Clues vs Letters, On Minds and Characters

I used to think I was interested in everything, and I am, but thankfully things have coalesced over thirty seven years into some clear patterns. It is amazingly nice to identify things which are up one’s alley, amazingly disorienting when you cannot identify such things. The latter situation may sound strange to the point of ludicrous, but not if you’ve spent any time studying the brain of the depressive or otherwise mentally ill, and that area of knowledge is one in which I am furiously pursuant. Partly because it interests me to understand the mind of humans (and others species), partly because of how it intersects with epistemology and memetics, two of my other interests, but primarily out of a survival instinct. My own brain has inborn defects, and only by understanding them can I transcend them.

Another of my passions are games and puzzles, as witnessed by this blog, and no puzzle more so than the crossword. Usually the two things – mental health and crosswords – don’t intersect, but lately that hasn’t been the case. For one, I’m currently talking to someone about designing some games to help with men’s mental health initiatives, and two, I today stumbled onto the work of Susan Haack. The information was found in David Astle’s Cluetopia. Astle is the Australian Araucaria, which won’t make any sense unless you’re a crossword nerd; he is the Australian crossword guru, suffice to say, and Cluetopia is his lovely 100-chapter anecdotal chronology of the crossword, which turned 100 in 2013.

Each chapter is devoted to a year and to a landmark in crossword setting, including many of its encounters with other fields. 1995’s entry is devoted to Susan Haack, an epistemologist who found the crossword to be her perfect metaphor, like Plato’s Cave or Sisyphus’s Stone. Epistemologists and psychologists alike know that our human understanding and mindset is not just based on experiences but on how those things are interpreted. Haack’s metaphor of choice puts the clues in a crossword as our experiences, and the half-filled-in-grid as our beliefs and reasonings.

The clues are, in their nature, unlinked to each other. 1 across owes nothing to 2 down. But in our head, the answer of the clue, or the meaning of the event we experience, is extremely limited by everything that intersects with it. What’s particularly good about this metaphor is that in crosswords, we almost always defer to the grid, not the clue.  Indeed, sometimes we don’t even need the clue, and we work backwards. If the letters fill in E F T we learn that is a kind of newt. So too in life when we can’t comprehend something we ask for fill-in letters. And we guess what could go in them, and the clue be damned. Just yesterday the last clue in the Times spelled out S_I_N_E and I knew black-and-blue it had to be SCIENCE, because nothing else could possibly fit there. It fit nothing in the clue, but I decided this was just me not understanding the clue’s cleverness – it had to end up meaning SCIENCE, somehow. Of course, SOIGNEE (well-dressed) fits the gaps just as well, and was the right answer, and builds perfectly from the clue, but it’s not in my vocabulary.

And our brains are so like this. They only know certain words, and they only know certain patterns and ultimately we use brute force and guessing to fill in the gaps. This is why we have dream-logic, where we don’t need to know how we got there. It’s why magic tricks work. It’s why murder mysteries can be such fun. It’s also how mental illness and mental unfitness work. When your mind’s grid and vocabulary of choice is full of STEVE IS CRAP and STEVE SUCKS and STEVE WILL FAIL only certain kinds of words can fit in any more. And whatever the clue, you try to work it to fit the grid. Throw away parts of the clue, try and twist the meaning, because it has to be made to fit. Even those not mentally ill know this trick. Start having a bad day and the grid lines up with WHAT A BAD DAY I’M HAVING. And then you step in a mud puddle and it fits right into that pattern, instead of into HA MUD PUDDLES ARE FUN IN A WAY or WELL THESE THINGS HAPPEN or AT LEAST THEY WERENT MY GOOD SHOES. Strong mental health involves attacking like at the clue level (reducing stressors) and at the grid level (breaking down cognitive processes and reversing them) and at the vocabulary level (learning new words to go into the grid by building up loving relationships and memories).

As metaphors go, it is perfect – assuming you know your crosswords, that is. If you don’t, it may be lost on you, but that’s okay because epistemology and psychology alike have all sorts of metaphors describing the same thing. And as I’ve mentioned before, understanding mental health is a great way to help improve your roleplaying – to bring this back to the theoretical subject of this blog.

Characters are, like us, ruled by words in their heads. They have their grids shaped by their experiences and their background and their beliefs. One challenge with RPGs is to do a pencil sketch in session one that gives you something to hang onto, which allows you to react to whatever the game throws at you – and in RPGs, that can be anything. By thinking of things in the clue and grid metaphor, you can see how a few simple grid-structures can be applied to any situation. I like to come up with a few phrases that create my interior monologue, or a few images, or something I’m stealing or being inspired by. Usually two, three at most because humans are simple to begin with and characters even more so. And then everything can be filtered through those things. No matter what the clue, brute force takes over. And that isn’t just realistic, it’s narratively satisfying – and easy to play. We like characters who quickly feel familiar, whom we can predict – and we love it when, for very, very special reasons – they break that mould and surprise us. But that only works once they’ve established the pattern.

Pick a few words, set up your grid, and you can handle any clue and produce a rich, believable and surprisingly still deep character. And you’ll also learn more about how your own brains work.

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