March 14, 2015 by Alexander Christenson
Special Relativity in Storytelling
What are the essential building blocks of a story? What are those elements that, when we dilute a story down to it’s pure essentials, stare back at us? If I had to bet my savings I’d go with “I don’t know,” but for the sake of discussion lets say this:
It’s two things: plot and character.
Plot is basically what happens. I got in my car and a truck sideswiped me and I crashed into the In N’ Out on Sepulveda. It was delicious. It’s one thing after another after another until the chain ends. It’s life as a function of time. Things necessarily advance in some kind of order.
Character is a bit more ethereal, but it’s truly what makes our stories human. In the example above, we could put different characters in both vehicles and end up with as many stories as there are people on this planet. It’s mood. It’s threshold. It’s how far you have to push a person in order to elicit a response. It’s the type of response. It’s the loudness of the response.
The relationship between character and plot is infinitely complex. At first glance, it would seem that plot is the driving force. I was hungry so I got in my car to get a cheeseburger. The truck sideswiped me and then I crashed. Now I’m angry.
But why did you go to In N’ Out? Why were you driving in the lane you did? Why do you drive the car you drive? Why do you live in LA? Why didn’t you go grocery shopping this week? Why don’t you look for a job?
If we’re trying to ascertain the first logical step in that chain of events – the very first thing that necessarily placed you in that car that got sideswiped by that truck – we’re going to be here for awhile.
The web is tangled. It makes your brain press against the sides of your skull. It’s difficult to ascertain which comes first. It’s the chicken and the egg.
But maybe the answer is that… there is no answer?
Maybe the truth is that these are actually two ways of looking at the exact same thing.
Look at Special Relativity. Einstein tells us that matter and energy are the same thing in different forms. I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I really understand Einstein’s theory but, in general, that lamppost over there? It’s made of condensed energy. That’s pretty special.
If you were forced to look at a story beat and confidently decide – plot or character – with a bit of mental acrobatics, you could define it as both.
Lets go back to the cheeseburger we wanted. How would we define the car accident? Is it plot or character? The truck sideswiped us and we were forced to collide into the In N’ Out. It’s an external force acting on us. We had no choice. So obviously, that’s plot.
But look at it from the perspective of the driver of the truck. Why was he driving like an idiot? Maybe he was distracted by a pretty girl on the sidewalk. Maybe he’s an asshole and likes causing accidents. If we wanted to, we could distill his actions down to an intangible quality of his character. His actions created the conditions for us to crash into the In N’ Out. Therefore, it’s character.
One response to this is nature. Things happen in nature not because of its character, per se, but because of a “natural” checklist being met.
Take lightning. Lightning happens when an electrical charge is built up inside of a cloud and a certain set of requirements are met allowing it to discharge into the earth. Once all these boxes are checked, lightning will necessarily appear.
It would be silly of us to look at a cloud and be angry at it for producing a bolt of lighting. It’s what clouds do. Morality, for a cloud, does not exist. The cloud does not shock the earth because it’s upset at the earth. It shocks the earth because – for a cloud, choice literally does not exist. Its existence is entirely deterministic.
In contrast, human beings largely believe in free will. The idea of determinism – that our existence follows a logical, necessary path – is exceedingly unpopular. A very small population of enlightened individuals truly believe in determinism and still lead happy lives.
So, in a sense, when we talk about plot and character, we’re actually talking about determinism and free will.
Plot – the collection of events which must necessarily unfold – is a product of a deterministic view of the world.
Character – the way in which we as human beings respond to events and create others – is a product of a view that embraces free will.
But is it not possible that humans are as driven by necessity as the cloud? Is it not possible that each of us is an unbelievably complex amalgamation of genes, history, and external stimuli which must necessarily behave in a certain way?
Is it not possible that there is a mathematical equation for each waking instant?
If that were true, then it would make no sense to say that character is an expression of free will. We would have to say that it is simply determinism, cloaked in the overwhelming complexity of the human experience.
That is to say that character and plot are simply two ways of describing the same thing – a necessary chain of events. The only real difference is that plot describes events which are non-human while character describes events which are human.
This of course sucks all the fun out of storytelling… but keep this in mind: whether or not you think that reality is deterministic, humanity will almost certainly never reach a definitive answer on the matter.
The question itself implies that it will never be answered; even if we felt like our scientific understanding were advanced enough to solve the problem, there’s always room for improvement. There’s always more depth, higher resolution, beyond the perceived limits.
A more clever way of saying this is found in Clarke’s famous third law:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”