If you’re anything like me, when you read something with particularly vivid characters, their voices stick around with you for days or weeks after you finish the book. After finishing HPMOR, for example, I had a cynical professor following me around everywhere going, Ah, perhaps you only pretend to care about brushing your teeth. Tell me, have you actually investigated whether Colgate Whitening Plus with Fruity Mint Flavor is truly the ideal toothpaste, or do you only use it because it is expected of you?
Similarly, I live with a grumpy yet remarkably insightful policeman every time I finish a Vimes book. Revisiting Huckleberry Finn gives me the company of a boy lacking book smarts but with a remarkable ability to see the moral truth right in front of his nose (and very good tips about fishing and good living). 19th century romance novels tend to give me matronly women evaluating potential romantic partners for me on the basis of their economic and social suitability. (This last one is surprisingly useful.)
I just finished reading Strong Female Protagonist, the superhero webcomic our society needs but definitely doesn’t deserve, and as a consequence there’s a blonde invincible chick in my head who wants to know whether writing stupid things for the Internet is really the best way for me to spend my time.
It’s great. Go read the first three chapters because I’m about to spoil them, and it’s great so you should just read it first.
Seriously, go read it. Reddit will still be here when you get back. I promise—NAY, I PRECOMMIT—to upvote your comment if you take a month to reply because you were reading the first three chapters.
Strong Female Protagonist, or SFP from here on, becomes full-blown rationalist fiction in chapter three, and I’m going to spend half of this essay just gushing about it.
Chapter three sees our main character and Super(wo)man stand-in, Alison Green, on a road trip with her mind-reading Lex Luthor of a boyfriend, Patrick, to visit an old friend of hers. On the way, Alison and Patrick bond over conversation about movies, burgers, and the dark recesses of the human soul. Their trip takes them into the heart of the South, and they are unpleasantly greeted at the hospital they arrive at by a Christian receptionist with a decidedly Satanic attitude. Patrick informs Alison that his telepathy, which he cannot control, direct, or turn off, has uncovered an important secret of the person they’re visiting. Alison thanks him and goes in alone to see her old friend, Feral.
Feral is a regenerator, basically Wolverine on steroids. You can stick a sword in her face and she’ll just find it annoying. She stops dudes from getting away by chopping off her own feet to stuff in the tailpipes of their cars. Alison and Feral once teamed up to fight crime, where Alison’s straight-laced comic-book seriousness made for an odd-couple clash with Feral’s drinking, smoking, cursing, fuck-the-plan-and-let-me-at-’em ways, but as they eat bullets and throw shoes at psychics together, they realize they have a lot in common and develop a friendship.
So Feral kisses Alison, Alison punches Feral through a window, and with all of the psychics defeated, they part ways. While Alison is busy being the poster child for what government-controlled child superheroes should be, Feral’s life falls apart. Her local support group collapses, and Feral isn’t good at anything except not dying. She makes a lot of bad decisions and hurts a lot of people while she tries to figure out her life—or rather, tries to figure out how to die.
Then she turns on the TV and sees Alison do what Alison does in chapter 2: quit.
Basically, the inciting event of SFP is the one where Alison Green aka Mega Girl aka Girl Superman declares on live national television that being a superhero is stupid. Having defeated all of the giant robots and clown-themed bank robbers before the start of the story, she announces that her expertise on punching things really hard does not translate into expertise on solving all of the remaining problems of poverty, social justice, hatred, politics, and emotional issues—all of the problems that actually exist, instead of being invented by an author for the sake of exciting comic book battles.
Alison takes off the mask and goes to college to learn how to solve all of the world’s problems, which is the expected skill set of a recent college graduate. And Feral, having experienced her own life problems totally failing to be solved by her superhero lifestyle, decides to do the other thing you can do instead of going to college, which is take a year off to explore the world.
Feral travels. Having never really been out of the Deep South before, has her mind blown by the kinds of things she sees and the people she meets in Europe and Asia. And because she’s a regenerator, when her mind is blown, it comes back together, bigger and better than before.
There are two really significant experiences Feral has while overseas, as she explains to Alison in her hospital room. One is simply seeing all the different ways that people with powers (“anomalies,” as they’re called in the comic) are treated depending on the culture. In America, everyone is expected to be a superhero and fight crime. In Western Europe, you’re expected to be a normal person who might be able to fly or turn invisible or something. In India, you’re a deity involved in some complex cultural conflict.
And second, Feral sees a lot of poor people. She meets a tremendous number of people suffering in all kinds of ways, and she has no idea how to help them.
Because there’s no one to beat up, and yet that’s the only problem-solving skill she has.
So in the span of just a few pages we watch Feral’s worldview alter radically. Her sense of the size of the world, and the amount of suffering in it, expands from her hometown in Mississippi to something global in scale. And between Alison’s public declaration and the different ways people with superpowers behave around the world, Feral starts to realize that she doesn’t have to conceive of her anomaly as something that’s only useful for fighting.
She starts to connect these ideas: What can I do about all this suffering? and What can I do with my power?
The conversation ends. Alison meets back up with Patrick, whose telepathy has uncovered the full details of Feral’s plan. Patrick explains that Feral plans to spent the rest of her life in perpetual surgery, her organs constantly being harvested to donate to needy people to save as many lives as possible. This plan will require her to be in constant agony and leave her no time whatsoever for anything remotely resembling a personal life. She is to become an organ farm for the human race.
Alison is understandably horrified. But after getting over her initial shock, her subsequent conversation with Patrick reveals that her problem with Feral’s decision isn’t the size of Feral’s sacrifice but rather how little it will accomplish. Donating organs will save lives but do nothing to address the poverty and institutional problems that makes saving those lives necessary in the first place.
Tired of having the most depressing conversations in the universe, Alison flirts over Loony Tunes, steals all the chocolate in the world, and goes to bed.
Alison and Patrick return to the hospital the next day, where they are greeted by the sight of a group of protesters. These protesters are a bunch of white, angry Deep South Christians protesting the donation of superpowered organs. They are portrayed in a deliberately stereotypical fashion: the spitting image of the sort of “real American” Christian whose ignorance of science is only exceeded by their ignorance of the Bible—the protesters helpfully carry signs that say things like “Share the Body of Christ, Not the Body of Satan” and “Not what the Founding Fathers wanted.” Alison, a liberal, college-going New Yorker, is about as interested in their ideas as you’d expect.
Anyway, Alison goes in to the hospital to try to talk Feral out of her plan. There’s also another powered individual there that Feral knows from London, a teleporter named Johnny trying to talk her out of it as well, albeit from a very different perspective than Alison. Alison and Johnny argue, Feral declares her intention to follow through with her idea despite their objections, and says her goodbyes. Many tears are shed. But not by me. Because I am very tough and do not cry.
While Alison and Johnny continue their debate out in the lobby, Feral is strapped down to begin the never-ending operation. The receptionist from earlier lets a masked man in through the back who barges into Feral’s operating room with a flamethrower, incinerating the doctors and Feral (though the latter recovers.)
Alison bursts in and one-punches the man through a wall, killing him. She then goes out to the protesters, identifying their attitude as the driving force behind the attack on Feral and the doctors, and threatens to murder them all if they don’t give up the people behind the attack. A police officer tries to arrest her. She eats his gun.
Patrick attempts to calm her down by pointing out that he can blackmail these people much more efficiently than she can intimidate them. Finally, Feral’s still-regenerating body crawls out to put herself between Alison and the scared fuckhead protesters. Alison takes a chill pill and the chapter ends with her visiting a supervillain to talk about her fantasies of mass murder and finally her megalomaniacal desire to make the world as good a place as it can possibly be. Yay!
With the events summarized, there’s a lot of amazing things about this chapter from a rationalist fiction perspective and I’m just going to talk about some of them in no particular order.
https://yudkowsky.tumblr.com/writing/empathyrespect https://yudkowsky.tumblr.com/writing/moral-conflicts https://yudkowsky.tumblr.com/writing/realistic-viewpoints
One of the most obviously impressive things about SFP is the realistic and engaging ideological disputes in which conflicting viewpoints are all represented in ways that feel very honest and real. There are various examples throughout the chapter, but the clearest one is the debate between Alison, Feral, and Johnny in the hospital room about the moral correctness of Feral’s decision.
Alison, Feral, and Johnny are extremely different people. Alison is a trained, experienced soldier with great parents and a great education. She’s intelligent, caring, and just a teensy bit fed up with the way the world is. Feral, meanwhile, is poorly educated and grew up in the poverty of the Deep South. She’s as broken up by her lack of faith in her own ability to make the world a better place as she is by all of the suffering in said world that needs to be made better.
Finally, Johnny is a London fashion designer. He’s wealthy, cool, and all about enjoying the life that’s given to you. He’s also a teleporter, but as he makes clear, this is of secondary importance when describing him.
Alison and Johnny are both here to talk Feral out of her plan, but from completely different points of view. Hilariously, they end up arguing with each other more than with Feral.
Basically, Alison thinks Feral’s plan doesn’t go far enough. Feral’s plan doesn’t solve poverty or death or institutional problems that preserve poverty and shitty health care systems. And it sets an impossible bar for self-sacrifice that other people won’t be able to meet. Meanwhile, Johnny totally rejects Feral’s selflessness—as he says, “Your life is nobody else’s to lead. You don’t owe those fucking people anything.”
Alison politely invites Johnny to go fuck himself. Feral jumps in to defend Johnny’s right to share his viewpoint—from Alison’s perspective and ours, Johnny is an intruder, but from Feral’s perspective, Johnny is a close friend she invited to be here to say goodbye to. Alison tries to further articulate what’s wrong with Feral’s plan: “Give a man a heart, and then what? Watch him get obliterated in the next ethnic cleansing or natural disaster.”
That’s when Johnny decides that Alison has jumped the shark. Of course Feral is doing the right thing. That’s the problem! He blames Alison for infecting Feral with do-gooder morality: “My God, stop! Can’t you see you’ve already got her ass-over-tea-kettle with your nonsense?”
Feral rejects both of their viewpoints. She can’t be self-centered like Johnny. And as she tells Alison, “I know you wanna fix it so the day stays saved forever. But it might not shake out that way, and until it does, the rest of us got helpin’ to do.”
That’s the end of the conversation. To me, what’s most impressive and most subtle about it is how intensely emotional it is. Each character clearly has an ideological viewpoint—Alison’s “figure out the best possible thing and do it,” Johnny’s “Obsessing over morality fucks everything up, live for yourself,” and Feral’s “I’m going to do what I can to help people right now.” Yet while these perspectives are presented unambiguously, no one ever lectures or sounds like a typed-up explanation of a particular point of view. Instead, they all struggle to articulate themselves, cut each other off, and express their perspectives in ways unique to their own personalities and the details of the situation at hand. In particular, Alison and Johnny end up arguing with each other more than with Feral even though they share the goal of talking Feral out of her plan because they find each other so morally incomprehensible.
But the writer must have comprehended both of them in order to write them.
They’re all quite persuasive, too.
Reproducible cognitive development
https://yudkowsky.tumblr.com/writing/level1intelligent https://yudkowsky.tumblr.com/writing/level2intelligent https://yudkowsky.tumblr.com/writing/level3intelligent
When we are introduced to Feral, we learn two things about her very quickly: one is that she’s violent and backwards and barely aware of, let alone concerned about the bigger picture, and two is that she’s quite intelligent.
(We also learn that she’s all kinds of gay, but that’s not relevant to this essay. It is relevant to my forthcoming essay: “Rationalist Fiction: Gay As All Hell?”)
So despite the fact that Alison went to a good school and has modern liberal parents who invested every economic and emotional resource they could into her whereas Feral grew up in the Third World of the United States, they develop a chemistry and a rapport. Alison is a nerd, as Feral repeatedly observes, whereas Feral spends her time in bars and has lots of sex, and yet Alison is ultimately quite comfortable in Feral’s company, and a big part of that is because Feral is smart enough for Alison to enjoy talking to her.
But Alison is taking on threats around the globe whereas Feral is taking on threats around her neighborhood. So they don’t see each other for a while. Feral, like most people, ends up conforming to the standards of her peer group, which unfortunately is quite low. Her local gang of powered buddies are drug users or violent criminals or just plain losers. Until finally, seeing that Alison has gone to college—basically a foreign country in and of itself to Feral’s catlike eyes—she decides to get out of the United States and see the world.
Feral’s journey consists of about five pages depending on when you want to start counting. Yet the experience it conveys rings incredibly true to me as someone who also traveled the world and found it mind-opening. Instead of deciding to sacrifice my own welfare to provide the world’s entire organ supply, I chose to write dumb reddit posts, but otherwise it was basically the same thing.
So much about Feral’s gradually evolving mindset is conveyed in such a tight space that it allows the reader to go along with her while being thoroughly entertained. One way you could state the basic concept of a Level 1 -> 2 -> 3 intelligent character is that they represent increasing levels to which you can follow along with the character’s thoughts without something going wrong.
A level 1 character is someone whose thoughts you can follow without breaks—someone whose thoughts are continuous (but not necessarily differentiable). They don’t just stop thinking or suddenly swerve in some unexplainable way to make the story work.
A level 2 character is someone whose thoughts you can follow along with and be genuinely impressed by their intelligence because their thoughts did something with the details of the story that your own thoughts didn’t but in retrospect probably should have.
A level 3 character is someone whose thoughts are so imbued with a helpful cognitive pattern, or whose thoughts evolve from something common but not helpful to something uncommon and remarkably more useful, that the simple act of reading their thoughts can reproduce said pattern or prompt said evolution in the mind of the reader.
Note that in this definition a level 3 intelligent character can be stupider than a level 2 character. Feral is not a genius; she’s smart enough to keep up with someone going to a decent private school and that’s all.
(Then there are level 4 intelligent characters. These are characters written so vividly, whose intelligence is represented so faithfully on the page that they actually are intelligent and can, with time and resources, escape the boundaries of their book bindings. There is only one rule for level 4 intelligent characters: NEVER WRITE LEVEL 4 INTELLIGENT CHARACTERS!)
I’ve never tested this—and am totally not a hypocrite—but I’d imagine that Feral’s story could genuinely help a lot of people experience the same kind of development that she did. It’s easy for me to imagine a young person reading this story and using Feral’s journey to take themselves out of their local concerns and into the realm of thinking about global issues and serious moral questions.
Within the comic itself, the test of Feral’s level 3ness (do NOT start going around evaluating characters by whether they are level 1, 2, or 3 intelligent, it is NOT THE POINT!) is that Alison can follow her thoughts and receive Feral’s cognitive patterns to such an extent that Alison can use them to learn about her own reasons for disagreeing with Feral.
(Feral can be wrong because her evolved cognitive pattern is a useful improvement over her previous one which saw her in a downward spiral, but hardly represents the best or only way to think. Saying that a character has level 3 intelligence is an empirical assertion, not a compliment.)
Alison talks it over with her telepathic buddy Patrick, whose mind-reading skills help him to articulate thoughts that she’s too emotionally overwhelmed by to discuss. To wit, Feral’s cognitive evolution constitutes going from animal-like selfishness with no greater understanding and no moral concerns beyond securing her local environment to global moral concern—or, as Patrick puts it, “trying to save the world.” And in perceiving that this is how Feral thinks, Alison, through Patrick, is able to recognize that her thinking has gone beyond saving the world to changing it.
In other words, Alison learns by exploring her model of Feral’s mind, which she’s able to do because there is a model of Feral’s mind which is strong enough to reproduce Feral’s mental patterns when tested against ideas that do not come from Feral’s mind.
Writing the alien
You have to comprehend Draco as a truly alien intelligence, sapient and capable of complex language use, yet so extremely different from life as you know it that he doesn’t even know what a gene is. You have to leave the comfortable confines of your own mind and enter a mind with different concepts and heuristics, a mind that is still a powerful intelligence even though it doesn’t agree with you about certain things.
(Read the comic up through chapter three before you let me spoil this one for you. It’s genuinely a great moment in comics, web-based or other.)
When Alison and Patrick get started on their road trip, Alison wants to put on some music because she is a human being. Patrick, a telepath who cannot turn off his telepathy, requests something without lyrics. He finds it disconcerting to hear a human voice without being able to hear the thoughts behind it. Similarly, he hates watching movies and TV because he can see people moving and talking but he cannot hear their thoughts.
After their emotionally draining conversation about Feral’s plan and some other horrific stuff, Alison decides they are going to watch some TV. Patrick protests that he hates watching people on a screen, so Alison has a bright idea and puts on Loony Tunes. Patrick, who had a bit of a rough childhood, has never seen a cartoon before. He studies the screen intently as the classic gag plays out in front of him: Bugs Bunny versus Daffy Duck as they debate who is to be blasted in the face by the hunter, Elmer Fudd. Daffy Duck insists it is rabbit season, Bugs Bunny declares it to be duck season instead. They go back and forth with the intensity of Federer and Nadal: Rabbit season! Duck season! Rabbit season! Duck season! Suddenly a switch: Bugs Bunny says rabbit season. Daffy Duck is so caught up in the pattern of contradicting Bugs that he declares it to be duck season. Moreover, he announces that he’s done with the argument, and so promptly gets shot in the face.
And Patrick bursts out laughing. He cracks up like a crazy person. It’s literally the funniest thing he’s ever seen. Because Patrick is a telepath, jokes cannot surprise him. He always sees the punchline coming. And watching live action movies or TV just feels wrong. But a cartoon? He’s not expecting to be able to read Bugs Bunny’s mind. And so the joke hits him with enough shock to reduce him to tears.
(Also, pay attention, fellas: It’s at the moment of him loving Loony Tunes with an undiminished boyish passion that Alison starts making eyes at Patrick. More webcomic-based dating tips to follow!)
I don’t really have a strong conclusion. This essay was originally going to be about all of the ideological conflict in SFP but just working on its presence in chapter 3 turned into this. And there’s something about writing 4000 words about this webcomic that constitutes a self-refuting act: how can Feral be a level 3 intelligent character when I read her story and then wrote this instead of, like, donating my kidney?
But the writer and artist probably didn’t donate their kidneys either. What a pair of jerks!
Alison lives in my head right now, and I’m going to make her pay rent, damn it: If I don’t get a hundred upvotes, I’m kicking her out on her broke ass.
So while the main point of this essay is that you should go read SFP, the other point is something I don’t really understand about the point of literature, which is to collect voices in your head. Because there are level 3 characters who will make you stronger, but there are also level negative 3 characters whose thought processes will reproduce themselves in your mind evilly, like a wasp laying its eggs inside you. These are thought processes which will make you angry and stupid and selfish and a victim of your own mind.
The purpose of reading—the whole dang point of it, I’m going to unjustifiably assert here—is to collect voices in your head for the sake of using them to augment your powers, pretty much exactly like equipping the right Charms in Hollow Knight for the next boss. Some Charms will give you the ability to fly and shoot laser beams and become invulnerable—metaphorically speaking—and others will drain your health and sap your will to fight.
I also realize that some people probably don’t have voices in their heads just like some people don’t have images in their heads, and the empirical implication of my above assertion is that these people don’t read, and that probably isn’t true, so I guess I’m wrong.
At the end of the chapter, Alison visits her old nemesis, Cleaver, a mass murderer, a bladed, mutated monstrosity and one of a very small number of people who’s even remotely a match for her physically, inside his specially designed prison. I’m gonna let Mega Girl close this one out.
And here’s the thing, Cleaver! I’m not really that different from you. I look like how I look and you look like how you look. The people that were supposed to take care of you didn’t. The people that were supposed to take care of me did. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were only a handful of moments, a handful of decisions that make up the difference between you and me.
Why are you telling me this?
Because I know what it’s like to feel alone. I know what it’s like to live in a paper world, to be good at hurting people, to think everybody should just shut up and do what you say. And then I remember that deep down, people are good, everybody’s trying and nobody deserves respect just for being powerful. So if I’ve got the voice in my head that tells me to crush people, then I think you probably have the voice that says the other thing too. If people keep calling us heroes and villains, they’ll never know how close we came to listening to the other voice all those times.
Mega Girl! If people were as good as you say they are, they’d know it’s your choice to help them. If your parents hadn’t raised you to be a good little girl, they’d be fucked. The only reason their world makes sense is because you keep it that way. Do you really think they deserve all of this?
No. They deserve better.