113: Rules of Civility

—If we only fell in love with people who were perfect for us, he said, then there wouldn’t be so much fuss about love in the first place.

I quite enjoyed this book. I can’t say I loved it. In some ways it was just a bit unsatisfying, and felt in places like Towles was getting slightly lost. There are nice passages and interesting lines, and some enjoyable dialogue.

—You’ve got a lot of books, he said at last.

—It’s a sickness.

—Are you … seeing anyone for it?

—I’m afraid it’s untreatable.

But what it actually made me think about, more than anything, was the notion of being “in character”. We are, or at least I am, very quick to form an impression of a character that goes well beyond what they’ve shown us so far. We see a few of their actions, and we interpolate. We use their response to one situation to predict their response to another, quite different, one. This tendency is, I think, particularly strong when the character is question is our narrator – since we’re presented with their actions in their own words (their own take on them, if you like) we get a much stronger sense of the underpinning character.

In real life, of course, being able to estimate future behaviour is distinctly advantageous. The difference, however, between real life and fiction (in this regard) is that when a real person acts in a way that doesn’t accord with our model of them, we have to admit that they did, in fact, act like that. To feel justified in describing someone’s actions as out of character, we need a particularly notable deviation from our internal image of them – something that just doesn’t square with our previous experience, either because there’s a real weight of experience or because this latest action is a really radical departure.

What I’m trying to say is that our real-life character models have a large degree of plasticity. Since it cannot (usually) be denied that someone has acted in a certain way, that’s an enormously strong presumption in favour of regarding new actions as new data points, and revising our conceptions accordingly. There’s no cop-out, no easy way to dismiss something that doesn’t fit the pattern we’ve constructed.

In fiction, however, all of this seems to go out the window. We forget that people are complicated – not in some deep and meaningful way, but just in the fact that they’re a mess of contrary feelings and impulses. We forget that people aren’t pithily summarisable monoliths, embodying a single emotion or cardinal virtue or deadly sin. We purse our lips at things which clash (however slightly) with our interpolations, criticising the authors for going against the revealed psychology of the character in question. And, of course, some authors wilfully ignore this or that established facet of a character because they’ve painted themselves into a corner and need people to act in a certain way to get out.

This is a habit I need to break. And I think the way to do it is this. When I read, I’m going to start with a simple premise. Everything a character does is in character. And then I’m going to ask myself a simple question. What does that tell us about their character? And, with any luck, the result will be a richer engagement with the characters as they actually are, rather than just as I would expect or presume them to be.


Rules of Civility
Author Amor Towles
Published 2011
Pages 324
Best character Wallace Wolcott.

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