Character arc: like a scramjet, or a lead balloon?

I’ve been considering different methods for plotting the scenes in my novel and have come back to the Action-Reaction concept; that is, something happens and the character reacts.

At a higher level each scene must move the story forward; the state of the story must change. It can either be; a change to the character’s goals, needs, fears, or state of mind; or simply changing the reader’s understanding of the character.

This Action–Reaction–Change loop changes the state of the story and increases its momentum.

I plot a scene out for eacharacter:

  • Action
  • Reaction
  • Change

ARC – Character ARC:

But is it the arc of a lead balloon or a rocket?

The momentum of object can increased by either adding mass, or accelerating it to a higher velocity. It’s the same with a story; we add mass by incresing the readers understanding of the character or place, and accelerate it with action.

But the two changes must be in balance. Simply increasing the mass i.e. learning about the character slows it down, as energy is lost in getting this new material up to speed. And increasing speed alone puts the story in a precarious state where it could be either deflected off course, or leave the reader behind.

My brother worked for NASA for about a decade before returning to continue his research at the University of Queesland in Australia. His primary focus is the Scramjet (supersonic combustion ramjet). For this type of propulsion system to operate everything has to be in perfect balance; so that a controlled hydrostatic air flow through the engine can be achieved.

Planning my scenes I try to to get the mix just right too. I include a little of both mass and accelleration that change the story; it’s a balancing act.

Too much mass to early and the scene or entire story will drop like a lead balloon, too much action and the story will accelerate out of controll or the reader will let go…they won’t care.

The art is to get the balance right and soar like a scramjet

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What defines an “Intelligent” species?

I’ve always struggled with how to classify a species as intelligent or not. It must be simple and applicable across any expected type of life, not just the ones we have so far encountered on earth.

I would normally classify YouTube as the antitheses of a thought-provoking blog but was stunned the other day when my son sent me a link to “I’m a Stupid Cat” that got my mind racing on this subject.

It is the typical “funny cat” video set to music and lyrics (language warning) and although it is not precisely anti-cat propaganda it does highlight the innocence of a domesticated cat’s life.

A screen capture of the YouTube video “I’m a stupid Cat”

Hidden amongst the profanities and humorous anecdotes was a startling observation that “[cats] don’t even know they’re going to die.”

And it was precisely this quote that struck a chord with me.

Is it this quality, an understanding of time and personal mortality, that defines an intelligent species?

It is also interesting to note that our species is taxonomically known as Homo sapiens, Latin for “knowing man”.

A little research turned up an article on The Daily Galaxy entitled “The Planet’s Other “Intelligent” Species: Do Dolphins Have a Sense of the Future?” At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, Kelly the Dolphin could very well [have] got the upper hand on her human trainers… or pets?

All the dolphins at the center are trained to retrieve trash that has mistakenly fallen in to their pools. Upon seeing a nearby trainer, they are to take said trash to the trainer. In return, they receive a fish for their cleanliness.

However it seems that Kelly has found a loophole in the system, and is exploiting it to interesting ends. She hoards her trash, underneath a rock at the bottom of her pool, and when she sees a trainer she goes down and removes a piece of paper or trash to get her fish. However she won’t use all her paper at once, instead she holds on to them for the future.

It is an interesting behavior, considering that it is very much like humans storing food for the winter; it displays an awareness of tomorrow.

The Planet’s Other “Intelligent” Species: Do Dolphins Have a Sense of the Future?

I’m not discussing the intelligence of this animal or that but each entire species and it is not useful to quote a single specific example such as the dolphin “Kelly” above, otherwise one could use a human baby as proof that Homo sapiens do not pass this test.

The quality must be inherent in the mature species and only absent by exception.

Although René Descartes is credited as the father of analytical geometry (the bridge between algebra and geometry), crucial to my work as a spatial scientist, he is perhaps best known for the philosophical statement:

“Cogito ergo sum” (French: Je pense, donc je suis; English: I think, therefore I am) – in part IV of Discourse on the Method (1637)

Which also harks back to the classification of our species as “Knowing Man”.

So…is the comprehension of time and mortality (or more colloquially: do they know they’re going to die) a valid way to classify a species as intelligent or not?

…and what does this mean for us and these other intelligent species? Are they to be protected? Are they exempt from use as a source of materials or food? And are they also unsuitable for use as involuntary manual labour or entertainment?

Humanity, how do we ensure the survival of our species?

It’s to dangerous to keep the consciousness of the universe on only one planet, it could be wiped out… Sax Russell, from Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Red Mars

Mars, 2001, with the southern polar ice cap vi...

Mars, 2001, with the southern polar ice cap visible on the bottom. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is top of my “Recommended Reads” list and I am featuring it and an authorial review on day M of the A to Z April Challenge (14 April).

In the first volume, Red Mars, Sax Russell, a scientist and one of the first 100 people on Mars has a long and thought-provoking monologue that I found life changing. I’ve included just an excerpt of it in this post; it was in response to Anne Clayborne’s case for leaving Mars as it is – too beautiful to risk loosing.

The beauty of Mars exists in the Human mind , … Without the human presence it is just a concentration of atoms, no different from any other random speck of matter in the universe.

It’s we who understand it, and we who give it meaning…

But science is more than that. Science is part of a larger human enterprise, and that enterprise includes going to the stars, adapting to other planets, adapting them to us. Science is creation. The lack of life here [on Mars] and th lack of any findings in 50 years of SETI indicates that life is rare, and intelligent life even rarer.

And yet the whole meaning of the universe, its beauty, is contained in the consciousness of intelligent life. We are the consciousness of the universe, and our job is to spread tha around, to go look at things, to live everywhere we can. It’s too dangerous to keep the consciousness of the universe on only one planet, it could be wiped out…

We can transform Mars and build a cathedral,  as a monument to humanity and the universe both!

This is more “one hand clapping” stuff I know but read in its entirety, and using the terraforming of Mars as a literary example, it makes a compelling argument, and one wonders why this argument is brushed aside by our nations’ leaders.

“H” is for Humanity

Communicating across time

Ice BarrierThe human mind is strongly rooted to the time of our formative years and communicating clearly with people whose mind is stuck in another time can be fraught with misunderstanding. There is some barrier that separates us and this barrier is further clouded by blind faith and religious doctrine, making the lucid transfer of ideas and concepts sometimes impossible. Even communicating with others from the same time is difficult; some unnatural barrier separates our minds.

Not everyone’s mind suffers this in a constant manner. A person’s training, whether in the martial arts, Zen, philosophy, or theoretical studies, can help to uncover a mind’s latent ability to communicate across this barrier and see more clearly. In some extraordinary individuals this ability is naturally evident and the power of their mind is perceptible through their writing alone, lingering like the low pitched hum of a bass string long after their death. Sometimes when I read I feel this sound, in the back of my head as it oscillates some hidden segment of my consciousness in attempt to release it from its binds.

I often struggle against a feeling of contempt at some people’s limits in this regard and when I find no echo or response to my attempts to communicate a sense of isolation hangs like a lead shot weight in my belly. Othertimes I find myself treating people like this in a condescending manner and avoid topics or discussions their minds cannot handle safely; just like we do with children—protecting their young minds from seeing or hearing things that could scar them. Unfortunately most people’s minds will not grow up and they will remain like Peter Pan; stuck in Neverland…and never able to reach their full potential.