At great personal risk, you’ve just spent several terrifying, freaking months ferrying a package --- on foot, to boot, if you’ll pardon the pun --- across a plague-devastated United States, full of mutant infected who slaver and want nothing more than to messily devour you at every opportunity --- while theoretically non-mutant survivors want to do the same, more or less simultaneously. You started off loathing this package --- a snarky, sassy, foul-mouthed, 14-year-old girl named Ellie, by the way --- who detested you right back, with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns.
But along the way, another thing, even stranger… well, maybe not, given shared tribulations and such: the two of you actually started to like each other, care for each other… to the point where, by the time you finally deliver her to the consignee, a resistance/terrorist group (everything’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it?) quaintly named the Fireflies, she’s kinda become your de facto daughter, and you’re kinda her de facto dad. (Aww. How sweet, even though it’s not a particularly original trope. Then again, as I’ve noted before, nothing really is.)
Now, you’ve long known Ellie is the key to resolving this plague, because (gasp!) she’s immune to it. So… the plan has been to get her to a Firefly lab and a team of specialists, and hopefully, they can synthesize from her a vaccine to stop people from sprouting repulsive fungal growths and going crazy. (I was going to make a smartass reference about our current, real-life society, but I’ll let you read between the lines.) But… both you and she naively thought that would involve nothing more than getting a few blood samples, and then you could both be on your way, smugly aware you’ve Just Saved Truth, Justice and the American Way. Oh, and Humanity, too, by the way.
However, before we can all join hands and sing a touching round of Kumbaya, it turns out, to nobody’s great surprise… there’s a slight problem. Saving humanity is going to require a little more than a few vials of Ellie’s blood. Matter of fact… it requires a good chunk of her brain, which is likely to ruin her whole day.
And yours, daddio.
So… You Have A Decision To Make. You can choose Door #1: leave quietly and gratefully, reflecting, with tranquil, Spock-like wisdom, that sometimes, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (or the one) and that, doubtless, the universe is unfolding as it should. Or you can choose Door #2, saying, “Not my kid, you @#$%^!” and do everything in your power to prevent Ellie from going under the knife… even if that means a certain amount of carnage involving understandably upset Fireflies i.e. a veritable bloodbath as you grimly carve your way to an unconscious Ellie, already lying on the operating table awaiting the aforementioned knife.
But here’s the Real Thing (and the crux of today’s epistle): you don’t have days, or hours, to quietly meditate and reflect on the correct course of action, sipping herbal tea, munching a biscotti, and calmly weighing the pros and cons of these alternatives. You. Have. Seconds. Tick tock, tick tock, with the Angel of Death at your elbow, murmuring quietly in your ear, “Well? What’s it gonna be, Joel? ‘Cause I haven’t got all day. And neither do you.”
We all make scores of decisions, some good, some not, each and every day --- though most aren’t the emotionally searing kind, determining life and death, like Joel has to make above (thank God). Because the truth of the matter is that most of us are really terrible at making good decisions under pressure. We want to be able to sit down, take some time, and calmly analyse the alternatives. We hate being put in the pressure cooker. Because, like I said, when we are, most of us tend to screw things up badly. Now, when the above scenario played out in the climactic season finale of the TV show The Last of Us, and Joel unsurprisingly chose Door #2, my wife turned to me and asked how he could possibly rationalize that choice, knowing he’d just condemned humanity to the dark hell of the plague’s possibly endless continuation. Or words to that effect. And because I’d spent over two hundred hours on the PlayStation game of the same name prior to watching the series on TV (gee, thanks Sony, for that really helpful system update which now accusingly informs me how long I’ve played each game on my console, he said sarcastically), I was able to approach the matter rather more calmly and philosophically, having long had opportunity to reflect on the same question.
This is a really important question for writers --- and readers --- to consider: why do story characters make unfortunate, and at times, really stupid, decisions? Well, there are a whole raft of reasons --- maybe I’ll make that the subject of my next post --- but one of the more important ones is what I’ve gone to some length to sketch out for you today: time. Every once in a while, the cosmos confronts us with a split-second, life-altering situation, and calmly tells us it needs our response within the next couple of seconds, and no extensions or refunds. So… we have to decide. Fast. And as I said, most of us aren’t good at choosing the best choice. In Joel’s case, he really doesn’t have time (or inclination) to consider the needs of humanity’s future. His baby girl is about to be vivisectioned, and his totally understandable (if possibly egocentric), emotional response, is, “Not on my watch!”
As real-life humans… we fervently hope such scenarios never occur, or at least are few and far between. As writers… well, bwahahahaha! We present those scenarios to our characters as often as we possibly can, because they make for great drama, and conflict, and readers/viewers tearing out their hair, screaming, “What? Why? How can they do that?!”
So, the next time you read about a story character making a really stupid split-second decision… cut ‘em a little slack.
And blame the writer. Bwahahahaha!