Individuals, Society, Change, and Story

This article centers on a combination of seemingly disparate thoughts, so I ask for your patience as I bring them all together.  The conclusion, I think, will be interesting.

So the first part…

I was recently having a discussion with my nephew about stories and world-building.  I told him that the most interesting stories to me revolve around character.  I want to see the struggles, trials, choices, successes, and failures of the protagonist through the course of the story and into its ultimate conclusion.

My nephew, who is a huge fan of world-building like myself, told me that he is far less interested in individual change than societal change.  Stories that focus on a people or peoples and how they interact and change are more interesting to him.  He made the observation that it isn’t individuals who move the wheels of history, but peoples.  It is very rare when a person can single-handedly drive events.  Movements have leaders, certainly, but the leader is nothing without that movement.  I agree with his observation.

Given my love of world-building, my education as a historian, and my fascination with why our own world has developed across the centuries in the way that it has, why then do I prefer character stories?  Why am I more likely to be drawn in to stories that closely follow the path of one or a few individuals than novels with a wider focus?  Surely the latter are more important?

Now the second part…

At work, I’m becoming involved in “Organizational Change Management.”  This is a focus on the people side of change using mechanisms like Prosci Change Management.  The idea of change management, in brief, is that change happens in organizations every day.  Most companies and institutions are proficient at doing all of the project requirements involved in bringing changes, small and large, about. 

Nevertheless, the people side of change is often overlooked.  Change management is the methodology of keeping employees aware of the change, enlisting their desire for that change (what’s in it for me), providing the tools and training they need to make the change, honing the burgeoning new skills of employees, and finally checking to make sure the changes were implemented and incorporated correctly.  Fundamental to change management is the idea that organizations are built upon individuals changing.  We all move through change at different paces and with different levels of willingness.  If change is managed poorly, the result is often resentment, delays in implementation and slipshod results.  It also means that more people refuse to change.  Employees who refuse a change may quit or retire.  If they stick around, they may revert to old ways of doing business or even actively work against their organization’s goals.

All in all, I’m still rather new to a lot of this, but hopefully you get the idea.

“What on earth am I reading?” you may be asking yourself.  “What does this technical modern workplace stuff have to do with fantasy fiction, individuals, society, and story?”  The basic link is this:  Stories are about change.  Without change, there wouldn’t be a story.  I’d argue that the concepts behind change management are as true for societies as they are for organizations. 

Thus while I agree with my nephew that change rarely results from the impetus of one individual but rather is the conglomeration of a people shifting in their attitudes, beliefs, practices, and culture, that change still happens as thousands of individual transitions.

A good example of change at the individual level can be found in one of my favorite sci-fi novels, “Armor” by John Steakley.  It follows the journeys of two characters, Felix and Jack Crow.  For simplicity, I’ll only talk about Felix.  It is a war story focused on the “Antwar” between power-armored humans and insect-like aliens.  This war, in its broad tapestry, includes a human interstellar empire of many peoples and cultures, a large military with its starships and ground forces and all the politics and pageantry that goes along with such institutions.  But at the risk of over exaggerating, none of that matters except for the ways it intersects with Felix’s life.  It is a pure character story of Felix’s own experiences in the Antwar as he grapples with the enemy, himself, and the challenges that arise from desperate war.  The prose can be a bit choppy at times, but the story is fantastic.  I highly recommend it.

Stories can look at both levels (individual and society), but typically the more you focus on one the less you can on the other.  I suspect that the ‘no one is safe’ style novels that I discussed last spring must, by their nature, almost always fall in the category of societal novels rather than character ones.   This is for two reasons.  First, if any character can die at any time, then it would be an extreme challenge to set the primary focus on individual paths.  This isn’t to say that doomed characters don’t change prior to their demise.  Second, for character-level change to truly engross the reader, then the reader must develop a strong affinity for that character.  This is very challenging to achieve in stories where the reader doesn’t know one page to the next if that character will die.  When there is a good chance of death, the reader is less likely to draw close emotionally to that character… a feat necessary in good character-centered stories.  If an author lures a reader to such an emotional bond using the implication of survival and then kills that character, they’ll break reader trust which is catastrophic for the author-reader relationship.

While character stories are very important to me, I’m not fixated purely on this idea.  Many stories strike some measure of balance between character and society.  In “Tears from Iron” we follow the paths of Vistus and Ninanna and their personal struggles, but the story also pays attention to broader societal issues such as the Syraestari grappling between the philosophies of empire and refuge and, of course, the beliefs concerning the servitude of human t’Okaedrin, Pi’aernoth, and Kalilaer.

Such matters certainly come down to taste and I don’t begrudge anyone their opinion, but for me, I care more about the individual aspects of these struggles through change.  Yes, it manifests on the macro-scale of societies, but at its root it is each man and woman grappling and making choice.  By focusing on Vistus, we can see his angst and his pride, his doubts, his shame, his resolve, and his failures in a way that would be missed if we looked too broadly.