Friday, June 3, 2011

Judgment Day at the Flat Character Society

A Jew, a Catholic and a Protestant walk into a bar…

I confess, I used to laugh at those jokes. Substitute nationality, skin color, whatever, and where I grew up in the South there were a lot of guffaws and affirming glances. The jokes are not funny (even though, horribly, they kind of are). I understand that now.
The flattest of them all (sorry, Silas)
Fear of differences is deep in our DNA. We still respond to those we do not know the same way our ancestors responded to the tribe in the cave on the far mountainside. We shake our fists at them to keep them away; over campfires at night, we make fun of them as a way of keeping up our fighting spirit: those bastards aren’t going to catch us napping.

We don’t live in caves anymore, but our cities and suburbs offer the same refuge, the same opportunity to hang out with people like ourselves and make fun of the rest. We judge others reflexively, as we have been taught to do (lest hesitation prove fatal), and we teach our children to do the same.

I’m not saying we have dinner-table lectures on how to be a good bigot. These days our opprobrium is (generally) conveyed more subtly: Hey, it was just a joke, lighten up. But perhaps because of that subtlety, it is even more insidious. When we learn to mock others, we learn more than that it is okay not to respect one group or another, we learn that it is okay to pass final judgment on them.

The effect is pervasive. The habit of being judgmental becomes the way we evaluate the world around us. Caricature substitutes for understanding. We see others from far away, the way ancient travelers saw distant mountains, with no grasp of their depth.

The best fiction writers give us “round” characters. Stereotypes can be briefly entertaining, but they are not interesting for long. Flat characters can never play against type. They can never surprise. If they did, the reader would say, Whoa, where did that come from, what was the motivation for that? We won’t believe complex behavior from a character in a novel unless we know more about him than that he has very pale skin and likes to mortify his flesh.

Which makes me wonder why it sometimes seems that we insist upon knowing more about fictional characters than about our neighbors. How engaging, after all, is a story line that paints all Muslim jihadists as pathological fanatics? Hemingway would say such one-dimensional characters are not “true.” There is desperation at work here. What is the source of it? What is our role in it? These are the questions we would want a novelist to explore. We should ask no less of ourselves.


  1. >Which makes me wonder why it sometimes seems that we insist upon knowing more about fictional characters than about our neighbors.

    Love the way you put this

  2. I must admit, I do assume all muslim jihadists are pathological fanatics; hence the name "jihadists".
    While I appreciate your open-mindedness; the idea of fleshing out someones character after determining their fascist motives, is in my opinion, a waste of time.
    Understanding evil doesn't change evil. And those with evil intentions aren't trying to understand you.