Words and Chaos

Month: February, 2017

There Is Only Chaos: Alpha, Beta, Whatever

Maturity begets integrity.

A month into Trump’s presidency and the new American president is causing as much of a wave in the White House as he did on the campaign trail. While I have my reservations about the rash of post-election protests, much as I do sympathise, Trump is certainly a polarising individual. His ‘grab them by the pussy,’ comment, in particular, remains in the spotlight. Not without good reason. It’s hardly a fitting comment for the leader of a major world superpower, with his hands on the nuclear codes. Well, depending on who you ask, anyway… At the time of the leak, Nigel Farage, that paragon of authenticity, passed it off as ‘alpha male boasting’. In the wake of the election of such a personality there seems to be a rise in a kind of red pill style conservatism, revolving around delusional machismo, branding everything unaffiliated with the label ‘cuck’, and attempting to boil all of masculinity down into a rudimentary food chain of sorts.

There’s a sad contingent of people, mostly males, who insist on dividing all other males in the world into categories of dominance. It’s not a particularly expansive categorisation, neither is it particularly in-depth. There are just two columns for the entire 3 billion or so males on the planet: The alpha and the beta. It’s a kind of simplified flat-pack easy-assemble worldview that offers comforting direction to boys who don’t want to think too hard about their actions, perceptions, or their significance in the world, but still want to feel like someone of consequence. The kind of person who will fight you for the first place in front of a mirror, but will chug a stein full of bull semen before taking a long look at themselves.

As expected, we find that the depiction of the alpha males is a parodic example of self-perpetuating gender stereotyping played straight. I don’t want to fall back on a tired cliché, but the image of the grunting Neanderthal lumbers to mind, only with none of the charm. Conversely, the grovelling weedy nerds of the world, again as expected, represent the beta male. It’s a foregone conclusion that each of these hapless oestrogenic wonders secretly aspire to be just like the alphas, if only they could get off World of Warcraft and give negging a chance. Most amusing is that these grossly oversimplified caricatures are held aloft as if they were real. The loud obnoxious character who attempts to hold court, rather than engage in conversation, is held aloft as someone to aspire to. This person is, apparently, revered and respected as opposed to being a massive turn-off. See, the problem with a person, of any gender, who constantly attempts to dominate all social scenarios, is that it quickly becomes apparent how pervasively insecure they are. That’s why they need to have themselves validated at all turns and why all eyes must be centred on them at all times. Unfortunately, nobody goes out for a drink with the intention of babysitting.

Take Trump’s consistent grandstanding. His need to have the attention forever focussed on him is all too apparent. He is so insecure that he has hired people to clap for his speeches. How about photos of him sitting in a golden chair in front of a golden wall? Comedy Central had to repeatedly scrap the jokes they’d written, because Trump couldn’t quite understand the point of a roast – the humour. Instead, he insisted that they talk about his wealth… Naturally, bankruptcies were off limits. Leaving aside Trump and his chronic narcissism, this constant need for validation and attention doesn’t inspire the kind of image that one would associate with an ‘alpha male’.

Five minutes of mild contemplation is sufficient to illustrate how utterly absurd the entire alpha-beta concept is in the first place. It works with other animals because most of them don’t have much in the way of an advanced social structure. It doesn’t work with humans for a number of reasons, but working within this paradigm, let’s examine it:

Do you know any men who are going to actively identify themselves as ‘beta’, given the social implications? Me neither. Not all men can be alpha so there must be some beta men. However, if one man is alpha then the majority of those around him are presumably considered beta. If each of them in turn thinks of themselves as alpha, than the alpha male would have to be beta. They cannot exist in both states at once. All of them, as the self-presumed alpha, are betas in someone else’s perspective and so they cancel each other out. The conclusion is, as usual, that a man who brands himself an ‘alpha male’ is merely overcompensating with a psychological crutch. Within that shallow paradigm, you’re not an alpha in that case. An alpha wouldn’t need that crutch.

People talk. About you. People you hate, people you like, people you love. Your enemies, your friends, your family. Whatever your social presence or connections, people talk about you. Braggadocio is the spurious pup yap of the immature boy who never left the playground: A loud, limp cover for feared impotence. It’s as facile as the alpha-beta nonsense. Alpha male boasting doesn’t happen. They don’t need to. Other people talk for them.

I know, I know. The only reason I’m writing about this in the first place is, of course, that I am simply an angry beta male. Constantly friend zoned, blue balled, whining about it on the Internet to a disinterested handful of faceless strangers. Meanwhile I spend my time kotowing to the looming feminist matriarchy that is slowly taking over the world because of a surge in regressive left leaning cucks. I do this with the shrivelled hope that, upon their eventual dominance and the overthrow of all Y-chromosomes, one of m’ladies will favour me enough to grace me with a pity fuck. Any day now.

Let’s dispense with the alpha beta rhetoric. Social power dynamics in human relationships, even among creatures as simple as us menfolk, are somewhat more complex than a binary sorting hat. It’s not solely about chest thumping and flaccid bragging. As with all human social hierarchies, the variables work on multiple levels are affected by any number of external and internal factors, and the points of dominance and power shift depending on context. I’m not well read on animal social group dynamics, but I wouldn’t be surprised if those too, were slightly more convoluted than the proposed alpha-beta model. Of course, the reality is simply that none of this exists. It’s the psychological equivalent of homeopathy for the pitiful and puffed up.

Perhaps it would simply be more effective to take an honest look at yourself every now and then. Perhaps go so far as to actively do the hard work to improve yourself, rather than simply shouting about how great you are, despite nobody, not even you, believing it. Of course, that requires somewhat more work than constantly trying to bark the loudest and inflate your chest like a cheap helium balloon. Perhaps that explains why these types desperately cling to the chest thumping. There isn’t the stamina, tenacity, or mental alacrity to work on anything more difficult than a two-dimensional binary system more concerned with the volume of the bark than the power of the bite.

Character creation: Lose the Lists.

Because people are more than attribute collages.

Creating a character is a seemingly straightforward process, but every writer runs into times where it can be difficult to know how to flesh them out past an initial idea, or sometimes simply where to start. It’s just an unfortunate wall that you run into. Like almost all problems in the 21st century, it’s instinctive to turn to Google, our eternal babysitter, for the answer or some easy inspiration. You come across a lot of lists this way: ‘100,000 questions for characters’. Those lists can seem like incredibly detailed and in depth studies of character and personality – how could they not be: There’s 100,000 questions! That’s more than the MBTI and that other personality quiz you took last Sunday, on Buzzfeed, put together! In actual fact they usually devolve into tedious lists of minutia and quirks that rarely tell you anything important about your characters. What’s the use of knowing who were there parents are, what ice cream brands they like, what their favourite colour is, their national tax number, and so on if it doesn’t provide you with anything you can use?

List like this give the illusion of a fleshed out characters. They don’t actually provide a great deal to draw on – how many of those 100,000 notations will you remember? How much of it will come in handy when you’re writing? You can sink a lot of time into filling out those mammoth lists and it will feel like you have put in a lot of work at the end. Technically you have, and your patience is commendable is nothing else, but not all work is created equal.

The key is picking a few relevant questions and then running with them. Common starter question: Who are their parents? On its own, it’s not a useful question. You can provide names, perhaps a profession, but nothing particularly useful. So from there you could ask, ‘what was their relationship like?’ When you’ve answered that ask ‘why?’ Then you can go from there: If the relationship is good, what would it take to destroy it and how does your character react when their trust is broken? Conversely, if the relationship is bad then what would it take to fix it? If nothing, why not? And you can’t shrug your shoulders or give some piss thin excuse, ‘They just don’t feel like it’. That’s a cop out and it’s not helping you. You don’t have to answer right away, but if you give an answer then you have to give a good one.

Another common question: What are they scared of? On its own, not too useful. It gives you a surface level discomfort to throw at a character. They see a spider on a wall, they scream and attempt to hit it with a wood axe. After you’ve decided what they’re scared of, again ask ‘why?’ ’Why’ is always your go-to question. It gives you more to work with, context, and add depth that can use to expand on the ways you manipulate those fears. What do they do when they’re confronted with their fear? How do they react? Do they curl into a ball? Do they accept their fate in a stoic manner?

This works for all of these questions, fear is just a good example. Other suggestions: What do they do when they like someone? How do they display affection? The same goes for animosity or hatred. What do they do in a confrontation? What kind of drunk are they?

Of course, the most basic of these questions is more or less just the root of your story: What does your character want? More importantly, how are they going to get it? What are they willing to sacrifice to get it? The answer to that doesn’t have to be ‘everything’. It’s both obvious and amateur dramatic. It’s the cookie cutter approach to raising to stakes. It’s like all those overblown antagonists with world conquest or destruction as their aim. It doesn’t make sense most of the time. Just as very few people actually want to destroy or rule the world, very few people are willing to sacrifice everything they have to get what they want. Even if they say they are. The nuance and depth come from putting a limit on what a character is willing to do or sacrifice, and forcing them up against it. Alternatively, they can be use to subvert expectations. If a character claims that they’re willing to give up everything, then one thing to do with that is put them in a situation where they’re not willing to sacrifice as much as they want others to believe, or believed themselves. You can learn as much about a person from what they’re not willing to do as much as what they will.

These follow up questions tell you meaningful things about your character’s state of mind, where they’re likely to put themselves in the world, their expectations of people, what they are likely to respond to and in what way, etc. It’s all about how they approach and act in a given situation, and the reasons for those responses. You don’t need 100,000 of these questions to get a far deeper understanding of your characters than you would by filling out one of these excessive lists. All you have to do is dig past the surface. It takes longer per question, you’ve got to think harder about each one, but you can get more memorable substance from just a few in depth questions, than hundreds of random attributes or lists of adjectives. Characters are like psychological experiment patients. The unethical kind. Put them in a situation, see how they respond. You’ll get more out of it.