Monte Carlo Process, by Eric M. Witchey
This week, I’m teaching fiction writing classes, so I’m thinking teacher thoughts. I’m also thinking about the Manhattan Project.
Yes, these things are connected.
During the Manhattan Project, according to Sam Kean’s The Missing Spoon, a wonderful book about the development of the periodic table, row upon row of women called “computers” were given pieces of large equations to solve. The experiments to which the equations belonged were theoretical constructs created by physicists. The fragments were functions as variables to larger, more complex calculations. In order to solve for a large number of possibilities, one variable would be changed in order to derive an outcome. This way, without modern computing, a thousand almost identical calculations could be tested for outcomes. Of course, the outcome they were looking for was a boom. Most results were useless, but the results that contributed to a boom were cataloged.
And what does this have to do with writing?
Any writer who has been at it long enough to become bored with what they do on any given day will, eventually, find themselves engaged in their own Monte Carlo process. The Monte Carlo process is different from mere trial and error. It is a test of a known construct with one minor modification.
In writing, on the simplest level, it is changing a character’s hair color. Suppose a young black woman, lean and willowy, grew up in a small steel mill town in Ohio during the rust bust of the 80s. She was part of a second generation Kentucky Coal family who had moved to the steel economy to support the war effort in the 40s. Her grandmother was a wilder, a sort of hedge witch, and her grandfather was a fallen, but not really a bad, angel. Of course, nobody in her family believed he was anything but a travelling salesman. Let’s call our young lady Sirona just for fun because that’ll get you some teasing in public schools (FYI: Sirona is a Celtic goddess of healing).
Obviously, we can go on and on about the life of our young lady. However, this is enough to illustrate the Monte Carlo process.
We take all the characteristics we have come up with for this young woman, and we write a few scenes from her developmental life. In each scene, we are testing her characteristics to see how they influence her behavior and the behavior of others. We might write her fist day at grade school. We might write her first kiss. We might write her earliest memory of the kitchen in the home in which she grew up. We might write a scene in which she is defending a bullied child, a cat, a dog, or even a tree. We might write a scene in which she is trying desperately to get out of the house for reasons we don’t yet know. We might even write a scene in which young Sirona heals someone or something. If I were doing it, I’d likely also play with scenes in which she encounters her long missing grandfather or has to deal with her thoroughly insane grandmother. I do like to play with insane people who turn out to be the only people who really understand the world.
So, all of these scene tests are about discovering who our young woman will be on the page. None of them are scenes we plan to keep. None of them are scene we expect to be in the story in which she will be playing a role. They are just little writer games that we engage in to keep our own ennui at bay.
The above is all normal, but now we add the Monte Carlo process. Having actually done the above and not just wondered about convincing ourselves that we thought about it and therefore understand it, we change one thing about our young woman.
Just for fun, let’s make her hair a brilliant, fluorescent, natural, pale purple—not dyed. Actually, red will do, but I figured I’d get a little more extreme because of the witch and angel connection I discovered while writing the last couple paragraphs.
Now, we rewrite the same scenes. If, as is the idea, we allow the change to have an influence over the dynamics of the characters in the scenes, we will get a different set of behaviors from both the secondary players and Sirona. By doing this little trick, we come to understand both who she was before we changed her hair and who she might be once we have changed her hair. By changing only one variable at a time, we develop a sense of how she can become a more, or less, extreme influence on any story into which we might place her.
And, as with the Manhattan Project, the ultimate goal is a boom.
Every time a characteristic gives a more dynamic result on the page, we keep it.
While this process is a tool that does help in the development of character, it’s most likely that a working writer will not have time, or the inclination to spend the time, unless they are engaged in the writer’s equivalent of doodling. However, many of us do doodle in words. Additionally, many of us find ourselves teaching characterization, and one of the difficult things to get students to internalize is the fact that every aspect of character influences their relationship to the world around them. Something as simple as hair color changes the experience of the character in their world. One variable changed can mean the difference between meh and boom.
During one seminar I did for a bunch of truly creative middle school students, the kids had come up with a young woman troubled by family dynamics. Meh.
She was rebelling. Double meh.
She wanted a tattoo. Yeah, whatever.
She was expected to go into the family business. Yawn.
The business was a mortuary. What?
And all she really wanted in the world was to become a chocolatier.
At night, she snuck out of her room in the funeral home in order to go to an abandon grade school where she had set up a little kitchen. There, she secretly made chocolate animals…
I love working with kids. They have no sense of how things “should be.”
So, back to the Monte Carlo process. Imagine you are teaching 15 creative people characterization and story development. As a group you come up with a set of character attributes that cover a range of physical, psychological, and social values. Each person has the same set of values, and each person is given the same set of circumstances in which they must place their character. In fact, you can give them a very constrained set of scene goals and outcomes. However, they must interpret setting through character, and they must come up with the conflicts and emotional changes in the scenes. Then, you change one variable for each and every writer.
The outcomes of the scenes might be the same, but if the writer has grasped the rippling nature of the change to one variable, the path to that outcome is very likely to be different in each and every scene. If it is not different from the paths the other writers took in their scenes, then the variable was not understood as an influence on who the character is and how they relate to the world.
Fifteen writers writing the same scene while only one variable has changed can provide the group with a huge leap in insight into how details really are critical to understanding character and how they behave on the page.