Writing Perspective and Culture

As a psychologist, I think a lot about worldview — the way we see and interpret our surroundings. Worldview is so integral to the way we function that we often don’t notice it at all. We take it for granted, and it’s only when we meet people who think differently from us that we realize our original biases.

Academic psychology is not immune to worldview blindness. Over the years, people have found that psychological principles we originally thought were universal actually hold true only for people from Western industrialized countries. For example, remember the fundamental attribution error? It’s the idea that when someone does something wrong, we blame it on character faults rather than external circumstances. If the new lunch lady is rude to you, we tend to assume that she’s a bad person rather than blaming it on a bad day. This principle is taught in psychology courses around the country, but research now suggests that people from other cultures are more likely to take external circumstances into account.
Culture even influences things like our vision. The Müller-Lyer illusion shows two lines that are the same size, but look different. It turns out that the power of the illusion varies depending on the culture you grew up in. People from Evanston Illinois are very susceptible to the illusion, while people from traditional societies are less susceptible.

So what does all this have to do with Tolkien? It stems from a conversation I had with a friend at World Fantasy Convention. We were talking about how the Lord of the Rings dominates the genre, and how later works attempt to emulate the series. My friend agreed that Lord of the Rings is an influence, if not the major influence in epic fantasy, but she also made an interesting argument – that many Tolkienesque fantasy novels miss Tolkien’s point.

What does she mean by that? Hold that thought and take another tangent with me.

Long-time blog readers will know that I sometimes reflect on writing rules. Last year, I took Neil Gaiman to task for head hopping. This time, let’s talk about rules for plots. How many of you have heard the advice that your main character should play the pivotal role in the progression and resolution of the plot? This is a good heuristic. I’m currently revising my work in progress to make my protagonist play a bigger role in the climax.

But now think back to Lord of the Rings. (Spoiler alert — but really, if you haven’t read Lord of the Rings yet, what’s wrong with you?) In the end, it’s not the main character that destroys the ring. In fact, Frodo tries and fails. It’s Gollum who accidentally destroys the ring by biting off Frodo’s finger. This may be a reflection of Tolkien’s Catholic worldview, in which humanity is to weak to resist the lure of evil. Frodo’s failure reveals humanity’s inadequacy. In the end, it’s evil that destroys itself.

So what did my friend mean when she said that authors working in the tradition of Tolkien missed the point? She meant that these authors took the scale and structure of epic fantasy but changed it into a more traditional story. In these stories, the main character takes on evil and comes out triumphant.

Now I realize I am massively oversimplifying here, and that I’m downplaying Frodo’s role and caricaturing writing rules as well as epic fantasy as a genre. My point is not to make overarching generalizations about genre or plot, or to say what kind of story ending is better or worse.

But I find it interesting to explore what it is that our society considers to be a “good story.” When we give advice on plotting and structure, are we limiting the stories that we tell and the messages we send? What do you think?