On Structure, Protagonists, and Conflict

Did I forget I had this blog? Maybe. Am I tired of trying to find decent newsletter platforms that aren’t a pain to use and allow discussion but aren’t funding bigots? Yes. So I’m back to this ancient WordPress site, to hopefully renew its use within a regular writing practice. I write a lot for myself but it never enters a state where it’s polished enough to share which is why most of my thoughts go half-baked on Twitter. But I’d like to get back to trying to write essays and express myself on a critical and theoretical level again. For now, here’s some thoughts I want to revisit. (Yes, originally they were tweets. Baby steps.)

STRUCTURE

I think narrative ‘structures’ are thought of both too literally by writers and are weighted with an almost sacred level of importance in the Western world when structure is actually both not that complicated or essential to writing

Maybe you outline, plan & force it into a ‘structure’ but i don’t know how necessary it is, if at all. It certainly doesn’t guarantee a GOOD story. It can be useful when you want to telegraph whats going to happen to an implied reader who shares your same idea of story structure 

I believe that a story can shape itself organically. Like, people are naturally pattern seeking, so when you write a story, you’re already going to ‘pattern’ or ‘structure’ it. So when you then force it into a traditional structure, it makes it feel even more artificial to me… 

Even the term ‘structure’ feels definite in a way that is unhelpful, overly systematized. I kind of like this term ‘engine’ but honestly, any one-word term is going to boil a very complicated concept down in a way that fruitlessly flattens it

Popular western story structures seems to me to just be a marketing tactic. You’re trying to make a familiar product for an audience! And that doesn’t mean you can’t make a good story that way, but it’s overused & not because its the Secret to Story. It’s capitalist conditioning 

Like look at all these interesting story structures! Look at the asymmetries in them, the lack of protagonist or resolution, the variance in ‘beats’, etc. Inspiring! And irritating that we only ever see the same one in all of our media

For writers, I would love to see a focus on following what engages them instead of them trying to hit beats, insert filler to make sure an arc has been checked off, or force in unnatural elements just to follow the formula. 

For readers, learning to be comfortable with unpredictability and having your expectations left unmet is something that needs to be trained into you. ‘I just like what I like’ well, no actually! You can cultivate your taste and expectations, it’s not a innate, immutable thing.

PROTAGONISTS

I feel like the idea of ‘protagnist’ and ‘main character’ needs to be challenged more in stories, by authors and readers, especially as we get away from imperialistic storytelling traditions. It’s pretty accepted that the white savior trope is dysfunctional racist paternalism. I’d like to see that same critical eye on the concept of protagonists, because I feel like especially in SF/F, it’s serving some similar purposes: the responsibility of change foisted on a single person (a princess, a space captain) the inherent homogeny of a single POV.

I recently read A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o & his ability to weaves so many characters perspectives and memories together felt so revolutionary & innovative and not something I see commonly in current fiction! Probably cuz omniscient isn’t ‘trendy’ or seems challenging. A Grain of Wheat is about community, private and public responsibility, forgiveness, complicity with colonial forced. All of these themes are served by the lack of one main protagonist and instead uses a complex decentered cast. Having a ‘main character’ shouldnt just be a given.

If you have a focus on a single protagonist: why? Does it serve a narrative purpose? Does it serve your theme? Does it serve your own authorial ideology? Can you diffuse your perspectives in your story? Why not?

I’m not saying protags are bad, just that they shouldn’t be assumed right out of the gate to be necessary or ‘right’ for your story, just like any other narrative structural component. Narrative trajectories of mainstream western fiction feel like they’ve been slow to stray from an individualistic experience. There’s a lot at play as to why but what comes to mind: capitalism has a vested interest in keeping us autonomously & ideologically separate from each other. Right now writing feels very dictatorial, answers are favored over mystery, ease over effort; but if we were to challenge these conventional narrative elements, ones we hardly ever question, we might be able to make more complex and radical works of art.

I’m struggling with this too! My own stories hew towards the individualistic and I’m realizing now I don’t often agree with that on a craft level (for particular projects) or ideologically. It seems daunting to feel the need to rework these stories but…growing pains! But I’m tired of reading the same thing even among marginalized creators (me included) where you just plop in a woman of color in a hero’s journey and have them enact the same violent imperialism in reverse lol as cathartic as it is. Gotta keep trying new uncomfortable things!

As a cartoonist whose industry is steeped in making every characters HYPER individualistic design wise (down to their silhouettes!), it really shows how much of a stranglehold capitalism has on what a protag should be. Character design is often about marketing a product not making a good story. Characters can look AND sound the same and still FEEL like their own person. But that’s less “sexy” than a cast of color-coded, specifically shaped characters who all have their carefully crafted catchphrase lol

Probably doesn’t need to be said but I’m not decrying protagonists, just wanting to emphasize its another TOOL to be considered and shouldn’t be taken as a Truth Of Every Story. Main characters are going to be around forever & I like them! But choosing one is a socio-political choice: it’s not neutral.

CONFLICT

conflict in narratives isn’t something you can boil down to east/west tradition. most people’s expectations of conflict are hinged on the concept of character ‘agency’, their ability to produce effects in the world around them. this is a popular narrative device bc it’s also the master narrative of our existence under imperialism. But conflict in a story doesn’t have to be violent or even a single finite event. It can be the grieving process, a solving of a question, the structure of the story itself

But also conflict is totally unnecessary for an engaging story and the demand for conflict is totally cultural. Other ways to make an engaging story: excavate the emotional reality of a character or cast, illustrate an environment, or explore a theoretical concept. Format can circumvent the conflict device too while providing a narrative engine and forward momentum for a reader (and writer!). Like you can present a story as annals, detailing events without constructing a story around how the different occurrences fit together

Or string together descriptions without providing conclusions; juxtapozing various places/people/things is also a great form of creating tension because the reader will want to draw connections naturally. Conflict is feels too specific, tension is better, curiosity the best. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama is a good example of a story that’s heavy with tension but is just a long beautiful alien spaceship tour! Or California Statutes Concerning Defrauding an Innkeeper by Carmen Maria Machado that is a list of statutes that becomes supernatural!

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