I come from two long lines of stiff-necked bastards, who fitted in to the established order the way Godzilla fits into the Bolshoi Ballet troupe (in a tutu, naturally), which is why my ancestors tended to go (mostly by their own volition) as far as possible from those who might like them to bow and fit in just because they were told to – or they got killed off trying to change that requirement. I suspect you could trace that line and attitude all the way back to a little valley in Africa, long, long ago, when the world was so very young and all. There’s a fair amount of it about, still.
If you put a whole lot of big lumps of hematite in a crucible until it is full… and then pop it the furnace because the boss told you he wants a crucible-full of molten iron, prepare yourself for a thick ear from the furnace-master. Big lumps of iron aren’t particularly bendy, nor do the spiky lumps fit together like a neat 3-D jigsaw without an impossible effort of reconstruction.
Basically if you want to crowd it together, you have to crush the big lumps, and then melt it, to make them nice and flexible and, um, pretty uniform. Of course if you go on crushing and heating too much the whole lot explodes or the crucible breaks.
Which has a lot in common with people in urban environments. The more crowded they get, the less space there is for big lumps who just won’t bend their necks to fit in. If there’s a boss big-lump there you can bet he isn’t living in a 2 X 6 sleeping strip, or using a bed in shifts, because his neck doesn’t bend that far.
Still, for oh… 90%? of humans, the reality is that we’re crushed, melted and poured into little boxes, which are pretty much the same because they have to fit as close as possible into the next little box and there is no space for a lot of awkward sticking-out bits. If you’re an awkward sticky-out bloke that doesn’t crush easily, the only place for you is on the frontiers, or breaking the crucible – that’s why the frontiers are a good safety valve, IMO.
We’re good at deceiving ourselves, and even kid ourselves this is much better than being the irregular spiky lump. After all, self-deception is why fiction sells. Good… but not perfect, because the inverse is true about what popular fiction is: its lead characters are almost inevitably spiky lumps (and on the occasions when they aren’t the book is about them becoming spiky big lumps). Rarely do books about those spiky big lumps becoming ground down and fitting into unique-just-like-everyone-else mold sell well (I can’t think of any that appealed to me anyway. Maybe I am not the best judge.)
Now it would certainly look like some people like fitting in, like taking orders, like not thinking for themselves. Some people, it seems, crush and melt easily (and surprise, they tend to live where having to accept the myriad rules that make closest possible packing work, and nice for the big lumps doing the crushing). Conformity is their middle name. If it’s the accepted mode where they fit to be oh, say racially xenophilic, they will be. And if the big lump on top says tomorrow ‘But we hate the Chinese because they’re bad (and we owe them money)’ they’ll be screaming ‘death to the yellow peril’ at the top of their voices, and be the first to turn on their Chinese neighbor Ah Foong, who was their best friend yesterday.
Except in fiction (well rarely, in real life too. Rarely enough that when it happens it is news) the neighbor will stand up for Ah Foong, will not obey City Hall’s ridiculous no water-tank-without-a-plumber, will make compound bows and not play golf, and will not fit in. In fiction they will either triumph against the crushing or escape it, possibly with Ah Foong’s brave and lovely daughter, for some place where they can be different spiky lumps without being crushed. And despite this being the inverse of what usually happens, we love to read it. We love the stiff-necked who will not bow their heads.
So: why? And what do we do as writers to capitalize on that why?