by Sara L. Uckelman
What I Learned When I Wrote a Philosophical Novel
I thought that I had spent ten years not doing anything fiction related. I thought that I had not honed any of those skills because I had not been practicing writing. Of course, I had been writing, but it wasn’t apparent to me before I started that there was any parallel between the 15-page philosophical conference paper, and the epic-fantasy/speculative fiction novel. I have mastered the 15-page conference format: give me a conference, give me 15 pages; I can get a topic, I’ve got my structure, bam bam bam boom. What I found, writing The Novel, is that there are many similarities in how you choose to structure things and present information to the reader. There are similarities in how you build the overall arc of your paper. I found that every time I got stuck in my novel, I was using tricks that I learned for how to get unstuck when writing a philosophical paper. What I would like to answer here is: what can you take from what you know about writing good philosophy, and how can you apply it to novels or shorter stories? But also, I want to address what you can learn from writing fiction, and how that can influence the philosophical writing process. Because these questions go both ways—and it comes down to the questions of plot.
Over the course of writing a novel, I realized that ten years spent developing skills in philosophical argumentation had helped me to understand what plot is, as well as to hone the skills needed to develop plot. (Or at least, what plot was for my purposes—I’m not saying this is universal.) What I want to argue is that: plot is argument, and argument is plot. You can take your argumentative philosophical papers and turn them into stories. I do not necessarily mean fiction stories, but rather that you can turn the papers that you are writing for journals into an adventure. You can get your readers engaged with your process—in the same way you get your readers engaged with your characters.
So, where do you start a philosophy paper? You have some sort of idea; it is generally some sort of ‘what if?’ question. One of the brilliant things about writing fiction is that you can pick rather wild ‘what if?’s and you don’t need to argue for them, but with philosophy papers, you do need some sort of motivation or support. Imagine a future in which much of our memory (our preferences, our communication patterns) is stored externally, and that free wifi is universal, ubiquitous, and on a par with access to food and water. If you buy into theories of extended minds, or how our minds are integrated with our smart phones, you can ask: what happens if you move to a place that doesn’t have this anymore? How do you interact with the world? What do you do when all your ‘ordinary’ means of communication are cut off? What happens if you need an actual plotted map rather than looking up Google maps?
One of the things I love to do is to take metaphors and treat them literally. For example, what if any time that you didn’t ‘feel comfortable in your own skin’, you could change your skin? What if this one just doesn’t fit right anymore? Maybe you have had a kid and it’s all baggy and saggy. What if you were in an accident and your skin burned? Would you change your skin if you could? How many people would do that? How many people would do it and how often? How does this affect what a person is and how you interact with them?
Another delightful metaphorical statement I came across in a paper I read last summer was “schizophrenia is the price Homo sapiens pay for language.” Briefly, the paper was on the relationship between grammar and specifically human linguistic capabilities, the relationship between the grammatical concept of the first person and how this enables us to individuate people in a way that allows for recursion and displacement and all of the specifically human characteristics of language. The background to this article is that some linguists argue that the development of the capacity for grammar was the speciation event for Homo sapiens, that that is what gave us language and that language distinguishes us from all other humanoid species. One of the consequences of this grammatical capacity is that one of the ways it can go wrong is manifested in schizophrenia—hence the metaphor that “schizophrenia is the price Homo sapiens pay for language.” But try taking that literally. What if you have this very literal transactional view, and this view that what makes you a person has to do with linguistic capacities. What if there are people nominated in society, selected to pay that price?
Or, try another fruitful strategy: take a theoretical perspective and turn it around. Medieval speculative grammarians had a view which countenanced different ways of existing or ‘modes of being’. These different modes of being determine different modes of understanding: different ways in which we conceptualize. Different modes of understanding determine different modes of speaking. This all makes sense; it is all nice. What happens if you turn it the other way around? This is a ‘what if?’ that I can’t give any philosophical arguments for. What if how we speak about things determines how we understand things? And what if how we understand things determines the ways in which they can be? It would follow that our ability to pick out something is what gives it the possibility of even existing in the first place. If we don’t have the linguistic capacity to distinguish one thing from another then there isn’t one thing rather than another. There is just the one.
These ideas—the ‘what if?’s—are all starting points. But to have a story, something has to happen. And a good bit of advice is: every time an event happens in your story or in your book, ask yourself, “what is the motivation?”, “why is this happening?”, “why is this character acting in a particular way?” You’ll sometimes hear of the distinction between character-driven stories and plot-driven stories. You can easily identify plot-driven stories that are badly written because they are the stories where plot happens for plot’s sake. For example, one character will say something and the other character will respond in a very combative way, or contradictory manner. Tempers will flare and you read this and you think, “oh, this is happening so that there is drama or conflict.” This is part of what plot is, but if the characters are just responding in this way to generate plot, then this becomes obvious and frustrating for the reader. For this not to be the case, the plot has to be rooted in the characters. Any time that you have some sort of action, ask yourself: what is it about the characters that would lead them to act this way in this particular setting? Is this someone who habitually has a quick temper? Has the other person said something which violates a very closely held belief the other character has? You can’t just simply throw up barriers to cause trouble for your protagonist. This is not going to be satisfactory to your reader.
You also can’t have a villain whose only purpose is to be villainous. It can’t be that: “oh, this character does have a motivation; his motivation is that he is the villain.” You may have heard it said that every villain is the hero of his own story. What this means is that you can’t have people whose motivations are only out of meanness or evil. Every action then is a sort of argument because for every action, you can ask “why did you do this?”. Whether you ask this of a character or of yourself, the answer should be: because of the character’s motivations. The action has to be the natural conclusion of all the reasons that a particular character has. Each character is building their own argument throughout the course of the story. The motivations, desires, and goals—these are the premises, all the material that a character has to justify the actions that they take. Each character has some final goal or conclusion that they are working towards, something that they want. This is going to be justified by their motivations.
In my short story, “The Sum of Our Memories,” the narrator is motivated by sympathy and mere curiosity, but her goal is to both escape this Portuguese folly that she is trapped in, as well as the memories of her miscarriage. Her motivations and her goals are in tension with each other. Because she is sympathetic to the other character, she would like to know more about him. But this desire is in tension with her wanting to escape from this thing which feels like a prison. Part of the consequences of this tension is that she has trouble seeing beyond herself. She is so wrapped up in trying to escape from her own memories, she doesn’t see what the consequences of her actions are on the other character. He is a man with tattoos all over him, and he is motivated purely by a desire to understand what happened to him. He woke up with these tattoos and he does not know why he has them or what they say. That is his motivation. This is also his goal, so his motivations and goals are aligned and every single thing that he does is directed towards these things. He is also motivated by nostalgia and memory. Though he is happy to talk about his history and where he used to live, and has a strong desire to go home, he does not act on this desire because he doesn’t see any foreseeable way to get from his desire to his conclusion.
In The Novel, one of my main characters, Duska, has as her primary goal the completion of her summer research project in the archives to return home to her pregnant wife. Her motivations are also to keep her research project under wraps, because it is the kind of research project that her colleagues don’t look fondly upon. She wants to make sure she is doing this without letting too many people know the details, at least until the project is finished. These two things, her primary goal and her other motivations, are in tension. Wanting to just complete her research without drama, but also to keep it relatively secluded from her colleagues, causes her to leave rather precipitously with one of her colleagues Matyey, because something happens and she is worried that he will be indiscreet. Matyey is motivated by a desire to hide his past and a desire to fit in. He will do basically whatever is asked of him so that he can feel like he is a part of what is going on, so he doesn’t feel like an outsider any more. But this is in tension with doing everything that he needs to do so that nobody knows what his life was like five years ago. Everything he does is directed towards the goal of keeping his past a secret. We have two main characters, they each have their goals and motivations, an intersecting point where Duska realizes that Matyey is a security leak and she needs to get him out of there. They will work together, but ultimately, they are working at cross purposes because what each of these characters wants leads to a different conclusion.
Each character has their own distinct motivations and desires, and a goal that they are working towards: each character is building their own argument with every step or action that they make. The relation then between protagonists and antagonists is simply going to be the relationship between arguments pro and arguments contra. Antagonists are antagonists precisely because the conclusion that their argument leads to contradicts the conclusions that the protagonists are arguing for. They can’t both be true at the same time, something has to give, so the resolution of the story is whichever one of the conclusions you end up getting to. The story is a catastrophe if the antagonist’s argument is the one that wins out, or succeeds. It’s a eucatastrophe if the positive result is proven, if the protagonists can overcome every counterargument or objection that the antagonists put forward. But eucatastrophes also leave room for ambiguous endings, those where it is epistemically unclear what the conclusion is. This could be because no conclusion is put forward. This happens with character-focused vignettes, where there is an arc of activity but no real wrapping up at the end. It could also happen because the story ends before the final reckoning is given: you just don’t know what the final arguments are. It could be that you have reached the goal or the ending, but the reader is left with a counter-argument, or an objection to this conclusion. This is where you might start to wonder whether the author is planning a sequel.
At the Fiction Writing for Philosophers Workshop at Oxford Brookes University in June 2017, Dr. Sara L. Uckelman, the published speculative fiction writer and Lecturer in Logic and Philosophy of Language at Durham University, was invited to speak about “Plot as argument, argument as plot”. Her presentation has been adapted into a three-part series, with permission, and was transcribed and edited by Nathan Davies. This is Part 2. Part 1: How I came to write a philosophical novel is available here. Part 3 is coming soon!