Living with Uncertainty

Last week I had a conversation with one of my favorite scientists. I had just visited the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington and was struck by the changes in what we know about dinosaurs. When I was a child it was all about giant lizards. Yes, we knew more than the Victoria dinosaur hunters (I adore stories about them) but our general understanding was still it its infancy.        


         Some time in the 1980’s the avian connection to some dinosaur species gained traction and now it is an accepted part of science. I brought this up to my scientist friend and his response was marvelous, “To be a scientist is to live with a level of uncertainty.” He went on to say that he shocked his students by telling them that as much as two thirds of their content in their textbook will turn out to be wrong. Treasured theories can be, and often are, disproven.


         If you want certainty, you should try religion — and particular brands of fiction. In some genres, like ‘cozy’ mysteries, the motivations for all actions — even murder— are clear and justice prevails in the end. Miss Marple, and her compatriots, tie up all the loose ends before THE END of the story. The roles are also as clear as the good sheriff and the bad stranger in a Western or the noble astronaut versus the scary aliens in classic science fiction. It’s very satisfying. The end of the story provides the kind of certainty that is a rarity in real life.


         But uncertainty is also very attractive. The rise of the anti-hero, the murky end of a noir story, the morally ambiguous choices and unintended consequences that follow these choices are at the heart of much of contemporary fiction.


         Uncertainty is not comforting or cozy, but it’s a great landscape for any kind of fiction. It may be tough on budding scientists, but good writers thrive on it.



    • Candy Korman

      LOL… I usually know the end, but I get surprised by my characters on the way there.

      Right now I’m working on a novel. I wrote this story a number of years ago, but it didn’t work. So I’ve created entirely new versions of the personalities and placed them in the same general storyline. I had NO idea how much these new characters would add and how far they would take me from the original version. Every time I turn around they raise the stakes. Knowing that they are inside my head is something. Does it mean I’m a little crazy? Or just in touch with the uncertainty of the storyteller?

      I hope it’s the latter.

  1. Walter White from Breaking Bad is the anti hero that readily comes to mind. I think today’s reader and viewers are drawn to morally ambiguous characters because they contain more of an edge and allow greater character development. Even when I hated what Walter was doing, I still liked Walter as a person and rooted for him. That’s great storytelling. On the other hand, I can’t get into House of Cards because he has no redeeming qualities at all, plus the show is about politics 🙁 My own writing can be too ambiguous at times, but I’m working through that, but I’d rather create a character with the good and the bad wrapped up within them, than a character that isn’t dynamic.

    • Candy Korman

      I think the fundamental difference between Breaking Bad and House of Cards is the the protagonist of the latter is a sociopath. A classic anti-hero is someone who has a moral compass that has become twisted. A sociopath has none. I think the tension — and the fun — of Dexter was his embryonic conscience. The more he discovered connections to other people the more intense his confusion grew. Being close to “human” is harder than being a complete MONSTER!

      We are living in an era of anti-heroes and unhappy endings I think many people enjoy classic mysteries because justice prevails. I know I enjoy them, but I also enjoy the more “modern” mysteries.