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. Continue reading