We all have tales to tell, and all else being equal, would prefer to be the heroes of our own stories. But those stories, of course, are populated by other characters: friends and rivals, allies and enemies. Although we might not notice, our heroism often plays out against someone else’s villainy. There’s a self-serving bias in the way the tale is told.
It reminds me of the distinction once made by English novelist E. M. Forster between “flat” and “round” characters in stories. Let me illustrate.
Remember the old Western movie stereotypes? Good guys in white hats, bad guys in black hats? Did you ever notice how one-dimensional the bad guys could be? When I think of this, the 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance immediately springs to mind. Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne play the idealist and the cynical realist, respectively; they are characters with complex motivations who clash over the necessity of violence in the Old West. But the villain, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), is little more than a sneering sociopath. Clearly, this is a man who deserves to be shot. And the one who shoots him is a hero.
In Forster’s terminology, Liberty Valance would be a flat, one-note personification of evil. We see nothing of his internal conflicts; we’re given no psychological analysis of his troubled childhood or romantic entanglements. (I’m still waiting for some indie director to come out with Valance: The Untold Story.) He’s just the person a kid would point to and say, “Mommy, he’s a bad man.”
By contrast, the dramatic leads get to be round characters. They have mixed motives and competing values. As characters, they have, well, character–moral complexity, depth and dimension. And in a sense, the good guys need Valance to be flat and simple in order for them to be rounder and more complex by contrast. They need him to be inhumanly bad for them to be humanly good.
Question: to what extent might we find similar distortions in the way we read or tell stories? When we read the gospels, for example, do we imagine the Pharisees as nothing more than hidebound, short-sighted legalists instead of real people wrestling with real concerns? Or when I tell my own story, to what extent do I need to justify my actions by portraying others as clueless, ill-tempered, or selfish? How much do I have to edit out of the telling to keep others flat, so I can be virtuously round?
Psychologists tells us that we’re all prone to something called attribution bias. When I do something wrong, my situation is to blame. When you do something wrong, it’s because of your character flaws. Of course, we don’t always think that way; we’re much more likely to give our friends and allies the benefit of the doubt and not malign their character. But if our enemies do something wrong, the unexamined attitude may be: Well, of course; consider the source.
Here’s something to ponder: to what extent is this way of thinking particularly salient in an election year?
We complain about negative campaigning: the mudslinging, innuendo, and character assassination can get very tiresome very quickly. But why do politicians do it? Because to some extent, it works. It’s the way we’ve learned to think: round heroes, flat villains. Candidates don’t just try to get you to like them; they want you to dislike their opponents. And they don’t just want you to think that the opposition’s policies are wrong; they want you to think they’re one-dimensional, simplistic, naive. Just like the opposition.
Whichever way we vote, let’s at least be civil enough to let the candidates be real people, not just placeholders in the hero/villain tales that they or we might prefer to tell.
That’s one way, I think, of showing that we’re not merely flat characters ourselves.