Plot, Character and Genre

I am across an interesting article the other day which, I fear, has little to do with my thesis, but I was captivated and intrigued by it. It recorded and experiment exploring storytelling genres, run by sociologists.

So, why are sociologists looking at story? Well, I’ll let them explain:

Preachers, advertising executives and politicians have long attested to the power of a good story to change people’s minds. Communication scholars recently have shown why. People cognitively process stories differently than they process other kinds of messages… people process stories by immersing themselves in the story, striving to experience vicariously the events and emotions that the protagonists do.

I can’t argue with that, its one of the reasons why story is such a powerful interpretive tool, when done well.The authors (Francesca Polletta, Monica Trigoso, Britni Adams and Amanda Ebner) argue that the reader’s interpretation of a story will change depending on the ideology dominant at the time the story is being read.

Two hundred years ago, a story about a woman whose quiet forbearance allowed her to suffer the indignities of poverty, abuse and injustice without complaint might have been heard as a story of heroism. Today, ‘Patient Griselda’ is likely to be interpreted as a story of abject and pathetic victimhood. This suggests that stories are interpreted in terms of contemporary beliefs.

But they also argue that readers also bring their understanding of the genre into their interpretation of the narrative.

It suggests that we can hear stories in line, not with contemporary ideological beliefs, but with expectations that are intrinsic to the genre.

Thus, as readers, when we’ve twigged what sort of genre the story, we expect the characters to behave in certain ways.

In particular, the moral evaluation that audiences make of the story’s main characters will depend less on characters’‘objective’ behavior than on audiences’ genre-based expectations. Audiences will fill in missing causal links in the story in line with what usually happens in stories of this genre. For example, in a tragic story, the main character’s assertiveness may be blamed for her downfall. The same assertiveness will be appreciated and endorsed when it appears in a heroic story. Indeed, that assertiveness may be cited by audiences as the reason for liking or identifying with the character.

Dealing with the sensitive issue of acquaintance or “date”-rape, and narratives intended to encourage victims to report incidents, the authors were interested in whether genre would trump dominant ideology or vice versa:

Books, articles and other materials that are aimed at preventing rape, encouraging women to report their rape and helping victims to recover from their rape routinely include victims’ stories of their experiences. But do these stories do what they are supposed to do?

Their analysis of stories used in existing rape counselling literature, showed two genres being used. The first is “gothic” stories, “in which an innocent woman is destroyed by an evil man”, which they say is often criticized by feminists because victims struggle to identify with the woman in the story. The alternative that has appeared in response is what the authors call a “classic tragedy” in which “the protagonist is in a sense responsible for his or her fate.”

In their experiment, they presented the same plot  in four different genres, tragic and gothic, as per the existing counselling literature, and two alternatives: “heroic” and “rebirth.” Then, in a series of both closed and open questions and also in focus groups, asked readers “how they judged the protagonist of the story; whether and why they identified with the protagonist of the story and whether and why they could imagine being friends with her; whether they believed that the story was credible; and, what they would do after they left the rapist’s room if they were the woman in the story.”

I won’t do into depth on their results here, but this quote summarizes the dilemma they uncovered:

Tell a story of a young woman who is sheltered, shy and insecure – unlike the tragic protagonist, blameless – and an audience of college women will like the woman in the story and identify with her but will find it hard to imagine her reporting her rape. Tell a story of a woman who is confident and assertive and the audience will imagine her reporting her rape to police but will not identify with or like her. As researchers have shown that identifying with characters is essential to stories’ achieving their behavioral effects, this presents a real problem.

So their are no easy answers, and not much learning for me, in my research, but I was intrigued by their approach.

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