Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Friday, February 26, 2010

Groups and Conflict

Groups and Group Think

I have had cause to think about group dynamics over the last week or so. Some of what I've learned is usable in the creation of fiction. Oh, it's nothing new or brilliant. And it's nothing that other writers have not used to their advantage.

Nonetheless, it is useful to me to document what I've learned.

If you want to read how other, much more brilliant writers have recognized and used group dynamics in their writings, take a look at Ayn Rand. She was very fond of writing about the implications of being the odd man out who has a brilliant idea that is unacceptable to Society (the group) at large.

Many writers have written about the loner, the odd man out.

This last week, I got to be the "odd man out" and suddenly, understood on a very personal level, what group dynamics really encompass.

I encourage other writers to think about this, as it can be a powerful concept in the hero's journey.

The hero frequently starts the story as someone outside the group, be it Society or just his family. The journey is often his (or her) attempt to rejoin Society. Sometimes s/he is successful, sometimes success comes from recognizing that s/he is doing better outside of the group.

So here is what I have learned, the painful way, about groups and group dynamics.

Groups encourage commonality of thought. At the beginning, the group will strive for consensus. The dominant member(s) will espouse ideas that are adopted by the group, thereby cementing relationships. This allows members to feel they understand each other and are all of a "common mind" which heightens the feeling of cohesion and understanding.

Once this happens, the group's "position" is cemented. They understand and accept each other.

At this point, if new members try to join the group, or members within the group, get a "new idea" or idea that is contrary to "group think", then the group pulls back. They look for a reaction of any long-standing members of the group to accept or refute the new idea, and they will support existing members of the group in order to maintain group cohesion.

If the new ideas do not come from leaders or well-established members, they are perceived as threatening. The person with the idea is reviled and thrust out of the group, because they threaten the stability of the group.

We have seen this time, and time again, throughout history. People with new ideas are ridiculed until the idea becomes commonplace and adopted by the leaders and members of Society, or groups within the Society.

This is where the conflict occurs and where authors can make use of such "natural conflicts" to build their story.

If a hero or heroine honestly knows the difference between fact and theory, and believes in "the truth" then that character may be in serious conflict with their social group or Society at large.

I have recently been in that position—where I was a new member of a group and showed ideas (with proof) that contradicted the established norms within the group. I was reviled and thrust out. And I re-learned what I had read about in Ayn Rand's writings, about the actions of the group versus the individual. You cannot hope to change ideas overnight, even if you have proof.

If you really wish to change group think, then you must convince the leaders that new ideas are THEIR ideas and allow months, if not years, for these new concepts to become accepted by the group at large. Think of how long it took Society to rationally discuss Darwin's theories.

It was a pivotal moment for me, because I realized how powerful group psychology is, and how this conflict can be the driving force in a novel.

Some of us are simply not meant to be members of a group, because we are unwilling to accept "group think" in the face of actual evidence and facts. Some of us will always be outsiders, because we believe in trusting the facts instead of hearsay and "belief". We're not team players unless the rest of the team is willing to test new ideas and accept them when the facts support them. What is interesting is that even scientific groups eventually become resistant to new ideas and can refute facts, although they are, generally, quicker to (eventually) accept new ideas if the evidence and proof is overwhelming.

Theories are theories. Much of what humans "know" falls into the category of theory. A theory is an attempt to explain the data collected through testing, but it is still open to interpretation.

Facts are facts. A fact is indisputable. There are surprisingly few facts. Much of what we *think* we know is actually just a theory that can be overturned if additional data is collected that refutes the theory.

There is a difference between theory and fact. And then there is opinion an all those other things…

So group dynamics can make an incredible source of conflict for your characters. There is a reason why Ayn Rand's books still sell. Whether you agree with her or not, it is still a powerful idea to write about a character that refuses to nod his head and go along with the rest of the sheep, just to be acceptable as a member of the group.

Some of us are not meant to be part of groups, though we always regret it. We want to be a member, but we are too willing to accept review new information and adapt to new ideas that may threaten other members of the group.

This probably makes no sense. But I'm already thinking about a character who, regardless of the pain of rejection, cannot in good conscience allow herself to believe what the rest of the group believes, just because that is the acceptable thing to do.


amcannon said...

WoW, this article nocked my socks off. I am working on my MFA thesis which is a historical novel. The insight in this post will be incorporated into the character development of my hero.

On a personal note. I get it. I am one of those people who long for the support of a community yet frequently find myself in the midst of this same dilemma. Contemplating how much my truth is worth. Is it worth the potential rejection of someone else, or the entire group even? The conclusion I have come to time and time again is that owning my truth in a respectful tone is always the right thing for me to do. The relationships that endure through such conflicts are the ones I end up valuing above all others.

Thanks for this post
Anne Marie Cannon

Amy said...

Thanks for your comment--it's odd were inspiration can come from. I wish it wasn't true, but it's usually the most painful incidents that result in the greatest understanding.

And from that understanding comes inspiration and the best characters...

Best of luck with your work. You have a very healthy attitude--I wish I was more like you. :-)

Joe said...

Insightful. Anyone should try being on both sides of the fence, and really see what this means.

horror stories said...

Very thoughtful post