If you’ve applied for a job online in the past fifteen years or so, you’ve probably had to take one of those awful personality tests.
You know the ones. They come with statements like “I enjoy meeting new people” and “I sometimes make mistakes”, and then you have to select whether you “strongly disagree”, “disagree”, are “unsure”, “agree”, or “strongly agree”, or any of about a dozen permutations of that whole rigmarole.
As it turns out, the only correct answers are typically either “strongly agree” or “strongly disagree”, because companies want employees who are “confident” and “sure of themselves” (or who have read articles on the subject).
It’s a kind of absolutist thinking that really doesn’t work well with writers.
See, as soon as you give me a statement like “shoplifting is always wrong,” I immediately think of Jean Valjean spending nineteen years in prison because he stole a loaf of bread to feed a starving child.
Any kind of blanket statement is going to come with exceptions and fuzzy areas. This is one of the reasons why contract law is so damn complicated– because it tries to guess at every possible scenario and deal with them all at the same time.
What does this have to do with writing?
Stories in which all things are absolute can get two-dimensional and boring. Especially when the thing being decried is a particular behavior, it can feel like a bad after-school special (do you guys remember those? Do those still exist?), or they can feel like straw man arguments. If they’re about groups of people, they can come across as racist, sexist, etc (depending on the kind of group being identified).
The easiest way to combat this is to show exceptions to a given rule.
- We’re told that all people from the Capitol are shallow and lack empathy, but then we meet Effie and Cressida.
- We’re told all Death Eaters are fanatical and evil, but then Narcissa Malfoy saves Harry’s life.
- We’re told all Masks are ruthless and terrifying, but then we meet Elias and Helene.
- We’re told all Hobbits want to live calm quiet lives where they can smoke and eat and be at peace, but then we have Bilbo running off on adventures with complete strangers, and then we meet Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin who are all adventurous in their own right.
When a rule has exceptions, it opens the door to so many possibilities. Instantly there’s an opportunity for conflict (it can be as small as other Hobbits finding Bilbo weird, or as big as betraying one cause to fight for another). We have a chance to see a more diverse scope of perspectives. Characters and settings have the chance to feel more nuanced and multi-dimensional. There’s even a chance to consider why a rule applies to some elements and not others (is Bilbo adventurous because he’s got Took in him, or because he grew up on Gandalf’s stories, or is it something else altogether?) (Why did Narcissa join the Death Eaters in the first place? Was she ever a believer?) It also opens up the idea that other exceptions exist that we haven’t come across yet.
In sum, it invites the writer and the reader both to engage in critical thinking. And that’s always a good thing.