Friday, September 19, 2014
Keeping it real enough
I was reading an article about a Libertarian social experiment down in Chile. They'd attempted to create an ideal community based on Ayn Rand's objectivist utopia Galt's Gulch. (Which they cleverly named Galt's Gulch.) For those unfamiliar with Rand's philosophy, rational selfishness is the highest good; only people who choose to be victims are preyed upon; ideal personal relationships are based on capitalism – that is, true love is a function of how mutually advantageous the union is; anything a person can do he or she has the right to do; and no laws are necessary because the right thing to do will always be self-evident. In Rand's worldview only the lazy and unworthy need laws to compensate for their inability to reason – same for public education, social services, public health, you name it. She believed in euthanasia of the handicapped. In her novel Atlas Shrugged an objectivist visionary named John Galt leads what we would today in the US would call the one percent – all of whom are weary of carrying the vast unworthy majority of humanity on their shoulders – into an isolated retreat, Galt's Gulch, and the world, helpless without them, sinks into anarchy. Unfortunately for the self-styled members of the world's elite who'd sunk their fortunes into the Chilean Galt's Gulch, the noble Libertarian experiment collapsed in a cloud of accusations and lawsuits, leaving many of them financially ruined. Which reminded me of the axiom – attributed in various forms to many writers over the years – that life doesn't make sense, but fiction must. We've all heard that. We all incorporate it into our writing. Chekhov's gun – if there's a gun over the mantel in the first act, it must be fired by the third – is a variation. Whether it's a mystery or a romance or a young adult adventure we carefully craft plausible causes for every event. Coincidences may happen in real life, but never in our novels (unless attributed to magical or spiritual influences that we clearly establish – sometimes after the event). Cause and effect must be delineated in the story's narrative for the same reason elements of a portrait must be balanced, the notes in a piece of music must support and build on each other, and all four legs of a chair must be the same length. It's necessary for the comfort of our audience, a prerequisite of their acceptance and – hopefully – enjoyment. Gault's Gulch flourished in Ayn Rand's novel because that was the inevitable evolution of the narrative a logical outgrowth of the underlying philosophy. (Dare we say "theme"?) Grant's Gulch imploded in Chile, even though it was the same logical outgrowth of the same philosophy, because there was no narrative. One was a work of fiction, the other was the work of a group of people who mistakenly believed they could apply the rules of fiction to real life. On the other hand, we've all read novels and stories in which things are wrapped up too neatly; in which every detail serves a purpose and no question is left unanswered. This seemlessness can be as unsatisfying as the causeless event and the neglected loose end. One storytellers technique to avoid this effect is to slip a coincidence into the background, to give texture to the world through which your characters move with snatches of conversation heard out of context or actions they observe in passing. And don't be afraid to leave an unresolved question or two – show the characters aware that there are things they don't know, or that there are things they will need to address moving forward. A satisfying story, a story that does its job, plays fair with the reader, solidly maintains its internal integrity, and has just enough fray and stretch to feel comfortably real.