Tag Archives: The Atlantic

Character: Power


The July/August issue of The Atlantic offers a fascinating article by Jerry Useem about how having power actually changes the human brain. The mental abilities that enable someone to rise in society into a powerful position end up disappearing once the person has gained power. The example Useem begins his article with is of former CEO of Wells Fargo John Stumpf’s performance at a congressional hearing last fall — his utter failure to “read the room.” Useem goes on to cite study after study that show how having power damages the parts of the brain that enable humans to relate to other humans and to have empathy.


The lust for power has motivated many a character in fiction. Power fascinates me as well as how we define power. While researching Post Traumatic Stress for Perceval’s Secret, I stumbled onto the Pandora’s box of Power, i.e. external power, or having power and/or control over other people. I learned that the people most likely to seek external power feel powerless but are not self-aware enough to recognize how they are really feeling. All they know is that having power makes them feel better. There is another kind of power: internal power. This is the individual’s self power, i.e. he feels powerful in being himself rather than feeling powerless.  This person will not seek external power over others. He simply doesn’t need it.

So, which individual is the character you’ve created? How does she perceive the world? In a way that signals her sense of powerlessness such as constantly ingratiating herself to another character? How does he respond to people? Is he manipulative? Narcissistic? Focused only on what will benefit him? Or is your character empathetic, genuinely caring of others, and not in need of control or motivated by fear? Having a bloated sense of self-worth, a common symptom of narcissism, can also mask a person’s sense of powerlessness. A character with power issues, especially one who isn’t self-aware, can end up being a villain or a victim, or ironically, both.

When you have a character that feels powerless, it’s important to figure out why that character feels powerless. Whether or not you put that part of his backstory into your story, you, the writer, need to know the reason. His powerlessness will come through in his behavior toward himself as well as other people, through his desires, professional goals, and even in how he dresses and takes care of himself. For example, he may choose a profession in which he exerts power and control over others in some way — corporate CEO, a surgeon, a government bureaucrat, or even a symphony orchestra conductor. My favorite is the co-worker who believes that she’s entitled to be the head of the company and will do anything to get there. Criminals also tend to possess a sense of powerlessness and their criminality gives them a sense of power whether it’s beating the system or taking a life.

Deep-seated fear often goes with a sense of powerlessness, and the desire for power is also a desire to be safe and secure. When the powerless gain the external power that they seek, they are most often likely to abuse that power, also. How all this manifests in human behavior can be unique to the individual and her background, and the same is true for a fictional character.  You don’t have to be a psychologist yourself in order to write a fully dimensional character who behaves in plausible ways. Be open to the possibilities.  Let your character act, speak, and think as he does and be the observer. Respect the character.  Allow the character to be himself. He’ll most likely give you his story if you’re open to all the possibilities.

Power definitely motivates characters in ways unique to each of them. Whether or not your character obtains the power he seeks could be the story your character wants to tell you.  Are you listening?



It Can’t Happen Here?

Recently, I finished reading Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here. This novel has become famous again, as well as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and other novels that depict life under a totalitarian or fascist regime, because of the 2016 American presidential election.  Lewis’ concern was more about HOW  fascism could happen in America, not with life after fascism was established. According to the very good introduction by Michael Meyer (the English professor at the University of Connecticut, not the actor or the movie character) and the afterword by Gary Scharnhorst, the influences on Lewis in 1935 were the National Socialist movement in Germany, and Huey Long in Louisiana.  Long inspired Lewis’ Senator Buzz Windrip, and how the German people chose fascism inspired his American scenario.

When I was developing the America of 2048 for the Perceval novels, I knew I wanted a fascism in America that was established by a new political party that had arisen when factions from the GOP right and the Democrat right came together in support of Corporate America. The new party, the New Economic Party, participated in free democratic American elections which they won because they promised Americans wealth and security. When they won the presidency and a majority in Congress, they closed the borders, suspended the Constitution, and formed a dictatorship with some of the trappings of a democracy like elections and Congress. Like the Soviet Union, especially in the 1970’s and 1980’s. A military coup would not work, nor would a civilian coup. There could be no forcible takeover of the government. It needed to be chosen by the people.

Lewis agreed with me. In It Can’t Happen Here, the American people elect Buzz Windrip despite all the signs that he would become a dictator: a 15-point manifesto promising people money and then abolishing Congress and the Supreme Court, the creation of his own personal army called the Minute Men, and his emphasis on showmanship rather than substance. Windrip himself wasn’t particularly wealthy, but he had a lot of very wealthy friends, and he had plans to steal from the US Treasury and ferret away millions for himself.  It takes Lewis a good third of the book to really get into the story, but once he does, around the point when Windrip wins the presidential election, it really gets interesting. Lewis lays out the steps Windrip and his administration take to make Congress obsolete, disband the Supreme Court, and restructure both the government and the country, creating 8 provinces instead of 50 states. The Minute Men become the thugs that enforce Windrip’s every wish, and anyone who speaks or acts against the government either disappears, is arrested, and/or shot. An Underground resistance arises, led by the Communists in America (I found this REALLY ironic) and by the man who lost the presidential election and fled to Canada.  Americans flee to Canada in droves, becoming refugees. Production and profits become the determinants of life or death.

It astonished me how familiar this all was.  I had not read Lewis’ novel before, but my thinking for what happens in America to produce my America in 2048 was much the same. Lewis shows how easily a fascist dictatorship can be established in America.  Just elect the right guy. And any fascism would be firmly grounded in Capitalism, i.e. the wealthy would have all the power and control, forcing everyone else to work for their benefit and profit. In the Perceval series, I’m concerned with how such a political system affects the people who live under it, psychologically and emotionally. Especially when violence and abuse are accepted and commonplace.

My May 2017 The Atlantic has arrived and with it reader response to David Frum’s article in the March 2017 issue, “How to Build an Autocracy.” Ezra Klein’s response in a Vox article (published as a letter in the magazine) included the argument that Congress has the power to stop any president from getting too powerful. He writes, “Congress is more powerful than the president. It comes first in the Constitution for a reason. The public should demand more of it, and care more who runs it.”  Well, yes. But what if Congress agrees with the president and has no intention of stopping him?  We seem to have this situation now in America.  Congress, and the GOP leaders, don’t seem to have a clue what to do. Klein writes that the 2018 elections when many of those in Congress face election, could be crucial for stopping the current president.  In the meantime, we are probably fortunate that the current president isn’t nearly as smart or savvy as Buzz Windrip in Lewis’ novel, and that he didn’t think to build his own personal army as Windrip did.

President Obama Agrees With Me

Atlantic cover april2016In the April 2016 issue of The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg writes about the interviews and conversations he’s had over the last ten years with President Obama, and his reportage on Obama, in his article, “The Obama Doctrine.”  Goldberg provides glimpses into Obama’s thinking, his reasons for the decisions he’s made in the past seven years and how he views America’s role in the world.  He also writes about Obama’s beliefs about the future of America.  I wasn’t surprised to read how thoughtful and pragmatic Obama is in his approach to his job, and that he’s a realist about some of the world’s hottest spots.  This article really shows just how much Obama has accomplished during his presidency, in spite of dealing with a Congress that would rather say no than take responsibility for anything, including positive change.

Despite terrorism and the issues in the Middle East that threaten to dominate America’s future, Obama believes that the Pacific will play a larger role, including China.  It really thrilled me to read that.  We agree that China will be an important player in the geopolitical situation in the future, which anyone who’s read Perceval’s Secret already would know.  China continues to play an important role in the subsequent novels in Evan’s story.

What is the future?  Where does it come from?  Most writers of the future rely heavily on technology to show the progress of humanity.  But what about the social aspects?  The psychology of humanity?  What is their future?  I’m more interested in the sociological and psychological progress of humanity in the future and what that looks like.  It was a surprise that Obama is interested in those aspects, too.  I agree with him that human behavior, thoughts, and beliefs have a far greater influence on geopolitics and humanity’s progress than technology.

63-Free-Retro-Clipart-Illustration-Of-Man-Carrying-Big-Bag-Of-Money-With-Dollar-SignAmericans’ relationship with money — what they think about it, their emotional attachment to it, and their beliefs that surround it — is right now shaping human behavior in this country.  But America is not the only country in this world that has a relationship with money.  Just take a look at each country that makes up the Middle East, for example.  Or look at China’s economic revolution since the death of Mao.  Money drives a lot of human behavior.  All people want a good life and money can give it to them.  Humans all over the world believe money confers power on those who hold the most.  Those who have the least amount of money have issues with the wealthy.  One of the most interesting sections of Goldberg’s article concerns Obama’s recent trip to the Pacific and people that he met there, contrasted with how people in the Middle East respond to the circumstances of their lives.  In the Pacific, people want to learn, they want to improve their lives, and they work to find ways to do that.  They’re not attacking their neighbors or America.  In contrast, the Middle East has given us terrorism born of deep resentments that certain Middle Eastern countries are trying to export to Asia and the Pacific.

How I see the future in Perceval’s Secret was extrapolated from what I saw happening in the world several years ago.  I did a great deal of research into futurism and futurist thought, and what trends in human behavior form the basis for the future.  The human relationship with money is one trend that I chose to use.  China has invested deeply in American business and government (through Treasury bonds).  What if China decided to cash in all its investments at the same time?  During my research I found only one mention of such a scenario, and the conclusion was economic collapse and disaster for America.  So, I concluded, the American government at the time would do whatever was necessary to preserve the economy and its power.  Very little of this scenario rests on technology.  It’s all about human thought, belief and behavior.  Humans will create their own future reality through what they think and believe.

As I read Goldberg’s article, I found myself thinking about the current election campaign and the candidates vying for Obama’s job.  I wondered how many of the candidates would read Goldberg’s article, understand the vocabulary and its intelligent prose, and comprehend the true dimensions of the job and just how well Obama has done with it.  It scares me to think that years ago I imagined the rise of a candidate much like Donald Trump who wins the election and proceeds to turn America into a dictatorship with the complicity of Congress, closes America’s borders, oppresses the working population and protects the top 2% of the wealthiest Americans.  Sound familiar?

Would You Work in a Moneyless Future?

trekonomics book cover

It seems to have popped again in the Zeitgeist, folks.  Yesterday at the New York Times Opinion Pages blog, Anna North wrote about Trekonomics by Manu Saadia in which he examines the economics of the “Star Trek” universe, i.e. a universe in which there is no need for money because people are no longer focused on the acquisition of wealth.  Instead, they are focused on the achievement of goals.  They don’t need money because they can essentially provide for all their material needs with the help of a replicator — for free.  Achievement will be the measurement of success, not money.

julaug2015 the atlantic cover

Derek Thompson’s “A World Without Work” in the July/August 2015 issue of The Atlantic takes a different approach, one that acknowledges a money and market economy but does not offer any ideas for a post-money or market “economy.”  Thompson focuses his article on the development of robots and how much of the work now done by humans will be done by robots in the future.  How will that affect society?  How will it affect individuals?  Families?  We invest so much of our identities into what we do for a living, self esteem will surely take a hit, as well as how we define who we are.  So, the psychological effects could be profound.

CCY_PercevalsSecretCvr_FNL-960x1280.131107In Perceval’s Secret and the entire Perceval series, the entire world is moving toward a moneyless future.  There is an international organization that has begun work on figuring out how to wean humans off money, because in another 40 years or so it will be obvious how addicted we are to it and to the consumption and power that comes with it.  America in 2048 is the poster child for the money-addicted society with its gross economic inequality.  China is not far behind.  The economic issues between America and China not only threaten the global economy in 2048 — the global economy still functions — but also the movement toward life without money.

As I read Thompson’s Atlantic article, I thought about my work imagining the future for the Perceval series, and especially my thoughts the last 15 years or so about money, how entwined it is in human existence, and what would need to happen in order to extricate ourselves from it.  The first thing I looked at, and what Thompson discusses regarding robots doing human work, is the hamster wheel we are all on in order to survive.  That is, I must find a job for which I am qualified in order to earn the money I need to pay for my basic needs: shelter, food, clothing, transportation, utility bills including phone and internet, and medical expenses, and paying off my debt.  In our current society, the only way to get off that hamster wheel is to become independently wealthy — win the big lottery jackpot, or win the big business jackpot and retire with millions in the bank.  For anyone making a “middle class” income or below, they have little hope of ever jumping off that wheel.

But what if no one needs money to pay for basic needs because they cost nothing?  At the same time, robot development has progressed to the point where robots could replace humans in the workplace.  This would require a great leap in artificial intelligence in order for a robot to take over the duties and responsibilities of a CEO for example, but I see this as a possibility.  If money no longer needs to exist, then what?

000-money-backgrounds2-prwHumans would need to make a great leap forward in their own development, i.e. change attitudes, beliefs and ways of thinking to redefine ourselves and what we believe the purpose of human existence is.  Right now, like it or not, the purpose of human existence is to earn money.  Next, there would be a HUGE disruption/upheaval in the financial and economic sectors — banks and investment companies going out of business, people losing their jobs in all areas of human endeavor (all those billing departments, for example) — and if humans are smart they’ll start preparing for this far in advance of it.  Another area of disruption/upheaval: labor unions, government agencies, employment agencies, and anything else related to labor.

For Perceval’s Secret, a world without money, as much as I wanted to include the transition in the series, became just too big and overwhelming.  It threatened to hijack the story.  So, I had to dial it back far in the background and be content with including some specific details showing that a transition has begun.  I needed to find a way to challenge Evan Quinn’s attitude towards money as well as insure that he’d have enough to live on in his new life.  Being a musician at any time can be financially stressful.

Although a world without money won’t be happening anytime soon, at least the discussion has begun….

(There’s a movement already working toward change: The Zeitgeist Movement.  I’ve written about it before here.  They are dedicated to a “no money” future…..)

What does being an Artist mean in 2015?

a_readers_advice_to_writers-460x307Writing is an art and a craft. Storytelling is a universal human characteristic. The art is often in how the story is told.  The craft is in the mechanics. Wasn’t it Stephen King who famously commented that his stories may not be literary fiction but he worked hard for them to be written and told well.  Literature, of course, falls under The Arts, along with sculpture, painting, drawing, music, dance, theater, and yes, even movies.  There is the art of cooking, the art of macrame, the art of baseball, but none of these are considered to be arts.  Writing, however, is because it’s literature (in the broadest sense), so writers are artists.

What does that mean?  There was a time in human history about 500 years ago

Photo: cnn.com

Glass-blowing artisan Photo: cnn.com

when it meant being a worker bee.  You would have been called an artisan or a craftsman.  Shakespeare, for example, was an actor and a playwright, a writer who fashions plays as a wheelwright fashions wheels.  You would have served as an apprentice under a master artisan to learn the craft and the tradition of your art.  While some masters could be highly esteemed by society and/or the aristocracy, their social station was in the middle or lower middle class, just below the merchants.  In other words, while art was prized and creativity respected, you would not have been thought of that highly.  Only master artisans could claim some measure of fame and maybe a little fortune.

Eventually, people began regarding artists as geniuses.  Why geniuses?  I suspect because they could think of and create things no one else could.  Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, was considered a master and a genius, while he thought of himself as a hard-working artisan.  This notion of genius accompanied a time when patronage was common.  All artists sought the patronage of someone in the aristocracy.  Ludwig van Beethoven, in Vienna, won the patronage of the Kinsky family at one time.  He, clever boy that he was, worked as a piano teacher to the children of the aristocracy making powerful connections in the process.  Despite this, he was never a rich man, but he was considered a genius, even in his time.

Ludwig van Beethoven        Source: Wikipedia

Ludwig van Beethoven Source: Wikipedia

In the 19th century Romantic period, the artist as genius blossomed into the artist as solitary genius who toils in an unheated garret without the money to buy his next meal.  This Romantic notion persisted also throughout the 20th century accompanied by the idea of art being a calling from a divine source.  Good grief.  That certainly raised expectations unreasonably for anyone creating in the arts. But this is the image and idea that we are most familiar with when someone says, “She’s an artist.”  A word about the solitary part of this image: for many artists, solitude is a necessity for them to create.  It no longer remains a requirement, however.

By the end of the 20th century, with technology burgeoning, a major change occurred.  In the past, artists relied on someone else to distribute their art, i.e. publishers for literature and music, galleries for painters and sculptors, etc.  For performing arts like music and dance, there is another layer of distribution, i.e. the performers who bring the music or dance to the general public.  This distribution system is not at all like that of the artisans 500 years ago who hustled for business like any of their fellow craftsmen.  And guess what?  Technology has returned artists to the artisanal way of doing things.

Laptop Computer: a tool of the writer in 2015

Laptop Computer: a tool of the writer in 2015

What does it mean to be an artist in 2015? It means living and creating during a transition period regarding distribution of our art.  For writers, it means becoming also a publisher, marketer, distributor, and publicist.  In other words, we writers are not only writer-artists, but also we are now writer-business people. Or entrepreneurs. I see this strongly in my own life.  What I hope is that writer-artists or any artists for that matter will not fall back to the artisan-craftsman one below merchant class level.  I think that within each of our creative lives we are artisans, craftsmen, geniuses, and artists worthy of patronage.

If you would like to read a rich, literary article on this subject, William Deresiewicz’s “The Death of the Artist and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur” in the January/February 2015 issue of The Atlantic, lays it all out in artistic black and white text.  I know I’ll be thinking about this article for a long time.

At some moment in my life, I heard someone say that living life is an art which makes everyone an artist…..