Monday, November 15, 2004

Dimensions of Character

A while ago, a friend of mine sent me a parody of Neil Stephenson's writing. You were thinking about the part of Cryptonomicon where he pouts his cereal? I asked. And he agreed that I'd got it in one. Later that week, while we were talking about books over cups of green tea, I observed that it seemed like many of my favorite authors could probably be parodied, but for different things: writing, character, place, pace, or plot shape. Kim Stanley Robinson writes wonderfully long sentences; Garrison Keillor writes much as he speaks; and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known for the shape of his plots and for one or two characters.

I was reminded of that conversation today while I sipped spiced tea and ate chaat with a different group of friends. One of them commented on the Victorian habit of inventing fanciful names for groups of different animals: a murder of crows, a crash of rhinos, or a pride of lions. He suggested that perhaps we should to the same thing to distinguish groups of friends: a snark of Bens, a spaz of Jens, a bewilderment of Kens, a grunt of Lens, or a startle of Svens. You could do the same with book characters, I'm sure, particularly for authors who seem to write characters so narrow as to be unintentional caricatures.

Of course, real people are not caricatures, but there's certainly an element of caricature in the ways we identify and describe each other. It must be that way: most of us only see one or two facets of those around us, and it takes some time to even get a feel for those facets. At the same time, it's interesting to listen to people describing their friends, enemies, and colleagues (friends, Romans, countrymen?). A few words can tell a lot, particularly in a face-to-face conversation in which the words are accompanied by facial expressions and changes of voice tone. Of course, it's hard to tell the few words that someone would use to describe -- or perhaps to caricature -- oneself. Would my acquaintances describe me as a crotchety young man, easily exasperated? As a singer of silly songs? Would the characteristic picture be me absent-mindedly sipping tea, answering a question with a lecture that made the asker regret the asking, or perhaps loping along with a giant green backpack? I'm not sure whether I would be easy or hard to caricature, or how much variation there would be between people who have only interacted with me electronically, or only in an academic setting, or only in a social setting.

Various groups working on facial recognition write about eigenfaces: the idea is that it's possible to come up with prototypical faces, and that real faces tend to look like linear combinations of those prototypical faces. It has never been clear to me how one imposes a vector space structure onto faces -- what would twice a Bush face minus a Charlie Chaplin face look like? -- but the idea is entertaining. So what about eigenpersonalities? I suppose that's really the idea behind the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, or behind newspaper horoscopes, but surely we can make the idea sound more respectable by wrapping it in technical jargon. Or perhaps it would sound as ridiculous as I'm sure it would be in fact; but the idea of a vector space of personalities could certainly be entertaining.

I'm totally normal, but I wonder what you would get if you took my projection in the direction of Dumbledore?

  • Currently drinking: Jasmine tea
  • Currently waiting for: Psychology textbooks from John Frum