You Are A Character

Far more entertaining than it deserves to be, unless you’re a 10-year-old boy, in which case it’s only the greatest movie ever made. Village Voice on Dragonball Evolution.

Dragonball Evolution is not a great film.  It can be fun if you mentally “squint” and ignore the obvious implausibilities, cliches and blatant manipulations to get you to side with the good characters against the bad, and to be caught up in their concerns.   Ten-year-olds may not know enough to recognize these manipulations, in which case they may love the movie.

“Good” movies are nearly as manipulative; they just do a better job of hiding it.  Those who make movies simply must manipulate us if they are to entertain us; we are quite clearly bored by most of the reality around us, and usually even by detailed truthful tellings of the most dramatic real events around.  But since we do not enjoy a story when we are too clearly aware of its manipulations, movies must be crafted so as to not force us to notice them.  We usually cooperate to “suspend judgment”, so that manipulations can be visible on the periphery of our awareness.

Let me suggest that humans are much like story characters.   Since others like us better if the story of our lives seems to fit with standard human ideals, we try to appear to so fit.   But since it is expensive to actually fit these ideals in great detail, we instead manipulate our cheap surface words and acts to give a loose appearance of a fit.  The expensive details of our lives, however, instead better fit the non-ideal necessities of who we really are.   None of this works if our hypocrisy is too obvious, but thankfully we tend to cooperate to squint and avoid seeing each others’ non-ideal realities.

You are a character in the story of your life.  Evolution has formed you so that you, mostly unconsciously, craft the character you project to be likable and interesting.  The crafting of this image is done via manipulations that are just good enough to not force most folks to notice them.   Perceptive folk may notice them more, but usually also know they will not be rewarded for calling our mutual charade.

Even so, I choose to try to see through our deceptions, to the less ideal, dramatic, and sympathetic people we really are.  And I hope to live to tell about it.

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  • Psychohistorian

    “Manipulate” seems to carry too much connotative baggage here, and it feels overbroad. What would a story look like if it didn’t manipulate us? Could it be good? Could it even be a story?

    Movies portray characters. These characters either strike us as realistic and identifiable-with, or they don’t. If a character does something that is unlike a real person, or an absurdly improbable event occurs for the express purpose of letting a character reveal something about his personality, viewers tend to dislike it because it breaks the suspension of disbelief. I’m not quite sure how a convincing portrayal of a character or an engaging plot count as being manipulative, aside from the glaringly obvious fact that, it’s, y’know, a movie with actors and a script.

    Calling all fiction (and, actually, all literary/cinematic nonfiction) “manipulative” feels like it’s stretching the term.

  • Def_Os

    Psychohistorian, think for example of all the ‘based on a true story’ films and the ways in which they deviate from the truth. Also, think of the music that accompanies good guys and villains.

    If you want real cinematic manipulation, check out Lars von Trier’s films. He manipulates so obviously that I’m disgusted by it (Dancer in the Dark was his cheapest trick) but for some reason I cannot help feeling intrigued by most of his films. He likes to challenge his audience to see how much manipulation they are willing to accept, yet especially film connaisseurs like his movies. Seems like a contradiction.

  • “Even so, I choose to try to see through our deceptions, to the less ideal, dramatic, and sympathetic people we really are.”

    Me and some others have been accusing each other for our most serious thought crimes. Mine is retrreating from a problem whenever I am confused about it.

    I would say that Robin’s thought crime is not sufficiently emphasizing that it is a very important thing for us to become better people, even if we are far from the ideal at the moment.

  • I don’t know, Robin, perhaps it’s just that your particular ‘story’ is the maverick misunderstood professor, mixed up wih a touch of perceptive Jedi, and your piercing of bubble is no more than than the acting of your story just as we act ours.

    • Patri Friedman

      I don’t know, Robin, perhaps it’s just that your particular ’story’ is the maverick misunderstood professor, mixed up wih a touch of perceptive Jedi, and your piercing of bubble is no more than than the acting of your story just as we act ours.

      Heh, my thoughts exactly.

      I don’t think it is true, but there is some truth to it. That is, there are many stories that can be told, and our choice of story has true underlying meaning. Robin’s story is one I like better than most. But he still presented it in a dramatized, story-like way. Thus, even his dislike for irrational stories was tinged by irrational storytelling.

      I hope it was intentional, because that would be a cute touch. If it wasn’t, well, then it’s awesome in revealing how we are all affected by this bias, even those who claim to be against it.

  • mjgeddes

    Yes! You seem to be closing in on some of the same ideas as me 😉 But whilst you seem to be coming up with general concepts that I agree you, your interpretation of these concepts still seems to be quite different from mine. (See botogol above)

    I would say that this narrative process you are talking about is central to the working of the mind, I certainly would not view it as ‘manipulation’ or delusion. Idealized notions can motivate and inspire us, so long as we *know* they are stories and not actual current reality, this is not something that should be viewed as ‘manipulation’.

    My own radical view is that it’s all narrative, not just our own lives, but the very universe itself! My ontological position is that reality itself is stratified into different levels of abstraction and the highest level of reality is a ‘language’, constituting a ‘self-mapping’ of reality. It’s all a narrative –

    A Never-Ending story

    atoms=letters, molecules=words, worlds=settings, life=characterizations

    I just saw a post on ‘Less Wrong’ which I believe may explain everything. I put it to you that virtually all humans are suffering from the the equivalent of anosognosia, and only I (Marc Geddes), by a genetic freak, are immune, only I have full reflective insights. Why else are conclusions so blindingly obvious to me passing the rest of the high-IQ community by? 😉

    For this radical and amusing idea see:

    The strangest thing…

    Follow your conclusions further Robin, you alone on this blog (aside from myself) have shown signs that you may be starting to break through your human anosognosia.

  • Robert Koslover

    But surely, princes do but play us.
    Did John Donne beat you to it? “All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.”

    • gwern

      “Tell arts they have no soundness,
      But vary by esteeming;
      Tell schools they want profoundness,
      And stand too much on seeming:
      If arts and schools reply,
      Give arts and schools the lie.”

      ‘The Lie’, Sir Walter Raleigh

  • There’s the angle of reading many different narratives that offer different views–there was that book written from the perspective of Grendel in Beowulf. You could read Beowulf and then that book and you’d have an interesting polyphonic narrative maybe.

    You can probably read fictional books about historical events to get a rough simulation of the inside view of the event, from different sides–something by a Union soldier and then by a Confederate, say.

    And of course history is like this–I was a history major, and a lot of what I liked about it was that you read multiple sources on the same event and saw how different people talked about the same event in much different ways.

    One last thought is, how much do these various narratives correct each other?

  • Thus Spake A Woman

    “I became a character, what the artist should be. It was only a stage show, but it worked well enough as that. Some hated me, and thought me fraud or fool, some found me entertaining. But everybody noticed me; and that is the key to success in the world these days. Far more important than actually being good. To impose yourself, to take the public by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shaking; to scream in its provincial little ear that I am a genius. And if you scream loud enough and long enough, it believes you.”


  • spriteless

    If you are a minor character in your life, you’re bipolar, dependent, ect.
    If you’re the only character in your life, you’re a narcissist.

    But I’ve always seen all people as jerks trying to hide it (except some narcissists don’t bother to hide it). The predictor of who treats me better is if they try to hide it when nobody cares or not; whether they want to be better than ‘human nature’ for themselves (or an omniscient viewer) or just enough to get by in society.

    Since those who appear to be faking goodness are liable to be inconsistent it it’s application, disliking those who appear to fake goodness is a handy heuristic.

  • “Even so, I choose to try to see through our deceptions, to the less ideal, dramatic, and sympathetic people we really are. And I hope to live to tell about it.”

    What is beneficial about seeing through these deceptions?

  • Stephen

    Your attempt to unravel the narrative weave is the weaving of your own narrative. Any attempt to explain is subsumed into the fabric. Even the most grizzled, grittiest realist (rationalist) in the world is enticed by the glamor of his gritty realness. Depending on how you color it, that’s either the great success or failure of the mind’s design.

    My question is: at which level does the narrative operate? It’s persistence makes me suspect it is brain-deep and not just thought-deep. I think investigating the mystery will create a personal narrative with a much more interesting pattern to the weave.

  • I believe the life-is-theater idea is at the root of Erving Goffman’s theory of interaction rituals. Admittedly, I’ve never read any of his books and neither has my primary source, Hopefully Anonymous.

    • I have read Goffman and I second the recommendation. One thing about his work is that (in contradiction to Robin’s heroic self-narrative above) is that he assumes that everybody knows, at some level, that social interaction is theatrical. It is the reflexively self-conscious nature of the process that interests him.

      Also see the related work of ethnomethodologists (Garfinkel, Sacks) thought these are considerably more challenging. And here’s a story about an AI trying to use these ideas and others to reform the field.

  • Actually mjgeddes, “I” also am in full agreement with you — yes it is all narrative, both the “character” that Robin is able to see as such, and the equally imaginary character he thinks we “really are”.

    What we actually are is the consciousness / awareness in which all these stories and characters appear, play out their in their multifarious aspects, and disappear.

    We are awareness and the various selves that are believed in are simply imaginary characters, the same phenomenon we see at night while dreaming, the same phenomenon we notice while watching a compelling movie or reading an absorbing book. We “become” characters, but can also drop our identification with them and notice that we are not at all what we thought we were.

    The “self” or the “me” is a pattern of thoughts, what we actually are exists prior to any thought. Witness a very young child which is living in a world prior to conceptual / linguistic thought and to a “me”, but is unmistakably present and aware. We are all that same presence and awareness that is manifest in a young child, simply layered on with a thought / meme complex called the self or “me”. But the essential nature as observing awareness never changed, only the contents of the particular story change over “your life”.

    This is the simple truth that has been pointed out by the self-observant throughout history, from Buddha to Einstein:

    A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.

    This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. . .

    – Albert Einstein

    • mjgeddes

      Yes, consciousness appears to be the narrator; it’s role appears to be to construct a time-line of story plot – past to future.
      But the rabbit-hole runs deeper still. You see whilst human ‘reality’ is indeed but a dream, I may have succeeded in achieving ‘lucid dreaming’ and shall risk describing this to ‘dreamy’ readers 😉

      Here’s my theory; whilst each mind indeed constructs its own narrative (story or idealized map of reality), the universe itself has its own narrative. Let me explain. Platonists consider mathematical objects to have objective reality. So let us take the Platonist line and see where it leads – and we also need to consider the insight of Kurt Godel, which was that mathematics can represent itself (aka Hofstadter ‘Strange Loop’)

      If we regard sets and categories as high-level mathematical abstractions, we can view set/category theory as an objectively real ‘mathematical narrative’ about the lower-level mathematical objects e.g. collections, algebraic relations etc.

      This is not a map / territory confusion on my part. Remember, set/category theory is a not a human invention, it’s objectively real (aka Plato). And remember, mathematics is self-referential (aka Godel). So here’s my big punch-line:

      Set/Category Theory is a real story about mathematics that mathematics is ‘narrating’ to itself – mathematics is a living thing! The sets/categories are the script, the algebraic relations are the plot-lines, and the orderings (combinatoric collections) are the characters.

      Admittedly, you may find this my most bizarre theory yet (hopefully a new Marc Geddes record for weirdness), but it shows that the idea of reality as pure narrative is coherent.

      Do a few rays of dawn’s light (i.e. insights) now penetrate the eyelids of slumbering blog readers? And are we all destined to awake from our dream narratives at sunrise? (i.e. Singularity).

  • fenn

    I’d love to know how you handled parenting as far as handling the kiddos insecurities and senses of self. Is there a rough age when people can handle the truth about themselves (specially coming from parent)?

  • basu

    Why don’t you write about morality? Are moral laws merely our biases?

  • Living up to your own character sheet *is* expensive, but it’s *worth it*.

  • babar

    many people begin to truly understand their lives only after being told that they are characters in strip cartoons.

  • Granite26

    Even so, I choose to try to see through our deceptions, to the less ideal, dramatic, and sympathetic people we really are. And I hope to live to tell about it.

    Why? Do you place that much value on personal knowledge of other people?

    Could it be that we put ourselves in boxes in order to be quickly and easily 90% understood by people who would not find it worthwhile to learn 100% or even 99% if that was required?

    Certainly we should strive to see past the masks of people we see and interract with every day, but is piercing the veil of the hot dog vendor worth your time to do? Is it worth his time to share these facts with you, rather than playing his role for the next customer?

    When you encounter another person, chances are that they will be 70% like every other person on the planet, 90% like others of their gender and culure, and 99% described by the small number of boxes you have for them. The 1% that makes them unique is important and personal, but not worth the time to share or remember. I’d go so far as to say that last 1% is where true intimacy happens. (Yes I pulled those numbers out of my butt, but you get the point).

    What is the reward for doing this?

    • Z. M. Davis

      True intimacy?