I Would Never Do That!
I am currently reading the book Summer People by Elin Hilderbrand. She is well-known for her novels, mostly set on Nantucket Island. Beach reads. I bought a collection of 14 of her books from Thirft Books for $50. Such a deal. Plenty of relaxing, upbeat stories, I figured.
I figured wrong. Well, at any rate, Summer People is not a relaxing, fun story, for sure. I haven’t finished it yet, and I’m hoping for some kind of satisfactory ending, but so far, the story is about murder and death and people making incredibly horrendous decisions. As yet another character makes some terrible, life-changing choice, I find myself thinking, ‘I would never do that!’
And I probably wouldn’t. I’ve spent my life making the careful choice, the cautious choice, the what-about-the-consequences choice. Yeah, I’m a big chicken.
I can be sporadically brave in conservative ways. I had four children, on purpose. I post my writing for others to read, and I’m comfortable with doing a presentation to dozens of people I’ve never met before at book clubs and other groups. I spent much time in the Covid ward of a hospital, armored with nothing more than a mask. I swat unconcernedly at bees.
But so much of the time, I’m complete astonished and in awe at the seemingly crazy choices of other people, both fictional and real. People who sky-dive. People who bungee-jump. People who choose to run for high political office. And I wonder, how can they do that, and how can I turn it into fiction fodder?
Because that’s what I love to do. Create characters who are willing to jump through hoops that I would never go near. I’m currently writing a serial novel about people confronting ghosts and other evil entities. Actually choosing to go face-to-face with them, to attack them in their own lair. Believe me, I would never do that. But it sure is fun to write about someone else doing it.
One of the difficulties about writing fiction is you need to create a character that people will root for, but you also need plenty of conflict and challenges. Nobody is going to care about or root for some careful little rule-follower unless they are thrown into a completely foreign situation, fraught with overwhelming consequences. Selfless bravery trumps conservative thoughtfulness every time. There has to be a moment when the quiet guy bursts forth and does the crazy thing, hopefully to save a loved one, a group of friends, or perhaps the world. And the irony is, the person writing and creating that character, is often a person like me – cautious, fearful, a big weenie. It’s a challenge.
Yes, that’s the irony. Quite often, we writerly types tend to be dreamers and observers, more than doers. There are exceptions – Hemingway, Roald Dahl, Virginia Woolf – but many of us are more of the Stephen King/Jane Austen type of writer. Doing our writing closed in a small room, with a small circle of acquaintances and a big imagination. We are fascinated by larger-than-life characters, but we’re pretty normal-to-life people ourselves.
Even as a kid, decades before I began writing, I liked to imagine being someone else. A kid on a farm with lots of animals, a kid in a circus troupe, bareback riding. A kid on a wagon train heading West. I was happy to BE a normal kid in a normal town, but I liked to IMAGINE being something else. I wanted to understand what it was like to live another kind of life, to make different choices. In fiction, whether books or on screen, I want to imagine why the villain does what he/she does. I want to understand their motives, the bad guys as well as the good ones. Give me a three-dimensional villain, every time. Even if it’s a ghost or spirit. Nothing worse than a simple ‘woo-woo’ villain, a la Scooby Do. Don’t just trot out the crazies, make them real.
Well, I feel a bit crazed myself, right now, with these Elin Hilderbrand characters. I see them walking, eyes wide open, into dangerous situations and want to yell at them, “Stop! Watch out! You’re gonna regret this!” But that only shows me, I’ve come to care for these fictional characters. I don’t want them to do regret-filled things. But I don’t know how the story turns out, yet. I don’t know if the wrong moves will add up to the right amount of learning or loving or just plain living.
And that’s the thing. Every time we make a decision, a choice, we are saying yes to something and no to something, and we might not always be clear in our head as to what exactly we’re agreeing to, and what the consequences might be. We might not even be aware we’re making a decision. We might think we’re just going through the motions, or we might think we’re making the only decision we can, which may or may not be true. Sometimes we actually see ourselves, striding along a path that will not end well, yet we keep taking these inexorable steps and tell ourselves Stupid, Stupid, Stupid . . . and we continue to march along that path. We fall in love with the wrong person. Say ‘yes’ to bad ideas. Eat dairy foods late at night. Gahhh.
And honestly, this is a big reason I like writing fiction. I get to choose bad decisions, but I don’t personally deal with the consequences. Hahaha! I get to decide – as much as is possible when a character does become quite real to me – what their decisions are going to be, and what consequences they will suffer. I get to make them be brave in ways I would never be. I know myself. I am most comfortable with an in-control kind of life, I’m not a risk-taker. Can’t help it. But I can admire and create risk-takers and live a sort of extra life that way. Whether in real life or in fiction, I’m always curious about what makes people behave a certain way. I want to understand them. See if there’s any possible place where we could actually connect. Where we could ‘get’ each other, even if we don’t agree.
Except those ‘just dying to run for high political office’ folks. I don’t ‘get’ those people at all. And I can tell you, I for sure would never do that!
By Carolyn Steele Agosta
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