Wednesday, June 25

Pwyll, Part I: A Reduction of the Peter Principle and Fictional Leadership

Part of the fun of setting up this posit and axiom system is that I get to give the reader the option of writing a response, while at the same time pondering the depth and direction of my own response. It's all fun and games 'til someone pokes her eye out, of course. The difference between real leadership and fictional leadership is that the consequences of success or failure are not as controlled as we writers like to think.

In the real world, poor leadership can be “spun” as innovative, optimistic, or simply the underdog in an epic conspiracy. When this is attempted in fiction, readers tend to notice. Readers think differently about fictional leadership than they do about “real world” issues, for whatever reason. We demand more sense and order in fiction than we do in truth.

But the question asked was what qualifications do you, as a writer, seek in your fictional leaders?

Pwyll is presented as an adult in this story. Young, perhaps, but not inexperienced. We do not read about his childhood or his education, that we could glean training techniques for future would-be leaders. Think about this, though: he cannot have sprung from the ground, fully formed. Prior to demonstrating his potential for leadership, he had to have both learned how to lead and demonstrated his skills to people who wished to be led. (Celtic lordship wasn't passed from father to son—a candidate had to prove himself.)

Young writers, if your kings, lords, chieftains, etc. are not demonstrating leadership skills, you have a problem. You need to make genuine leaders out of your heirs, rebels, upstarts, and politicians. Simply giving them a title and writing in underlings who say “Yes, sir” or “As you command, ma'am” will not grant them any authority. And this does, indeed, weaken the believability of your story.

One does not have to study international politics to write a king, nor does one have to master the twelve steps of Tae Kwon Leap to conquer the hearts and minds of a people (see below). As a writer, you can base your leaders' training and understanding on your own experiences. Most of us do. (Which may be why some “leaders” you meet in fiction don't reveal their plans, assign responsibilities or boundaries, or take responsibility for their actions.) Learn to use what you know for good.

For example, as a child I participated in a leadership training program (similar to Girl Scouts, but more purpose-driven). I didn't realize that's what it was. I just wanted to spend time with friends, working on projects together, and derived a lot of pleasure out of meeting goals that were age-appropriate. But the brilliance of this program was that the girls learned (a) interesting, relevant information, (b) how to teach this information to a peer, (c) practical application of this information in personal philosophy, and (d) how to both serve and lead in this application. Each step of instruction lead to the next, and each new goal built upon what we'd already learned. All of which meant we had a small tribe of organized middle school mafia bosses running rampant in our church.

I know, I know. Duck and cover.

But this prepared me to see leadership as an ongoing training exercise, rather than a horrible and incomprehensible weight dumped on unsuspecting heads of state. Stephen R. Lawhead's Song of Albion trilogy (upon which I wax poetic regularly) includes Lawhead's—as well as Lewis' and Tegid's—understanding of druidic education, also mirrors this leader-in-training concept. I don't claim any sort of expertise in pagan Celtic faith, but this is a rough outline of Lawhead's take on the religious caste system of his Otherworld:
  • Mabinogi—students who undertake to learn first a lot of oral rote memorization and second the stories included in The Mabinogion. They often do grunt work within the training regimen, though their instructors keep an eye out for students open to spiritual intuition.
  • Filidh—kind of like TAs, in that they help with memorization for younger students, but they also serve the upper ranks. When sent into the community on their own, they serve as storytellers.
  • Brehon—educated civil servants, these might officiate a wedding or build a bridge. They travel with more freedom and responsibility, using their knowledge to help many different walks of life.
  • Gwyddon—counselors and advisers, they combine their education and people skills to shape leadership and direct goals of a clan or tribe. They wander far less than their juniors, and there can be a spiritual element to their service.
  • Derwydd—kingmakers and priests, the soul of the culture is their primary concern. Wherever they teach, be their audience one or a hundred, a farmer or a warrior, they challenge people to think deeply.
  • Penderwyddi—the buck stops here. These men administer all aspects of this system, serving as leaders of an entire hierarchy of wheels within wheels.
  • Phantarch—one seer, or prophet, who has successfully served in all these aspects and is trusted by his peers to pursue and protect the spiritual collective of their people.

Regardless of what kind of leadership or authority structure you use, young writer, you need to have one. You might not be familiar or comfortable with leadership. That's OK. Most of us aren't. You can write about families, or mountain men, or orphaned boys with their father's light-saber, but at some point there will be an authority figure in your story. It might be a parent. It might be a judge. It might be your character, becoming the unlikeliest king. But think about how this leader came to carry his/her responsibilities.

We all come from somewhere, after all. This generally informs where we will go in our futures, though it doesn't have to. As we will see later in the other chapters of Pwyll's life, he sometimes stands on his own and sometimes leans on the wisdom of others.

But that's a story for another day...

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