The War of the Narratives: Insular vs. Grand

As I recover from searing back pain, I feel compelled to revisit a little debate I had with someone awhile back.

The debate: which narrative form tells the best story: “insular narratives”, driven by colorful characters in relatively small settings, or “grand narratives”, which focus on large-scale events, sometimes at the expense of intimate character descriptions?

As with anything, narrative preference is a matter of personal taste. Also, there are seemingly as many narrative forms as there are bones in my body. For that reason, we—a fellow writer & I—tried to simplify the subject to the two separate categories in the title.

For the record, I come down on the side of insular narratives.

In my opinion, insular narratives, be they in video games, films, books, what have you, offer the best chance for complex character development. Because the story doesn’t focus on some grand, cosmic (or even non-cosmic) event, the story has to focus on bright, colorful, layered characters in order to be satisfying. More than that, a book with an insular narrative can’t survive unless the characters within are engaging and endearing. (If the terminology in this article gets too pretentious, I’ll provide a cliff notes response at the end of the program.)

In a good book/film/video game with an insular narrative, you won’t find many Bella Swan’s or Kantorek’s (or if you do, they exist merely as punching bags for the textured insular characters to rip on for their one-dimensional personalities). In a good piece of work with an insular narrative, you tend to explore your characters more deeply than you do the setting—and that means your characters have to live with some damn color.

I’m talking interesting, intriguing personalities, not characters that have no dreams or ambitions outside of one person/place/thing. If you have a character like that in an insular narrative, at some point you have to see what brought them there, and at some point either a change must come, or you get what you asked for and people finally leave you alone to brood and bitch in a quiet, dank room (not celebrate it, like some books).

Either that, or they’ll just tell you off.

bland

Edward: “What’s your favorite food?” Bella: “Whatever kind of food you like.”

cute kid

“You guys suck!”

I prefer stories that focus on character development, because, I’ll be honest, I’m a little bit of a man slut when it comes to complex characters in stories: I can’t get enough of them.

My “opponent”, on the other hand, believes the adage “people are shaped by their environment”—and as an extension to this, the more grand the environment, the more complex the characters will become. I can sort of agree on this point. After all, doesn’t it often take some kind of catastrophe to show us who we really are? The same thing happens in any form of creative fiction/non-fiction. Just toss a little bloody war into the mix and you’ll find out very quickly what your characters are made of, and of what they are capable.

A “grand” narrative is — the true definition of which is simplified for this article — a style of narrative in which some greater event drives the story forward, not simply the characters. The characters grow with the event, transform with it, and ultimately find themselves through it. Think Lord of the Rings; yes, there were aspects of an insular narrative in it (Frodo & Sam spend most of the trilogy away from the others, as do Merry & Pip), but they are always driven by a grand goal (stopping Sauron from jacking up the world by destroying the One Ring before he can recapture it).

You could call this a debate over character driven plots & event driven plots, but that sort of minimizes the discussion a bit. Stories driven by a great event don’t always do so at the expense of meaningful character development (All Quiet on the Western Front), and conversely, not all stories with an intimate setting automatically have superior characters.

Funny enough, this debate eventually spilled over the literature line, right into video games and, especially, films.

I stood my ground as she reeled off titles like Ran, The Ten Commandments, Saving Private Ryan and, of course, The Lord of the Rings trilogy—all films that I love—to support her argument, to which I countered with Rashomon, Citizen Kane, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Die Hard (which got a nice big LOL in an otherwise concentrated discussion).

Badass

“Was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers actually. I really like those sequined shirts.”

Just think about it for a minute; does Die Hard ever take place anywhere other than inside the Nakatomi building? Yes, there are scenes that show people outside of the building, but everything is centralized on that location, and the situation within.

The entire movie takes place in one near-constant setting, with the story driven by the complexity of the characters. You learn all about John McClane, his struggling marriage, his job as a New York cop, his wife’s ambitions, his kids, Hans’ goals (and later his REAL goals), Al Powell’s internal struggle with the aftermath of having accidentally shot a kid, that long-haired blonde guy’s thirst for revenge after John killed his little brother in the stairwell, that one douchebag reporter’s attempts to get the story before anyone else, etc.

Die Hard is about the characters, while the situation in the Nakatomi building is really just a backdrop (and not even a terribly important one—it’s not as if the writers mentioned every 10 seconds that this was a Japanese corporate building. This story could have, realistically, taken place in any powerful corporation’s highrise and not skipped a beat).

I also mentioned other titles like Seven Samurai, which nearly led into an entirely new debate. That was until I mentioned that, while the story does take place in the Warring States Period of Japanese history, the story itself isn’t at all focused on a grand picture. It’s just a film about 7 ronin who are hired to defend a farming village from bandits.

(On the other side, I eventually had to grudgingly concede The Godfather, because even though the film focused quite a bit of attention on the people within the Corleone crime family, it was driven by a grand event: Virgil Sollozzo’s attempts to set up a Heroin trade business in New York, as well as a simmering feud between the other 4 crime families who are all vying for power with the Corleones).

This debate really does come down to a personal taste issue, in the end. It’s like asking two people who love pizza to name their favorite topping—just because one prefers pepperoni & the other prefers sausage doesn’t mean that neither will ever eat a pizza that contains one or the other topping. Sometimes variety in your pizza topping is good; the same principle holds true for creative media.

I enjoy books with grand plots; I enjoy films with grand plots; I enjoy video games with grand plots; It’s just that if I have to choose one or the other, I’ll always go with stories that have complex characters, even if a grand setting has to be omitted to make it all work.

In fact, some of my favorite stories are ones that feature dialogue between two or more characters, with little or no action. It might sound a bit dull, but if it is done right—and the dialogue is crisp enough—the results are beautiful.

Case in point (the way I eventually “won” the “insular-only-is-a-relevant-form-of-storytelling” part of our debate):

Now granted, you could put Samuel L. Jackson in a room with a tape recorder and tell him to give his opinion on newspaper articles—it’d be the most entertaining shit you ever heard. But seriously, what you have here is one of several instances in Pulp Fiction of no action, but plenty of character interaction, and it works like clockwork.

This isn’t a deep conversation here. Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) & Vincent (John Travolta) are talking about a foot massage, ffs. Still, it works because of the little instances of humor, intentional or otherwise, and because at some point both characters get serious about what they’re talking about, and what they think about it (a dude getting tossed out a window for giving a foot massage to the boss’s wife).

Could you see a conversation like this taking place in 300?

fun buddies

“Have you given a lot of foot massages, Xerxes?” “Shit yeah, got my technique down and everything.”

Yeah, no.

I love grand narratives, but sometimes I feel like your characters have to be a certain way in order to function within them.

It would just get ludicrous if Leonidas got together with Artemis to get drunk and talk about how fucked up Xerxes looks with all his weird piercings—or to ask how their armorer ever got paid for designing loincloths that wouldn’t stop a throwing dart, much less a Persian sword.

Grand events dictate your characters act in different ways, I understand this to a degree. But when you think about it, is that really true, or are writers just not trying hard enough to make it work?

In a lot of ways, it looks like writers are hiding behind grand events to evade the work of actually having to create complex characters.

To illustrate this point, we’re going into the next topic we stumbled into in this debate: role playing games.

Some of the best stories in video games are from role playing games.

When our discussion moved into the video game territory, I was met with an immediate “all role playing games have ‘grand narratives’; it’s always about saving the world, not just a town.” I conceded on this point (it’s so true). However, I fired back that “The setting may be ‘grand’, but the interaction of the characters is ‘insular’—which makes it at least 50% an insular narrative, if not more.”

By this, I mean that role playing games almost always revolve around a half-a-dozen-to-a-dozen characters, their motivations, their goals, with only token mentions that anyone of note exists in the rest of the world other than the villains & heroes. Hell, if you weren’t paying much attention, you probably could be convinced that you’re playing the ONLY interesting characters in the entire world, and the rest of the world’s population are just amorphous blobs. (Kind of makes you wonder why they’re really worth saving, doesn’t it…?)

Because the focus on the characters you play in an rpg is so insular, often you get better character development than you would if you just let the setting drive the story. When you put an insular focus on rpg characters, often you find out that your heroes are flawed. Not in a tragic, melodramatic emo way, but in more of a complex, “human” way. Having said that, you also get to see other sides of a character’s personality besides the dark and mysterious exterior. You get to see the humor, as well.

Because you choose to focus on the heroes on their journey, as opposed to focusing on the world as the heroes are on their journey, the environment feels more intimate, and you care more about these people you’re following. You get to see more sides to them than you would normally get to in a story with an overarching “grand narrative”.

Tellah

R.I.P. You awesome, awesome old bastard.

Throughout the course of our debate, I started to realize that strong focus on the characters is more important to me than a narrative with grand ambitions. In fact, my favorite movies tend not to be your 300‘s, with its special effects & over-the-top fight scenes, or your Star Trek‘s with its massive interstellar ship battles. I prefer films like The Fifth Element, which does have its own action sequences and grand “I-must-save-the-universe” narrative. But beneath that “grand narrative”, the writers found a way to also include humor and diversity to its cast of characters.

Seriously, tell me what business that has in a movie where the plot has an entire universe on the line? It doesn’t…Unless you find a way to make it fit (which the writers of the movie did brilliantly).

The rest of the movie was just as random. It had its serious moments, but it also had some flavor to it.

-This movie didn’t just have flying cars, it also had McDonald’s drive-thru windows to service them;

-It didn’t just have apartments that were high up in the sky, it also had flying Chinese restaurants to bring people their dimsum;

-It didn’t just have a decorated war hero who goes off to save the universe, he was an out-of-work cab driver with an overbearing mother, who falls in love with a character who literally falls into his lap…er, into the back of his cab.

But I digress.

The point is, stories should always put ample focus on characters, in my opinion, even if it means sacrificing a grand narrative. This is the area in which we ended up in a stalemate.

She conceded that character development is important, but, in her opinion, grand events make for the best settings & story drivers. It was a little hard to argue with her because some of my favorite movies/films/books feature grand narrative events to which the characters must adapt.

That said,  many of my favorite stories are ones where the characters are doing the driving, and what matters is the characters, and what their concerns are, while the event that brings them together is just kind of ancillary. Like Before Sunrise, a movie that takes place over the course of one night, in one setting (Vienna), where the narrative—if you could even say it really has one—is minimalist, at best, and driven entirely by the characters.

Like I said at the beginning, so much of this has to do with a person’s own tastes. I love stories with grand narratives, and I love stories with insular narratives—I just choose insular if I’m asked point blank.

I feel like the best stories are the ones where the characters are looked at closely, where you are given a window into how they got to be who they are, where they are going, what they are going to do if things don’t go their way, and so on. I love when two characters just shoot the breeze long enough to talk about what’s about to happen. Hell, you could stretch that out and make a two hour movie about soldiers talking the night before a huge world-changing battle and I would enjoy it if the dialogue is engaging.

To me, the players are more important than the game.

What about you? If you managed to get all the way through this tl;dr article, which side of the divide do you come down on?

Is it more important for you that there is some great objective the characters must face to make a good story, or some event that changes the world based on the participation of the main characters?

Do you find that stories that put more focus on characters tend to be superior to stories that have great objectives, but don’t really let you see the different aspects of its characters?

Does a story have to have both in order for you to be interested, or to stay interested?

Michael Bay or Martin Scorcese? (Ok seriously, don’t answer that.)