the great man theory of history and what it does to how we create


You know the great man theory of history. You just maybe didn’t know it was called that. The idea that individuals of great and noble character shaped the world as we know it, and that the world would not be as we know it without them — that’s what we’re talking about. You know. Book reports on presidents and war generals and inventors. I’ll save you the trouble of googling and paste Wikipedia’s description of it here:

“The Great Man theory is a 19th-century idea according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men”, or heroes; highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact. The theory was popularized in the 1840s by Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle. But in 1860 Herbert Spencer formulated a counter-argument that has remained influential throughout the 20th century to the present: Spencer said that such great men are the products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their lifetimes.”

You probably also knew that there had to be a counterargument. Maybe you didn’t know that it has been around since the 1860s, but still. It’s there. It’s everywhere, really: in the certain knowledge that no one person, no matter how great, exists in or was produced by a vacuum; in the countless thousands of unknown enablers of history to unfold; in the countless thousands of _known_ enablers, even, who go unwritten and then become unknown with the passing of time. We know individuals do not shape the world.

But still, the great man theory persists, in every medium imaginable. Novels, movies, political ads (advertisements of all kinds, really), games…linear narratives lean heavily on the great man (and yes, it tends to be men, which is of course part — but not all — of the problem) theory because it makes things easy. It provides a focal point. We are taught, by the stories we digest as we come to learn the value of story, that if we stick right behind this character or this set of very important characters, we will Know What Happens. We will reach a kind of truth, couched safely in the vee waves this important character makes as they move through the world. We don’t want to be caught up in the wake; we want to be right up there behind them, gliding along on the deceptively smooth plane of their passage, to see things as they see it. To understand.

Maybe that is a larger part of the problem — the idea that this understanding can be reached. Like an object that can be picked up, saved for and purchased, an understanding of the world, or a part of it, is something we are taught to expect from our stories. If the stories lack that, we balk. We assassinate the characters of everyone involved; we claim the writers didn’t do X or the devs didn’t do Z. We whine. Because we were told we should get to understand, and we don’t get to.

Haven’t you heard? We don’t get to.

You don’t get to “escape the uncomfortable messiness of life.” You don’t get to understand why gentle people die and terrible people live on and on; you don’t get to understand why this or that thing happens to you, and not someone else; or to someone else, but not to you. Not in life, so why in art? I love narrative linear stories as much as the next person; maybe more. My bookshelves groan with the weight of that love. But reading a novel feels the same as playing an RPG to me. The emotional lop-sided smile is always going to be there, because there is always going to be a reason things happen. Whole franchises; whole careers are spun out of more and more elaborate reasons for C to follow B to follow A. It is supposed to make sense, and you make the money walking the line between anticipation and the great reveal — as well as the fun you have while waiting. And, make no mistake, be it in DLC or in the much-lauded conclusion to a multi-decade book series, I anticipate the great reveal.

But it’s a sham. A delicate, endearing sham; one on which I and almost everyone else depend, in different ways, throughout our lives. I just wish our desire for such explanations were expressed as what it is — that desperate need to make sense of something; for something to be controllable — rather than these numerous petty little ad hominem jabs at individuals, or groups of individuals. You don’t hate the ending because “I guess the writer got married and just threw in the towel there at the end, huh?” You hate it because you wanted to make sense of this fictional person’s life in a way you cannot make sense of your own. Or because the character died alone and unsung, like you realistically fear you too might, one day.


I guess that sounds ad hominem on my part, too, but I’ve done the same thing. Gnashed my teeth at plots that didn’t make sense; confused the elusive (and kind of nonexistent?) mark of “quality” with the question of whether or not I was personally satisfied with a given course of events. My younger self’s rant about Dianora, for example. Or my abiding dislike for shows about shitty people leading shitty lives — like Mad Men or Difficult People or any number of others. If we are looking at shitty people, we want either to see them thrive and not care about their own shittiness, thereby allowing us to do the same; or we want to see them transform, not only so we can project ourselves onto them but because we have been taught that that is what happens in stories. That that is what happens in life.

Except that sometimes — most of the time — it doesn’t.

People don’t transform. They don’t spin a chrysalis of misconceptions and good intentions and and come out new, better people. By and large, people don’t change. When they enter situations where they might thrive better by doing so, they usually flounder out of fear both of the unknown and of loss of self. That’s how people work. It sucks, but that’s pretty much how we roll.

So what, though?

I want to see this acknowledged in the stories we create. On a grand scale. “But if you ask people to spend hours and hours reading, playing, watching or otherwise taking in this thing,” you’ll say, “won’t they feel cheated?” If there is no good reason for the way things go down? If you don’t get to become the person you wanted to be, thereby enabling yourself to become the hero — the great man — of your own story? What if you’re not the hero or even the villain — what if you’re just filler?


Even that perspective, though, depends on there being this concrete linear narrative marching into the future, and I understand why we need that for sanity and self-worth, but we should also be acknowledging the senselessness of things. Or, sure, the “uncomfortable messiness of life.” Give me an uncomfortably messy game. Or book. Throw illness around like it doesn’t care (because it doesn’t); drain the accounts of people who trusted in the wrong institution at the wrong time. Be like life. And, like life, sprinkle it with moments of beauty that make you weep. But don’t impose a sense of order on such things — don’t let the moments stack up and necessarily lead to some epiphany transformation of the character, or the player. Let them just sit there, as scattered as a tub of legos upended on the floor.

You’ll sit and find meaning in the patterns, probably. People used to do it with sticks and stones — hell, they still do. But let that meaning sift out organically from the myriad interpretations, rather than building, from the beginning, a forward-marching arc with carefully-constructed sideline material. Make people do the work of finding, and in many cases inventing, the meaning and the reasons on their own.

Make people work for it. In art as in life, make people work for it.


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