This discussion picked up a topic mentioned by Myke Cole in our talk about his new book, Breach Zone, which I then blogged about, here. This is the idea of threats and acceptance as motivators for human behavior, and I thought it would be productive to grapple with it a bit in discussion. I was joined for this one by Reggie Lutz and Glenda Pfeiffer.
When we spoke with Myke, he talked about the threat of violence and death as a prime motivator for people to abide by the law. My own sense was that though threats are an important motivator, the idea of acceptance by social groups is another really important motivator - possibly just as important or more important. Chuck Wendig had a couple of articles about spanking that I found very compelling, talking about how spanking was mostly a way to get children to fear you and hide any ill behavior. (It was more complex than that; his articles on the topic are here and here.)
Reggie said some of what motivates people depends on their personalities. What motivates you to do anything? Some people are motivated by rewards. Some are motivated by the maintenance of harmony, and others by conflict avoidance. Simply positing the situation as consisting of law enforcement and threat oversimplifies the situation.
Acceptance is not the same thing as reward - a valuable distinction to recognize.
We felt that gang activity was very much based on acceptance rewards, falling in the category of finding your own community, which is important to many people for different reasons (which can be legal or not so legal).
Shunning has been used as a punishment for thousands of years. We felt that shunning was the opposite of acceptance, and that giving rewards was the opposite of deprivation, and that safety was the opposite of violent reprisal - but that these three were separate axes that often overlap in specific situations.
Glenda talked about how historically, shunning could be life-threatening. She works with a secondary world where people find it very hard to live outside the protected communities. Adults might be okay, but childbirth and infant mortality would be a huge issue. If you live outside the community, then you don't thrive.
Shunning is more than just a social punishment. The job of baby holder shows that humans need community, acceptance, and physical expressions of love in order to thrive, especially when very young.
Reggie told us about some of the social situations in her dragon novel. Some older dragons are accustomed to threats from humans and want an authoritarian system to deal with those threats. Shapeshifters are the youngest generation and have tried so assimilate with humans. The resulting conflict with the old guard can be directly damaging to them, since it's bad for their health if they stay in one form too long. Should they shift privately? Should they stage open rebellion? She has a character who is a high school student going to school, trying to benefit the dragon community by acclimating. She does this because she wants acceptance, even though if she were discovered it could pose a big threat to the dragon community.
Often, considering these questions is part of asking how to make your story more deep and realistic.
I spoke about my character, Nekantor, and how figuring out his motivations helped me to turn him from a generally (but rather vaguely) mean guy to a man who represents the problems facing his caste in decline, and who is able to become very powerful, but also very vulnerable, because of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Teasing out how his power motivations and his response to threats were filtered through his obsession with control and order allowed me to make him more extreme, and less scattershot - more consistent as a character.
I also mentioned the way N.K. Jemisin set up The Three deities in her book The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and let their personal interrelationships - including need for acceptance, and threats between each of them - inform how the world worked along with the plot.
In Harry Potter, Harry has a hard time at the start because he isn't accepted into his adoptive family. This is a sort of Ugly Duckling scenario, where we discover that he wasn't accepted because he really belonged in another sort of community that would accept him. The idea of acceptance among one's own is very interesting, but I liked that there were places in personal relationships etc. where the question of acceptance outside of one's own type were brought up (Harry's family vs. Hermione's family, for example).
Glenda brought up the question of individualism vs. conformity and why there is pressure to conform. Sometimes external threats serve to unite a group that wouldn't ordinarily be motivated to accept one another, and sometimes such threats are fabricated to force mutual acceptance. Calls can be made to a sense of community, but it's always important to be aware that different kinds of community can be invoked.
It's important to note that people don't always react in a logical manner when confronted with basic motivators. People who crave acceptance can feel so emotionally kicked around that they reject everyone and deny themselves the chance at acceptance in order to avoid rejection/reprisal.
Threats can be low-level institutional threats, which are sometimes hard to detect. They can be something as simple as invading someone's personal space by standing too close. It's important to note that the person doing it might not notice they are doing it. I set up a hypothetical scenario with three people, X, Y, and Z. If Y bullies Z, then any social alignment - even the most benign - between X and Y will cause Z to perceive X as a threat.
Reggie noted that the reason she didn't speed in her car was that she didn't want to get hurt, or hurt someone else. She felt that law enforcement was less of a factor than the unforgiving consequences of an accident, and emphasized that law enforcement can't be the whole picture in setting up motivations.
Glenda said, "I don't want to live in a society where you have to be the strongest to succeed, but one where people get a fair shake."
Thanks to Glenda and Reggie for coming and sharing their thoughts! I look forward to speaking with you all again today.