Friday, March 30, 2007

How to Make No Sense While Sounding Smart

Man is sentient.

Man feels fear.

The aliens feel fear.

Therefore the aliens are sentient.

And that type logic fallacy is something that absolutely plagues writing. But, unlike the other fallacies that I’ve been looking at here, this one I feel is mostly accidental; the others always strike me as shortcuts gone wrong. I think most writers don’t strive to make no sense at all, or spin a story based on an obvious fallacy. Still this type of fallacy, called the Undistributed Middle Term, comes up over and over again. I most commonly see it in character stereotypes, and in the proof of intelligence arguments. I can think of several stories in which the basis of the reason the explorers went to talk to the aliens surrounded some similar to the above logic fallacy.

The Undistributed Middle Term a.k.a How to Make No Sense While Sounding Smart

Why does this form above imply logic to us? Well, if you studied logic you know immediately why: it is the form of a syllogism, or a logical argument in which the conclusion is supported by a major and minor premise. I am pretty sure, despite being four lines and not the usual three, that this counts as a syllogism at least. All the same, syllogisms are at the foundation for deductive reasoning. Some famous examples:

Major premise: All mortal things die.

Minor premise: All men are mortal things.

Conclusion: All men die.

Major premise: No reptiles have fur.

Minor premise: All snakes are reptiles.

Conclusion: No snakes have fur.

So what is an undistributed middle term? It is when minor premise and the major premise of a syllogism may or may not be relevant to each other. I think it is easiest expressed in examples.


All dogs have fur

All cats have fur

All dogs are cats

So went wrong there? It’s obvious to all of us that it is wrong, but what is the logic problem. The middle term is “cats,” which does not fit into the category of “things that have fur” and “dogs.” One cannot base a conclusion on something that hasn't been clearly proven. We, in the case, have shown no correlation between cats and dogs, besides being warm blooded. Now, if I had said:

Only dogs have fur

Cats have fur

Therefor cats are dogs.

Can you see the difference?


All mammals are warmed blooded.

All cats are mammals.

All cats are warmed blooded.

In this case, the middle term “cats” fits into both “warm blooded” and “mammals.”

So here is the fallacy in stripped down terms:

1.All As are Bs
2.C is a B
3.Therefore, C is an A

Not too hard in these cases, but I bet we can all think of examples where the logic went wrong in writings we’ve read, or perhaps in arguments we’ve heard.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

In a rare non-writing post …

I am a feminist. I am not ashamed or it, nor do I try to placate my male friends by telling them that I am the friendly sort of feminist. I stand up for my sisters here, in the US, and around the world. I believe that we, as women, must stand together to improve the living conditions of all women. I also believe that we need to work towards changing the stereotypes assigned to women. I am sure to tell people that my husband is the cook in the family, and I take care of paying the bills. I tell them that I have my second Dan black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and that I continue to study martial arts, and no it wasn’t my husband’s idea, it was mine. I am proud to tell people that I don’t want children, and no I don’t feel like less of a woman for it. I feel like more of a woman for knowing what I want and not just having children because that was what I was told to do.*

I am a writer. As a writer, I promote my beliefs. My main characters are often women, and they are never weak. I sent them into the heart of danger, into emotionally challenging circumstances, and into positions of authority. I want young women to read my work and know that there is a place for them at the top.

I’m sure you are wondering what set this off, well, it’s been a bunch of current events that really culminated in a really silly event. I saw pictures from last night’s America’s Next Top Model. Yes, I know that it is already a show that most feminists are shaking theirs heads at, but last night they posed the girls as sexy dead women. I personally am not comfortable with this. What does this say to women? To young girls who are watching this? Is it telling them that we don’t even care if they are alive, we still think they are hot. I am totally not against nude photos, or risqué photos, but this just reduces women to … well corpses.

* As a quick note, I am not against other people having children at all, but I do believe that you should want them more than anything else if you are going to bring them into this world.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

It’s all about the breakdown

Whenever I think about character arcs, I get this feeling of dread in my stomach. It’s about the breakdown, or destroying a character’s world. The best breakdown I’ve read has to be Emilio in The Sparrow. It is horrid, beautiful, and believable. If you’ve read the book, you know, but for those who haven’t, I’ll elaborate. When we first meet Emilio he is in a hospital, mutilated, traumatized, and half out of his head over the deaths of his only real friends. The author, Mary Doria Russell, then takes us back to the beginning of the story of Emilio, where he is a charming, if odd, Jesuit priest. He loves everyone, takes care of anyone, and most of the women are annoyed that he is … in the priesthood. Russell takes us on an incredible character journey that shows Emilio’s ascent to sainthood and fall into misery. I only once felt that the situations that push him along this arc was forced, and for the most part, I couldn’t believe how good she was at breaking the spirit of what appeared to be an indomitable soul.

So, that’s my guide. I like to think about whether or not my breakdown is as elegant as Emilio’s. Sometimes, I don’t feel I have the heart to do it, but flat characters are a real bore. It’s better to give them, the characters, immortality through the hardships, then to protect them and have them be flat. You know, I think there might be a life lesson in there.


Do you all have a breakdown benchmark?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Either you'll love this post, or you'll pick apples

I am all about giving characters choices. In fact, what is the point of having a character that doesn’t make his or her own choices (they’d just be drifting through the story that way and that’s no fun for anyone). What I don’t like is when the author creates an illusion of choice where none exists really—or is so limited as to not matter. This brings me to the third logic fallacy I want to highlight, the black-and-white fallacy, aka the either/or fallacy.

This fallacy is pretty straight forward, but I am shocked by how often I run into it in writing, published or not. The basic issue is that the writer sets out choices based on the false assumption that there are only two choices or outcomes that exist when there are clearly several. Outcomes and choices are rarely so simple. I can’t count how many times in romantic dramas it comes down to the protagonist can either stay with the partner or leave and never look back, and those are the only choices. The reason changes for why the protagonist feels this way (adultery, betrayal, better offer, protecting the partner, etc.), but I can usually think of at least five ideas for what other choices are still on the table. Really, when you force a false binary such as this, you are not actually offering choice at all.

Then why do it? My best guess is that the writer only wants the character to have to choices, the one the advances the story and the one that is such a bad idea that no one in their right mind would take it. So, this is my frustration with this fallacy in particular; this is the golden opportunity to really deepen a character. Let them realize all the choices, debate, decide, and move forward. We, the readers, get to know the characters through theirs actions, not through the universe forcing them to decide between to false dichotomies. Don’t get me wrong, I do it sometimes, too, but it really robs the reader of those precious times in which they get to look into the character’s mind.

In short, it’s either all or it’s nothing with character development. ;-)


This little guy is one of the first flowers to poke its head out. The cherry trees are starting to bloom. Hooray, it's spring!

I'll update shortly with my latest in my logic series.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Non sequitur and the domino theory

The second most common reason that I will roll my eyes while reading a book is the slippery slope fallacy. In short, it is a non sequitur argument that relies on the theory that if the first thing happens, then the second thing will happen, and surely then the third will, too. It’s the kind of logic that will stop me dead in my tracks while reading.

Think about it, you’re reading along and really involved with a character. You think he/she is smart, reasonable, believable, the whole shebang. Then they are presented with a situation, such as whether or not to tell another character, say a subject expert, about an important bit of information that would bring the story line to a quick conclusion. The author, wanting to extend the story line, has the character come to the conclusion that if he/she tells the subject expert, said expert would get upset and would to tell his/her mother. If that happens, the mother would have to tell her friend and then that person … and so on until the antagonist would have all the information needed to foil our hero’s plot. *sigh* In the middle of this, I always think the same thing, “why not just explain to the subject expert that if he/she tells said mother, and the situation does spiral out as it was predicted, said mother would probably be (insert consequence).” It's not a slippery slope because most people can be reasoned with and thus stop the slip.

Do you have a favorite slippery slope fallacy?

A rose by any other name ...

As posted in Nature:

"Taking a whiff of rose scent while learning a task and then being exposed to the same smell during sleep helps memories to set, researchers have found. The discovery could see students frantically spraying themselves with perfume before exams — although the effect is tricky to replicate at home."

I have to say that this totally cracks me up, because I used to sniff mint during exams when I was in college. I remember reading come study about military pilots having the scent of mint pumped into the cockpit because it increased alertness and helped them recall memories more readily: they were exposed to the smell during training, too.

So my plan was simple: I would sit at Perkins study and sniff an Altoids tin, and at my exam, I would do the same. Oh, what my professors must have thought of me.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The adventures of the straw man

Every writer has their own set of pet peeves when reading other people’s writing. For me, it’s logic fallacies. You can do a lot of things wrong in a book, but to me, you cannot violate basic laws of logic. I’m sure I will be lambasted for being snotty for this, but it is annoying. And now that I’ve posted this, I’m sure my logic flaws will be pointed out, which I think is a good thing (it will only make me a better writer).

Anyways, I am planning on writing all week on my favorite fallacies this week. Today, I will start with the straw man.

The straw man argument is a subset of the Ignoratio Elenchi fallacies. The whole point of the argument, or character creation in this case, is to create a misrepresentation of an opposing argument as to make it easy to refute and then attribute it to the opposition’s inability to reason, etc.

From Wiki:
“An example of a straw man fallacy:

Person A: I don't think children should run into the busy streets.
Person B: I think that it would be foolish to lock up children all day with no fresh air.

By insinuating that Person A's argument is far more draconian than it is, Person B has side-stepped the issue. Here the "straw man" that person B has set up is the premise that ‘The only way to stop children running into the busy streets is to keep them inside all day’.”

So how does this all apply to writing? I find that authors create characters that are a vast misrepresentation of the opposite side of the argument, and then tear that character apart. Look at any major motion pictures for the portrayal of the “bad” guy. It’s riduculus. The readers or viewer never gets the chance to understand really why there is an opposing side, what might drive someone to acts against society, etc. Most antagonists are portrayed as mindless, uneducated villains. I’m sure you have many characters that jump to mind at this point; I know I do.