Archive for October, 2009

“Risky” Behaviour and Availability

A year and a half ago, when I was barely 18, a friend and I went all the way to Greece and Italy all on our own. It wasn’t a group tour, it was just us; two quite pretty, quite obviously meek teenage girls from Canada alone in countries where they speak different languages, have different rituals and traditions, and sometimes dress kinda funny. We even stayed out past dark in downtown Saranda, Albania – a beautiful city, but one still suffering from the after effects of communism in many readily noticeable ways. Quite a bold move for girls who don’t even go out much at night at home. Yet my parents were happy that I was going, and sent me off with only a reminder to call occasionally.

This past May, we went off to Britain and France (we-ell, Paris, anyway). For part of this trip we were doted on and cared for by my various right-pondian relatives; in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, and Cornwall, to be specific. But although we also stayed with my family in Cardiff and London, we were mostly left to navigate those much larger cities on our own steam, only checking in once a days worth of exploring and geeking out had come to an end. In Paris we had nobody at all, and Paris is a bit intimidating if you’ve gotten used to hearing the English language all the time.

We spent over a week in London, a weekend in Paris, and at least a day in Cardiff on our own. We passed through some of the poorer parts of London, and although we were on a tour then, it would have been quite easy to get lost in the crowds of these less-desirable (but still fascinating!) areas. We probably got lost more often than it would be comfortable to admit. We walked several blocks from a metro stop to the Eiffel tower, not being able to see it or any landmarks for most of the way there, and we got ourselves home from said tower in the dark (of all things) on that same metro. We wandered aimlessly in downtown Cardiff with only a map of Doctor Who landmarks to give us any indication as to where we were, or if we were in some mystical undesirable part of town where they kill women and stuff. Similarly, in London we navigated mostly via tube map and intuition. Somehow, despite all of this terribly risky behaviour, we didn’t die (not once!).  And my parents were fine with knowing how we were stumbling along. They were probably proud.

Then I came home. Another friend of mine, one who lives in a less-desirable part of Edmonton, was having a party which began at 5:00pm on a Friday. Normally my parents would volunteer to drive me, but I knew that would be an awkward hour for them (since they both work), so I said I’d take the bus.

My mother, bless her proverbial cotton socks, was not impressed with this idea. “You’re not taking the bus to [neighbourhood]!” she insisted, instead making sure that my father would be home in time to drive me. When I pointed out that she had no problem with me spending the night out in Saranda, where children actually begged us for money in the streets, and no problem with me wandering around London without a map (and without an attractive Scottish actor…has anybody else even seen LA Without a Map?), she agreed that she was probably being silly, but still insisted on pointing out how dangerous that area was. It’s in the news all the time, she said.

Well, possibly. The local news. You know, the one that doesn’t report on crimes going on in London, or Naples, or Paris. The one that catches the merest glimpse of blood in a bar fight in north-east Edmonton and doesn’t let the story go for weeks. The one that sort of gives us an inaccurate picture of how dangerous Edmonton really is.

Now, I didn’t for a moment feel scared in London. I stayed alert, making sure I knew where I was at all times, and keeping an eye out for suspicious behaviour, because hey, big European city + North American accents = prime pick-pocketing target. But I’d researched the crime rates of London before travelling and new that, on the whole, it’s a pretty safe city.

Safer than Edmonton?

I’m not sure on the statistics, but I’d guess probably not. London is a big, big city with a hell of a lot of people living in it, all jammed together twenty four hours of the day. It’s also a tourist hotspot, which makes tourism-related crime much easier than in my rather dull home town. By sheer power of numbers alone, the crime rate probably creeps higher. (On the other hand, probably not by much. People on the whole are typically friendly and well meaning, and except for economic disparity and group-think I can’t see much influencing that general niceness.)

The point isn’t that London is safer. Nor is the point that London is more dangerous. The point is that my mother doesn’t hear about knife incidents and gang violence and random attacks in London on a regular basis. She does hear these things about the areas of Edmonton that we tend to turn our noses up at. And the news makes a big deal about it. If it bleeds, my son. If it bleeds.

My mother was making a judgement about my safety in different parts of the world on the basis of how easily examples of dangerous incidents in each of those areas sprang to mind. In psychology this is called the availability heuristic.

Definition time: a heuristic is a helpful procedure for arriving at a solution but not necessarily a proof( thank you Microsoft Word). The availablity heuristic depends on how quickly examples spring to mind (rather than on an actual, concrete number of examples). Basically it’s a rule of thumb on the basis of which we make judgements, that usually turns out to be helpful. After all, if we hear about smokers getting cancer all the time, it’s probably availability rather than cold hard facts that dissuades most of us from smoking. But in this case, the more-gore tendencies of news media cause a fault in the operation.

That’s what I’m really getting at here. News media loves stories of cute little blonde white girls in pigtails getting kidnapped and mutilated, so we tend to assume that cute little blonde white girls are more likely to be kidnapped. Never mind that it’s actually little boys, cute, blonde, and white or not, that are at the higher risk. We hear about random women getting raped and murdered on their way home in the dark much more often than we hear about its more frequent counterpart: people of either/any sex getting raped and murdered at any time of the day by someone they know quite well. And we hear so much about all of these incidents combined that we forget about the billions of people around the world who haven’t been murdered, raped, stabbed, threatened, or spoken to rudely, today and every day.

We forget that, on the whole, the world is pretty safe.

Obviously there’s no point in taking needless risks. Obviously if you go to, for example, a turbulent and deeply religious, deeply conservative part of the world, it’s probably not a wise decision to wear jeans if you’re a gal, and it’s probably not a great idea to pair it with your scarlet A t-shirt. Obviously if you’re walking through L.A. you’re best off avoiding those areas where the crips and the bloods tend to hang, especially if you’re wearing red or blue or some other symbol of affiliation. And if you (for some reason) believe what Jeremy Clarkson has to say, it’s not wise to stop at a gas station in a hick part of Alabama with “Man Love Rules OK” painted on the side of your pick-up.

But not taking any risks is not the same thing as not taking stupid risks. Risks are a part of life. Actually, little known secret: they’re the best part of life. They have the biggest rewards, and they make you grow as a person. Every time I wander around a big city, armed with only an even more timid BFF and a cheesy tourist map, I feel just that little bit more confident in my abilities as a capable, mature adult.

And every time, I feel just a little more cocky.

Note: I’m a first year university psych student. I say this so that you know I’m not completely talking out of my rear, but also so that people who know more about psychology than me don’t think I’m being patronizing or overgeneralizing. As far as knowledge goes, every little bit helps – so if you think you know more about the subject, pass it along.

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Just Because Everyone Can Die Doesn’t Mean Everyone Should

Yes, if you live on a crazy time-travelling island populated by a monster and several unexpected groups of Others, or in a sentient ship that whisks you through space and/or time to places of improbable and exciting danger, or a place built on top of a Hellmouth, or Cardiff apparently, you are occasionally going to be killed, sometimes just for the lulz of the bad guy. And yes, if you got hit by a car in your debut episode and might possibly be in a coma, or an astronaut, death is something that’s going to come up once in a while. And yes, if you are a part time Mr. Hyde, there is always the lurking possibility that you are going to kill someone…for the lulz.

So from a realism standpoint, yes, it makes sense that occasionally you have to kill characters that people like. Sometimes it’s because there isn’t anywhere else you can go with them or because you need their death to advance the plot and make Willow evil. Sometimes — as in the ridiculously long and probably never-going-to-be-written series I am planning, it’s the only way you can end a character arc. Sometimes they just have to jump off a building to the music of David Bowie (as you do). These are all perfectly acceptable and meaningful reasons for killing a good character.

SO MY AUDIENCE CAN HAS TEARS is not. Even if you’re Joss Whedon, although you probably get some allowances by apparently being television god, if your legions are to be believed (we people of the Moffat are dissenters).

It’s a cheap shot. It’s eliciting an emotional response for the sake of an emotional response, which is okayIguess once in a while, but if you do it all the time you’re not going to get that emotional response anymore. The first time they pretended to kill Charlie on Lost, I bawled. I even cried when Boone died. Admittedly I have grown up somewhat since then, but aside from being a little upset that Lost would now be lacking His Adorableness except in the obligatory flashbacks, I wasn’t too terribly bummed when they killed Charlie off For Good. I think I played up being bummed because I felt like I should be. I think I may have pouted in a bit when they killed off replacement!Charlie, or Daniel as they called him, but again, most of my sad was that it meant more screentime for weepy Jack and less (okay, none) for crazy nutso physicist.

One of the most annoying clichés of the horror genre is the slow creeping total silence lead up to somebody jumping out of a closet and loudly cutting someone’s head off with an unlikely implement (say a teddy bear). It’s annoying because we’ve all seen it a million times before and therefore know what’s coming, yes, but it’s also annoying because it’s a very obvious manipulation of the audience’s emotions. The entire point is to make us fear, which we tend to because we’re in the mindset. It falls apart because after the initial shock we quickly move on – it wasn’t unexpected or original so it’s hardly worth having nightmares about, or even remembering. It’s a superficial fear, and in the same way, the nth lead character death on a tv show or in a film leads to a superficial sadness.

And, OK, it’s fiction, but half the point of fiction is being able to identify with the characters, even the total bastards, and being able to root for them and like them and want to follow up on their adventures from week to week, or from one book to the next, or even just for the three hours that the film takes up. It’s really, really hard to do that if odds are good they’re going to be killed and cast aside just to make you a bit sad. Sometimes the good guys have to die, and we get that, but it doesn’t mean you have to make them die of fatal nosebleeds just for fun, or even mindwipe all of their awesome away due to some ridiculous technobabble that apparently doesn’t apply to 10.5 despite the circumstances being identical.

And frankly, I don’t think M16, the CIA, and the KGB combined ever had as high a death toll as some fictional groups. Real life has what we call “good days.” Some days nobody dies. Sometimes nobody kills you just because they’re a repressed nerd who should never have been sold a gun. Sometimes you don’t get offed by an unlikely case of the flu. Sometimes your Gay Lover doesn’t die tragically in your arms, even though it seems like nobody in the writing business is it all aware of this. Sometimes you go whole days without your life being in any danger at all, even if you’re married to Mr. Hyde. Sometimes you can go to a sporting event without being tortured by people in funny black robes who think that you’re impure. Sometimes even your supposed worst enemy repeatedly makes terribly weak excuses not to kill you when he gets the chance, and even saves your life on a ridiculous number of occasions, though admittedly this last one is usually true only if your worst enemy is the Master.

All of this leads me to suspect that these writers are either subscribing to an unrealistically dark view of the world, or believe that dark worlds inherently make better stories. The first is usually a symptom of being educated enough to realize that we as a species have some ridiculously massive problems and should probably have never come down from the trees in the first place, but not quite observant enough to notice that most people are at least benignly happy for most of the time anyway, and those that aren’t are often psychologically depressed. Most people get by, and tell jokes and go out with friends and like their parents at least a little bit and fall in love if that’s what they want and have very good sex without feeling guilty about it, or losing their souls. Most people, even in dangerous lines of work, don’t go dying all over the place, or weeping about all of their dead friends, because that doesn’t happen very often. Even children in third world countries who are probably dying of AIDS and starvation and being made to marry old men and have shockingly oppressive and disgusting mutilations made to their privates manage to crack a smile once in a while, and their lives (by all evidence-based standards) genuinely suck.

And as for the belief that this will make a better story: no it won’t. It will only prevent some groups of people from calling you out for being a crummy writer. You’re killing characters to make us sad instead of making an effort to come up with an emotionally powerful story in which nobody dies at all, in the same way that some people use an excessive number of expletives — or breasts — to avoid having to think up dialogue.

Sometimes people die, and sometimes your audience needs to believe characters can too. So have some realistic near-deaths, then maybe kill someone, give it a purpose and make it an important plot point or relate it to another character’s development, and then (for the love of Moffat) move on. Because sometimes, just sometimes, everybody lives.

(This is a rerun from my livejournal. Despite it being largely composed of nerdy fan stuff, I feel strongly enough about the main point to put it here.)

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