Heroes, Villains, and the Narratives We Tell

Something has been bothering me lately. I’ve noticed an increase in the use of the word narrative outside of literary contexts, specifically to describe the stories people tell themselves, and others, to explain or justify their beliefs or actions. I find this gratifying, in a sense, because it supports what I’ve said in the past about the importance of storytelling to our species. I think storytelling is probably as old as human language and I’ve written about how it is the root of both the field of history, which is factual, and the imaginative art of fiction. What I’m coming to understand now, however, is that mental narratives may in fact be fundamentally important to how we make sense of our world.

Events can be complicated, subtle, or obscure, with conflicting facts that push our understanding in different, or even opposite, directions. Because we don’t like to be confused or uncertain, we try to establish a thread that winds around and connects the facts to form a coherent narrative. And then we tend to pull the thread straighter. We try to make the story clearer or simpler – or more pleasing. In the process we edit it, dropping facts that don’t fit the narrative, or embellish it by adding presumptions that fill in gaps, or even pseudo-facts that make it a better story – one that’s more impressive, more emotionally satisfying, or that presents us (or other people involved) in a better light. This process would be fundamentally dishonest if we did it consciously. But the fact is, we often aren’t very aware of what we’re doing. We’re not paying attention to the process.

There’s probably a purpose to the construction of edited mental narratives – an evolutionary function – as there is to most of the strange but commonplace features of our thought process. It may contribute to how we maintain a positive attitude and self-image, how we keep our hopes and dreams alive, how we find our purposes and rally each other to our causes when we tell our narratives to others. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, this may not have been a problem: Life was short and there were no fact checkers. In the modern world, things get more complicated.

Basically, I think we all need to be more aware of our tendency to edit our perceptions of reality.

Being a fiction writer causes me to worry about the effect that fictional narratives may have on the thought processes of readers (or movie-goers). Creators of fiction construct their works in a very conscious way, of course. Assuming we’re not bent on probing the ambiguities of the human soul, this usually means we’re in the business of creating heroes and villains (among other things). To give our characters depth, we know it’s a good idea to give the hero a flaw or two and to give the villain a back-story that explains his or her motivations. But all of that aside, the nitty-gritty of character development mostly involves showing good guys being good and bad guys being bad. And our readers (or movie viewers) immerse themselves in our fictional narratives. They come prepared to buy into stories – at least for the duration – that are prime examples of “edited” narratives designed to be good stories, to be clear, dramatic, emotionally satisfying, etc.

And the thought keeps nagging me: Are fiction writers showing people how to edit their real-life narratives? Are we teaching people how to make storybook heroes and villains out of people in the real world? Further, are we giving people emotional practice in loving their heroes and hating their villains?

Looking for the good in people can be a positive thing, but seeing people as heroes of fictional stature is unrealistic. No one is that perfect, and we shouldn’t expect, much less demand, that people always be right or always be in the right. Hero worship can lead to getting conned, or following the wrong leader. The same thing goes for those – both individuals and groups – that we might seek to cast as villains. Vilification is easy to do, especially if you know the tropes and have become insulated from the facts. Hating people can be very emotionally satisfying, too, but it’s actually quite rare for people to be genuinely or completely evil. We need to be both critical, and forgiving, of ourselves and of our fellow human beings.

I’m not suggesting that writers are to blame for the polarization of our society. Our current poisonous political climate has many contributing causes. What I’m wondering is whether creators of fiction might inadvertently be feeding it when we take the easy path by setting up black-and-white moral situations or casually creating larger-than-life heroes or villains for readers to either love or hate. It’s worth considering whether writers – especially of the more popular genres – might actively work to make things better by humanizing their characters and creating conflicts that are morally more complex. Stories need protagonists, but does every story need a villain to be emotionally satisfying? Might it be just as powerful to watch an antagonist (or protagonist if there are no antagonists) come to understand his or her error and find redemption? What if more writers made a point of celebrating the act of realizing and admitting that one is wrong? Might that help to make a better world?

That’s it, basically. As always, tell me what you think. What about your own favorite fictional heroes and villains? Or ones that you have created?

I should take a moment to analyze the characters I created in my recently released first novel, Gift of Chance. These characters evolved over a long period of time and well before I started thinking about the content of this post. I’m guilty of creating, in Nagaro, a hero with a well-developed moral compass who rarely makes serious mistakes. He’s a bit of a paragon. In my defense, he is also a thinking man, one who critically examines and worries about his own actions and those of others. I perhaps did a little better on villains. There is no single villain whose actions create a central conflict that is resolved only upon his/her defeat. There are several minor characters who act as villains for a limited purpose and who I made no effort to humanize. There are more characters, however, who are mixed. They may begin by acting badly but come to a better place in the end, or their histories, once revealed, cast them in a more sympathetic light.

9 Comments

  • Carrie Rubin

    February 24, 2017 at 3:43 am Reply

    This is a fascinating question (and pardon me for paraphrasing it a bit in my retweet of your post, but I thought it was a great question to share over there in my limited character allowance!). In some ways, it gets back to the art-imitating-life vs. life-imitating-art question. I’ve always felt it probably goes both ways. Everything impacts everything else, and separating the two would prove nearly impossible. I like your idea of writing fiction without the usual format, for example, no antagonist. It would be interesting to see if it would hold the reader’s interest. My fear is it would not, as conflict is what makes for interesting reading, and internal conflict alone may not do it.

    Great post as always.

    • cwuenschell@gmail.com

      February 24, 2017 at 9:36 pm Reply

      I think you’re right, Carrie, about life-art being a two way street.

      No villain doesn’t have to mean no antagonist. Conflict, you definitely need, but I also would argue that a human antagonist isn’t necessary to provide conflict. Witness Andy Wier’s “The Martian”.

  • Gina Barlean

    February 24, 2017 at 3:53 am Reply

    Gift of chance is an excellent book. Both my husband and I loved it. We hope you are working diligently on the next book in the series!!

    I agree with you that as writers we must have a conscience. We really can sway opinions. Unfortunately, video games and advertising has a low ethical bar. Everything on TV is practically disgusting to me. The Bachelor? Really? Dear God. But, I can’t fix that. I can only mind my own garden.

    As always, this is a thought provoking post. Well worth the read.

    • Carrie Rubin

      February 24, 2017 at 7:48 pm Reply

      “I can only mind my own garden.”–I love that, Gina. I’ll have to keep it in mind when things I can’t control start getting to me.

    • cwuenschell@gmail.com

      February 24, 2017 at 9:53 pm Reply

      Hi Gina,
      I guess I was trying to think about how, as a writer, one might be able to nudge things in a better direction. Our stories are the garden we have.

      I’m blown away, and terribly flattered, by how much you enjoyed “Gift of Chance,” especially since I wouldn’t necessarily have expected it based on what I know about what you write. I really do prefer to write stories that one would call “feel good.” Your “Casting Stones” was so dark by comparison. I have to say that I thought you did a good job in it of making “villains” who were understandable based on what their lives had been like.

  • Joe Carter

    February 24, 2017 at 4:33 pm Reply

    From my perspective we are witnessing the cultural effects of linguistic hyper inflation which weakens the capacity of language to convey nuanced meaning. I think this is caused by and large because of the nature of maturing media markets as well as the democratization of communication through technology. Anyone can publish now. Because the output of information and entertainment is greater than the demand it generates the need for professionals to be hyper competitive in order to survive. It used to be the choices were few and only a select few had a megaphone. Now that there are many originators, and the business model in this saturated media economy is still to get attention, where genuine novelty and public service was once sufficient, it has now given way to the need for hyperbole. Exaggeration is now the social coin of the realm in most cases. This rise in the need to use more extravagant means to get attention also renders language less capable of carrying clarity and nuance. The broader impact is that we devolved culturally into a dichromatic world, where everything falsely becomes either black, or white, hence the rise of sharp cultural divides.

    We do not and cannot any longer examine with any depth, the flawed people who not only walk in our midst, but are in fact us. We instead picture each other as either mustache twirling villains cackling at the victim tied to the railroad tracks, or paragons, incapable of anything but virtue, both of which are false. This intellectual poison was not plotted, it is a mundane outgrowth of the effects of media defining the kinds of messages conveyed through it. As media changes, so does the message. Marshall Mcluhan and Neil Postman predicted this fruition some time ago. Neil’s book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” was pretty on point about this.

    On storytelling, I agree we are storytellers. I think you would enjoy Jordan Peterson’s book “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief”. It is an excellent depiction of how stories were the means by which we first understood things about ourselves and the cosmos that we were not developed enough to paint in plain verbal terms. (Arguably this is still true for many if not all of us to some degree.)

    Great post, stimulating questions, thanks.

    • cwuenschell@gmail.com

      February 24, 2017 at 10:09 pm Reply

      Wow. Heavy. Thanks for weighing in, Joe. I won’t say you’re wrong about media hyperbole contributing to the situation. Certainly, I think the fact that anyone can write a tweet that can go viral, or make a Facebook meme, means that people can now “feed” each others’ narratives far more easily than they ever could before advent of the internet. I think it’s a mistake, though, not to also lay blame on political leaders – people of power and influence – who are not “the media”, but who use it, and who have deliberately worked to amplify partisanship by cynically propagating black-and-white narratives and vilifying political opponents. Politicians have always done that, to some degree, but it is especially damaging in the internet age. I think it’s all a very complicated picture. I was trying, as one who distressed by what I see, to think about what I might be able to do to make it better, even if only in a small way.

  • Audrey Kalman

    February 24, 2017 at 9:31 pm Reply

    I also am intrigued by the idea of narrative outside the context of fiction and literature (in fact, I’m writing a novel about it!). But it’s hard to know what’s cause and what’s effect. Does literature teach attitudes or reflect them? I wish that we authors could, through considered application of our talents, change the direction of the world, but on all by my best days I’m not sure we have much effect at all.

    I’m going to tweet this post as part of my #OneVoiceEachDay series.

    • cwuenschell@gmail.com

      February 24, 2017 at 10:16 pm Reply

      I know what you mean, Audrey, about feeling like we have no effect. I think that some books, including fiction ones, can sometimes be influential. Thinking I could actually write one is another matter. I wish you good luck with your project.

      Thanks for the tweet! I’ll have to look at that series.

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