I think about writing often – probably more than I should. But stories fascinate me. Why do we create? Why do we want to be entertained? What is it about imagining someone else going through trials – rooting for them, weeping with them, fearing for them – that enraptures every person I know?
Some part of me wonders if the answer lies in the adventure itself. Seeing a character make decisions, and having your own opinions about that choice. Relating on some aspect from the safety of a comfortable couch. But if it’s entirely about the reader, why is second person-style writing so uncommon? If it’s some kind of fulfillment ideal then shouldn’t we want the main character of every novel to have our own names, live our own lives? I don’t think we do. In fact, I think it’s the differences between the characters that makes them shine. Rather than be the hero, we’re friends with them. Along for the journey.
I wonder too about makes a good story. Why do we keep coming back to the hero’s journey? Think back over the last century: what kinds of stories do we love? Star Wars? Lord of the Rings? You get the idea. Now let’s go back. Like, way back. The first stories we know: Moses. Heracles. The Odyssey. Practically every mythos has one. It’s in our nature. We were designed from the beginning to love these kinds of stories. Like the four chords in music theory, we keep coming back to it.
Often when talking with other writers, we inevitably discuss saving the world. Who does it? What’s their secret? Why do they bother? But there’s one question I don’t dare to ask: does it matter to the reader?
First instinct is to say yes, of course it does. If it doesn’t, then the story isn’t crafted well enough. Who doesn’t want the world to be saved? There are no stakes higher than the entire human race.
Or are there? Do we really care about the entire world, or just that one soul? If the character sacrifices himself in the end for the sake of the world, we get it. But what if the price was not themselves, but a child? A friend from elementary school that’s stuck with them throughout their journey? Would Frodo be such a hero if the price for destroying the ring was Sam? Which is the higher cost?
I think it’s our humanity that makes us choose. I’m not sure I like the “saving the world” motif if not for the personal stories that come with it. Of course, there are those ideas that hold the personal stories are out there, even if the reader hasn’t experienced them. That janitor is still struggling between paying for school and paying for food. That kid who spent the last entire week working on a school project who’s eager to present the next day. That woman who has been trying for a child for years and only now through the miracles of modern medicine can carry one. They’re all part of the collective “world” but until we know their stories – experienced them as more than a curious observer – it doesn’t matter.
It’s the characters who break from that idea that fascinate me most. Sherlock Holmes, Spock, Ultron. It’s almost always the inhuman characters that remind us most of our own humanity. They’re brilliant, yet struggling to understand even the most basic things of human nature. Of course saving the world is a better choice, if it’s one life against billions. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
But in a story, we don’t like it. We’re begging the characters to choose the one. To throw everything away to save a friend, or a brother, even at the cost of the world. Sure, we like the fun, inhuman characters. But who would Holmes be without Watson, really? Iron Man without Pepper? Spock without Kirk? Sheldon without Leonard? No one I’d like to spend a dinner with, I’m convinced.
Maybe that’s why I like ensemble pieces. A story where the hero can’t do it alone, remarkable as they are. They talk of avoiding “easy” choices when telling a story, and I agree whole-heartedly. It’s the rest of the cast that guides the characters to the right choice.
Like many things in my life, I connect it to things Biblical. There’s an eager push for Christians to want to save the world, but what is it worth if every soul gets lost along the way? Getting to know – to befriend, to love, to help save – just one soul is worth everything. Build as many orphanages as you want, heal as many sick patients as you like, but it all comes down to that lonely child, that weeping boss. Maybe it’s because the whole saving the world thing has already been done. Now it’s just our job to point it out.
In stories, even two souls seem to be worth less than one. Don’t know why, but it’s an interesting contemplation.