Monday, February 4, 2019

People Read Characters in Fiction Incorrectly

I've been reading War and Peace over at /r/ayearofwarandpeace and I keep coming up against people who, probably for lack of formal training, lack the ability to critically analyze characters and their motivations. One thing they do frequently that I see as incorrect is the tendency to think about these characters as real people, with real thoughts and emotions and motivations. The author is god, so he can technically make these characters do whatever he wants. Even if it's a historical fiction, nothing is stopping Tolstoy from making Napoleon fly around the battlefield on a hippo if he really wanted. Napoleon could be just as smart or as stupid as Tolstoy decides, and the same goes as any other character in the book. When you read a fictional character and you read about the things they say or do, it's incorrect to interpret at singularly about the characters personality. The characters act and speak in a way to advance the story. They are going to do the "convenient" thing that makes the story good. It's a weird and subtle difference to realize.

I found a draft blog I wrote a while back that I never published that delved into this a little bit. In Literary Analysis, I'd argue there are 3 levels of analysis. Level 1: Direct observation about a passage. (E.G. He uses alliteration to draw attention to this word couplet). Level 2: Analysis of a collection or group of observations as a trend. (E.G. How does the author use many literary techniques to drive home his point? Do the techniques attempt to make a comment on the culture or society its being written in?) Level 3: Analysis takes the trend and collections, and compares them to other authors and works of the time, and compares and contrasts the differences between the styles. What does that say about the style, and by extension, culture, and society of the time? (E.G. Tolstoy, along with other Russian authors of the time, used poetic, flowery, descriptive language and long sentence structures, during the Golden Age of Literature to comment on the most essential aspects of the human experience with directness and honesty).

I'm not saying every reddit comment on the day's chapter should be some grand-overarching theory about how Tolstoy's imagery and symbolism in the chapter represents Russia's national identity in 1865 or how it's really a stand-in for the complex fight between liberal atheism vs Russian Orthodox Catholicism. Frankly, that stuff is exhausting and really wouldn't be fun to read. But it frustrates me that people treat these characters as real people, not as a stand in for an idea that Tolstoy wants to represent or embody. They will be used to move the story along and make comments about the kinds of people those people represent. Stop saying Anna Mikhailovna is sneaky or conniving. She is written to be sneaky or cunning, you can't actually predict what she will do, even though you may be able to predict was Tolstoy will write. I feel people fail to realize this, and come away with incorrect analysis about where the book is going but also fail to miss what the author is trying to say on a Level 3 or even Level 2 layer by writing the characters that way.