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26 November 2011 @ 03:11 am
The Center of the Story -- Or Not?  
One pattern that has emerged for me as I've read and watched many stories with a psi theme, with a critical eye, is that quite often, psi people exist in the story for the purpose of solving other people's (or entities') problems.

a) Usually, the psi characters don't question this role or object to it in any way (they usually welcome the role);
b) Occasionally they object, but they end up playing that narrative role anyway; and
c) Psi people who are all about solving their own problems in their own ways are often presented as evil

But wait, you say! There are lots of stories that have psi in them where the psi characters are named or referenced in the title! Surely those stories are centered on the psi characters, no?

Well, no. Ask yourself what role those characters are playing in the narrative -- are they solving the problems of other people (or entities), willingly or unwillingly, or does the story revolve around how they deal with problems in their own life and overcome those challenges?

Sometimes the psi characters, though they spend the story solving other people's problems, have problems of their own.

a) Often, these "problems" basically boil down to "psi sucks," in its own right or because of how others mistreat you;
b) Often, the psi character's problems (whatever they are) magically disappear from the narrative once he or she has succeeded in solving the other people's problems; and
c) Often the end of the story (and resolution of the psi character's problems) involves the psi characters 1. becoming no longer psi, 2. dying, or 3. being removed from society.

I'll leave most of the examples for later posts, because there are just too many to name and discuss, and link back to this post each time this comes up (we've already seen it in a few of the books and movies I've reviewed thus far). This post is more meta.

The impact of these narratives on real life psi people is that we are taught, from the time we are little, to de-center ourselves in our own narratives as psi people. When I was in grade school, I wrote a lot of stories -- one of my earliest, most developed stories (that I wrote when I was eight and nine) involved a group of kids who were (among other things) psi. The whole story involved their adventures going to another planet to save one group of aliens from an evil alien force that was trying to take over the planet -- at no point in the story did the characters work to overcome problems which directly impacted them in any way. They were asked by a group of aliens to fly off and risk their lives saving them from other aliens, and so off they went. When they got back to Earth, no one knew or cared. This was presented as simply the normal, natural way of things. (At least I didn't make it all Earth centric! The evil aliens actually didn't give a crap about the Earth.)

Most of my other stories as I got older involved plot happening to psi people, rather than those characters taking any role in solving the problems. When I got to high school, my writing was more along the lines of "a lot of crap happens to these psi people, and they angst about it a lot, and then more crap happens. (Rocks fall (most) everyone dies.)" I wrote one significant story about a character who always takes things into her own hands and works to solve her own problems, but she wasn't psi -- there was a psi person in the story, but she had no role in the narrative. She was a passenger, and I don't recall her having a speaking role.

This is all very anecdotal, of course -- I am just one person -- but the point is that it took me many years to learn to stop telling the stories of other people (friends, family) when asked for my own self story. When I began to try to construct this story story, there was no story -- I had to dig through my writings going back to when I was little to create that story.

What is interesting to me is that in the story I wrote when I was eight and nine (the one involving flying off into space to rescue good aliens from evil aliens) is that the characters actually did have conflicts going on in their lives, at home with their families. I described one character's father more or less going through the stages of mourning (minus bargaining) when he learned about his daughter's abilities. But this is never developed, because she's got to off to space to rescue a group of aliens she'd never heard of a few days earlier.

(And I do not know how, by the age of nine, I had internalized that going through denial-anger-depression-acceptance is an appropriate or normal reaction to your child coming out about some significant difference.)

One of my favorite books as an (older) child was Double Trouble Squared, the only book involving psi people at all that I ever read for school. In fifth grade, we got to pick which book we wanted to read (the teacher gave us three or four options and divided us up), and there was no doubt which one I was going to pick!

Looking back at it, I see more faults than pluses (e.g. telepathy works explicitly like a walkie talkie: only with other telepathic people, only within certain distance ranges, and which even has "static" when you're too far away to make out all the words clearly. Um.). The story is also very explicitly about telepathic kids going on an adventure to solve someone else's problems, here, the ghost of Sherlock Holmes' brother. I've never read books 2 and 3, but it looks like they have to solve the dolphins' problems and they have to solve the problems of a 600 year old American Indian potter's spirit.

See, kids? Telepaths are useful -- before they're in their teens, they're already saving the world from evil polluters and artifact thieves -- using their telepathic powers. These psi kids are all about solving others' problems. (And of course it has to be white kids who solve the problems of murdered Indians. Why would there be any telepathic Indian kids around to help, for the last six hundred years?) And for the lolz... wtf, did that synopsis just say psychic hamster?

Yes, I know there are stories where children who are not psi solve others' problems. I'm sure they're out there. What we generally do not have is stories about psi people who solve their own problems. I can think of just one example, and it's YA, not a children's book. Note that the synopsis makes no mention that any of these characters -- let alone all of them -- are realistically psi.

These characters have problems of their own, and they suffer through them. They grow and mature. They're never there as plot devices for someone else -- they are in their own stories. As the synopsis says, "In the span of a few months, [Daisy] goes from a self-centered, disgruntled teen to a courageous survivor motivated by love and compassion. How she comes to understand the effects the war has had on others provides the greatest evidence of her growth, as well as her motivation to get through to those who seem lost to war's consequences."

Yes, psi characters can endure hardships and grow and change and mature.

Here, psi is no magic bullet for solving plot. Hardly. (Now, if only it weren't erased from the official description. I think the psi in this story went right over the critics' heads, possibly because its role in the narrative is so very different. Some of the reviewers seem to have at least noticed it's in there, somehow, but they've mostly picked up that Daisy's cousins are psi, and not that Daisy herself is. Well, because Daisy herself doesn't know it, and gradually figures it out.)

So, the next time you watch a Hallmark Movie about a kid who sees a ghost (the synopsis can be downloaded at that link), or psychokinetic child takes on evil headmistress, or even some more grown up stuff like Babylon 5 or Star Trek TNG, think about whose problems the psi character is really solving for most of the story, who is "scary", who is "other", who is "good", and, where applicable, who has the role of teaching other characters a "life lesson".
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