Monday Writing Motivation: The writer and the problem of free will

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

We went to the opera last week – one of those productions live-streamed from the stage of the Met Opera in Kennedy Centre, New York. It was one I wasn’t familiar with: Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, more or less translated as “the power or force of destiny”.

I’m no philosopher, so I’m afraid I can’t offer you comprehensive arguments for and against the notion of free will – although I know they exist. I also know that some eminent public intellectuals have denied the existence of free will, including someone for whom I have the greatest respect: Robert Sapolsky. He is, as the New Scientist recently proclaimed, “one of the most revered scientists alive today.” He made his name devoting literally decades studying the complex social lives of wild baboons in Kenya, what causes stress among them, and how this affects their health.

But more recently he has turned his attention to free will and in a book published last year*, argues that “We are nothing more or less than the sum of that which we could not control – our biology, our environments, their interactions”. In short, free will, in Sapolsky’s universe, doesn’t exist in any shape or form.

Well, this is interesting to writers because we are all, in the end, moralists. We write our fictions and our memoirs on the firm predicate that our characters (real or imagined) are free to choose, and that their choices reveal what sort of people they are.

But if we are simply “the sum of what we cannot control”, then are we not automatons, our decisions preordained by our biology and our experience?

In La Forza, the central character accidentally kills the father of his beloved, a woman he was about to elope with in the face of her father’s intransigent opposition. The death of the father sets in motion a train of events from which our protagonist seems incapable of escaping.

In writing fiction, we are often enjoined to have our characters act “in character” – in other words to remain within the boundaries set by their DNA, their upbringing, the values transmitted to them by their social environment and so on.

But frequently, it’s only when that character breaks through those boundaries that the story really takes wings. It’s then that we say, “Now we’re really learning who this character is!”

Kurt Vonnegut famously said – and we at All About Writing frequently repeat – “Put your character through hell” if you want to know what they’re truly made of. If Sapolsky is to be believed, though, your character is who he always was – the product of a subtle amalgam of genetic inheritance and environmental pressures.

This suggests that story is simply a means of revealing who a character is, was and forever will be. The dynamism of story that we sometimes think is the objective of our writing, in which character interacts with unfolding events, in which the character grows – is just a fanciful desire of writers who like to believe in freedom.

What is the answer – and does the answer impact on our work or our ideas?

I’m not sure, ultimately, that it matters. Characters – like human beings – after all behave as if they are free to choose. We behave as if we are autonomous agents managing our responses to the world. Even if we are, like Sapolsky (and a host of philosophers like Kant and Leibniz), determinists, we act as if our choices matter.

So, having lobbed a little hand grenade at our most cherished notions of individual freedom, I hereby step back from the front line and declare that it doesn’t matter, really, who triumphs.

What do you think? Please let me know by commenting below or sending me an email.

Happy writing,


*  Life without Free Will by Robert M Sapolsky

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