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Category: Characters

Stories that never grow old

Posted in Heroes, Plot, and Villains

Never be afraid to revive the old tales (poor monstrous Polyphemus, about to be blinded by Odysseus after a hard day's work shepherding). They've survived this long for a reason.

How do we change from feral infants to moral men? By learning the stories of our culture, and we've had stories for as long as we've had language.

We tell each other stories of how cleverness can beat strength, of how strength can defeat evil, of how evil can seduce weakness, of how weakness can learn cleverness.

We learn the many ways that we can make wrong choices, at the peril of our lives or our souls, and how we can rescue ourselves and others from those choices. Or fail.

Humor, stoicism, endurance, discipline, sacrifice, kindness, temptation — stories give us a handle on all these things.

The foundational religious texts are just, after all, more stories teaching the same things. The existence of the actual deities are the excuse for the stories, but the stories themselves are what strike to the core of how to communicate the morality of the lessons.

Morality is essential to humans — we can't escape it. If we don't imprint on a worthwhile cultural template, then we'll imprint on a bad one. In terms of education, “reading, writing, and, ‘rithmetic” are secondary to language and morality. If we don't learn moral codes of behavior, moral ways of life, well… the rest matters very little.

And we learn how to behave by the stories we hear. Religious or philosphical or ethical justification for those behaviors comes later.

So tell good stories — stories we can learn from. Stories we need to hear.

How espousing a cause can cripple a novel

Posted in Characters, Science Fiction, and Setting

Ann Leckie's award-winning trilogy (2014-2015) (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy) are well-written and interesting classic Science Fiction.

With one caveat — she is so concerned about making a modern cultural point (“what if there were no real differences between men and women”) that she undermines one of the tropes of her world.

While I don't agree with her premise (“what if there were no differences…”), I don't object to her use of it — these sorts of “what-ifs” have always been part of SFF. But let's look at how she instantiates it.

To begin with, the primary language uses only an ungendered pronoun, so everyone is referred to as “her”. This may seem, um, “brave and stunning”, but actually English is already headed there with the use of “they” as a genderless singular (e.g., “If anyone comes early, give them a drink.”) So, while the gimmick is a bit irritating, it doesn't really matter.

Here's what matters…

The pagan point of view in Icelandic saga

Posted in Characters

I've just come across Roy Jacobsen's excellent essay on the Icelandic Sagas as the “Backbone of Nordic Literature”, and I wanted to comment on it here.

If you're not familiar with the genre, let me offer a quick and somewhat simplified overview…

Oscar Wergeland

Iceland was settled by Norwegians in the second half of the 9th century during a period of strife concerning the various Norwegian kings and their ambitions. The descendants of the settlers themselves claimed that this was the primary cause, but later historians point to shortages of arable land, etc.

Johan Peter Raadsig

The founding population seems to have been mixed (Scandinavian, Scottish, Irish) based on genetic evidence, but culturally the Icelanders thought of themselves primarily as Norwegian settlers, and the language they used for their writing was Old Norse, once they started writing things down.

And they had a lot to write about. They were intensely interested in history, especially family stories and genealogy, and they kept records of their own settlement's important events. (This is, in fact, where the settlement of Greenland and the brief settlement in Vinland (Newfoundland) circa 1000 AD are recorded.)

(incidentally, they were also interested in self-government and decided many issues at the Althing, the world's oldest surviving parliamentary organization. This was where outlaws were decreed, punishments determined, and — most notably — the decision was made for the entire population to convert to Christianity in 1000 AD, from the “Red Thor” to the “White Christ”, as a way of settling various religious disputes — apparently the possibility of the Christian heaven after the forgiveness of sin appealed more than the impossibility of Valhalla for non-heroes.)

The Icelandic family sagas are now available in several modern languages and you can even pick them up most of them in one volume online.

The most startling thing for first-time readers of this medieval corpus is that many of these sagas are famous as world literature, and they read as surprisingly modern novels in most ways.

All of the above is just some context, in case you are not already familiar with the genre.

Roy Jacobsen starts his essay by summarizing one story (þáttr) about the complicated adventures of Audun.

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.

Humans are story-telling animals

Posted in Characters

The popularity of Jordan Peterson for his intended audience is an interesting phenomenon.

I was provoked today by yet another sneering article, this one from Stuart Schneiderman, about Peterson's use of Jungian archetypes. Schneiderman, who is rarely above a middle-brow level of blogger, enjoys opportunities to look down on popular culture from higher-status heights. His article is an example of a typical elite slur:

  • Take a concept
  • Point out that the person using it is not perfect
  • Claim that the concept is being applied well beyond its sanctioned mandate
  • Take the “all the best minds disagree” approach to wipe it away.
  • Claim superiority to all the players

Peterson has written books (both academic and popular), speaks publicly, and has upset the wokerei with his objection to modifying pronouns or pronouncements for their comfort, but his main popularity is based on a series of lectures he gives to his university students. I recommend that you look at a few of them to understand what he tells them. His primary audience is young men who don't understand why their lives are a mess, and he gives them both insight and advice for how to change that.

The “Jordan Peterson is a horrible person and, besides, his followers are all rubes” claim that Schneiderman and other elites promulgate is a distasteful manifestation of our time, where people who claim to be intellectuals or thought leaders are far more interested in status among themselves. Socially, the claim is that the audience is dumb enough to be fooled by unsanctioned teachers [and we're not that dumb], and intellectually, the claim is that the particular teaching includes a model that is not rational or moral (or woke), namely Jungian archetypes and traditional modes of behavior [and we can't talk about or believe such things].

Objections to a point of view on these grounds is both very bizarre and alas all too typical these days.

Humans are story-telling animals. All of our perceptions are based upon narratives that are shortcuts to understanding reality, in order to better survive it. We tell ourselves stories all the time, and stories are enactments of characters. Jung's insight was to explain these characters as universal human archetypes.

How could it be otherwise? We are the descendants of people who, when they saw something move in the bush ahead of them, ran away because they feared the possible tiger, not the people who paused to construct a rational analysis of the scene (and were sometimes mistaken). Speed and pre-judgments matter to us. Rational analysis is an afterthought for when we are safe, not when we are in danger.

Our first reaction to any sort of social scene is to immediately assign acquaintances to internal representations of what we know about them, and strangers to various archetypes as placeholders. It is those stand-ins for real people that we are constantly manipulating in our heads as we navigate social situations.

The point of Jungian archetypes is not that they are immutable moral principles subject to rational analysis and debate, but that they are common, perhaps universal, shortcuts to the sorts of narratives embedded in our toolset. Objecting to the concept or particular flavor of archetypes from a rational perspective is like objecting to the fragility of our foot and ankle bones from the perspective of an engineer working from newly designed structures, rather than from the perspective of a “good enough design evolved from pre-existing materials”.

Jung's usage of an insight he devoted himself to is no doubt fraught with human behavior perils on an ad hominem basis, but the insight itself is a fruitful way of looking at the way humans think using their evolutionarily-descended toolkit. After all, we can perhaps improve on morality and rationality through intent, but we can only bring to it the tools we already have. It's a good thing for Peterson to bring those tools to light so that his students can better understand why they have the psychological filters/failings they have, and to suggest functional ways of dealing with them.

Jordan Peterson himself is a man like any other and has a man's personal failings, but ad hominem arguments about him are no more relevant than they are about Carl Jung. Certainly Peterson is incontrovertibly effective for his intended audience. Like many applied remedies, it might be more fruitful to analyze why he is effective, than to deny that he could be, in principle.

If Schneiderman and others think humans can embrace rationality and ignore the older and more fundamental toolset, then they probably believe that humans can change their behavior at will. We can all be thin, and fit, and attentive, etc., just by knowing what the rational behaviors should be (for historically contingent values of “should”). Since that demonstrably doesn't work any better for adults than children, what makes them think this is how humans can actually function?

Footnote: It's not just humans who are story-telling animals. We may model “what-if” plotlines internally all the time, but it's easy to see the same thing happening with other animals such as our pets as they scheme to steal food from each other or evaluate what might happen if they misbehave. The better an animal can evaluate situations before acting, the more likely it will survive to breed.

Revising your plot

Posted in Characters, Just for Writers, and Plot

Whether you write to an outline, or churn it out by the seat of your pants, all of us are likely to come to a moment in the creation of a story where we are struck by a realization: if character X only did this instead of that, it would be so much better for the story.

How much trouble this causes you chiefly depends on how far along you are in the story at that point. It may cause you to revise your possibly painfully detailed outline, or it may force you to reconsider exactly where the story should be headed, if you're not confined to an outline, thus revising some of the highlights to come.

As a pantser instead of a plotter, I find this mostly happens to me when I brainstorm “what next?” for the moving boundary of the current words, but it can strike for older character actions, too, further back in the body of work.

I don't know about you, but my typical reaction when this happens is first elation (whoopee — an improvement!) followed by depression (look at all the changes I'm going to have to make to what's already been done and what is to come). Generally the former outweighs the latter, but I do have to get past the moment of deep despair at the work involved.

It could be worse. We could be George R. R. Martin.

The villains of Atlas Shrugged

Posted in Characters, and Villains

Image of cover for Atlas ShruggedIt's not the heroes of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (1957), nor its peculiar human simulacra, nor its polemical message that make it such an influential book, still a perennial best seller after 60 years (800,000 copies/year). According to a Library of Congress poll, Atlas Shrugged is the second most influential book after the Bible, at least in America.

It's the villains.

Like many others, I came across the book at the perfect age and in perfect circumstances — I was 13, working summers in my father's company, just like Dagny Taggart. I had no notion of political flavors, had never heard the term “libertarian” (much less “objectivism”), and was as stunned by the length of John Galt's speech as anyone would be, but I still found the book absolutely fascinating.

At the same time I was well down the road of total immersion into what science-fiction and fantasy was available in the mid-1960s. I read it all, and when I say that, I really mean that I bought everything in the genres that was available in paperback. Everything. Thus began a habit that has run to hundreds of books per year for five decades (somewhat fewer during the dark days of New Age…).

I recently participated in a Facebook discussion where people were asked to name the most influential SFF book they read, and I suggested Atlas Shrugged. It's nominally set in the future (from 1957) even though it's not a standard genre specimen. While some agreed, others spouted the usual objections: paper characters, flawed plot, debatable ethics, and so forth.

I've never understood the visceral hatred for the book from some people. Sure, it has plenty of flaws, and it's message fiction which is generally objectionable. But no one has ever suggested it was a perfect book — why does it bear some special burden for perfection as compared to, say, Frank Herbert's Dune, or Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan?

What the detractors don't care for, I've come to believe, is Rand's depiction of the villains, the various wreckers of civilization. They are many and various, and they range from journalists, scientists, industrialists, bureaucrats, and politicians to ordinary people — wives, parents, strangers.

We see these same villains every day in the news. They couldn't be more familiar to us, now.

Image of White Suit manga villainsThat must be unbearable to some people. Some scene will feature one or more of the these villains mouthing the same pious elite words that seek approval today, and Rand makes it perfectly obvious just how little good faith is involved and how clearly and comprehensively these policies lead to disaster. As a bonus, she illustrates the resentment that is the underlying motive for many of them.

Other SFF authors (Mil SciFi comes to mind) have dwelt upon a limited subset of these people, in the context of a (military) bureaucracy gone mad, but no one has been so thorough and wide-ranging and… accurate as Rand.

I reread the book every few years, and the villains become ever more non-fictional. The heroes may not be 100% convincing, but the villains certainly are. I'd be delighted if I could make my own villains half as compelling.