Future Story Status

Orson Scott Card on story characters:

Four basic factors … are present in every story, with varying degrees of emphasis. … milieu, idea, character, and event.

  • The milieu is the world surrounding the characters, the landscape, the interior spaces, the surrounding cultures the characters emerge from and react to; everything from weather to traffic laws.
  • The idea is the information that the reader is meant to discover or learn during the process of the story.
  • Character is the nature of one or more of the people in the story – what they do and why they do it. It usually leads to or arises from a conclusion about human nature in general.
  • The events of the story are everything that happens and why. …

Each factor is present in all stories, to one degree or another. Every factor has an implicit structure; if that factor dominates a story, its structure determines the overall shape of the story. …

All [these] factors are present in The Lord Of The Rings, but it is the milieu structure that predominates, as it should. It would be absurd to criticize The Lord Of The Rings for not having plot unity and integrity, because it is not an event story. Likewise, it would be absurd to criticize the book for its stereotyped one-to-a-race characters or for the many characters about who we learn little more than what they do in the story and why they do it, because this is not a character story. …

Character stories really came into their own at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both the novelty and the extraordinary brilliance of some of the writers who worked with this story structure have lead many critics and teachers to believe that only this kind of story can be “good.” … [But] other kinds of stories have long traditions, with many examples of brilliance along the way. ….

It is a mistake to think that deep, detailed characterization is an absolute virtue in storytelling. .. If you choose not to devote much time to characterization in a particular story, this won’t necessarily mean you “failed” or “wrote badly.” It may mean that you understand yourself and your story. (more; pp.62,63,74,75; see also)

Card suggests that the current high status of character stories is a temporary historical accident, which suggests that it will eventually decline. Someone will write such a damn impressive milieu, idea, or event story that others seeking to look impressive will try their hand, making that structure the ideal of a “good” story.

I’d guess that rising incomes contributed to the rising status of the character story. Rich self-indulgent folks are more likely to be obsessed with their own internal feelings, and our wealth has allowed us the slack to often have dramatically dysfunctional character features. Also, our psychological aversion to seeing ourselves clearly has made those who can overcome such aversions more clearly impressive. However, if our descendants are less rich, less free to change their social roles, or if they can more easily see themselves clearly, character stories may seem less compelling. My weak bet is on the eventual rise in status of the milieu story, as I’ve recently come to see how very hard it can be to describe a coherent yet different world.

Added 8:30p: I went searching for criticism of Card’s framework here, and couldn’t find any. Odd.

Added 7a: On reflection, it is also pretty plausible that increasing density, size, and specialization has only recently created a niche for cognitive elites to write for other cognitive elites, which let writers focus on impressing such elites. Impressively realistic character stories are mostly impressive to other cognitive elites, and much less so to ordinary readers.

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  • Thursday1

    Card suggests that the current high status of character stories is a temporary historical accident, which suggests that it will eventually decline.

    Card is an ignoramus. Character stories have been around forever and it is the characters we remember from Homer to Proust. What Card appears to mean is in fact realistic settings with no ghosts and gods for characters. That is indeed a late development.

    BTW Tolkien did spend way too much time on the world and LOTR suffers for it. In fact, the world is better than the book.

    • Thursday1

      Even event and world driven stories need characters:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxKtZmQgxrI

    • IMASBA

      The epic of Gilgamesh already was a character story and that’s 4000 years old.

      • Eliezer Yudkowsky

        Gilgamesh does not obviously have two parts in conflict; see my longer comment below.

      • Sid

        Also, the Indian epic Mahabharata is around 1500-2000 years old and has quite complex characters. Though, I think that corroborating Robin’s hypothesis, stories with complex characters seem to have been written during in rich times.

      • IMASBA

        Yes, of course. Robin has made similar points before and it’s not difficult to see why it’s a mostly correct view. Introspection takes a back seat during societal struggles. It’s no surprise Office Space was made in 1999 instead of 2013: you don’t think about the meaninglessness of jobs when you’re too busy finding one.

    • Ilya Shpitser

      “BTW Tolkien did spend way too much time on the world and LOTR suffers for it. In fact, the world is better than the book.”

      I agree with the latter sentence but the former is a curious statement. The vast majority of authors of fiction (that cannot piggyback their setting e.g. magical realism) don’t spend nearly enough time on world building, and it makes their stuff terrible. In particular, I find fiction authors generally do a poor job of working out the counterfactuals they assume.

      My view is, people should spend as much time on the world as Tolkien, but then _also_ do better on characters!

      • Thursday1

        Did Shakespeare or Tolstoy need to focus more on worldbuilding?

      • Ilya Shpitser

        They didn’t have counterfactuals to work out. For example, Tolstoy just wrote in Tsarist Russia. Shakespeare would occasionally assume e.g. a ghostly dad as a plot device, but again no real counterfactuals. Their worlds were belieavable because they were mostly just our world.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    I’m not sure at the moment whether this is a bias or a heuristic–or maybe it’s signaling–but I’d take Card’s analysis a lot more seriously if I had any respect for his writing style.

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Alternative hypothesis: Character stories are harder to write, and the cumulative technique of writing has improved over time. I don’t think that mileu, idea, and events have been slighted in modern stories. Well, except that from what I hear, mileu and ideas no longer appear outside of SF&F, but I don’t read that sort of stuff.

    Card is widely hated in much the same way I am, though by slightly different people. I wouldn’t expect any specific criticism of his MICE quotient, other authors have given similar breakdowns and the people who hate Card mostly dislike his political or religious views.

    I remark that a helpful key to understanding Character is to consider the folk-psychological notion from Internal Family Systems of people being composed of different ‘parts’ embodying different drives or goals. A shallow character is then a character with only one ‘part’. A good rule of thumb is that to create a 3D character that person must contain at least two different 2D characters who come into conflict. Contrary to the first thought that crosses your mind, three-dimensional good people are constructed by combining at least two different good people with two different ideals, not by combining a good person and a bad person. Deep sympathetic characters have two sympathetic parts in conflict, not a sympathetic part in conflict with an unsympathetic part. Deep smart characters are created by combining at least two different people who are geniuses. E.g. HPMOR!Hermione contains both a sensible young girl who tries to keep herself and her friends out of trouble, and a starry-eyed heroine, neither of whom are stupid.

    Closely related is Card’s observation that a conflict between Good and Evil can be interesting, but it’s often not half as interesting as a conflict between Good and Good. All standard rules about cliches still apply, and a conflict between good and good which you’ve previously read about and which the reader can already guess your correct approved answer to, cannot carry the story. A good rule of thumb is that if you have a conflict between good and good which you feel unsure about yourself, or which you can remember feeling unsure about, or you’re not sure where exactly to draw the line, you can build a story around it. I consider the most successful moral conflict in HPMOR to be the argument between Harry and Dumbledore in Ch. 77 because it almost perfectly divided the readers on who was in the right.

    Character shallowness can be a symptom of moral shallowness if it reflects a conflict between Good and Evil drawn along lines too clear to bring two good parts of a good character into conflict. This is why it would’ve been hard for Lord of the Rings to contain deep characters without becoming an entirely different story.

    Conflicts between evil and evil are even shallower than conflicts between good and evil, which is why what passes for ‘maturity’ in some literature is so uninteresting. There’s nothing to choose there, just an author showing off their disillusionment as a claim of sophistication.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      If character stories have always been harder, and if character has always been interesting to people, then it seems quite a coincidence that they just got feasible to tell a century ago, after all those millennia of story telling. I can more easily believe that cultural changes made us more interested in character, or more interested in the impressiveness of story tellers.

      • http://bur.sk/en Viliam Búr

        Maybe the model of a human mind having multiple conflicted desires was difficult to discover and only seems obvious in hindsight. Does this model reflect the reality well, or is it just a fashion that will go away?

        It could also be related to greater individualism. If the only important thing is the tribe, and the heroes of the story are factions of the tribe and their leaders, there is less space for intra-human conflicts. With the exception of an occasional conflict of desires of an important leader, if that conflict has an impact on tribal politics.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Stories emphasizing the complexity of individual personality were pioneered in Shakespeare’s tragedies.

      • Thursday1

        Stories with complex characters are a lot older than that.

      • Sid

        Examples?

      • Thursday1

        Homer, Virgil, Greek Tragedy, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Cervantes, Moliere, you get the idea. Dante and the Bible are a bit sketchier on character, but it’s still important even there.

      • Thursday1

        I think what most people are disputing is whether character stories have in fact only started to be told a century ago.

      • Thursday1

        Stories which almost exclusively focus on character may indeed have come to the forefront in the past couple centuries. But complex characters themselves are way older than that.

      • citronade

        More than anything, I think people enjoy reading about characters that they can identify with. Could it also be that as literacy increased, and printing became widespread, that more common people began writing about characters that more people could identify with, leading more people to appreciate character stories?

    • Thursday1

      Deep sympathetic characters have two sympathetic parts in conflict, not a sympathetic part in conflict with an unsympathetic part.

      Very insightful comment. If this is correct, then many anti-heroes contain character traits that are officially disreputable, but which we actually admire.

      • Eliezer Yudkowsky

        Villainy is a more subtle art. Trying to give your villain a ‘good side’ as a source of conflict is incredibly easy to screw up into sheer predictable cliche. But between two evil people combined into one, there may be little in the way of interesting conflict. My approach to buffing the antagonist tends to be more along the lines of making them as persuasive as I can possibly manage.

        But yes, if an anti-hero has a good side with sympathetic motives and an ‘evil’ side of power, dominance, the ability to act out fantasies of unconstraint and repressed desire… then this evil side is also going to acquire a certain amount of secret sympathy. Even so, usual rules about avoiding predictability and cliche must still apply, and if this anti-hero is supposed to carry the story I’d suggest adding in some more parts, not just two.

    • Philip Goetz

      “A good rule of thumb is that to create a 3D character that person must contain at least two different 2D characters who come into conflict. Contrary to the first thought that crosses your mind, three-dimensional good people are constructed by combining at least two different good people with two different ideals, not by combining a good person and a bad person.”

      Very good observation. You might even say they should be orthogonal to each other…

      “I consider the most successful moral conflict in HPMOR to be the argument between Harry and Dumbledore in Ch. 77 because it almost perfectly divided the readers on who was in the right.”

      If only more mass-market authors thought this way. But a more-intelligent author generally perfectly divides the readers when the author has a definite opinion about which is right. If the more-intelligent author is divided on an issue, it’s likely there is some subtlety in it that escapes most people, and the audience will not be divided. So which is better? Challenging the author, or challenging the readers?

      “Character shallowness can be a symptom of moral shallowness if it reflects a conflict between Good and Evil drawn along lines too clear to bring two good parts of a good character into conflict. This is why it would’ve been hard for Lord of the Rings to contain deep characters without becoming an entirely different story.”

      Most-concise analysis I’ve seen of LotR.

  • Sebastian_H

    Character stories aren’t harder to tell per se. The key change is the omniscient third person point of view, which makes focusing on the interior of peoples minds much easier. Modern readers have trouble with characterization stories without third person omniscient narration because they can’t just be told what every character is thinking.

    Re LOTR, it is definitely more of a milieu story, but it additionally is more difficult to read now because readers expect to be directly told the characters thoughts and motivations.

    Thursday1, you’re may be over reading. Card isn’t suggesting that characterization didn’t exist before, merely that its current reign as main focus of storytelling isn’t necessary.

    And both Homer and Gilgamesh are more event oriented than character oriented. And the Odyssey is primarily milieu/event. (Each part a different fantastic location with a narrow escape).

    • Thursday1

      Which explains why Odysseus has had such a grip on the Western imagination ever since. Without such a great portrait of the central character, the Odyssey would be just one damn thing after another. For really great literature, character rules.

  • Alistair

    LOTR is as much an ideas story as a mileu story. Tolkein was weaving a story in a fantastic mileu because he felt such a mileu was better suited to communicating certain ideas about good and evil than modern forms.

  • Greg

    It seems to me that it is easier to write a critically praised “event” story for cinema than for books. Tarrantino (event + milieu with minimal character and ideas) and classic action films come to mind.
    btw, my point is not that Tarrantino is good or bad. It’s just that I can’t think of a novelist who is as praised while being “event” focussed.

    • Sid

      I think P.G. Wodehouse could be characterized as heavy on event+milieu.

  • Hedonic Treader

    If our descendants are not as rich, however, or if they can more easily see themselves clearly, character stories may seem less compelling.

    It should not be underestimated that, quantitatively, stories are used as instruments to stimulate human emotions. If our descendants have technologically better and more intriguing ways of directly stimulating emotions, the human character element may become far less important for experience design.

    In this view, the character story is a hammer, and the recipient’s social emotions are the nail. A good prediction is that the future will have better hammers.

  • Martin-2

    “It would be absurd to criticize LOTR for not having plot unity and integrity, because it is not an event story”

    Does this strike anyone else as false? To take a modern equivalent, after I finished reading the last Wheel of Time book the first thing I did was hop on the wikia page and try to sort out apparent plot holes. I’m pretty sure most fantasy readers take plot unity very seriously, although we may be less hostile than most toward coincidence and deus ex machina (a wizard did it!). Could that be what Card meant?

    • Philip Goetz

      Yes, this strikes me as mostly false. A story is an optimization problem. You do decide what type of story you want to make, and what sacrifices to make, just like when designing a car you should have in mind whether you want a sportscar, a luxury sedan, or a practical economy vehicle. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay for a sportscar to get 5mpg, or for an economy car to lack seat cushions.

  • Eric Blair

    Orson Scott Card has officially been granted “Emmanuel Goldstein” status as an Approved Hate Object, so you can expect no rational or fact-based discussion of his work or opinions. Just venom from people who want to show they have the Correct Opinions.

    • Martin-2

      Ouch, and I thought we were doing pretty well. Maybe after the Ender’s Game movie comes out there will be fresh discussion.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      For the record, I wasn’t aware of his beliefs when I dissed his writing style, but it makes some sense of the “plain,” churchy style, which is perhaps ignored because people focus on the churchy content. [Same with Yudkowsky, as he suggests.]

      Anyway, being biased against Mormons commenting on cultural matters seems like a heuristic to me. His way of segmenting the world is unlikely to be illuminating.

      • Eric Blair

        Or to sum up: “I LIKE my two-minute hate!”

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Hmm. I’m curious: how far do you take your objectivity—if that’s the right word? Would you defend a Scientologist against ideological preconception? (By the way, my distaste for this churchy, preachy writer has nothing to do with his views on gay marriage — http://tinyurl.com/yz3zhbw .)

  • spandrell

    Aren’t most Sci-fi milieu stories?

    • IMASBA

      Yes, because sci-fi was pretty much invented for social criticism. When you want to do a character story it is unnecessary to distract your public with futuristic technology and worlds, unless of course you want to explore character development in extreme scenarios such as a post-apocalyptic world.

    • Ronfar

      Maybe the novels. Most of the classic SF short stories were probably Idea stories…

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  • Philip Goetz

    “Rich self-indulgent folks are more likely to be obsessed with their own internal feelings.”

    Why do you think that? I could say rich people are freer to contemplate things beyond their narrow circumstances.

    “Impressively realistic character stories are mostly impressive to other cognitive elites, and much less so to ordinary readers.”

    If true, the important question would be, why is it true?

    Character stories are easier to tell in a society that isn’t threatened, because writers don’t have to spend their words preaching how great their society is, and can write about sympathetic characters in conflict with their society, who can’t find or don’t like their place in it. Such stories have been taboo for most of history.

  • Peter Jones

    Alternative hypothesis: character stories are what novels are especially good at (whereas movies are good at event stories), and novels are high status…

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      But why are they high status? I think they’re high status because they can deal with character effectively! Character/personality is far, situation is near, and far-mode is high-status relative to near-mode.

      Construal-level theory hierarchy (high to low construal):
      1. Character and idea
      2. Mileu
      3. Event

      Civilization is progressively more far-mode. Hanson predicts Malthus will reverse this trend within a century, but his prediction isn’t really in tension with the trend: “EM society” is a form of barbarism.

      • jason

        alternatively, novels are higher status because you need to have above average self-discipline and general knowledge to extract enjoyment from them. nearly everyone consumes visual storytelling, but only a tiny minority still spend their money on long-form textual stories.

        the simplest explanation for many perceived or imagined (the truly bookish are low-status, whereas phony bookishness is a status boon in the SMV) status differentials is the superiority exclusiveness often implies.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        alternatively, novels are higher status because you need to have above average self-discipline and general knowledge to extract enjoyment from them. nearly everyone consumes visual storytelling,

        I’m not sure it’s alternative except in a chicken-and-egg sense. Sustained far-mode thought is in general high status because of its discipline and knowledge requirements. Visual story is near-mode: that’s why everyone can consume it. (Near-mode, of course, can be demanding too. But it’s not necessarily demanding, even when sustained. Perhaps a test case is novels written in extreme near-mode, like harlequin romances.