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?