Friday, March 19, 2010

Earn Your Happy Ending

I MUST ADMIT that I have a great fondness for reading about fiction, ever since (on a whim) I purchased an old copy of the book Plot (Elements of Fiction Writing) by Ansen Dibell. I've read it several times. Since then, I've been fascinated by the process of developing plots and characterizations, which I suppose is an extension of my long fascination with words, grammar, and writing in general.

Please note that I have a fondness for reading about fiction; I hardly ever actually read fiction, having lost interest in that since I was in my early teens. The fiction I  have read in the past decade tends towards epic themes and great moral struggles. I do watch the occasional film, and extremely rarely, television.

A young correspondent shared a link to the website TV Tropes, which is
...a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction. We dip into the cauldron of story, whistle up a hearty spoonful and splosh it in front of you to devour to your heart's content.

Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations....
I was quickly fascinated. This website is definitely non-scholarly, and is often crude, poorly categorized, and obscure, filled with jargon; but there is a lot of good stuff in it. I've spent hours clicking around on that website, and was particularly taken by the entry Sliding Scale Of Idealism Versus Cynicism, which asks the question
What best defeats evil? A bullet between the eyes, or The Power Of Friendship?
The article continues:
  • In a heavily idealistic series, Humans Are Good. The starry-eyed pacifist will be able to settle wars, get people to understand each other, or destroy the Big Bad in a glowing ball of goodness entirely by accident. The cynic, on the other hand, is often depicted as a primitive who would just make matters worse, or a Knight Templar General Ripper advocating Nuke Em All as a solution to every problem without even stopping to ask any questions at all or even considering that there might be a better way to handle things.
  • In a heavily cynical series, Humans Are Bastards. The starry-eyed pacifist is cannon fodder at best, someone who needs protection from the people who know how the world really works, or at worst a naive fool who puts everyone else in danger through his/her reckless naïveté, or who is actively working for the bad guys under the deluded impression that they're doing the right thing and working for peace. The cynic, on the other hand, is the person who knows how the world works, the smart, street-savvy tough guy who knows that the only way to solve some problems is to beat them into submission.
This entry in TV Tropes reminded me of something that has troubled me since my youth. A political leader once praised the idealism of youth. Upon hearing this, I thought that was a good statement, however, he praised the idealism of youth, not the idealism of adults. I was shocked at the logical consequences of this.

So idealism is something that is, or ought to be abandoned upon growing up? And so the politician himself, being an adult, is not idealistic? And if he is a cynic, then in fact is he cynically using his youthful idealistic followers? If these youth knew that they were being cynically used, then wouldn't they realize that the politician is in fact their enemy?

A virtue, like courage or justice, is good for everyone, no matter their age, and so idealism and cynicism are not virtues, but rather opposite vices on the scale of morality, with true virtue being somewhere in between.

The idealist denies the phenomena of Original Sin and the existence of evil in the world, and indeed modern idealist philosophies were specifically created by rejecting the Christian world view. These theories assume that people, at their core, are morally good, despite the evidence. But there is, in fact, evil in the world.

The cynic assumes that humans are not only morally evil, but are ontologically worthless, having no goodness in their being, so why not kill your enemies? However, every cynic that has ever lived, had in fact survived his mother's womb and was for a time an infant, unable to help himself. There is, in fact, goodness in the world.

Vices come in opposite pairs, and a person without virtue will often switch from one vice to another. Consider a soldier without the virtue of courage: he is cowardly hiding while his city is under attack from merciless invaders, and due to his inaction, his friends and neighbors are being killed.  The soldier then has a change of heart: he leaves his hiding place, and openly charges the enemy, and is quickly and pointlessly killed. He goes from the vice of being a coward to the vice of being foolhardy. A soldier with the virtue of courage would hide when needed, and attack when needed, but always prudently, and always with the aim of selflessly protecting his friends and neighbors.

Likewise with idealism and cynicism. We ought to expect that an idealist will become a cynic, and even that a cynic would imprudently abandon caution and embrace idealism. An idealist is likely to become cynical when assaulted with reality, and this happens far too often when people embrace easy religions and ideologies. Vices generally are unstable due to their nature and we ought to expect such flips, while holding the middle ground of virtue takes hard work, but it reinforces other virtues.

TV Tropes recognizes that truth lies in the middle. Despite the vast range of opinion found there, there is typically a sense of morality and of good versus bad art. How ought a writer structure a screenplay? Which tropes are excellent, and which are best avoided? According to the website, the solution to the cynicism/idealism problem is called Earn Your Happy Ending:
...Humans may act like bastards and the world may seem like it's half empty, but that doesn't mean that that the worst villain is beyond redemption, or that things can't be improved with hard work or even The Power Of Love. The forces of Good may have to go through Hell, but in the end they will Earn Their Happy Ending. May overlap with a Bittersweet Ending...
The best works of fiction overwhelmingly choose this trope; perhaps because it is true. It is noted that it is difficult to write this this kind of happy ending effectively, but we should not be surprised, because life is difficult and takes hard work, even when writing fiction.

Many modern notions about fiction implicitly follows Coleridge, assuming “...that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith...” But this is not true, and it puts the burden of fiction upon the reader rather than the writer, rejecting the moral truth that to whom much is given much is required.

An alternative theory of fiction, developed by J.R.R. Tolkien and his friends, is subcreation, where we craft fiction according to how we ourselves are made, and that good fiction is “rather an artistic retelling of great truth in a form that is both symbolic and realistic”. Readers will accept or reject a work partially depending on how true it is, even if the truth is a higher truth.

And the higher truth is that we have to earn our happy ending — by hard work and by cooperating with grace. This is what the Christian life teaches us, especially during Lent.

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