Stiff Necked

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?


  1. Why? Because those stiff necked yokels are the ones who make a difference, and the ones who make a difference are the ones that history remembers. Fiction is basically like reading a fake history book, we want to read about those that make a difference, or at least that try to.

    1. hmm. Not entirely I buy into this one, Bearcat. Yes, the stiff-necked bastards are the one who end up on frontiers, and sometimes overthrow governments. Sometimes even set up better systems of governance – but by-in-large history is written by the victors as propaganda. Which means the stiff necks do not get emphasized…

      1. I’d think that most people don’t want to be “crushed and melted”, and indeed want to resist the influence of the rest, but find it too hard to keep up their spirits in the face of disapproval. For those who are only marginally bothered by conformity, it’s just too much work to fight against. There aren’t many people who truly want to be compliant little cogs, they just find it easier than the alternative.

  2. One of the things that annoys me about many conformists who claim to be apostles of love and tolerance is that it is very obvious that they merely love and tolerate (or, too often, pretend to love and tolerate) Acceptable Members of Society and hate and cast out Acceptable Targets of Society, as defined by the dominant elements of Society itself, rather than basing their opinions on their own reasoning. And the corollary to this is that, as you pointed out, all it takes is a shift in the opinions of those dominant elements to move individuals or groups from the first category to the second, and that when this happens those conformists will simply change their opinions regarding the members of these groups. And, more than likely, pretend that they always believed whatever opinion is in fashion now.

    I have very little respect for people of that sort, with their readily-readjustable convictions.

    1. This. I often get the feeling talking to the current proponents of many fashionable issues that had they been born in an earlier age they’d have been loyal Hitlerjugend, or burning witches, or Galileo’s treatise on astronomy – or slavishly following whatever happened to be dominant just then. There’s no thought or understanding, or realization that every individual situation and person needs to be judged. It’s just that is the current dictat, and if you dare question the fashion, you are evil. And yes, tomorrow the villain may be yesterday’s hero. Ask Orson Scott Card. He hasn’t changed, but he’s gone from darling to ultimate villain.

    2. Oh, and BTW Jordan – having looked at your site- I pick on a cd (and sometimes just a song) for each book as part of my ‘you are now going to write’ mantra – At the moment it is STORMWATCH 🙂 (It is often Tull – I love his lyrics, and that is one of my favorites, given that I have spent a lot of time where ‘the white sea snaps at the heels of a soft prayer, whispered.’)

  3. Fiction sells the illusion of risk without the negative consequence of actually losing something. It’s like gambling with Monopoly money. Everyone wants to pretend to be Atticus Finch, standing up for they know to be right against the unreasoning mob.

    The problem with that, of course, is that the majority of people are, tautologically, in the majority. So what sells are fantasies in which the readers are given a character who is exactly like themselves, but living in an invented world in which the majority stands for something else. (Sadly, many of these are sold as “Based On A True Story”.)

    This leads to the absurdity of a rampaging mob of pampered children destroying other people’s property while claiming to be an oppressed minority, and the even grater absurdity of news outlets taking those claims at face value.

  4. I am going to be a heretic from heresy, and point out that grinding isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it is the difference between Albert Spangler and Moist von Lipwig. Or between Vimes and the monster he could have been had he not ground himself to fit The Law.

    BTW, is it only me, or is Vetinari grooming Moist von Lipwig to be his successor?

    1. (I probably should not admit that I’ve never read Pratchet.)

      I was thinking that part of what is appealing about the Liaden books/universe (and a number of other science fiction novels) is that there is a social structure where everyone has an understood role. It’s not, perhaps, all that practical but the rules on Liad are essentially family businesses on steroids. (And the other science fiction that comes to mind involves highly controlled ship environments or unforgiving cultures.) What you might do as a hobby is flexible, but your role is set at birth, more or less. You *will* learn the family business, you will be trained as a *vocational* heir to your parent. If you have other desires you might prevail, but there is no expectation that anyone has to decide on the shape of their entire life at the age of 18.

      The stories themselves, though, are about the struggle to conform to expectations, or the escape from expectations, or otherwise working against expectations. Still, the structure itself is never quite portrayed as needing to be destroyed.

      Perhaps it’s a paradox. I know that I’m very much an individualist and value liberty, but I also find myself wanting to write about communities were there is no (or very little) uncertainty, rules are understood and rational and there is a sane structure to find your way through.

      1. Synova, I had the same paradox appear in Novel Two: The Sequel. Most Azdhagi need the stability of the Pack and the Lineages, even when they grouse about what the nobility get away with and mutter about wanting more political representation. I think that’s why I fought the book so much: I wanted reforms and the culture refused. For very good and understandable reasons on their part, I should add, but my libertarian-streak balked at writing their story the way they wanted it.

        I wonder if part of the interest in ordered societies comes from our current disorder. There’s so much uncertainty, and so many over-heated calls to undo the last bastions of tradition and ordered stability, that readers like to see structured societies that work. Just as the class-bound readers of earlier times enjoyed reading about rebellion and change. Sort of a “We’ve got plenty of change, so let’s see what the Liad, or the Dark Jewels system, or Barryar does right and what doesn’t work” sort of thing. *shrug* Or I could be totally off the wall.

        1. Sounds reasonable. The basic fact is that politics and economics are games played on a field whose boundaries are created by technology. Nobody was ever anywhere near our current tech level, so we don’t really know how to run a society at that level – and by the time we’ll figure something out we won’t be at that level anymore anyway.

    2. Erhm – Is the Moist – post grinding, any less of a rogue and trickster? The conclusion that a spiky fellow must also be ‘bad’ is not supported by facts 🙂

      1. He is still a rogue, but he is less “spiky”. Instead of hurting the people around him by his roguishness, he is helping them.

        There is nothing wrong with people who are spiky in ways that don’t hurt others. But the “hurt others” part needs to be ground down in most cases, or at least limited to legitimate hurting (Vimes hurts a lot of people – but they deserve it).

        1. If you read “Raising Steam” (not available in the US yet, but I got it by flying through London the day after it was published), you’ll see Moist is becoming more effective in some ways by becoming a good guy. Not less of a rogue, but a better one.

  5. Could it be that the people who most read books these days are the stiff-necked awkward ones? All the readily ground down lot watch mindless pap on TV

    In the past, it seems to me, there were popular stories that involved the hero(ine) rebelling for a bit before meeting his/her true love and settling down to live happily ever after in (bourgeois) respectability – e.g. Jane Austen and many other 19th century novelists. Indeed, while I greatly enjoy Kipling, a lot of his stories end up with the loner figuring out how to manipulate the system and if you manipulate it you are, effectively, accepting it. See also Dorothy L Sayers and even a bunch of westerns where the ornery cowboy defeats the city slicker crooks, gets his girl and ranch and raises a passle of kids.

    1. Well, tempting though that conclusion is, it doesn’t explain why they always been about stiff necked bastiches – even pre-TV.
      You do make a good point about the rubbing the rough off and attaining respectability but methinks those traits are often seen to remain – so it is society that has had some groves rubbed in it? That’s a myth we’d like to believe.

  6. I think a lot of us fold in our spiky corners to fit in, and only let them out mentally, in a book. Reading or writing.

    But a lot of those who fit in didn’t need a lot of grinding, and they believe their leaders who tell them they are the brave rebels, standing up against, well, something they can misrepresent. They think you’re writing about them . . . if they read at all.

  7. Spiky, unbending characters create friction and conflict, which are interesting to read about (and are the seeds from which plots grow). Characters who obey the rules and get along with everyone are boring. Nobody wants to read (or write) stories about them.

      1. Which leads to the question/challenge, can you write an interesting story about characters who obey the rules. There still needs to be conflict, but it can come from two sources:

        1. Nature, which doesn’t care what the rules are.
        2. Other groups of people, whose rules are different.

        Imagine, for example, a young Saudi woman who is a “good girl” (by Saudi standards) whose father was also an agent for the CIA. Her entire family is gunned down by terrorists, only she survives, and for her safety (and the loyalty of future agents who’ll know their families will be protected to the extent possible) is placed in a small town in the US or a US military base.

  8. I’ve been one of those “stiff necked people” for over 50 years. I take very seriously being a Christian, and it makes for some bad times. Too many abhor any kind of conflict, and will do ANYTHING to prevent it. They’ve been mind washed into thinking that the “boss” is always right. Dare to non-conform and they jump to “pile on.” Like little children, they want to be “protected by daddy.”
    Books showing people actually standing up for what they believe in/is right, is titillating. Fun to read about, but never to do.

    1. Eh. Speaking as the guy who got to play the lead role in acting the Stations of the Cross, in the rain, at the roadside at the entry to our small town for the passers by, I think I can make some small claim to do what I read about, and respected in that. 🙂

      1. I don’t think anyone will mistake you for a conformist, Dave. In fact they may run screaming when you show up.

        I tend to write about what I want to do, instead of doing it. But that’s mainly because space flight just isn’t up it. Yet.

  9. I think the main reason that they do so well is because they appeal to the people who would be stiff-necked, given the right opportunity. The people who, if pushed enough, might just say enough is enough and stand up for that Chinese neighbour. Or at least, like to think they would.

    A lot of people just live their lives, not really liking what the head honcho does, but also not thinking that they have any choice in the matter. So reading about someone who has the guts to stand up against society is a vicarious way to get that feeling.

    IMO, anyway.

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