Sociological vs Psychological Storytelling

Game of Thrones, in its eighth and final season, enjoyed audiences of more than 17 million people per week. However, fan and critic reaction though out the season indicated many of those millions loathed it.

Where did the season go wrong and why exactly did it go downhill? In May 2019, Zeynep Tufekci published an article in the Scientific American entitled, ‘The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones.’

Her thesis was simple; the original narrative created by George R. R. Martin struck a cord with audiences because of its unique subtlety as a sociological story which stood out among Hollywood narratives characterised by being psychological and individually motivated.

It’s not just bad storytelling—it’s because the storytelling style changed from sociological to psychological .

She explains that in sociological narratives, characters evolve in response to the broader social, political, economic and cultural incentives and norms that surround them. Author George R. R. Martin drew from medieval and renaissance history for his characters and plot devices, as well as from European myth and legend. In doing so, he specialized in having characters evolve in response to the broader social fabric and beliefs within which they were placed.

On the other hand, psychological narratives features characters driven by much more individual quests and motives. The preference for this narrative style in Hollywood is understandable: the story is easier to tell and we gravitate toward identifying with the hero or hating the antihero, at the personal level. The hallmark of sociological storytelling however, is it can encourage us to put ourselves in the place of any character, not just the main hero/heroine, and imagine ourselves making similar choices. The complexity made it much richer than a simplistic morality tale, where unadulterated good fights with evil.

An example of the power of Martin’s sociological storytelling was his willingness to kill off major characters frequently without losing the thread of the story. Narratives driven by psychological and individual motives rarely do that because the main characters are the key tools with which the story is built. Given the dearth of such narratives in fiction and in TV, this approach clearly resonated with a large fan base that latched on to the show.

Showrunners, D. B. Weiss and David Benioff, took the narrative beyond Martin’s books, and turned the later seasons into Hollywood psychological narratives. In the final season, none of the main characters are killed early or unexpectedly and the motives and movements of the protagonists and antagonists became ever more internally wrought. What resulted in season 8 was ‘deus ex-machina’ styled defeat of the forces of the dead, and simplistic dissolution to good vs. evil interplay between main characters.

And it was the story’s richness which was lost in season 8, moving fans and critics to openly pan the final episodes online. Meme’s abound like the image below featuring a young woman’s Halloween costume literally ‘trashing’ season 8.

You can read Zeynep Tufekci’s full article on Scientific American, HERE.

Who is the baddy?

We all know that story does not work without a crisis; the protagonist requires a challenge to overcome, the dragon to slay, the mountain to conquer, the darkness to subdue. Every hero requires a nemesis and every protagonist, an antagonist. This is the stuff of good stories – drama, tension, a fight.

Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines villain as:

“a cruelly malicious person;….a scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot”.

Important evil agency in the plot.…………Interesting!

mary poppins

As a child watching Mary Poppins I remember the bad guys clearly – they worked  in the bank. Cold, miserly, money hungry, they would steal men’s time away from their children, away from joy, fun and family. In contrast, Mary sought to bring the children’s dreams alive and to mend relationships between parents and their offspring.

The sensitive viewer may grow to believe that banks and institutions are evil, that the arts and pursuits of family, simple hearty work [such as chimney sweeping] and creativity are true, good and right. But is this a fair representation of reality?

 

Well not really,  but it’s just a kids story, right?

In a cowboy or Western movie – the baddy is an Indian or Mexican. In a spy or war movie, the baddy is a German or Eastern European or Muslim. Are the baddies foreign nationals?  Are the baddies the capitalists [Mary Poppins]  or the government [Divergent/ Hunger Games]?  Are the baddies the drug dealers and criminals amongst us ? Who are the bad guys, really?

 

cowboysbond-villains-blofeld

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The very word villain comes from the Middle-English word for “base or low born rustic” or medieval latin “farmhand”. In medieval times, it accounted for one who did not behave in manner befitting a Knight – one of lowly, dishonourable behaviour.  In contemporary parlance, the word is cognate to the french word for “ugly.” The term “sinister” comes from the latin root for “left.”

So in narrative terms – cruetly and malice, wickedness and crime are related to social class, political persuasion and physical appearance? Maybe not in such simplistic terms but if we continue to digest simple stories and their simple morals, perhaps we produce a society of people with narrow minded stereotypical views of who out there needs to be punished for social ills.

How do we redress this?

maleficent

Of late, years Hollywood has played a lot with story conventions around stereotypical bad buys, and we have more tales telling the back stories of villains such as Wreck It Ralph, Despicable Me, Maleficent, Shrek, Monsters Inc and so forth. Children learn that the bad guy [or girl] has a story too.

However since classical days, the greatest of literary works are the most complex in their approach to the nature and origin of evil.

Greek and Roman plays and poems presented complex tales of conflicted heros with murky motivations. Shakespeares characters are deeply wrought characters full of  jealousy, hubris, power lust, and vengeance. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and the Russian writers are famed for the manner in which they can cast characters both empathetic and corrupted at once. The genuis of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter is that while evil lay without in the form of Voldemort, it existed in very real form within Hogwarts too, among the full blooded wizards, the Slytherin families and even within Harry himself and his desire for power.

harry and voldemort

Most tales of inner struggles are tragedies. Simple stories of good versus bad can end happily when good guy defeats bad guy, but what does one do when the good guy IS the bad guy? How does this story possibly end happily?

John Lennon’s song has become the anthem of peace marches since the ’60s

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

 

For us to realise that there is no baddy “out there” – not another nation, not another religion, not an ugly person or a different person – this requires a terrbile self knowing and self realisation that is absent from Lennon’s anthem – the baddy is within.

This sounds like religious dogma you might protest…. Religion has created all manner of  guilt complexes to make us out the be the culprit of all wrong doings.  Religion exists to torture us in the knowledge that we are “baaaaaad” deeply and irrevocably bad. However, it does seem that within this realisation comes the truest form of self- knowing.

religious guilt

No wonder our human psychology is complex – we construct stories in which  the fault belongs to others. These narratives save us from descending into madness. Acceptance of culpability would crush us. But lack of acceptance creates in us a delusion, a splintering from true self-knowing. So what is the answer?

I personally find the solution in Hebrew literature. Ancient and deeply perceptive, Hebrew narrative is nuanced enough to make the protagonist both empathetic [we can identify with them] but also the villain. When you pass by the normal foils – giants, lions, enemy kingdoms – you find the true problem. The human heart is the problem. While there is evil and conflict and tension from without – ultimately it’s the complex, betraying and deceitful human heart at the bottom of it all.

This narrative however, does not descend into despair. It does so by introducing a new note into the story – the note of grace.  When the crushing knowledge of human culpability is first raised, so is the notion of a sacrifice, a scape-goat. First, literally it was a goat or lamb, ceremonially slain at feast times and symbolically expunging evil. However, such symbols cannot redress the evil in the human heart, can they?

Abraham

And so transpires the greatest myth of all, the myth become history [as CS Lewis puts it], God become man, to die a death that only man can die, and redress an evil that only God can redress. This scape-goat moves from beyond symbol into something so groundshattering  that philsophers and theologians are still confused by the depth and weight of it all. This event in history, permits true self knowledge. Humanity can know self to be corrupt without despair, for the punishment has fallen upon the scape-goat, the innocent. This gracious act in turns becomes the wellspring of transformed action, as with a new lease of life, humanity can simultaneously know self and rejoice.

How would this transform politics, international relations, human relations – the fundamental understanding that the problem lies within?  And this knowledge does not result in despair, nor in delusion, but in glorious self knowing and true “peace on earth.”