Close calls in fiction, and the value of advice

Image: “A Close Call for Six Citizens of Calais”.* Public Domain.

Spoiler alert: “Outlander” plot spoilers.  Except they aren’t really, which as you’ll see is the whole point of the post.

I occasionally offer advice here on Scientist Sees Squirrel.  I’m here today to give you some meta-advice: be wary of my advice (but not too wary). Here’s why.

I recently read (and greatly enjoyed) Diana Gabaldon’s time-travel-historical-romance-adventure novel Outlander.** Several times through the book, one of the two protagonists has a close brush with death.  Each time, the skillful storytelling had me on the edge of my seat, but whether it’s Claire Beauchamp or Jamie Fraser, the imperiled one is rescued or recovers.  In the most extreme incident, Jamie has received last rites and his skin shows the greenish pallor of the deathbed, and I found myself wanting to read late into the night so I’d know whether he survives.  But then I realized: of course he does.  There are eight more books in the series!

More generally, protagonists in fiction almost always have close calls (with death or with other unpleasant, if less final, outcomes) – and they almost always survive them.***  After all, the storyline in which the protagonist doesn’t survive their close call is an unsatisfying one,  unlikely to be written, or to be published if it is.  You can think of this as the Anthropic Principle of Fiction, if you like, but I found myself thinking of it instead as a form of survivorship bias.  We only hear the stories of survivors, simply because those make the best stories.

And that brings me to advice. A lot of advice is given by survivors.  OK, that sounds a bit dramatic, but by “survivors” I just mean those who’ve made it into a position to give the advice.  Academic career advice is often given by those in academic careers; longevity advice is famously offered by brand-new centenarians interviewed by local media on the occasion of their 100th birthday parties.  We’ve all heard longevity attributed to the consumption of wine, or to abstention from wine; to the heavy consumption of turnips, or the heavy consumption of blood-rare steaks.  It’s relatively easy to recognize the fallacy here: the confusion of characteristics of those who survive with the reasons they survived. It’s less obvious when I suggest that grad students should take time to visit other grad students’ field sites (as I did), or that you shouldn’t worry too much about retaining a sharp research focus (because I didn’t, and here I still am).  It’s quite likely that I don’t know the reasons for my academic survival.  In fact, given my n=1 and the complexity of academic careers, it’s almost certain that I don’t.****

But it’s also important to counsel some caution about the caution.  It’s easy, and perhaps fashionable, to use survivorship bias as a reason to dismiss the utility of advice – any advice.  At least, it seems that way in my Twitter feed, in which hardly a day goes by without someone offering the paradoxical advice not to pay attention to advice.  That would take it much too far, leaving each person to reinvent every wheel.  A lot of advice is the product of thoughtful consideration, and it’s useful.  Yes, survivorship bias can tinge advice; but that just means that like everything else in science, advice needs a cautious eye.

So the real question is how one can decide which pieces of advice to heed.  It would be great if there was a simple way to determine that, but I don’t think there is.  I think a would-be consumer of advice needs to think.  Is the advice plausible?  Does it draw on multiple cases, not just the advice-giver’s own story?  Does it reflect recent experience or the advice-giver’s experience in a distant, and different, past?  These are all questions I’d consider if offered advice about my car or my cat; I think they’re similarly necessary if I’m offered advice about anything else.

So take my advice: don’t take my advice, unless you determine it’s good advice, in which case… oh, never mind.  Take this advice: if you’re reading a novel and you’re worried that the protagonist is about to die, relax.  They probably aren’t.

© Stephen Heard  December 3, 2019

Here’s an older post discussing another problem with advice: the (often) particular circumstances of the advice-giver means that much advice should be considered local.  But this still doesn’t mean that abandoning all attempts at advice would be wise.


*^More about that image: “A Close Call for Six Citizens of Calais”, from “Bill Nye’s Comic History of England (1906; no, not that Bill Nye, he’s not that old). In the engraving, Philippa, wife of Edward III, intercedes to save six respectable citizens of Calais from execution after the city’s surrender to England in 1346.

**^Which might surprise some people, as the book is widely thought of as written for women (it’s a romance, at least in part).  Here’s why I read it.  Diana Gabaldon was kind enough to blurb my forthcoming book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider.  (You can read her blurb, and the others, on my page for the book.)  I was tickled by this; but then I felt guilty, because she was blurbing my book and I’d never even read one of hers.  So I picked up Outlander out of duty, really; but I got hooked pretty quickly.  It’s an engrossing tale.

***^Here’s a challenge: name a work of fiction where the protagonist dies (earlier than the very last page).  Well, I mean name one outside of Shakespearean tragedy, where everybody dies, and simple logistics mean they can’t all die on the last page.  There’s a reason Shakespeare never wrote Hamlet II: Something Still Rotten.

****^Although, and sadly, as a straight white male I can be sure that privilege made a contribution.

5 thoughts on “Close calls in fiction, and the value of advice

  1. Peter Apps

    The Game of Thones series has an impressively high body count of significant characters, to the extent that who the protagonists are is pretty much defined by who is among the last few standing.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Peter, this is a perceptive comment; it made me realize that my comment on protagonists not dying off is to some extent circular, and it’s another form of survivorship bias. Within a particular novel, if someone dies off early, surely we simply wouldn’t think they had been a protagonist? (Of course it’s more complex than that and a character could be central early, then be dumped!)

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  2. Peter Erwin

    What about novels (or stories more generally) that are told out-of-sequence? I seem to recall that in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, two of the main characters die about halfway through the novel; but later parts of the novel tell earlier parts of their stories, so they remain protagonists…

    Liked by 1 person

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