Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Human Nature: Deception, Manipulation, and the Constellation of Cultural Icons

Why do we need conflict in fiction?  Why are we gluttons for sad/tragic/scary/romantic/mysterious stories?  Quite simply, it's because we're human.


The Dilemma of Art: Happy Doesn't Sell
This is a blunt way of opening today's discussion, but it's meant to reveal a point about human nature.  In general, we are drawn to stories which have strong conflict because we are problem solvers.  We want to be ready for whatever life throws our way.


Because of this, we are naturally attuned to "dangerous" situations.  But danger for a human being usually involves other human beings.  Except for the (relatively) rare cases of natural disaster and wild animal attacks, almost every "threat" we face is somehow caused by human behavior.  Whether it's driver error, the IRS, or our own habits of procrastination, we constantly face the pressures of surviving and thriving within our own culture.


This is why we read stories that are thick with conflict.  Part of this is for the sake of learning - through fiction, we can live vicariously through other lives.  The other part, though, is an innate desire to "watch" the world around us.  Before the advent of novels and television, most of the stories were heard were true.  You can observe this at family gatherings: we are constantly exchanging gossip, reevaluating who's the "alpha person" on the totem pole.  This is one reason why we're so fascinated with celebrities - as individuals who are blessed with wealth and/or beauty and/or athletic talent, they are in real positions to change our lives.  Never mind that we hardly ever meet true celebrities - on the off chance that you do meet one, though, you'd want to know where that person fits in the constellation of world personalities.


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