Letters from the Love Seat: Fiction and Group Decisions

We’re excited to announce that Jennie is now going to be sharing regular posts in our series Letters from the Love Seat.  This is our first installment, enjoy!


By Jennie Goloboy

I recently had to stop reading a Big Fantasy novel because of a scene that took me entirely out of the book. And it probably wasn’t what you think— it was a scene in which a group of heavily-costumed but thinly-characterized people had to make an important strategic choice. (No, I’m not going to tell you which novel it was.) Most of the scene was made up of the hero stating her case. Some people disagreed with her, for no clear reason, except that they didn’t like the hero, partly because the hero had recently punched one of them in the face. Then some people agreed with the hero, because they were her friends, while others of also found her sexually attractive. So the hero won her point, which was a great “triumph” for good.

I was annoyed to the point that I had to blog about it, especially since it illustrates a flaw I see in many manuscripts that are submitted to me: they’re terrible at depicting how group decisions are made, especially in governmental or business settings.  Here are some common mistakes:


1. No hierarchy

Most institutions have some kind of inherent hierarchy. Status may come from outside certification, tenure in the organization, ownership of the organization, election to a position of power, birth into a position of power, the cultivation of respected skills, or what have you, but most groups don’t make decisions purely through public debate within a group of equals, or nothing would ever get done.


2. No discussion structure

Most real-world meetings have a set agenda, and governmental meetings have even more formal procedures to make sure things proceed smoothly. But meetings in sci-fi novels are generally formless– and yet everyone stays on point and decisions are made by the time the meeting concludes. It’s a miracle!


3. No law/precedent

Rarely do the characters appeal to local law to make their case, and when they do, the law is usually depicted as unfair, arbitrary, and yet paradoxically unchangeable. Even law’s informal cousin, precedent, is commonly disrespected. When they do appeal to precedent, it’s very short-term– there is no institutional memory. Even the pickup soccer refreshment committee remembers that for the past three years, no one has bought the turkey dogs, so they should probably switch to tofu pups.


4. The most charismatic person wins

The hero says something witty, and consensus is gained! Charisma, the ability to verbally humiliate one’s enemies, and sexual attractiveness trump precedent, law, experience, and authority. In the real world we have a name for people like this: bullies.


Do we really aspire to a world that operates under the same rules as improvisational theater? GAAAAAAAH.


What has your experience been with this? And of course stayed tuned for Jennie’s next post.