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January 15, 2009

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Interestingly most women find exactly the opposite attractive in real life - men who are dominant, ignore/flout social conventions (alpha males) - tend to be most successful, at least in the short term.

Marc, yes the point is that fiction lies, misleading people who believe its social patterns, but benefiting them via others approving of their believing such lies.

"Daniel Deronda" by George Eliot fits this pattern very closely.

Scott Peck and others believe that the "disagreeable" people, the antagonists, are less mature than the social people, and that there is a progression of maturity. But then he also thinks one can mature from being a rationalist to being a mystic, and some here might doubt that.

I observe that dominant, attractive males may be cooperative. I do not think these sets are mutually exclusive.

I tend to agree with Abigail. "Dominant" can also mean "leader", and may not have anything to do with non-cooperation (many leaders, by definition, define what "cooperation" is). Women most certainly don't like men who don't cooperate with the norms they value.

Still, does fiction lie less today? Nowadays, protagonists are often highly individualistic, often not cooperating with their social groups when their social groups err. They are also often socially dominant. Or is this just cooperation with what we see as a "higher" set of norms?

The sorts of stories that I find interesting are stories where these patterns are not clear at all. For example, in the popular Japanese anime movie "Princess Mononoke" - the character of Lady Eboshi seems at times to be the Villain driven by a quest for power and dominance over all groups in the film. Yet she is also compassionate, thoughtful, well adjusted, composed, and intellectually curious... In fact, this sort of "Villain" is typical of the work of Hayao Miyazaki, who is arguably the most popular director and film-writer in Japan for the past few decades. As I recall from Japanese lit, these sorts of "Villains" are far more prevalent in their fiction than in western fiction, which would indicate this dynamic is more memetic than genetic.

So perhaps this trend is mostly within Victorian-era literature, or perhaps western literature in general. Japanese literature and film, to the best of my knowledge, doesn't follow this trend nearly as often.

It would be interesting to see a similar study on literature *outside* the "canonical British novels of the nineteenth century" class. I sympathize with the conclusions above, and intuitively it *seems* to me that they'd apply for literature in general, but I have enough reasons to be wary of such an extension.

Thinking of this a bit longer, I have a vague sensation* that in several "old"** mythologies there are common occurrences of a "trickster" character that don't fit very well with the pattern above. (Such characters are very ambiguous, even in the antagonist/protagonist distinction.)

(*: I don't feel knowledgeable enough in the subject to elevate the feeling above this.)
(**: in the sense that they're not yet influenced by the ones in the common substrate of the "western culture" I'm more familiar with. For all I know they're current in African or Asian countries. I'm thinking about Norse mythology, and I vaguely remember similar characters in Amerindian and African mythologies.)

Not that this invalidates the theory (it would still apply to most "common" literature), but it might at least offer interesting insights.

See, Max had the same reflex I did. (Actually, the Japanese examples he mentioned crossed my mind, too. Even Sailor Moon had some very non-standard (by western standard) antagonists. But I don't have enough knowledge of older Asian literature to know if this is a recent effect, which is why I didn't mention it.)

@bogdanb

Great - Asian literature! Of course the novel is usually said to have been invented in Asia in the early 11th century. The earliest novels have a strongly Buddhist character, which to some extent remains in Japanese and even Chinese society. (We Westerners can fight this first novel question by pointing to some early Latin & Greek lit, but let's not get into that now.)

It's widely said that Tale of Genji is the first novel, written by the Japanese princess Murasaki Shikibu. Genji is a sophisticated and highly psychological novel, that doesn't have a "plot" in the Western sense but rather relies on time to illustrate social mores and Buddhist ideas.

In some ways the first novel was also the first post-modern novel, but that is due to its Buddhist sensibilities. Genji includes devices like a blank chapter and ending the book literally in mid-sentence as the "omniscient" narrating consciousness abruptly ends. Genji and the reading experience are supposed to illustrate the truth of Buddhist ideas about time, identity and compassion, exalting courtly behavior.

Genji starts out as largely good, but then falls into error - he does some serious wrong, including rape. He is by turns the hero and not, until wisdom and karma "redeem" him. The book also contains what is perhaps the first anti-hero, Kaoru. Genji would fall perfectly into Robin's niceness theory, under my impression of it.

The Chinese Qing Dynasty Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin is likewise fascinating, but has a more "normal" structure. It's later, from the 18th cent., and has Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian features. Like Genji, it is highly psychological and may surprise readers by its in-depth understanding of women.

Dream of the Red Chamber is particularly apt for Robin's point because the Chinese name for the main family of characters is similar to the Chinese word for "fake!" The book admits is it "a lie of fiction" even as it tells a penetrating and fascinating social tale, if your idea of fascinating runs to say, a dynastic Jane Austen.

It explores directly the tensions between social expectations of being a good person and what it takes to actually succeed in the real world thru its enormous cast of characters - yet the end message is that it is better to obey your family, be devout, and stay nice - Confucian ideas. Again, I think good grist for Robin's mill, as it considers individual niceness and group niceness.

While Red Chamber is incredibly beautiful, complex, and sad - it's a 3-hanky book - I think only the most devoted contemporary readers could make their way through its story, with more characters than a Russian novel. Genji is probably more enjoyable for a modern reader, and I highly recommend it to all.

There is another explanation besides the one Robin advances.

Novelists are a self-selected group. Most people would get bored sitting alone and writing long enough and often enough to become a successful novelist; they would stop to socialize or to go outside. That goes a long way to explaining why protagonists tend to be introverts. If the successful novels were written by salespeople, I would expect more extroverted protagonists.

(And introversion is strongly correlated with alertness and inversely correlated with dominance.)

All, other genres may well not tell the same lies, but I expect they still tell lies that people gain by being seen as believing. I hope there will be studies like this of other genres.

I do not wish to dispute their findings. But I do have a bone to pick with the authors’ conclusions. They use a moral score card to evaluate characters according to what goals a character pursues. They construct a list of motives and goals, principally devised by consulting the biological imperatives discussed in evolutionary psychology. In pursuing these goals, the authors found morally repugnant characters tend to be obsessed by wealth, prestige and power, whereas heroes tend to strive for socially constructive goals like aiding others, obtaining education, and forming friendships. What I find suspicious is that these findings support Jonothan Haidt’s description of a liberal moral sensibility. A liberal morality, you’ll remember, has a very high sensitivity along two dimensions: avoiding harm to others and promoting fairness. So I take these findings less as evidence for the moral importance of biological imperatives (such as coalition building), but more as evidence to support Haidt’s description of the liberal sensibility. In other words, liberal readers tend to like characters who are both concerned with preventing harm and driven by a sense of fairness.

So what’s the problem? Well, it could be that these novels merely reinforce the liberal sensibility. Those readers attuned to the moral concerns of the Victorian novel–mainly to its repudiation of social dominance–will tend resonate with the moral tone of the characters represented in the story. But I want to hazard a guess that another set of novels, those novels tuned to a different moral frequency–perhaps those involving authority and sanctity–will have different effects on its readers. On another frequency: look how disgusting most left-wingers find Ayn Rand.

Drunken Priest, I recall in Brian Doherty's "Radicals for Capitalism" he mentions how many liberals read and enjoyed books like The Fountainhead without even realizing the political message Rand was trying to push. I have an aunt who was a big Rand fan in college. She's currently married to an employee of the Internal Revenue Service.

Linking religion and fiction: the western trend of one-sided characters has roots in christianity. Protagonists of former mythologies seem to be much more ambiguous. Of course this is subject to our current view.

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