(No spoilers here.) In Paula Hawkins’ thriller Into the Water, characters aren’t simply “good” or “bad.” While Sean is called a “good man” over and over again he’s done some terrible things, and while Nel is loved by some she’s hated by others (even by the same people at different times). And then there are Lena, Jules, and Louise…
This is part of what makes a thriller work. We can’t figure out “who dun it” because literally everyone has some kind of nasty history that suggests they might be capable of murder (what a terrifying thought)!
And yet, by writing the book through these characters’ perspectives, Hawkins forces us to empathize with them and understand their motivation. This doesn’t make their actions any less screwed up or horrific, but in experiencing the story in this way we are basically forced to view these people as human, and not as demons who hurt and kill people because they’re twisted and like it. Honestly, in a way that would be a lot more comforting–it would make us feel safer from the possibility of committing such horrific deeds ourselves.
And then there are Buzzfeed quizzes.
I’m moderately addicted to Buzzfeed quizzes. Why do I answer questions about my favorite color, season, and article of clothing to find out what sort of cupcake I am???
While we know that our favorite pizza toppings have no magic powers to reveal our deepest fears, Buzzfeed quizzes work because we are multifaceted creatures, which is in a way related (though in a much more lighthearted way) to what Into the Water shows. When a quiz tells me I’m not assertive I think to myself, “totally true!” But when it tells me I’m pretty darn assertive I also think, “totally true!” That’s because in certain situations I can be assertive, while in others I’m definitely not. It depends on the context, my current mood, etc.
This is one of the reasons why I find myself drawn to an eclectic array of music: Taylor Swift, Dmitri Shostakovich, Europe, Cascada, Sleigh Bells, The Chieftains… Sometimes I’ll be in the mood for hard rock and other times I crave some classical piano nocturnes. Still other times it’s Adele, or even Veggie Tales. Each type of music satisfies a different mood or situation.
So maybe Into the Water and Buzzfeed quizzes are pointing to something similar. If humans can’t be put in clear boxes with labels like “extroverts” and “introverts,” or “good” and “bad” people, the world might feel a little less safe and predictable. But at the same time, at the extrovert-introvert type of level it’s okay for our identity to be more fluid and situation-dependent (obviously not in the hurting people sense, but in the benign, everyday preferences sense).
Because in the end, our identities/preferences are fluid. And that’s okay.
Have you read Into the Water? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
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