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Storytelling – as Old as Humanity

Posted in Characters, Heroes, and Villains

Given language, what do you use it for? Teaching moral tales…

I've often contended that storytelling is as old as humanity, and as fundamental a tool as opposable thumbs. Not only do we tell each other useful things about physical reality as we understand it, and make plans for actions, but we also talk about social reality — how humans behave, and why, and what the best strategies are for getting along with other humans. This is how we learn proper behavior. We use stories to illustrate these strategies, to explore what can happen or has happened in the past, and why.

It's no surprise that many of our stories are moral tales. How could it be otherwise, when we need to understand other people, and seek a model for our own choices?

There is often a “modern” complaint about black-and-white characters, that people are really more complicated than that. And modern literature is often fascinated by more “realistic” characters who act in, shall we say, morally complicated ways.

But the older stories: the religious tales, the ancient epics, the traditional ballads, the fairytales — all of these tell their tales using more archetypal characters — the young, the good, the well-meaning, the helper, the evil, the ill-wishing, and so forth. It's not so much that these are unrealistic characters. It's more that they are stripped down to their essentials of character and motivation, always recognizable.

Periodically, the evolutionary psych crowd rediscovers the persistence of this way of telling stories.

In the mid-2000s I set out … on a large-scale study of classic Victorian novels by such authors as Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens, among many others. We distributed a survey to hundreds of knowledgeable people—professors, graduate students taking courses on Victorian literature, and authors who had published articles or books in the field. The respondents rated the attributes of characters in the novels exactly as if these fictional people were actual people.

We wrote up the results in our book, Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning. The main finding had to do with something we called agonistic structure, which we took to be a fundamental structural element of storytelling in much the same way that roofs are fundamental to houses. For all the variety in these novels, for all the differences in personality and gender and background of authors stretching over a century, they made strikingly similar choices regarding characterization. As a whole, Victorian novels reflect a sharply polarized fictional universe of good people (the protagonists and their allies) and bad people (the antagonists and their allies) locked in conflict. Overwhelmingly, protagonists looked to cooperate and work toward the common good while antagonists sought to dominate for selfish ends.

They offer some good advice to genre authors like myself, on the typical characteristics of protagonists and antagonists.

Creative writing teachers sometimes call the main protagonist of a story “the transformational character.” Main antagonists usually don’t evolve. Main protagonists do. In most cases, the transformation is moral. Protagonists go from being takers to givers. From blindness to sight. From confusion to understanding.

In most tales, the protagonists struggle hard and eventually win out. But the larger war between the human animal’s best and worst angels is ultimately unwinnable. And so the archetypal heroes and villains must be resurrected again and again to do battle until the end of time.

Alas, the original article cited here goes on to raise rather modern dismay over moralism, first by dwelling on its inescapable evolutionary basis:

In Graphing Jane Austen, we argued that storytelling—like other forms of human art-making—has deep roots in the well-being of tribes as well as individuals. Story is one key solution to the problem of maintaining cooperation and cohesion within human communities. The moralism we see in our tales doesn’t just reflect our evolved morality—it strongly reinforces it.

My colleagues and I aren’t alone in these views. In his book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, the primatologist Robin Dunbar argues that human language first evolved for the purpose of telling stories—namely, gossip tales about who was playing by tribal rules and who wasn’t. Dunbar and other scientists stress that gossip, although it has a bad reputation, helps a community function by policing moral infractions. If Dunbar is right, this goes a long way toward explaining humanity’s ongoing and probably incurable addiction to moralistic stories that are so like the gossip tales we’ve been sharing since our species first learned to talk.

And then dwelling on the potential downside of its universality (as if it were possible to change):

To sum up, I’m saying that stories are generally less moral—in the sense of capturing universal principles—than they are moralistic. In the same way that it’s hard to write a compelling story that lacks a thorny problem, it’s very hard for tellers to escape the deep moral gravity of stories. Problem structure and moralistic structure are the twin stars that tale-tellers helplessly orbit around. It’s possible, with exertion, to bust free of this orbit, and some tellers have tried. But they’ve mostly found that few people want to follow them as they break out of the comforting groove of the universal grammar and float off into the cold, black void.

The deeply moralistic, judgy character of stories is embedded in the very word story, which is derived from the ancient Greek historía. This is obviously where we get our word history, but it’s also where we get our word story. The oldest meaning of the root word hístōr, going back to how it’s used in Homeric-era Greek, indicates a referee, wise man, or judge. This suggests that stories, including historical stories, aren’t just neutral accounts of events but renderings of judgment upon them.

The judgy connotations of the word story have died away along with knowledge of ancient Greek. But the judginess of our stories is nonetheless as pronounced as ever. A story, as the media psychologist Dolf Zillmann puts it, turns its consumer into a “moral monitor who applauds or condemns the intentions and actions of the characters.” And we play our monitoring role with gusto. We love the sensation of righteous indignation and the satisfying payoff of justice delivered. As the literary scholar Northrop Frye points out in The Anatomy of Criticism, “In the melodrama of the brutal thriller we come as close as it’s normally possible for art to come to the pure self-righteousness of the lynching mob.” And studies back this up: people get more satisfaction out of stories in which offenders are punished rather than forgiven.

And then, we get this gem, encouraging us to find a way to avoid the universal desire to story our way through life, as if a desire to reduce disapproving emotions is more important than disapproving bad actors, as if it were worse to be “judgy” than to be moral. What could be a more immoral guidance?

The unstoppable moralism of stories has a big upside for within-group bonding. But the universal grammar of stories can also be paranoid and vindictive. Stories show us problem-drenched worlds and encourage us to turn on the people who are lousing things up. In other words, to proliferate narratives is to proliferate villains. To proliferate villains is also to proliferate rage, judgment, and division.

No wonder that the desire of mobs to erase history is so attractive — they think that they can destroy stories in which they would figure prominently as antagonists, as if this would make them immune to judgment, as if this could make them moral. Letting evil flourish only makes it worse — every child knows that. We've known it for thousands of years.

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One Comment

  1. You are so right about stories and morality – information we need to avoid the Siberian tigers in our lives.

    My mother is responsible for me being a storyteller – everything was a story with her, and I always wanted to hear more.

    And many of her stories were triggered by the need for something moral: she wouldn’t necessarily tell us things directly, but she had such an array of knowledge about humanity that she always knew one which was 1) à propos, and 2) had the result she was trying to inculcate.

    And she wasn’t judgmental about people, but you got a sense that she thought they made a bad decision – which was the point of her telling you that particular story.

    She had five daughters. I don’t remember her telling me such aphorisms as ‘boys only want one thing,’ but she had juicy stories of the consequences – and it was people we knew. I miss her, and never had the sense to write most of those stories down, but I can feel her memory when something triggers one.

    December 3, 2021

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