A Quick Guide to Monomania

You may have heard before someone describe the basic formula for writing fiction. It goes something like this: “desire plus obstacle equals conflict.” In other words, when you take a character, give them a motivation or goal to work toward, and then put challenges in their way, then you’ve got the makings of a story.

Of course there are many more elements that go into fiction, but this formula gets pretty close to the core essentials. Overall, plots are (or should be) driven by characters and their desires or goals. This is true in most stories, but it’s even truer whenever a character has monomania.

“Monomania” is a fancy literary term that refers to an extreme, overarching obsession that a character has. “Mono” means one and “mania” is a craze or obsession, meaning that any character with monomania is crazed or obsessed about just one thing, just one goal. These characters will go to extreme lengths and do whatever it takes to reach this goal–or die trying. While perceptions can differ from one author to another, monomania is often portrayed as a negative thing. The idea is that having such an all-consuming obsession is unhealthy and can lead to disastrous consequences for that character or others.

Moby-DickIn classic literature, the term is often used in reference to Herman Melville‘s Moby-Dick. In fact, the book’s narrator frequently and directly refers to Captain Ahab’s unrelenting pursuit of the whale as monomaniacal. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a contemporary of Melville’s, also uses monomania in several of his stories, from Hollingsworth’s well-intentioned but misguided plan for social reform in The Blithedale Romance, to several short stories (“The Birthmark,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and more) featuring obsessed scientists who place their mad experiments above even human life. One of the last papers I wrote in grad school argued that this same monomania also appeared in the lesser-known novel Wieland, where the main character’s twisted religious fervor leads him to commit horrendous acts. In hindsight, I might also be able to argue that one of my favorite novels, The Great Gatsby, reflects monomania in the protagonist’s quest for the woman he loves and perfect life he has always dreamed of (but I’d better not get started on Gatsby now or I could probably go on and on).

Walter WhiteThis theme of unhealthy, unrelenting obsession shows up in pop culture, too. Think of the recent television masterpiece Breaking Bad. Walt’s goal to provide financially for his family is initially a noble one, but over time his obsession and determination in his goal lead him to make a number of moral compromises and horrible choices that end disastrously for both him and the ones he loves.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of Marvel comics and superheroes, and I’ve even seen monomania show up in a number of different ways there. With the cyclical, ongoing nature of comics, writers have to shake things up once in a while to keep the characters interesting. Therefore, even among the main heroes or “good guys,” there have been several instances of a driven, obsessed hero taking a good goal too far and becoming (at least temporarily) a morally ambiguous antihero. For example:

  • Civil_War_7In the Civil War story arc (soon to be a major motion picture), Iron Man seeks peace and order through government registration of superhumans, but he has to turn on his allies and make hard decisions in order to carry out his goal.
  • Cyclops has long fought for equal rights for mutants, but in Avengers vs. X-Men and subsequent stories, he becomes an extremist for this goal, much like his former enemy Magneto.
  • In World War Hulk, the Hulk threatened the entire world in misguided revenge on allies who had exiled him into space.
  • Recently in New Avengers, Mr. Fantastic has been leading a covert team whose mission is to save the Earth–by destroying other alternate Earths that threaten our own existence.
  • Daredevil tried to protect his city with force by taking control of a clan of ninja assassins, but he reaped the consequences in the Shadowland story and crossed a line he never had before.
  • In Superior Spider-Man, Spider-Man‘s body was possessed by Doctor Octopus‘s brain (yeah, I know comics are weird. You just have to roll with it sometimes). The result was an ambiguous antihero who also tried to protect New York, but with extreme brutal force and by any means necessary.

Hopefully now you get the idea of monomania and obsession in fiction, the kind that makes ordinary characters into fascinating and compelling (if sometimes misguided and evil) ones who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.

But what does all this mean for us as writers?

It means that you now have an excellent formula for creating an intriguing story! Yes, it’s true that desire plus obstacle equals conflict. But what happens when you increase that desire a hundredfold to make it a driving, all-consuming obsession? You get a monomaniacal character who, despite any deep character flaws they may have, has an unbreakable will that can drive the story forward past any obstacles that you as the writer throw in their way.

So why don’t you try it out? Create a new character and give them a goal. Have them want nothing else in the world more badly than they want that one goal. Now write a story where things get in the way of that goal and see how your character deals with it. What will they do? How will things turn out? What kind of toll will it take on your character? What will be the cost of their obsessive actions? You may be surprised at the developments that come and at the epic conflicts that result.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

downloadHumility is an odd words. Bryan Van Norden, in his book Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Ancient Chinese Philosophy, points out that a simple thin definition of humility is ‘to see oneself as is appropriate’ or ‘to see oneself as one ought.’ However, this thin definition can be equally filled out by Aristotle’s meglopsychia, or great-souledness (often translated as pride), which argues that a man ought to be aware of his own abilities and demand the treatment that is due him, but never accept higher treatment than is due him; Confucius’ chi, or humility/shamefulness, which is a constant awareness of one’s proper social position, deference to one’s social superiors, and authoritative respect to one’s social inferiors; or Judeo-Christian humility, which can be seen as 1) a constant awareness of one’s place before God rather than of one’s place before man, and thus a constant estimation of one’s own qualities and virtues in light of God’s perfections, 2) a self-renunciation or rejection of one’s own laudable qualities in favor of examining the laudable qualities of others, or 3) a consistent belief that others are more important and more worthy than oneself. Obviously, all of these are ‘thick’ or fully defined conceptions of how it is appropriate for us to see ourselves. Equally, they are all clearly different. While some have attempted to combine multiple definitions of humility, such as Thomas Aquinas’ attempt to place balance Christian humility and Aristotelian meglopsychia, these competing definitions cause problems when it comes to understanding what it means to actually be humble in a practical sense. So, this is your exercise for today:

Write me a story of 1000 words that presents and defends your understanding of what it means to be humble.

On Getting Married, Thomas Aquinas, and the Fine Art of Procrastination

eu4_2So, a friend of mine gave me a free copy of the game Europa Universalis. It came out of nowhere, he literally just messaged me on facebook to ask if I wanted a copy. I’d never played the game before, but it is both fun and addictive. It does teach some amount of history, geography, large scale economics, management and strategy, and all of these things are good. Honestly, I think that in manageable increments the game could be a great teaching tool (which is something I’m always on the look out for–if anyone wants to teach their kids about bioethics, policy-level politics, Japanese history, Chinese history, or large scale geography, strategy, and management in a way that is entertaining and enjoyable then I have suggestions for you). Unfortunately, the game is seriously addictive and I’ve managed to get sucked into it to the point of coming close to neglecting my other responsibilities. I haven’t yet–everything that I need to get done is getting done. I’m spending time with God, bills are getting paid, research is getting read, Alayna is being taken care of, etc. However, I have noticed that I’m spending exorbitant amounts of time with the game (…and I might add that I’m not sleeping as much as I should…).

hulkWhat I am facing at the moment is what Aristotle called akrasia and Aquinas called cupiscence. Both suggest a certain weakness of the will (actually that’s literally what akrasia means–the cupisciple desire is the desire for good things, but when those things are desired more than they should be [such as a glutton overeating] then cupiscence becomes a very bad thing). In Aquinas’ terminology I am giving something that it inherently good (i.e. rest, relaxation, and moderate education) a greater hold than it should have. Why does this matter? Well, speaking in Thomistic terms the solution to an overwhelming desire for more of a good thing than one should have is the irascible desire (or the desire to do difficult things–in this case, playing less of the game). So, there are virtues that Aquinas assigns to both the cupisciple and the irascible powers (or faculties/abilities), and these are temperance and fortitude (or courage).

aquinasSo, the answer to my problem is to practice 1) temperance in my desire for downtime, relaxation, and gameplaying, and 2) fortitude when my desire threatens to overwhelm my good sense. Now, prudence (a moral/intellectual virtue that Aquinas assigns to the practical reason [as opposed to the speculative reason]) tells me that I am, in fact, playing this game more than I should be, and that I need to cut back on it, and perhaps even cut it out complete if I’m going to be successful in playing less. It also tells me that I’m going to need to plan other things to do when I want to play the game–such as exercise or do research. So, what does any of this have to do with writing?

Well, 1) this is (to a point) me showing off some of what I’ve learned in the last couple of months. 2) This is also me trying to actually apply what I’ve learned so that Aquinas’ theories are not merely theoretical to me, but practical as well. 3) I actually do think that Aquinas’ conception of man’s nature can be very helpful for writers. Aquinas sets out five powers (vegitative–or the ability to grow and reproduce; locomotive–or the ability to move; sensible–or the ability to be aware of surroundings and form desires; appetitive–or the ability to make choices; intellectual–or the ability to reason from a given premise to a proper conclusion). Each of these power has multiple sub-powers, but the ones that matter most are the sensible (which is broken into the cupisciple power that desires and the irascible power that resists) and the intellectual (which is broken into the speculative reason that deals with theoretical knowledge and the practical reason that deals with applied knowledge). He also identifies virtues and vices common to each power. For instance, temperance and concupiscence are the primary virtue and vice of the cupisciple power. Fortitude and cowardice are the primary virtue and vice of the irascible power. Prudence and imprudence are the primary moral virtue and vice of the practical reason while art and unskillfulness are the primary non-moral virtue and vice of the practical reason. He also assigns science and ignorance, wisdom and foolishness, and understanding and lack of understanding as the primary virtues and vices of the speculative reason (science and ignorance having to do with knowledge of mundane secondary things such as biology, geology, or positive law; wisdom and foolishness having to do with divine secondary things such as soteriology, ecclesiology, hamartiology, etc; and understanding having to do with first principles–or those things that are known by intuition and that cannot be proven [such as the rule that two contradictory claims cannot be true–for instance I cannot be both caucasian and not caucasian, though I could be both caucasian and asian]).

virtue chartAquinas’ detailed understanding of the inner structure of the human being as a divinely created and inspired rational animal gives us a lot to work with when it comes to character development. For instance, understanding your characters in this way might make it very clear why John struggles to keep putting his work in the appropriate place in his life (perhaps he has an overly strong cupisciple attachment to it or an overly weak irascible nature). Perhaps Genevieve has a well-developed scientific virtue, but a very under developed sense of prudence and understanding which leads her to be a rather amoral sceptic when it comes to living everyday life. Ultimately, starting from a descent understanding of Aquinas’ view of the structure of man’s nature can definitely lead to some interesting character conclusions, but I leave that to you.

Sunday Picture Post

Well, it’s Sunday! As you all know we like to take Sunday’s off here at the Art of Writing. I hope that all of you have had truly excellent weeks. I’m starting to get settled in and actually start my research here, which is a wonderful thing that is going to take up a massive amount of my time. Also, if you haven’t heard of Khan Academy I thoroughly suggest it as worth your time. If you have kids it’s a great website that a friend informed me about for supplementing (or… you know… improving) their school education. Also, if you’re just looking to improve your own knowledge in weak areas, the site is extremely useful for doing so. Personally, at the moment I’m using it improve my paltry mathematical skills. Anyway, I hope you have a wonderful day! And lest you think I forgot, I found this for you. Inspired by my current readings on Socratic and Platonic virtue concepts:

paintings landscapes ships fantasy art digital art airbrushed roman radojavor warships rome total war 2_www.wall321.com_19

Story Challenge of the Week

JusticeWelcome to Monday, everyone! I hope that it’s the beginning of a beautiful week for all of you. Of course, I hope that it’s the beginning of a beautiful week for myself as well, so I might be a little selfish here. Anyway, if you remember, a few of months ago I gave you a story challenge asking you to explain what Courage is, and two months ago we looked at Temperance. Last month I asked you to explain Wisdom to me. So, we only have one of Plato’s initial virtues left. For your story challenge today we’re going to be discussing Justice.

Your Challenge: Write me a story about the nature and meaning of Justice (consider that the original word used by Plato here could also mean ‘rightousness’ or ‘moral uprightness’). What does it mean to be ‘just’? What makes us ‘just’ men and women, and how do we know if we are ‘just’? Is it possible to be just without reference to the law? If so, what does that look like?

Story Challenge of the Week

images (1)Well, it’s the beginning of a brand new week, and for some reason I feel like it’s going to be a long one. I can’t really explain why, and I certainly hope that I’m wrong, but it’s just the feeling that I have at the moment. So, last month I gave you a story challenge asking you to explain what Courage is. This month we’re going to look at Temperance. So, this is your story challenge today!

Your Challenge: Write me a story about the nature and meaning of temperance. What does it mean to be ‘temperate’? What makes us ‘temperate’ and how do we know if we are ‘temperate’? Is it possible to be temperate in the absence of temptation?

Philosophical Story Challenge

It's a pretty flower!
It’s a pretty flower!

Hey there, all you aspiring writer… or skilled writers who just need practice, or just random person who likes to read this blog! Welcome to February! So, this is the time of the week for some thinking! You all know the way the works by now. I give you a classic philosophical question and you write a story of 100-1000 words that presents and defends your response to that question. So, your question this week goes all the way back to Plato: Is virtuous living its own reward and if so, how? This is something that has been assumed, rejected, and debated by philosophers for over two thousand years. Plato claimed that virtuous actions were there own reward, and so no material or measurable benefit was necessary to motivate a person to right living. Some have accepted this claim whole-heartedly, while others have rejected it out of hand. This week, I want you to respond to Plato’s contention.

Magic Mike and Moral Virtue in Women

The cast of Magic Mike, and the only ‘clean’ photo I could find.

Alright, first of all let me say that this post is intended primarily for my Christian readers (though I hope that it will be interesting to the rest of you as well), and that you have Mrs. Kerah Kemmerer (a friend who should be contributing some articles soon – if she ever gets around to writing them) to thank for this post (she’s been begging me to write on this issue for more than six months now).

The recent release of the movie Magic Mike (about the escapades of a group of male strippers) has brought to light a significant issue of morality among American Christian Women.  For many years, the objectification of women in the media has been decried, lambasted, and condemned by… well, pretty much anyone who sees women as more than flesh.  If you are old enough, you will remember the horror with which movies like Striptease and Showgirls were received among the conservative Christian population, generally by men and women alike.  The idea that such a movie might promote lust, sinful desires, and an addiction to pornography in Christian men was brought up again and again.  Men who watched these movies, and movies like them, were judged harshly (and often still are) for their unwise choices.  However, Magic Mike (with very similar content and purpose) has been received by the Christian female population at large with a great hoorah of ascent and applause.  This shows an obvious double standard and hypocrisy.  However it is merely symptomatic of a deeper problem among Christian women, and among the Christian population at large: a lack of proper training in virtue.

Emile, Rousseau’s great work on human education.

The general (and I am being very general here) attitude among Christians (and among the larger population of the United States) is that men are inherently bad, and women are inherently good.  This idea is promoted on various levels of our culture including the reporting of sexual offenses (here is a site listing female sex predators, many of which are either never reported on the news, or receive only brief mention).  It also appears as teaching in churches (which will be my primary concern through this article).  As well as the way we react (consider this: for many people, to see a woman leading a young boy into a female bathroom is normal and comfortable, but to see a man leading a young girl into a male bathroom causes ‘alarm bells’.  This is because we assume that the woman is the boy’s mother, but that the man must be taking advantage of the girl.  There is no real reason for this assumption, but is has been conditioned into our culture).  However, as I said, my intended focus is how this relates to teaching within the Christian church.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s response to Rousseau.

In the 18th century, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote Emile (a book concerning the training of young men and women).  In this book Rousseau declared that women had a value of their own, but that it was not the same value as that of the man.  He argued that women were capable of wit and womanly duties, but were incapable of reason, and thus of moral virtue.  In Rousseau’s estimation the virtue of the woman was to be found in her appearance and good reputation (sound familiar?), and that she must not be judged on the higher virtues of man (such as duty, integrity, honor, and moral character) because she was incapable of developing them.  A contemporary author and early feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, responded to Rousseau (though her primary writings occurred at the end of Rousseau’s life and shortly after his death) in her book A Vindication of the Rights of Women.  Wollstonecraft argued that women were fully capable of reason and of virtue, but were lacking in their education on these subjects.  Thus, she said, it was the very arguments of Rousseau and his ilk (and their application in culture) that had rendered women creatures lacking in reason and virtue, and not any inherent lack in their own capabilities.

You talk about him constantly. You go to great lengths to describe how attractive he is, and yet you want us to believe that you don’t want him. You know who you are, and yes, there are more than one of you.

Today the church (and the culture at large) has developed the same problem for the opposite reason.  We no longer train women in moral virtue, but we do not teach that they are lacking in capability (as Rousseau argued).  Instead we teach that they are inherently moral.  This occurs in many spheres, but it is especially obvious in the area of sexual morality.  Christian men are generally taught early on that they are horrible creatures devoid of any inherent moral compass, and so they must constantly be on guard against the vagaries of lust (this is slightly hyperbolic, but not excessively so).  Men who would dare to even mention the attractiveness of a woman’s body are immediately singled out as succumbing to lust, and chastised (indeed, there are some who argue that if a man even looks at a women, then he is succumbing to lust.  Others argue that if he looks for longer than one second, or that if he gives a second look, then he is succumbing to lust – these are not uncommon teachings in the church).  On the other hand, women feel free to engage in lengthy conversations concerning the physical desirability of Hugh Jackman, Channing Tatum, Chris Hemsworth, Justin Hartley, and many others.  This is the result of decades of teaching that, in its essence, boils down to a simple, two part message: men are incapable of not lusting, and women are incapable of lusting.  The response of Christian women to Magic Mike, a movie so obviously designed to inspire lust in women that it is ridiculous, showcases the final end of this teaching: women who have divorced themselves from moral virtue because of the assumption that they have already attained it.

Virtue is a rose, and like a rose it requires diligent care and attention in order to bloom. Without that care and attention, it wilts and dies. I have seen a lot of wilted virtue lately.

Now, I am speaking in generalities here, addressing the great mass of Christianity, so do not assume that I apply this attitude to every woman.  There are women who have trained themselves in strong moral character, and other women who have recognized their lack, and are in the process of doing so.  However, these women are relatively rare in the Christian community, and even some of them fall to sin because they do not recognize it in themselves.  And also, do not mistake me for saying that women are incapable of looking without lusting.  This has been said often enough of men, and it is not true for either gender.  There is a difference between admiration and lust, but I have met very few people who have a clear understanding of where this difference is, or who care to understand it.  So I say: women, you are as susceptible to lust (and to any other sin) as any man, and your obsession with men you find physically attractive is as damaging to your relationships as any man’s obsession with the female form.  It is your responsibility to train yourselves in virtue, as Wollstonecraft argued that you were capable, and to prove Rousseau wrong.  It is also your responsibility to put the men in your lives before yourselves, as it is their responsibility to put you before themselves.  And to both parties I say: The lack of your opposite does not justify a lack in yourself. Pursue virtue, pursue godliness, pursue Christ, and let this be your goal regardless of the failures of those around you.  Too often we allow the faults of others to become an excuse for faults in ourselves.  This is not the true way.

Sick Day

Well, Sabrina – our regular Tuesday Poster – is feeling more than a little under the weather.  So, here is a last minute post from me: The Virtues of Fantasy











A Little Bit of Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher who died at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Alright, Cassandra wasn’t able to write her post for today.  First official post on the blog, for shame…of course, I kid.  She’s busy covering for her boss, and so today you get a bunch of quotes from one of my favorite philosophers.  Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher who said, well many things.  I’m not going into all of it right now, but the quotes below run from very serious, to roll on the floor and laugh.  I hope you enjoy them, learn from them, and have fun!

* All of the sayings provided in this post were taken from chapter 4 of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil which is available here.

“Knowledge for its own sake,”—that is the ultimate snare which morality sets: with that one gets fully entangled once again in morality.

Man is most dishonest in relation to his god: he is not permitted to sin!

The charm of knowledge would be slight, if there were not so much embarrassment to overcome on the route to knowledge.

“I have done that” says my memory. I could not have done that—says my pride and remains implacable. Finally—my memory gives up.

Some peacocks hide their peacock’s tails from all eyes—and call that their pride.

A man with genius is unendurable if he does not possess at least two things in addition: gratitude and cleanliness.

With their principles people want to tyrannize their habits or justify them or honour them or abuse them or hide them:—two men with the same principles probably want them for fundamentally different things.

It is dreadful to die of thirst in the sea. Must you then salt your truth so much that it can no longer—quench your thirst?

Woman learns to hate to the extent that she forgets how to enchant.

Beyond Good and Evil, one of Nietzsche's seminal works

Behind all personal vanity women themselves still have their impersonal contempt—for “woman.”

We begin to mistrust very clever people when they become embarrassed.

Dreadful experiences lead one to wonder whether the person who undergoes them is not something dreadful.

Maturity in a man: that means having found once again that seriousness which man had as a child, in play.

To discover that one is loved in return should really bring the lover down about his beloved. “How’s that? Is this person modest enough to love even you? Or stupid enough? Or—or—. . .”

It is not their love of humanity but the impotence of their love of humanity that prevents today’s Christians—from burning us.

Once the decision has been made, to shut your ears even to the best counterarguments: a sign of a strong character. Also an occasional will to stupidity.

Sensuality often makes the growth of love too fast, so that the root remains weak and easy to rip out.

What someone is begins to show itself when his talent subsides—when he stops showing what he can do. Talent is also finery, and finery is also a hiding place.

One man seeks a midwife for his ideas, another seeks someone whom he can help: that’s how a good conversation arises.

By associating with scholars and artists one easily makes mistakes in reverse directions: behind a remarkable scholar we not infrequently find an average human being, and behind an average artist we often find—a very remarkable human being.

Apparently gods don't poop...

The lower abdomen is the reason man does not so easily consider himself a god.

What an age finds evil is commonly an anachronistic echo of what previously was found to be good—the atavism of an older ideal.

With individuals madness is something rare—but with groups, parties, peoples, and ages it’s the rule.

Love brings to light the high and the hidden characteristics of the person who loves—what is rare and exceptional about him: to that extent it easily misleads us about what is normal in him.

With hard people intimacy is shameful thing—and something precious.

Christianity gave Eros poison to drink—but he didn’t die from that. He degenerated into a vice.

“Not that you lied to me but that I no longer believe you has shaken me.”—

There is a high-spirited goodness which looks like malice.