Four Annoying Things People Do When Discussing Fictional Characters

I like talking to people about fictional characters, for two main reasons:
1) It’s interesting to think about psychology, behavior, relationships, and culture.
2) As a writer, I find it worthwhile to think about how other writers have crafted characters. How did they portray a character’s development or find a creative way to describe appearance?

Along with many enjoyable conversations with people, online and offline, about characters, I’ve also run up against some frustrating behaviors. Here are four examples of annoying things people do during these discussions:

1) Exaggerate the flaws of an unliked character

I won’t try to argue someone into liking or disliking a character. How people feel about a character isn’t always easily explainable, and people have preferences that you can’t control.

What I do care about, however, is a fair and well-intentioned reading (or viewing, if we’re talking about a movie/show). For some people, it’s not enough to dislike a character. They have to make that character the WORST EVER, blowing up all their faults while minimizing or erasing any good points. They’ll exaggerate mistakes or terrible behavior while pretending that the character has never done anything meaningfully good or interesting. Sometimes, they’ll completely make stuff up.

(I’ve also seen the reverse situation, where someone favors a character to the point where they exaggerate everything good about them and give that character credit for things they never did. This can also be annoying.)

2) Reduce a character to one dimension

Oversimplification bothers me. When a multi-faceted character gets described – and dismissed – as “the muscle” or “the babe” or “the brat” or “the bitch,” we miss out on an opportunity to consider a more complex figure with a mix of characteristics and motives, a character who may have changed in key ways throughout a story.

3) “Well I wouldn’t have done that!”

It’s normal to wonder how you would have handled a situation similarly or differently from a character. It’s interesting to consider how the same situation can affect people in different ways.

It gets annoying, however, when people keep using themselves as the sole yardstick for determining whether a character is good, wise, kind, beautiful, worthy of sympathy, or written realistically.

Regarding whether or not a character is “realistic,” there are multiple issues to consider. A character may seem unrealistic because the author failed to portray them convincingly – maybe the character seems flat, written without care or consistency, or the author messed up some major details about their job or religion. Or maybe the character is meant to come across as deceptive or unreliable in some way. Or the story is set in an unsettling fantasy realm, and as a reader you haven’t yet figured out all the “rules” for the way things are. There are interesting discussions to be had about what it means for a character to be realistic.

In any case, your personal experience is important, but it isn’t the sum total of existence. People don’t all act/speak/think/feel the same way in similar situations.

4) Make unwarranted, uncharitable assumptions about the author and other readers

Authors do sometimes write themselves into a story as a character, or they seem to favor one character greatly (possibly at the expense of the other characters or the plot).

But I’ve also seen many cases where readers make unfair assumptions about an author based on the behavior of a character. One example – they assume that a character’s racism is reflective of the author’s beliefs. Or that if a villain didn’t receive a harsh punishment, it must mean the author is condoning what the villain did.

They may also make assumptions about other readers (or viewers) in a similar way. In some fan forums and social media subcultures, it’s imperative that you feel a certain way about a character, or else you’ll get viciously harassed, dog-piled, or even doxxed. By liking a certain character, you become indistinguishable from them in values and world view. Never mind that it’s possible to like a character for multiple reasons. For instance, you can be drawn to a character because they’re interesting and make the whole story more interesting, even if in real life you know they would be harmful to you.

Implications Beyond Fiction

Everything I’ve mentioned here can derail a discussion about fictional characters or make it become deeply unpleasant, an exchange of attacks rather than a conversation. But what also bothers me is that I see the same kind of reactions applied to actual people:

The need to demonize opponents, while downplaying the flaws (or dismissing the crimes) of those you support. A strong tendency to sum people up with a label or two before stuffing them into some mental compartment within easy reach. An inability to see beyond yourself and try to understand why another person (someone in the present day or perhaps a historical figure) acts, thinks, or feels a certain way. A desire to ascribe unwarranted, perverse motives to people or leap to conclusions based on faulty judgments of collective guilt or guilt by association (“you agree with so-and-so about one political issue, which means you agree with them about every political issue, you bigot/communist/fascist/insult-buzzword-of-the-day”).

If we change the way we think about and discuss fictional characters, can we change the way we look at real humans in the messy world around us, present and past?

Notes from a New Year’s Day Fitness Fair

In what is a promising way to start 2020, I went to a fitness fair at a health club and community center. All of the classes at the fair were free, and it was a fun way to try some different activities. Here are my notes:

MELT method for improved neck and shoulder posture and pain relief

– I didn’t know what the MELT method was, and unlike in a regular class, the instructor didn’t have time to explain. She kept using certain terminology (like “shearing”), and she mentioned how this was about connective tissue.
– The particular exercises she used were supposed to help with the healthier position of the neck and shoulders and a release of tension in those areas, which is important for me, because when I write I have a tendency to get a tortoise neck (where my head pushes forward towards the laptop screen). So I thought maybe this could help.
– The exercises involved lying on a mat and using a cylindrical tube, a roller, made of foam that sometimes didn’t feel soft at all, like when it was digging into my spine.
– Some parts of me did feel genuinely more relaxed – not numbed, but truly more relaxed. But I also developed a pain in a part of my upper back. So, mixed results.
– Maybe it would have worked better with a smaller class where the instructor can stop next to each person and make sure their technique and roller positioning are good.

Nia Dance

– Ok, this was fun. So happy I signed up for this one.
– It was an hour-long workout combining dance, martial arts moves, and other types of movements (free-styling too). The warmup and cool down were effective, and the workout itself was energetic and called on the whole body.
– Also, the energy in the room was fantastic. A friendly vibe, people enjoying themselves. This was seriously a great activity.
– I felt happy, relaxed, and at peace with the world after.

A lecture on sleep

– Some of the stuff I learned kept me awake at night. (Just kidding, somewhat.) Anyway, sleep is a critical part of good health.
– It’s important to consider both quality and quantity of sleep.
– The lecturer talked about some things I’d like to look into further, like blue light from various screens and light fixtures (fine during the day, but could disturb ability to sleep when exposed to it at night before going to bed).
– Low-quality sleep can arise for multiple reasons, ranging from anxiety to problems in the physical environment. Also, the lecturer brought up a disturbing attitude towards sleep, where some people consider it unproductive or a waste of time.

Meditation

– Really low-key instructor. A relaxed, quiet guy. You could tell he meditates.
– The first meditation, which was just breath-focused, was pretty good, but I also felt impatient some times. The instructor talked about how to gently note the impatience and gently return attention to breathing whenever attention slips.
– The ticking of the clock sounded like a caterpillar munching on a leaf.
– The second meditation was more successful for me. It was focused on breathing and on a single word of your choice. I chose “mayim” (pronounced “mah-yim”), the Hebrew word for water. This also got me to imagine water flowing over me (including on the MELT-induced upper back ache), and to picture myself at one of the best beaches I’ve ever been to – the one at Halibut Point State Park near Rockport, MA. This is a photo I took when visiting there in the summer of 2017:

IMG_0136

– The third meditation involved focusing on a feeling of warmth and closeness. That one was good too, but for meditating on a regular basis I think I’ll do the second one most frequently.

A Reminder About Humility in Judgment

A couple of days ago, I was thinking about something that often happens online (and offline too) – when you have a conversation with someone, and they aren’t really speaking to you; they’re speaking to their misconception of you.

In the conversation, you feel like an image has coalesced next to you. It vaguely resembles you, and it’s made up of the other person’s mistaken assumptions about your motives, beliefs, hobbies, etc.

To varying degrees, I think we all have a tendency to do this to other people. We fly to quick judgments about them based on stereotypes or based on our own fears or interactions with superficially similar people. Some people do this maliciously; they deliberately create cruel and damaging misconceptions that they try to force as truth during a conversation.

I remembered something I wrote a couple of years ago around this time of year – the Jewish High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It was a piece on humility in judgment. Humility isn’t a fashionable characteristic, especially because it’s often confused with ‘humiliation’ or ‘abject lowliness.’ In truth, it’s an aid to clearer thinking and integrity.

From that piece:

Humility opens up space for self-awareness, thoughtfulness, and doubt. You make a judgment whenever necessary, while remaining conscious of the fact that you may have erred or acted on incomplete knowledge. You acknowledge the possibility that you’ll need to revise your judgment in the future.

Forming a judgment with humility isn’t the same thing as assuming a non-judgmental pose or deciding that you aren’t capable of judging at all. Rather than kill your ability to judge, humility refines it. You’re less apt to rely on snap judgments and more likely to assess a situation thoughtfully, with a better sense of your limitations.

This isn’t easy. Humility is an admission that you’re living with uncertainty. It reminds you of the limits of your knowledge and powers of thought.

Let’s keep aiming for genuine humility in judgment, in conversation, and in thought. You can still speak with conviction but without overestimating how much (or how well) you know or understand.

Understanding the Difference Between Feeling and Acting

Have you noticed how often people confuse a feeling with how they act on that feeling?

For example, when parents beat their kids, and you ask them why, they might say, “I was angry.”

But that isn’t an answer. It’s a description of an emotional state. An answer would be, “I chose to act on my anger by beating my kid.” It was one of multiple options for how they could have handled their anger. “I was angry” is not an answer. It’s not an excuse for inflicting harm.

Even if the action isn’t something as severe as a beating, it can still be a damaging choice. “Screaming at,” for instance, or “putting down.”

Another example is how desire is used as an excuse for rape or sexual assault. As if there’s only one way to act on feelings of sexual desire. Like you’re on autopilot between the first stirring of desire and the act of harming another person.

And here’s another point to consider: An action doesn’t need to be external. It can be an internal response. For instance, someone might react to anger by suppressing it or pretending they don’t feel angry. This is ultimately a damaging choice, because if you suppress anger too often and for too long, it can lead to chronic high levels of stress, burnout, depression, addictive behaviors, and maybe over-the-top outbursts at some later point.

Managing your emotions and exercising self-control are a critical part of being a mature person. Ideally, you begin to learn useful lessons as a kid for how to understand feelings and figure out ways to deal with them that don’t involve harming other people or hurting yourself through self-destructive choices. Many people unfortunately don’t learn these lessons growing up, or they learn them inconsistently and poorly. Regardless, as an adult, it’s important to work towards greater maturity by distinguishing between emotions and actions and building up habits of thought and behavior that will help you avoid destructive choices.

I’m not saying this is easy to do. Sometimes the distance between an emotion and an action can seem incredibly small; it can even feel nonexistent. People have areas where they’re especially vulnerable, like sex or relationships more generally, food and drink, acquisitiveness, various kinds of fears. There are insecurities roiling beneath the surface, beliefs about what you’re entitled to, ingrained behaviors that kick in thoughtlessly, and other deep-seated issues that need to be examined and addressed. You also can’t be complacent about the self-control or maturity you’ve achieved so far. In day-to-day life, the hardest struggles often involve the power of various feelings and the temptation to take the least path of resistance to them, to surrender to them fully. But that isn’t the path of maturity and wisdom.

Beware of Forced Binaries

One of the most annoying types of arguments to come across (for me, anyway) is the one involving forced binaries. A complex issue gets reduced to two possibilities – like nature or nurture, or the question of whether rape is about sex or power – and these two possibilities get treated as if they’re mutually exclusive. Pick one, and make your stand.

Whether you’re having a classroom discussion or arguing with someone online, here are three steps to take when you’re confronted by a forced binary:

Ask yourself what each choice really means. In the context of the discussion, how are people defining ‘power,’ ‘nature,’ or any other word? Sometimes, you get a disagreement because people are thinking about the same concept in fairly different ways. If you clarify definitions, you may discover a greater degree of agreement than you expected.

Ask yourself if these choices are really mutually exclusive. Just start with, “Why not both?” and think about it from there. The two possibilities you’re forced to choose between may be interacting with each other in interesting ways.

Ask yourself if there are other factors at play. Forced binaries are simpler and tidier. They’re also a great way to create two clear sides and pit people against each other. But the issues you’re discussing often have more complexity.

Good luck!

What Affects the Quality of Your Thinking? (It’s Not Just Intelligence)

In day-to-day life, the quality of your thinking depends so much on character. The company you keep is also important.

It’s not that intelligence doesn’t play a role. It’s just insufficient by itself. People who are mentally quick don’t necessarily think with depth, either generally or in response to certain topics. There’s no guarantee they’ll ever investigate their own opinions or question their own assumptions with any seriousness.

They can use their mental agility to dodge or immediately deflect any ideas or substantive pieces of evidence that don’t fit with their view of “how things are.” (Sometimes, these kinds of deflections help people get through the day without getting bogged down; it’s impossible to spend every moment re-evaluating what you think. But there are situations where deflections and dodges are harmful, shutting down an important line of inquiry or preventing a discussion about a proposed law. The quality and timing of these deflections, and the reasons behind them, are affected by your character – what you value, for instance, and your integrity.)

They may be clever at crafting rationalizations or arguments that seem well-structured. They may feel no need to examine whether they’re behaving with integrity; it’s enough that other “right-minded” people are expressing the same thoughts. They may prioritize “owning” someone in an argument over learning anything. Or they use their intelligence mostly for snark and viciousness.

An intelligent mind can still be a lazy mind. It can still be a narrow mind or a mind given to exceptional dishonesty. (Context matters too. An individual can display in-depth thinking in one area of life while remaining superficial or dishonest in other areas – and either not recognizing the superficiality or not being troubled by it, because it doesn’t cost them social approval.)

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7 ways to build self-worth and confidence in kids

1) See them as their own people

Much as you might want them to live out your own unfulfilled dreams or become a smaller, more agreeable version of yourself, kids are going to have their own personalities, interests, and abilities. You could try to bend them to your will in every little way, but they’ll either distance themselves from you entirely or break inside.

If you’re in the habit of comparing them to other kids, please stop. There will always be some other kid who has better grades, goes to better schools, can hit a ball farther, plays the piano better, looks more conventionally attractive, and seems well-behaved at all times. That shouldn’t matter (and besides, those other seemingly perfect children are human and have their own faults and problems, which you aren’t privy to). Help your kids develop into their strongest, most decent selves, rather than wish for them to be someone else. Accept that they’re human and will never meet some ridiculous standard of perfection. Love them as they are. If you keep comparing them to others, they’ll pick up on that, on how they seem to always fall short in your eyes, never good enough in their own right.

And please, please, don’t use them as a surrogate for someone else. They aren’t your therapist. They aren’t the best friend you never had. They aren’t meant to step into the shoes of a spouse. They’re your kids.

2) Talk to them as if they’re people

We get into the habit of cooing at children when they’re very young and brushing off their observations, triumphs, tears and fits of anger as so much lovable nonsense or irritating noise. The thing is, even very young children have serious concerns about the world. It’s easy to dismiss them or talk over them – especially when we don’t have good answers to their questions – but if you keep doing this, you’re basically telling them that their thoughts aren’t worth listening to and that they’re better off keeping quiet about what’s most important to them.

Hear them out, with sincere interest. Try to understand how they’re communicating. A two-year-old, for instance, doesn’t have the same verbal and cognitive ability as an older kid, but in many cases may still be trying to tell you something important – something they discovered or are delighted in, or something that annoys or frightens them.

Even if what they say sounds silly, remember that they’re new to the world and can’t possibly know everything that you know. Not that you know everything. Make a habit of exploring things together and not being afraid of questions that can’t easily be answered. Don’t be afraid of silliness either. And just as you wouldn’t want to be regularly shouted down, interrupted, or belittled, please extend them the same decent treatment.

3) Help them develop competency

You’re there to give your kid support. What that means changes as they develop and grow older. Basically, if you do everything for them, they’ll doubt whether they can ever stand on their own two feet. If you need to be heavily involved in every decision, great or small, you don’t give them a chance to breathe and try things out. You’re basically telling them that you don’t think they can manage on their own. This could result in a lack of confidence across different areas of life, or maybe one particular area (e.g. schoolwork).

4) Be dependably loving

One day you’re warm and loving. The next day you’re cold and distant. On a given day, your kid’s laughter might make you smile. An hour later, you tell them their laughter is grating on your nerves. On some occasions, you give them thoughtful advice and comfort them if they’ve failed at something; on other occasions, you react with impatience and derision. You make earnest promises to them, which you break half the time. They don’t quite know what to make of you. Maybe there’s something wrong with them, they think. They start regularly second-guessing themselves.

5) Hold them accountable for the right things

Kids need to learn to be responsible for their actions – not to bully other kids, not to steal, not to destroy their siblings’ toys, not to smear the contents of their noses on library books.

However, they’re not to be held responsible for your bad day at work, your rocky marriage, the argument you had with your own parents, the delivery guy showing up an hour late with dinner, or your personal insecurities.

6) Give them room and time to play

Play is pleasure and growth. It’s a time for flights of imagination, for exploration and development. Kids ideally try out different things when they play, build their skills, and have fun. When they play with others, they learn to socialize and work out conflicts. They learn to take risks, in a relatively safe environment. Please don’t hover over them all the time as they play, dictating what they should or shouldn’t do and making a fuss if they don’t spend all their free time exactly the way you want them to. Give them the confidence to chart their own path. Make free play (and free time more generally) an important part of their childhood, instead of something wedged into the twenty minutes between piano lessons/chess club/swim team/computer class/household chores. Participating in scheduled activities can be fun and beneficial, and helping out with housework at an age-appropriate level can be fulfilling for them, but if their schedule is so overbooked that they don’t have time to just play or relax, ask yourself why they need to be so busy. Talk to them about it, too – about what they want and need.

7) Model self-worth and confidence for them

I’m not talking about false bravado here, or the attitude of “suck it up/don’t cry/never show weakness, imperfections or vulnerability because no one will like or respect you.” I’m talking about genuine self-worth and confidence. Basically, you like yourself; at the very least, you’re regularly kind to yourself. You’re pleased when you do well, and you don’t beat yourself up endlessly when you make a mistake and constantly tell yourself that you’ll never get things right. You practice self-compassion and forgiveness, and have a basic faith in yourself as a human being who is capable of leading a worthwhile life and accomplishing things. You enjoy feeling good but also understand that sometimes you’ll feel down in the dumps. You’re human and imperfect, and you’re ok with that. You can still work towards your dreams, cope with mistakes along the way, take risks, love other people, receive love in return, behave decently, and enjoy life.

Kids pick up on your attitudes. They see what your attitude is towards failure and imperfection, towards embarrassment and shame. If you regularly act as if messing up makes a person unlovable or unworthy, your kids absorb that idea too, and it could batter away at them. So work on yourself. Examine your beliefs. Do you compare yourself to other people all the time? Do you tear yourself down and tear other people down? Are you basically comfortable in your own skin? Do you consider yourself a perpetual failure in life, or – even if you want some things to improve or change – are you basically ok with you who are?

Work on becoming a healthier person, mentally and emotionally. Do it for your own sake, but also know that your kids will be much more likely to develop healthy self-worth and confidence too.

Your socially awkward Edgar suit

If you’ve watched Men in Black you might remember the scene where the vicious alien kills a farmer and starts wearing his body like a suit (and if you haven’t watched Men in Black then I just spoiled part of the movie for you, sorry).

Anyway, the farmer’s name is (was) Edgar, and when Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) figures out what the alien’s done he says, “Imagine a giant cockroach, with unlimited strength, a massive inferiority complex, and a real short temper, is tear-assing around Manhattan Island in a brand-new Edgar suit.

Photo by Sarah Gordon of one of the Bloomington, Indiana brains

When you’re socially awkward and having a really bad time of it you can feel like your body is an Edgar suit. Your skin doesn’t fit right over your bones. Your smile is a grimace. Maybe your stomach’s coming out of your mouth. People might ask you if you’re ok, and you know they’re quietly wondering if you’re an alien. And you are an alien; that’s how you feel. You don’t have to be a vicious alien – you could be E.T. or Alf – but you’re still an alien, and you’ve landed among people you don’t get and who don’t get you. You try to speak to them but your voice comes out garbled.

That’s what you feel, anyway – that the Edgar suit is coming apart at the seams and sooner or later everyone’s going to see the giant sticky insect within.

You think that everyone else is like Agent J or K, down to the Rayban sunglasses and the fact that if they mess up at something people forget two minutes later. But when you mess up – say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing – stop the presses! The whole world watches and remembers for eternity.

But the reality is, many other people, more people than you think, are staggering around in their own Edgar suits.

Have some sympathy for their Edgar-suited predicaments. People are skin and bone and mortal flesh. Most of them don’t know what the heck is going on most of the time. If they’re loud and seem confident they could be making noise to mask a small panicked voice in their head. You never know. And even if they’re not, remember, they’re skin and bones. Like everyone else they’ll die some day, as will you. I don’t mean to be morbid, but it’s true – there are no gods among us. There are brilliant people, talented people, bright kind people who shine a light wherever they go, and we can admire them and love them, but let’s not worship them. Many of them wrestle daily with insecurity and doubt. (Those who don’t are suspect.)

Seriously, indifference towards what other people may think of you combined with sympathy for their alien humanness, so different from yours in some ways and so similar in others, is the way to go. Unless they’re a vicious sort of bug, to be avoided lest they eat you up like a plate of pierogi, don’t worry so much about them.

Easier said than done, I know. That’s where you have to start living the words. Show up, be one with your awkwardness, and do what you love. Slowly you’ll get the hang of it and not worry so much about the insect mandibles protruding from your mouth.

(The Edgar suit image links back to its source, Men in Black Wikia.)

Synaptic Sunday #12 – Developing resilience in the face of stressful circumstances

Before getting to these three good posts/articles on resilience, stress, and the human brain, please take some time to find a reputable charity to donate to in support of the recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Here are tips for finding a reputable charity and avoiding scams (the site, Charity Navigator, rates charities on a number of factors) – and here’s a recommended list of Hurricane Sandy charities from another site, Charity Watch, which also rates charities.

1) Summaries of talks on stress and resilience given during Day 2 of the Culture, Mind, and Brain Conference
I love how these talks highlight the interplay of genes and the biology of the human body with social and cultural factors. Some surprising findings (for instance read about the first talk on rat pups separated from their mothers for an 18 hour stretch, and how a simple change in the environment helped mother-pup relations proceed on normal terms afterwards, leading to no long-term negative consequences for the pup).

2) Can people learn to adapt better to highly stressful circumstances?
Some of the factors common to people who adjust better to life after a traumatic event include:
a) realistic optimism (knowing and accepting what you can change and what you can’t, and focusing all your efforts on what you can change)
b) social support
c) good regular health habits (e.g. eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and taking up meditation).

While there is a genetic component to resilience, Southwick said its influence is less important than one might expect.

“The biggest insight that we have realized is that many people are far more resilient that they think and have a far greater capacity to rise to the occasion,” he added.

3) 10 Tips for Developing Resilience
These suggestions have some overlap with what’s been discussed so far, and it’s a good list to start with if you’d like to change the way you react to adverse circumstances. Keep in mind that these tips refer to mental habits – they can be cultivated, but don’t produce instantaneous or 100% consistent results. They take time and patience to work on.

Why is it so hard to walk away?

Last week one of my nephews was amusing himself by jumping up and down on his dog’s squeaky chew toy. *Squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak…*

His mother asked him to stop.

He did, for a few seconds, and then started again. *Squeak, squeak, squeak…*

Again, his mother asked him to stop.

He stepped off the toy, but then touched it with his toes.

“Just walk away from it!” his mother snapped. “Just turn around and walk away!”

He turned away from the chew toy, then back to it, then away again, the struggle visible. Finally he laughed a little and walked away. His mother nudged the chew toy to the other side of the room.

Watching this, I thought, Why is it so hard to walk away? Children on average have poorer impulse control than adults, but I’m also thinking of how many Serious Adult Problems can be avoided or at least mitigated if we were better able to literally walk away from something that’s bad for us or for other people. Turn around and walk away from the dessert table at the buffet, from the convenience store where we buy cigarettes, from the person who’s spoiling for a fight, from the person who lied to us and defrauded us before, from the long T.V. lineup or unending stream of websites that we’ve been hooked on for long sedentary hours, etc. etc.

Make it a habit, as hard as it is initially, to turn around and walk away. Easier said than done, I know. That first moment is the hardest – the moment you have to first stop, get up or turn around; it’s so hard that most of the time we don’t attempt it, even if we know it’s good for us to walk away, whether to take a necessary break or to avoid something or someone completely. But once the action is initiated, it becomes easier to follow through. And with enough repetition maybe that first moment, in which we catch ourselves and change direction, gets easier.