Yesterday I had to make a plot decision in the novel I’m working on. This is something that happens frequently…all the time, in fact. Should a character wander off into the woods? Or should she climb the mountain? Should she open the door? Should he knock again? Kick it down? Should he walk away?
Credibility is, of course, an issue. Knowing young Jane, say, as I do, am I convinced is it in her nature to finally get off the couch and enroll in university, or is she more likely to dream about a bigger life, but never get past the television remote control? After spending all this time with Joe, do I believe he would finally walk into that AA meeting and get sober, or is he more likely to say to heck with all those freaks and take a long pull from his bottle of Jack, consequences be damned?
If I’m writing about a devout and mentally stable nun, who suddenly, for no reason at all, picks up a butcher knife and starts hacking away at the statue of Christ, well, readers are going to be puzzled, to say the least. In real life, we may say we never saw it (whatever ‘it’ is) coming, that why so-and-so did such-and-such is a complete mystery, but in fiction, our readers need to see a clue, some hint, a bit of foreshadowing for an action or a plot twist to make sense.
Then again, the paths along which I’ll guide my characters have to do with the themes I’m exploring. If I’m writing a book exploring how people never seem able to transcend their personality defects, then perhaps Jane stays on the couch, and Joe gets bombed. If I’m writing a book about hope and transformation, then perhaps things go differently. Or, perhaps it’s a combination of the two. I might hope my character will get sober, or educate herself, but if the characters I’ve created simply aren’t up to the task, are in fact too crippled by their neuroses and fears, then I either have to go back and create new characters, or I have to write the story as it presents itself, through the characters I’ve created.
That’s where Chekhov’s admonition to writers to properly ask questions, but not to try and answer them comes in. Sometimes when I get to the end of a short story or a novel the conclusions I draw from the events contained therein are not the ones I thought I’d draw when I started writing. That’s quite a magical moment — because, through the act of creating a world and the people who inhabit it, I’ve learned something new. I think sometimes that’s what drives me to continue writing.
I am fascinated by a concept in quantum physics known as the “many-world” or “multiple universes” or “multiverse” theory — in which there are an infinite number of universes, and everything that could possibly happen occurs in some universe. All possible universes exist simultaneously, regardless of what happens in any of them. Of course, I suspect, being a bear of very little brain, I haven’t the foggiest notion of what scientists like Robert Lanza are REALLY talking about, but I do quite like the concept that all the possible paths I might have walked, had I chosen that path over this one, this door over that, are still continuing, with me on them, more or less happily.
There is, after all, a kind of eternity in that concept. In a recent blog on death, Lanza says:
Death does not exist in a timeless, spaceless world. In the end, even Einstein admitted, “Now Besso” (an old friend) “has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us…know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Immortality doesn’t mean a perpetual existence in time without end, but rather resides outside of time altogether.
I understand this best when I think of my fictional characters. When I was working on my last novel, in the first draft no one died. Okay, maybe it wasn’t happily-every-after, but at least everyone made it to the last page still breathing. Sadly, the draft didn’t quite work. I resisted it, but every solution pointed to the fact someone had to die, and I knew who — a character of whom I’d grown extremely fond. I did not want this to happen. I tried very hard not to let it happen. I worked for weeks and weeks, trying to find another way to arrive at the place I knew was right for the novel, credible for the plot and the characters; in short, trying to keep him alive. Finally, I surrendered to the inevitable. My beloved character met his destiny.
My characters, once I’ve created them, are real to me. They exist, perhaps not in the sense this table exists, or my Best Beloved exists, but in a garden of my soul, they are alive. I think about them often, as I would friends-and-relations, some more often, some less, but all are contained within my psyche. And what happens, then, when I struggle so with a decision for one of them? Well, I see myriad paths, each one leading to a different conclusion, to a different set of possibilities. And regardless of which one finally ‘wins’ for the sake of the novel, the others do not cease to be, just as the characters do not cease to exist for me when I put the final period on the sentence. That character who ‘died’ on the page, is still alive, outside of time and space, just as surely as if I had written a different end for him, and perhaps, dare I say, as real to me as others I haven’t ‘seen’ for a long time.
When I take a few moments to sit still and look out this window at the horizon where sea meets sky, I cannot help but contemplate what lives there, just out of sight, just beyond the range of my limited vision. In his excellent book, Eternal Echoes, poet and philosopher John O’Donoghue says,
You know your real life is happening here. Yet your longing for the invisible is never stilled. There is always some magnet that draws your eyes to the horizon or invites you to explore behind things and seek out the concealed depths. You know that the real nature of things is hidden deep within them. When you enter the world, you come to live on the threshold between the visible and the invisible. This tension infuses your life with longing. Now you belong fully neither to the visible nor to the invisible. This is precisely what kindles and rekindles all your longing and your hunger to belong. You are both artist and pilgrim of the threshold.
Pilgrim of the threshold. I can’t think of a lovelier way to describe a writer.And I do love it when art and science and faith all converge, don’t you?