To the Limit, Storytellers, Forthwith

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What makes for great art? I won’t say I have no idea, but I am certainly on the shallow end of the pool, treading slowly and carefully deepward. One thing that does appear essential to me is the idea of limits. Without limits, and maybe more importantly, contrast, we don’t have much to show that will harmonize with reality on any level. Never mind delight.

When I had the rare chance to learn from the brilliant Orson Scott Card, one thing he emphasized in world creation was this idea of limits. Our group had a long, involved, discussion that he directed on the limits of magic in stories. He emphasized that characters who can do anything and are not opposed by evil, even strong evil, are not memorable, or worthwhile.

He pointed out that Superman, at one point, had blown out a sun with his breath (like a candle). Boring. Good job Superman, but what now? Can this be the least bit interesting from here on? He said that shortly after that kryptonite was introduced, saving the character. This is why, perhaps, Batman is so much easier (seems to me) to tell a good story about than Superman.

Give me a limited, even a self-limited, character any day.

Limits are essential; cost is essential. Pain, suffering, and struggle are central to all worthwhile storytelling.

And so it is with the life of man.

We are, after all, art.


31 Comments

  1. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Eric, that’s because he is now on Twitter.

    Sam, limits, cost, pain, suffering, and struggle. Without these we turn to quivering masses of Jello.

  2. david

    i love the rabbit room – because i love batman, i love orson scott card, and here i find both in one post.

    i’m really digging the collected editions of Ender’s Game in graphic format – it’s caused me to think about different issues related to the suffering inherent in Ender’s growth through battle school and command school. Card balances Ender’s genius and potential with physical and emotional suffering…

  3. Linnea Lewis

    Pot-stirrer.

    Without the potential for struggle, where is the drama? Where is the choice? Aptly put Mr. Smith – it is what makes us human, and art.

  4. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    I love Pete’s question! It has been steeping in my mind for an hour now, and I wanted to offer my thoughts.

    God is the reason characters without limits are evade our interest. Our story is a story of struggle. Without struggle, a story isn’t humanly relatable. Everything that matters to the human heart hinges on redemption, healing and rescue. I believe everyone, no matter what they profess to believe, lives with these innate longings.

    Whenever people in the Bible wanted to see God as He was, He told them, in effect, “Not a good idea. Unlike you, there’s nothing broken or lacking in me. You couldn’t handle my glory. The radiation alone will kill you.” God isn’t uninteresting, just unimaginable. You can’t have truly unlimited power without having unlimited glory too. To imagine unlimited power in a way that would be true to life, we’re dipping our toes in the deep waters of glory, and none can bear it for long.

    As Annie Dillard wrote, “One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.”

    I don’t think it is that unlimited power is uninteresting. I think it is unfathomable, and we know it. So when a hero comes along with unlimited power, it isn’t that we’re bored, its that we can’t buy it. We can buy invisibility, super-strength, time travel, even the ability to fly because they exist as powers we can seperate out from the one weilding them– like apps on an iphone.

    But with God, well, we are characters in His story, not the other way around. And He has built into our make-up a need for heroes, redemption, salvation.

    He has wired us to fear the darkness, dread the unknown and believe whatever evil we encounter has an even deeper evil below that.

    But, as Lewis said, God has also wired us to long for the magic of rescue because we sense below that lies an even “deeper magic from before the dawn of time.”

    This is where all our hero stories come from– this belief that though evil runs deeper than we suspect, redemption runs deeper still. The desire to hear this story over and over again is because it sounds like the story with which we were created to resonate.

    And the fact that we must limit both the evil and the good prevailing over it in our stories speaks to the fact that you cannot have ultimate power without ultimate glory– and who can see the face of God and live?

    Or to put it another way, Superman, Schmuperman.

  5. E

    Incarnation.

    God also wrote the Son into the story, and (in some sense) willingly took Ron’s list of suffering and limits onto Himself.

  6. E

    S.D., I didn’t click on the self-limited link before I posted… go on ahead, I’ll catch up eventually.

  7. S. D. Smith

    @sdsmith

    Well, I was working for the man and missed out on my chance to offer a dramatically weaker response to Mr. Pot-Stirrer. It is a great question, A.S. Peterson.

    And blimey. Well said, Russ.

    I had contemplated the angle of Pete’s question before, but in order to obtain the concise praise of Eric, I had to be brief and exclude any thoughts on that.

    But I agree it’s an interesting, and possibly troubling, avenue of thought.

    I think Russ nails it. My own thoughts centered around the authorship of God. Russ added some nice layers of understanding to that basic idea, all of which clarified the thing for me more thoroughly.

    Here’s my small thoughts on this.

    I think that Fin Button is in no position to judge Pete Peterson-as-a-character in the very limited world she inhabits, a world entirely created by Pete Peterson. I think the opportunity for a plethora of errors is opened when we do more of trying to comprehend (grasp) God and less of trusting in what he has said about himself (and what can plainly be seen –for instance, that he created everything) as enough.

    He is, like Russ said so eloquently, above our comprehensive appreciation. I think there is a sense in which he is a character on a mission (though this is sometimes presented in a painfully reductionistic, glory-denying, Gospel-neglecting way). But to judge him as interesting or not in the same way we judge everything else (all spoken word creations from him) is at least insufficient.

    I guess it is about glory when it comes to God. When it comes to characters, it is so much about, again as Russ said, “buying it.”

    The willing suspension of disbelief is absolutely central to good story-telling.

    The miracle of our rescue from unbelief is our point of contact with the numinous God of the Bible.

    The Incarnation, as E said, is the story of that point of contact. It is Pete Peterson writing himself into Fin’s story and dramatically, heroically limiting himself in the act.

    We can relate to that. And it resonates deeply in us. When Jesus did it, it became the true myth.

  8. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    “He is, like Russ said so eloquently, above our comprehensive appreciation. I think there is a sense in which he is a character on a mission (though this is sometimes presented in a painfully reductionistic, glory-denying, Gospel-neglecting way). But to judge him as interesting or not in the same way we judge everything else (all spoken word creations from him) is at least insufficient.”

    Well said, Sam. My favorite quote about theology these days comes from Pete Rollins, who advocates that we view theology as our worshipful response to God, rather than as a description of God.

  9. Hannah

    Maybe this has come up before (maybe I even mentioned it here before), but Dorothy Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker is a great exploration of what it would mean to apply ideas from trinitarian theology to the writing of fiction. She talks about incarnation in a way that resonates with what’s being said here.

    Hannah

  10. Chad Ethridge

    In some way God “limited” Himself to human faculties through Jesus. Isn’t that what is meant by Christ emptied Himself? (Philippians 2:7) How about stories where characters willingly choose to limit their abilities or powers for the sake of another?

  11. Adam

    I like Russ’ question, but I’m not quite sure saying we are part of God’s story solves it. For instance if we look at the particular “stories” of the scriptures, without denying inspiration, I want to point out that they are from a human perspective. Strictly speaking and in the language of literature, in the Bible God is a character and therefore Russ’ question still applies.

    Actually, I think God remains interesting precisely because power is not his defining characteristic as it is with Superman. God’s defining characteristic, in my mind, is his compassion or divine pathos. While power needs weakness to remain interesting compassion only needs an object, and specifically an object that denies the other’s compassion. God stays interesting, so to speak, because the object he chose keeps denying his compassion even to this day.

  12. Adam

    Oh yeah, I love Orson Scott Card’s books, and just remembered that his Homecoming series gets knee deep in this question.

  13. Sarah

    To be honest, there have been times when I did find God uninteresting. Shortsightedness, of course, but when I saw him merely as a perfect, somewhat impassable God up above all the drama and beauty and pain of life down here on earth, it was easy to write him off.

    It was when I realized that he was also a suffering God that he became interesting (and lovable) to me. Suffering implies a limitation of some kind, a lack. I think we humans are God’s limitation. Our sin loving hearts are God’s (temporary) kryptonite. When we choose to reject his love, to choose evil instead of good, we frustrate the perfection he intended for the world. He allows the expression of his power to be limited (temporarily, and only within the confines of fallen earth) by our wrong choices, and bears the pain and grief of all the destruction. A suffering hero.

    But then, because his love and power really are infinite, he makes the incredible choice to limit himself further by becoming one of us pain-ridden, limited humans. By bearing all our limitations himself, and every drop of our suffering, his love overcomes every limitation in the universe and redeems us back to the limitless good he intended.

    That was a bit of a brain-twister. Makes God a fascinating character though.

  14. kevin

    In God, we have a (THE) limitless being who voluntarily limited Himself on our behalf, how much more interesting can you get? Christ emptied Himself, was sent by the Father’s decree, and the whole thing is mediated by the Spirit. You’ve got Him all working in trandem in the Gospel, and that makes my head hurt, in a good way.

    I would say, however, that if we just had to name a defining characteristic, a trumping attribute, it must be God’s asceity, his “otherness”. Sure, He is love, but it’s not a love like ours, it’s something higher, loftier. And you could say He’s equally powerful, just, merciful, knowing, you name and attribute and the qualifying aspect of it is that it’s unique to Him. He is holy, altogether self-existent, and He doesn’t get His power just because our sun is a different color than his home planets.

  15. Dan K

    “Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.”

    Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.”

    -GK Chesterton.

  16. Aaron Roughton

    If sinning is defined in our reality as moving in rebellion to or against the will of God as we understand Him, then is the fact that God cannot sin a limitation, or is it simply that it is logically impossible for someone who is omnipotent and perfect to act outside of His own perfect will? (Again, as we understand it from our reality.) Philosimiphising is hard.

  17. kevin

    I’m in the “it’s not a limitation” camp, here’s why:

    God’s law is not something outside of Himself that He cannot help but adhere to. He’s the only being the universe like this. He is putting Himself under some standard, and because He’s who He is, he can’t break it. He IS the standard. Theoretically, if He moved against the standard, it would be a different standard, and He still wouldn’t be sinning. Yeah, I know, that’s ridiculous, but at least I said before you did…

    My point is that God’s law, character, will are not outside Himself, something to be adhered to. If it were, then God would not have a free will, something we Americans prize very muchly. I think the better term than “cannot” is just that He “won’t”.

    So I’m casting a vote for the second part of Aaron’s question, if I have a vote. All opposed, likesign?

  18. kevin

    I’m in the “it’s not a limitation” camp, here’s why:

    God’s law is not something outside of Himself that He cannot help but adhere to. He’s the only being the universe like this. He is NOT putting Himself under some standard, and because He’s who He is, he can’t break it. He IS the standard. Theoretically, if He moved against the standard, it would be a different standard, and He still wouldn’t be sinning. Yeah, I know, that’s ridiculous, but at least I said it before you did…

    My point is that God’s law, character, will are not outside Himself, something to be adhered to. If it were, then God would not have a free will, something we Americans prize very muchly. I think the better term than “cannot” is just that He “won’t”.

    So I’m casting a vote for the second part of Aaron’s question, if I have a vote. All opposed, likesign?

    I am also casting a meager vote for previewing posts before putting them out there for all the world to not understand…
    Contributed on December 17th, 2009 at 4:09 pm

  19. Stacy Grubb

    In one train of thought, God limits Himself by giving us choices. Yes, He *could* do anything and/or make us do whatever He wants us to do (and He does control our situations and manipulates them for the express purpose of training us to choose rightly), but the faith choice still has to be made and that’s something we either do or we don’t do. And why does it *have* to be made? Because He’s told us the choice is up to us and He waits on us to make it and He can’t tell a lie, the thought of which makes me think of how what may superficially seem like a limit (the inability to sin) is truly the absence of limits when you know what is possible in an existence devoid of sin.

    Stacy

  20. Peter B

    Adam: bang. That makes perfect sense.

    Also, wonderful thoughts all around here; what a wonderful place where we can come to sharpen and be sharpened in our worship.

    Brevity may be the soul of wit, but Sam is its esophagus.

    I’m probably the appendix.

  21. Lynx

    Russ Ramsey’s powererful answer Pete’s pot-stirring question was so glorious I can’t fathom it! 😉

  22. Lynx

    I appreciate the direction of the conversation so far, but I have to say, I’m a bit surprised no one has weighed in on SD’s assertion that Batman is better than Superman. I can’t disagree with him, and my reasons are similar to his, but surely someone has a different viewpoint they just have to be shared?

  23. Becky

    Limits, evil opposition, cost, pain, suffering, struggle: I think that God meets all the criteria that Sam listed for an interesting hero. He has unlimited power, but chooses to limit himself. He is opposed by strong evil, and wages a continuing battle for hearts and minds. He experienced, and continues to experience, the pain of rejection by those he loves. Isaiah prophesied his suffering, and the gospels told of the fulfillment of the prophesies. He paid the ultimate cost to win the release of his love from the clutches of his enemy. Pretty interesting stuff.

  24. Nate

    I would suggest that when it comes to character development, and interest in a character, that as Aaron put it “impossible for someone who is omnipotent and perfect to act outside of His own perfect will” that would be a limitation, because He can not act outside of it, even if He wants to, because that would alter His own will, thereby rendering His previous will imperfect. For example the story of the crucifixion, taking God and Jesus as separate characters. God’s will is for Jesus to die for the sins of humanity. God loves His only Son. God can save Jesus from the cross, but not without altering His will. So while there is nothing God cannot do, there are somethings God cannot do with doing something else as well. I believe that is the limitation. I speak purely from a storytelling standpoint, as that is where interest in character comes from, I mean none of this theologically.

  25. Anita

    I find myself reminded by all of this talk of God and limitations of a scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lucy has just read the spell in the ex-star Coriakin’s book to make the invisible things visible, and suddenly there is Aslan, the Lord, padding up behind her. She expresses surprise that HE would appear, and he says something to her along the lines of “I do obey my own laws.”

    It could be debatable how much of the spark of truth is in this, but that’s how I see Him. He’s the Lion, the Emperor of our world and His Son, the one who can turn death backwards with His death and rip the barriers between the worlds with a flick of His claw–but He still comes padding along the pathways of His own set laws.

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