Tag Archives: cynical

I Need A Hero: The Evolution of the Protagonist

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Brace yourselves, people. I’m going to try and get both philosophical and political.

Literary Development

220px-Heroesjourney.svgThe development of the lead figure that we recognise today as the ‘hero’ is quite well documented, at least in technical terms. Popular opinion puts it in Greece, when the conceits of tragic theatre moved from a declaimer plus chorus to the arrival of an actual character being portrayed on stage by an actor (traditionally said to be Thespis). Things developed from there, with Aeschylus including a second and then a third speaking character in the play, and lo – the idea of a protagonist was born.

Well, not quite. Yes, the word ‘protagonist’ is a Greek one and literally means ‘one who plays the first part’. But it didn’t start in the 6th Century BC. Way before then, people were writing tales with leading heroes in them – the eponymous figure in the Persian Epic of Gilgames, Rama in the Indian Ramayana, and all the wealth of Egyptian and Chinese mythology, to name just a few.

The idea of a hero – a central figure in the story – has been around for a very, very long time. In all that time, down the ages and in different cultures, how has he changed? Different times and people need different things from their heroes, and uphold very different values. By our modern lights, Gilgames was obnoxiously arrogant, Achilles was a brutal spoiled brat, Romeo was (let’s be honest) a bit of a moron, and Biggles was racist. Our ideas of what constitutes a hero have had to evolve with social development.

Political & Social Influence

That’s the reactive approach. What about the proactive, when the role of the protagonist has been deliberately altered to make a statement? Before the New Testament, the idea of the messiah included fiery invective and warrior-like leadership. Not something the Romans would have tolerated in the 1st Century AD – it would probably have led to genocide. Instead the population is presented with a very different kind of hero, one suited to the times. I’m not going to go into whether Jesus was a literary, historical or divine figure. The point is that the deliberate inversion of the expected role of the hero informed the behaviour of the populace, and thus shaped history.

The hero they need or the hero they deserve? Batman knew the difference.

The hero they need or the hero they deserve? Batman knew the difference.

Sometimes the protagonist represents the vox populi; sometimes it influences it. In the latter case, it’s almost always political. The smart politicians use them as a way in with the voters; the really smart ones use them to change society. This isn’t new. It isn’t even new to this side of the year 0 A.D. Achilles was used to make a point about acceptable behaviour in modern Greek society (the point basically boils down to ‘we’re not demi-gods any more, don’t be dicks’). Greek plays were used either by politicians to sway popular opinion, or against them to unseat them from power.

The protagonist is a powerful weapon. They are the figures we identify with, believe in and want to emulate. That brings me back to how they have naturally evolved, as what we believe in and identify with has changed. A hero in the Classical sword-fighting, city-state against city-state world is necessarily different to a hero in WW2, and both are different to modern-day heroism. Courage and patriotism are no longer the highest qualities it’s possible to possess – you need to include some multicultural sensitivity in there.

The Heroic Monomyth

In the 1920s and onwards, Carl Jung began building his concept of Jungian archetypes. This bought into the idea that heroes are instantly identifiable figures to the human psyche, but separated out different types. The differences were necessary to speak to subsections of the audience – different cultures, classes and so on. Different protagonists are needed for different stories. This separation seems pretty obvious to us now. So obvious, in fact, that we miss a fundamental underlying point.

The monomyth is a theory put forward by Joseph Campbell in 1949 (although he nicked the term from James Joyce). It postulates that the figure of the hero is so fundamental to human storytelling that it exists in a recognisably similar shape throughout multiple cultures, despite those cultures and the beliefs within them being vastly different.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of wonder: forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.   ~ Joseph Cambell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces

The details change – they have to, in order for the audience to fully engage with the protagonist – but the central heroic figure always fulfils the same basic function. Why is that? What is it about our psyche that needs such a role presented to us over and over and over again, in a billion different ways? Because, despite the modernisation of the protagonist and the evolution of what heroism actually means, we’re still using the same monomythic figure.

Addressing Gender

If you pull my hair, I will bitch-slap you with this frying pan.

If you pull my hair, I will bitch-slap you with this frying pan.

This blog post has contained a statistically disproportionate level of ‘he’s. There’s been plenty of studies into the role of the hero, both literary and historical, but what about the heroine? How has the female protagonist evolved over time? There’s no question that she has. From being the passive prize in the tower, or reward for great deeds, she has very slowly grown to be an agent in her own right. Having started from such different origins, does she fulfil a fundamentally different role to that of the male protagonist? Or has she become the same figure but with different curves? How has the empowering of the literary woman either impacted or been used by politics? And how far behind her male counterpart does she still lag, if at all?

I don’t know the answers to those, but I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts.

There’s a ton more stuff to talk about on this subject but I reckon I’ve rambled on long enough for one post. Here’s a good place to start reading and maybe I’ll come back to the topic at a later date.

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Times Are Tidy – The Modern Role of Fantasy

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Passe Fantasy

At the World Fantasy Convention last October there was a panel discussion on whether there were any new ideas still coming out of genre writing. I didn’t even go to that session – the idea that writers are all out of ideas was actually offensive to me. Even if Mark Twain is right and there are no completely new ideas, the skill of the writer is to present old ones in fresh clothes in such a way that the audience is still entranced.

But genres – and readers – evolve. The ground-breaking stuff of original fantasy is now, by its very nature, clichéd. Goblin raiders and elven archers became the norm. Quests to find/destroy the holy or magical artefact became so common they might as well have written a Tourist Guide to Questing – in fact, Dianna Wynne Jones pretty much did. Readers were entirely on board with the idea of good vs evil, and wanted more social commentary. And this, I think, is the key to the evolution of fantasy.

Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.   ~ G.K. Chesterton

People will always need escapism, and fantasy/sci-fi is a pretty exemplary form of it. But running away doesn’t solve your problems. If your escapism lets you come back with answers, it instantly becomes more valuable. Fantasy is an excellent way to explore social issues in a safe environment that is sufficiently abstracted from reality that you can do so without upsetting people or (hopefully) letting them be blinded by their prejudices. This isn’t a new idea but it’s an important one. I actually think it’s a major factor behind the rise in urban fantasy over the last couple of years – things like Mortal Instruments, the Dresden Files, the Matthew Swift series, Rivers of London, etc. They all bring the world of fantasy to meet our world, and explore problems in a safe but more relatable environment.

There’s nothing wrong with goblin barbarians and elven archers. They were the tools of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. But they need to change as the reader has changed, and reflect what the audience needs. An elven archer suffering from RSI and is living on benefits; a goblin barbarian who has to deal with racism. Extreme examples, maybe, but you get the gist. The timeless stories are timeless because of the people, and the issues those people are facing. Not because of dragons.

I want to end with the poem that largely inspired this post. We live in an age where there are no dragons or magic rings. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need heroes – we have our own problems, and they are many. Genre literature is an excellent way of remembering, and providing the tools to deal with, that.

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The Times Are Tidy – Sylvia Plath

Unlucky the hero born
In this province of the stuck record
Where the most watchful cooks go jobless
And the mayor’s rôtisserie turns
Round of its own accord.

There’s no career in the venture
Of riding against the lizard,
Himself withered these latter-days
To leaf-size from lack of action:
History’s beaten the hazard.

The last crone got burnt up
More than eight decades back
With the love-hot herb, the talking cat,
But the children are better for it,
The cow milks cream an inch thick.

Writing Women

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Joss Whedon was famously asked why he writes strong female characters and responded with ‘Because you’re still asking me that question’. The geek community is quite proud of having strong female role-models in stories, citing Buffy, Zoe from Firefly, River Song from Dr. Who, Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones, and so on and so forth. This is supposedly an age of gender equality, just about.

And then I read this.

I’m aware that I’m treading dangerous ground here, which is in itself a warning sign that things are not all shiny. Feminism has come a long way but it’s still a touchy subject and I’m not even close to well-read enough to debate it properly. Suffice to say, as a woman, I believe that genders should be treated equally because they are basically capable of the same things. Okay, there’s a few biological restrictions in both directions, but in terms of intelligence, capability, etc. there’s nothing to choose between them.

And yet, despite that, I’ve fallen into the same llama-trap that Kameron Hurley talks about. The protagonist and narrator of Spiritus is defined – by herself as much as anyone else – as a ‘sister’. She’s a warrior, yes, but portrayed very much as an exception to the social norm. Because I assumed that, within a basically Roman society, she would be. Assumed. I researched pretty much every other detail, but not that one because in my head it was a given.

I’m not ashamed of Spiritus. I still believe that it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. But I also think I can write better and, importantly, I can write stronger heroines with far more agency. Mercy, the goblin narrator of Corpus, was already well down that particular road. This is a timely reminder to make sure she stays on it.

Lies We Can Understand

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All the way through school, ever since A Levels, I had this theory. Teaching is done through storytelling – sometimes the stories are interesting, and sometimes they aren’t – because that’s how we communicate. But nearly always the stories have a strong element of fiction involved. For the most part, things are just too complicated to get across to kids (or even adults) so they’re simplified. The younger the pupil, the simpler the story, until it barely resembles what’s actually happening any more.

Lies we can understand.

Here’s how it went for me: at A Levels, they said ‘everything you learned up to now was wrong, to get the basic principle in your head. Here’s how it really is’, and at uni they said ‘everything you learned up to now was wrong. Go find out how it really is’. That in itself is simplifying it, but actually not by much.

Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself – educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.

– Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

I’m under no illusions – I’m one of the ones that stayed, because I can understand and work with the system. And because I get the point of stories. They are to communicate and teach, even if the actual words used aren’t true. And they do that even if you don’t mean them to. Hollywood showed us that with films like Braveheart, where now the whole world doesn’t really know what happened but thinks they do.

At quite a young age my grandfather told me to always keep in mind what morals my stories demonstrate. It’s something very easy to forget in the heat of imaginative creation, and I think it’s not a widely common point of view. That doesn’t make it any less valid.

I Know What You Did

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This blog post comes to you from a telecoms conference in Berlin. I won’t bore you with the conference proceedings – partly because this is a blog about writing, not transport networks for mobile operators, and partly because I’m not paying much attention myself – but I do want to share something that happened yesterday.

We had a little field trip after the morning speeches to a research lab where they’re playing with remote activation. They demo’d a couple of projects which were pretty cool. For example, the subject with a smartphone that had the test app installed left the ‘office’ (designated by an RFID tag) and the heater at their ‘home’ (other side of the lab, also designated by an RFID tag) turned on to make sure the house was the optimal temperature when they arrived. When they left ‘home’ to go back to the ‘office’, having left a light on, a text was sent to their phone asking if they wanted to turn the light off remotely.

It prompted a debate which I’ve heard before and find very interesting. Phones can be super-personalised to an owner’s lifestyle and interests. You can receive texts on the sports you like, or the TV programme you follow. Soon your phone will be able to control bits of your house remotely, according to your geographical position based on the GPS in your phone. But how much personalisation is too much? At what point does it become creepy? At what point does your phone know more about you than you do? Losing your phone at the moment is a serious inconvenience. If it controls bits of your house or car, the problem is magnified. And the question is getting less and less theoretical – there are places in the world where all new cars or buildings need to have certain next-gen tech built in as standard. Places in the UAE are already rolling out ‘smart cities’ – automated utility readings, smart healthcare, smart transport control systems, etc etc.

I’m pretty sure there are one or two people reading this who will disagree with me, and say the advances make things more convenient, or safer, or more economical, and I’m sure they are right. I’m not intrinsically against technological development – if I were I’d be in the wrong market – but to quote Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park:

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Luckily, if some of my delegates are anything to go by, this question of ‘how far is too far?’ does occasionally get asked. Besides, in a free market, theoretically something that is too invasive for people’s tastes won’t sell. And for some of the stuff, especially the advances in smart healthcare, it’s all good. But it’s a balancing act that needs to be kept in mind.

Augmented Reality

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I work in telecoms (the obvious home for classicists) and was recently at the Mobile World Congress expo in Barcelona, where the latest and greatest developments were being demonstrated. My personal favourites were the waterproof paper and the laser keyboard, but there was a lot of noise around the trend of AR – Augmented Reality.

This means a ton of different things, but mostly overlaying what you see on a screen with additional information. Currently you can look at a street through your camera phone and get info on the buildings (like ‘this is a restaurant, here’s the menu, here’s the number to call for reservations’). I spoke to someone at Ford who was talking about HUDs on cars combined with AR, and that by 2020 he expected to see an AR-HUD on most car windscreens showing satnav on the road, minimum stopping distances from the car ahead (and what speed that car is travelling at), speed camera warnings, turn-off warnings, etc etc.

This all sounds pretty cool (although I’d have thought that much white noise on the windscreen might be a bit dangerous? But I’m not a driver so not confident of my ground there), but it did slightly leave me wondering – are we advancing the technology because there’s a demand for it, or because we can?

It’s the same thing that the tablet threw up. Even the phone operators didn’t know what it was for – one of the most popular speeches I ever put together was a bunch of people who use tablets in their businesses, because that let the operators hear where their product fit in the market. Mental. They just made it because Apple did, and people bought them.

Why did people buy them? This got asked in the conference as well. One of the delegates, who had just got one, replied with ‘it’s the nicest thing you don’t need’. Do we really want this stuff? Or do we buy it because they tell us we want it, and it’s shiny?

I don’t have a tablet. I have played with one at various events and decided that it is ultimately fairly pointless. My phone, laptop and TV will do each task better. But everyone who does have one seems to adore them. So – and I’m genuinely curious about this – what is it about advanced technology in general, and tablets in particular, that is so attractive?

Writing as a Social Irresponsibility

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“Your relationship with the reader is sadomasochistic.” – David Brin

The mark of a good book is that the reader can’t put it down. You want your audience to read rather than sleep, to ignore their work and choose your book over their friends and family. You want them to engage with your world so much that it becomes more real than their own.

Part of this is giving them what they want but making them wait for it. David Brin used the example of a murder mystery reveal or ‘parlour’ scene, to which there are three possible responses from the reader:

1)      That doesn’t make sense.

2)      I saw that coming a mile off.

3)      Of course! I’m so stupid, I should have known!

The writer is aiming for response 3, but if they let the reader actually know in advance then that reader will in fact be disappointed.

This ties directly into the ‘happily ever after’ issue that I referred to last week. All readers need some sort of closure – cliff hangers are the most frustrating thing in the world, and you can really only pull that trick once or twice before you start losing people. The question is, who are you writing for and what does that audience actually want in terms of closure?

‘Happily ever after’ is one of the most common tropes in writing because people like it. It may not be realistic but people don’t read fiction for realism (that’s not to say you can afford not to make your characters believable – there’s an important difference between credibility and realism).

I have to confess that this is something I struggle with. Despite being a generally upbeat person, I can’t seem to get away from writing tragic endings. Whenever I run roleplay games they usually end up with mentally traumatised characters, if not TPK (total party kill). I’ve yet to write a book in which all the protagonists survive to the bitter end and it’s usually my favourite character that bites the bullet. George R.R. Martin Syndrome.

Killing off protagonists is a noble tradition and a useful weapon in the writer’s arsenal. Ending on a tragic note is not necessarily a bad thing, provided it brings closure, but all the time? Sadomasochism aside, you shouldn’t traumatise your readers otherwise they won’t come back. I doubt I’ll be watching any film with the marketing line ‘From the director of Revolutionary Road’, for example.

Clearly I need to sit my muse down and have a word. ‘Happily ever after’ is an acceptable ending.