Monday, August 20, 2012

Labels


Everyone knows how important first impressions are. Fair or not, the first impression you make tends to form the filter through which all your actions are judged. If the first impression you give someone is that you are lazy, then he tends to view every instance of your avoiding a task as an example of this laziness, rather than as evidence that they're overworked. This is the logical fallacy of confirmation bias, where we tend to put more weight on examples that confirm what we already think, than on those which contradict or mitigate it.

This is not just a problem with first impressions. You can meet someone and think they're perfectly fine, but if you're later told by a friend that he's sort of sleazy, then every awkward conversation and off-color joke becomes an example of sleaziness, not simple awkwardness.

This is the problem of labels. We tend to think of labeling as a problem of ethnic stereotypes and bigotry, but it's really an example of the fact that the human mind likes to sort and categorize people, and make decisions based on those categorizations. To some extent it's a helpful short-hand that makes up for the fact that for the majority of people we meet, we'll never know them well enough to really understand how they think. But the problem is that it's never that simple, and because of the problem of confirmation bias,  we're actually not very good at telling when that label is wrong. We tend to weight facts and incidents that confirm our label more heavily than those facts which work against it. This can lead to very ugly prejudices in real life, where someone can't escape an unfair label.

For a writer, labels are both useful and dangerous. When you need a minor character, a quick label is a fast way to give a character a recognizable personality without needing a lot of detail. For minor enough characters, this may be enough. But if that's the entirety of your characterization for a recurring, or for that matter, a major character, then they can start to seem flat and static. As your readers get to know your characters, they should begin to see the cracks in the labels: the contradictions and complexities. Which is not all that different from when you start to get to know a real person better. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Review of The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises, the final movie in Christopher Nolan's Batman saga, lies under the dark cloud of the tragedy that took place on opening night.  While it is appropriate to acknowledge that, that tragedy does not, and should not, reflect on the movie itself.

My wife and I saw The Dark Knight Rises  in Imax.  This can make for an intense experience, but I find it a lot less annoying than 3-D.  And really, when I watch a movie, it's more for the story than the "experience."  And I felt that the story of The Dark Knight Rises delivered. There was a lot of talk about the politics of The Dark Knight Rises even before it came out, about the political statements it might make and how it tied into the Occupy movement.  For all that it does echo some of those themes, it more closely parallels the French Revolution than anything in modern politics.  The themes of the French Revolution are always rich for mining, of how the quest for justice can turn into murderous revenge.  It is a line which the character of Batman has always walked, driven as he is by the murder of his parents.  The first movie in the series was, in essence, how Bruce Wayne turned from a revenge-seeking boy into the Batman, a vigilante for justice. And how that quest drove him to try to save Gotham, while others, also claiming to seek justice, sought to destroy it. The Dark Knight Rises revisits that theme, but this time asking whether the whole city of Gotham can make that same decision, choosing justice, with all its imperfections and flaws, over revenge.  It is a question that cannot be fully answered, because it is a personal question, one each individual must decide for themselves.  And in the end, the strength of those individuals who do what is right may win the day, but the challenge rises anew each day. That, at least, is how I read the theme of the movie.

In pursuing this theme, there are a lot of surprises, and violence, and explosions. Plus new toys for Batman.  There was one plot twist which I had some vague inklings of, but my wife didn't see coming at all.  Others more familiar with the Batman canon may catch it sooner.  Overall, I liked the movie a lot, and definitely recommend it.  And if you don't care much about the deeper themes, focus on the violence and the explosions.