Dystopian Archetypes – 2. Divided Population

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

One of the recurring plot devices in dystopian literature is the ‘Divided Population’. This is to be expected, given that dystopian stories (and their more up-beat counterpart, utopian stories) are, at their heart, socio-political narratives. Population structures and methods of control are, therefore, a key aspect of many dystopian stories.

We see this archetype in classic dystopias, such as 1984, Brave New World and Divided Kingdom, as well as in modern dystopias, like Hunger Games and Divergent. My WIP, Divided Elements, also draws heavily on this archetype in its exploration of identity, loyalty and rebellion.

The prevalence of the ‘Divided Population’ archetype is arguably due to the fact that it draws on two long-established and fundamental philosophies:

  • Divide and Rule (politics)

[The] gaining and maintaining power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into pieces that individually have less power than the one implementing the strategy. The concept refers to a strategy that breaks up existing power structures, and especially prevents smaller power groups from linking up, causing rivalries and fomenting discord among the people. (wikipedia)

  • Self vs Other (sociology/psychology)

…when individuals that identify closely with their own ethnic or religious beliefs begin to gain the mentality that those who are different from them are problematic. This can lead to extreme separation, alienation, and exclusion of the person or of people that is seen as different or unusual to the typical lens of one’s societal views. Othering can be described as discrimination of people or a population that is different than the collective social norm; since they are different they are also seen as deviant or in need of being cultured by the group that is othering them. (wikipedia)

 

Despite the common reference to these philosophies, many dystopian stories present the archetype differently. The main axes along which these stories differ are:

  • The basis on which the population is divided
  • Whether the division is reinforced by a geographic divide
  • Whether the division is static or dynamic (i.e. whether people can change which division they belong to)
  • Whether the division is absolute or imperfect (i.e. whether there is opportunity for inconsistencies within the divide)
  • Whether an additional class or group exists outside the division

 

1984

In 1984, the divide is socio-political – with the population generally inhabiting the same space (albeit in separate (yet, accessible) neighbourhoods) but divided into three hierarchical classes: The proles (proletariat), outer party (bureaucracy) and inner party (oligarchy). The divide is maintained organically – with each new generation born into the class of their parents. No additional class or group exists outside these divisions – rebellion comes from within the structure.

In Hunger Games, the divide is predominantly geographic and labour-based. The population is divided into 12 districts and each district is responsible for fulfilling a mandated role in resource production – District 12’s core industry is mining, District 4’s core industry is fishing. Like 1984, the divide is maintained organically with each new generation born into their district and, therefore, role. Unlike 1984, however, the Districts are equal in power/standing, with the true political divide presented between the Districts and the Capitol. A 13th district is later discovered existing outside the core division, and it from within this district that the rebellion is built and sustained.

brave new world

In Brave New World, the divide is biological – the population ‘hatched’ into a hierarchy of five castes of different intellectual magnitude. Stemming from this biological divide is the division of labour – whereby members of each caste are conditioned for roles appropriate to their level of (manipulated) competence. Like 1984, their is no geographical divide – but the strict hierarchical model means that interactions between castes is distasteful at best, social suicide at worst.

As a counterpoint to this manipulated world, there exists a more organic world – the ‘savage reservation’ –  where the population is not divided. This world (and its inhabitants) serve as a the key narrative device to illustrate the differences between the two ways of living.

In Divided Kingdom, the divide is based on personality types – the population divided into four types (represented by a different humor: blood (red), phlegm (blue), black bile (green) and yellow bile (yellow)). This divide is also geographic, with each type occupying a designated quarter that is quarantined from the others by security walls. There is no hierarchy – all types are equal in power and standing.

Unlike the above examples, the division is not static, but continually manipulated – with children born into a type (and quarter) and then taken for assessment and re-assignment (if necessary) at a predetermined age. A fifth group, not sanctioned by the state or part of the greater population structure, is known as the White – consisting of people who embody all four personality types and none of them, they are able to roam freely between the four quarters, reviled in some, revered in others.

divergent

In Divergent the divide is also personality-based and geographic. The population is divided into five factions based on personality types (Abnegation, Dauntless, Candour, Erudite and Amity) and each faction occupies its own part of the city. Movement between the different parts is allowed (although, seemingly uncommon?). While there is no specific hierarchy, in that each group is equal in general power and standing, one faction is given responsibility for leadership (the pivot on which much of the action in the story turns).

The division is not static – with children born into a type and then taken for assessment when they reach a predetermined age in their teenage years. Unlike Divided Kingdom, where membership is mandated by the state, in Divergent, the assessment is used as guidance only – with candidates allowed to choose which faction they wish to join (or remain in). The divisions are largely imperfect: A candidate more suited to one faction can nonetheless choose membership in another;  A candidate who fails their faction initiation test ultimately becomes ‘factionless’, joining a loosely-organised group occupying their own part of the city; A candidate who is predisposed to more than one faction is labelled ‘divergent’.

 

So, as you can see, despite the common theme of a ‘divided population’, each of these stories is able to present a unique narrative by mixing up the other key considerations. I’m hoping to do the same with my own novel, Divided Elements. 

 

Find this post useful? Let me know in the comments!

Dystopian Archetypes – 2. Divided Population

The only two things your protagonist needs to be…

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

What makes an effective protagonist? There are a lot of theories out there that list a number of critical characteristics, but I think they confuse an effective protagonist with an effective plot. The protagonist is the main character of your story. The plot is what happens to, around and because of your protagonist. And whilst an effective plot must be interesting, goal-oriented, active and full of tension and twists, an effective character need only be two things.

1. Early

2. Suffering

 

What readers expect of your protagonist

The human brain is a weird and wonderful thing. Most notably, it is hardwired for stories. Readers have subconscious expectations about the key components and pace of a story – years of listening to and reading stories has given them an appreciation of the three act structure: They expect trouble for the protagonist, they expect trouble to intensify, they expect the protagonist to achieve and then have their hopes dashed, and they expect  the protagonist to triumph (unless they are reading a tragedy, in which case, they expect the protagonist to fail).

Just as they have a subliminal understanding of the storyline, they also have a precognitive awareness of the protagonist. Interestingly, this understanding of the protagonist is bedded in the word itself. Protagonist is an ancient Greek word that means “one who plays the first part”.

And this is definitely one of the two critical components of a protagonist. They must arrive in the story’s beginning – after all, it is their story. But it’s more than just being early and, indeed, more than just being first.

To be a protagonist, the character must be the first with whom the reader empathises or sympathises. I won’t delve into the semantics of empathy vs sympathy, suffice to say they both are defined as a compassionate response to another undergoing a recognised trial or tribulation.

The protagonist, therefore, must not only appear early in the story, they must also be noticeably suffering from something which elicits an emotional response from the reader. They must be victimised (but not necessarily a victim). They must be suffering – even if this suffering is a) trivial (I missed the train; I broke my watch; My date stood me up; My dog ate my homework) and/or b) in no way relevant to the real trial(s) the plot will eventually throw at them.

 

The story of Maggie Jordan

I came to this conclusion after watching the first episode of The Newsroom Season 3. Whilst we were first introduced to the character of Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) way back in Season 1 Episode 1, we weren’t given cause to feel sorry for him. He wasn’t suffering – in fact he was the aggressor. And whilst he is, possibly, the central character around which the other characters and plots revolve, for me, he is not the protagonist. I don’t cheer for Will – he didn’t grab my sympathy first (and hasn’t really grabbed it at any stage of the series). For me, the (largely obscured?) protagonist is Maggie Jordan (played by Alison Pill). We meet Maggie a scene later – she’s having a very public disagreement with her dominant and arrogant boyfriend who is trying to weasel out of meeting her parents…again.

Ding, ding, ding – we have a winner.

Now, I don’t like Maggie – she’s kind of neurotic and lets herself get pushed around and sometimes just says things that make me cringe. I don’t relate to Maggie – I would dig a hole through the newsroom floor before I had anything that even remotely looked like a disagreement with my boyfriend in front of my colleagues/boss. I don’t even sympathise/empathise with Maggie in most cases throughout the series – mostly I find her annoying.

But, for some unknown reason (which is now not so unknown), I found myself cheering for Maggie throughout the first episode of Season 3 – much as I had silently cheered for her during the previous two seasons. All because, in that first episode of Season 1, she took pole position in making me feel sorry for her. (Incidentally, it is probably the same reason that I still don’t cheer for her ex-boyfriend, Don. Ever).

And, the “feeling sorry” is key once we consider the three act structure – the whole putting a character up a tree, throwing rocks at them and letting them find their way down. An introduction to a character experiencing an extreme feeling of elation or achievement or confidence can elicit empathy and emotional responses from readers – but it doesn’t predispose us to cheering them on when it is time for them to face their hurdles.

So, forget about making a character likeable or interesting or active – let the plot achieve that for them. Just make sure they turn up early (if not first) in the story and make sure they have a hint of suffering about them with which to pull at our heartstrings.

 

(Feature Image courtesy of Zuhair A. Al-Traifi via Flickr Creative Commons)

The only two things your protagonist needs to be…

Straight & Narrow vs Zigzag Helter-Skelter: Which Character Arc is your Protagonist on?

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Now that I’ve past the midpoint of my WIP, Divided Elements, and am on my way towards the second plot point, darkest hour of the soul and shattering enlightenment of Act III, I’ve been thinking a lot about my protagonist’s character arc.

“Her what, now?” you ask.

(Hahahahaha. Oh, reader – you are such a card!)

Her character arc. Wikipedia knows it as the status of a character as it unfolds throughout a narrative; Jim Hull stresses that we heed the difference between character growth and character transformation in a character arc; and Gabe Moura sums it up as the way in which a characters evolves, grows, learns, or changes as the plot unfolds.

Basically it’s the path your character (in this case, the protagonist) takes on their journey of self development, discovery, awareness and actualisation.

 

The varied paths your characters can take

Now, for anyone that has ever taken a road trip, you’ll know that there are many and varied paths that can lead to a destination. And, in knowing this, is the ever-constant reminder that “life is a journey, not a destination”.

(interestingly, my autocorrect wanted ‘destination’ changed to ‘detonation’, a Freudian slip on behalf of my keyboard, perhaps?)

Random, tangential observations aside, Ralph Waldo Emerson had it right. A thousand protagonists could end up at the same point (UN Secretary General) and still be incredibly different characters depending on their starting point (orphan vs the wealthiest 5 year old in the world) and their journey (complete with pirates, smugglers, assassins and moonlit seductresses vs lots of hard work, bribes and the occasional extra-marital affair).

So, yes, character arcs can be wildly different in terms of NATURE, but what of DIRECTION?

This has been the major question on my mind lately…

When I look at the plethora of images tagged with “character arc” on Google, I get this:

Screenshot 2014-10-30 20.16.34

Yes, they all seem vastly different. But, do you notice the one thing that they all have in common? (Have another look – I’ll sit here singing the Sesame Street song – you know the one…)

Yep, they are all LINEAR.

Not linear, in terms of straight, but linear in terms of no double-backs, loops or crazy spirals. I don’t know about you, but I change my mind a couple of times a millisecond. I think I want A, get distracted by B, get bored by B and remember that I love A, and then remember why I got disillusioned with A in the first place and go after C.

Unsurprisingly, my protagonist is a little like me in that respect. And I’m wondering whether that is a good thing. Yes, it may be authentic, but is it readable? (Incidentally, that is the second major question I have been toying with lately, and will no doubt become a blog post in due time…)

 

Character Arc Directions

So, let’s look at some of the kinds of character arcs, different in both NATURE and DIRECTION, that we can play with as writers:

1. The straight and narrow: Your character is born or gradually endowed with what they need to do to fulfil their destiny and they grow in stages accordingly to reach their destiny.

For me this is the most boring – it screams privileged white boy growing up in a gated community with all the trappings of an entitled life. A boy who is groomed to become the CEO of a multinational corporation worth gazillions by his demanding father and subsequently goes through a series of trials to gain the remaining necessary skills to do just that. Uggghhhh. I can’t think of any movie or book with this plot line because it is so boring it either wasn’t made or I fell asleep somewhere in the middle… Or, could The Last Starfighter fit this description? (in which case, I may have to write a lengthy retraction…)

2. The slight deviation: Your character needs A and knows that they need it, but somewhere along the way the become distracted by B and take a little detour, before realising their mind snap and dutifully return to their proper path.

Slightly more exciting that the rich white snob, but still pretty tame. Having said that, this is 30% me on a daily basis. I’ll be driving towards our agreed dinner destination, will see a neon sign for a new Mexican restaurant, convince my passenger to go there instead and instantly regret it when faced with plastic chairs, cutlery and queso, beat a hasty retreat and end up where we were meant to be all along. Plus, some of my favourite stories employ the approach. Think Crazy, Stupid, Love, or Easy A, or Divided Kingdom, or Animal Farm.

3. The variety is the spice of life: (bear with me, it’s a little like #2, but with a twist) Your character needs/wants/is lost in A, gets distracted/enticed/entrapped by B, jumps at the chance/agonises over whether to make the switch (or resists making it), makes the switch, learns to love/endure it, life is great.

This falls more into the ‘transformation’ arc and is very, very, very popular (as in, you’ve probably read it in a hundred books or seen it in a hundred movies). Think Fahrenheit 451, the entire Wheel of Time series, The MatrixBreaking Bad, etc etc.

4. The I want it, I want it, I want it: Your character is stuck with A, finds their ultimate soul mate (person, job, life) in B, faces obstacle after obstacle to get B, but throws such a tanty – everyone and everything else be damned – until they get B.

I want to hate on this arc, but, if done right, can be cool – think Whip It – but if done wrong, is like the girl with the curl (horrid) – you can figure out your own examples, because I am not going there 🙂

5. The I don’t know what I want, but, when I find it, I will probably change my mind a thousand times before I realise I want it: Yes, as you can tell by the vitriol, that is where I am at with my protag: It’s the arc where your character wants A, then something happens and they want B, but then B is not all it cracked up to be, so A is looking good again, and then A turns out to be exactly the thing that made it possible to be distracted by B, which just ends up in messy confusion and lots of soul searching and a heap of tension.

Sounds like a messy relationship, but this arc isn’t specific to romance. I think it is specific to character-driven stories, however. Because characters, by their very nature, are complex and (largely) unpredictable, and (following the ‘character arc’ theme) undergoing a serious and profound transformation/change/evolution. I also think it is specific to the human mind and goal setting.

Without going on a long and boring nerd-track, if you’ve read or heard of Daniel Kahneman and his Thinking, Fast and Slow, you’ll know that humans do not think rationally. About anything. Especially the things they care most about – love and money. So, having a character that bounces around and back-flips in the #5 profile isn’t unreasonable.

Whilst these arcs are more goal-oriented than growth-oriented – i.e. they focus on the goals and path of action that the protagonist takes – they can incorporate the strict character arc either directly or indirectly.

Directly, we can apply the same approaches to character development and growth – e.g. with the first approach, you can have a protagonist who starts out as a little shy an timid but with a spark of bravery in a particular area (when they are wearing their red spiderman underpants), who continues to grow in courage until they are fighting fires and saving kittens and disarming nuclear bombs. With the fifth approach, you can have a protagonist who starts off as emotionally distant, falls for someone and becomes more vulnerable, gets hurt by them and decides emotionally-distant and alone is better than vulnerable and heartbroken, but then finds there is no satisfaction any more in being aloof.

Indirectly, you can use your protagonist’s inner development and growth to drive the decisions and actions that generate the plot paths above – e.g. your protagonists wants B because they have become more loyal, or selfish, or curious, or grounded (etc, etc. you get the picture).

As you can see, the goal arc and inner-growth arc are inevitably intertwined. As Robert McKee says:

We cannot ask which is more important, structure or character, because structure is character; character is structure. They’re the same thing, and therefore one cannot be more important than the other.

What do you think? Which character arc does your protagonist follow?

 

(Feature Image courtesy of Swalo Photo via Flickr Creative Commons)

Straight & Narrow vs Zigzag Helter-Skelter: Which Character Arc is your Protagonist on?

Dystopian Archetypes – 1. High Tech Utopia vs Savage Natural World

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Recently, I finished reading two YA dystopian novels that, while very different to each other, contained a common thread that I have identified as one of the core themes of dystopian literature – The High-tech utopia vs the Savage natural world.

 

Ready Player One and Under the Never Sky both have this as the dominant characteristic of their respective physical worlds. In Ready Player One, the dichotomy takes the form of an online virtual reality called OASIS versus the crumbling urban infrastructure of an environmentally wasted city. In Under the Never Sky, it takes the form of pristine ‘Dweller’ pods and virtual ‘Realms’ versus the aether-blighted wastelands.

RPO & UTNS

In both, the high-tech virtual world is presented as the Utopia – although this is less pronounced in Ready Player One (whereby OASIS is more a kind of advanced Second Life platform) than Under the Never Sky (whereby the Realms are virtual worlds that dominate existence and provide a life free of fear, injury and consequence). Similarly, both present the ‘real’ world as uninhabitable, hostile and dangerous. This clear polarity allows both stories to set up the high-tech world as the false utopia (another core dystopian theme that I will explore in a later post). Again, Ready Player One does this less successfully than Under the Never Sky, the latter showing the inherent flaws of an overly-designed society and virtual existence through the character development of Aria, the novel’s protagonist.

Perhaps the best and well-known example of this dichotomy is found in Brave New World, where the engineered and scientifically-advanced society of Bernard is set in stark contrast to the savage and organic world of John.

brave new world

The plot device is a useful one, in that it sets up the dystopian analysis of the ‘hidden’, almost insidious, dangers of technology. This is, of course, is an old and well-worn theme, seen most notably in robots gone wild texts (Robopocalypse and Terminator) and built on a kind of ‘technophobia’. At the core of these books, films and media is an implied discussion on the ethics of technological development.

Technoethics is a continually-developing field of thought and discussion. Whilst intuitively it may seem only a new consideration, debate about the immorality of new technology has been around as long as Socrates and Plato:

The move from one set of dominant information technologies to another is always morally contentious. Socrates lived during the long transition from a largely oral tradition to a newer information technology consisting of writing down words and information and collecting those writings into scrolls and books. Famously Socrates was somewhat antagonistic to writing and he never wrote anything down himself. Ironically, we only know about Socrates’ argument against writing because his student Plato ignored his teacher and wrote it down in a dialogue called “Phaedrus” (Plato). Towards the end of this dialogue Socrates discusses with his friend Phaedrus the “…conditions which make it (writing) proper or improper” (section 274b–479c). Socrates tells a fable of an Egyptian God he names Theuth who gives the gift of writing to a king named Thamus. Thamus is not pleased with the gift and replies,

If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. (Phaedrus, section 275a)

Socrates, who was adept at quoting lines from poems and epics and placing them into his conversations, fears that those who rely on writing will never be able to truly understand and live by these words. For Socrates there is something immoral or false about writing.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/it-moral-values/

As technological development continues to advance at a rapid rate and debates about moral imperatives and ethical considerations develop in response to stubborn resistance to change, this dichotomy of High Tech vs Savage Organic will remain a key inspiration for dystopian creators.

As I continue to draft Divided Elements and read a vast range of dystopian literature, I find myself picking up and analysing the core dystopian themes. Over the coming weeks and months, I will share my observations and insight with you all in the hope of generating some great discussion and unearthing new treasures to read.

Update: The second entry in this series is now available: Dystopian Archetypes – 2. Divided Population

Dystopian Archetypes – 1. High Tech Utopia vs Savage Natural World