaches readability like light approaches the center of a black hole (perhaps never to actually reach), I notice increasingly small details and problems. Today, I spent most of my reading time adding in proper nouns. Because maybe, just maybe, the reader would like to have some idea who is speaking other than ‘she’ or ‘he’. Bah. I’m so horrible at this.

Other than the aforementioned pronoun problem, things are looking pretty decent. I think the voice is smoother, and my foreshadowing is less jarring, which is nice. I read a third of the novel so far today, which means it’s reading faster or I’ve just about got it memorized. Perhaps a bit of both. It does pull me along, though. I had to fight to get through it when I worked on Draft 2. That was many moons ago. My narrator is a different person these days.

This is a story on about an author who sent out review copies of her self-published book when they weren’t quite ready. A reviewer nailed her for it. She, apparently, considered cussing like a poorly spelling sailor an appropriate escalation. I want to take this as an abject lesson- there will be bad reviews of my books. I will not take it personally. People are entitled to their opinions. Even when they are being dumb-headed.

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