Another way to subject characters to immediate disadvantage is to have their older siblings bully them. Game of Thrones went wild with this technique, using it in relationships between the Hound and the Mountain, Daenerys and Viserys Targaryen, and Tyrion and Cersei Lannister. And, like orphaned protagonists, tormented younger siblings appear all over. They might be popular kids, sour coworkers or autocratic teachers. They might be cruel stepparents, callous stepsisters or pompous rival princes. Or they might be monstrous.
They might have scarlet eyes, slits for nostrils and skin whiter than bone. They might have killed innocent children; they might wear a skull-shaped helmet over their lava-charred face. They might be giants. All over the world, opponents are atrocious. One is cursed with testicles so large that he has difficulty walking, as told by the Apache.
Finally, protagonists adventure. They traipse through unfamiliar worlds and face off against sequences of terrible obstacles. Other times, circumstances fling them into the unknown and they need to jury-rig their way home, like when a tornado whisks Dorothy to Munchkinland. The adventure is the glue binding the narrative together: it establishes an overarching goal, such as destroying a ring or getting home, and then riddles the route with tricksy hurdles and redirection.
In the early 20th century, the British writer FitzRoy Raglan and the Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank surveyed the legends of classical heroes and proposed prototypical heroic plots. At least one of his parents is divine. After his birth, his caretakers abandon or hide him — sometimes in an attempt to kill him, sometimes for his protection.
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He is then adopted by animals or poor foster-parents. After an uneventful or arrogant childhood, he returns home. He kills an opponent, perhaps one or both of his parents, and maybe goes on to battle dragons, giants or other beasts. Eventually, he is crowned king. Reviewing fragments of myths and performances from around the world, Campbell argues that stories recount adventurous rites of passage.
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A protagonist confronts obstacles, conquers them, and wins rewards: the sympathetic plot dressed in swashbuckling myth. The sympathetic plot is ubiquitous.
The late British journalist Christopher Booker reviewed stories, spanning films, plays, novels, ancient epics and fairy tales. He organised them into his book The Seven Basic Plots :.
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They tell of goal-directed protagonists who face obstacles, beat them, and revel in prizes. W hat explains the appeal of the sympathetic plot? The answer, I believe, is entertainment. The sympathetic plot exhibits precisely those features required to suck us in and tickle our pleasure centres. First, it intrigues us with obstacles. People feel suspense when they hear about someone who has trouble achieving a goal. Journalists exploit this psychological quirk with stories about toddlers stuck in wells and miners missing on mountains. If you need someone to pay attention, tell them about a person who has difficulty getting what they want.
In , the American psychologist Richard Gerrig used a simple experiment to show how obstacles create suspense. He reminded college undergraduates of familiar outcomes — such as that George Washington was the first president of the United States — then narrated the events leading up to the outcomes.
Even though the students were reminded of the outcomes at the beginning of each story, they still felt suspense when they heard about the difficulties. Why do obstacles intrigue? The psychology of suspense explains why protagonists tackle problems. But what about rewards and ugly ogres?
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What about bullied kids and cheekbones of perfection? What about orphans? As with obstacles, mean opponents and impressive orphans keep us hooked. But crucially, they also interact to produce pleasure. Sympathetic tales likely induce sympathetic joy, or the feeling of being happy for someone. Anyone who has cried happy tears during a movie knows how intense this pleasure can be. We feel happy for those we want to help. People report greater sympathetic joy for their best friends, family members and fellow group members, compared with enemies, casual acquaintances and members of out-groups.
Some scientists argue that these gratifying bursts urge us to assist others. If stories induce sympathetic joy, then they should star the sort of characters whom we most want to help. But what should those characters look like?
According to many scientists, our psychology predisposes us to help family and people who will help us in return. But convincing them that a protagonist is an appealing cooperative partner is much easier.
An appealing cooperator has two kinds of traits that offer unique benefits. On the one hand, cooperators might be speedy, gutsy or good with their hands. They might be a talented chef, an exceptional shot or full of useful information. Or they might have great cheekbones, in which case their friends get to hang with any hotties who come flocking. Premium Articles. Subscription offers. Subscription sign in. Read latest edition. UK Edition. US Edition.
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