Narrative Design: Proxy Defense

Proxy defense is a term I use to describe a specific behavior that we people tend to do: we act more extreme when we are doing it in the defense of someone else. We’ve all seen it before, and we’ve all probably had experiences when we acted that way too. It feels noble and heroic, like the Saturday morning cartoon protagonist who says “I don’t care if you insult me but I’ll beat you up if you insult my friends.” But in this essay, I want to write about the darker side of proxy defense. There are many nuances to this behavior, some good and some bad, but in general people never pay attention to the negative effects that this can have. I firmly believe that proxy defense is a major contributing factor to groupthink, hiveminds, circlejerks, herd mentalities, or any other situation where a collection of people becomes less than the sum of its parts. If you were to ask me, I would go further to say that proxy defense is a philosophical crisis of the modern age, and we should try to resist it as much as possible.

What Is Proxy Defense?

I remember once I read a cute little love story on the internet. It went something like this: a girl and her boyfriend were at an amusement park, and they were about to get on a roller coaster, but the attendant stopped them and asked the girl her weight. The girl had been feeling insecure about her weight for a long time, and broke down in tears. In response, the boyfriend punched the attendant in the face, then took his girlfriend away.

Great love story, huh.

And what surprised me so much was that there were actually people who believed that the boyfriend was in the right. People thought it was really touching and caring and loving that he would go through such lengths to protect his girlfriend. There were people who wished their significant others were more like that.

But to me, I see it as a classic case of proxy defense. The boyfriend punched the roller coaster attendant in order to defend his girlfriend’s pride. He did something extreme and irrational, but to him, it was justified because he was doing it for the sake of someone else. In reality, he just committed physical assault on an innocent person. He just attacked someone because he didn’t like what they had to say.

This way of thinking is so pervasive. We see it everywhere. The boyfriend-punching-innocent-attendant story is an exaggeration and yet there would still be people who think he was in the right. Movies, novels, video games, every kind of entertainment medium uses proxy defense in subtle ways that are meant to be applauded rather than reviled.

Look at this trailer for example:

So Geralt of Rivia is just a blindingly cool badass who goes around saving helpless maidens from evil lynch mobs. Sure. Pretty standard setup for a heroic character. But when you look at it objectively, he just murdered three complete strangers in cold blood.

Geralt knew nothing about the situation, other than that a pretty lady was being sentenced to death. He didn’t know if it was justified or not. What if she had been a killer, or a spy, or some other threat? What if she was using polymorphism to look like a helpless lass for the sake of garnering sympathy? Of course, she could very well have been completely innocent and the lynch mob was corrupt, like the trailer implies them to be. But Geralt does not know.

And yet, despite not knowing, he still rushes in and saves the damsel in distress. Despite all this talk about ambiguous choices and lesser evils, he still decides to kill three random people. He does it in the name of proxy defense: his psychopathic actions are justified because they are done in order to defend someone else. You could argue the morality all you want, but the fact remains that Geralt committed murder. Whether or not that murder was justified is the real question.

Proxy defense is an excuse. People will find something to defend in order to launch their attack. Whatever they’re defending doesn’t matter anymore. It only exists as a justification for the attack. But the justification doesn’t change anything. A justified crime is still a crime.

Gay marriage? Christians aren’t attacking homosexuals, they’re defending the definition of marriage. Gays aren’t attacking Christians, they’re defending equal rights. But in reality, Christians are attacking homosexuals, and gays are attacking Christians.

War in the middle east? America isn’t attacking the middle east, it’s defending the world from the threat of WMDs. The middle east isn’t attacking America, it’s defending their way of life. But in reality, America is attacking the middle east, and the middle east is attacking America.

The Crusades? Catholics weren’t attacking Muslims, they were defending their god. Muslims weren’t attacking Catholics, they were defending their god. But in reality, the Catholics did attack Muslims, and the Muslims did attack Catholics.

Gamergate controversy? AGGers aren’t attacking journalism, they’re defending minority game developers. GGers aren’t attacking minority game developers, they’re defending journalism. But in reality, AGGers are attacking journalism, and GGers are attacking minority game developers.

You don’t have to agree with the other side’s reasoning, but you need to at least see that it is indeed there. Both sides believe that they are the righteous ones. They are the defenders, while their enemies are the attackers. Since they’re justified, they believe that they can act more extremely than they normally would.

When you act for the sake of someone else, it becomes an excuse to leave your own personal set of morals aside. But what set of morals do you replace them with? Often, the answer is simply none. That is a very dangerous state to be in.

And yet, this is exactly the kind of behavior that entertainment media sees as a virtue. Good guys act for the sake of others as a convenient excuse so they can beat up bad people, because that’s what’s exciting. But people wouldn’t want to admit that they’re being entertained by a psychopath, so the media creators use proxy defense to justify the protagonist’s actions.

Look at Taken. You can literally watch a movie where a guy kills 30 people, and he’s still the good guy all because he’s doing it for someone else’s sake. Is that really a valid justification to kill so many people? If I were kidnapped, I sure wouldn’t want that many people to die in exchange for my freedom.

People generally want to think of themselves as the defenders. They want to think of themselves as the righteous ones who are under attack by nefarious outside forces. Aggressors are the selfish ones, and defenders are the selfless ones. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity”, right? But what happens when both sides see themselves as the defenders?

In entertainment media, people are painted as defenders and attackers. The defenders are the good guys and the attackers are the bad ones. “Everything was fine and dandy until the fire nation attacked” and all that jazz. That way, it’s easy to know who to cheer for. But in reality, it’s not like that. Everybody is a defender in their own minds. You don’t see the other person’s side in movies and books and video games, and so we’re not trained to look for the other person’s side in reality either.

This is also a large part of groupthink and mob mentality. Religious fanaticism happens when a bunch of people want to defend their god. Patriotism happens when a bunch of people want to defend their nation. Internet flame wars happen when a bunch of people want to defend their waifu. Draw an insulting picture of me and I won’t really do anything about it, but draw an insulting picture of my god and suddenly I can take more extreme actions in the name of proxy defense.

I think that people need to realize when their attempts to defend someone else end up crossing the line. There are things that you cannot do even if you are doing them for someone else’s sake. If people saw themselves as attackers rather than defenders, if people saw themselves the way they saw their enemies, they could see how hypocritical their conflicts are.

Rethinking Narrative Structures

I see the film John Wick as a great foil to Taken. They’re both mindless action movies about a badass guy who goes around killing people. John Wick’s kill count is almost twice as much as Bryan Mills’s. But while the main character of Taken acts in the name of defense, the main character of John Wick acts in the name of offense. He is angry because people killed his dog. That is it. The whole movie is literally about him hunting down the people who killed his dog.

And as a result, we don’t see John Wick as a good person. He is not the classical heroic protagonist who oozes kindness from every pore. He is not a knight in shining armor who makes ladies swoon and gentlemen tip their hats. John Wick is none of that. He is a boogeyman, a grim reaper, a silent legend.

Are his actions over the top? Yes. It is absolutely, utterly, undeniably ridiculous how much he’s overreacting. That’s the whole point. He probably doesn’t have the healthiest coping mechanisms around. But all of that come through to the viewer. John Wick is a flawed person, and he’s liable to go too far when he’s provoked. The viewer sees his strengths and his weaknesses and understands him as a whole person as a result.

Contrast that to Bryan Mills from Taken. Are his actions over the top? Objectively, yes, but subjectively, no. Subjectively, everything he’s doing is righteous and good because he’s trying to save his daughter. All of that comes through in the cinematography and the script. The audience is made to cheer for him rather than condemn him. His malicious actions are made to seem badass rather than flawed. While John Wick was a rounded character, Bryan Mills is just a power fantasy.

John Wick knows that what he’s doing is wrong. The viewer also knows that it’s wrong. He knows that he’s going to pay a price, and he does: in exchange for unleashing all of his anger and killing all of those people, he must give up his comfortable civilian life and return to the underworld. It’s a sacrifice that he struggles with and eventually closes the deal on. That’s his way of repenting for all the horrible things he did in the movie.

Bryan Mills has no repentance. He has no reason to repent. In his eyes (and in the viewer’s eyes), he has done nothing wrong. As a result, he never has another side to his personality. There is nothing more to his character other than the fact that he’s a badass.

We can have more interesting stories if we break away from the protagonist defender/antagonist attacker paradigm. Here, John Wick is a protagonist attacker, and the fact that we don’t exactly agree with his actions gives him much more depth than a standard hero. There are stories about antagonist defenders who make you question whether or not they are truly wrong. Then there are other setups that completely transcend the paradigm altogether with multiple perspectives or setting everyone as either a defender or attacker. It’s not a new approach, but it’s definitely a less popular one.

It’s okay to like mindless violence. I love mindless violence. But we should be aware of it rather than being ashamed and trying to mask it with justification. John Wick proves that you don’t need a kidnapped girlfriend to make an action movie. The whole thing is better because it doesn’t resort to a cheap proxy defense.

Implementation Into Interactive Media

When it comes to games, you can even provide the player with a proxy defense. You can give the player someone to defend and they will go through the hoops you set out for them. They will go through the experience and do things that they probably wouldn’t normally do, and they will do it all for the sake of defending someone else. Everything I just said about crafting a proxy defense has been at work in video games for a long time.

Proxy defense in video games has all the exact same problems that it does in other mediums, but now the player lives it firsthand. That means the player becomes even further divorced from the ethics of their actions. Imagine Taken as a video game. That’s basically the setup for most hack-and-slash games.

I think that this problem is connected to violence in video games. People always take such a strong stance on whether games make people violent or not, but I think it really depends on the way the game’s narrative is structured. If you have a game that is up-front and unashamed about making the player an attacker who does horrible things because they’re fun, then it draws attention to the ridiculousness of it all, much like John Wick did. The Saint’s Row series is a perfect example of this. Then there’s a world of games that play with this distinction, like Spec Ops: The Line, which initially sets the player up as a proxy defender, but later starts challenging the player’s motivations and how they use heroism as an excuse for murder.

However, if you have a game that sets the player up as a proxy defender, then it implies that their killings and crimes and violence are justified and righteous. That’s the point where I become scared. There’s always the standard setup where the player has a girlfriend, the girlfriend gets abducted, then you spend the rest of your game trying to rescue her. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has actually had some moments that made me nervous. If someone insults one of your sorceress girlfriends, you can usually challenge them to a fight. It’s suspiciously similar to the boyfriend-punching-roller-coaster-attendant story that I opened this essay with. I personally didn’t feel attached enough to any of the characters to fight over them, but I can see how someone would honestly want to defend Yen’s or Triss’s honor.

A common argument is that violent video games don’t make people violent, but instead desensitize them to violence. It’s a valid train of thought and it makes sense, but I think that it happens because players don’t feel passionate about the digital characters they are defending. When they kill an enemy or inflict some other form of violence, the player does it for fun rather than for the sake of defending someone else. The proxy defense is usually boring and forgettable and players end up putting their motivations out of the way and just enjoy the experience. Nobody plays Mario because they have a burning desire to save the princess. But what happens when developers find a way to actually do it well? If a player truly honestly believes that the horrible things they do in a game are righteous and correct, will they cross the line from desensitization to justification? I’m not sure, and I’m a little bit afraid of finding out.

Conclusion

I knew a guy who got into heated arguments with his landlord because the AC in his unit was broken and his baby son was crying from the heat. I knew a guy who recommended a friend for a position at a project he was working on, and he got defensive and argumentative when people commented on his friend’s lack of work ethic. I knew a guy who rushed to the ER because his son had a common stomach ache. Would all of these people have acted so extremely if it hadn’t been for the sake of someone else?

What I really want is for people to have a widespread knowledge of proxy defense, and a desire to fight against it in their own lives. This doesn’t need to be a grand sweeping social shift for it to have an effect. Even the small things you do in day-to-day life can be affected by proxy defense. Do not act out of line of your own set of morals, even if it’s for the sake of someone else. I think that entertainment is the first step to solving this situation. Proxy defense is a real philosophical problem that has turned into a narrative crutch. We need more things like John Wick or Spec Ops: The Line to challenge the way people usually think about heroism.

Narrative Design: Understanding Why

Earlier, I wrote about why layers. The basic idea is that as you develop a story, you should always be asking yourself “why is this happening,” and the more “why” questions you can answer, the more fleshed out the story becomes. But through it all, I seem to have forgotten my own rule.

Why are why layers important? Why do we care about finding out why things happen? Why do we ask why?

It’s a funny question, but it’s one that builds from the core of what narrative really means and why we engage with it. Even though it gets kind of weird, we still have to figure it out. But once we do, we can find many ways to use why layers and develop better stories.

But first, let’s start off with a joke.

Contextualizing The Little Moments

A man was walking along a beach in California when he found a genie in a bottle. The genie said “Okay, you know how this works, but I’m only going to give you one wish, so choose wisely.”

The man thought for a moment. “I have a vacation home in Hawaii, but I hate flying there. It makes me sick and nauseous. I’d like to have a bridge that connects California to Hawaii.”

“Are you insane?” the genie asked incredulously. “A bridge? How do you expect that to work? I’m supposed to lay concrete down all the way to the bottom of the ocean floor? Ridiculous. Give me something a little more realistic to work with.”

“Hmm,” the man sighed. “Alright. How about instead of the bridge, you tell me how women’s minds work?”

“You want two lanes or four?” asked the genie.

Pretty standard joke. You’ve probably heard it before. Let’s apply why layers to it. Why does the genie refuse to teach the guy how women’s minds work? Because it’s impossible. It’s even more impossible than building a bridge from California to Hawaii (which has been established to be quite impossible). That’s what makes the joke funny.

Now, let’s try changing the punchline a little bit.

“Hmm,” the man sighed. “Alright. How about instead of the bridge, you tell me how women’s minds work?”

“Understanding a woman’s mind is probably more difficult,” the genie replied. “How about I’ll just build you the bridge instead?”

Well… it’s not funny anymore. Even though it says the exact same thing, it’s not funny anymore.

The why layers aren’t the point. Just because they exist doesn’t automatically mean that they are interesting. Both versions of the bridge joke have the same why layers, but one of them isn’t even a joke anymore.

Why layers are interesting when the reader figures them out on their own. The reader has to figure out the connections and the reasons by themselves. When it works well, everything just clicks into place and the story makes sense. Every event has a cause and an effect, and you can trace them back to their roots. Suddenly, the story becomes nuanced and multifaceted, with multiple lines of thought trailing through different causal relationships. You become attached to the characters, because you stuck together with them and you know why they did the things they did.

The reader’s involvement is crucial to this process. If the reader does not actively try to dig into the why layers, then the narrative becomes meaningless. Even if the story is filled with rich backgrounds and context, none of it reaches the reader. As writers, we should make sure that the stories we create have a good amount of why layer depth, but we must not forget that the reader is just as important to the process.

It’s important for the why layers to be there, but we can’t present them all at once. If we just shove everything into the reader’s face, it’s not a story anymore, it’s a history textbook. There’s just way too much information to handle. That’s why great stories will slowly reveal the reasons why characters do the things they do. Great stories use careful pacing to make sure readers can follow the story without being overloaded by all the context.

A story’s climax is a great place to pull all the why layers together. At this point, the reader can make the tentative dive into the why layers you’ve prepared for them. All of the story’s plotlines converge into a single point, and the final clash shows you why everyone did what they did.

Take the climax of Lord of the Rings. Frodo stands at the edge of Mount Doom, hesitating before throwing the One Ring into the fires. Sam yells and pleads with Frodo to let go of the ring and let it fall. Suddenly, Gollum shows up and wrestles with Frodo for the ring. Their scuffle ends up in Gollum biting Frodo’s ring finger off and falling into the fires himself. Ultimately, the ring is destroyed along with Gollum.

This scene is just filled with plotlines and causal events that are just so fun to tumble around in your head. Suddenly, we see the reason why Gollum exists. He is the final factor that destroys the ring. Why was Gollum there? Because the hobbits allowed him to come along with them out of goodwill. People have tried to destroy the ring before, and they never succeeded. Elrond and Isildur stood upon the exact same edge that Frodo and Sam did. The reason why they didn’t succeed was because Gollum wasn’t there.

And do you think that they, a mortal man and a proud elf, would have tolerated Gollum’s presence on their way to Mount Doom? No way. They would have spurned Gollum as the disgusting, filthy creature that he is. But the hobbits, filled with goodness and kindness and innocence, brought Gollum with them. If they hadn’t, history would have repeated itself. Frodo would have escaped with the Ring, Sam would have been helpless to do anything, and after hundreds of years Sauron would reform again.

So why did the story happen the way it did? Because hobbits hold a level of purity that no other race does. Hobbits are silly and rowdy and lazy. They play all day without a care in the world. But it is precisely because of those traits that they were the only characters in Middle Earth who were capable of destroying the ring. All the grimdark humans and the zealous elves and the brutish orcs took their lives so seriously, but that itself was their downfall. The hobbits were simple, and you could see how simple they were because you followed their journey with the Fellowship. While everyone else is gritty and hardboiled and ready to save the world, the hobbits are dancing in pubs and eating two breakfasts. It makes sense. We see why it happened.

You can also see that Tolkien was careful to keep these why layers hidden until the final climax. Throughout the whole story, we’re wondering why these stupid little hobbits are taking the ring. Why not give it to a human? Boromir’s plotline shows us why, but it doesn’t give us the whole story. Or why don’t the hobbits just ride a flying eagle to Mount Doom (1)? Or why don’t they use a massive catapult to launch the ring into the fires? Or why don’t the humans just get a massive army together and crush Sauron’s empire and not even bother with the ring at all?

We only see the answer at Gollum’s climax. The ring can only be destroyed by a pure-hearted ideology. You can’t crush the ring, you can’t smash it with brute force. Tolkien wants us to know that the answer is not to fight and wage war and flaunt power. His answer is to go back to the roots and be simple-minded, loving people who enjoy life. To destroy the ring, you have to seek peace, not war.

Do you see how much context we can get from a little imp-thing biting off someone’s finger? How that one small action can reveal so many why layers underneath? If you showed LotR‘s climax to a completely new viewer, it would make absolutely no sense. But if you’ve followed Frodo’s and Sam’s journey through the whole ordeal, everything comes together. The joy comes from tumbling the scenario around in your head, letting all the pieces show what the story’s really all about.

This is what why layers are for: they contextualize the little moments. A story becomes great when it presents a scenario that makes no sense in isolation, but through the why layers we see the context and understand why it happened, and that it couldn’t have happened any other way. That’s how stories get people to think, and analyze, and learn.

Climaxes aren’t the only way to do this. All the little moments leading up to a story can have context. When Cobb spins his top in Inception, it has meaning. We don’t understand the meaning at first, but through the rest of the movie, the top becomes so significant that it becomes the ending shot. Or when the Joker talks about his scars in The Dark Knight, we know that he’s talking about more than events: he’s telling us about his personality and why he’s such a crazy guy.

A character’s idiosyncrasies are actually a great way to tell us more about that character and why they do the things they do. In Burning Tides: The Reckoning, we see that the character Twisted Fate is scared of water. He doesn’t outright tell us that he’s scared of water, but we see it in the small things he does: he comments about how he needs new clothes to replace the sea’s stink, and we also see how he opts to choose paths around water whenever available. So why does he hate water so much? Well, there’s an answer for that too, and it turns out that the answer plays a pretty big part in the story’s climax. But just the fact that we can think “oh, Twisted Fate hates water” is a small satisfaction in and of itself. It makes us think that we’ve grown to understand the character a little better.

It’s a magical moment when you understand a character so well that you can predict what they’re going to do. When it happens, it feels like there’s an actual bond, that you have a connection with the character, that you know how they think. That feeling is one of the reasons why we make friends at all: because we crave those little moments when we think we understand each other.

Why does the doll in Sebastian’s Voodoo stab his hand first? Because it’s wrestling with two conflicting problems: it wants to save its friend, but it also doesn’t want to die. The doll could have just stabbed itself through the heart from the very beginning, but it was scared. It wanted to see if there was a way to get the best of both worlds, to save its friend and still live at the same time. All of the tension in this short animation comes from the duality between those two problems, and the slow eventual realization that a sacrifice must be made.

Why does Ekko restore the mural in Seconds? Because it means a lot to him. We don’t know what it means, but we do know that it’s very, very important. The whole animation sets up his time machine’s mechanics very well, so we can see that it’s going to be extremely painful for him to restore the mural. But he still does it. That small realization generates so much curiosity. Just what is so special about the mural?

Why does Gordon Ramsay start every single dish with olive oil? Because he loves olive oil. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of his Youtube cooking videos without olive oil in it. It’s kind of surreal. He uses it in everything. He would use olive oil if he was making cereal. Maybe the reason why he’s such a popular entertainer is because he makes it really easy to understand how he thinks. When you watch his videos, you get that connection quickly. Many people say that they like him because of how honest and down-to-earth he seems, which is another way of saying that he’s easy to understand.

All of these tiny, almost inconsequential details come together to show us more about these characters. The why layers are buried underneath the story, but when we get those little glimpses into why people do the things they do, it feels really good.

Character Tropes

Through this whole discussion, we can start to see the reasoning behind using character tropes in a story. You have the hard-to-get girl, you have the good cop and the bad cop, you have the cackling villain. Tropes are everywhere, and the reason why people use character tropes is because they are a quick and easy shortcut to why layer contextualization. It’s hard to write a person who’s so nuanced that you can understand them. But it’s not hard at all to understand a trope. Everything’s already there. There’s nothing left for you to figure out.

Why does this guy want to see if Kazaoka-kun can solve the human clone mystery quicker than he can? Because he’s a proud arrogant character trope. You already know that he exists for no other purpose than to be a jerk to the main character. There are no deeper reasons behind his actions. He just automatically falls under the antagonist trope for the sake of pushing the story along.

Why does Chitoge always beat up Ichijou in Nisekoi? Because she’s a tsundere trope. She likes him but she doesn’t want him to know so she acts like she hates him. We’ve all seen it before. Chitoge is practically a color-by-numbers tsundere character, so when her actions and intentions don’t align, we instantly know why.

Why is Gordon Ramsay so mean? Because he’s an angry chef character trope. Word is that the American version of his show uses editing to make him seem angry all the time, in order to make the show more interesting and exciting. And it’s definitely easy to understand. When you watch US Kitchen Nightmares, you know that everything Ramsay does, he does it because he’s mad and that’s it. Maybe those other chefs should have used more olive oil.

When you’re viewing a story and you see the shy quiet girl, or the aggressive angry coworker, or the overzealous religious fanatic, you already know what’s going to happen. The why layers are already laid out for you. There’s an instant connection because the reader has seen it so many times before. It fulfills the purpose of why layers.

But the problem is that it just ends there. That’s it. There’s no deeper meaning, there’s no life lesson, there are no morals to learn. The story has nothing else to say. Now, you have a story filled with character tropes, but those characters may as well be mindlessly thrown together. Their interactions aren’t shedding any new truths about the human condition.

To put it in other words, a trope-based story is simple but shallow. You can throw one together quickly and without too much effort, but the resulting story will not have a particularly significant meaning. On the other hand, developing the why layers from the ground up is really hard, but you may notice that most masterpieces are written that way.

If you’re writing original characters with self-directed motivations and deep-seated why layers and they just happen to end up falling into a trope or two, that’s fine. A trope by itself is not automatically bad for being a trope. They are only bad when you build directly off of tropes as a shortcut, rather than starting from scratch.

Conclusion

In narratology, a common exercise is to figure out if the following sentence is a story:

“The king died, and then the queen died.”

The common answer is that no, it’s not a story, but it can become a story if you add a little bit extra:

“The king died, and then the queen died of grief.”

The point of the exercise is to enforce the power of causality. If the queen dies for no reason, then it’s not a story, it’s just a pair of unrelated events. It could be a coincidence for all you know. But if the queen dies because the king died, suddenly there’s a cause and an effect. One thing happened because of the other. We can make a link between the two. A why layer has been fulfilled. Why did the queen die? It’s because the king died and she was sad.

But here, after everything I’ve said in this essay, I want to present a third version.

“The king died, and then the queen committed suicide.”

Same thing. The queen died of grief. But now, the why layer isn’t explicitly exposed. With this version, it’s up to the reader to draw the connection. That act of drawing connections between things is what makes stories enjoyable. Now, it’s just like the bridge joke.

ENDNOTES

(1) Why doesn’t Frodo ride a giant eagle to Mount Doom? Lots of people like to pick at these kinds of plot holes. My personal answer is that if Frodo had taken an eagle, he would have chickened out right at the edge of Mount Doom, put on the ring, jumped off the eagle, and hid in Mordor to keep the ring. The key is that if they rode an eagle, Gollum would not have been there, and we already know what happens if Gollum isn’t there. In fact, this whole topic segways into a discussion about evaluating plot holes… but that’s another topic.

Narrative Design: Why Layers

I had a friend who was obsessed with the movie Taken, starring Liam Neeson as the ex-CIA agent Bryan Mills. It’s a mindless action film about a badass dude whose daughter gets kidnapped and sold to human traffickers, and he kills a bunch of people and eventually saves her. My friend made me watch it with him in theaters twice, and whenever I mentioned going somewhere alone he’d start pestering me about how fat old men were gonna kidnap me and rape me, just like in the movie.

Thankfully, that never actually happened, but I still never liked Taken. Regardless, it’s a good way to demonstrate the concept of why layers (or more specifically, what happens when you don’t use why layers).

Introduction to Why Layers

My theory of why layers is that strong narratives are built off of the number of times you can ask “why” and receive a good answer. Characters, plot events, and settings should have good reasons for happening in order for the story to be an interconnected narrative rather than just a jumble of slightly related montages. If you can explain why something happens, that’s great, but if you can’t, you should either have a reason why you can’t do so, or you have a problem.

So let’s try taking the why layer theory and analyzing Taken. Bryan’s main goal in the movie is to rescue his daughter. Let’s start from there.

  1. Why is Bryan trying to rescue his daughter? Well, obviously because she got kidnapped, and that’s a bad thing. But there are plenty of other people who got kidnapped that Bryan doesn’t save, so why his daughter specifically? Because he has a broken family relationship and wants to show her his love.
  2. Why does Bryan love his daughter? Umm… well, she’s his daughter, and fathers love their daughters, right?

Well, that was a pretty short analysis.

I call a situation like that a “given.” It’s a given that Bryan loves his daughter. Fathers are supposed to love their daughters, right? That’s just the way the world works, so it’s (supposedly) okay to use that as a character’s motivation. And a lot of writers do use givens like that.

The problem is, a given is a stereotype. It’s a stereotype that fathers love their daughters. You might not think that’s as harmful a stereotype as something like “black people are stupid” or “women are physically weak,” but in the end it’s still the same thing. They’re all stereotypes.

As another example, let’s take a look at the movie Inception. In Inception, the protagonist Dominick Cobb accepts a dangerous job: to use his dream technology to infiltrate someone’s brain and incept an idea into their head.

  1. Why does Cobb take on the job? Because his employer, Saito, promised him that if Cobb successfully pulls it off, he’ll be allowed to see his children.
  2. Why does Cobb want to see his children again? Because he loves them? Yes, that’s one part of it, but unlike Taken there’s something beneath the surface. This is a pretty ambiguous question with multiple possible answers (which also makes for a nicer narrative), but I’ll just use my own interpretation. Cobb’s children are a way for him to ground his sense of reality.
  3. Why does Cobb need to ground his sense of reality? So many narratives would have just ended here, but thankfully Inception doesn’t. Because his late wife accused him of still dreaming. As much as he tries not to show how insecure he is about the reality of his world, he still mandates that everyone on his team use a totem. He still warns Ariadne about modeling dream worlds after reality. And he still refuses to construct dreams himself.
  4. Why did his late wife accuse him of still dreaming? Because Cobb incepted the idea that she was still dreaming into her mind. She didn’t see her actions as wrong: rather, she wanted to help Cobb escape from what she thought was his dream. For her, it was kind of a case of tough love: she only wanted Cobb to die because she thought that was best for him.
  5. Why did Cobb incept the idea that she was still dreaming into her mind? Because he reached his breaking point. He couldn’t continue living in the dream with Mal anymore, they had been doing that for decades and he knew it wasn’t real. She was fine staying in her dream world, but Cobb had had enough, and he just couldn’t take it anymore, so he used inception on his wife.
  6. Why did Cobb reach his breaking point? Uh… well, that’s what happens when you spend fifty years doing nothing, right? You break down eventually?

Inception got to six questions, while Taken only had two. But just through this little breakdown, you can probably see why I respect Inception‘s narrative more than I respect Taken‘s.

As we can see, Inception hit a given, just like Taken did. The given in Inception is “if you spend fifty years living in a dream, you get fed up with it.” Which is probably true, I wouldn’t know. I haven’t spent fifty years in a dream. But that’s still a stereotypical assumption about human nature. Not all people in that same situation would have acted the same way Cobb did. Maybe Inception would have been a better movie if there was a clearly defined event that caused Cobb to reach his breaking point.

But can you imagine how bad Inception would have been if it had been like Taken and ended the why layers at question 2? “Oh, Cobb wants to see his children again because he loves them, and he loves them because that’s what fathers do.” If they just left it at that, the whole movie would be pointless. Cobb’s character would have been too shallow for it to have meant anything significant, just like Bryan’s character in Taken.

Why Do Why Layers Matter?

The thing with linear classical narrative is that it’s deterministic. That means that for every possible action, there is exactly one outcome that will result. Rolling a dice is not deterministic: it has six possible outcomes that can occur as a result of one action. However, rolling a perfectly weighted dice would be deterministic, because it’s rigged to only land on one side.

Narratives happen because they’re deterministic. Take Lord of the Rings for example: if Frodo Baggins hadn’t been exactly the type of person he was, Middle Earth probably would’ve been ruled by Sauron. Frodo was motivated to complete his quest because of all the factors in his life. The fact that he was related to the legendary Bilbo Baggins motivated him to live up to Bilbo’s legacy. The fact that he was good friends with Gandalf gave him the moral strength to take action rather than sit at home. The fact that Frodo loved drinking meant that he would get drunk at the Bree inn, where Aragorn would notice him and join their quest.

All of the aspects of Frodo’s personality, lifestyle, and upbringing were pieces that set the story in motion. No one else would have volunteered to go on that kamikaze journey to Mount Doom. If Gandalf came up to me telling me I had to take some fancy little ring to the depths of North Korea, I’d call the cops on him. If Gandalf asked Sam, or Pippin, or Merry, or any hobbit other than Frodo to carry the One Ring, none of them would have done it. The whole story happened precisely because of Frodo Baggins and everything about him.

I believe that what makes narrative powerful is its ability to bring readers into the shoes of another person, who has a different perspective and a different way of thinking than they themselves have. Good stories are about characters doing things that you couldn’t possibly imagine yourself doing, and yet making you see how that character’s actions are completely rational and necessary within that person’s specific context. As humans, we grow by being able to understand each other’s points of view, regardless of (or rather, because of) how different they are from our own.

But in order for a story to actually accomplish that, it needs why layers. If there is no reason behind a character’s actions, it’s worthless. We can’t come to understand that character’s point of view, and we don’t learn anything from the experience. A character whose actions seem arbitrary and random hardly has a point of view of its own, so how is it supposed to enrich viewers with a new perspective? Ariadne from Inception had no clear motivations of her own, so it was never clear why she did the things she did, and the general consensus is that she exists to ask important questions so the audience can understand what’s going on. On the other hand, the Joker from the Batman franchise seems unpredictable and insane and indiscriminate, but you’re inevitably forced to understand the method to his madness through his interactions with the other characters.

Using why layers  is a way of working backwards to accomplish this effect. If you can have a satisfactory answer for why something happens in a story, then you have created a connection between the event and its cause. Successful, engaging stories are all about those connections and the effects they have on the world of the narrative. It’s just that using why layers starts from the event and derives the motivation from that, whereas if you worked the other way around, you would start with the motivation and derive what events happen as a result. Either way helps build the necessary connections in a story, but why layers are more accessible because they allow writers to start from large, grand events and work backwards from there. The parallel technique, because layers, would have to start from an extremely extraordinary personality in order to match the epic scale of stories constructed using why layers instead (on the other hand, that also means that using because layers could potentially be a better way to approach slice-of-life or ensemble cast stories).

Cobb in Inception is a dude who’s prototyping a new military technology with his wife that lets people jump into other’s dreams. Because he’s prototyping this new military technology, he and his wife get stuck in Limbo for 50 years. Because they’re stuck in Limbo for 50 years, Cobb uses inception on his wife to change the situation. Because Cobb used inception on his wife, she believed that everything was a dream. Because she believed that everything was a dream, she committed suicide and blamed it on Cobb so that he would commit suicide as well to escape what she thought was their dream. Because she blamed her suicide on Cobb, he was left with a feeling of insecurity, that maybe she really was right and his world was just a dream. Because Cobb was insecure about his reality, he had to see his kids. Because Cobb had to see his kids, he accepted Saito’s dangerous mission. Exact same story, exact same analysis, but working from the character up rather than the other way around.

Of course, this leads to a few other questions: what about the other people who prototyped the dream jumping technology? Cobb and his wife couldn’t possibly have been the only guinea pigs. Look at the first because layer we analyzed: “Because he’s prototyping this new military technology, he and his wife get stuck in Limbo for 50 years.” That’s not a safe “because” statement to make. Did everyone who prototyped the new military technology get stuck in Limbo for 50 years with their wives? That’s ridiculous and most likely untrue, but it’s the only outcome that the story presents to us. Instead, if they had specified exactly why it happened (coming back to the why layers theory), it would be specific enough to pinpoint Cobb and his wife rather than making a blanket statement. Maybe the technology went all weird when multiple people dived into a dream at the same time, and Cobb was the first person to ever try it. Then they could answer why Cobb was the first person to try it, or why it goes weird when multiple people dive in simultaneously, or any other why question, and the narrative would be improved for it.

That’s also the reason why using givens to answer a why question is bad practice. Since narratives are deterministic, using a given as a character’s motivation only serves to deepen the stereotype. In a story I was working on, a young child neglects his family because he’s a little kid who would rather go out and play with his friends than stay at home with his lame parents. That’s a stereotype, and because the story is deterministic, it effectively says that this the way that all young children behave. If I had gotten more specific about this child’s character, if I had gone down another why layer, I wouldn’t have to resort to a stereotypical given.

Of course, if your goal is to make a broad sweeping statement about humans as a whole, givens can be used to accomplish that. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the titular character does a lot of insane and psychopathic actions because he heard a prophecy and was fervently trying to fulfill the parts of it that benefitted him: a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s nothing in the story that portrays Macbeth as a particularly spiritual new-age type of character who would be especially vulnerable to prophecies, so the deterministic nature of the story essentially says that people go crazy when they know what happens in the future. That was the whole point of Macbeth, and if Macbeth had an actual reason why the prophecy affected him so deeply, it would have implied that prophecies of the future only affect people who are like Macbeth. The story effectively says that prophecies make people go crazy, and that’s a stereotype just like any other, but it’s the stereotype that Shakespeare intentionally wants to say about the world. But if the stereotype in a story is not an intentional piece of the theme, it better have some other reason for being there, because otherwise it’s just bad narrative design.

I’ve been focusing mostly on characters, but this theory extends to plot events and setting as well. An event that happens out of nowhere for no good reason is called a deus ex machina, and it breaks the connections that characters have to the plot. Settings and societies need reasons for why they are the way they are, because they’re still just groups of characters. A lot of science fiction puts effort into the social dynamics of alien races: Seeker by Jack McDevitt has a futuristic alien race that communicates telepathically, and the main character explores how their society works in a portion of the book.

The most important thing a narrative can have is connections. Things in a narrative must be connected to each other in order to create a cohesive, immersive world that lets readers understand a new way of seeing the world. Why layers are simply a way of creating and understanding these connections, thus creating stronger narratives.

Narrative In Video Games

But there’s something I haven’t addressed yet. Every example I’ve used so far was from a film, novel, or play. So… what about video games?

Having a connection between cause and event isn’t a new concept in games, from a mechanical point of view. One of the three prerequisites for flow to happen is that “the task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback,” and a lot of game mechanics actually do try to enforce this. Pulling a gun’s trigger in a FPS doesn’t cause the bullet to shoot out two minutes later, it happens immediately. There’s an established connection between cause and event, which is what why layers are all about, right?

That’s only connections in game mechanics, though. When it comes to narrative… well, games aren’t famous for having the best narratives. But maybe we can still take the why layer theory and break down what exactly the problem with narrative in games is.

A lot of games need framed exposition: that means the playable game is only the middle of the story, while the beginning and the end are handled with cutscenes or other non-interactive mediums. In the original Halo, you play as the Master Chief as he explores a mysterious artificial “planet.” But unless you read the prequel novel The Fall of Reach, you’ll never know why the Master Chief is who he is. The why layers certainly do exist, but there’s a disconnection. Let’s do an analysis.

  1. Why is Master Chief exploring the Ring? Because he crash lands there. This is close to the beginning of the game, and subsequent events during his exploration make up the rest.
  2. Why did the Master Chief crash land on the Ring? Because a bunch of Covenant attacked the Pillar of Autumn, the starship he was riding on. He had to bail as a last resort.
  3. Why did a bunch of Covenant attack them? Because they were close to the Ring, and the Covenant didn’t want those filthy humans to touch it. This is actually the beginning of the game, where you play as the Master Chief trying to fight Covenant on the Pillar of Autumn.
  4. Why were they close to the Ring? Oops, the game’s story ends here: to go any deeper, you need The Fall of Reach.

The problem isn’t with the why layers, because they’re there. But the problem is how the player experiences them. None of these events are within the player’s control, so nothing happens because of the player. Even though the player controls the Master Chief, the literary connection isn’t there because you don’t understand why he does the things he does.

If you can’t connect to Master Chief’s crisis on a personal level, the game becomes impersonal. It becomes something you play because it’s fun and exciting and engaging, which are all very good things, don’t get me wrong. But the games that are able to merge narrative and gameplay together to deliver a unified experience are the games that truly push the medium forward (1).

Contrast that to a video game like The Walking Dead, where everything happens as a result of the things you do. You’ll meet characters who die, characters who hate your guts, characters who die, characters who think you’re their best friend, and characters who die. The most important thing is that everything happens as a result of the things you do. At the end of the game, you’re able to do a why layer analysis of your own game, tracing everything back through the decisions you made and eventually reaching the ultimate question: why did you make those decisions?

It’s kind of unfair for me to use The Walking Dead, because that game is wholly dedicated to narrative. But even in other games, it’s important to keep why layers in mind. In Portal 2, why does GLaDOS hate your guts? Because you killed her in the first Portal. Why did you kill GLaDOS in the first Portal? Because she put you through hours of deadly experiments and tried to burn you in an incinerator and (most importantly) destroyed the Weighted Companion Cube. If you played the first Portal, all of those were things that you actually experienced, so you can’t help but understand GLaDOS’s hatred for you in the second game. The why layers are all in place. Everything has a reason for happening, and that reason is you.

Since video games are interactive, they’re not about introducing you to someone else’s point of view, as linear narrative is. Rather, they’re about allowing you to better understand your own point of view, by putting it into a different context than you’re usually used to. We don’t usually get zombie apocalypses in the real world, or locked up in test chambers with psychopathic robots, but in video games we’re able to understand the kinds of things we would do in such situations, and learn more about ourselves in the process.

That’s why it’s important to keep why layers in mind for all aspects of narrative design. Characters, plot events, settings. Films, books, video games. Action stories, drama stories, comedy stories. The elements of a narrative must be connected to each other before the reader can connect to the narrative. Keeping this philosophy in mind makes for better narratives, and the world could always use more of those.

ENDNOTES

(1) I write more on this subject in my essay “The Underlying Issue With Narratology/Ludology.”