Most of our characters are sociopaths

I’ve recently watched a movie review by Stefan Molyneux. While Stefan is a philosopher who uses internet to spread his ideas and insights about out culture, gender roles and numerous other topics, he took the time to review the movie World War Z.

The movie is based on the book World War Z by Max Brooks. I read it multiple times. It represents a fascinating look into human nature and what happens when humanity is faced with a situation that is too strange and horrifying to accept. While the book is excellent, the movie has its weak points but as Stefan points out, still worth to watch.
While his review concentrates on the zombie horde being a metaphor for modern anti-intellectualism, I found his analysis of the main character, played by Brad Pitt, to be far more interesting.

Brad Pitt’s character starts as a warm and kind family man with but a hint of his previous occupation (UN agent of some sort). Fast forward five minutes and he find himself in the middle of a zombie infestation, dragging his family through fire and death, yet meticulously noticing details such as how long it takes for the infection to turn a human into a zombie or noticing that feeble people don’t get bitten. He shoots people, hacks off their hands, meets a family  which he leaves behind to be eaten alive, fights hordes of zombies… and in the end of the film he’s still the same warm family man as he was in the beginning.

In his video, Stefan explains (would like to say ‘reminds’ but sadly I cannot) that for a man to see and perform such horror and then to have no emotional trauma to speak of is completely sociopathic behavior. But as consumers of modern entertainment we’ve grown so used of this that we (myself included) do not even notice how unrealistic this all actually is.

Yes, it’s fiction. Yes, it’s fantasy. We’re talking about a movie with walking corpses after all. But the point of it all is to provide an experience for the reader/viewer that he/she can relate to. And the protagonist’s main role (apart from driving the story) is to be the access point to the story. The main character is our eyes and ears and nose into the strange and wonderful world of fiction. If anyone needs to be believable, it’s the main character.

What I’m trying to say is perhaps as creators of stories, we need to take a long hard look at what we’re used to and what is reality. Modern entertainment is so full of violence that we have become jaded to it. The point of good fiction is not to dull our senses. It’s to provide an experience that would otherwise be out of our reach of possibilities.

This also got me thinking about old/ancient cultures. While they might not have developed the same level of psychology and self-awareness as we have today (or did they?), they were definitely familiar with the mental and emotional strain trauma can cause.

I’ve read recently that medieval texts describe symptoms in European knights that could be interpreted as post-traumatic stress disorder (though I prefer the World War I period phrase: shell-shock). I’ve also heard that medieval Christian knights went through years of training which also included study of piety and humility. In other words, an education about what makes humans humane.

A great example of this in fiction is The Last Samurai. In the film, the leader of the Samurai would charge into battle mindless of his self-preservation, deal death and mutilation, and yet he will spend hours each day meditating, writing poetry, discussing the warrior code bushido which dictates compassion, selflessness and human dignity.
Why did all these warrior cultures take such efforts to teach their warriors about how to control their demons? Because when they were not warriors, they still had to be functional members of society. Each knight/samurai/warrior still had to be a husband, a father and possibly (though in extreme warrior societies not necessarily) a craftsman producing his goods.

These ancient cultures understood the emotional strain of trauma and prepared as well as possible to ameliorate the after-effects.

Human beings are not killing machines as modern film industry has made us believe. If we are to write realistic fiction and let our readers immerse themselves into flesh and blood characters, this must be taken into account. Unless our characters are in fact sociopaths (and some of them are), we need to treat them as emotional beings we need them to be.

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