Look After Your Mind – Narrative Intelligence Part 1

The idea that intelligence is neither fixed nor a single entity has long been known in the educational world. Many teachers now talk about multiple intelligences, a theory developed by the American psychologist Howard Gardner. So, someone with the evolving ability to understand ideas framed in words is said to possess a degree of linguistic intelligence, while someone who can recognise, understand and manage emotions is emotionally intelligent.

More recently the notion, albeit controversial, of narrative intelligence has emerged; the ability to make sense of the world and solve problems through the basic structure of stories. Below are the basic elements of a story. As well as mapping these on to one of your favourite stories, pick a topic in the news, from politics, from science etc, and see how the framing of it uses the narrative structure.

The hero element is one or more people (or creatures in a fantasy universe) whose function is to go out into the world to resolve a problem created by the villain. Sometimes heroes begin as ordinary people, but as time goes by, display noble human qualities such as bravery, loyalty, compassion and empathy. The most convincing heroes are not completely flawless and good but have faults and weaknesses that help us to identify with them.

The villain is one or more people who, often for selfish and egotistical ends, create problems that need to be fought against. Looking at what’s happening in the world today, the notion of who is villainous shifts according to one’s personal point of view. Defeating the villain creates a happy ending, but in real life this doesn’t always happen.

Both the hero and villain may have one or more significant partners / sidekicks. In fiction these can reveal the main characters’ weaknesses, but also support the protagonist’s or antagonist’s endeavours, and help to enrich the plot.

For the hero, battling the villain usually entails a journey. This may be an actual physical journey but is also a transformative experience. Often such a journey leaves the hero feeling stronger and more self-aware. The element of help for the hero can come in the form of the partner, other characters in the story and, sometimes, happy accidents. The villain may also need help, sometimes gained by coercion or bribery.

The element of knowledge and power reveals itself as a gaining and losing of the advantage between the hero and villain. This adds tension and drama to the narrative and so heightens its emotional impact.
Many stories feature a significant object, but this idea can also be read as ‘objective’. For the villain, the objective is to realise his or her evil ends and for the hero it is to defeat the villain and so, restore balance and harmony to the world – if only for a little while!

Incidentally, if you’re interested in these ideas my latest book explores them much more thoroughly – ‘Understanding the World Through Narrative’, published by Routledge.

Steve Bowkett