Remember fool’s gold? The grizzled old prospector cackles with glee as he watches the tenderfoot claw at the gleaming vein of rock: “That’s fool’s gold, son! Pyrite! You won’t get no duchess diggin’ that up!” All that glitters, you know. In the morality tales of my childhood, fool’s gold was the stuff that dreams are made on, the perfect metaphor for false value and vain hopes. But now we learn that fool’s gold has more value than we thought: according to a report in Science Daily, “???Fool’s gold’ is the ocean’s fertilizer,” a crucial source of iron that nourishes the tiny plants known as phytoplankton that help to control atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
What this suggests to me is a fundamental rule of human existence: as a species we show a unique capacity to get everything ass backwards. We value gold because it has no real value, while fool’s gold ??? or anything else essential to our existence ??? we toss aside as so much trash. There are moments when this quirk in our nature seems particularly clear, like the current hard-right swing in American politics (“Guns good! Health care bad!”), but it’s also a useful rule for writers when you’re wrestling with character.
Two things seem essential to me in creating complex characters. The first is self-consciousness: minor characters speak or act as if their motives are clear, while complex characters don’t simply think about it first, they brood. Complexity of mind is thinking about how you’re thinking, catching yourself in the act as you piece together your self-deceptions. Joycean epiphany is, in its simplest terms, the mirror in which you glimpse yourself, wincing.
But the second trait of complex characters, it seems to me, is a fundamental misapprehension of value, which all that self-consciousness seeks to reconcile or hide. The most life-like characters are those who scuttle backwards through life, like frightened crabs. That’s because, as much as we try to deny it, we’re wrong more than we’re right. We fear death, the one thing we all do. We cling to our comfort and our certainty, two illusions which the simple act of living will inevitably deny us. We try to hide those things in our nature ??? fear, desire, anxiety, love ??? that are universal. We make our weaknesses most obvious by our attempts to conceal them. In this sense, all psychology is reverse psychology. The father of the modern mind isn’t Freud, but Hermes, walking backwards as he steals the oxen of the sun.
But writers have one advantage: we get paid (at least some of us, sometimes) to be wrong. We tell the lies that sound most like truth, and by this strange backwards stroll through the mind, we reveal the acts of self-deception on which we depend. Writers are pyrite miners, shinola farmers. We do spread it around, don’t we? But in the end, what could have more value than a good fertilizer?