Thursday, November 4, 2010

Once upon a time there was


Well... something. Probably not yet-another-Kate-Weird-tangent, but something. It was a story, and it told people how to live their lives - not literally, because that isn't what stories do, but figuratively, by describing what gets rewarded and what doesn't.

And Pratchettian Narrativium was born, because it's easier to remember the point of a story than it is to remember a list of "do this, don't do that".

To be fair, Narrativium probably wasn't so much born as we became aware of it: we're immensely story-oriented. All you need to do to see that is take a look at the earliest written material. Amid the tallies and what-have-you that are why writing got invented you'll find... stories. Usually the stories of the local religion, and they all, every last one of them, emphasize the values of the people who wrote them.

Here's the interesting thing: honesty, protecting the innocent, keeping one's word and such - call it "social glue": the kinds of traits that make it possible for people to live together more or less harmoniously - these are usually traits of the heroes. I suspect that one goes way back. After all, if Ugh the caveman lies about his glorious mammoth kill (he actually found the carcass and scared off the scavengers) and drags it home, chances are the other cavemen will expect him to take the lead the next time they go mammoth hunting. Alas, poor Ugh. Becoming a decoration on a mammoth tusk is, as the delicate of soul phrase it, incompatible with life.

Fast forward a bit, and you've got the hunters telling the boys stories about hunting - which include a whole lot of information on how to hunt and what to look for when you do. Meanwhile, the women are telling the girls stories about careless women who get eaten or kids who stray and get eaten, or... well, you get the idea. They're also telling proto-romances, because letting a good man think he's caught you is the way to have the best fur and lots of mammoth meat. And if you pick lots of the berries he likes, make sure he enjoys the mating part, and burn his mammoth just right, well, he's going to keep you and look after you and your babies. Meanwhile, the elders are telling all the kids what the star pictures are and how if they follow the bottom star of the big tusk when the days are coldest, they'll get to the warm caves where the ancestors live and protect everyone in the tribe. And they'll tell it as - you guessed it - a story.

In short, we're so deeply conditioned for stories with manly men, womenly women (that doesn't sound right), and kindly deities (the ancestors gradually took on this role, since naturally they're going to want to keep looking after their kids and their kids' kids, and... Right?) that we look for them. We build conspiracies out of random events because it makes more sense to the story-brain that there's an Enemy out there doing everything possible to make life difficult for us (It makes us feel important, too).

Is it any wonder we - most of us, anyway - get irritated by heroes who lie and cheat and would be villains if they weren't hogging the limelight of the whole bloody book? In my opinion even the most prickly antiheroes have to have some kind of line they won't cross, or be good, honorable people with a foul temper or a lousy PR department. I suspect this is the same reason the so-called "new age man" never caught on as a romance hero. What self-respecting possessor of a glittery hoo haa would want one?

Um. I think I'd better not pursue this topic any further up the garden path. It's galloping into the gardenias for a bit of glad-handling as it is.

So anyway, what are your pet peeves of modern storytelling, and how far are they from the ancient "rules" of story, the ones most of us are wired for?

18 comments:

MataPam said...

One Character not telling another critical info. Really. In the time it takes to say "Promise me you won't go out tonight, and I'll explain it all tomorrow" the Character could instead say "It's the full moon, and I think I saw werewolf. Put on all your silver jewelry too."

Honest. There are better ways to get the Hero's squeeze into trouble.

Ben Godby said...

Ambiguous endings! I hate them. I want an ending that makes it clear what happens, and to whom.

Definitely ties in with my desire to see the villain get punished and the good guy/girl get rewarded.

Oh, and that, too. Though I'd love to be all postmodern and say I want to see evil triumph sometimes in the name of realism, that isn't really true. I expect pretty standard moral lessons from my books... though I have definitely loved and enjoyed many non-standard ones, despite my expectations.

...although by "non-standard," I don't mean "entirely opposite to normal moral expectations," either. Just... different outcomes, I guess.

warpcordova said...

Names. I absolutely HATE when an author starts using names like "Aednir" and "Krekoais". It takes me completely out of the story and ruins my movie in my head about the story. I shouldn't be spending valuable reading energy trying to decipher every damn name in a book.

MataPam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MataPam said...

Oh, there's another. I don't mind the odd names so much as characters who have a first name, last name, title, and three family relationships to other characters AND GETS REFERED TO AS ALL OF THEM!

First he's John, then he's Hastings, then he's Lord Whatsit, then "her brother" "his cousin" "his brother-in-law." Which may all be true, but when he's refered to as all of the above in a single scene it takes a score card to see who's speaking to or about whom.

Synova said...

I dislike stories where the romance dies at the end. Romances, of course, have to have the Happily Ever After. But most stories have a romantic sub-plot, or at least many of them do.

It's not that I want that explicit promise of HEA, I just really hate it when I have to be present for the break-up. I really hated Glory Road for this reason, though I might react differently to it now than I did so long ago when I read it. I don't remember the name of another story that I got to the end and was angry to find that I'd read the whole thing, followed the developing relationship, and then at the end the two people broke up. There was another... it might have been one that had Shatner's name on it... it was marketed as YA a few years back and after going through a whole lot of crisis and trauma and puppy love the two teenagers said goodbye. This read to me so much as *adult* sensibilities that teenagers aren't ready for commitment that I was just disgusted. At the least I figured that the mutual crisis and trauma would result in life-long loyalty even if not romantic involvement, and teens always think they are mature enough.

One break up that didn't bother me was Miles parting ways with Ellie. It was *sad*, but it was clear that their relationship and attachment and loyalty was secure. I was also much older when I read it then when I read Glory Road.

Chris L said...

Hi Kate,

I can't stand reading an author who makes every character of one sex, either a cheat, a liar or some type of depraved lunatic.

I've read novels in which every man was morally bankrupt, and every woman was nice as pie and unlucky in love, and it really makes me just want to throw the thing away.

Also stupid names, over-long names, stories in which everything is solved by magical means, and stories where characters die just because the author wanted to look tough.

Kate said...

Matapam,

Oh, yeah. The whole hiding of important information thing gets my back up too - it's one thing when circumstances make it impossible to get that information across, but when it's just plain concoction to make the plot happen? Nuh uh.

Kate said...

Ben,

A lot of this comes down to cuing, too. In horror, it's semi expected that the evil thing will win. Romance, not if you want the piece published.

Postmodern... Sod that. I'm not fond of post-modern anything. I do like the twisty ones where it looks like the situation isn't traditional, but when you look a little closer you can find all the old traditions dressed up in different clothes.

Kate said...

Warp,

If "Aednir" and "Krekoais" are brothers I'd have an issue. If they came from different cultures - I'd expect "Aednir" to have echoes of Nordic/Saxon England, and Krekoais to be from a Mediterranean-esque culture, possibly vaguely Cretan in origin.

Wrong names do bother me, and the really bad ones can jar me out of a story.

Kate said...

Matapam,

Oy, yeah, the "who am I" syndrome. Usually generated by some poor sod who was told it was too repetitive to just name the flipping character every few lines.

Kate said...

Synova,

Oh, yeah. That sort of thing is a betrayal of the story - you can generally tell if it's going to be a tragedy or not, and if the people who everything in the story says should be getting together end up walking away from each other, readers feel at minimum peeved.

Kate said...

Chris L,

YES! (Repeat a few times, just for emphasis). I loathe the "all men are bastards" story. I'd be equally dismissive of "all women are bitches" if I'd ever seen any. It falls into the same category as "all dark-skinned people are wise mystics" and "all pale-skinned people are thieving bastards" and a fair few other choice examples I've seen.

I can live with ridiculously long names (having been gifted with a mouthful myself), so long as there's a reason for them, and the characters so gifted are generally known by a pet name or a nickname (I loved PTerry's take on that with the vampires accumulating names).

Pretty much everything else on your list gets under my skin... Gee, I've agreed with a lot of things here. Does that make me hard to please? Nah.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

For the record my pet peeve is stories that end in ways that make no sense. As Synova says, romances for instance, should have HEAs. Pratchett is great at ending the story the way we EXPECT but making the ride worth it, and the solution what we don't expect...

Synova said...

I just finished a series (after writing my earlier comment) and it had an ending that I dislike profoundly. I can't really say much without naming names but essentially the author had a main character and *the* main character's love interest, an insanely powerful man, do something petty and cruel. I think that what was going on was a set up for the next set of books.

The thing is that "poetic justice" was already in place and inescapable. So having the wealthy and powerful "good guy" at the point of ultimate victory go stomp (figuratively) the crap out of someone obscure and powerless was... wrong.

The hero can be many bad things and still be the hero, but the end is for celebrations. If it was really a set up for more books, and I can see how it might be, it really needed to happen at the beginning of those books so that the good guy has time with us to repent, redeem himself, or pay the price for his mistake.

It's very much like my complaint about end of story break-ups.

Kate said...

Sarah,

Absolutely. Pratchett is a master of the unexpected ending that works.

Kate said...

Synova,

I'd find that a heck of a turn-off, too. It could only work for me if it had already been set up that the main character had some kind of flaw that led to him going berserk, or some other pre-existing issue that made the whole thing fit in. It's like the villain killing puppies because he can.

If the villain's going to go around killing puppies, he's going after the hero's puppies as a way to hurt the hero. Otherwise it's just authorial masturbation on the topic of "Look how evil this dude is! He hurts puppies!"

Dave Freer said...

I think my pet hate is strong feminist lead... who isn't. The Mary Sue feminist - who destroys all her opponents with her superior swordsmanship/martial arts skill / generalship / jungle survival skilz but actually behaves like an inner city latte sipping fashionista (and looks like one, dresses like one and has the flawless makeup and angst of one - more Mary Sue from the writer). I LOVE heroines that get in there and do as well or better than the next guy - hell, I chose to marry one. But y'know the heroing trade is dirty, hard, and necessarily pragmatic. It's very rarely practical in high-heels, or without endless practice, training, or living it.