Tomorrow I'll be delivering a talk to Canadian law professors in Montreal about promoting critical thinking in their teaching. This is part of what I do in my "day" job--discussing critical thinking in different learning contexts.
But it occurs to me that I haven't heard much discussion about the act of novel writing as a critical thinking process. Novel writing as a creative process, to be sure, but I've never seen it framed as a critical thinking process. (By critical thinking, I don't mean being critical, but rather bringing a level of analysis to creative writing).
Yet, to write a coherent novel--okay, even just to finish a novel--critical thinking is vital. Consider:
1. In writing a novel, the author must build an argument. Now we might not necessarily view novel writing in this way, but isn't that we are doing? (Except, perhaps, for really experiential or avant-garde novel forms). Why is my protagonist taking this journey? Why must the murderer be caught? Why must my heroine reconnect with her long-lost sister? (Okay, that last one is not from my novel, but you get the point). Building an argument is partially about exploring motivations, but it's also about making a case to our readers about why they should care about the characters, the journey, the resolution, etc.
2. Evidence is needed to properly build an argument. In my chosen genre--mystery writing--offering evidence is essential. Clues to the murderer's identity must be sprinkled through the text, or many readers will rightfully cry foul. But I think this is the case for all novels. We should be able to go back through a text and see the evidence (no matter how carefully disguised) that supports how a hostage in a bank robbery could become a criminal herself, or explains why two people would threaten to end their lives with a handful of poisoned berries, or how stepping on a butterfly could change the world.
3. Challenging one's own assumptions, biases, and stereotyped thinking is crucial. At the very least, this practice will decrease the presence of clichés and clichéd thinking throughout the text. Certainly, creating characters that aren't all good or all bad, but who are more nuanced and distinct, seems like good practice in getting beyond simplistic black and white thinking. (Can the antagonist have some redeeming qualities? Can the protagonist have a morally ambivalent stance?) Some stereotypes are easy to spot (dumb jocks, girls who hate math, alcoholic cops etc), but some underscore the entire text, and really are clichéd visions (the 1980s were all about greed; in the Victorian era, all people shared the same moral code).
Personally, I like when authors create characters who offer alternate perspectives from the main character's point of view. That sets up for the reader the opportunity to consider an idea from more than one perspective, and may help offer alternative explanations for the story's arc.
4. Probing spurious or faulty correlations. This isn't just about whether coincidences are plausible or not (I posted on this before). I think that authors need to think through whether their reasoning is reasonable or not. For example, consider this spurious (or bogus) correlation:
The townspeople always attend high school football games on Friday nights.
A murder happened at the football game.
Therefore, a townsperson must have committed the murder.
I've seen lots of novels where the bumbling idiot (local sheriff, village detective, geriatric private eye, neighborhood gossip, despairing daughter-in-law, you name it) makes this kind of assumption. Sometimes as a plot device, this works. Especially when the goal is to make the "real" detective shine. But lots of times it feels like the author has taken the easy way out, and may have low expectations for the reader.
Ultimately, I don't think there's much difference between critical and creative thinking. Both are essential, and both are hard. But as a reader or a writer--what do you think? Should critical thinking be part of the novel-writing process?
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.