Tag Archives: narrative

Human Conception: From Reality to Narrative

Psychology textbooks like to talk about the idea of “roles”: gender roles, professional roles, class roles, etc.  This is merely one instance of the greater process of human understanding.

Premise:  Reality is infinite and almost infinitely complex.

Premise:  Human beings–and their brains/processing power–are finite.

Question: So how do humans manage to interact with and understand the world?

A human being takes a subset of reality, and creates a rule from it.  A system of rules for a given topic becomes a model.  A group of models is understood through a narrative.  Our conception of the world, both physically ad intellectually, is comprised of a series of narratives.

Similarly, when we consider ourselves, there is a process of understanding–

Person -> Perceptions -> Roles -> Ideals -> Narratives -> Identity

–where “person” is a reality whose totality we cannot completely comprehend. When we consider others, we trade out the idea of Identity with the idea of a Label.  Now, a person can have many labels and many identities depending on context.

This goes back to the premise that we cannot understand everything all at the same time.

It is possible to move from the Label/Identity layer down into narratives, roles, and perceptions.  But no matter how low we go, we can never understand the totality, and this is where we run into the problem of false roles, false narratives, and false labels.  The vast majority of our conceptions of other people are flawed, and the other person would probably disagree with a large portion of them.  And so we have misunderstandings do to our inability to completely conceive of the totality of a person (or the world).


So, we take the facts we have and try to find what’s called a “best fit” case.  When you graph trends in statistics, you draw a line through your data points that best  approximates the average location of the points.  The same is true when we judge others, no matter on what axis we are judging them.  We look at our system of roles, ideas, and narratives, and try to find the set of them that most closely fits our perceptions of the person in question.  Then, we construct our idea of their identity from that best fit.  In this way, we warp (slightly or egregiously) the unknowable totality of reality as we experience it to fit a narrative.  Because our system for understanding and interacting with the universe is only capable of so much, we reduce reality down to something it feels like our system can handle.

The reason that certain character archetypes and narrative trajectories are so popular is because they match the most easily understandable roles and narratives.  Good vs. evil is easy for our  simplified system to handle.  It’s much harder to judge and therefore arrive at an “appropriate” emotional response to grey morality.  Because humans and the cultural sea in which we swim impose a localized best “best fit” on our collective consciousness, as writers we can learn about these best fits and cleave to or  subvert them for our own purposes in our writing.  We can pick where to deviate in order to focus our attention and our chances of successfully getting across our meaning.  Just as we can only handle a certain complexity in understanding reality, we are limited in our ability to deviate from the norm successfully.  Thus the  commonly re-quoted “You get one big lie” in regards to maintaining suspension of disbelief.


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June 2015 World-building Seminar: Technology and World-building

This is the third post in my mini-Seminar on Technology in World-building.  This mini-series follow a slightly different format than the standard-form Monthly Word-building Seminars.  So for this post, I’ll be covering how to match your World-building to your technology in terms of general concepts.

There are five things to consider when deciding what level of technology will reasonably support your narrative with the fewest plot-holes:

  1. You need to have a general idea of what is powering your technology.  Is it man-power?  Horse-power?  Do you have steam engines or electricity?  What natural resource is generating this energy?  You might have food for humans or animals, coal or gas for steam engines or internal combustion engines.  You could have nuclear power running a steam turbine to generate electricity.  Perhaps you have wind, geothermal, solar, tidal, or river power to run an electric generator.
  2. You need to know what support technologies and knowledge are required for your energy-production method.  Do you need metal-working?  What about physics?  Battery power requires knowledge of chemistry.  Electric power requires lots of advanced knowledge to be widely-spread.
  3. What other technologies are likely to have been discovered on the path to your most modern science, and are they obsolete, moribund, or still of practical value?  Most societies with war as a major component learned how to make edged weapons and armor.  Sword-forging techniques are incredibly innovative and complex.  When reliable fire-arms came along, however, they were soon obsolete.  Windmills and watermills were original created to grind grain or pump water.  But even though we have more advanced methods for that today, we were able to incorporate that knowledge into new technology, to generate electric power.  With the advent of computers and electronic mail stationary production is no longer strictly necessary.  Many people no longer rely on letters as a form of communication on a regular basis.  And yet some of the technology and systems involved still survive in diminished capacities.
  4. What technology does evidence suggest are developed alongside the technology you wish to use in your story?  Can or would a society evolve to ignore those technologies if they don’t work for your narrative structure?  Modern communication has invalidated many of our most popular narrative structures.  Yet many authors are so used to writing in those structures, they find increasingly creative and improbably ways to invalidate the new technology and thus create space for their narratives rather than figuring out how to create tension by designing new structures to incorporate modern realities..  Or they don’t have the technology exist at all.
  5. Relatedly, can you somehow justify your narrative or society despite the fact that the necessary combination of technologies is plausible based on your world-building or story events?  How many plot-holes can your story support if you can’t quite make things fit how you’d need them to?

In its simplest usage, technology is the list of possibilities available to you as an author to move your narrative along.  But it’s also a set of restrictions on what you can realistically accomplish within your narrative.

If you have cell-phones, then it’s a lot harder to plot a story where key pieces of information are kept from various characters due to narrative shenanigans.  Really any sort of spycraft story is gonna be very different with long-distance communication.  You can text pictures of important documents, for example, instead of having to break back out of the evil fortress.  Sneaking around is a lot harder with cameras and heat-sensors. It’s relatively easy to assume a false identity in the middle ages.  How are they going to fact-check you when you’re from a thousand miles away with shitty roads and a bandit problem?  In the modern world, it’s a lot harder to get along as a fake person, despite what you may see in the movies.  Communications technology has a huge impact on a society and its national identity, and we’ll be covering those effects in-depth in a later seminar.

Cheap, high-quality steel can lead to very advanced swords–way better than were available back in the day.  But!  They’ve probably been outmoded by guns by the time such steel is available.  But the implications as far as national security and expansion potential given a certain level of military tech relative to neighboring lands should be pretty obvious.

And all this is ignoring the possibility of magic mimicking advanced technology in a fantasy story.


It’s also important to keep in mind that available technology is going to have a strong influence on how your society is structured.  Your population density for cities increases sharply with easy transportation or aqueducts to supply water.  Concrete makes for cheap, durable housing for the masses.  Good building insulation increases the number of climates humans can have an advanced civilization in.  Road-building and ship-building technology mean increased trade, which leads to more wealth.  They also make it easier to hold together a large political region, because it’s easier for the ruler to communicate and enforce his will.

Medicine is also important.  Good medical technology lets people live longer, take greater risks, and increases population.  People aren’t dying all the time from plagues, and they’re living longer.  This can lead to more skilled workers, give a genius more time to pursue knowledge, and increase the amount of wealth held by individuals or families.


It’s impossible in a single post or even a series of posts to cover even every major question about how technology will influence the world and any narratives that occur in it.  Different environments or political situations are going to affect how important a given aspect of technology is.  Some paths of development on Earth are just accidents of history and can be deviated from.  But it’s still an important thing to consider.  In the fourth and final post in this series (for now), I’m going to examine Jurassic World and the ways in which technology both make the story possible, but also leave some pretty gaping plot holes.


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Monthly Worldbuilding Seminar: Narrative vs. History

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.

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Posted by on June 1, 2015 in worldbuilding


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Monthly World-building Seminar: Introduction

As I’ve worked on this blog and on my writing, I’ve come to the conclusion that my special skill is world-building. It’s not only one of the hallmarks of what I see as my style of writing, but an interest I can and have explored even outside of writing.  There are many writing and literature blogs on the internet, and I’ve long struggled to find my niche.  At this moment, I think my best option is to specialize in world-building, a topic covered in breadth by many others, but rarely covered in the depths I intend to plumb.

I’ll choose a topic every month, with wide enough application to support a lengthy series of posts approximating the following format:

  1. The first post with be a broad introduction to the topic with an idea of what inspired me to pick it.
  2. The second post will be a general exploration of how it applies to the real world.
  3. The third post will be a general exploration of how it might be applied to fictional stories.
  4. The fourth post will be an explanation of how it applies to the triad of fiction: character, plot, and setting.
  5. The fifth post will be a successful real-world example of the concept, covered in-depth.
  6. The sixth post will be a second real-world example, of a failed application.
  7. The seventh will be an example of the application of the concept in fiction, preferably of a short-form work.
  8. The eighth will be an example of the concept in a long-form work.
  9. The ninth post will be an example of a failed application in fiction.
  10. The tenth and final post will be a conclusion of the seminar, possibly some writing prompts, and some questions to keep in mind when writing future stories. And the next topic!

I’ll have at least a partial list of individual topics in the intro post, some reading assignments(though they won’t be necessary to understand and enjoy the seminars, I’d say they add a lot of nuance), and some exploration of my inspiration.

The intro will always be on the first day of the month, and the conclusion on the last day.  The posts in between will on average be two posts a week on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Feel free to comment, suggest  topics, and in general let me know if I’ve done anything wrong, or right.

The first official topic, starting in June, will be History and Narratives: Putting the “Story” Back in “History”.

The first unofficial topic published on a shortened schedule in May, Technology and Inequality: Understanding Your Setting


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The Good, the Bad, and the Timeskip

One of the most versatile tools in ther writerly arsenal is the time-skip.  In fact, it might be the most versatile tool in the story-teller’s arsenal in general.

Let’s look at some examples from television:

There’s an intense moment, perhaps a friend has just been killed, or fallen off a tall tower, or maybe the heroes have just killed the monster, and… BAM! Timeskip.

Because, really, what is left to show after the hero screams “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” for two minutes.  How are you going to show the come-down from that?  For the most part you can’t.  Which is why I hate shows with a lot of long, anguished screams.  You see this in anime all the time, as well.  You see, the timeskip can be a great tool, but it can also blind the writer to other possibilities.

After the 40th time I’ve seen a scream/timeskip, I’ve gotten really tired of them.  Seriously, writers, find a better way to show this emotion.  The fact that you have to resort to timeskips so often after a major character dies tells me your skills at emotional depiction are rather one-trick pony.  It’s clear you just don’t know any other way to move on from such a scene.  But they exist!  And you should learn to use them.  And the same goes for any other dramatic moment.  Fade-outs aren’t everything.


But timeskips can still be good.  Once you’ve finished the scene and sequel, we don’t need to see everything that happens between then and the next major event.  A little “***” can work wonders.

“Quick, shut the door!” she yelled.  I slid the bolt into place just as the first oozing, moaning thing crashed up against the glass.  The sun peaking over the roofs across the street just made the pale, peeling skin more sickening.  I could hear the scritch-scratch of broken nails as they dug into the solid oak grain.  I could see the hunger in life-less bllodshot eyes.  I closed the curtain.  He wasn’t getting fries with this.


Eventually the creature wandered off, looking for easier pickings.  I shivered despite the warm sun poking through the thin fabric of the curtain, knowing that if this had been a summer blockbuster instead of the real thing, there’d have been an arm through the door, ready to rip off whatever was at hand.  But without a fully functioning brain, the nerves couldn’t get enough of a charge to do anything to solid wood except claw and moan.

That’s a passage from halfway through a zombie apocalypse book I wrote for god-knows-what reason.  It’s certainly not well-written enough to stand out from the crowd.  But between those two paragraphs was hours of whispers, weeping and shaking.  It would have taken thousands of words and the reader didn’t need to see it.  And that little line of asterisks let me skip all of it, and you never even realized you were missing anything.  You had the build-up and the resolution and none of the junk in between.


The same goes for long journeys.  If nothing happens between Parsell and Merrit, your characters can go to sleep in Parsel and be awake and in Merrit by the next paragraph.  There’s no need to drag the reader through the eleventy-hundred bowls of stew and loaves of journey-bread the characters eat on the way.  Which is not to say that you can’t put scenes in between, especially if it’s a long journey.  They just has to be relevant to the story.


Which brings up the third use of time skips.  Lots of time actually passing.  If four years happen between one important scene and the next, you’ll never be able to include the in-between, and you shouldn’t need to.

The real secret to doing good timeskips is knowing how to show the time passed.  In our little zombie snippet, it was just a few hours between evening and morning.  Not much happened but the zombie leaving.  But if you’re skipping months or years, things are going to be different.  Characters will have moved around, things will have been accomplished that may not be important for the reader to see, but they will have an effect on the characters and their circumstances.


Those are three common uses of time skips: skipping short periods of time between scene and sequels, skipping over time and distance such as ona  journey, and skipping long periods of time, such as in an epic fantasy saga.  There are more, but I can’t address them all in one post.  I wish I had been able to include more specific exmaples showing the difference between a good timeskip and a lack of one, but that would also take up too much space.  If you’ve read any decent amount of books or watched tv shows or movies, you’ll have your own examples to look at.

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Posted by on July 17, 2011 in How To, Writing


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