Can an unbiased story be engaging?
…Or does telling a story from different points of views lower the emotional involvement of the audience for the characters?
It was bit of a shock.
Here was a friend of mine, who has known me for almost 3 years (and a lot about my past), claiming that that she didn’t feel very moved by my (4 years old) break-up story, when I told her. Don’t get me wrong – I am not trying to be dramatic here. It wasn’t that I thought that the story was very sensational and was expecting anyone who heard it to be in awe of it.
The shock for me was she claimed that it wasn’t very moving because I told her the story from two different perspectives.
“There was no villain or victim in your story. There was always some kind of rationalization behind all the actions and intentions. It was bit unbiased.”
“So wait. You mean to say, in all these years, what I have told you, you don’t feel sense of connection towards me or her? Not even towards any action? No sense of empathy or hatred?”
“Well not anything intensely. It’s almost like ‘yeah, so that happened’.”
“Wow. I guess I didn’t realize it that’s how I came across.”
After a pause, I said –
“Seriously? Nothing interesting?”
“Oh yes! She was really an interesting character to know. I am just saying you didn’t make me hate her through your story”
“I wasn’t trying to make you hate her. It’s easy to victimize yourself by–“
“…making the other person sound like a monster. Yes I know. We have talked about it. I guess that’s how I saw it. Remember when I told you my break-up story, how I made him sound?”
“I questioned his humanity”
“See! So that happened because I made him sound like a villain and myself like a victim. Of course now after a lot of time and thinking, I know there are no such things.”
Having prided myself as a storyteller, I saw this all as somewhat of a failure on my part. I always knew that I have a thing for perspectives. I like bringing out different ways of looking at the same thing.
Heck! I felt so irritated about her ‘villain or victim’ comment, I felt I needed her to (finally) start watching Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones to show her how hard it becomes to categorize morally ambiguous characters into the ‘good-bad’ slot.
But perhaps, this WAS my failing. Maybe I was quick into assuming my competency in communicating my story was at par with the way it was done in those movies or TV shows.
It may sound like I wanted more value to be given to the break-up story. But the truth of the matter is it got me thinking about stories itself –
It is a given that a good story needs to have characters that the audience roots for or are interested in. But can focusing on two (or more) conflicting opinions or motivations of characters equally spread the audience’s attachment for them? Does this affect their interest in the story?
In one of the interviews, the mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik was asked for his comments regarding the fact that sometimes mythological stories promote prejudice or bias.
Every story has a bias and a prejudice embedded into it. Without bias and prejudice you cannot have stories.
Animals are not supposed to talk yet we make them talk and humanize them in our fables. That is unnatural. We make non-vegetarian animals villains and we apply human values to animal kingdom. That is also unnatural.
At one time, Disney women were coquette damsels needing rescue; now they are boisterous and violent just like the ‘boys’. Is that gender equality?
If you try to be politically correct, you will never tell a story to your child. There is no nobility in humanity from the point of view of a plant or an animal.
Perhaps that settles it then. Trying to be unbiased is counter-productive to telling a story.
But irony here for me is that this statement came from a person who had revived my childhood interest in mythology and to a great extent into stories.
And interestingly, it was through his writings and videos that I had realized there are enough stories in mythologies that treat the characters fairly equally.
The independent journey of both Prince Hector of Troy and Achilles in Greek Mythology is portrayed right up to their final fight. As an audience (reader if referring to Homer’s epic Illiad, viewer if referring to the movie Troy), you feel equally invested in the characters and are keen to know what is going to happen, while dealing with the premonition that one of them is going to get the worst of the situation.
Both the great epics in the Indian Mythology focus on the backstories of most of the characters, regardless of how they are defined on the moral scale. While you root for the Pandavas (perhaps because of the fewer numbers, they seem like the underdogs), you cannot deny feeling bad for characters like Karna, Bhisma – who being on the ‘other side’, meet their tragic ending due to their own predicament and principles.
What’s more is due to the (almost Newtonian) concept of Karma, all actions and events are rationalized and explained in terms of “consequences”.
So where does bias set in? Is it because in the end we have one (or some) character(s) who triumph over or outlive the other(s)? Does this help us know which ones to empathise with more – who we need to put on a pedestal and who we need to dehumanize?
These questions at the face of it can be considered almost age old in reference to narratives and literature. Scholars have discussed it and storytellers have expressed it through their work.
So while I cannot think of a definite answer, I do realize something –
It seemed an awful lot is to do with how one treats the characters. In my ‘break-up’ story (now I guess, even I am warming up to the fact that it wasn’t the best reference for how a story needs to be told), I was trying really hard bringing out all characters’ inner motivation without wanting to favour anyone particular. And in doing so, I did not pay attention as much as to how the story flow was coming across to my audience – my friend, in this particular case.
A story being told has to serve a purpose to the listener, who, regardless of storyteller’s intention, has the freedom to absorb some meaning out of it in their own way.
While penning down some of the above quotes of my friend in a notebook I use to compile lines I find memorable, I found one very apt by someone who has almost become a character in this article.
“The purpose of a story is not to be true to the characters, but to get the characters to provoke thoughts in the reader.”
– Devdutt Pattanaik