Putting the “Story” Back in “History”
(A continuation of my Monthly Worldbuilding Seminar series. For the month of June, I’m looking at the effects of narrative on worldbuilding and its use in writing good stories and characters.)
What do we really know about the past? What other people tell us. Go read Ken Liu’s You’ll Always Have the Burden With You. I’ll wait. Not only is it a fun story, it’s a perfect example of the fallibility of the historical record. Human beings are wired for narrative. It’s in our genes. It helps us make sense of a world that’s merely a random sequence of events within a given system. Narratives are our best attempt at making those obscure rules transparent. In the story, the narrative of a Gilgameshic epic serves the purposes of the head archaeologist. People like the story, the expeditions get funded. An alien tax code is boring (not really, but for your average human, it holds little interest), while an epic fantasy with religious overtones is fascinating. It’s an open question in the story whether the truth really matters. The main character criticizes an interpretation of the findings that within the expedition team has since been discredited, and yet when the same thing happens with the interpretation of the most fascinating artifact, he refuses to believe it. or at least bows to the argument of the expedition leader. It’s unclear if any of the characters notices the irony, although I can only assume Liu intended it to be available to the reader.
This concept is reflected in actual history. Greek and Roman “historians” have often been suspected of telling fibs to further their agenda. Did Carthaginians really sacrifice infants, or was that merely a convenient fiction during the conflict between them and the Romans? Were there really temple prostitutes, or was it merely a way to discredit otherwise comparably civilized opponents? Does belly-dancing really descend from the sacred dances of the temple priestesses in the Levant? Or does it just make lessons more marketable to New Age and Feminist customers?
Beyond mere misinterpretation based on imposing our own value systems on alien cultures or just plain old aliens, there’s a purposeful misunderstanding, of which no culture is innocent, that can corrupt true history and misguide us in our understandings of others.
Rather than the truth, history is just the most successful narratives that have survived long enough that no one can refute them.
These narratives can even be so successful that they overshadow living truths of other cultures, or the narratives put forth by the modern descendants of past cultures. All it requires is a lack of competing narratives. Whether this is because those narratives are lost to history or are being purposefully suppressed, or because they aren’t available in a given language, or just because they haven’t penetrated popular consciousness, it makes little difference in the end. Sometimes we can manage to unseat false or misguided narratives. Sometimes even when the truth is known, it’s just not sexy enough for people to care.
What does this have to do with fiction? You can take advantage both of narratives and how we apply them to history and apply them to your world-building, to your plots, to your characters, to your themes. Being able to conceive of multiple plausible narratives for one situation, and being able to point a reader down those roads can be a valuable skill for a writer. Mystery writers use it to place red herrings, to keep their characters from looking stupid in the multi-suspect structure of many procedurals. Medical procedurals such as House MD make use of this concept such that a tiny little fact can change what appears to be the most reasonable narrative, or more specifically, the most believable diagnosis given a certain set of symptoms.
The three easiest targets for a narrative are those who are honestly ignorant of a topic, those who are more ignorant than they think they are, and those who are invested in the likely outcome of a given narrative. Our understanding of economics is rife with competing narratives and confounding factors. We know many small pieces of the puzzle, but the whole picture eludes us, and that makes for plenty of seemingly reasonable possibilities.
And as a result, what is the general populations view of economics full of? Conflict. Various people are invested in various economic narratives for various reasons. They may or may not believe these narratives to be true, but they act as if they are true, or pretend to act like they are true because of the benefits of doing so. Trickle-down economics benefits those at the top of the heap; the truth of the theory is irrelevant in that sense. Plenty of competing theories are guilty of the same.
And that applies to any area of human study or endeavor. In politics, we may be more familiar with the concept of propaganda, which is a subset of narrative, generally associated with political bodies.
No society is truthful with itself. Whether they deliberately mislead themselves, are tricked by someone, or are just blind to the perceptions of others. Neither are humans. Self-image is also a form of narrative, whether it’s someone’s actual opinion of themselves, or the “reality” they try to project into the minds of others. Any non-zero number of humans engages in spin at one time or another.
The next time you’re working on a story, whether it involves a single character in the moment, or the history of an entire nation, consider: How would this person or group spin themselves to outsiders? To insiders? To themselves? How do they want to feel about themselves, how do they want others to feel about them, and what do they gain from the various possible interpretations of the facts?
Finally, ask yourself, what are the burdens of maintaining these narratives? How do they affect your characters’ or society’s relationships with others? Where do the various narratives your characters or societies feel the need to assume conflict? How do they balance those conflicts, if they can? How do the imbalances force their hand? And how does self-image conflict with self? Is it better to assimilate to the useful image? Is it worth the pain and stress not to? Why these self-images? Guilt? Ambition? Or desire?
Look forward to next week for some specific analysis of the effects of narrative on history as regards the Japanese in World War II.