Tag Archives: homer

Sing, O Muse, the Wrath of Achilles: Roll Initiative

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This week is the blog’s fourth anniversary so, to celebrate, I’m going to combine two of my favourite things: ancient epics and roleplaying games. This is because the common thread between them is part of what the blog is all about – collaborative storytelling.

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Roleplaying games happen when a bunch of people get together in a room, usually with drinks and snacks, and tell a story together about heroic deeds and terrible monsters. Or sometimes the terrible monsters are the heroes, if you’re playing World of Darkness.

Ancient epics were told when a bunch of people got together in a room, usually with drinks and snacks, to listen to a story about heroic deeds and terrible monsters. Or sometimes the terrible monsters were the heroes, if you’re listening to Beowulf.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

Kill Screen wrote a fantastic article about this and you should totally go and read it. What they didn’t talk about is how this is spreading out into a wider culture, thanks to modern technology.

The nature of a public is not one-way. It is not the provision of material to be consumed. The nature of a public is a two-way, three-way, multiple-way conversation that’s reciprocal, that requires listening as well as speaking. ~ Matthew Stadler

Twitter provides fantastic examples of writers who use the online platform to build a dialogue with their readers, as well as changing the content to better suit the medium. Joanne Harris, for example, tells a story on Twitter at least once a month, via multiple tweets, using the hashtag #Storytime and encourages her followers to give her ideas for the next one.

Back in 2014, Neil Gaiman ran a Twitter-based project called A Calendar of Tales, during which he asked his Twitter followers to suggest a single inspiring sentence for each month of the year, selected twelve to write a short story around, and then asked his followers for illustrative artwork. The results were a beautiful anthology, the collaborative work of an author and his readers. Then there’s places like Wattpad, where writers post chapter by chapter and readers can leave comments or feedback. There’s blogs like Andrew Knighton‘s, where people can comment or even request themes for his Friday flash fiction.

And, of course, there’s a rise in mainstream culture of SF&F stories which brings a whole new audience into the conversation. Stories about heroic deeds and terrible monsters. Or sometimes the terrible monsters are the heroes, if you’re watching Deadpool.

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Fantastical stories are ancient. The Epic of Gilgamesh, with monsters and quests for magic items, is over four thousand years old. Communal story telling existed back when (and because) people couldn’t read or write. When people start to panic about the decline of books in the face of advancing technology, this is the thing to remember. Look how far storytelling hasn’t come. We tell the same types of tales in the same types of ways, and have done for a very very long time. It’s how we’re wired to tell stories. The technology we create will inevitably serve to continue that.

It’s just that, sometimes, there’s also dice.

One Tale, Many Voices: using stories to build a community

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Following on from my guest post for Mr. Knighton, and the thing about creative ownership earlier this week, I wanted to explore the idea of communities based on storytelling a bit further. It is, after all, the fundamental reason that we tell stories – to communicate to an audience. So understanding how that works is an important foundation to storytelling in general.

The role of oral tradition

You too could be Brad Pitt

You too could be Brad Pitt

Before literacy was commonplace, storytelling was done via oral tradition. A bard (or whatever they called themselves at that time and place) spoke to an audience, passing on tales via listening and memory. It was a moment of communal gathering and shared experience, and that dates back a very long time indeed. For a recent example, though, the kids’ cargo cult in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is good.

The Homeric Epics were originally formed from aural traditions, with a specific underlying purpose relating to building a community spirit. At the time, the Greeks existed in independent city states that frequently warred between themselves. But a greater threat existed round the continent in the shape of the Persians – a unified empire with an ambitious king and an impressive army. By sharing stories of a similarly unified Greece who defeated a legendary Eastern opponent (in this case, Troy), it was hoped that a sense of a national community would be instilled despite the more recent history of inter-city wars.

Granted, that’s a fairly extreme example of using stories to build a sense of community, but it makes the point. A shared tradition of stories, told to a gathered audience, serves to strengthen the bonds between them.

Oral versus written history

As Western culture moved from oral to written tradition, storytelling began to move from a group activity to an individual one. It also began to segregate the audience by education and class. The sense of community that had been engendered by oral storytelling underwent a fundamental change. It also meant that story structure itself underwent a change.

Oral tradition has a number of significant traits which exist to help the narrator remember the entire tale. Repeated phrases, lists of names, stock scenes – these all were a standard feature of memorised stories. With written texts, however, none of that is strictly necessary and so the style of narration shifted. The focus now was on entertainment via words alone, rather than performance.

For a long time, it also meant that different types of stories were recorded. Given the segregation by class and education, texts catered to the tastes of those who could read and afford to buy the written word. Anything that was interesting only to poor communities – rather than rich individuals – was left unrecorded. So not only was oral tradition under siege, its replacement did nothing for those that it had primarily helped.

Communal storytelling today

Fear of the unknown, helplessness and loss of identity

Fear of the unknown, helplessness and loss of identity

We’re now, according to Walter Ong, in the age of secondary orality – a time in which oral storytelling is consciously reliant on written material. I’ve talked about this a little bit before when I covered the Gutenberg Parenthesis, but it’s important here because Tom Pettitt’s conclusion is all about the growing online community in which stories are told by secondary orality to a community that is no longer confined by geography. The community has, essentially, become worldwide (it’s also been called the global village and is a fairly hefty sociology subject).

…rapid communication with large groups of people in a speed that would resemble oral storytelling, without having to share the same physical space with your audience.   ~ Secondary Orality in Microblogging, Liliana Bounegrou

Because the stories being told are written they can be referred back to, cited and built upon. The Slender Man myth is the best modern example I know of a community-created and told story, developed through secondary orality. It links into key fears that are shared by a community, highlights them as a concern and binds the community together against those fears. We’ve almost come full circle.

As a roleplayer, of course, communal storytelling is a fairly major part of my life. I regularly get to see the power of stories bringing people together in a tight-knit community that relies on shared narrated experiences for bonding. I have to say that seeing it in action – all those lives and imaginations working together to create something communal – is actually quite powerful. The uninitiated might only see geeks in funny clothes waving rubber swords around but there’s a very real kind of magic going on beneath the surface.

That’s not all, folks

As evidenced by the littering of links, particularly in the last part, this is a huge subject and one which I’m not properly equipped to explore. I know almost nothing about sociology or anthropology, both of which are major factors in the function of storytelling. But it is something I find fascinating so, if any of you know more, please do share. I’d really like to learn.

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.

War – What Is It Good For?

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I’d like to start by saying thank you to those who responded to yesterday’s blog. Between opinions, advice and recommended reading, I managed to crack the love story issue last night. It took three hours, but the shape of the plot is now drafted and the first chapter written. Ta muchly!

Today’s challenge is kind of at the other end of the spectrum. Make war, not love, or something of the sort. All stories must have some kind of conflict, be it internal, natural or against another person(s). Without conflict, there isn’t much of a story because what is there to progress or resolve? In some cases it can just be a puzzle or mystery; in others, a personal issue to overcome. Today, though, I’d like to look at physical conflict on a large scale. War and invasion.

Wars are a fantastic backdrop for a story. So many stories can happen within them, they provide multiple opportunities to challenge the protagonists, and a handy way of getting rid of characters should you so desire. But you can’t just have a war for its own sake. Everything must happen for a reason. For Homer, the reasons were numerous – a chance to take over the lucrative trade route from Troy, an opportunity to try and unite Greece against a common enemy, and because the gods wanted to rid the world of heroes so they made it happen. For Tolkein, the reason was a mixture of fear (Sauron wanted his ring of power back) and greed (he’d take the rest of the world whilst he was at it), plus an underlying and unsustainable culture clash between Mordor and Gondor. For Rowling… um… Voldemort was bad, m’kay?

Why do wars happen in real life? It’s usually not about the stated reason – Helen of Troy was only the excuse, as was Franz Ferdinand and the WMDs (maybe – not getting into the politics of that here). So what are the underlying reasons? Wikipedia blames WW1 on ‘imperialistic foreign policies of the great powers of Europe’, which frankly seems like a crap reason for invasion and wholesale slaughter. The current Middle East conflict is largely attributed to greed for oil, plus an initial fear over what they could do to us if they wanted. The English Civil War grew out of a political and religious clash; the War of the Roses and the American Civil War both basically boiled down to who was in charge of where.

At a basic level, we seem to keep coming back to fear and greed. But wars are expensive things, so the greed pay-off has got to be pretty impressive. Now, I have an ongoing conflict that runs throughout my story between two countries, lasting on and off for around 400 years. Currently the motivation is resources – one country wants them and doesn’t have much of them, whilst the other has them in spades but isn’t prepared to share. That driver seems a little weak to me for such a prolonged fight, but then so do most of the reasons for the real wars cited above.

So here’s a question for you: what would you consider to be a good reason? Can there ever be one?

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

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On one of my online communities, I recently saw a poll: what’s the worst way to start a story? There were a number of stereotypical first lines given, including ‘it was a dark and stormy night’, and ‘once upon a time’. Interestingly enough, the latter was coming off the best (as in, voted the least worst way to start a story).

I’m not overly surprised that ‘once upon a time’ is still acceptable or even popular, because it is the bones of childhood storytelling. We will accept it unthinkingly – in many ways it doesn’t even form part of the actual story, it just signifies that a story is about to happen. Because it’s so traditional, it can also be subverted in fun ways.

But this brings me on to a question: what’s the difference between traditional and clichéd? Where does the line get drawn between ‘once upon a time’ and ‘dark and stormy night’? Perhaps it is because the former doesn’t actually say anything about the story, whereas the latter is a clichéd, bad way of scene setting. But is there more to it than that?

Also, can ‘once upon a time’ be used to open any story? Or does it only work for fairytales and fantasy? It sets certain expectations on what will follow. The story won’t be in a modern era, it’s unlikely to be horror (although dark is fine), etc etc. To put it in film terms, Star Wars could use it but Alien couldn’t. Or am I enforcing my own perceptions here?

It may be that this phrase is a hangover from a stronger tradition of oral poetry. This is something I think I’ve mentioned in the past – one of the techniques of an oral poet is to have a number of set phrases which they can use to pad out a story, or give them time to think whilst remembering the next part. ‘Once upon a time’ is an excellent example, as is one of Homer’s favourites, ‘dawn came with her rosy fingers’. But it seems to be the only such phrase in English folktales. If there was a common theme of oral tradition, I’d expect to see a few more. This isn’t anything I’ve looked into, by the way – just idle conjecture. If anyone has any answers or further thoughts, I’d be very interested to hear them.

Spoiler Alert

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I am one of those terrible people who reads the end of a book before deciding whether to buy it. It’s ridiculous behaviour – I’m doing myself out of the anticipation that builds up during the course of the story – but I can’t help myself. I have to know that there’s a good strong closing point. Cliffhangers send me into paroxysms of rage and impatience, literally bouncing up and down on the sofa. Most of the time I write the end of my stories first as well. They’re heavily edited later to make sure everything ties in smoothly, but the basic anchor is there.

What is this obsession with knowing the end ahead of time? Is it simply impatience and a generational inability to cope with delayed gratification? Is it a need for reassurance that there is an ending, happy or otherwise? Is it simply an insatiable curiosity? Despite people ever so carefully (most of the time) working around spoilers on places like Facebook, I actually quite like them. If they’re dangled in front of me with the option of spoiling, I will go for the tidbit every time.

Apparently I’m not alone. Some students in San Diego did a bit of research into this and concluded that spoiling actually enhances the enjoyment people get out of a book:

They make some good points, too. The one that really struck me is that this care over spoilers is a modern trend – ‘back in the day’ people generally knew what the end was, but read the book or went to the play or listened to the bard anyway. The Greeks all knew that Troy lost; in 1997, despite being fully aware of the likely outcome, enough people went to see Titanic that it became the first film to gross over $1bn.

There is a theory that says people don’t like surprises, unless they see them coming:

The human mind is a prediction machine, which means that it registers most surprises as a cognitive failure, a mental mistake.

I don’t necessarily agree with this. The M Night Shyamalan twists, for example, I absolutely loved despite not working them out in advance. But they are tricky to pull off, and there can be a risk of alienating your audience especially if, as the quote indicates, they feel conned or stupid.

There is, of course, another trick to all this and that’s the power of wilful forgetfulness. I can watch the same films and read the same books over and over because I am willing to forget the details in order to enjoy them again. It’s the same with reading the end first – the sting of suspense is drawn, and I can then read without worrying about the finale.

No Place Like Home

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The concept of ‘home’ is such an important one to so many people, and features in many stories, but it’s rarely analysed. When you think of home, do you visualise a place or individuals, or both? When Dorothy wanted to go home, was she thinking of Kansas or Aunty Em? Given that all the people she loved were with her in Oz – albeit in a different form – perhaps she was focusing on the place. On the other hand, Odysseus’ struggle to get back from the Trojan War was strongly focused around returning to his wife Penelope.

As an army brat, ‘home’ was always wherever my parents were living at the time and geography had to be largely irrelevant. As an adult (I won’t say grown-up because that hasn’t happened yet, and I hope never will), ‘home’ became the flat I bought and made my own little nest of tranquillity. People were still important, of course, but it became anchored in a physical location.

Apollonius’ Argonautica explores the Greek ideas of home in some depth. Its message is, in essence, that you are home when you are in a place that recognises you. That moves the power of deciding what is home away from the individual and to the ‘home’ itself – if the place or people don’t recognise you, you aren’t home.

As a storyteller, that’s a fantastic concept. Displacement is such a standard story element, but so often it involves the protagonist searching for his home and successfully finding it. Approaching it from the other side – where either recognition is not returned, or the story is told from the perspective of ‘home’ waiting for someone to recognise – is a nice twist.

It has been done before, of course. That is essentially what exile is – home ceasing to recognise the protagonist – but I think there’s an angle that can be played with a bit more here. What is ‘home’s opinion in the story? If a person can recognise a place and call it home, can the place recognise the person?

I talk to my flat. I say hello and goodbye to it every day. Maybe that’s just because I’m weird. (And I am weird). But I’d like to think that, inanimate object though it may be, it knows me.