Monday, November 06, 2006

The Dividing Line Between Fiction and Reality

One of the reasons I think people want to read or watch stories about heroes is to fill the void in themselves. We’d all like to think that, given a reason and opportunity, we’d rise to the challenge. We’d fight tooth and nail for the cause of justice, we’d sacrifice everything to save the one we love or to find their killer or to free an innocent man from jail…

We all like to think that we have what it takes to be Luke Skywalker or Jack Bauer or (insert name of selected hero here).

I just finished reading Ian Rankin’s new Rebus book, The Naming of the Dead, and it got me thinking about this.

And about what people admire in fiction but don’t want to have to face in reality.

Rebus is the classic insubordinate cop, always breaking the rules, going his own way, repeatedly risking his career, his life, even his soul, in his quest for the truth. Only I’m not even certain it’s the truth he’s primarily interested in. I think that the more obstacles Rebus faces, the more determined he is to overcome them. You know, the ‘for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction’ idea. Reverse psychology at its best. Likely the way to get him to give up on a case is to encourage him to solve it.

Okay, okay, that’s probably going a bit far and it’s not exactly true, and it’s a side note. But as I was reading the book, one of the things I got thinking of was how common it was for Rebus to buck the rules. And he’s not the only fictional cop who does. In fact, a lot of popular fictional cops (Thorne would be another) have a tendency to do things their own way.

What it got me wondering was, why is it that we admire characters like this so much in fiction, but in reality the last thing we want to deal with in our day to day lives are people who won’t follow the rules?

On the surface, some people think it’s strange that I’d be so drawn to an alcoholic Scottish cop who smokes too much and pushes everyone in his life away from him, yet there’s one thing about Rebus that rings true for me. I’m a troublemaker. I am the kid always asking why. The minute someone tells me I can’t do something, I’m determined to prove them wrong.

I’m easily baited, and I can even know it, and still can’t resist the urge.

I’m going to admit something to you guys. I didn’t graduate from high school. It is true that I graduated college with ‘great distinction’ – my average being something like 96.7% - and it is true I completed my grade 13 (OACs) but not my grade 12. I was one generic credit shy. I could have taken grade 9 home ec or music or grade 10 typing and been done. Instead, I (more or less) ran away from home.

People told me I’d never have a career, yet I’m an educational professional. Don’t graduate from high school and you’re unlikely to ever complete post secondary education, yet I graduated top of my class.

I wouldn’t recommend it. I mean, my life was complicated as a teenager and I had this feeling that if I stayed where I was one second longer I’d be falling off the precipice, that I’d never escape and ultimately it would kill me. I know it sounds a bit melodramatic, but that’s really how I felt. It may not have been true in a physical sense, but emotionally, psychologically, I had to get out.

No matter how much people can admire a fictional character who disregards protocol at every turn, it isn’t something I find most people have a lot of respect for in reality.

There’s a way things are and a way things are meant to be and a way things have always been done, and if you don’t follow that way, you’re out. How many times have I seen that thinking employed, with the schools and children’s programs I’ve worked with over the years?

I’m one of those people that’s proof that the lack of a high school diploma doesn’t have to keep you from achieving your goals. College graduate. Top student. Educational professional. Plus I’ve worked as a professional photographer… I’ve done a lot of interesting things in my life.

There’s only one point to this, and it’s a simple one. The things that a lot of people seem to admire aren’t what they’ll respect when they’re faced with it themselves. I’ve been a boss – I know what it is to suspend a staff. Believe me, when I’m in a position of authority I’ll be every bit as difficult about following the ‘rules’ and expect people to tow the line.

Sometimes, I wonder why it is that I just can’t do things the way everyone else does them. Why make my life difficult?

I don’t really have an answer for it. Maybe, in part, it’s because I wasn’t raised to follow the rules. Maybe it’s because I need to believe in what I’m doing every step of the way.

Maybe it’s because I’m a person who, ultimately, finds it hard to give in to blind faith and just trust. There’s a great line in season 1 of The Wire, when Herc says to Kima (badly paraphrasing from memory) ‘You want shit done right you got to do it your own self.’

Maybe that’s the reality, for me. My own experience being that you can’t rely on most people, I’ve continued to choose the course that allows me the most hands-on control over every aspect of my life.

I guess I have some trust issues. I wonder if I could write off the Rebus books as therapy?


JamesO said...

The thing about maverick cops, bucking the rules, is that nine times out of ten they get the result they want. In real life, ignoring the collected wisdom of generations of earlier experience usually ends up in things going spectacularly wrong.

But conflict is the soul of a good story, and what better conflict than a shameless disregard for the rules?

Sandra Ruttan said...

So I'm a good story but bad in reality?

You know what else it gets me wondering? Why are there all those pesky people who just feel the need to throw their weight around? The bosses always rush to judgment, and make things difficult, even if they have no vested interest in the case at all.

S. W. Vaughn said...

I'm Batman.


I admire people for all sorts of crazy things. For example, on one of our zoo trips when the boys (my son and my nephews) were small, there was a group of loud, laughing teenagers that followed us around, mostly because they were headed in the same direction around the zoo circuit.

My sister complained about them the whole time. I thought they were great -- because they were teenagers, and they chose to spend their spare time at the zoo instead of out on the streets causing trouble, which is a common activity for teens in Syracuse.

I admired them. I hope they always choose the zoo over getting drunk, doing drugs, hurting other people, and so forth. Even if the other folks at the zoo get all huffy about their presence.

John McFetridge said...

Why don't we like rule-following, suck-up toadies? Is that the question?

I also never graduated from high school. And when I finally did go to university in my late twenties, I very rarely got those high marks. It's not for everyone.

You're probably not making your life difficult, you're probably living it the easiest possible way for you.

Everyone breaks rules. We just all pick and chose different rules to break.

Mystery fiction is usually about solving a puzzle. Police work is usually about gathering evidence that fits the "rules" of court - one of the reasons The Wire is so good. Law and Order has also been sometimes very good in showing what happens after the police work. Remember, on Miami Vice they always ended with the bad guys dead - no faith in "the system."

Faith. What do you believe in. It's certainly the central metaphor of most crime fiction.

anne frasier said...

i wonder if there are fewer free thinkers today than say 50 years ago. we certainly seem to be a nation of observers with a lot fewer people asking important questions. and the people who do ask tend to be treated like black sheep. but then years ago everybody was doing the whole post WWII ozzie and harriet thing, so maybe it's nothing new.

Sandra Ruttan said...

SW, that's the right perspective to have. I doubt I'd always be as enlightened as you, but that's something to strive for because you're absolutely right.

John, I think for the most part people do like rule-following suck-up toadies! Teachers love students who do all the things they're supposed to do, editors/publishers love writers who follow submission guidelines (I'll chuck out stories without a glance for breaking them)... The idea that we love the rebel with a cause is something that seems to end in fiction.

At least, that's what I was thinking. Knowing that you didn't graduate from high school either has made me feel less special.

Anne, it might be fair to say there are fewer free-thinkers now than 30-40 years ago. The 60s and 70s were times of change to a certain degree, now we seem to be back to same-old, same-old.

SAND STORM said...

This topic also has me thinking about Rogues in society. ie.
We celebrate the Keith Richards of the world as "cool" "hip" yada yada, but when the guy down the street gets busted for drugs or booze he's a loser, a wannabe. The same in our fiction, the cop who drinks way too much but is really the "problem solver" maybe we would like to think so but in real life a cop that drinks too much is the last one we would turn to.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sand Storm, generally speaking I would agree. Unless we knew a cop personally and knew deep down he was good/solid, if he was a heavy drinker we'd be unlikely to turn to him.

Anonymous said...

Hehe, growing up in Germany made me despise people who follow the rules all the time. It's too much of a virtue here and next time a dictator says kill the *insert group of choice*, those people will dutifully go and kill them.

Me, I've always been an outsider, and there are very few people I trust.

DesLily said...

maybe what you admire is someone doing it "their way" and coming out on top anyway...
maybe those people just plain believe in theirself to that large of an extent.. something many of us do not do.?? maybe?

Anonymous said...

I think I've always enjoyed books about people who ignore the rules and do things their own way because I'm so obsessive about following the rules myself. Don't get me wrong, I usually figure out pretty quickly which rules can be pushed and don't hesitate to do so, but actively and consciously break them? I think I'd get hives. Much more enjoyable to read about them.

In real life, I usually despise these people. I've fired these people. But every now and then one comes along that actually influences you.

See, the thing is, you can get away with an awful lot if you go about it the right way. It's not a question of being a maverick, it's just getting people to overlook the things you do simply because, well, it's just you. I had a teacher like that in college. He called that ability tact, but I'm not so sure it was that simple. All I know is that any other teacher that screamed and cursed in their classes the way he did probably would have been reprimanded at least, but everybody loved him, including me.

I'm not sure I described that right, but that prof severely bent the accepted rules and norms of my small church affiliated college. But he was one of the most popular profs on campus, and really, considering how conservative most of the people there were, he really shouldn't have been. norby

Sandra Ruttan said...

Gabriele, an interesting perspective!

Maybe Deslily. I'm one of those people that's inclined to think if everyone follows a formula, you're all sheep. Nobody gets to be the Rolling Stones following a formula.

Norby, an interesting point. With the right charisma, it's always possible to break rules and still charm people. I find that fascinating to watch - it's like when I worked in education, there were always a few kids who could bend the rules on me a bit more. They had a way of charming the staff as a whole. And then you wonder why you're so easily manipulated.

Evil Kev said...

You're a high school dropout?

Hmmm it is all making sense now.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

you can only write it off as therapy if you got something out of it...then again, I've seen people learn less from therapists...what the hey...go for it! LOL!