Podcast Episode 11: Heroic Self-Interest with Geoff Betts
Hi guys, it’s time for another episode of the Secrets of Story Podcast! In this episode special guest Geoff Betts joins us to talk about Heroic Self-Interest and James pitches a new take on “Annie”. Check it out!
Usually I think that Matt's principles have some core insight going for them, and that James' counter-examples are chipping away at the edges to refine the principle; but in this case, James is 100% right. (Sorry Matt!) For every example of a non-self-interested character, Matt's defenses all amount to: "the character was acting on some belief or value they held," or "the character was acting consistent with who they are." Those replies are true on their own terms (and would be the basis for good writing advice), but they do not equate to "self-interest." Boiled down further, Matt is essentially saying that if a character "wants" something and pursues it, they are acting in their self-interest, even if what they "want" does not help them or is purely selfless.
It is manifestly obvious that people, in life and literature, act outside their self-interest all the time. To say that acting consistent with a selfless moral conviction or acting consistent with a self-destructive character trait are examples of "self-interest" is not just a tortured view of "self-interest," it's a false one. That's not what self-interest means.
Maybe instead of saying that characters only act to further their self interest, say that characters only act out of their own personal concerns.
I'm with Matt on this particular argument.
Hagrid is a pretty helpful guy, but he isn't helpful because he's on a twelve step program to do his duty and be the ideal Kantian.
He genuinely enjoys taking care of things, as we see because most of his pleasure in life comes from the animals he is custodian of. He's got a bit of a personal concern for the kids and Harry in particular because he has an affinity for victimized children, having been such a child himself.
His behaviors reflect these personal concerns - his over-attachment to getting the dragon egg you mentioned, and other things like his decades of illegally keeping fragments of his wand hidden in his umbrella and using it to do magic, because he considers his wand being broken deeply unfair.
It's perfectly natural he'd spend his life as a secret felon if you understand his interest in Harry from the POV of his own trauma, but you would never come up with such details if you chalk it up to being a good person.
Good writing should be done with consideration for characters’ personal concerns rather than simplifying them to "good" or "bad" people, both because encouraging the idea that people's wills and actions can be boiled down to being good or bad from root to leaf is socially irresponsible (that mindset leads to things like the Vietnam war and should not be encouraged), and because good character development requires understanding what’s going on behind the eyes in detail.
When someone is concerned with doing the right thing, the why shapes the details, decides the "neutral" things they do, and decides what they even consider "right.” Do they want to "do the right thing" because they want to live up to what their father taught them and never be someone he would be ashamed of? Do they come from a dysfunctional background, and live surrounded by people who think they can never rise above it that they want to prove wrong?
As I see it, one of the most powerful decisions about doing the right thing in fiction is Huck Finn's decision to save Jim. A big part of that is because he arrives at it by specifically mulling over the everything he knows about being good, everything his church and society has taught him about right and wrong, and particularly the idea that helping Jim go free would be unjustly harming a poor old widow. He sees the decision as being the turning point in his life where he decides whether he's going to go from being a mischievous child to an irredeemable villain destined for hellfire, and ultimately he decides that he'll accept being the villain because his affection for Jim means more to him.
Thank god Mark Twain grew up in the Antebellum South and could write about that decision authentically, with all of the conflict that would come with selfishly putting one’s personal concerns ahead of God and society, because if that moment had written more recently by someone who has Huck help out an escaped slave without hesitation because he is a Good Person it would have been insufferable.
Characters don't have to act out of self-interest, but they do have to act in accord with their values and desires. You could try to stretch that into saying "They're acting in self-interest because if they don't follow their values they'll have a lower opinion of themselves"... but rather than trying to give a tortured explanation, why not just focus on the combination of their values and desires as the defining factors?
To join in, the only real problem is the use of the term "self-interest," which has different connotations than "desires." "Advancing one's self-interest" and "following one's desires" very often conflict (see: the entire lives of many people). Forcing a new definition of the term just generates static, as this podcast demonstrates.
(Also, in my experience, "the heart wants what the heart wants" is a poor choice as well, because that's the adulterer's excuse. The first time I'd ever run across the phrase was when Woody Allen was trying to excuse his taking up with his stepdaughter. I don't think I've ever seen it used except by philanderers to explain their cheating. But that could be just me.)
Man, I have no idea what to do with your story idea. It kind of reminds me of "Mr. Peabody and Sherman," where a dog adopts a boy, though it lacks time travel. Ah, there you go: teenage Mommy Peacedollars and her 43-year-old adopted son Andy go into OUTER SPAAAAACE! Not enough movies send people into OUTER SPAAAAACE! anymore.
Hey, Harvey! Yes, that advice of Rule 42 generates exactly the kind of "static" that makes it . . . not good advice?
P.S. Your OUTER SPAAAAAACE! reminded me of this wonderful high point in the Coen Brothers long great history.
So this feels like an argument I've gotten into with libertarian objectivist types who think altruism is unnatural and that it's impossible to be motivated outside the self. I've always considered that to be edgelord nihilism and I think people are more complicated and even actually better than that, or at least capable of such. I'm aware Matt is pretty left-leaning so I doubt he's coming at it from that direction, but I think it's a problem of definitions. The commonly used definition, and what I think most people thusly hear when we say self-interest, is the idea of being motivated only by personal gain. It's heavily conflated with selfishness. Whether that's right or wrong as far as terms go, I leave that to smarter people, but telling someone that a character must be motivated by self-interest can therefore be misleading.
It is probably better to say that every character takes their own actions for their own reasons, and sometimes those actions and reasons do not benefit them at all, but are still fundamentally part of their identity. Like it's believable that Rick tells Ilsa to leave with Viktor at the end of Casablanca even though it doesn't help him at all, because it's just who he is and how he operates. It is not believable, however, when random NPC 223 in an episode of Dr. Who sacrifices himself to save The Doctor, whom he just met, for no real reason.
Short version: self-interest is the wrong term. Characters simply need reasons to do things, and those reasons should be their own.
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