This time it’s (not so) personal

When I wrote about how people process history and, more specifically, how believable character motivation in fiction is when based upon distant historical events, a few people pointed to ethnic conflicts which have gone on for generations as a counterexample. I had almost talked about that in the original post, but decided that might be one digression too many.

It’s certainly true that such conflicts have raged on for many generations, sometimes spanning centuries. The key here, I think, is that word “spanning.” People aren’t just holding a grudge about the injustice visited upon an ancestor 11 centuries ago, they are holding a grudge about indignities and atrocities they have witnessed themselves (or experienced the aftereffects of themselves), which they perceive to be a continuation of hundreds of other injustices going all of the way back to that original one.

For instance, a young man may grow up hearing tales from a very young age about how his father was killed by those evil Freedonians when he was just a babe, just as a couple of uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles, and so on where unjustly arrested, or tortured, or raped, or killed previously. The Freedonians have always hated the Sylvanians, he is told. Since he is a Sylvanian, they must hate him, too. Everything bad that happens to him in his life, he blames on the Freedonians, either directly because a Freedonian is present, or indirectly because he believes his hardships would be fewer if they hadn’t taken his father from him.

The historical narrative of the many past conflicts between Freedonia and Sylvania provide a context to his personal frustrations and disappointments. Tales of particularly egregious atrocities from the past serve as a rationalization for any actions against Freedonians he takes. Or excuses for any atrocities that others may point out Sylvania inflicted upon Freedonia.

There is also a sort of compound-interest effect. The young man was raised by people who had internalized their own victimization until it metastasized. People brimming over with hatred are not very good at nurturing. The more generations in a row this happens, the less likely each new generation is going to be to empathize with people they perceive as “other.”

The problem is that anyone who has not been raised in the same culture, has not witnessed similar injustices, has not experienced first hand the animosity between the two groups, has a very hard time understanding what the fuss is all about. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read or heard someone ask about troubles in the Middle East, or Subsaharan Africa, or Eastern Europe, “Why can’t they just come to a reasonable settlement?”

Which gets us back to the author’s difficulty.

In order to make a reader care as much about the injustices inflicted by the Freedonians as your Sylvanian protagonist, you have to put the reader in your protagonist’s shoes. It’s not enough to have one of your characters lecture another, “As you know, Bob, the Freedonians are a merciless, hateful people.” You have to show them being merciless. You have to show your protagonist suffering at their hands.

That requires telling the story of how these sorts of age-old hatred are perpetuated because they are renewed again and again with each new generation. Even then, most readers are going to see all those past actions as abstractions. They may sympathize with your protagonist, but they’ll also wonder why he can’t see how odd it is to hold a person living now responsible for actions that took place hundreds of years before that person was born.

Which is a good question to raise. There’s a lot of good drama you can wring out of that sort of situation. If that’s the kind of story you want to tell, go for it! But that means going all in. No half-measures. No long expository dump where one character lectures another about the 1200 year history of mutual failed (but not for lack of trying) genocide between Freedonia and Sylvania.

Show it, don’t tell it.

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