Recently I’ve come to the conclusion that humans are golems. Note these are the golems of Terry Pratchett and not the golems of Jewish myth. They are clay robots, with lines in their head – the chem – that both animate them and give them purpose.
When I was a very young writer, knee high to a short story, I was told – and experienced – that you should never, ever, ever make a character do something that broke it. By this, it was explained, they meant taking some line you’d clearly drawn with the character “the character will never do this” and then make him do it.
A lot of writers interpret this way the injunction to find out what your character is afraid of, then make him do it. So they take clear lines in their character’s head and violate them. And then the book and character are broken, though sometimes neither writer nor publisher realize it.
I don’t know how to explain this, except you’ll know it when you do it. I did this by having a character have sex (in a book, duh) with someone she wasn’t more than casually interested in. Even though this was okay for the culture (early, unpublished work) it wasn’t okay for the character, and the character broke, and that book got abandoned. The character broke because one of the bright lines in HER head was that she didn’t do that, so when I forced it, the character became someone else I wasn’t interested in writing.
Recently I’ve realized it’s the same thing with humans, though since we’re human and twisty, our chem, our lines in the head are multiple, overlaid, and sometimes (though not often, I think) contradictory. (Contradictory directives I can think of are “I will never hurt anyone else” and “I will do anything to defend my children.”)
I became aware of mine recently, when an “opportunity to my advantage” appeared and I had to turn it down, because I couldn’t write something that I now only don’t believe in, but which I violently disagree with, and which I think would be one more “pull” towards what I consider despair and giving up on the human race. I realized then that one of the directives of my work is “Snatching brands from the fire” not “piling on coals of destruction.” Even when I write dark stuff, my characters are (usually) still fighting.
There are other lines in my head, and you guys know some of them. Like for instance, I choose to believe in the individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This stops me short, often, when I’m about to say things like “there ought to be a law” but it also gives me moral qualms at most inconvenient times. Such as when the kids were little I didn’t give them an allowance (I believe in TANSTAAFL) but I also didn’t make them clean. The cleaning thing was a value for me, not for them, so I figure instead of yelling at them to do stuff, I’d post a blackboard (ran across it recently, with the prices still on. At some point cleaning became THEIR value too, so at least they take care of their stuff. And they got their own work/pay, so the scheme went by the way side.) with tasks and their pay. This meant that 5 year old Robert accumulated a tidy bank balance, and that was fine by me. Yes, I do know it’s a weird way to raise kids, but I had to do it without violating the words in my head which both said I shouldn’t pay for nothing and that I shouldn’t require my kids to do conscript work the benefit of which they couldn’t see. It was nuts, but it worked, I think.
There are other lines and when I violate them – unintentionally – I carry around a boat load of guilt. One of the lines is “I will hurt no innocents” and innocents is a flexible term in this case. As in “I will hurt no one that isn’t trying to hurt me.”
So, Sarah, why are you telling us of this little problem?
Because from observation, I’ve gathered other people have lines in the head they can’t cross either. I don’t know how they get in there, but I can guarantee it’s not all early childhood and inculcated before perception. Some of the lines we chose to have in there, ourselves.
This is why after the fall of the wall the communists in Europe were like ghosts of their former selves, unable to integrate the lines in their head with the events they’d witnessed. It’s also why, ultimately, the events got re-written and instead of the decades they’d spent holding up various ditactorships as an example of freedom, they rewrote the events to “real communism has never been tried.” Though they still hold existing communist – or fascist, see China – dictatorships like Venezuela as paragons, and take their side reflexively.
This is because humans in the end will choose not to break themselves. If to keep the lines in the head intact, reality must be deconstructed, then reality gets deconstructed. If your lines in head say you’re a communist because you care about injustice and the little people, evidence must be ignored that those regimes result in massive injustice, mass graves and ultimately a neo-feudal order with party apparatchiks on top (and often not very neo. In Europe most such are descended from the “good, old” families.)
It also explains why so many women in science fiction today refer back to the mythical era where women had no clout in the sf/f writing field (even though women, yeah, under their own names were present in the field since the forties at least, and were usually made much of, because geeks like women) and where men in a conspiracy (sometimes I wonder if these people ever met any men) deliberately held women down. The chem in their heads, probably implanted by mothers or grandmothers who went to work during or right after WWII, tells them they’re not just equal to men, they’re supposed to be the conquering wave that shows this. If others did it before you, you’re not the conquering wave, and you’re going to look more than a little silly. So, history must be rewritten in the familiar mold of deserving people held down by all powerful evil oppressors. Because that fits their chem.
So why does this matter?
It matters because you should be aware of your chem. There will be a sense of bridling, a sense of rearing up – as it were – of needing to protect something, when you’re about to violate it, or believe something that contradicts it.
Can you violate your chem, if it needs to be violated? I don’t know. I think it takes something supernatural or near supernatural to do so. A – pardon me for evoking a religious story here, but it’s appropriate – road to Damascus experience. Something so big, so glaring; something you live through, something that traumatizes you to such an extent that you cannot continue preserving the chem and you rewrite it.
If you can find figures who have completely changed – political orientation, religion, etc – you usually find that level of traumatic event at the root or around the time of the change. It has to be very traumatic and hit them personally, in a way that can’t be rewritten.
So, what is all this in the name of?
Your chem is your ultimate blind spot. Whether you wrote it or someone wrote it, it’s the one thing that threatens to unravel you if it’s challenged.
Find it and figure out what assumptions were made in building it.
Because sometimes events and circumstances (like those mentioned above) require you to change your chem. Sometimes you have to amend it and rewrite it.
The alternative is to rewrite and amend reality so that your chem has you doing the opposite of what you think it does.
And that makes you a dumb golem indeed.