Sunday, 13 June 2010

The Heroic Ego

I have been thinking recently about the heroic versus the naturalistic way of thinking, spurred on by a chapter I'm co-authoring for a volume on extremism and uncertainty.

Brief recap of what has gone before: in a heroic fiction the world is there for the sake of the protagonist. It is there to test, challenge, scare, amaze, delight.

In a naturalistic fiction the world exists with its own logic. The protagonist just stumbles upon it.

Four very different instances where this applies:

1. I've abandoned my re-reading of Stephen King's It  The bloat that was annoying in The Shining becomes nearly unbearable here, way too many characters and I don't feel like plodding through to the conclusion, which I recall as a total, disgusting WTF moment.

The real annoying thing, though, is that it's heroic mode. The Bad Thing is there primarily to test, tempt, taunt, and scare the protagonists. You peek in over their shoulder at a never ending parade of horror shows, most of which don't work, and you can almost hear King running around frantically going "I am the master spookster! Boo! Did I scaaare you?" The images may be disturbing, but the underlying message is reassuring. You are important enough for the Ultimate Evil to personally care about you.

Lovecraft doesn't play that. In his stories, you stumble on a universe that doesn't care if you exist or not. That's scary for keeps.

2. In a conversation with a grad student here who is studying conspiracy theories, he mentioned the belief that at the same time the plotters are incredibly powerful and capable, and incredibly stupid. One exhibit of the "incredibly stupid" variety is the mustache-twirling dialogue of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document forged by the Czar's secret service that purports to be the minutes of a global Jewish conspiracy. Again, a product of the heroic mode, as with so many villain tropes. The bad guy is only understandable as a foil for the hero, rather than someone who ruthlessly pursues their own goals. To this end his minions are set up to fail, he provides exposition of his own plots, leaves the hero in a death trap with an adequate Challenge Rating, and so forth.

3. The feminist Bechdel Rule judges films according to whether they contain more than one female character that talk to each other about something other than men. A similar rule could be applied to men who appear in "female" entertainments such as Sex and the City, I guess. Fiction tends to play to its target gender, presenting members of the opposite sex as props in the drama.

4. Hit point systems are heroic. Location injury systems are naturalistic. Guess which one overwhelmingly dominates the world of computer gaming.

The irony is that it is more natural to us as story listeners or game players to prefer heroic to naturalistic tales. Stories and games in heroic mode are comforting; easy to get into; do not tax our thought or motivation; appeal to a wide range of tastes. Stories and games in naturalistic mode are slightly more difficult; they ask us to step outside our heroic ego, face the possibility of death, disidentify with the hero or characters and become more of a puppet master.

I suspect which mode any given person prefers in a game depends on how much they see the game as an escape from the complexities of life, versus an arena in which to confront the complexities of life.


  1. While I think you make a cogent point, if I were a character in the story, or in real life for that matter, I don't think I would take solace in that the Ultimate Evil's interested in me meant I was special.

    Now that I think of it, I think there are two versions of "specialness"-- there's a grandoise specialness of "they're after me because I can do things" whereas, there's the paranoid flavor of "there after me for reasons I can't fathom." Neither are naturalistic, but they create very different feels.

  2. Yep, that's the difference between heroic and horror, I guess. Horror is supposed to be unnerving, but the more it follows genre conventions, the more reassuring it is. It's also interesting that conspiracy theories can either fuel a kind of passive cynicism or fanatical action - perhaps due to this very difference.