Whiplash Writing Recommendations: the Underuse of Microcosm in Narratives

Hey folks,

I’m still in recovery from Loremageddon–I may or may not pick up Fringe Elements again next week, might give myself ’til after next Saturday so as to fully recharge–but in the meantime I wanted to highlight a very simple writing principle that can do extraordinary amounts of work for you. I’d like to specify scope this time: I’m gearing this advice for full-length novels in particular. That’s not to say it can’t be applied to a film script, a novella, or something else–a long-term web-story could put this to even better use than a book!–just keep in mind that it may be a poor fit.

If you’ve read this post’s title, you probably know already that I’m referring to the microcosm. To use the first definition that comes up in a search because there’s nothing wrong with it for this post, “a community, place, or situation regarded as encapsulating in miniature the characteristic qualities or features of something much larger.” So, what do I mean by that in this case?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “in the near future/distant past, one young adult is our only hope to pacify the aliens/defeat the dark lord/overthrow the Boomercracy”–yes, I know you’ve all been screaming “stop” since the first phrase. Let me clarify: I’m not saying a story which hinges on just one protagonist who represents our only shot at resolving the conflict du jour is inherently bad. I’m just here to tell you that if you’re doing that purely to raise stakes or because it’s the first idea that came into your head, consider what you might be losing.

Because, if our protagonist is the only one who can do the thing, then how meaningful are the external character conflicts? We’ve stripped everything down to binary layers. External characters who believe it’s their job to do the thing are now inherently wrong; there’s no real chance for us to wonder “What if they’re right? What if they really should be the one doing the thing?” It’s harder to look at what the protagonist achieves and wonder, “but mightn’t another character have done better?”

Depending on how exclusive the protagonist’s monopoly becomes, other characters might not be able to engage with them about their journey and the core alien/dark lord/Boomercracy conflict at all. Why did we do all this, again? For stakes? Well, stakes are well and good, but there’s more to a great story than just high stakes, and depending on the story’s exact scale, making the protagonist the only one who can do the thing might push the stakes so far most readers can’t really comprehend them anyway.

A town of a thousand people and only Detective Garrison can unearth the Daughters of Shel’brchith before they sacrifice everyone? Excellent, that’s still damn big but easily comprehensible, and it’s quite believable that only one person in a thousand would catch on to this cult. The Iaigus Armada descends upon the four hundred worlds of the nascent Sol Federation, and only Captain Rinash Selmare can save humanity?

Bullshit. There are hundreds of billions of people in SolFed. The only way for this whole conflict to hinge on a single naval officer is for everyone else to be irredeemable garbage. But, hey, here’s a thought: What if… what if you just include sentences at appropriate times–a news report here, a strategy meeting there, intelligence officers mentioning narrow successes as well as failures–establishing the broader conflict? And then, key point: if the Iaigus break through at any point, it could destabilize the entire defense grid and lead to humanity’s extermination.

Huh. Funny–if anything it feels like the pressure on Rinash is greater now, doesn’t it? If they fuck up this counter-attack, then not only have they allowed the enemy to break through, but they’ve thrown the hard work and tactical acumen of their peers on other fronts in the incinerator too! Moreover, you’ll start to sell the scale of the conflict. Rinash will feel more insignificant with all these comms reports flooding in–“ol’ Nakamura just tore the ‘gus a new one over Vega!” or “Fucking damn it, that shitty glory hound von Seideln is going to get us all killed if he can’t hold a formation!”–and readers will experience their doubt in much more compelling fashion.

How can one person possibly make a difference in a war this size? The answer: Rinash is not just one person. They are a captain in SolFed’s navy, and together with others, they continue the warrior legacy humankind has cultivated for thousands of years. The Iaigus are not just fighting one person. They are fighting the combined wrath of the entire human species, and the best human captain can make up for the folly of ten lesser ones.

This is–hey, guess what? In a microcosm!–the microcosm method. Just as I connected Rinash with their peers, look at the situation your protagonist is in and seek opportunities to connect them with theirs. It needn’t ever be much–just a sentence or two per chapter, as I already said, does vital work in conveying to your readers that there’s a larger universe in play. Choice and the illusion of choice are powerful things. Did you as a writer ever really consider a protagonist other than Captain Rinash?

(Yes, Rinash is my character so you’d be looking at someone totally different in an equally-different story. Just bear with me, alright? Ad-libbing literally everything in these posts on the spur of the moment is hard enough as-is.)

Maybe, maybe not; Gratai, now my favorite protagonist of all, was originally a pure (and deeply bog-standard) villain with minimal character development. The beauty of the microcosm method is that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether you really considered other characters or not! Relying on just the methods I laid out above–worry not, you’ll develop your own unique approaches once you start trying this in your own work–you can leave your readers dead certain that you could’ve chosen anyone’s perspective.

You didn’t. You chose to follow Captain Rinash.

And as long as you wrap that story up in satisfying fashion, the fact that maybe Vice Admiral Nakamura or Commander Brakowicz or any of twenty others might’ve done the same won’t undermine Rinash’s success. That fact will enhance it. Because, out of all SolFed’s legendary leaders, it was Rinash Selmare who realized that the Iaigus commander Shonchlu would always decide on aggression if attack and defense seemed equally viable, and thus created the decisive bait-and-switch ambush which broke the Iaigus vanguard over Antares. Other commanders might have mopped up, but it was Rinash who truly won the war.

That’s the power of a well-executed microcosm: to convey the illusion of a living, breathing universe populated by other characters, yet allow the protagonist to take center stage anyway.

Say something, darn it!

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