Friday, June 26, 2009

The Mental Landscape

Charles here.

This “what comes first” thread has been stuck in my head for days now. You can read the posts below, but generally we’ve been saying that character comes before/is more important than plot. Vicki screwed us all up by pointing out that setting often drives her decisions to buy/read, and reminding us that setting often determines everything. A novel set in Manhattan will be different from one set in Manhattan, Kansas – the way people talk, how they get around, how their police departments operate. But is there more?

Her post got me thinking about a Human Geography course I used to teach. One of the geographic theories we covered was the now-discredited concept of geographical determinism, which claimed that how we perceive the world is shaped on the geography we grew up in. According to this theory, someone who grew up in an old village with winding roads and multiple streams not only sees the world differently than someone who grew up on wide open plains with right-angled roads set at even mile points, they actually think differently. Not just what they think about, but how they think about it. In a gross generalization, this theory suggested that people who grew up in the old village had their brains’ thinking patterns shaped by the winding-roads they walked on every day. Folks in this town would approach problem solving in a circuitous, roundabout way, deliberately considering all sorts of ‘wrong roads’ before they found the right one, comfortable with the ambiguity because they know that it would eventually get them where they’re going. For these folks, the phrase “You can’t get there from here” – a phrase often associated with the old, winding road towns in New England, makes perfect sense because it’s true. At the same time, folks who grew up on the Great Plains of central US and Canada – where roads are often aligned north/south-east/west and as dead-straight as a rifle shot – would approach problem solving in a more logical, practical, straight-ahead manner. Conversations with these folks would include long silences because, just like the roads, they know where the conversations were going without it having to be said.

I always liked teaching this theory because it was so easy to get students to accept it as fact – it just sounds logical and it plays into the stereotypes I’d set up for them. And I also loved it because it quickly fell apart when you did any real analysis. As the stereotypes revealed themselves to be just that and students noted all the anomalies and biases, the discussion on the theory became a much more meaningful discussion on the problems of subjectivity in the social sciences and what it means to know something and – wait for it – how you know you know. So, as a geographical theory that helps explain human behavior, geographical determinism is a bust.

But how about for writing fiction? As authors, how can we/do we/should we make use of this pseudo-science to create believable minor characters? It’s not accurate science, but does it open up ways of seeing characters that feel right, even if we know they are not? Or is any stereotyping off the mark and therefore not a reliable guide for writers? Students accepted the concept of geographical determinism when I presented it, only seeing the holes in it when I pointed them out. And be honest, there’s something innately appealing about the concept – it sottra makes sense that we learned to walk an idea through our heads the same way we learned to walk ourselves through the world.

I’ll admit it, I’ve taken us well off the topic we were discussing, looping around to try to tie it into writing one way or the other, even though, now that I’m done, it still makes little sense. But don’t blame me, blame where I grew up.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'd never heard that theory before, but it does make you go hmmm (discredited or not.)

I write cozies set in small, Southern towns. Everyone knows everyone...and may have certain preconceived ideas about suspects that could be red herrings or clues. Setting is so important to the story; really, it's a character, too!