When Narratives Collide

By Melanie Anne Phillips

What happens when narratives collide? Fictional stories are generally about a single primary narrative perhaps surrounded by a number of satellite narratives that function as sub-plots.  But in the real world, every person is the main character in his or her own narrative and what’s more, everyone has many sub-narratives orbiting around them as well, all trying to co-exist in the same narrative space.

The end result is that narratives are continuously bouncing off, absorbing, merging, fracturing, shattering and even altering one another through tidal pull. Think of simple narratives as solar systems and complex ones as small galaxies.  The rules that govern how they interact are just as complicated as celestial mechanics.  Still, just as one can intuitively appreciate the transit and cycles of the sun, moon, planets and the sphere of constellations, one can also grasp the impact of one narrative upon another as they cross paths in transit.

Let us consider the different manners in which two narratives might interact, beginning with the gentlest of influences and progressing toward cataclysmic mutual annihilation.

Imagine narrative space as the topical material of a fiction or the subject matter of life – all the people, places, things and events of interest or concern to us.  As our interests grow and change, we pass through narrative space much as an object passes through the universe.

Along the way, we encounter new subject matter – like dust and gas – that is gathered into our growing fictional or personal narrative, adding to its mass and increasing its complexity.

From time to time, however, we encounter another system similar to our own, with a sun and planets – a complete narrative that is not our own but is also moving through the narrative space picking up mass and using it to generate internal energy.

In fact, from a distance this other narrative cannot be perceived in its component parts, but only as a single point.  Initially it is merely noticed, but has no discernible affect upon us, our course, and our internal activities.

As our narrative closes the gap with the other, we each begin to feel a pull.  If we are headed on a collision course, the pull merely accelerates our respective courses along the path they would have taken on their own.

If, however, we are not on a direct intercept with the other narrative, we begin to feel a force pulling us very slightly away from the path we intended to take.  We are not likely to assign this discrepancy to the other narrative, for there are many narratives in our story universe and their collective impact is perceived by us as chaos.

But, as the error in our course establishes itself as a consistent force and is also noted to be growing in power, we begin to scan our surroundings to see if we can identify the source of the gravity that is warping our trajectory.

You see all this in stories as one character begins to fall under the influence of another, and you see it in real life as things start affecting our plans to the point we feel there is another agenda at work out there other than ours that is undermining or redirecting our efforts.

As the two narratives approach, they begin competing for the same resources.  Since, like solar systems, narratives are made of story elements in a matrix, they are mostly empty space.  They often move partially through each other in the same narrative space without any direct contact, like people moving in the same circles but not actually meeting as they are never in the same place at the same time.  Yet each is affecting others in that narrative space, and therefore indirectly affecting one another.

Even if they never meet directly, depending on the relative sizes of the two narratives, one may become trapped in the influence of the other and begin to orbit it.  Depending upon whether it is a circular or elliptical orbit, whether it is symmetrical or asymmetrical and the rotational rate of the captured narrative around its core, the orbiting narrative may be subjected to mild to extreme tidal pull.  This may create everything from  heating of the core (strong emotions) within the captured narrative to breaking it apart (as when a previously stable individual begins to act erratically and eventually snaps to become a lone wolf terrorist.

What’s more, the distance from the larger narrative that the captured narrative’s orbit describes determines whether it will fall in the sweet spot or Goldilocks zone and continue to thrive, or that the heat, energy or power from the master narrative will burn the life right off the slave or perhaps leave it too cold to continue as a narrative that can maintain its own sense of identity.

In a fictional narrative, a sub-narrative without an identity is simply a sub-plot, but if identity exists (as when an archetype or supporting character in a story has its own personal narrative) than the sub-narrative is hinged to the main narrative and what happens in the subordinate can affect what a character does the master.  In other words, a character’s personal needs in his or her own story may cause that character to act in a way contrary to their assigned or expected role in the general narrative.

In real life, this effect leads to compromised individuals engaging in traitorous actions, or to  petty thievery by employees in a company who can justify their actions according to overriding personal narratives.  Of course, orbiting sub-narratives with identities can also lead to improved behavior or greater achievement by those who revolve around a celebrity or role model as well.

All of these effects, and more, are of the influential nature.  But there is a far more impactful kind of interaction between narratives, and it will result in the alteration, complete remaking or possibly the complete annihilation of one or both of the converging narratives.

Though a narrative structure is mostly open space, every narrative has a core.  In colder, stable narratives, the core is like a planet.  In hotter, active narratives, it is like a sun.  In fictional stories, the core is  the Main Character – the one through whom the readers or audience experience the story first hand, through its eyes, as the other elements of the narrative revolve around it.

In real life, the core is the identity of a person, group, movement, political party, or even nation – anyone, any thing, or any organization that has organized itself into a narrative.  When people come together in groups, each the center of his or her own narrative, they adopt within the group a role in orbit of the group narrative.

As groups form, just as solar systems congeal around a star, people begin to gather around an idea, a concept.  We see this in grass roots movements, and such narratives are intentionally created by companies to establish a corporate identity.

When two cores encounter one another, it is like stars, planets, or a star and a planet colliding.  If they are both hot and star-like, identities may just graze one another, leaving emotional scars, or a stronger personality may strip material from another, leaving behind an individual (or group) that is just a shell of its former self.  We see this not only in broken people taken advantage of by an emotional charlatan to a business left destitute of resources due to corporate raiders, or a country suffering a brain drain.

Under some conditions, two narratives might merge with the cores becoming a single new identity through synthesis, as in a corporate merger.  Or, the cores may become a binary system in which the identities revolve around each other, as in a marriage.

If one identity is vibrant and star-like, but the other is established and planet-like, the encounter usually ends in favor of the star, whose mass and influence is so much greater.  In other words, you can’t fight city hall unless you become a star yourself.

But there is still the far more common situation in which worlds collide.  When two established cores run into each other, even a glancing blow can be catastrophic, just as when two bull-headed people lock horns, set in their own ways, each supported by their own cadre of followers making up their respective narratives.

In such cases, depending on their relative sizes and the grit of the material that make them up, there will be earthquakes and fracturing within each narrative as they approach one another due to their respective gravitational effects.

Depending on the angle of collision, one may prevail at the expense of the other, or they might completely pulverize each other into fragments and dust (splinter groups and free radicals) which themselves may either become the seeds of a new core, or may be absorbed as raw materials within the narrative space in which a new narrative is forming around a completely different social core.

At this point we have outlined the key forces at work when narratives collide.  As we can see, the laws of physics and psychology are resonant, which is not surprising when you adopt the perspective that are minds are a system generated by our brains, which operate according to the same physical laws.

To understand narrative psychology, keep watching the skies.


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