Home > Lessons > Dragon-slaying and Ballroom Dancing

Dragon-slaying and Ballroom Dancing

Today, I came across this article (PDF). It’s a game theory research paper discussing the circumstances under which an individual will provide a public good. In other words, it examines the math of when one person will, having had enough of a dragon killing people, rise up and attempt to slay said dragon.

The math isn’t, for me and what I do, all that interesting, but the conclusions we can infer from the math point me in the direction of things I do care about. For instance, the people who have the most to gain from a public good (e.g., a slain dragon) are also the people who are least able to provide the public good. This makes sense. Poor farmers cannot slay a dragon as easily as adventurers, who could also just walk away from the poor hypothetical village.

The math also indicates the pressure to provide the public good increases over time. This pressure is weighed against the cost of providing it until someone decides he can no longer wait. This is the inflection point of adventurers. Math tell us adventurers are people who have low costs for dragon-slaying and the highest valuation of the lives of those they save.

Heroes, even reluctant heroes, are playing a game of chicken- they wait for someone else with a lower cost to step forward. In a narrative, that is unlikely to ever be the case. It is my job to demonstrate to the character, and the reader, what that cost is and how much the character values life. All heroes will wait until the cost of waiting is unbearable. The key to interesting heroes is to make that pain point fairly high. We don’t want to read about heroes for whom the cost of dragon-slaying is minimal. We want to read about heroes whose cost is almost everything. And it follows, if their cost is almost everything, they will wait a long time to see if anyone else steps forward first.

No one else will, though. Because I, as the author, have chosen these characters for action. Whether they like it or not.

Edit: Ballroom dancing, the economists note, is similar to dragon-slaying. The music starts and there is a pregnant pause. Everyone waits for the first couple to step onto the floor. Until one person (or couple) reaches his cost point. Once the public good has been provided, more people step forward to dance as well.

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