Why Bias Is Everything Else
An overdue recognition of a fundamental story element
Did you know Jurassic Park and Hamlet have something in common? They are both excellent examples of how bias is used to tell a masterful story. Jurassic Park is premised on an almost cartoonish bias: “Dinosaurs are awesome”. Every character is swept away by the wonder of it all only to discover, at various intervals, the unconsidered dangers and the naivete of bringing prehistoric titans to life. Hamlet explores a burdensome bias: “My father was murdered by someone close to me”. The lead character then spends the rest of the story questioning whether or not to act on that bias. These two very different stories fall on either end of a wide spectrum of bias, which can be used in storytelling with great effect.
If you research the fundamental story elements, you will quickly come across “point-of-view” which makes sense at first glance. However, it ignores the essence of storytelling: the human element. As such, “bias” is nowhere to be found. That’s because the fundamental list of story elements was generally established over a hundred years ago. A time when bias was rarely challenged beyond a village or municipal level. Today, we are exposed to diverse, global biases every day. If there was ever a clear point of evidence that the current list of fundamental story elements is outdated, this would be it.
Previously, I argued why context is everything and also deserves to be a fundamental story element. It’s a strong argument given that leveraging context has the potential to influence the course of factual history.
However, with context comes an inseparable companion element in the form of bias, and it is equally powerful. While context is an external construct, (ie dinosaurs are all around) bias is the internal construct of the same situation (ie I want to see the dinosaurs). Thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and logic, are all formed from within. The power of context cannot be complete without also acknowledging the power of bias.
Thus, bias is a fundamental story element that can act as a combination of—or possibly replace—point-of-view, character, and tone. Bias applies a unique perspective on multiple levels. For one, the reader’s bias must be considered to present the story in a way that can validate or alter how they understand the content. Few things are more powerful in storytelling than this.
On another level are, of course, the biases of each character in the story. Their internal thoughts, feelings, and logic… all shaped by contexts encountered before the story, scene, or moment. Narrative tension is another obvious application for bias. For example, if a character has a bias against another, such as Dr. Sattler and Dr. Grant’s bias for scientific process versus John Hammond’s bias for entertainment and bringing joy to others. These biases cause tension and the opportunity to drive the plot forward.
Given the power of bias, it would be a mistake not to acknowledge its destructive aspects in a story that might perpetuate ignorance toward hurtful stereotypes or cultural discrimination. A great deal of time should be set aside to debate the biases used in a story. A perfect example is the Chappelle Show, a collection of fantastically hilarious short stories that may or may not utilize bias in a positive or constructive way. This touches on the powerful role storytellers have in society and history and it is important to give it the respect it deserves.
Storytelling is the art of interplay between various story elements. Context is crucial for setting the stage and shaping the audience's understanding of the story. At the same time, bias is the equally important, internal sibling that influences the reader's perspective and creates narrative tension. By acknowledging and leveraging the power of bias as a fundamental element, stories immediately become more complex and engaging, resonating with the audience on multiple levels. With everything that bias can do to shape a story, it’s hard to deny: if context is everything, bias is everything else.