On writing

Writing that influences the stories you create

All of us have read fiction that changed our life in some way, whether it just be that we read them at a particularly impressive age, or whether the theme resonated with us. But what about the non-fiction, the ideas and articles you may have come across that have a profound influence on what you write and how you write it?

What writing and other ideas influence your own?

Our own influences range, but they include:

  • Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland—technically this is fiction, but we treat it as a non-fiction. The don’t do’s for writing fantasy.
  • The Tragedy of the Commons—we apply this in world building and character building
  • The stages of grief—there are five distinct stages in the grieving process. We use this for character building.
  • The idea that a population will crash when the food runs out—comes from basic science experiments; we apply this for world building
  • Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves really makes you aware of the power of the comma.

There are dozens more.

The Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons was written back in 1968 by Garrett Hardin. If you don’t want to read the whole article, it’s summarised in Wikipedia,

The article itself is about population control, and basically it says that

… there is no foreseeable technical solution to increasing both human populations and their standard of living on a finite planet.

Wikipedia, Tragedy of the Commons

The idea is:

(Hardin uses) a hypothetical example of a pasture shared by local herders. The herders … wish to maximise their yield, and so will increase their herd size whenever possible. (Adding extra) animal(s) has both a positive and negative component:

Positive : the herder receives all of the proceeds from each additional animal

Negative : the pasture is slightly degraded by each additional animal

Crucially, the division of these components is unequal: the individual herder gains all of the advantage, but the disadvantage is shared between all herders using the pasture. Consequently, for an individual herder weighing up these utilities, the rational course of action is to add an extra animal. And another, and another. However, since all herders reach the same conclusion, overgrazing and degradation of the pasture is its long-term fate.

Wikipedia, Tragedy of the Commons

You can apply it to more than just population control. A couple of really simple examples we have experienced in the last week include:

  • Green electricity. Our utility company allows us to pay more for electricity that has been produced in an environmentally friendly manner. Yet … all the electrity in our city goes into the one grid, whether it be produced by brown coal or other method. Hence, we pay, but everyone gets the benefit, including those who opt not to pay the extra amount.
  • Water. Our city is currently on water restrictions. We cannot hose our drive, we cannot water our lawns, we cannot wash our cars with a hose. Yet —a couple of the neighbors blatantly ignore these restrictions, and they get away with it. We, who abide by the agreed rules, lose out. We have dry brown lawns, dirty cars and dirty paths, while the neighbors have lovely, lush lawns and clean car and pathways.

How it impacts our writing

We use the concept for both world building and character building.

In world building people will use shared finite resources until they run out unless there is some agent to prevent them. So if you have an old world that people have lived on for a long time, it’s likely to have a small population, and be somewhat degraded. It’s going to be a lot more like Africa, with deserts and not many resources, than a young country.

If you have a mature world which is still fertile, that world must have a very strong structure in place to prevent degradation (a visionary leader, perhaps, archaic laws lost in the mists of time, maybe), or they must get resources from somewhere else —another world, or another country.

Otherwise, that population hasn’t reached maximum yet.

This is pretty basic information. You might think that it’s so obvious it doesn’t need to be stated, but Garrett Hardin wrote his article in 1968. Back when I was doing environmental science in the early 1990s they talked about finite resources, climate change, population growth and so on. People would not listen then. They did not want to know. Some people still don’t want to believe it now.

The biggest lesson in character building is that you can’t expect people to do the right thing when other people don’t, and the ones who don’t benefit from not doing it.

This is another obvious statement, but it’s a basic driver for most behaviour, and for how society works in general. Don’t expect people to be naturally ‘good’. It only takes one person—and there’s always one—to disrupt the equilibrium and everyone will follow, unless there is a system in place to prevent it.

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