Low Down with the Big Talk: Waxing Philosophical in Fiction

“Suddenly, you have doubts. Suddenly you question whether or not everything you’ve done has been one enormous, futile lie. If everything you sacrificed, you sacrificed for nothing.”
— Harry Dresden, Small Favor*

There’s something missing in the world. I believe that all pain is based on this inevitable self-discovery. We try to make sense of that missing hole, to fill that disturbing void in reality with meaning. By trying to make sense of the wrongness of the world, we create an ephemeral part of it. Is this writing? Or just philosophy?

Perhaps it’s both.

There’s a lot of published writing out there, and a lot of unpublished writing, where the characters don’t think very big.

Oh, they may need to save a city, or a country, or a world. They may be fighting for their very soul, or the souls of a people, of a race. They may angst themselves into near emotional oblivion, or enjoy an enlightenment so supreme that all other sensations blot out. They may have deep, intimate talks about their relationships. That’s all very good and well and I wouldn’t have it any other way, because the other way would be boring.

And yet there is meaning beneath the waves, the undulating circumstances of life. We are human; we perceive patterns that may or may not be there, and wonder. In the quiet between storms, it would be somewhat inhuman to not reflect, like shadowless dreamers, on the bigger picture—or even on the question of if there is a bigger picture.

Looking into the face of the unknown, have you not ever tried to place some kind of order on the affairs of the universe, and relate such order to the little lives of yourself and your acquaintances? Watching the news on the TV or in the street, have you not ever tried to string meaning into the weft of alternating cruelty and kindness in the human experience?

I’m not asking for characters to suddenly break down into long, philosophical internal monologues at the drop of a plot twist. I’m not asking for extended navel-gazing. Heck, I’m not really asking for anything, because not every book nor every character is going to lend itself to even the slightest touch of thinking beyond the horizons.

There are first thoughts, and second thoughts, and third thoughts. Seeing, seeing and understanding, and understanding, are three different things.

Big thoughts, deep thoughts, add depth to a character. Especially if you’re going to use first person, which is more or less designed for conveying these sorts of thoughts. The ability to drop such bombshells is almost the entire point of first person.

But, you know, don’t overdo it. Use really, really sparingly. Our brains can only take so much purple.

Colophon: yes, I did get access to a proof of Jim Butcher‘s new book in the Harry Dresden series, Small Favor, and the reading of it was glorious.