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Musing on narratives – Heroic, Trader, and Trickster Stories - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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May 3rd, 2008

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01:20 am - Musing on narratives – Heroic, Trader, and Trickster Stories
There are times when one encounters an idea that significantly reshapes how one thinks about something. Today, that happened with thinking about the sorts of stories and games I both like and dislike. I love epic, grandiose, and deeply exotic settings, but often do not enjoy the sorts of novels or games typically set in them. I have various explanations for this, but today I found another, and perhaps better one. I was reading this fascinating and wonderful thread on RPG.net, and in addition to deeply loving the idea of the setting, the person who came up with this idea also wrote this passage, which reshaped my thinking about stories a bit:
A crucial difference between heroic myth and trader myth is the degree to which the world can be changed. A hero is knocking his shoulders on the corners of the universe all the time; he can't help but change it all in his image. He doesn't have to work at it at all, the child of chance and privilege. A trader is a small being in a vast and endless omniverse; triumphs and failures are, by the nature of that, of the self rather than of one's surroundings. The hero is the mirror of his universe. The trader is the mirror of himself, and he has to work hard to polish that surface to the desired image.
Amber (both Zelazny's books and the RPG based on them) is a heroic story, as is Exalted, especially if the PCs are Celestial Exalted – these are in fact two of the penultimate examples of heroic stories – an epically mighty hero conquers, transforms, or otherwise drastically reshapes the entire setting. I have very little interest in the most epic heroic stories. I often enjoy less epic hero stories, but I love truly epic settings and in heroic stories, these always contain equally epic (and thus to me inherently dull) heroes - the deeds and lives of exceptionally powerful demigods hold little interest for me. In such stories and games, the characters are by their nature world shapers and makers, and I ultimately find that idea to be constricting and dull.

I do not see myself in such stories and characters and I find little interest in following the ever-grander triumphs of most truly epic heroes. I don’t think such tales are inferior, they are just not for me. In vivid contrast, there’s little that I enjoy more than a good trader story. I’ve read Andre Norton’s The Zero Stone and Uncharted Stars more than half a dozen times each, and on a more epic scale, I love Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky. Tales of traders, scholars, and wanderers exploring settings far vaster than they are, and which they cannot and have no hope of conquering or controlling are very much the stuff of my dreams and what I prefer in the games I play and the stories I read. Which, is of course why when I write for Exalted, my heart is always in the tales of Enlightened (ie magic using) mortals, God-Blooded, and other beings who are manifestly not the lords and rulers of Creation, but merely exotic travelers and a wondrous land. I find it definitely a shame that heroic stories are almost the sole model for gaming that arent’ dark stories of hopeless horror, of which the most obvious example is Call of Cthulhu. However, not that I have a name and a concept that I didn’t have before, I can perhaps change that somewhat with my own work.

In any case, while trickster stories are more definitely not the same as trader stories, and are slightly less to my taste, I can definitely enjoy a good trickster story, which is why I definitely enjoy the epic trickster story that is Doctor Who. The Doctor does not (except on the rarest occasions and for the briefest moments) control the world he’s visiting, but he influences everyplace he goes. Of course, it’s easy for me to think of this, because Alastair Reynolds’ brilliant new novel House of Suns is in many ways a trader story, in a spectacularly epic setting. I very much loved it and highly recommend it.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

(8 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:May 3rd, 2008 02:18 pm (UTC)
I think I feel similarly to you, in terms of the books I enjoy. There came a point, when I would browse books in the bookstore and read the backcovers, when they'd mention something along the lines of the unlikely heroes needing to "save the world" from catastrophe, I'd swiftly lose interest in the book. I want interesting stories about people like me, having interesting experiences even though the fate of their world doesn't depend on them.
[User Picture]
Date:May 3rd, 2008 07:12 pm (UTC)
I think you've just defined a top-down hero and a bottom-up hero. The top down hero uses epic themes and power to make their will manifest, and the bottom-up hero uses a lot of small nudges to move the world. Personally, I wish there were more of the aftermath of a top-down hero books and stories out there; it's always interesting to see what happens to the 'little people' after the big guy takes a swing at the universe.
[User Picture]
Date:May 3rd, 2008 07:29 pm (UTC)
Interesting! It occurs to me that the two story-structures are driven by two underlying views of "the world":

Hero story: the world is broken (unjust, doomed, whatever) and the protagonist succeeds by fixing it (overthrowing tyranny, vanquishing the menace, etc.)

Trader story: the world is wondrous and the protagonist succeeds by exploring, observing and experiencing it.

[User Picture]
Date:May 3rd, 2008 08:26 pm (UTC)
*nods* from what I've seen, that's definitely true and also very much explains why I like the stories that I do.
[User Picture]
Date:May 3rd, 2008 11:43 pm (UTC)
On my long list of "should write a novel about this some day" is the story of Mielea, probably beginning with an extended version of this scene. Born to a tribe of horse nomads, Mielea would travel around a low-fantasy, somewhat gritty setting, based very loosely around what I know of The Travels of Marco Polo. At first following her tribe, Mielea would be forced to take up the role of a traveling merchant when the rest of her people get killed in some-event-I-haven't-come-up-with-yet. It would be a world both down to earth and exotic at the same time, with occasional encounters with magical talking beasts and Mielea's personal pilgrimage to become a priestess of fire, a journey which (unknown to her) begins in the very first scene and culminates in this one. It would also be very much the kind of story you describe, set in a world large enough that no single map ever shows more than a small part of it, with a main character who's been raised to be a traveler and doesn't see the point in settling down, or in getting involved in any major conflicts when she can just move on.

Mielea's story is on my list of "to do in the distant future" projects, and is likely to remain there until such a time that I have both the time and energy to do my background research on the lives of horse nomads as well as the lives of people in the 13th century. Together with the fantasy dystopia of Fiery Skies, it's one of the settings that have been waiting in my mind for several years now, and which I really want to get done right some day.

(As an interesting note, the original Mielea was originally a character for a Dark Sun game, in what was very much a trader campaign. I think I still have her original character sheet somewhere.)
[User Picture]
Date:May 4th, 2008 03:53 am (UTC)
Those are very interesting insights into the two types of stories -- very helpful as I think about my own writing and the kinds of games I like to play in and run.
[User Picture]
Date:May 5th, 2008 01:54 am (UTC)

I actually quite disagree with your characterization of Amber as a heroic story, and in fact can tell you the reason I like it so well is that it has major aspects of a trader story. (And perhaps, this will convince you to listen up next time I want to start an Amber campaign!)

Every time the protagonist does something big, the world gets bigger and redefines the protagonist's place in space-time. Corwin does all the hero "things", but they don't have the standard effects: for example, his crusade in _Nine Princes_ turns out later to be misguided -- he's interfering with something he doesn't understand. His actions in books 3-4 (my favorites in the series) are the closest to having heroic "consequences", altogether, and what they are in the larger picture is little more than cleanup: half the characters in the story know more than him about what is going on, and in those books he basically makes a transition from blundering around assuming he knows more than he does to realizing how little he knows and acting accordingly. In the 5th book he again does something that's suited to a heroic narrative -- and his action of creation turns out to be unnecessary, based on a lie. He does end up serving a vital role to the proceedings, but as a messenger.

The essence of his transformation as a protagonist is that at the beginning, he wants to be King of something he doesn't understand; at the end, he understands it and doesn't want to be King of it anymore.

To contrast, I'd say in a standard heroic story he'd begin by wanting to be King of something he didn't understand, and at the end, he'd understand it and be King.

I'd say my favorite stories as a rule tend to be ones in which highly powerful characters go through a narrative of discovery, involving aspects of both the hero story and the trader story. Everything I've done in Exalted (which amounts to one piece of fiction and one campaign) walks this narrative double path. Actually, so does Pirates of the Caribbean, which makes it interesting that my primary GM character in the Exalted campaign I've run is based on Captain Jack Sparrow. And so do the P.C. Hodgell books: protagonist is someone intensely powerful and special, but her role in the universe is not that of a Campbellian hero. Another great example of this is Rosemary Kirstein. The protagonist is clearly going to have a huge effect on the world, but by uncovering secrets, not by conquering.
[User Picture]
Date:May 5th, 2008 02:01 am (UTC)
I'd definitely be interested in talking more about Amber with you. As for PotC, I'd rather say that it's more of a trickster story rather than a trader story, but the difference between these two sorts of stories is often fairly small. OTOH, I can't think of a better example of trader story than Kirstein's Steerswoman books.

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