How to Write a Good Story – The Essence of Story

Writing

On social media across the Internet, there is a single constant refrain- “How do I write a good story?” It comes from new writers eager to make their eBook fortune on Kindle, young adults who want to join in the fanfiction fray, and even experienced writers who are looking to up their game. It’s lead to a huge boom in How-To writing books, and an even bigger boom for those who offer their services to writers like editors, cover designers and marketers. The editors especially are in demand, because the truth is most writers are flying blind when it comes to writing stories.

Don’t believe me? Go on a social media forum with writers and ask them a simple question like “How do I write a good book?” or even “What is a story?” and you’ll get a thousand different answers thrown at you, because the truth is most of them don’t know the answer to either of those questions.

Oh, they know pieces of it, and the more savvy and experienced ones have pieced together quite a bit of knowledge on the topic. Mostly though, new writers will get advice like “follow the three act structure”, “have a gripping main character”, and various other sage advice about what worked for the writers who respond.

Because most writers learn to write stories by writing them, and they do that by consuming the work of lots of other writers and then copying what seemed to work for those other writers. They basically write by instinct, and then through making mistakes and finding what works, and what doesn’t, they become better writers. This is a time-honored way to learn any art, and some would argue that it’s the best way because it preserves a creative spirit of originality and helps new generations of artists add to the great body of human culture.

When it comes to writing, those people are wrong.

If that was true, why do we keep writing the same stories over and over again? Why do almost all stories follow the same basic structure, no matter the culture or level of literacy? Why do we keep seeing the same stories over and over again, generation after generation?

The answer is pretty simple- because there IS a hardwired, human pattern to storytelling that we follow over and over again- exactly because we’re human.

[Now, the followers of Joseph Campbell are all nodding their heads right now and going “Of course there is, dummy! The Hero’s Journey!” But I’m going to argue that while Campbell was on the right track, he also complicated things up more than they needed to be. So simmer down, Jack!]

One of the nice parts about living in the age we do is that researchers on big questions have been able to use things like Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to look inside the human brain in real time and look at what people’s brains are doing during certain activities. Unsurprisingly, a few of those researchers decided to find out what happens inside the human brain when people consume stories, and they learned many interesting things.

One thing they learned is that the human brain is optimized for learning from the experiences of not just ourselves, but from the experiences of others. We don’t have enough time to experience everything ourselves, so instead our brains crowdsource information and make a point of learning from how other people did things. It’s a survival mechanism left over from the days when we were cavemen, and every bit of knowledge about the world we had could be a key to living another day. The ones who didn’t learn fast died faster.

So, what are stories then?

Stories are people sharing their experiences so that others can learn from them. They’re us telling the world what someone did when they were faced with a problem, so they can learn from that person’s experiences and gain knowledge about the world and the human experience.

So therefore, at it’s core, for something to be a story it has two requirements:

  1. A character does something.
  2. The character’s choices produce results.

This is because our brains are trying to learn from that person’s actions, so obviously they must do something, and those actions must also have results, otherwise we haven’t learned from them.

So, there you are, cause and effect- that’s all that you need to tell a story.

And if I put it that way, you do this every day, right? Anytime you, or your mother, or crazy old grandpa are telling a story, you use this structure- “I did these things, and this was the result.”

That is the root seed from which all storytelling comes- a character does something and gets results.

“I kicked the dog, and he bit me.”

Of course, as you obviously already know, there’s a little more to it than that. Saying “I kicked the dog and he bit me” may be a story, but it’s not exactly a gripping one that’s going to hold an audience spellbound for hours or express your artistic vision.

To tell an interesting story, you need details, the more the better! (But only the right ones…)

Also, there is a simple process all humans go through when approaching a problem and the audience for a story likes to know the details of that process whenever possible.

So, we break those two parts into several clear steps.

A character does something can be broken into several steps:

  1. The character has a Need.
  2. The character chooses a Goal based on that need.
  3. The character finds there is Opposition to achieving that goal.
  4. The character comes up with a Plan to overcome the opposition.
  5. The character takes Action based on that plan.

The character’s choices producing results can also be broken into steps:

  1. Results:
    1. The action fails> return to Plan.
    2. The action succeeds> go to New State.
  2. The character’s situation has changed because of the results and they’re in a New State.

To make it clearer, let’s give an example.

  • Bob is Thirsty. (Need)
  • Bob decides to get a glass of water. (Goal)
  • Bob finds there are no clean cups. (Opposition)
  • Bob decides to do dishes. (Plan)
  • Bob does the dishes. (Action)
  • Bob now has a clean glass. (Results)
  • Bob drinks a glass of water and feels satisfied. (New State)

Note that this is still extremely simple, but that’s because it’s also infinitely flexible. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Bob getting water or War and Peace, all human stories are using a variation of this structure at their very core and when reduced to the simplest level. If a story doesn’t meet (almost) all of these steps, it isn’t a story to the human brain.

There has to be a character who has a Need and a resulting Goal, who faces Opposition, finds a Plan to overcome it, takes Action and gets Results that will put them in a New State. All of these steps are crucial because otherwise there’s nothing to learn, and the human brain isn’t interested. If I show you a video of Bob walking across the room getting water from the fridge and sitting down to drink it, you’ll get bored because there’s no challenge there (which is where drama comes from) and nothing to learn from.

Let’s go into each of the steps in more detail:

Need:

The character needs a reason to take action, and this reason can be active (they choose to take action), or reactive (someone else forces them to take action), but there must always be a cause for what they do in the story.  Active characters are almost always better, since the audience can learn more from a character who is trying to actively accomplish a goal, and they’re easier to write.

In either case, the character will have a Need, something which is driving them to attain their goal. At its core, this need will usually be based on one of the Basic Human Needs that all humans have- Food, Safety, Sex, Sleep, Companionship, Self-Actualization, and so on. The character tries to fulfill that need through taking action, whether they consciously understand that need exists or not.

This can be as simple as being thirsty and needing a glass of water, or as complex as defending their galactic empire from an alien invasion, but it will always be rooted in a basic human need when it comes down to it. (We don’t tend to things that don’t try to meet a human need in some way.)

Goal:

Goals always fall into one of three simple categories:

  1. Attain
  2. Maintain
  3. Lose

The character either wants something new (attain), they want to avoid losing something that already exists (maintain), or they no longer wish to have something and try to get rid of it (lose). All characters will have one of these three goals, with the details varying by the story. This will be based on solving the problem created by their Need.

Goals will often be based on solving obstacles that prevent the character from achieving a human need rather than directly trying to achieve a human need. (ie Losing weight in order to get sex. Losing weight is the goal, but it is still rooted in the human need of sex.) Directly solving more complex needs can often be hard and painful, so characters will often choose goals that are smaller steps towards that greater need.

Opposition:

If a need can be met without opposition, it usually isn’t worth telling a story about. In fact, often the heart of a story isn’t the need or action being taken to meet that need, it’s the challenges that come with meeting that need. If there’s no opposition to the character’s actions, then the story moves to the New State phase and ends there. (Along with the audience’s interest.)

Opposition can come in any form that prevents the character from achieving their Goals, however these too tend to fall into one of several categories:

  • Active opposition.
  • Passive Opposition.
  • Lack of resources.
  • Lack of ability.

Active Opposition– an opponent who is actively trying to prevent the character from achieving their goal. Usually they have the same (or similar) goal as the main character, and this common goal brings them into direct opposition with each other. Often they also have a superior position to the main character in some way, at least in terms of knowledge, resources, power or ability. (After all, if they weren’t able to give the main character a challenge, they’re not much of an opponent, are they?) Usually, they are also made specifically to exploit the weakness of the main character, thus making them exactly the right person to make the main character’s life difficult.

Passive Opposition– an opponent who stands in the way of the character achieving their goals, but who isn’t pursuing the same goal as the main character. They are pursuing their own goals, but because of their existence/presence it prevents the main character from achieving their goal. Think of this like a sleeping guard dog that prevents a character from sneaking into the house, the parent who says the main character must clean their room before they can go out, or a clerk at a tax office who says the main character must follow procedure before they can have what they want as time is running out.

Lack of Resources– the character has a goal, but lacks the physical resources (time, money, friends, contacts, clothes, equipment, etc) to achieve that goal. This will usually require the character to pursue other smaller goals first (like getting a job to earn money) to achieve this goal.

Lack of Ability– the character has a goal, but lacks the personal skills, requirements, or knowledge needed to reach that goal. This can most often be fixed through training and personal improvement, or occasionally by finding someone else who has the abilities needed and getting them to do it.

Note that a single story can have more than one obstacle to a single goal. Just as there can be big goals and little goals, there can be big obstacles and little obstacles as well, and often the character needs to accomplish several little goals first to be able to accomplish the big final goal.

Plan:

A character with a goal faced by obstacles will need to make a plan, which is the route the character decides to take to achieve their goal. This can be the result of self-reflection, previous results, or gut instinct, and plans can take seconds to make, or hours, or years in the context of the story. This step is actually semi-optional, as sometimes the “Plan” step is skipped over because it’s obvious, or for dramatic effect. (Jumping from Goal to seeing the character in Action to make the audience want to see how the character’s actions will achieve that goal.)

Action:

Action is simply the character trying to follow their plan and seeing what the result is. Again, this can be a simple single movement, or a long and complex project that takes years to finish. The writer may choose to detail every step of the plan, or just a few key steps, or even jump from the beginning to the end of the Action step. However, the character must make a choice and do something, even if their choice is just to sit there and cry.

Results:

Of course, there are really only three possible results:

  • They succeed and achieve their goal.
  • They fail and must either try again or give up.
  • They only partly fail or partly succeed and must either try again or give up.

If the character tries again, they go back to the Planning stage, and if they succeed and have met their Need they move on to the New State. If they give up, they have also moved into a New State- but it’s one where they failed to achieve their goal and are dealing with the consequences of that failure.

New State:

If the character achieved their goal, then the story is finished, or (if part of a larger story) then this portion of the story is finished. They have their goal, and are now either satisfied or not satisfied with the result based on the Need they were trying to fulfill.

Often, the character cannot reach a New State without first overcoming some personal flaw, in which case the New State is actually one where the character has changed part of themselves in order to achieve their true (often unconscious) goal.

 

So, there you have it, the fundamental structure humans use when telling stories.

You will see many variations of this formula kicking around online. Whether it’s Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, Chris Vogler’s take on The Hero’s Journey, or Michael Hague’s Six Story Steps, but ultimately, they’re just this very basic formula with extra steps added (or removed) for effect. One expanded version of this formula is John Truby’s Twenty-Two Step Story Structure, which takes a formula like this one (which was partly based on Truby’s 7 Essential Steps) and shows how typical modern novels and films tend to expand on this structure and what they add to it. (His book is highly recommended!)

However, just because something follows the above steps that doesn’t mean it’s a good story, it just means that it meets the basic requirements to be called a story. It only shows a character doing something and getting results, or in other words, showing how an action might play out.

To have a good story, one which is meaningful and the audience actually gets something from, that requires not just a story, but a Moral Argument as well.

 

We’re stuck in a long distance relationship with copyright.

 

2000px-disney-infinite-copyright-svg

Here’s a thought:

Copyright Laws are putting us in a long-distance relationship situation with media, and hindering creativity.

In a long-distance relationship, what happens is the couple communicate in a superficial way most of the time, and only see each other occasionally as their life/work situations allow. This creates an odd situation where the relationship is stuck in a kind of dating limbo- where the couple don’t see each other enough for the relationship to progress to the get-together stage or the breakup stage. As a result, the relationship lingers on and on, because they never get sick of each other, but aren’t satisfied with the relationship either. It creates a situation where they are constantly hoping that the next meeting will be awesome, remembering the meetups that were awesome, and forgetting all the meetups that sucked. Preventing them from moving on and finding new and possibly better relationships.

Ever-extending copyright laws are doing the same thing to our relationship with media. Instead of letting us fall in and out of love with a media property (like Star Wars), the long-term copyright laws keep us exposed to only a drip-feed of that media property and keep us from getting sick of it. We remember the good times, but not the bad, and keep coming back to it. As a result, a few mega-properties (Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, Marvel/DC Superheroes, etc) are able to suck up all the media attention (and money) and hindering the growth of new media sources because they never quite go away.

If we had shorter copyrights, then after a certain point properties would enter the public domain and everyone could make their versions of those media properties, which would have two effects- 1) it would “burn them out” of the collective consciousness through over-saturation and overexposure (everyone would get sick of them and move on), and 2) it would create opportunities for new material to move in and grow, resulting in newer media that suits the current generation and offers new ways of thinking instead of the old stuff being recycled endlessly. (Or, to continue our relationship metaphor- it would force people to break up and find new partners.)

My friend Don often comments that “nothing goes away anymore”, and I think this is a piece of that. Nothing is going away because corporations are extending out franchises and copyright keeps the public from running wild with them and burning them out. You might say that’s just fine, since it keeps the companies in business, but it also prevents them from innovating, since all their energies are focused on the old and not the new. Just like it keeps the public’s attention on the old instead of the new, preventing the innovation which happens every day from rising up into the public’s awareness and changing things for the better (or worse).

Just an idea, anyway.

Rob

 

Thoughts on Different Story Structures

My recent article where I was trying to unravel the mysteries of writing what I call Procedural Fiction and a conversation I had with my friend Don have left me thinking about the different ways writers use to structure stories. For most people, the Hero’s Journey is the one true method by which stories are written (an innocent enters a new world, is transformed by it, and returns a more mature and seasoned adult) and this is the basic structure which Hollywood follows today almost religiously. In fact, most of the Story Formulas you’ll find if you click that link up top are variants of the Hero’s Journey in one form or another.

However, that isn’t how all stories are structured. In fact, there are a lot of other ways to structure and tell a story that aren’t heroic journeys at all, or where the heroic journey element is merely a background to the real story.

So what different ways can we structure a story?

  • Personal Transformations (hero’s journeys- see Dan Harmon’s Story Wheel)
  • Situation Driven Stories (where the hero is a pawn of the plot/circumstances which surround them and pull them into the story – see the Lester Dent formula)
  • Standard Procedurals (where the hero is following a series of preset steps to accomplish a goal – see the 12 Chapter Murder Mystery formula)
  • Setting Driven Stories (where the story is really about the setting and the character’s place in it)
  • Creativity Driven Stories (where the character is trying to create something, and the building of that thing forms the basis of the story- see my Procedurals article)
  • Education Driven Stories (where the character is trying to learn something, and learning how to do that thing (for the character and audience) is the real focus of the story)
  • Explorational Stories (where the hero is going out into a new world and the exploration of this new setting and its wonders is the focus of the story- see Procedurals article)
  • Collection Based Stories (where the hero is trying to gather something or find something, and the act of collecting that thing and how it affects those who follow this path is the focus of the story- Gotta catch ’em all!)

I’m sure there are more, but I’m missing them, feel free to make suggestions in the comments. 🙂

Most of these will have a Heroic Journey/Personal Transformation story happening within them on the part of the character, but not always. It’s perfectly normal in a situation-driven story for the main character to change little or not at all by the end of the story, which is why it’s not a heroic journey.

The key is how the setting/world around the character is being used. If the setting is only there to further the growth of the character in a certain direction, then the story is a personal transformation story. However, if the setting or situation and how exploring it affects the character is the real focus, then it isn’t a personal transformation story but a story about the nature of that setting or situation.

Example- Bob the Cricketeer.

  • In a Personal Transformation story, the game of Cricket is a vehicle to transform Bob into the person he needs to be to fulfill his deep inner needs.
  • In an Education Driven Story, Bob’s entry into the world of Cricket is a vehicle to explore Cricket, anything Bob goes through is a natural side effect of exploring the game of cricket and is there to show how CRICKET affects its players, not how Bob grows as a person.

Both stories might end at the same point (or not) with Bob being a newly confident master of playing cricket, but they got there through different paths and the stories will be shaped and structured differently. The Education Driven Story could, however, end with Bob having learned nothing but skills and having made a few friends, and be exactly the same person at the story’s end, and it would still work as a story as long as the audience learned all there is to know about Cricket. However, if the point was Bob’s Personal Transformation and he didn’t transform, then that story would have failed.

I think it’s important to be aware of these differences because they give the writer more control over the story and how they can shape the story. If I try writing a Murder Mystery as a Hero’s Journey, for example, the audience will likely get confused and annoyed because they’re expecting a Procedural structure and I’m trying to give them something else. Likewise, it shows that not every story needs to be a hero’s journey, although many stories do make a nod toward that structure in one form or another. (Or at least go through the motions of a Heroic Journey without actually having any real change.)

What do people think? Am I on the right track here? Am I missing something? Feedback is welcome because I think there is more to it, but I’m still puzzling it out.

Rob

Why Star Wars:TFA Failed in China

There has been some discussion about why Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the movie that rocked the box office in North America and Europe, comparatively tanked in China. In case you hadn’t heard, it opened in China to poor reviews, made a mere $52 Million in its opening week (by comparison Furious 7 made $182 million in China it’s opening weekend) and then got crushed during its second weekend by this movie…

Yep, the Jedi were defeated by this lot. In fairness, that little girl looks like a better character than Rey...

Boonie Bears 3- Yep, the Jedi were defeated by this lot.

But the truth is, everyone should have seen this coming. When Disney purchased Star Wars for $4 Billion, they were getting a franchise that would work for them almost everywhere in the world- except China. (Which is currently the third biggest movie market on the planet, by the way. Ooops!)

Why? You may ask. Why would our beloved Star Wars not work for Chinese audiences?

Well, to help answer that question, watch the following short trailer for a 2015 TV show:

Does that look familiar to you at all? And the Chinese see this on their televisions literally on a daily basis- Star Wars is the basic Chinese fantasy genre with white people and spaceships. Everyone talks about Star Wars’ Japanese roots, but what they forget is that while Lucas took elements of style and iconography from Japan, he was also borrowing heavily from the Shaw Brothers Hong Kong cinema of the day as well. If anything, Star Wars is far more Wuxia than it is Samurai, especially in style and presentation.

Sending Star Wars to China is the equivalent of Chinese people making a Marvel-style superhero movie, adapting it to Chinese audiences, and then turning around and trying to market that film back in North America. How well do you think that would work? Well, you don’t need to think long, it already happened- it was called The Four, and it happened a few years ago. If that movie’s name didn’t immediately leap to your mind, there’s a reason for that, the same reason why the mainstream Star Wars films are ultimately doomed to mediocrity in Chinese cinema, despite the efforts to hype it up.

(It’s actually a pretty good movie, if you have the time, and was on YouTube with English subtitles last I checked.)

Rogue One, and some of the spin offs might do okay, because they’re not about Jedi and fantasy elements, but instead other genres set in the Star Wars setting.

On the plus side, however, this could be a good thing creatively. For example, ghosts are a huge no-no in Chinese cinema, so there would be no Force Ghosts in any new movies if they’re considering a Chinese audience. It could be very creatively freeing not to have to worry about Chinese censors, and Disney could spend their marketing money elsewhere to get better results.

Here in Canada, we have a saying- “like selling snow to Eskimos” (I know it should be Inuit, but that’s the saying) and when Disney tries to take Star Wars to China, that’s exactly what they’re trying to do.

Rob

DNA PODCAST 008 – ARE SUPERHERO MOVIES BAD FOR US?

openforuminfantilization

Welcome Operatives to the Department of Nerdly Affairs. In this episode, Rob and Don are joined by indomitable Jack Ward, host of the Sonic Society Podcast, to discuss actor/writer Simon Pegg’s article about the infantalization of popular culture and society. The trio go deep into the topic, and come out having discussed Nazis, Adult Films of the 70s, and the Honeymooners. All this, and how “Free to Be You and Me” affected our childhoods in this episode of The Department of Nerdly Affairs.

Listen to the Episode Here

 

How Koreans get their Web Novels

Yesterday I had a long and fascinating chat with a recently arrived Korean international student about Korean webnovels. Webnovels (books written specifically for the web) are extremely popular in Japan, China, and of course South Korea, and have become a gateway for new and rising authors in those countries. Recently, I’ve found myself reading some (fan translated) Chinese Webnovels (more on this in another post) and so I was curious as to what Korea’s market was like.

The student told me a few interesting things:

  • Her primary reading site of choice is NAVER, which is a popular Korean webportal similar to YAHOO, but which offers Webtoons (comics) and Webnovels as part of its lineup. In 2014 alone, Korean NAVER Webnovels had 3.6 Billion views (that’s BILLION, and remember there are only 50 Million people in Korea!).
  • The comics are more popular than the novels, but the Novels still have a large audience which she said is mostly female.
  • Anyone can write a novel on NAVER, but it sounds like there are three tiers- the stuff that anyone can post, the “Challenge League” and the “Best League”. The latter two being high quality amateurs and professionals who get promotion and profit-sharing with NAVER. (More info here.)
  • Works in the Leagues come out in serialized (chapter by chapter) format, with between 1 and 3 chapters released a week.
  • For the first four days of release, you have to pay for the chapter (using NAVER Coins) but after four days it becomes free for fans to read. (To me, this is brilliant, because human nature says most fans will pay to read early, as apparently the student does all the time. However, the old chapters are still there to help readers catch up and interest people.)
  • Advance chapters cost more or less depending on how popular that story is. So if a story isn’t popular an advance chapter might just be 1 or 2 cents, whereas a super-popular book’s chapter might be upwards of 20 cents.
  • Once a book is finished, after a certain time it is archived, which means the first couple chapters will still be free and access to the rest can be rented (for 1 day/1 week/1 month periods) at a cheaper price than reading chapter by chapter.
  • The Webnovels themselves are mostly written in the Young Adult oriented Light Novel format, which means they’re mostly dialogue driven with lots of spacing and simpler language.
  • The Best League novels not only have covers, but each week there is a piece of art that goes with them showing some scene from that chapter in a slightly iconic style.
  • The Best League novels also have an odd quirk I’ve rarely seen before, when major characters have lines of dialogue without any added exposition they just put a tiny portrait picture of the character. So instead of:
    • Sun-yi said, “I don’t know who I love, Byung-Gin.”
      • it will be…
    • [Tiny picture of Sun-yi] “I don’t know who I love, Byung-Gin.”
      • Which I imagine increases the reading speed a bit, and gets rid of some dialogue tags.
  • They’ve solved the Micropayments hurdles by using NAVER Coins, which is real money converted into NAVER credits. Sometimes it’s a 1:1 ratio, but at certain times of year NAVER will offer better ratios to get people to buy more credits. Users can also win credits through contests, loyalty rewards, and other activities that they can then use for buying digital content on the site.

That was pretty much it, but I thought it was quite interesting. As I said, I especially love the part about offering content early for people willing to chip in a few cents, since most people will do exactly that if they want to read the next chapter badly enough. The student says she spends about (the equivalent of) a $1 a week on buying Webnovel chapters, which doesn’t sound like much, but can add up pretty quickly.

It’s sad that nobody in the English speaking world has made the effort to produce such a scheme, because I think it could be a great platform for authors. Right now your options for getting English Ebooks out is pretty much either give it away for free in some form on a site like Wattpad or sell it as a complete volume on Amazon or Apple iBooks. In theory, you could use Patreon to get readers to support you, and let the Patreon subscribers have chapters a week earlier, but the problem is that Patreon doesn’t work in cents, but in dollars, and it’s pretty clumsy.

What’s needed is a system like this- where vetted authors can make money in a profit-sharing system with the website and not-yet-vetted authors can practice their craft in a place where they get a wide potential audience. (Possibly also having the option of making some money as they write as well, depending on how it was set up.)

In any case, I thought it was an interesting system, and worth sharing. If you’re interested in reading some Korean novel translations, you can find some links here in an older Reddit thread. (There aren’t a lot of them out there, but a few.)

A little perspective change on science fiction writing

I’m currently listening to an audiobook of Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi, and while enjoying it a thought occurred to me. We often say that Science Fiction is based on the phrase “What would happen if?” and then extrapolate out the story from there, but I think that’s wrong.

Listening to that excellent novel, it occurred to me that “What would happen if?” actually encourages writers to think in terms of events and plot. If I say “What would happen if Giant Bugs from Arcturus dropped from the sky?” You’ll get a picture in your head of giant purple bugs raining down from the sky to eat all of our Frosted Flakes. (Or maybe that’s just me…) Which is fine, and very dramatic, but also encourages the writer to think in terms of big visual elements based around the thing that’s different.

On the other hand, if I change the question to “What would it be like if?” then that encourages a complete different kind of thinking. Saying “What would it be like if?” forces the writer to think in terms of a person or character’s point of view instead of an abstract idea. This makes the writer begin to think the situation through, and reflect on how they or a character would feel going through that situation. This, in turn, produces a better and more relatable story because it’s being drawn out of subjective human experience rather than based on something more objective and less tangible.

Let’s look at a few examples so you can see what I mean. Think about how each pair produces a different idea in your head.

What would happen if the dead came back as zombies to eat the living?

vs.

What would it be like if the dead came back as zombies to eat the living?

 

What would happen if dogs could talk to people?

vs.

What would it be like if dogs could talk to people?

 

What would happen if we found a gate to the stars?

vs.

What would it be like if people found a gate to the stars?

See the difference? One is asking you to think outside yourself, and produces plot-based ideas and stories where you have to rethink how to base it around a character. The other makes you think in character terms right from the beginning, and then work out to view that situation from a personal perspective. And, when I think about it, I think most of the better Sci-Fi has actually been based on similar lines of thinking because it comes out from the human experience rather than being based on lofty ideas.

Just my take, anyways.

Rob

 

The Power of Privilege

The concept of Privilege (in the modern social justice sense) was coined by Peggy McIntosh in 1988 in her essay White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies, and was intended as a new way of looking at social inequality. At its core, the concept is very simple- we are all born with certain social advantages and disadvantages and we should be mindful of this fact when dealing with/judging other people. It is meant (in its original academic intent) as a lens through which to view society and how people treat each other.

This sounds like a great idea for reducing inequality, and it can be- it’s a tool for encouraging empathy and sympathy with others through self-reflection. We definitely need more empathy in this world, as people all too often get locked into their own little bubbles of “reality” and generally don’t think a lot about the situations and perspectives of others. The philosophy that’s come up to surround the concept of Privilege is that we should be mindful of the advantages we have in life, and be using those advantages to help those around us who are less fortunate. Whether it’s being mindful of the challenges faced by women in a sexist environment, the struggles faced by the LGBTQI community, or even the advantages that being of the dominant social group in a society (white in the United States, for example), using the concept of Privilege to encourage empathy, equal media representation, and equality has the potential to make the world a better place for everyone.

Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.

While those passionate about social justice and inequality have been fast to see the benefits of using the concept of Privilege in a positive way, by in large, it has also come to be used in a number of negative ways as well.

1) As a way to force others to do your work for you while feeling you’ve accomplished something.

While the concept of Privilege should be used to further equality, instead it’s become a way to try to guilt people into following your own social agendas while doing as little yourself as possible. This happens time and time again in discussion of the arts and issues of Privilege, where those advocating social justice talk about diversity and the need for more viewpoints to be represented. Of course, this isn’t a bad thing, and diversity of viewpoints is good, but the problem is how and why they’re doing it.

Time and time again on Social Media, I see the same pattern. A discussion thread starts on the topic of inequality in the media or arts, or veers in that direction, and it turns into a giant debate about the representation of minorities in writing, audio drama, comics, film, etc. Okay, that’s fine, we’ve all seen discussions like this and it’s a good and healthy debate to have, but here’s where things will get sneaky.

Next time you see one of these debates, start to count the number of times words like “you” and “you should” and similar statements pop up. Then, for fun, try counting the number of “I” and “we” based statements. You’ll find that “you”-based statements will outnumber “I”-based statements in those discussions almost 10-1.

Why is this significant?

Well, you see, the point of the thread isn’t to talk about how WE are going to make media more equal, it is about how YOU are going to make media more equal. See the difference? It’s a pile of social justice believers trying to guilt each other (and the many more liberal minded people in the audience) into doing their work for them so that they can accomplish their goals while doing as little work as possible themselves. On top of that, it lets those with the social justice agenda feel they have accomplished something (slacktivism) while actually doing very little. I’ve seen countless threads where people will endlessly argue about how YOU should change your art to support their ideas of social justice, but for some reason they never get around to talking about how they are doing it. It’s a game as old as time- why do the work when you can get someone else to do it for you? And Privilege has turned into a big ole stick they can use to force you into it.

The concept of Privilege should be a way to help people reflect on how they can improve their work and themselves, but instead it’s all too often become a tool by which those with social justice agendas push others into furthering those agendas. And, of course, if people try to stand up those foisting their agendas on others, they’re told to “check their Privilege”…

2) To shut down conversation.

Sadly, while Privilege as a concept is meant to encourage discussion and exploration, in reality is it most often used to do the exact opposite. Wielding the word “Privilege” like a club, those in the pursuit of social justice often use it to silence the voices of those that they don’t agree with (because if you don’t agree with their ideas social justice, you’re evil, right?) and if someone says something or argues against them in a public forum the phrase “check your Privilege” is whipped out like a trump card to end the conversation.

  • “But, what if Venusians are partially responsible for their own economic situation and need to find new ways to rethink their lifestyles?”
  • “Check your Privilege! Venusian economics are the result of years of oppression by the Martians! How dare you sit there in your middle class Martian house with your middle class Martian job and suggest that there could be more complex causes to the situation than Martians being evil!”
  • “This was a show written by cats about feline life in the feline community, of course there aren’t any non-felines.”
  • “Check your Privilege! There should be more dog characters, or are you just racist?”

And if you try to argue against those who have slapped down the Privilege card, you are by default perceived to be siding with the status quo/oppressors, and are thus a Cat sympathizer/Martian supremacist who should no longer to be listened to by the community by virtue of your wrong-ness. You have offended the social justice/social media status quo that all right-thinking people should be following, and if you continue to argue you will be unfriended, blacklisted, and no longer welcome at significant social events.

Again, this was a tool for creating conversation and exploring the deeply nuanced nature of society, but now it’s become a tool for those in pursuit of social justice to shut down discussion and free speech with which they disagree- thus accomplishing the exact opposite. Speaking of nuance, this is another problem with wielding Privilege as it is all too often used in social media today…

3) Its very use in debate creates an automatic oppressor/oppressed dynamic

The moment the word “Privilege” enters a conversation, the person using that word is automatically labeling the person they’re using it against as siding with “the oppressor” against whatever minority viewpoint they support, and labeling themselves as a member of (or ally of) “the oppressed”. From the moment the word enters the conversation in a debate context, the person using it is claiming the moral high ground and framing the whole conversation around a struggle for equality that they support. Even if the person they’re using it against has valid points or arguments, it doesn’t matter- they’re automatically on the defensive and perceived by the audience to be supporting the “wrong” position and must now fight to justify themselves and their argument. (Something the person who just whipped out the word “Privilege” no longer needs to do because now they’re standing up against a bully, and who doesn’t want to side with the underdog?)

Going back to the previous point, the word “Privilege” has turned into a conversation killer than automatically gets all “right thinking” people to rally behind you. It biases the conversation, and poisons the whole debate by attacking the character of the person who is arguing against whatever position the social justice advocate is advocating. In a lot of ways, it’s indirectly calling anyone who argues against the social justice stance a “Nazi” and making them argue their way out of being a Nazi in the audience’s minds. (And who listens to Nazis? Other Nazis! That’s who!) This makes the whole argument a losing struggle, and one which will almost certainly end in a meaningless mess, which is natural because…

4) The whole concept of Privilege as used on Social Media is largely meaningless anyways.

The truth is, the whole way people use Privilege in online debate is pretty much a joke. To claim someone has Privilege over others is already a racist/classist/culture-ist statement, after all, we’re all individuals with different life experiences. The first rule of respecting others is recognizing that we all (rich, poor, black, brown, white, purple, polka-dotted, etc.) have our own unique experiences that come from our unique upbringings and that we shouldn’t be trying to label people or lump them into groups. When one person whips out the “Privilege” card, they have no way to knowing what the life is like of the person they’re arguing with, and even if they do know that person, there are so many things about ourselves that we hide from those around us. Taking a stance against “Privilege” is automatically attempting to label and classify others who you don’t know, and don’t have the right to classify. (Or, if you do, they get the right to label and classify you too!)

On top of that, anyone on the internet is automatically Privileged, since most of the world barely has TV, much less internet access. So it’s already a bunch of Privileged people arguing over who is more or less Privileged, which is pretty silly, when you think about it.

Like I said, meaningless.

Final Thoughts

So, after all this, should we stop using the word Privilege and throw out the whole idea? I mean, if it’s doing as much harm as it is good, is it worth keeping around? Like anything, the answer is- it depends. As a lens for viewing society and encouraging self-reflection, I think Privilege is a pretty good tool. It really could help us to make society better by making people think about things outside of their own little Monkey Sphere.

That said, the way people are using Privilege in the social media world has to change. Using it as a tool to beat others into submission to your personal social-political agendas is just wrong, and produces the opposite of conversation and diversity. Change comes from ourselves, and being leaders, not from pushing our beliefs on others and using social peer-pressure to force them to do what we want them to do. True diversity comes from free speech, and people being allowed to say and express things that you may not agree with. While everyone has the right to comment on what others do, and should discuss issues of inequality and social justice, shutting down voices doesn’t accomplish that goal and only breeds anger and resentment.

It’s a complex issue, and I don’t claim to have the answer, but the next time someone whips out the word Privilege in a conversation, think about what effect it has and why they’re really using it. Are they using it to really promote actual discussion of inequality, or just to promote themselves?

 

Rob

 

RIP Robin Williams

When I was growing up, people would always say “Robyn is a girl’s name.”

I would answer- “No, it’s not. There’s Robin Williams.”

Now there isn’t.

Thank you Mr. Williams, for being there from a fellow Robyn. Even if your name was spelled wrong. 😉

Rob

Check your Privilege!

CBC’s The Current on the topic of Privilege.

The concept of Privilege as a way to make people think about the unequal distribution of power in society was a good idea, and continues to be a good idea when used as a framing device to promote understanding. However, like most things, it‘s been co-opted by those who want to use it to their own advantage.

Now the phrase “check your privilege” is well on its way to being the newest way to call someone a Nazi and end conversations rather than start them. It’s really handy- anytime I want to shout someone down I just scream “Check your privilege!” at them and the conversation is pretty much over. Even I, as a middle-class straight white male (usually the ones being shouted into silence), can get in on the fun with richer people, who clearly have an unconscious social advantage over me and are thus no longer worth listening to because they “just don’t understand”.

“Check your privilege, One Percenter!”

And meanwhile, society divides itself more and more and people actually talk to each other and understand each other less and less. yay.