Extraordinary Delusions and The Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay (Part 9)

Mass Phenomenon

Memes in the City

No, Mackay doesn’t use the term meme, but the concept of contagious ideas that self-propagate through a population was as real in the past as it is today. We like to think that our current systems of communication are beyond compare, but the old grapevine of the past was as efficient as any email or IM device is today. Only the scale of the impact has changed.

In Popular Follies of Great Cities, the reader will recognize many themes that occur in today’s world. A phrase that is picked up overnight by half the population only to be lost again just as fast.

Applied to fiction, these ideas can lend depth to your stories but I think that it would be difficult to derive a plot solely from this structure.

Popular Admiration of Thieves

Every age has it’s Robin Hood. We need our rogues just as we need our heroes. Of course, every age thinks their rogues are more roguish than any that have ever come before, but I suppose that’s due to the sanitizing effect of time. A hero like Robin Hood would be nothing like Errol Flynn, though we modern folk tend to consider the man in Lincoln Green to be some sort of knight errant.

Mackay gives a number of examples from the past, some good and some quite nasty, but the theme is repeated over and over again. In modern times, we need only look at the women who throw themselves at convicted killers to see that love of the bad boy reigns supreme always. In fiction, look no further than Romance, but the pattern repeats itself in many genres if you look closely.

Duels and Ordeals

Who doesn’t like to hear tales of revenge or painful trials of the soul (especially when someone dies along the way)? Another great section of the book. Too bad it is tucked way back at the end. From the standpoint of fiction, both revenge and trial are tools to keep the reader engaged. Learning to develop a sense of these dramatic elements is key for any writer who wants to produce bestselling fiction.


The power of the ancient is well-known. Mystical object have always held a sway over the popular mind. Why else would ancient Greek heroes receive gifts from the gods? The myths that surround these relics are interesting to us. I suppose it’s because we could see ourselves in possession of such magical gifts, but there is little doubt that relics can draw a crowd. Just ask Dan Brown.

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