Friday, July 26, 2013

Characters Say The Darndest Things

So yesterday I pointed to the folly of Mr. Harvard and Mr. Economist saying silly stuff to each other.

If Harvard professors and columnists for The Economist can't get this whole logic thing right, what hope do our characters, most of whom never went to Ivy League schools, have?

I recall, way back when in the days before I joined The Dark Side (Administration, specifically), I had the opportunity to teach a College Composition class.  Now, you're probably wondering what an old grumpy IT guy is doing teaching writing, and you'd be correct to do so, but hey, I had just enough credits in the subject to teach Freshmen how to compose a dang sentence.  Besides, the class needed a teacher who wouldn't get himself fired like the guy I was replacing had.  So--there I was.

One day I delivered a particularly juicy and enjoyable lecture (to me, anyway) about the mechanisms we use to spice up our linguistic exercises.  Our discussion of metaphors went down the freeway of academic discussion, bumping and scratching but eventually getting there.  Similarly, similes were like a walk in the park compared to the less interesting (to the students) discussions of parts of speech we'd been having.

For the scintillating discussion of irony, I employed one of my favorite devices, the anti-example. Specifically, I displayed to the class the lyrics of Alanis Morissette's song "Ironic."  This song has managed to become, from what I'm led to believe, one of the most oft-used anti-examples nation-wide ever since its recording in 1995, thanks to the fact that "Ironic" isn't.  Well, it is, but that's only because it isn't.  Ironic, that is.  Confused?  In the literary world (and the dictionary), irony is saying one thing and meaning the opposite.  In the anti-perfect anti-example, every situation in the song was unfortunate, and sometimes entirely coincidentally horrible, but it was all meant as it was stated and therefore none of it met the definition of ironic.

Thus, because the song is titled "Ironic," but it actually isn't, it kind of is.  One has to wonder whether its writers (Morissette and songwriter/producer Glen Ballard) were: a) devilishly brilliant in creating a song that was the meta-antithesis of what it claimed to be; or b) foolishly ignorant of the meaning of the term as well as the location of their dictionary; or c) purposely writing a commercial song that would appeal to the mindless masses who remember their high school locker location more clearly than anything they learned in their English class back then.

Personally, I suspect it was option c.

Regardless, I explained all of this and then we had a decent discussion on the topic.  Class being over, then, and me being a competent teacher, I assigned an activity that would assess their achievement of the learning objectives.  Specifically, I asked them to find an example of something we'd discussed that day, somewhere in modern or classic literature or art, and to describe it in three to five paragraphs that would be due at the start of the next class.  (oh, and please, for the love of God, make sure you write complete sentences and have your nouns and verbs agree, okay?  Please?)

(Anyone who's ever taught a Freshman composition class is probably giggling right now over my simple parenthetical request.  Once again, though, please see option c above.)

Ironically (or not--which is it?), the first paper on the stack that next week was a treatise on how Alanis Morissette's song "Ironic" is right chock-filled with irony.  No, I'm not kidding.  Once I was done beating my head on the desk, I critically read the paper and hit on a dilemma: other than the seriously, horribly, fundamentally flawed premise, the paper was perfect.  It was, like, a work of art (*snerk*--sorry).  I mean it--all them subject thangs agreed with all them verb thangs, and periods were where periods were needed while commas were used correctly as well.


How's that for irony? 

So now we have Harvard economists who can't make a logical economic argument, and college composition students who can't avoid using what the professor held up as what it ain't as the example of what it is. 

And you want your characters who grew up on a farm an entire half-day's horseback ride from the Medieval-quality village to think clearly and expound perfectly?  Yeah, right.

So go ahead, write the plot that needs to be written because it's interesting to read.  Let the characters think and say whatever they're most likely to think and say, regardless of whether you might think or say that. 


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