When I’m creating a story, I start with the basic concept. We’ll use ‘girl gets a dog’ for the purposes of this article. Then I start working on the characters in the story. What sort of girl is she? Why does she want a dog? Why is she getting the dog now? What sort of dogs has she had in the past? I answer these questions and dozens of others and come up with an idea of this girl that I’ve created in my head. The more I figure out about her, the more real she becomes to my imagination. Eventually, if I do my job well enough, I can imagine this girl in any situation and how she might react. And this lets me tell my story through the character.
It would be somewhat silly for me to ask you if this girl has any sort of free will. She doesn’t really exist outside of my head and this article. And yet, when I was reading Sam Harris’ book, Free Will, I couldn’t help but think about how I and other writers create characters. Often you’ll hear novelists and screenwriters talk about how the characters take on a life of their own. They do things we don’t expect them to do but are entirely true to who they are. And yet, of course, these figments of our imaginations have no true free will to speak of. The girl was always going to get the dog.
Sam Harris’ book argues that you and I are not so different from this girl. We are the sum of our genetics and experiences, most of which we have absolutely no control over. These things inform our decisions to the point where the decisions can’t really be said to come from us at all. We could never have chosen to do otherwise because that’s just not who we are.
It’s unnerving to think that we aren’t the masters of our own fate. Instinctively, we want to deny it. And yet, if the more I think about it, the more obvious it becomes. How often do we hear people in the gay community say that they never chose to be gay? How many people have claimed that they did not choose their profession? Or on the flip side of that coin, how many times have you heard someone in love say they chose to fall in love with someone? When I really think about it, I can’t see any way around the fact that we don’t really have any real free will.
I won’t try to convince you that free will is an illusion. Harris does a fine job of that and if you’re interested, you can read his book. Instead, what I’d like to talk about next is what it means if it’s true. It’s a revolutionary concept. It effectively changes the way you look at everything.\
- Jack Cameron