Being a writer is like being a photographer. We can provide a snapshot of a life, a moment, one perspective — but however long or short that moment lasts, there will always be other stories left untold, whispering at the edges, like the blurred out faces of tourists in the background of your holiday snaps. You look at the photograph and you wonder what happened next to the people inside, what roads they took after the story stopped. Where are they now?
I recently finished reading The Postmistress by Sarah Blake, easily one of the best books I’ve read in quite a while. Near the end, one of the characters recounts the tale of Theseus, the Greek hero who sails off to war, promising his father that should he return alive, his boat will have white sails.
For years, the father climbs up to the mountain cliff and scans the horizon, desperate for a hint of movement, the return of his son. Every day he walks up there, and sees nothing but the taunting white froth of the sea. And then, one day, sails on the horizon. Sails, after so long. But the sails are black and the father jumps off the cliffs to his death while Theseus is returning home victorious, his promise forgotten.
It would have been so easy to fix that mistake and create a happily ever after. But without the mistake, the story wouldn’t have mattered, wouldn’t have endured. The mistake makes the story, is the story. It is why in the photograph, the author focused in on Theseus as opposed to anyone else in the frame.
Out of the countless stories out there, it is the ones with the most mistakes in them that stick with me longer, both as a reader and a writer. That is how I pick which photographs to take, which photographs to share. But then I can’t help but look at all the untold mistakes blurred in the background, and want to bring them into focus too, hear their voices, find a way out of the mess.
I always pictured writing as a way of making sense of things, a way of setting things right. You push your characters through every imaginable hell but somehow, somehow, things make sense at the end, the mistakes unravel into orderly lines. And they lived happily ever after. But now I’m wondering whether I’m not fixing or tidying, I am simply following a mistake for as far as it lets me.
That’s a nice way to look at it. Very interesting analysis.
Thanks. I was worried I’d just gone on a long ramble as per usual.
I agree with the concept, but I don’t always let the protagonist make it through okay in the end. I do it sometimes, but I think to be more relistic, sometimes you have to let characters be wounded, maimed, or even killed.
I know it seems terribly callous, and it defies reader expectations for what a good story should be. But it also removes their conformable assurance that everything will work out in the end for every one of the stories I write. It adds tension to every cliffhanger that might otherwise cause the reader to roll their eyes for being cliché.
I agree – I like making things not end nicely for the main character. But when I do that, in my head it makes sense why it ended badly, so I still thought that I was in some way organizing things. Making the plot tangles neater. If that makes sense…?
Yeah, I get that. Even if the story ends on a low note, it should still feel “right” for the story.
I, personally, have come to the conclusion that if the reader is not given resaons to resent/hate the protagonist as well as identify with them, then something is wrong. And manipulating the story for a a “happy ending” is very unwise, in my view, and can prevent the writer from reaching the best ending possible. Also, from what I have seen, just because everything does not end perfectly in favor for the protagonist, does not mean that the ending is not “happy.” Actually, the best endings are ambiguous and leave enough plot details open so that audience can make up their own resolution.
Personally, I strive to make my protagonists as disgusting and resentable as I can so the reader will be willing to identify with other characters *gasp!*. I want my characters to be as lovely, ugly, serene, chaotic, agreeable, argumentative, honest, secretive, dishonest as people truly are.
I rather liked the focus of this post. The Theseus legend part was something I had not known before now.
I’m glad you liked the post. It was a subject that had been bugging me for a while and I knew I needed to ramble about.
I understand your point about reader ambivalence towards protagonists… I too have felt that way about many books I have read!
It just makes life so much more….intersting.
You are actually a cruel person: admit it!
When it comes to my writing…
I AM LUCIFER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Hrmm… Mistakes, ugly protagonists, worst possible outcomes, best fit for the story, and mistakes that aren’t errors.
It seems to me the discussion portion of this post got off track from the original point. Which is, following a perceived mistake may allow you to find out what your subconscious knew all along, it wasn’t a mistake, it was actually the story you wanted to tell from the start but could not, or would not, allow yourself to.
Making your protagonist a horrible person does not make them more identifiable. Ending a story with “and all the people died” doesn’t make it edgy or more real. No more than “they lived happily ever after” does. Most of us don’t want our characters (protagonist or antagonist) overly real. We read fiction because its escapism and fantasy entertainment. If we want to observe real jerks doing crappy things we can turn on the news. No, we want our characters just a little bit bigger than life, more moral fiber than most people have, more passionate, or sinister to the point of insanity while clearly making lucid choices. We want to root for our protagonist and despise the antagonist. We want to do it while understanding where the villain is coming from and why the protagonist struggles to achieve a goal. A story is about being swept along for an adventure and at the end feeling satisfied you stayed for the conclusion. That may be happy, sad, or a little of both.
What the original post told me was this; don’t be afraid to let the story be what it needs to be. If you draw boxes around “how to build a character” or “how to end a story badly for the hero” you will cramp your own creative style. We all do this in one form or another. So when we see mistakes, embrace them. It just might be that your ‘mistake’ is the best that could have possibly happened to your story because it is breaking your own molds.
Jaid ~ Is not an author, but does love to ‘arm chair’ edit.
I do have a habit to ramble off track :-)
I guess what I was trying to say with this post is that for a story to work, things have to go wrong. It’s when things go wrong that you find yourself caught up in the story, caring about what happens….
I’ve read stories before where authors give their protagonist an obstacle, but then seem almost frightened of hurting their character; 5 pages later, a solution is found in deus ex machina style.
I am not saying that all stories should have sad endings or horrible characters, but that authors shouldn’t be afraid of making bad things happen.
So yes, your words sum up my thoughts exactly: “Don’t be afraid to let the story be what it needs to be.”