There are two reasons Heroic Histories remain endlessly popular, two ways they advantage their own survival with efficient rememberability, and these two narrative dynamics are exceptional because they provide audiences with built-in mnemonic advantages that go beyond merely featuring memorable story content. These survival advantages make hero-oriented narratives rememberable as a whole, by featuring content that also happens to cohere efficiently in a rememberable story structure. Thus, Heroic Histories remain popular because they facilitate our remembering of the past. But how does this work?
The most prominent of these two cognitive accomodations is the storytelling method of anchoring story structure within a concice Plot. The “great hero” as determining factor, as an historical change agent, becomes ‘central character as plot device’ - the definitive Middle who reverses fortune, carrying her or his world from its prior Beginning (either humble or proud) to a dynamically different (be that glorious or disasterous) End. The less prominent of these two mnemonic facilitators is more difficult to explain, even though it’s arguably and by far the more frequently utilized of these two common patterns in storytelling. When Heroic History veers into comprehensive Biography, it can no longer rely on a concice classical Plot because an expansive volume of episodic content - by definition - simply cannot find coherence in a sequential chain of causality. Instead of “one thing leads to another” (post hoc, propter hoc), the Life Story sequence often reverts to “one thing after another”. Fortunately, however, causality is not the only self-sequencing aspect of narrative rhetoric.
By anchoring story structure in Character, rather than Plot, the cradle to grave timeline of a Biographical discourse provides its audience with an unmistakable Beginning and End, unforgettable in the context of that life story. As for a Middle, the guaranteed narrative ubiquity of one heroic (or at least semi-heroic*) subject uses one person's ongoing experience to keep a life story focused, both as a whole and throughout all its parts. Altogether, this gives Biography's Middle an acute coherence for overall content, and a rough coherence for a very broad structure. However, although many readers typically do construct life story fabulas with only the broadest sense of chronological sequence, it is not uncommon for the narrative dynamic of a comprehensive biography to communicate to the audience (and facilitate the efficient remembering of) a more involved chronological structure, which - completely without relying on sufficient causality in the classical sense - depends on other types of self-sequencing content in recognizable patterns of human growth and development.
So, there. In three paragraphs, as promised, that’s the whole series up to this point, not counting the double-post excursion into cognitive narratology (on which, see the links list, below).
Come back soon for Part 7, which aims to explain more precisely how it is that a lengthy, elaborate story-structure can be remembered efficiently and with sequential coherence by relying not on narrative causality but on the “predictable [statistical] regularities” of typical and stereotypical sequences which readers recognize to be common patterns in human growth and development - and not just biological and psychological, but also social and political patterns of development which happen to occur frequently in any particular audience’s cultural memory.
So far, this series has made two major points. First, Heroic History is a common literary tactic because it offers significant mnemoinc advantages for remembering the past. But second - and perhaps more importantly - Plot isn’t everything. Memorable stories also cohere strongly around Character.
There are four more posts planned in this series, hopefully concluding before June, 2015. I may also have yet another surprise or two left in store.
Here is the links list, of the series so far, and the sidebar delving more into cognitive studies:
Part 1 - mnemonic efficiencies of an infamous narrative distortion
Part 4 - on Aristotle's bias towards "unified plots" and his rejection of biography
Part 5 - how biographical story structure both defies and aligns with Aristotle's ideas about "plot structure"... and how the rememberability of one structure compares with the other
Parts 7, 8, 9, & 10 (of 10) - Coming Soon...
Towards a Cognitive Science of Remembering Biographies
Part 1 - autobiographical memory VS remembering biographies & cognitive psychology VS narratology
*Note: I have called the biographical subject “at least semi-heroic” because she will, by virtue of being a de-facto protagonist in her own life story, inevitably appear to be somewhat heroic on occasion, if not powerfully heroic in her own larger world. Despite the fact that a biographical storyline cannot structure itself entirely around its subject’s personal agency, the relative tellability of a published life story implies that this subject is admirable enough (or despicable enough) to warrant extended attention from a writer and audience (however modest). All this can be described, to some degree or another, as what is called “hero worship” (even in the negative). Thus, biographical subjects are typically “heroic” in various ways apart from the classical sense - a storytelling truth which Thomas Carlyle apprehended all the more easily from his vantage point, circa 1841, fifty years after the revolutionary publication of Boswell’s Life of Johnson.