October 20, 2016

A Win-Lose Situation

            Okay, believe it or not, I’m actually somewhat ahead on ranty blog posts right now.  Three weeks ahead.  But I want to put it out there again that suggestions and requests are always welcome.  Or just general comments. 
            Without them I’ll just keep blabbing away about whatever comes to mind.
            For example…
             A few weeks back I blabbed on about art, especially the tendency in art stories to make characters as miserable as possible.  That idea bounced around in my head for a while.  The other day it hit another idea, and once they were next to each other I knew how to explain this.

            When we’re starting out as people, and as writers, we tend to look at things in very black and white terms.  Something is positive, or it’s negative.  Good or bad.  That’s it.  The idea of something being mostly good, despite having some bad in it, doesn’t tend to cross the mind as a first choice.  Or that a villain could be anything less than 100% evil.  White hats and black capes, right?

            I can be honest.  I used to do this a lot.  I think most writers do. It’s an experience thing.  None of us ever think we’re doing it—we’re all wise and worldly, after all—but the truth is it’s just a stage the majority of us go through as we’re learning to tell stories.
            If I had to make a guess, I think this is why a lot of these artistic stories tend to be so negative, especially the ones by beginning writers.  The only visible choices are all positive or all negative, and if they were all positive there’d be nothing for anyone to talk about. Soooo…
            The characters in these stories just have awful, pathetic lives.  They have bad jobs for low pay where they’re unappreciated and have horrible bosses.  They hang out with boring friends and have bad relationships and unenthusiastic, unfulfilling sex with barely-adequate partners.
            Sound familiar?
            While this can work on a very simple level, it’s just not a great representation of the real world.  Yes, the world is a messy place, full of compromises and mistakes and a lot of people trying to do the best they can, usually under less than ideal circumstances.  Bad things do happen to good people far too often, and some folks just never seem to get a break.
            There can be a lot of bad, yeah, but there’s also a lot of good.  Friends and family who help out.  Random sympathetic strangers.  Even just sheer luck. Sometimes—maybe just once or twice in our lives—we stumbled across just what we need at the exact moment we need it.
            The simple truth is, life is a mix.  It’s very rarely all good or all bad.  And that holds in fiction, too.  A good story is rarely going to be all of one or the other.  My characters need to succeed (we don’t want to be following losers), but success doesn’t always mean getting the sexy love interest, finding the treasure, or triumphantly winning the battle without physical or mental scars.
            Great example—we’ve all heard the story about the day Oprah gave everyone in her audience a luxury car, right?  Fantastic!  Nothing but positive there, right?
            In the weeks to come, many of these people were begging her to take the cars back.  Seriously.  Did you know you have to pay taxes on big prizes like that?  What do you think the tax is on a $60,000 luxury car?  And do you want to guess at the minimum insurance payments?  The attempt to make all these lives better actually made many of them worse.
            You’ve probably heard similar stories about lottery winners.  At first they’re thrilled to win all that money—who wouldn’t be?  But then you hear stories about how people start to look at them differently and act differently. They’re no longer Yakko from work—they’re Yakko the multi-millionaire. And every time they don’t pick up the tab or don’t chip in or don’t offer to help, the looks change a little more.  Seriously, check it out—a huge number of lottery winners say it ruined their lives.
         Remember that classic story “The Monkey’s Paw,” where no matter what you wish for there’s always a negative twist to it?  Ursula K. LeGuin did the same thing in The Lathe of Heaven, about a man whose dreams shape reality.  And if you’re a Doctor Who fan, you may remember the Game of Rassilon, where those who win shall lose, and those who lose shall win.
            Alas, even with all these examples, it’s not always easy to see this.  Definitely not easy to write it.  Multi-layered success is a challenging thing, and—as I mentioned above—it takes a degree of experienceto pull it off.
            Simple experiment. Take your favorite book or movie.  Odds are it’s got a happy ending, right?  At least a mildly-positive one?
            Now—find the bad things.  What did it cost the protagonist to get to that happy ending?  Ruined relationships?  Compromised morals?  Lost job?  Property damage?  Bodily damage?  Maybe even a death or three?  I’m willing to bet there was a price.  Probably even a big one.
            Winning rarely comes without some losses.  Losing isn’t always the end of the world.  And my stories should reflect this.
            Next time… it’s Halloween.  Time to sit around the campfire and tell… well, some kind of scary story.  We’ll figure out what.
            Until then, go write.

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