Stoicism and Storytelling
Updated: May 24
Today, I'd like to share with my readers a personal approach of mine in storytelling: being a stoic. Stoicism is a life philosophy made popular by Marcus Aurelius, one of the greatest roman generals and emperors in all of history, that ultimately comes down to the ability to separate logic and emotion in your mind, so you can make virtuous decisions. It's a hard skill to master, but incredibly useful to you as a storyteller when you do. Let's dive in!
A good storyteller should know the difference between empathy and sympathy, and must be able to apply it to the work. Empathy is the emotion that allows you to understand what someone else is feeling and thinking, without necessarily agreeing with them. Sympathy is the emotion that goes one step further: you not only understand the other, you agree with them and stand by their side. In essence, you feel the same.
Empathy & Sympathy
Let's begin with some examples. The first one is from politics. You could understand how someone is in favor of a given policy, 'get' the emotions and the logic behind that standpoint, but still disagree with them. You empathize, can step in their shoes... but you don't agree, so you don't go as far as being in favor of that policy.
In fiction this works much the same way. Looking at Bond villains is always the best way to make that point. The best Bond bad guys are the ones that you understand emotionally. You realize that their personal history has led them to do the things they do. Maybe, in their shoes, you would have done the same. You may not be in agreement with them. They are still the bad guys operating from private islands and hell bend on destroying or conquering the world. But you can see they are fallible human beings, just like yourself. Those are the best Bond nemeses; the ones you can relate to on a human level.
The worst Bond supervillains are those that don't have a clear motivation. They are just bad people because they do some bad stuff. And the viewer is left in the dark why they do those evil things. In script writing this is referred to as 'one-dimensional characters'; the archetypes are not fleshed out well enough to make an emotional connection with you. The difference is so stark that you can actually draw a line in the sand when it comes to the quality of the movies. The best Bond films always have a relatable bad guy. The worst Bond films always have a one-dimensional one.
(Quick story side note! Not every bad guy has to be relatable per sé. Sauron from The Lord of the Rings books, is just pure one dimensional evil. In this case, evil wizard Saruman becomes our emotional conduit. He is overcome by fear and sees no other way out then to fall in line with evil. We may not agree, but we understand. This serves as a contrast to the good wizard Gandalf, he overcomes his fear!)
So, now we've established why we should make an emotional connection in both real world and fictional storytelling, we can ask ourselves how we get there. To do that let's take it step by step, to make it very clear how stoicism works in storytelling.
Becoming the master of your universe
One of the first things you learn as a writer is objectivity. We do not mean objectivity in the sense of philosophical debate or scientific method. What we mean with objectivity in storytelling is the ability to empathize with others and to step away - completely, utterly, unequivocally - from your own feelings. So it's not about facts. It's about being aware of how others might think and feel, without your own emotions blurring the outcome. You are then without judgement.
Again, we take our two real world and fictional examples. In the real world, a journalist must be able to write a story without having their own feelings get in the way. Two sides of the political policy must be shown in a news article or clip. And the opinion of the journalist must be irrelevant because the audience needs information to make up their own mind.
Of course, plenty of journalists don't reach that level of objectivity! But that actually strengthens the point. We view those journalists as bad journalists. In other words, if a journalist doesn't reach a high level of objectivity, we view that journalist as flawed. For obvious reasons (even journalists have emotions...) we have created an exception. In opinion pieces, a journalist can show her or his views. But there is a reason it is called an opinion piece: the hint is in the name. And for an opinion piece to be successful, it still has to carry a decent level of objectivity to have an impact.
This principle works in fiction too. We view a fiction storyteller as flawed when they fail to move beyond one-dimensional characters. And we basically ask the same thing we ask of our journalists: a fiction storyteller must be 'above' the material, and be able to show all aspects of the universe they are creating, including motivations of the bad guys and galls. Famous Hollywood script guru Robert McKee calls this the notion of 'being the master of your own universe': every aspect must be viewed impartially. In essence, you are the God of your own fiction. And only God truly forgives all.
This principle also applies to business storytelling. In this case the 'universe' is now the 'category' or 'business segment' that a company operates in. Every category is governed by a set of rules, laws and practices that is unique. If you want to be number one in such a category, you must figure out how that category works... regardless of your own brands' position in it! Figure out the conventions of your category, and you can maneuver the brand in them, or even choose to break with them if needed. But you can only be truly successful in this if you take a birds eye view, scrape your own emotional bonds with your brand for the time being, and make logical, objective and verifiable decisions. Only then will you be the master of your own category.
Spirituality in war... and in art
The common thread in all storytelling is the ability to separate yourself from your own emotions. You don't cut ties with your feelings. You just learn to recognize them better. At some point you can bring them back in (your opinion piece, your fictional good guy, your brand's vision) but that is always the step after you've objectively viewed the context you are in.
And the principle even works in combat. This is what Marcus Aurelius figured out: the emotional story you tell yourself - I will conquer my enemy! - versus the objective truth - my enemy is in a better position that I am - is what stoicism is all about. And here's the kicker: this ability to separate fact from fiction and emotion from logic, to be a stoic, is in fact, highly spiritual.
Consider The Art of War by Sun Tzu. In those poems the master does only one thing. He constantly objectifies the battle situation. He shows you must always choose the most logical road to victory... to in the end feel victorious. He describes all the possible situations that lead to friction, battle and war, and then shows the objective 'way out' that leads to victory. He even implies that getting dragged into combat can be seen as a weakness. It might mean you hadn't thought the situation through logically. Ouch.
And then consider The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (yes, the title is reversed!). In this book the experienced script writer describes how the storyteller can constantly fall into an emotional trap which he calls Creative Resistance. This resistance is everything that keep us from making our (best) work, such as procrastination, substance abuse, anxiety, love quarrels and writer's block. Once you become aware of your emotions surrounding your art or your stories (such as insecurity, fear of not being recognized, striving for perfection, etc.) you become aware of the feelings that steer us towards destructive behavior that does not serve our art.
How to become emotionally aware
So, we need a way to become emotionally aware. Mindful if you will. I'm going to repeat that: aware or mindful of our emotions. Meaning you are able to recognize which emotions are flowing through you, without immediately acting upon them.
Eastern techniques such as Tai Chi, Yoga, Mindfulness, Qi Gong and Kung Fu are among the best practices to create this awareness and master the stoic art of separating fact from fiction, and feeling from logic. In the West we use breath work, boxing (that teaches us how to be aware of your own aggression) but also psychology and a particular good one called hapto-therapy, to reach the same stoic mastery.
Hopefully you now also understand why storytellers are always spiritual people: we use spirituality as a tool to become more stoic, more objective, more aware of all emotions that are not just our own. And thus we become better storytellers.
It all comes down to (a lack of) ego
The ideal that Marcus Aurelius strove towards was to completely separate his feelings from the objective truth in front of him. Especially in a high stakes, and highly emotional, context of war. This allowed him to see all the moves from his opponents in his mind before they made them. And it allowed him to choose the responses he needed to be successful, without his emotions getting in the way.
Mind you, this didn't mean he wasn't emotional. Far from it. Word from history has it he was the last of The Five Good Emperors, who ruled with both empathy and sympathy. He was just as emotional as you and me and become famous for saying "The happiness of your life depends on your thoughts". So, he didn't shut down his emotions at all. He just shut down his ego.
And I guess that my dear readers, is the best recommendation I can give to you too, if you want to become a successful storyteller. Get rid of that ego already.
Love as always.
And plant trees people. Plant trees.
(This blog was inspired by Sean Connery, the original James Bond. Rest in peace in the high heavens above my friend, you will be missed.)