David Brin writes a long and entertaining post on what he calls our favourite cliché:
The Euro-American fable has always featured an individualistic style. When the public pays for a fantasy experience, riding the shoulder of some bold hero or heroine, each customer wants to identify with a protagonist who is special, unique, or at least interesting in some way that departs from run-of-the-mill, batch-processed humanity. Even when the character seems unremarkable, he or she is marked as singular and fascinating by virtue of being the one whose thoughts and experiences we share.
Sounds reasonable; it’s certainly a common experience in fantasy tales.
While individuals get our empathy and sympathy, institutions seldom do. The “we’re in this together” spirit of films from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s later gave way to a reflex shared by left and right, that villainy is associated with organization. Even when they aren’t portrayed as evil, bureaucrats are stupid and public officials short-sighted. Only the clever bravado of a solitary hero (or at most a small team) will make a difference in resolving the grand crisis at hand.
This rule of contemporary storytelling is so nearly universal that it has escaped much comment – because you never notice propaganda that you already agree with.
David refers to this as ‘The Idiot Plot‘:
Hence the Iron Rule. Society never works. Along with its corollary. Everyone is stupid. By making these twin assumptions, you can prevent your hero from getting any of the help that would dry-up all the drama. You can blithely and easily keep your protagonist in danger until that final satisfying explosion sets the credits rolling.
It’s a long article, but David goes through to examine alternatives to this individualistic hero worship, citing plenty of existing popular and successful examples. It provides good food for thought: it’s always important to shake up the writing industry a little bit and see what falls out. In this case, an appeal to somewhat neglected plot tropes might inspire you in an entirely new direction.
Shall we test my theory? If I’m right, and the dramatic needs of an action plot drive everything, then there should be a simple relationship between the magnitude of the danger and how competent civilization is allowed to be.
Read on to find out the results of that thought experiment here: http://www.locusmag.com/Perspectives/2013/01/david-brin-our-favorite-cliche-a-world-filled-with-idiots-orwhy-films-and-novels-routinely-depict-society-and-its-citizens-as-fools/