Ironically I was about to wrap up my heroes and villains series when David Brin dropped an asteroid-sized essay in my lap.
He notes rather brilliantly that a huge part of our media is the Idiot Plot, that the story is often about a few people who save the world because everyone else, all of society, are a bunch of idiots if not evil. It’s not just Suspicion of AUthority, he notes its socially corrosive.
Now Brin’s article on its own is well worth reading. I’m not going to recapitulate it here because he did a great job. Also I probably couldn’t do it justice.
But I’m going to address the issue as a matter of worldbuilding, because the Planet of Morons, the Idiot Plot, is a serious problem for worldbuilding. That’s what I cover.
Also this idea doesn’t work for building a world.
I Itch, But Why?
We’ve all experienced a strange feeling when we’ve read a book or played a game. Yes the hero or our character or whatever is having a rollicking adventure. But something is off, everyone seems dumb, the resolution is unbelievable because it’s pulled off by two people and their pet merchandisable sidekick. It feels weird to have everything boil down to a few people who have to not just save the world, but so many people in the world are so dumb/evil that it’s just left to the main characters.
In real life of course, we see how society works by a complex series of groups, organizations, supply chains, and more. Right now I’m pretty sure you can summon an ambulance, get a pizza delivered, ensure a fire is put out. Right now for many people in the first world, it’s amazing what doesn’t go wrong.
But somehow when our worlds get built, our stories get told . . . it seems everyone’s an idiot except a few main characters with great teeth.
And let’s face it, when the excrement hits the air circulation device, the idea only eight people are going to be there to save the day seems a little weird. It seems wrong. It itches at the back of our heads because it doesn’t work.
It seems wrong because unless your story is one of society and the world falling apart, then things are probably running decently. Not perfectly, not nicely, but functionally.
Until the story starts. then everyone’s dumb. Everyone who made the world work and saved it before is suddenly stupid.
Where Is Everyone
The other thing about the Idiot Plot is that how did the world saving suddenly come down to a few chuckleheads? Where the hell is everyone else when the aliens invade, dragons attack, or Mortroth the Demon Lord arises in the Eight Moon. Suddenly everyone turns into screaming extras in a Godzilla movie – and not even one of the good ones. Dumb apparently is contagious.
In real life of course we’re used to a lot of people Getting Stuff Done. We’re also used to hearing about it when they don’t. Admittedly it seems politicians are exempt from this, but I’d note A) that points at other pathologies, and B) they usually sell themselves as he hero and everyone they don’t like as Bad Guys so to them the Idiot Plot is something they pitch.
In any realistically made world the maintaing of social and physical order is almost certainly going to be functioning pretty well. Again, not perfectly or even pleasantly, but any working society by definition works. When things break, is everyone among thousand – millions perhaps – suddenly get dumb except for the people who happen to be in the story?
Down To Heroes And Villains
And this is when your heroes and villains get unbelievable. Because the world falls apart, they have to step in, and they fit even less.
The Heroes are unbelievable because, really, where is everyone? Is it really down to this conveniently sized cast? Is everyone else on vacation?
(And if you can make it believable, good)
The Villains of course because in the case of Idiot Plot the villains often are part of society, or unbelievable threaten all of society – yet only the designated cast can save them. Either society is horribly evil (which may indeed be your plot), or it’s incredibly dumb. Or both, but “dumb evil” sort of tends to be self-destructive.
And that alone raises the question if your setting contains so many morons how did anyone get raised smart enough to be a threat or a person to save the day? Which alone, could generate quite a story, but still.
The Familiar Glare Of The Radiant Stupid
By now some of this probably looks familiar – it’s our twin dangers of Omnicompetence and Unholy Fools. the main cast is either amazingly talented, or unbelievably successful despite their massive flaws. Everyone else can’t save the day (or threaten the world) but somehow the main cast can.
THe Idiot Plot seems to encourage Unholy Fools and Omnicompetent characters. I’d go as far to say that these phenomena are linked. If you have a Planet of Idiots you need someone capable of saving them all or a fortunate idiot.
By now you’re probably looking at your own works and many you’ve read and wondering. I can say it’s a bit of a shocking look really, because I can see how prominent this idea is. And how wrong it is. And how in a way it decreases what I get from a work.
Oddly it also makes me thankful for places it doesn’t happen or it’s partially corrected..
So this is something I’d stay vigilant again. It’s too easy to decide everyone is stupid or evil and then just have powerful heroes battling powerful villains (or even the society that’s just so dumb) while slack-jawed observers watch on. It is a common trope and one that betrays good worldbuilding.
Of course, this then brings up questions of how you write your heroes and villains – and as always, I’d note it’s picking a viewpoint. The stories that fascinate us are ones about characters, so find whose viewpoint tells the most interesting tale of the going ons. In literature that’s the path you take – the best people to experience the world.
Now in the case of a game where the goal is to affect the environment, it’s probably a bit easier to just have the player change everything. But how challenging it is when the world is running in the bakground, such as many 4X and sim games have. You may need to make a careful judgement call here in worldbuilding for a game – influence is indeed expected for many genres.
But of course once you realize this trope, think of the fun you can have identifying it and fixing it . . .
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.