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When I started writing and first tried to characterize my work, I came across a wonderful word: psychogram - a story that revolves around the psychological evolution of a specific character. The societal background and even geographical location of the story and the character are of secondary importance. I focus on the psychological aspects of the story and end up with a narrative that is told entirely by one narrator. Developping such a story is easy for me, since I am used to it and, in general, have quite a good idea about how the story ends.

Now, I want to write about an historical event, more specifically, I want to tell the story of how a firmly established subculture dissolves under the pressure of changing times. The story is anchored to a specific time and geographical setting, the outcome is quite clear: The subculture ceases to exist. One of my favourite authors, Hans Fallada, would have been perfect to write a story like this: Many characters, many viewpoints, a societal approach to storytelling that focuses on an entire body of people rather than singled-out individuals. Since I am new to this kind of story-telling, I want to ask: How do I do this?

Related questions: Is it possible to use my psychogram-techniques of writing to develop a plot for a story about an entire society? (I.e.: Is it possible to concentrate on a single character, possibly in the form of a hero's journey, and yet tell the story of a societal upheaval?) Have you experience with similar projects, and have you possibly developed methods to handle them?

tl;dr: As a storyteller used to stories about individuals, how do I handle a story about a societal upheaval?

  • This question made me think about Dubliners, by James Joyce. It is a collection of short stories, each focusing on a different character, that is meant to capture a portrait of Irish middle-class in the early 20th century. I don't know if you favour short or long tales, but if you enjoy writing short stories, it might be an approach. – Sara Costa Jan 17 '17 at 23:13
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There are a few approaches that you could use in this situation.

The first is to plot out the most significant events of the unfolding drama and identify as few key players as possible who between them witness the sequence of events. You might then present a semi-fictionalised account of what they saw. If using the historical figures of the culture does not work for you then perhaps place fictional characters in the key moments and tell their story. This would allow you to tell a number of intertwined character stories and show the growth and change in each one in the context of the social change.

You might also consider having had these characters having known each other before the events you wish to show or meeting up after to reminisce. In fact the reminiscing might be the very vehicle for telling the story.

The reminiscing approach gives you two approaches.

Option 1a: Cover the events in order from each perspective switching view point as need. This is, I imagine, is close to the approach you are considering currently.

Option 1b: Tell each character's experience of the process and the events they witnessed. The same moments might look very different to different people (real or imagined). Effectively playing to what you consider you strengths with slightly shorter story arcs.

An complete alternative (Option 2) could be to have a single character (almost definitely fictional), perhaps a relative late comer to the sub culture. This audience surrogate would more than likely experience a deep emotional response to the sub-culture and while having no direct influence on the events that unfold still must react and change as the sub-culture goes through its last days or weeks (or months).

You could still bring in third party perspective with conversations with direct participants wherein said person is simply trying to get to grips with what is happening. In this form you are again playing to your single character point of view strengths but the backdrop is also the story you are wanting to tell (or better yet show).

TL;DR: Whichever approach you use there is no doubt that you are pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone (no bad thing) but it does not hurt to continue to play to established strengths at the same time.

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Arguably, the story of the internal life of an individual, in the context of sweeping social events, is a recipe for great literature. "No man is an island": if the world is changing, it's inevitably going to play out in an individual's life. Even a Hero's Journey has a social context. The movie Star Wars is known to be explicitly written as a Hero's Journey, but it's also the story of a war against a fascist state.

If you've already mastered writing the internal life of your protagonist, all you really need to do is fill out the scenery behind him or her. Unless your character is entirely self-absorbed, things like wars, creation or destruction of sub-cultures and so forth are going to to have an impact.

  • Thank you for your comment, it definitely makes sense. However, what I was really wondering about is whether instead of an individual, an entire society can be the hero of the Hero's Journey. I don't know whether such a story would work any differently from your usual Hero's Journey, and if so, has anybody ever looked into this? I'm well familiar with the monomyth by now and wonder if there such a thing as polymyth, thinking especially of storytellers like Fallada. – Filip Mar 25 '15 at 10:10

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