“You come upon the person the author put there. ...
beside the small running river where a boy is weeping and no one comes...
and you have to watch without saying anything he can hear. …”
Every author is the god of his own little world. No story is the same; each is a cosmos of its own: its own land masses, its own oxygen, its own life forms. No two authors can present the same world, no matter the similarities of setting and theme. The Chicago I write about is the not the Chicago that springs to life beneath the pens of Audrey Niffenegger or Dee Henderson. The Battle of Britain exploding on my pages is not the same as Milena McGraw’s Battle of Britain. Indeed, my Chicago, my Battle of Britain are not the same as the city we find on the shores of Lake Michigan or the battle immortalized in the history books.
What I write, no matter how heavily based in reality, is not reality. It is my world, ordered according to my whims and my paradigms. This is one of the most fantastic paradoxes of the writing life: we strive to present reality, but really we are controlling reality. It’s pretty heady stuff, when you stop and think about it. Historical novelist Stephanie Grace Whitson once commented that one of the reasons she enjoys writing is her “god complex”; she’s in control of the story, the characters, and their destinies.
Last month, we talked about “Catharsis and the Written Word.” The flip side of that catharsis is the control we have over our story worlds. It’s in our power to decide which characters die and which characters live. Will justice be done? Will good triumph over evil? Will truth be martyred to greed and sadism? Will it end happily ever after or in a vale of tears and frustration?
Knowing that “conflict is story,” we shove our characters into the deepest, darkest pits of hell our hyperactive imaginations can dredge up. In my own writing, I’ve forced my main characters to endure explosions, comas, familial rejection, horrific car accidents, slaughtered loved ones, life-threatening diseases, kidnapping, wars, wounds, and rape. And that’s the characters I like.
But it’s also in my power to drag my characters through these tragedies, to make sure they struggle and fight their way to freedom and triumph. I force them into sorrow and pain and unrelenting anguish to make them grow, to force them to become the men and women I need them to be. To defeat the despicable bad guys, to overcome personal problems, to bring even a modicum of justice to their worlds, they have to endure these trials. I know the ending. I know what they have to do fulfill that ending.
Of course, as any author will be more than eager to explain, characters aren’t the docile creatures most readers take them for. Characters have minds of their own and ideas of their own on the best way to achieve their goals. And they don’t often appreciate the crucibles I put them through. Case in point, Chris Redston, hero of my current project Dreamers Come, has proven himself a refractory character practically since the beginning, when I first slapped his name onto the page in bold black print.
He didn’t appreciate my interrupting his ordered, if aimless, life to shove him into an unheard of parallel world, mirrored to ours only in dreams. He didn’t like the idea of having his life snatched away from him, his destiny arranged for him by some outside force. But what he can’t see is the faraway ending. For him, too many battles, too many split-second decisions, too many mistakes fog the path to that ending. He doesn’t know what I have in mind for him. He doesn't know that I created him for a special purpose, that I shoved him into unthinkable trials to mold him for a special end. He can’t see that; but I can. He keeps fighting me, insisting he has better plans for his life. And I keep poking and prodding him, urging him in the right direction, knowing if he can just follow my lead, he will reach the other side of that fog having learned and grown beyond anything he could have imagined.
I can’t help seeing the parallels between a writer mapping out the destinies of his little world and God organizing the much grander cosmos. If we think bringing order to one little story is tough, if we think spanking a handful of frustrating characters into shape is agonizing, we are experiencing only a taste of the Divine patience that organizes the universe. It’s an interesting exercise to look at our stories and recognize that God wants to direct our lives in the same way we want to direct our characters. Like our characters, we can’t see that He created us for a special purpose, that He shoved us into unthinkable trials to mold us for a special end. We can’t see that; but He can.
Marie Howe sums up her thought-provoking poem “Why the Novel is Necessary but Sometimes Hard to Read” with the following challenge:
“This is the life you have written, the novel tells us. What happens next?”