The Hairy Ball Theorem: why you can’t comb a coconut and the wind has to blow upwards
The proof is in: flawed characters makes for good writing.
There’s a theorem in physics that states–in mathematical terminology–if you try to comb down all the hairs of a three-dimensional round object like a coconut or tennis ball you can’t. What you end up with are tufts of hair that stick up at the poles. You can cut open a tennis ball and splay it out then comb your hand over it. All the hairs will fall over, but that’s cheating, you’ve made it two-dimensional.
Two dimensions are boring, but worse, you’ve cheated the reader out of an entire dimension.
Boring…yes they are. They’re safe, they’re predictable, and what’s the good in that? Nothing. You know exactly what two-dimensional books I’m referring to. Set sail knowing the course that’s plotted out for you, and sure, you arrive at your destination without being too roughed up, but without learning or experiencing anything. There’s no emotional trauma, no nail-biting, no pain or sorrow. No rattling of bones. But if it’s good writing you’ll come across that extra dimension.
Even in your comfortable sea you have to encounter that most unfortunate of places, the doldrums. Like a cowlick, it’s where the wind can’t be smoothed over.
Your safe ride has to come across an area where emotional winds blow upwards.
Are you still with me? Good. If you’ve read about this patch of sea then you know what it can do to a person. It can make them go crazy. All human flaws seep out. It’s polarising. There’s heroic feats and tales of self-sacrifice. It’s brutal and ugly, what you see is harsh and confronting. But steering a course away from these waters is more perilous. Boredom brings with it instant death.
The doldrums is your very own stage to bring out any character flaws. Push one in the back, go on, poke them, make one swim with the circling sharks, kill one to see how the others will react.
Bravo, Life of Pi.
Also published on Medium.