Rats in a box
Years ago, I had an argument with a friend about the NFL. We were talking about free agency, and whether or not a team should hire someone who was kicked off another team because of his off-the-field problems.
My friend’s stance was that he didn’t care about the character of his team’s players. He just wanted to win. My position was that I wanted players I could cheer for.
I used Drew Brees as an example. How can you not cheer for someone who raised millions of dollars to help New Orleans recover from Katrina? That’s the kind of guy I want on my team, even if it costs us the Superbowl.
He countered, laughing, by saying he’d take the Superbowl win.
As so often happens, I had no immediate comeback. It took me a while to figure out my position.
I enjoy sports (and books and movies) in large part because of the drama and excitement. Watching a running back spin off a tackler, or power through a defensive line, is exciting, as is seeing a receiver leap high into the air and pull in a ball just as he’s being hit. Those are the kinds of moments that bring people to their feet all across the country.
Movies and books are the same way. We’ve all had countless moments when we found ourselves on the edge of our seats, barely able to watch the screen or turn the page.
Why did they affect us so much?
I think it’s because we cared about the people (or the teams or the causes) involved.
That’s why I don’t want my teams to hire bad guys: it stops me from caring about them. “Yay, the wife-beater scored a touchdown!” just doesn’t work for me.
The (slightly disturbing metaphor) that I came up with to explain my position is that of rats in a box.
Imagine you have a big box full of rabid rats. Half of them are painted blue and half are painted yellow. Now shake the box. Are you going to watch the rats attack each other? There will be a lot of drama in that box. You could cheer for blue, or chant “yellow, yellow, they’re our fellows!”
Not me. I would probably run away, most likely to throw up.
It’s not that the box of rats lacks excitement. It just lacks excitement that I care about.
The box of rats metaphor isn’t just for professional sports.
It also applies to our writing.
There are so many great things we can put into a story: excitement, adventure, mystery, humor, tragedy, and a million more. we can create nuanced layers of meaning and allegory. We can display the human condition in surprising and illuminating ways.
We can do all of that and more, but if our readers don’t care about our characters, we might as well be writing about rats in a box.
And no one wants to read that.
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