Depicting Power in Culture
This skill-set of depiction arises out of the Theme-Worldbuilding Integration series.
The previous posts on Depiction are:
In short: depiction is show-don't-tell brought into a high, subtle, "off-the-nose" artform.
Depiction is the author being sneaky and not letting their own opinion leak through into the worldbuilding. No two readers will assess what is depicted the same way. But what they do assess is the part of the book they will remember longest.
That's why, when you go on social networks and try to get someone to help you remember the title or author of a book you halfway remember, and relate this vivid scene or starkly memorable character, what you get back is scattershot attempts to help, and not the book you are looking for.
The part you remember is the part you found in the depiction.
As a writer, you can't use depiction to make your point.
But if you do not have a point, and you are not trying to make that point, most readers will get bored and drop the story in the trash.
If you don't stick to the point you depicted on Page 1, and STOP once you've made that point (nail The End), if you let bits and pieces remain in the final draft that should have been deleted for use in another book with another point, you will get very angry readers giving you 1-star reviews on Amazon.
The clarity of "point" that most readers want has to be made off-the-nose. It is via that point depicted that the reader enters this alternate Reality and rides with you to The End.
One of the issues that many readers have with Romance Novels is the HEA, the Happily Ever After ending that just is not plausible in their own everyday reality. The lack of plausibility is often (not always) traceable to the depiction of the HEA.
The HEA is the resolution to a problem that the reader believes can not be resolved. The resolution of the conflict has its roots on Page 1, in the way the conflict is depicted. Do Page 1 right, and the reader suspends disbelief and actually believes the HEA (at least for a few seconds).
The Depiction series of posts on this blog is about mastering the techniques of depiction in order to create an HEA that is not a HFN (Happily For Now), and yet is absolutely believable by readers living in a harsh reality.
To that end, we are examining how to depict culture.
Cultures are based on abstract ideas like religious ideas that the cultural pressures (peer pressure) make desirable.
If you live the beliefs of the culture around you, you are taking the easiest path to developing Relationships.
In Science Fiction, we focus mostly on the individual who is an oddball, a maverick, an outcast, a 'drifter' type in a Western, a "First-In Scout" (an explorer with no ties to anyone). We focus on the Loner who has no problem with being a loner. And Science Fiction is mostly about depicting by stark illustration what value such loners have to society and ultimately to the culture.
The Loner is not always the person so unstable they are about to freak out and murder a mob of people just because they're angry.
The Loner is depicted as honorable, kind, just, and strong.
Being a Loner is not the problem a Science Fiction Novel is written to solve. The Main Character of a Science Fiction Novel does not experience being a Loner as a PROBLEM. He/she is not "in conflict" with the situation of being alone.
The Science Fiction hero's Loner situation usually comes about because of being at odds with the Establishment. He's the Scientist who believes there really is life on Mars, or UFO's have visited Earth, or human activity really is not creating climate change, but natural forces of Earth itself are causing what we observe.
The Science Fiction Hero is the oddball, tin-hat crazy who turns out to be correct, and the plot-driving major conflict depicts his determined effort to prove he is correct -- or depicts his efforts to just get away from those who want to make sure he never proves he's correct.
His opposition has a "vested interest" (an emotional need) to know beyond doubt that this Science Fiction Hero's ideas are crazy, and thus untrue.
The HEA rejection mechanism is psychologically similar, so pay attention.
The Powers That Be in our modern culture have that kind of "vested interest" in convincing the majority that the HEA is not possible. The Universe structure which makes it obvious to us that the HEA is possible lies at odds with the Universe structure that gives the Powers That Be power over us.
Here are a few posts on the HEA.
So the typical Science Fiction Hero (this blog is about Science Fiction and/or Paranormal Romance, the hybrid genre), is alone, at least at or before the start of the story.
What does it mean "alone?"
It means not just having no family ties, or being free of obligations, debts, and other strings, but also it means being sovereign over your own mind, heart, body, and course in life.
The Science Fiction hero is a person who has become a Strong Character because of being a Loner.
Part 3 has links to previous parts in the Strong Character series.
So it is natural for the Science Fiction Hero to become the Most Desirable Hunk in the Romance heroine's world. He's a REAL CATCH -- and unattached to boot.
Why did it take so long for Romance to discover Science Fiction? (it all started with Star Trek, you know, and the Vampire Romance)
So when you set out to build a world around your story, you hide the point deep inside the worldbuilding. Your point, as a writer, is an unconscious assumption of your characters, and a given of their culture.
You get to state your point baldly in a single sentence that takes up half a line at most -- and is placed near the end or actually at the end of the novel. It is Blake Snyder's "theme-stated" beat (see SAVE THE CAT! trilogy of books on screenwriting.) Your point is inside your theme and is depicted within the characters' culture.
In Science Fiction, you often have two or more cultures to play with, and usually they are at odds with one another creating the main external conflict. That's how most science fiction turns out to be about wars.
So a culture that is the outgrowth of war has to have its most prominent identifying beliefs focused on the use and abuse of Power.
Remember Star Trek's Klingons. A good day to die. The relish of the fun of combat. Social interactions based on dominance displays.
The original depiction of the Klingons (designed to work in the tiny space allowed in a TV episode), was very comic-bookish, too cliche, too facile.
So as the popularity of the Klingons grew, we saw different foreheads, a more thoughtful explanation of their values, and development of the language by a fan, and the addition of culturally specific weapons depicting tradition. The culture acquired a history, depth, and real people.
And all of it is based on the combat stance in personal relationships. So Klingon culture has a whole lot of rules about who can do what to whom, when and how much.
The unfolding of Klingon culture from a line-drawing sketch of something to oppose the Enterprise into a galactic dominating, swaggering, and mighty culture with real people, and a character named Worf who grew up in a human family is a good model to study for depiction of opposition, and for worldbuilding a culture in order to depict a "worthy opponent."
Note how as Star Trek developed, this formidable opponent was nearly destroyed, and was rescued by Kirk et. al., then became an ally of the Federation that Kirk represented. That "arc" of development of the Relationship between the two cultures is DEPICTED, -- shown not told.
One could make the case that early Klingon versions were bullies, or the most admirable trait in Klingon culture was bullying.
We discussed bullying in the Theme-Worldbuidding series:
The anti-bullying culture subscribes to some simple rules of them to detect bullying situations.
"Don't hit below the belt"
"Don't pick on someone smaller than you" (in size, power, reach, ability)
This picking on someone smaller than you is what Israel is depicted as doing to the Palestinians especially in Gaza.
See how easily depiction can be used to paint a picture which remains indelible in the mind long after a conflict is over?
The USA culture despises the Bully and righteously rejects bullying.
But how many Americans actually know what Bullying is?
Most people don't think philosophically, or theoretically. In life as in fiction, people want concrete, clearly defined edges to the ideas that form the world.
So they know what bullying is because they've seen it in school yards, or on Gang dominated streets. Maybe they've seen it in domestic abuse. They know it when they see it, but they don't analyze it to figure out what it is, and how to "depict" it in a Alien Culture (non-human culture).
Lifting out the essence of a concept like Bullying and using that essence to generate a non-human fictional culture is Art. It is what Artists do for a living -- depict the world from a different angle than the reader/viewer has ever seen. The artist does this to reveal an inner, hidden truth.
So conspiracies and International Intrigue, subterfuge and obfuscation make wonderful raw material for the Artist.
Remember how Leonardo DaVinci would look at a slab of marble, and see the statue buried inside it, then free that statue by paring away the dross?
That's what artists do -- take away the dross to reveal something hidden inside.
So take the Middle East situation as an example.
Most people look at that mess and say Israel is a Bully -- because clearly they have a strong economy, high tech weapons, and can fend off the worst that Gaza can throw at them. A few Israelis died, and thousands of Gazans died, so who's the bully?
Obviously tiny little Israel is a horrible bully for keeping the Palestinian borders closed, and policing every movement they make.
That's Leondardo DaVinci's view from outside the block of marble.
What does the artist see looking at this mess?
The artist sees the Gazans as the bullies.
Isn't that startling?
You can make the case that the Palestinians are more powerful than Israel if you understand the hidden connections and the history. If you don't believe the history, you can't see the Gazans or the Hamas infestation in Gaza as the bullies.
The Palestinians have been made into a political football, or hot potatoe, by the much larger countries and factions surrounding the area. They are the boxing glove worn by Iran and bigger countries in order to punch Israel without being hurt themselves. They have been armed, deprived, and ginned up with religious fervor to be used as a weapon against a tiny country.
Or so the argument goes.
Those who argue that Israel is the bully, say that Israel threw the Palestinians out of their homeland.
Those who argue that Hamas and Palestinians are the bully, say that when Israel was forming as a State under U.N. Mandate, the Jewish refugees had no problem accepting the residents of the area as citizens of the new state.
But the Powers That Be in the surrounding countries lied to the residents to make them flee the new Israelis. And then those Powers That Be refused to accept the refugees they had made homeless.
There are conspiracy theorists who hold that those same Powers That Be planned to use those refugee homeless to attack and destroy the fledgling country Israel, a pushover without an army, populated by shell-shocked, starved people rescued from concentration camps.
Artists, especially those writing novels, love conspiracy theorists. Such Drama!!!
Regardless of the actual motives of those Powers That Be, or even which countries they were from, the net result is a population of Stateless People, people not protected by a government, and without a land franchise of their own.
That population has grown, but as it has grown, it has not produced world class universities, patents, trade goods, intellectual property, or anything to add to the world GDP. Trillions of dollars of the world's wealth has been poured into the Palestinian populace, and nothing has been added to the world Gross Product, the wealth of humanity.
They are poor, and make a profession of being poverty stricken.
So obviously anyone who attacks them is a bully.
So what is a bully to do when the weakest kids on the block are given powerful weapons and attack as a mob? Is the bully required (by cultural rules of engagement) to refrain from fighting back? To refrain from self-protection? To refrain from pre-emptive strikes to disarm?
The Palestinian situation makes a wonderful Situation to study for an interstellar war simply because the actual war is all about something totally different than Israel vs Palestinians.
What exactly it's all about -- aha, that's a matter for the Artist to chip away and reveal. If you're stumped, go look again at the Klingons and the Romulans.
Take this Situation, set it out amidst the stars of this galaxy, create different species, religions, billions of years of history, ancient ruins, Great Shrines of sacred planets,
Observe the Middle East melting down, and observe the techniques used to cause that to happen. Look deeply into the religious wars, the many religious factions within factions -- there are as many flavors of Muslims as there are flavors of Christians, and Jews are no slouches in the flavors department. A new faction seems to arise every week or so.
Are you looking at a religious war, or is the religious war an excuse to hold a good war the way the Klingons love to do?
How would Klingons (or Romulans) react to finding out they were someone else's patsy, a tool to hammer an enemy and escape retribution?
Which side is the bully and which the victim is a question few readers are comfortable pondering. The reader wants you to tell them the answer.
There's a basic human psychology principle behind that reader preference.
People who bully in other areas of life become truly upset when they see what they think is bullying happening before their eyes. They become upset because they can't look at themselves and acknowledge their own bullying tendencies.
The psychological principle behind this is rooted in the subconscious. What we hate other people for is the very thing we loathe so much in ourselves that we bury it deep in the subconscious.
The Artist knows that when you see a flaw in someone else, it is because you have that flaw in you. It's a reliable principle. If you don't have that flaw, it won't irk you in others even when it is there.
So human cultures establish rules-of-thumb to measure or judge behavior objectively.
You can tell a busy-body "Mind Your Own Business" by citing that cultural rule of privacy without getting personal, insulting, or obnoxious. It's a generally accepted principle, not something you just made up.
The Prize Fighter waits for the guy he decked to get back on his feet before attacking again. There's an ethical reason for that, and a moral one, but a referee enforced cultural rule.
"Pick on someone your own size." -- yes, you must fight, but only people who are an even match.
One time there was a strike in Football, and instead of the scheduled match they televised a match between a professional team and a college team -- the college team got creamed. And spectators didn't enjoy the sight. They never did that again.
Do we enjoy such sights of uneven matches these days?
There are a lot of Video posts by teens are of uneven matches. There is that "trend" of walking up behind someone and sucker-punching them to the deck -- and it is done to older, more frail, or less fit (even handicapped) people. The objective is to deck the other person WITHOUT WARNING, and that's pretty much like the old American Indian idea of counting coups by sneaking into another tribe's camp and stealing or marking their horses, leaving trace that their defenses are porous.
The message from the more powerful to the less powerful is "I am BETTER than you, so don't mess with me."
The message is MIGHT MAKES RIGHT.
That is the bully's message to the weak.
Is that now the new cultural mantra we all must live by?
Or do we still know that the weakest contestant in such a transaction is the bully him/herself.
Yes, bullies are cowards. That's one of the oldest principles, and the origin of the advice parents always gave kids beset by the class bully -- just punch him back good and hard. Deck him in front of his cronies. That's the end of him because he'll react with cowardice not heroism.
Bullies are all about their Pride, so they focus on Who Is Right. (see the illustration at the top of this blog). They do that because they are afraid they are wrong. The Hero, the Strong Character (or one getting stronger) is focused on What Is Right, and always curious to find any error, misconception, or mistake. The Hero is about correcting mistakes, and takes joy from each mistake found and corrected. That's a hero.
Both Science Fiction and Romance are about heroes. But very often, a combination of SF and Romance depicts a coward becoming a hero. Many World War II movies depicted that character arc showing the flinching coward becoming a "real man" by finding inner courage.
On the TV Series DEFIANCE,
where several species of aliens have landed on Earth, each with their own culture and customs. There is an alien culture where males are unquestioned in their (brutal) dominance of females.
Exposure to Earth's ideas has given the wife of one prominent businessman some ideas about just becoming the boss.
She has framed him for crimes, had him imprisoned, nearly killed him in the street, humiliated him before other males of his species, used his son by her as a patsy and commanded the business interests behind the screen of his son. She wants dominance in a MIGHT MAKES RIGHT culture that attributes its strength to dominating its women absolutely.
Their religious leader opposes her, and she frames him for murder of several women (wives of the prominent and powerful) and he is publicly executed. She does this right in front of her husband. The acting is absolutely superb and makes the show worth watching all by itself.
Now these are not "real" aliens, you understand -- they are Hollywood Aliens created to DEPICT a THEME.
At the inter-cultural interfaces among the various species, ideas cross over. Each culture has its own definition of bullying, and of the value of the bully to a culture.
And yes, just as humans have a zillion cultures, likewise each alien species has different cultures.
The location is the USA, vastly transformed by destruction at the arrival of these aliens, and continuing threats. The various aliens and all the different kinds of humans clash, and form uneasy alliances, and in some cases get along quite well.
The entire series is about Power -- who has it, who doesn't, what to do with it.
In the sparse, superficial language of Television Series, this series depicts Power In Culture.
The devastation depicted wipes the whole Israel/Palestinian conflict off the map. The series doesn't give much about what's going on in the rest of the world, but clearly nothing that was going on is still going on. Nobody turns up from China or a new Caliphate to take over the US, Canada and Mexico.
The focus is close up on a group of people (and non-humans) just trying to survive long enough to learn to get along.
And it's very much a "Strong Man" and "Gang" dominated society, very much like the "failed state" scenario we saw in The Balkans, and are seeing now in Libya, Somalia, some African areas, and Iraq, etc. But Iraq might yet pull together something.
Still, DEFIANCE is a science fiction series depicting the failed state pulling itself together -- sort of. It takes a really big bully to pull such a mess together.
Is that why humanity is so well supplied with bullies? Do we need them? Is humanity's need for the bully-personality (cowardice and all) the reason God created so many bullies? Or was that just evolution speaking? All that is raw material from which to craft themes you can depict by using the culture you create for your characters.