A story about stories


Well, doesn’t that sound meta.

Ideas for new stories are always troublesome. On the one hand they’re great because it means more fodder, more to do, more to write, not going to run out of ammunition anytime soon. On the other hand they start bouncing around your skull like crazy until they’re all you think about, and your brain starts automatically trying to fit everything interesting you see into the new story which both erodes productivity and blocks the potential for further story ideas. The worst part is when they’re absolutely brand new and therefore still vague and shifting; you have the general shape of a theme, or a couple of climactic scenes sketched out in your head, or maybe just a problem that needs to be solved but you don’t have any characters or setting or plot points or anything concrete to work with.

That’s the position I’m in now: I have this very thematic concept in my head without any real sense of character or plot. It needs fleshing out, but I don’t seem to be making any progress. So I’m writing a post about it.

My latest idea was born over the last two or three years, as I started really looking at what’s going on in the Near East, and trying to fit my head around the worldview and psychological framework that drive an intelligent young person who might otherwise have gone on to be a doctor or an engineer or a meth dealer or something—someone, in short, more or less like me—to blow themselves up in the hopes of taking a bunch of people they’ve never met along with them. It’s a profoundly illogical decision from virtually any perspective.

The typical discourse in the West, widely promoted and lent a great deal of credence by the media establishment as well as various political figures, assigns the blame largely on the religious differences between (for want of a better terminology) East and West, often with a statement along the lines of “They are terrorists because religion, everyone knows religion is bad, religion causes all wars and violence.” This, of course, leaves aside the fact that there are billions of religious people in the world—Islamic and non-Islamic—who don’t spend their time murdering people. Terry Pratchett, as ever, summarises my feelings on the matter more eloquently than I ever could:

I don’t have much truck with the “religion is the cause of most of our wars” school of thought because that is manifestly done by mad, manipulative and power-hungry men who cloak their ambition in God.

But I digress.

My point is that there’s something immensely strange about the fact that people—specifically young, middle class people with huge potential in the “developed world”—are willing to blow themselves up in an effort to kill other middle class people they don’t even know. Of course I can understand how extreme poverty, personal vengeance or absolute political disenfranchisement can drive this kind of activity, but it is far harder to comprehend when the people doing it have everything to live for. As an avid reader of Pratchett and Pullman I had a firm foundation of stories about the importance of stories to build on (when considering the monumental sadness of those people’s experience—the people, largely kids, who blow themselves up for seemingly no good reason—one of Pratchett’s best-remembered lines rings true like a passing-bell: “The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.1”), and when I watched Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk about the Danger of the Single Story I recognised that she was talking about the same things that had been on my mind.

Which brings me to the story that I’m trying to piece together, exploring the power of the stories we tell, the potential they have to control people, the violence and competition that erupts between peoples in their name, and how deeply they are entwined into our politics, economics, religion and psychology.

The problem is, I haven’t got much further than that.

I write fantasy, and I think the aesthetic of fantasy is an important tool in constructing this tale. The great strength of fantasy as a storytelling mechanism is its ability to turn the abstract into something real through the application of magic. In exploring the power of stories, then, it makes sense to make the stories magical.

And that’s what I have: a premise, stories are magical; a broad theme, the power (and danger) of stories; and a long personal history of reading stories-about-stories. I don’t have a character, I don’t have much of a setting (beyond knowing that I want it to be a place with several cultures all mashed into the same place, so that I can depict the tension between the dominant culture and its subordinates), and I’m not even sure how I want the “magic” that my story will revolve around to work.

So, that’s what I’ve been working on and thinking about for the last little while. A story about how stories can drive us to fight each other and how they confuse us about the truth. How our stories are not only powerful themselves, but also confer power on others… And how they can be manipulated.

References   [ + ]

1. Terry Pratchett, Diggers, pg.14