New fiction writers are often given the following advice: “Make your character want something. Then, prevent them from getting it.”
In other words, conflict is central to storytelling.
When I first heard this advice, I couldn’t understand it. Why not, I thought, tell stories about walks through Shinjuku Park or grandma’s adventures with new flavors of salad dressing?
After I read a few stories written by amateurs, I found my answer. Stories without conflict are boring. But this is a shallow answer, and it hides another, more interesting question: Why do humans find conflict so interesting?
Exploring this question reveals some interesting facets of human nature.
The Story that Never Ends
One clue to the conflict-story connection comes from a reader-recommended book: literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.
The interesting thing about Gottschall is that he studies stories from the perspective of Darwinian evolution. Stories are a cultural universal: There isn’t a single country, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, that isn’t steeped in stories and storytelling. If something is universal, there’s a good chance it’s the product of evolution, not culture.
At first, this doesn’t make sense. If stories, says Gottschall, only provided our cave-ancestors with joy, pleasure, or cheap entertainment, then they would have exited the gene pool. Other species that didn’t waste time telling stories around the campfire (and went to collect raspberries or firewood instead) would have been the ones to survive.
Food tastes good to us today (in part) because it encouraged our ancestors to hunt for calories. From the perspective of evolution, the pleasurable taste of good food is a reward for doing things that help us survive and reproduce.
Similarly, if watching films of Superman frying bad guys with laser beams is so pleasurable, we might ask: Why do stories with conflict feel good? Why do we see them in every culture on the planet? Did stories have some evolutionary purpose?
The Evolution of Storytelling
One group evolutionary psychologists like to study is children. Children are young, and relatively unaffected by culture and socialization. This lets you, to a certain extent, separate nature from nurture.
So what kind of stories do children tell?
Surprise! They’re full of conflict and violence:
“[One] collection of 360 stories told by preschoolers features … trains running over puppies and kittens; a naughty girl being sent to jail; a baby bunny playing with fire and burning down his house; a little boy slaughtering his whole family with a bow and arrows; a different boy knocking out people’s eyes with a cannon; a hunter shooting and eating three babies; children killing a witch by driving 189 knives into her belly. These stories amply support the play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith, who writes, ‘The typical actions in orally told stories by young children include being lost, being stolen, being bitten, dying, being stepped on, being angry, calling the police, running away or falling down. In their stories they portray a world of great flux, anarchy, and disaster.’“
Although stories told by boys contain more violence than those told by girls, who tend to prefer stories about the home life, the same theme of problem and conflict remains:
“..it is important to stress that girl play only seems untroubled when compared to the mayhem of boy play. Risk and darkness seep into the doll corner as well. For example, [education researcher Vivian] Paley recounts how, at first glance, it may seem that the girls are sweetly playing mother and baby. But look closer. First, the baby almost gets fed poison apple juice. Then a bad guy tries to steal the baby. Then the baby “gets his bones broken off” and is almost set on fire.”
We live in a time where some people get offended when you say that girls might prefer to play with dolls, but Gottschall points out that this is likely biological—a remnant of evolution adapted to a time where males hunted and women helped raise children.
Likewise, the attraction to violence—despite the panicked worry that some parents show—probably isn’t entirely due to bad TV shows and violent video games. Violence and conflict are part of our evolutionary past.
This suggests that stories, despite all their variety, contain some common essence that transcends all times, places, nationalities and cultures:
“Beneath all of the wild surface variety in all the stories that people tell—no matter where, no matter when—there is a common structure. Think of the structure as a bony skeleton that we rarely notice beneath its padding of flesh and colorful garments. …stories can be told only in a limited number of ways. Stories the world over are almost always about people (or personified animals) with problems. The people want something badly—to survive, to win the girl or the boy, to find a lost child. But big obstacles loom between the protagonists and what they want. Just about any story—comic, tragic, romantic—is about a protagonist’s efforts to secure, usually at some cost, what he or she desires.
Story = Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication
Notice how this is precisely what teachers of fiction tell their students to do!
So this is all very cool and interesting, but the same questions remain: “Why is conflict so crucial for storytelling? And what does that tell us about human nature?”
Stories as Flight Simulators
It turns out that evolutionary psychologists are still debating the origins of story, and we don’t have a clear, final answer to our question.
Some suggest that stories are an evolutionary accident, a side effect of other adaptations that we developed. Others suggest that we tell stories for the same reason a male peacock flashes his tail—to attract members of the opposite sex.
Gottschall, though, argues that stories may function as “flight simulators”:
“Like a flight simulator, fiction projects us into intense simulations of problems that run parallel to those we face in reality. And like a flight simulator, the main virtue of fiction is that we have a rich experience and don’t die at the end. We get to simulate what it would be like to confront a dangerous man or seduce someone’s spouse, for instance, and the hero of the story dies in our stead.”
One clue comes from dreams. It turns out that an overwhelming fraction of dreams—like the stories told by children—involve us facing problems. Very rarely do we have “fun” dreams where we fly in the sky or have “romances” with strangers we meet on the street.
MMA fighters can become better fighters just by imagining they are fighting; If so, it’s not surprising we can get better at overcoming the problems of social life by dreaming or reading stories.
Of course, this is an explanation for how stories evolved. It’s not the only or main way we use stories today. It’s like our taste buds—they helped us find nutritious food in the past, but it’s hard to argue that my desire to eat an entire Italian, fire-grilled pizza serves some “deeper” purpose today.
There’s one more fascinating way that stories are universal, and it is to that that I turn next.
The Drama of Rules
Another universal feature of stories is that they seem to involve breaking the rules. This doesn’t just involving violating laws or commandments—it also means violating hidden, tacitly-accepted social rules that we may not be consciously aware of.
Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst and one of the UK’s most well-known essayists writes the following in Going Sane: Maps of Happiness:
“Most of the ways we describe people, and all of the ways we judge and diagnose people, involve an account of the kind of relationship they have with the rules. Our founding myths—of Oedipus, of Narcissus, of Prometheus, of Antigone, of the Fall—like our tabloid newspapers, are all about people breaking the rules… The marriage of scandal and righteous indignation, of outrage and punishment, are the staples of all human drama. The context is always that of crime and punishment; of people wanting to be good or bad, or good an bad, and of people being punished (by gods or fate or the world), and wanting to punish and be punished. Ancient myths and biblical stories are about taboos; novels are about adultery; songs are about betrayal. As a theme the drama of rules is remarkably resilient.”
If you’ve read my series on Christopher Columbus, this may sound familiar. Stories help us orient ourselves in the world and cooperate with members of our community; They show us what happens when we break the “rules” and what happens when we follow them.
Though the stories we like often contain violence, the violence tends to be moral, says Gottschall:
“Fiction almost never gives us morally neutral presentations of violence. When the villain kills, his or her violence is condemned. When the hero kills, he or she does so righteously. Fiction drives home the message that violence is acceptable only under clearly defined circumstances—to protect the good and the weak from the bad and the strong. Yes, some video games, such as Grand Theft Auto, glorify wickedness, but those games are the notorious exceptions that prove the general rule.”
Indeed, if you look at human violence, most violent crimes aren’t committed by psychopaths. They’re committed by people driven by a strong sense of moral righteousness.
Imagine if you had to break every social convention to learn that things were wrong: You’d have to punch both of your grandmothers, sleep with your bosses’ wife, pee on the sidewalk, eat your Aunt’s pet poodle, dip your french fries in mayonnaise, and so on.
Evil Aliens, Princesses, Dragons, Oh My!
Okay, enough abstract stuff. Time for some field work—let’s look at some stories from popular culture and see if we can’t spot some patterns.
Instead of looking at short stories or novels, I want to look at video games. Storytelling is central to game creation, so we should see the same two universals of conflict (flight simulators) and moral orientation (the drama of rules).
For fun, I looked at a few storylines from my favorite games growing up. All of these are on IGN’s list of the top 100 games of all time (quotes are from Wikipedia):
- Super Mario 64 – “Mario discovers that Bowser has invaded the castle and imprisoned the princess…” (Save princess from evil King-dude.)
- The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – “The player controls Link in the fantasy land of Hyrule on a quest to stop Ganondorf, king of the Gerudo tribe, from obtaining the Triforce, a sacred wish-granting relic.” (Fighting an evil enemy tribe-King and also save a princess.)
- Dark Souls – “…the player’s attempts … to either reverse or perpetuate the spread of an ‘Undead curse’ that prevents death but prompts a gradual descent into madness.” (Saving the world from darkness.)
- Half-Life 2 – “Gordon Freeman is awakened … to find the world has been taken over by the alien Combine. …Gordon searches for a way to free humanity…” (Saving the humanity from aliens.)
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – “…[Protagonist must] defeat Alduin the World-Eater, a dragon who is prophesied to destroy the world.” (Save the world from evil dragon.)
Notice the recurring themes of good vs evil, dark vs light, which are often combined with family members or lovers that must be rescued.
Of course, there are exceptions. There are games like Grand Theft Auto that don’t have a strong moral component, and there are puzzle games like Tetris or Candy Crush that humans find interesting for other reasons (see Sarah Perry’s post Puzzle Theory for a deep-dive on puzzles).
The most interesting thing I found during my “field work,” though, was a demographics survey for the game Mass Effect. This game is about saving the galaxy from genocidal aliens called ‘Reapers’ that want to exterminate all sentient life forms.
Mass Effect has a morality system, and the choices you make affect your in-game personality, the reactions of game characters, and even the final outcome of the game.
With “Paragon” choices corresponding to good and “Renegade” choices correspond to evil, players made the following choices:
When given the choice, it seems most people want to play as the good guy. For some reason, I find that kind of reassuring.