Questionable: Sociology vs. Psychology in Writing Story

Jinx asked about a Scientific American essay called “The Real Reason Fans Hated the Last Season of Game of Thrones.” by Zeynep Tufekci: 

“I read a recent article from Scientific American . . .  with a thesis . . . that the series broke its implicit promise to viewers because when it reached the end of the author’s previously published material, the new showrunners switched from Martin’s more sociological approach to plotting and character development to one that is common to most film and tv writing these days, with a purely psychological perspective.  So… individuals moving through their conflicts with others, in place of individuals within a social framework adapting to others and finding their place in a complex social world.”

Criticism and analysis can be thought-provoking and insightful, but it’s rarely good writing advice.  It’s not meant to be writing advice, it’s not craft, it’s theory.  So while Tufekci’s analysis is interesting, it’s not a practical application for writers (which was not her intention, so not a flaw in her work).  The essay reminded me of my PhD course work (no I never finished the dissertation) when I did a ton of literary criticism, then started to write novels, then did my general exams.  One of my profs said, “Your criticism really changed once you started to write fiction.”  Well, yeah.  After publishing, I was on the inside looking out instead of on the outside looking in.  Big difference.

This critic is on the outside looking in, which is the best place to do criticism; you need distance for insight.  But the writer must be on the inside of the fictional world that she creates, immersed in the story elements not because they make academic sense but because those are the things that she’s obsessed with, that drive her to write.  I am willing to accept Tufekci’s thesis that George R. R. Martin as a writer is more interested in the sociological impact on character than the psychological (I’ve never read nor watched Game of Thrones), but an analysis that says, “Pick a lane and this lane is more valuable” is too reductive to be helpful as a writing tool for two reasons.  

First, no good story is ever all psychologically or sociologically based.  Your deep psychological story is meaningless without a sociological context; as Eudora Welty once put it, “Nothing happens nowhere.”  Where your characters are standing–time, place, community, social beliefs–has a huge impact on how those characters move.  But an epic story about a society in transition is not much without vivid characters with distinct personalities who arc throughout the story.  I know who Arya and Dany and Cersei and Jon Snow are just from the drive-by commentary I read.  I know what happened at the Red Wedding because people were so upset about the characters.  I have no idea what the sociological aspects are in this story–it’s a medieval society with lots of rape and murder and dog killing?–but everywhere I turned people were obsessing over the characters.  Why?  Because we don’t connect with societies, we connect with people.  Societies are an abstract, people are us. But people are also the societies they live in, the non-conscious ideologies they absorb, so we need setting and context. We need both to tell stories.

So think of storytelling psychology and sociology not as two lanes but as a spectrum.  On one end is characters talking about their feelings.  On the other end is characters fighting for or against social forces that threaten their world.  It’s a continuum, and somewhere on that continuum is where you are drawn to place your stories.  Definitely examine both aspects, but arguing that one is more valuable than the other is like the original Dumb Question of Writing Theory: Which is more important, plot or character? You need both or you don’t have story. Where your emphasis is going to fall depends on the story you’re going to tell and–above all–the kind of writer you are.

Which brings me to the second problem I have with this essay: Tufekci seems to think that America’s current political nightmare requires sociological narrative, that fiction is somehow better if it has a social responsibility and writers are more valuable if they provide that: “In a historic moment that requires a lot of institution building and incentive changing (technological challenges, climate change, inequality and accountability) we need all the sociological imagination we can get, and fantasy dragons or not, it was nice to have a show that encouraged just that while it lasted.”  But writers have only one overriding responsibility: To tell the stories we need to tell as honestly and as selflessly as possible. Good storytelling is not didactic, it does not seek to educate people or change society.  Good non-fiction can do that, but good storytelling has to first and foremost be an honest expression of its writer’s heart; if it’s true it will often naturally reflect important ideas and change those who read it, but that can’t be its purpose or it becomes just another screed with characters shoved through the plot line as an illustration of an idea.  That way lies story death.  “It’s more valuable for writers to base stories in sociological imagination as opposed to psychological character exploration” makes as much sense as “Writers should write about dogs.” Good writers write about the things that move them. Period.

Which brings me to the real reason Game of Thrones changed: They switched writers, and when they switched writers, they inevitably switched stories.  THIS ALWAYS HAPPENS. Even if both the old and new writers have the same psychological or sociological focus, every time a show switches writers, it changes (see West Wing, Gilmore Girls, Buffy).  Every time a book series is taken over by another writer, it changes (see the post-mortem Rex Stout stories, Ngaio Marsh stories, Dick Francis stories). The change has nothing to do with society, determinism, or Hollywood modes. Writers can only write their own stories; therefore a change in writers changes the story which breaks the contract with the reader.   It’s like switching spouses in mid-marriage: You’re gonna notice a difference.

This is why I have a problem with Tufekci’s conclusion: “Unfortunately, most of our storytelling—in fiction and also in mass media nonfiction—remains stuck in the hero/antihero narrative.”  Our storytelling is not stuck in protagonist mode, it’s not stuck in any mode. Our storytelling is inevitably and intrinsically a reflection of the stories we need to tell.   So just write the truth as you are compelled to put it on the page and don’t worry about sociology, psychology, or anything else you took your freshman year in college. It’s the story you need to tell that’s important because only you can tell that story.

Also, write about dogs.

42 thoughts on “Questionable: Sociology vs. Psychology in Writing Story

  1. Yes. And this is where editing also is so crucial – because it gives you the chance to work out what the story you’re trying to tell actually is. I started out at the beginning of the year trying to write about a girl thinking she might be transgender, and what I’ve got now, as a hot mess first draft, is a story about a third-culture kid in mighty conflict with her father about exerting control over her life, a commitment to developing her persona as a drag king and definitely more interested in girls than boys but probably not transgender.

    The story takes on its own truth, and the other thing I think is important here, is that whole concept of write what you know, which sounds basic, but is actually nuanced, because what we ‘know’ is more than facts, places and people. Every time we read something by anyone, it is a doorway into that person’s psyche and world, in a much richer way than simply what one knows. That’s how we get fantasy. Because in the world of the author, they know their own way around much better than anyone else.

    But…when you get a TV adaptation of ‘your’ world, as has happened with Martin, here there is a really acute jump between the individual writer’s world as built and written by one writer and the collective world created by a team of writers, scene-makers, actors, directors etc. I think the best way to enjoy the recent parts of GoT once the books have been plumbed for detail, is to see it as the ultimate in fan-fic. I love reading some fan-fic, but it’s fan-fic, taking the world of the writer and shaping it in homage, love and wish fulfilment for that world.

    FWIW, I read Book 1 of GoT, got about half way through Book 2 and have been a steady fan of the series. I like the latest series because they’re visually beautiful, and some arcs have been amazing, but on the whole, I’m quite glad to be seeing the back of Westeros. We watched as a family because adolescent boys….and I’ve been very glad to share that with them, but my favourite series, over and over, have been recreations of the past: Mad Men, Marvellous Mrs Maisel, Deutschland 83/86 and now, grimly, Chernobyl, which is some of the best TV I’ve seen in ages.

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    1. Neither have I. But I read at least two of the books forever ago then drifted away (short attention span). I have assumed and am probably wrong that like Downtown Abbey, it is basically a soap opera in fancy costumes. I avoid angst without watching it for entertainment. I like humor in my worlds (Thank you, Jenny).

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        1. I saw the first episode or two. A friend thought I’d like it. NO. I did not. Rape and killing a pet wolf, and they lost me. I suspect the story and characters are interesting, but not for me.

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          1. That was me, too, Deborah. They lost me in ep 2 by forcing the only discernable good guy in the area to kill his own child’s innocent, chained up dire wolf. I could tell right then what I was in for, and bailed. Nothing I’ve heard since has altered that opinion.

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    2. I read all the books, couldn’t put them down. I don’t like fantasy in general either. Or stories with a medieval setting. I read straight through the Game of Thrones series. Tried the TV series, couldn’t get into it.

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  2. I don’t have a link, but somewhere there was an essay (or maybe just a Twitter thread; I definitely read about it on Twitter) purporting to explain the current season of GOT (I’m another non-watcher) on the difference between pantsers and plotters. Something about GRRM being a pantser, following wherever the story led him, and the tv writers being plotters, aiming for a specific end.

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  3. Isn’t there grounds for a criticism based on how adaptation should be handled, though? Every writer writing their own story is one thing, but being charged with adapting another writer’s story is another. What kind of responsibility gets involved with, say, Eoin Colfer writing new Hitchhiker’s Guide novels? Rihanna Pratchett finishing The Shepherd’s Crown?

    Like, Olicity worked because of the actor’s chemistry, but I still have sympathy for all of the fans of Ollie/Dinah from the comics (or the JLU cartoon, and the DCAU being one of the finest examples of Adaptation Distillation).

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    1. The problem with GoT is that they went past Martin so there was nothing to adapt. If you’re adapting a favorite, then you have to identify the important things as you translate it to a new medium, but once you’re out of source material, short of staying true to the world, you’re kind of on your own.

      I think with Arrow, they went off book pretty quickly because the source material was all over the place. And then they bungled the back story and the casting and had a mess on their hands.

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      1. I don’t agree with the whole “Society needs X kind of story right now” part of the article, but there is a point that if Martin’s writing had a certain focus, and he extracted his plots and characterizations from that, then shouldn’t the showrunners should have continued with that style, instead of switching modes? Whedon was basically off doing Firefly during Angel S4. Do we excuse Cordelia going off the rails just because they switched writers, in a sense?

        The contract established with the audience in GoT S1, based on the novels, was, “This is a world where the politicking and interactions with the broader world matters. Character-to-character interaction is all laden down with their complex relationships to nations and societies.” Simply running out of material to adapt doesn’t mean that they can suddenly switch to “characters just follow their boner, plot happens according to rule of awesome,” they should have continued to extrapolate from what they had done in the earlier seasons.

        It’s like Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Various students have taken a crack at finishing it, but none of them have to gall to turn the final movement into a rock opera.

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    2. AG asks: Isn’t there grounds for a criticism based on how adaptation should be handled, though?

      I think the answer to that is absolutely yes. But the caveat is that criticism is its own art form, and succeeds and fails on different rubrics than the original work of fiction. I’m reading Dorothy Parker’s Broadway reviews, and I only have access to a few of the songs she mentions — the rest is a mystery, yet the criticism is illustrative and instructive.

      However, it isn’t a rulebook. If something in a criticism sounds a little bell in a writer’s soul, s/he should pay attention. It might be important to his/her writing. But should all writers do X? Should all adaptions follow these guidelines to preserve the “integrity” (whatever the hell that means) of the original? No, of course not.

      People who tend to write sociological stuff may find the SA review really reassuring and important, and permission to let more sociological stuff flourish in the story (which may or may not be a mistake).

      My gold standard for sociological stuff is Pratchett; I haven’t read GRRM yet. I’ve got the books from my mom, but can’t quite work up the enthusiasm to tackle them.

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      1. Yeah, I don’t agree with the “X kind of story is better” part of the article. A better takeaway would be the regular ol’ “later seasons were inconsistent with contract set out in the earlier seasons” critique.

        The Wire would probably be a gold standard for sociological storytelling, though it’s not genre. Jane Austen would likely be a gold standard in literature, as well. In that vein, you pointed out Jenny’s own talent for keeping the sociological in mind. This is because it creates real not-easily-solvable character conflict with real consequences.
        The pulp genre shows that Jenny has favored here often have strong sociological underpinnings, as well. Leverage may be about fantastical heisting, but it’s underlined by the turmoil of the financial crisis and recession years, as well as the unescapable abuses of crony capitalism. Person of Interest started with examinations of the surveillance state, inner city crime, governmental abuses of power, and then explored the impacts that advanced technology could have on society.

        Stories that are more in the psychological model seem more suited to shorter-form stories. Films, novels, mini-series, etc. The story ends once the relationships are mined out. Longform needs a more concrete world to fall back on for more things for the characters to tackle.

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        1. I haven’t seen GoT so I can’t really talk about how well the writers made the transition from collaborating with GRRM to working on their own. But I’ve seen fan-fic, and I’ve seen other writers take over a series. It seems to work best when the new writers just say to hell with it and make the story their own (the bouncing rat story of Harry Potter, for example). Most writers who are trying for verisimilitude to the original just fall down in some area or the other.

          I wonder how much of the article’s “X approach is better” is simply about clickbait and trying to attract readers. But then again, I’m a “I’d like a lot of both, please” girl in almost any argument. Most people seem to enjoy picking sides . . . .

          It’s been a long time since I read *Crime and Punishment* but wasn’t that mostly psychological? It did have some sociology and institutions, but . . . .

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          1. The article’s main thrust is that the balance is currently off. Most mainstream media (films and TV) are rooted in being character studies, and the worlds are entirely constructed to service that. Buffy might be emblematic of this approach, where all of the supernatural shenanigans are actually metaphors for adolescent feelings and traditional high school conflicts, made apocalyptic because teens have such strong feelings that the little things feel apocalyptic. Hence “psychological.” The character solve the plots by growing as characters, or they fail because they fail to grow as character. Hero’s Journey/Save the Cat also fall under this model.

            In the sociological model, the external world matters, and exists independently of character growth. No matter how good our protagonists get, they are subject to institutional powers which they rarely can overcome, because that would require changing society. Jane Bennett can never change the fact of her social class.
            The article argues that because of the dominance of the sociological model, many mainstream stories fall prey to hand-waving world elements for the sake of getting a triumphant character resolution. After being conditioned by decades of epic medieval fantasy tales where the hero magically wins because of his conviction to his ideals, George R.R. Martin decided to write a case where the hero with conviction to his ideals doesn’t get plot fiat to change society. And so, he gets out-politicked to a fatal end.

            As for fanfiction, there you and I will have to disagree. I’m not reading fanfiction because I desire something original, I’m explicitly reading fanfiction so I can get more of the same feelings I got from the original. For that reason, fanfiction that can have its serial numbers filed off for later publication often leaves me cold as a fanfiction, precisely because they don’t really capture the essence of their source material.
            There are cases where I enjoy fanfiction that wildly diverges from the original, but those are when I have no particular attachment to the source material.

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          2. Correction to the third paragraph, “The article argues that because of the dominance of the *psychological model,”

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          3. I do agree that some of the article’s conclusions are off-base. But it’s fascinating to see someone talking about sociological fiction. I’ve seen SF writers talk about this, and fan (fans of SF, not necessarily of GoT) discussions have drifted into the sociological aspects of fantasy. What’s really, really cool is that Jenny is talking about it, and even though she’s writing contemporary fantasy right now, it’s very interesting to see how it can be applied to straight contemporary romance, for example.

            (-: I guess I am so interested in this aspect that I just brush off the annoying prescriptive attitudes like so many non-biting little gnats.

            I would also like to think more deeply about what the author is saying about sociological narratives in nonfiction reporting about science and tech figures, but I keep getting distracted with ideas like, how does *Faking It* fit in this sort of paradigm?

            To bring it back to Jenny, I think she writes sociologically and psychologically (and a lot of other -logically) because she is well-read, well-informed and thinks about this sort of stuff in her daily life. I know from what she’s said about her process that she’s not writing with a “Must Tell People About the Value of Cooperation” over her computer, but that sort of attitude is part of the fertilizer where she grows her work. Her characters come out of that kind of soil.

            I want to make a further point, but I haven’t read GRRM and I haven’t read Dune (and I just haven’t read enough, frankly) to make those points with fantasy.

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  4. There are post-mortem versions of Ngaio Marsh and Rex Stout? I did read post-mortem Marjorie Allingham and Dorothy Sayers and agree completely about the writer changing making your point.

    I read the GoT book and decided it was really violent soap opera which didn’t interest me in the slightest. I’m marvelling at how many people are caught up in it that I would never have expected to like it at all.

    I don’t know about sociological approach but I do know that he reportedly based it on medieval European politics (in which dragons as far as I know played no role but ok). I was a history major, 40 (ye gods!) years ago, and I didn’t find the connection compelling.

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  5. I read the first 3 books many eons ago. Fell away during the 4th book which is where I think Martin fell. It was his God Emperor Dune book that got split in 2 because the publisher couldn’t publish it as a single volume then delayed by say 4 or 5 years as he rewrote and extended the second half. His world is so freaking huge and there are players in the Game everywhere.

    Anyway, each chapter of Martin’s novel is like a mini-tv episode in a single character’s POV. The first book makes you love the Stark family. The 2nd book is about making the black hat characters into shades of gray. The 3rd book was a solid conclusion to the first trilogy. The world itself keeps growing just as the number of POV characters grows. At first the death of beloved characters is shocking. (flipping the genre a bird) and then it becomes expected. But when they die, their deaths have actual meaning within the context of the world. It’s not pulling the rug out from under the reader. Or at least I didn’t think so.

    I watched pieces of the series now and again. I watched season 1 again from the library and found it better than the first time I saw it. That may be because I knew the scenes that were gratuitous and just didn’t pay attention or if I had enough distance from the books where the things not included didn’t bother me as much.

    There’s some solid stuff in the show. I did find the gratuitous HBO violence and sexual content annoying. Martin included that stuff but within the plot to move the characters along more so than HBO. HBO’s version seemed like oh, we need a naked woman scene, hot woman on woman action or bloody action here. Whereas Martin’s style in certain situations was to fade away and allow the reader’s imagination to do the actual work. Jamie losing his hand was memorable for that. I also know one loses context simply by virtue of tv POV vs. a book chapter POV. Also time is lost. TV makes it seem more like everything is speeding along while the book chapters jumped back and forth in time depending on where the characters in the story were located.

    HBO made brilliant characters idiots in the last 2 seasons. Too many shortcuts without solid source material to condense. Too many character actions without story / plot ramifications. I had many moments of well I wasted my time on this plot thread. Still some brilliant work. As a decade long accomplishment not too shabby. That said, just like the Battlestar Galatica reboot people, I wouldn’t follow these producers to build a story from scratch. Nope, too many viewer jumps required to get to that ending.

    The last 2 seasons don’t have enough room. The last season doesn’t make sense UNLESS the viewer is willing to make leaps that the writers want them to make because it’s simply not seeded in previous seasons. Plus a bunch of fan service. Not a bad thing but it’s a thing.

    I dropped off before the end. Yeah, I wanted to know what would happen which is why I picked up at the end of the show again. But I got seriously seriously pissed at the think of the children and the innocents trope that they were going to tar Queen Dany with when absolutely none of the men and I mean none of the men in power had been tagged with that. It was way too big of a shortcut to get to the ending we producers want plus the whole let’s just take the woman out of the power equation. Now I didn’t watch the last 2 episodes to see what happened so perhaps it was better than I feared but I knew it was coming because they foreshadowed that piece by having the smart characters act really stupid and have monologues about it. One of them even got to die by his blatant character break.

    Huge pile of salt since I stopped watching at episode 4.

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    1. This is a solid analysis, imho. I did watch all the episodes, and I have read all the books that are out, and I also thought the article Jenny responds to did a good job of highlighting why things felt “off” once the writers ran out of Martin’s material. Even though the plot points are the same, it’s like Jenny said: different writer, different story. And in this case, very different TYPE of story.

      (I also agree with Jenny that I don’t think there are reasonable connections to be made to today’s political situation, if only because I’ve also watched the post-show “analysis” interviews with the show runners, and… They do not come off as people who understand how storytelling works, even when they’re the ones doing it.

      Gorgeous visuals, though.)

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      1. Agreed gorgeous visuals!

        I think the “think of the innocents” or “think of the children” trope is classic US politics. I’ve seen this used locally, at the state level, federal and even on the international stage. Once you start looking you’ll see it used everywhere and in many ways that are contradictory.

        If this is where Martin intended us to end up (and I must assume it is as he had involvement with the series) then the death would’ve subtly seeded within the story (at least I hope) so that although the death might have been shocking it would’ve made sense within the context of the world rather than the blatant think of the innocents shortcut. Just like the other major character deaths were. When Ned died, shock. When the Red Wedding happened, shock. When Dany is assassinated, point blank knew it was an inevitable death because the writers blatantly foreshadowed with a big hammer.

        And that in many ways summarizes how I feel about US political corporate media coverage. Power writes the narrative. If Dany’s team would’ve stayed and crushed Westeros, how would her assassination been written? So to me the last season was on the nose for US politics as opposed to Martin’s Westeros book series narratives.

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        1. Peggy, Here’s a just for fun question for you since you’ve done the books and HBO and mentioned the politics piece.

          If I take the Dany’s character arc and lay it onto the Seven Kingdoms. Where do you think Dany’s vision would take her? Let’s go ahead and say that destroying King’s Landing happens but not the way the historians wrote it. Where do all the great houses of Westeros end up under her rule? How do they retain power when we already know that the Queen will rally the peasants to her cause. To throw off the yoke and break the wheel.

          How important is it then to people who want the Great Houses to survive to make the Queen into a Mad Queen instead of a fully rational queen? How much investment would someone like Tyrion have in maintaining at least a piece of the realm power structure as he knew it? How interesting would that have been to see on the HBO screen? Dany as a revolutionary who had built up power only to be destroyed once her “noble” supporters realized she would take it too far and therefore had to be destroyed.

          If I go down this road for regime change but more subtly seed it as Martin previous did, then I can see our current political world within the book world. If I more carefully applied that type of lens to previous novel milestones, I do think it’s there even if some of the pieces fit more with medieval politics. Which I guess means the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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          1. I think honestly Dany would’ve had a hard time rallying the peasants–in her Eastern conquests, she was freeing slaves, but the peasants in Westeros mostly seem petty happy to get on with their lives don’t care as much about the nobles’ squabbling for power until it affects them. Commoners in the books like The Brotherhood Without Banners talk about how war crushes the peasantry and none of the nobles care.

            So I think Dany’s frustration abbot not being loved as a liberator in the north (she saved them, but they’re suspicious of outsiders, and want independence from the throne anyway, and she didn’t give them time to come around to her) was reasonable, and she want likely to do any better in Kings Landing, where Cersei had brought in food and was protecting them from the invading hordes who then eventually did rape and pillage…

            Both queens were delusional, honestly, but that tracks, because their delusions rise out of their characters.

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          2. Sorry, have to respond to my own comment since it’s too deep to respond directly to Peggy.

            I agree that both Queens were delusional to a certain extent. Cersei in the books I read was an idiot child. They made her seem smarter in the series. I think Dany could’ve ended up as a Mad Queen certainly but she was smarter, played the game and was patient. Yep, took a lot of blows and had horrible military advisors who should’ve been put to death 2 or 3 seasons ago. But why exactly was she listening to these people. If you look back, she’s smarter than they are so when did she stop trusting herself? Strip from your mind, what the writers told you to think about in the last season.

            Commoners in the books like The Brotherhood Without Banners talk about how war crushes the peasantry and none of the nobles care.

            Exactly. So if we are noble characters who never cared in any of the preceding years before for the peasantry, why do we suddenly care about the commoners now. before the battle even began, and to such dramatic purpose? Why do we as viewers care? Because the writers told to look at the shiny.

            Because think of the children.

            Rallying the peasents: wasn’t that what the brown sparrow / religious zealots were all about? How hard would it be to tap into that vein when you have a dragon at your side and their world continues to downward spiral? The north MIGHT be a special case but they are mostly dead now.

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          3. And thanks Peggy. My mind is having fun exploring. Made me happier than the last season. Have a lovely week and a nice holiday weekend if in the US.

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  6. “Write about dogs.” Now there’s some solid writing advice. (Says the woman who is considering starting a cozy mystery series featuring an animal rescue.)

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  7. Raymond E Feist commented that the first Riftwar book didn’t follow conventional narrative structure and he thinks it got published because it was a “ripping good yarn.” This is from the intro to the anniversary edition, if my memory serves? I only read it once but never forgot that.

    GRRM’s work seems to have that good yarn quality with something for almost everyone. Hence its popularity.

    I haven’t read nor watched GoT because I’m a Mercedes Lackey, Tamora Pierce, RF Kuang, Jeannie Lin kinda gal, meself. One day I hope to be a Crusie Monday Street gal too. But GRRM is not Paul and Storm’s b*tch and neither is Crusie mine. Sigh. More’s the pity.

    http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2009/05/entitlement-issues.html?m=1

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=GqcqapoFy-w&feature=youtu.be

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      1. It’s 6.15am in my neck of the woods and this made me laugh. I really do love you, Jenny.

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  8. Jenny, thanks so much for posting the question. The thing that kept absorbing me about this notion wasn’t its critical usefulness. Plus, I couldn’t really judge that in this context, since I haven’t read or watched GoT (although I have the same sort of general scuttlebutt sense of it that you described). What struck me is that from an individual perspective only, HEA endings — to anything, really — aren’t feasible. You come down to earth after the wedding, or the third wonderful date, or the first kiss or first anniversary or whatever, and you find you just can’t overlook the fact that he’s such a SLOB, or she’s got so many family members who are so LOUD at dinner tables, or many more subtle differences that come together to really threaten your feelings (and your partner’s) about how things SHOULD be done.

    And with politics, it’s much more complicated, and usually much more segregated. You read what your own group likes, and you ignore what the other group likes because, well — it’s THEM, and you know everything about them is just not right at all! And yet it will be someone’s job to govern the whole, or to do things that benefit the most people without punishing a significant slice of the population. Which they’ll probably suck at, if 2019 is any indicator, anyway.

    I really liked the ambience of Faking It, at least partly because Davy wasn’t just wooing the reluctant Tilda; he could tell he had to find a workable place in the whole Goodnight menage — adapt to their quirks, make himself useful, solve some problems they weren’t able to solve for themselves, and get past some conflicts with Tilda over stuff like sex and secrets. And the previous Dempsey book gave some context and detail to the issues and craziness that Davy was bringing to the relationship, so it was kind of more…sociological? all in all? than, say Bet Me was. In that book, despite some qualms to begin with, the magic kicked in and sparks were flying between Min and Cal, plus both friendship groups really kind of loved the other group. Even in the area of family, Cal’s family had two Min-supporters and only 2.5 stubborn adversaries who felt she was Not Our Kind. And Min’s parents turned out to be pushovers. We got a little background, but not the simmering range of Uh-Oh areas that life forces us all to focus on.

    Family/group history, social group likes & dislikes, and so much more end up being the obstacles to HEA endings all over the damn place. I find myself kind of wishing I had more discussions around me of how to work through conflicts, see bigger pictures, and focus on adapting myself and others to coexist, even cooperate. Or turn dragon-y every once in awhile. Even in romance novels or TV shows. Because climate change. Because totalitarian leaders. I don’t know. Because there has to be more to our collective lives than everybody insisting on following their own damn bliss.

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    1. HEAs are feasible; it just depends on how you define “happily ever after.”
      If you define it as perfect harmony in perpetuity, then nope.
      But if you define it as two people who understand each other, who have survived real troubled working together, who are making a commitment based on understanding of each other and ca deep, abiding mature love so that when the bad times hit again they’ll stick together and survive, then a happy ending is entirely feasible. And yes community has an impact on that, but any commitment that can be destroyed by family or friends isn’t much of a commitment to begin with.
      So the social contract–family, friends, work, etc.–may support the union or it may try to undermine the union, but in the end, what determines the outcome is the union: is it based on mutual respect, cooperation and compromise, and a deep and abiding love, or is it based on they’re bot really hot and the sex is great and they’re so cute together?
      That means that if after the wedding the fact that his family is loud is enough to make her decide they’re not that damn happy, they had no business getting married in the first place. It’s the big problem with romance story-telling: people think conditional love is the way to tell a romance: I love him/her because he’s hot, because he’s funny, because he’s skilled, because he’s kind, because he’s rich, because he’s good at sports, because he’s great in bed, because . . . The problem is, what happens when he wakes up one day and he’s not hot anymore, he’s not feeling funny, he’s got behind on his skills, he’s feeling mean, he’s lost his money, he strikes out, he can’t get it up . . . Then love is over because it was conditional. To make a romance HEA work, you have to convince the reader that it goes beyond conditions, that these people just want and need to be together because they love each other. It’s the reason spouses care for Alzheimer’s patients after their minds are gone; their love wasn’t conditional, they just flat out love the other person.
      So it doesn’t matter that Min and Cal have horrible families and people working against them. They love each other. They didn’t want to, but once they finally say, “Yes, this is real,” it doesn’t matter what society and their social group in particular say. The group can make life more difficult for them, but as long as they have each other, they’ll be okay.

      As for the polarization of groups politically, that’s happening for a reason: The President and the GoP are making it happen, even since Newt Gingrich decided that his Southern Strategy was the way to create a permanent Republican majority. He destroyed the Republican Party in the process, but it worked: he divided the country, and Trump and the GoP have been pushing that ever since. The Democrats are completely worthless at combatting it because they’re coastal, leaving the flyover states to go to hell and the GoP. It’s a mess, but it’s not intrinsic to the human condition. And it doesn’t mean that a vibrant and cooperative society isn’t feasible. Anybody who’s looking at what’s happening right now can see a revolution coming. It’s slow and cumbersome because the US is huge and complicated, but even comparing what’s happening right now to the way things were three years ago, it’s clear that we’re in the middle of a huge social and political change.

      Davy’s an interesting example because he’s not really trying to fit into the Goodnights, at least not in order to get Tilda. Davy moves through the world like Tilda does: amorally. He has his own code, but he has no problem breaking the law, lying, conning people, whatever he needs to do to get what he wants. The reason he works as a character, if he does, is because the things he wants are the things the reader wants, too. But if he hadn’t loved Tilda at a really deep level, he’d have left her at the end. He’d have made sure she was safe and had her paintings back, but he wouldn’t have stayed. He tells her the reason he stays: “I was born to love you.” Not “You’re really hot and we’re great in bed,” not “We really are great at conning people together,” not “I really like our snappy patter.” Just “I was born to love you, you’re where I belong, so this is where I stay.” Unconditional love. I’m not saying it’s easy to find but I do believe it exists. I think people find it every day.

      It’s getting it on the page that’s difficult.

      6+
      1. I often think that I knew my husband and I would make it when we had a power outage on the coldest night of the heat and our 3 year old had a stomach bug and we both had to get up in the cold with him every 20 minutes because one of us had to hold the flashlight while the other one took care of the kid and we didn’t snap at each other. Trust me, no one is hot when you are both freezing exhausted worried about your kid and smell vaguely of vomit.

        Of course it also helped when he called to tell me he had gotten a small bonus at work and I said “you should spend it on yourself because we spent the last ones on the family” and he said “that’s all I wanted to hear” and hung up and came home with the camera he’d been longing for. Pretty sure that extended our marriage by a decade all by itself.

        3+
  9. I suppose I may pick up a season or two of GoT, probably on DVD. I’d prefer it if the books ending the series were complete. Alas, I know full well that GRRM Is Not My Bitch.

    I want more from Jenny, too. The current book would be wonderful, or sequels to Welcome to Temptation (Dillie’s story?) or Maybe This Time (two have been mentioned), anything, but Jennifer Crusie Is Not My Bitch.

    Anything from Lois Bujold would be good. Any length. Any series or no series at all. I’m one of the many who say we’d buy her shopping lists if she published them, but Lois McMaster Bujold Is Not My Bitch.

    The list of people who are Not My Bitches is unbounded. So, how can I write about dogs?

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  10. When I read the article “The Real Reason…” I tried to think of examples of stories that emphasize the sociological. The only one I could think of was War and Peace.

    Now, I read War and Peace many years ago, mistakenly expecting a romance. I had to skim a lot of the book because Tolstoy was actually focused on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia (or something similarly historical). As a result, my memory isn’t so good.

    But — the main character Prince Andrei dies, in part, because his military-noble world has died. Pierre, a bit of a buffoon, is what’s left. So he ends up with the girl. Maybe that was an example of a plot that emphasized the change in society over the change in the individual?

    1+
    1. My first thought was Pratchett. The Ankh Morpork books are all satire but they’re sociological satire and they’re absolutely about the community and its impact on people and vice versa.

      5+
    2. The one that came to my mind was I, Claudius and also some of the Chinese historicals I’ve been watching lately. They’re more about the shape of events in general, and the way events and the society influenced and shaped the individual people within them.

      1+
  11. Just finished reading the article, and it is fascinating. It works for me because I don’t like hero stories — I like a leader, but a lone wolf who changes the world and saves the day, every day? I find that flat. I like a story where the villain also seems to have a point (“the villain is the hero of their own story”), and even though there’s a team, there are squabbles in that team that add interest and flourishes to the story as a whole.

    I’m sure there can be mostly psychological narratives that can be quite complex; but I love the frisson that a little society adds.

    For me, “Crazy for You” is strongly shaped by sociological norms and aspects. Jenny doesn’t set out to teach something, but rather, she observes closely, and reports what she sees. (We’re back to that “writing truth” thing.) That story could exist in a strictly patriarchal society. It couldn’t exist in a strictly matriarchal society, either. It needs to exist in a time when there’s a war between the sexes — where a woman may or may not be heard. Where a man may or may not exert his physical power. The psychology is super-important as well. But this story needs both psychology and sociology.

    Georgette Heyer does a lot with sociology. She borrows the sociology of a past time to shape her fictional sociology of her stories. It creates and deepens conflicts.

    Pratchett goes beyond psychology and sociology — both are definitely there (headology, anyone?). But with characters like Death stalking the land or playing with cats, it’s on a different level from what most fictional writers are doing. His work is more about the fictions that humans create in order to survive as a whole and get along better. Vetinari is psychological; he’s sociological; but he’s also very, very meta.

    3+
    1. Ugh. `couldn’t exist in a strictly patriarchal society. The story is shaped by the sociological conditions of a particular time.

      2+
  12. It seems to me that what went wrong with GoT is that when the writer changed, and therefore the story being told, it interrupted the existing arcs of the characters. So who they were and where they were going changed. That was particularly uncomfortable in the case of Danaerys, who seemed to become a different person in the last episodes. The actress who played her said that she always knew she would die, but she had a lot of trouble when she read the script for the final episodes, because it was difficult to figure out how to make the character she had been creating get to the end written for her. She said she hoped that as she died she was able to display some of the vulnerability of the character she had been at the beginning. That seems to me to be a good example of what happens when there is a disruption in the arc of a character. I think much of the dissatisfaction we feel with the end is because the characters did not end up where they should have, based on where they were going when the writers changed. Surprises are fine but not when they require a character to be someone other than the person we’ve gotten to know.

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