23 September, 2013

Types of story

Lumping all of western storytelling into a single monolith known as "Western Canon" is a common thing in academia, I've been working my way through two university subjects that analyse the western mode of storytelling, and in these subjects it doesn't seem odd to see ancient Greek texts analysed beside Shakespearean plays and more recent literary greats like Tolstoy or even living writers like Umberto Eco.

Scholars like Joseph Campbell trace the form of the story, particularly the "Heroes Journey" through western canon, other scholars and schools of thought bring parallels between other themes in the texts.

The whole mass of texts numbers in the thousands, those works deemed important benchmarks in western thought number in the hundreds (mostly written by middle aged white men, but that's another topic completely). The works are quite different but we have no problem stating that these works fit the paradigm of western thought. Once you have the overall picture, you can start delving into the specific points of difference...in the early years BC, the greeks thought this...in the 1700s, the english were thinking this while the french were thinking that...once you've got the basic understanding of the topic, you can start to think at a new level.

But as soon as you start looking at "Chinese literature", a certain class of people says "you can't just lump everything together, that's racist". I've encountered the same when looking at aboriginal storytelling.

There are certain broad themes in Aboriginal narrative, this is to be expected in a culture of communities isolated from the Asian or European continents, but who trade with one another regularly. I'll provide some examples of the differences through illustrative anecdotes. These anecdotes are intentionally vague, but have been drawn from scholarly texts and sociological books I've read recently.

  • A group of aboriginals watched a typical western movie (it was in the 1960s if I remember correctly, they were aware of cinema but this was the first time they had seen it). In western thought it was a moving story about a single person's journey of self discovery. From an aboriginal perspective it was boring and didn't engage them much at all. The story focused on one person rather than the relationships of their community, there was no depth because it didn't describe the world or the specific places that made it up. Places were simply backdrops for events in this one person's life. They just didn't see how one person was entertaining or thought provoking.

  • An anthropologist encounters a very different group of aboriginals and he asks them to tell him their stories. They discuss places, mythological and allegorical tales, but never relate to a specific person or their deeds. The anthropologist gets frustrated by the stories of the group, they aren't what he is traditionally accustomed to when he hears narrative, the stories lack character development, the seem cyclical at best and stagnant at worst. Characters aren't particularly identified, unless they are mythical constants with accepted stories and in most cases these characters are defined through their relationships with others in the story (someone's mother, someone's sister, a friend...etc). People do things due to the obligations associated with their relationships, rather than their own sense of agency.

There are numerous other differences in the cultural canon, but these are the first ones that come to mind. These are also the ones that might make an RPG based on Aboriginal concepts a bit tricky. A storytelling game about communities could definitely work, but a traditional RPG exploring a single character's passage through the heroes journey is just too "western". Luckily, Walkabout is more a post apocalyptic game about picking up the pieces from a variety of cultures to develop something new. We can draw on the narrative traditions of both communities (and any other, to develop our narratives).
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