I have a lifelong, apparently incurable, insatiable need to be informed about the murder, madness and mayhem which nightly ‘graces’ the video and written news platforms I consult. I’m not really sure why, and believe me when I say, I’ve given the matter a certain amount of personal reflection. My wife, who’s smugly not afflicted by this curse, blithely continues on her merry way with little more than an eloquent roll of the eyes when I put the news on… and, really, who can blame her? It’s not uplifting stuff, by and large.
I’m not sure the news has gotten any worse, he said thoughtfully… I mean, sure, nowadays, there’s climate change, and the sixth extinction, and similar cheery stuff, but When We Were Very Young, there was the very real spectre of nuclear war and its resultant unpleasantness (and some of the nastier side effects, like nuclear winter, weren’t even understood at the time). And, of course, corrupt, amoral politicians, and wars… well, they’ve always been around, unfortunately. Although, on reflection… I will say that since… oh, 2016 and the rise of The Donald (when every whackjob hiding under a rock was given carte blanche, or at least the secret activation code, to crawl out into the world and start spewing their particular brand of hatred or rebellion or lunatic conspiracy theory or scientific denial or whatever), followed quickly by the pandemic-that-people-got-tired-of-so-decided-it-was-over-or-never-happened-in-the-first-place… well, things seem to have gotten exponentially worse. Or maybe it’s just my tolerance for the crazies, the incurably narcissistic, and the deplorables has reached a nadir I wouldn’t have thought possible in the sunnier days of my youth. And I have noted my desire to remain informed is, more and more, coming into intractable conflict with my desire to remain sane. So, the question is, why do we remain morbidly fascinated by the dumpster fire which is the daily state of affairs for so many unfortunates on this rock?
And that (ta da!) is where the link to today’s literary thesis comes in, from a Tweet I saw recently, where the Tweeter asked why writers need to make characters’ lives so miserable. So, let’s work backwards and see if we can’t use a question with a rather obvious answer to provide insight into something deeper and more puzzling.
Back in the dark ages, when I was working on my first novel, my editor urged me to ‘throw rocks’ at my protagonist, which, on the surface of things, sounds incredibly cruel, but then again, we writers seem to major in hurling the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune at characters, cackling maniacally as we do so. In fact, it’s almost a job requirement. The reason for this (and the answer to the Tweeter’s question) is, as I said, fairly obvious: it’s the protagonist’s struggles against the vicissitudes of life, and how those struggles are handled, which make his/her story interesting. Unfortunately, at least from some points of view, a story with no conflict, no struggle, no arbitrary/unfair/cruel hurdles to overcome, a story which just contains sweetness and light and peaches ‘n cream, is… well, boring.
If we want to be noble/charitable about it, we could say this is because we want to be instructed in the finer points of life, or we want cautionary tales to show us pitfalls to avoid, or perhaps feel a sense of ‘there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I.’ But as you might suspect from my earlier rantings in this post, I’m not feeling particularly charitable about human nature these days, so I’d say a large part of our interest in reading about characters’ literary misfortunes is we just like to see other people dealing with shit… perhaps more sinister shit, more soul-crushing shit, than we’re experiencing ourselves. At least I don’t have to go traipsing over hill and under dale to throw a piece of antique jewellery into an active volcano, we can mutter to ourselves. It’s a weird characteristic of human nature, rather like when we’re driving along and come across the remnants of a motor vehicle accident. Most of us just have to slow down and gawk. We have a morbid fascination with wrecks of any kind, mechanical or flesh and blood, particularly if we can see them in slow motion on the TV news replay later. The more spectacular, the better. I’m not sure this reflects very favourably on us as a species, but there it is.
But wait! There’s more! as the old Ginsu steak knife ads used to say. We also want to read about literary misfortunes because… wait for it… we want to see our beloved protagonists come through those slings and arrows… to make it to the other side of the abyss. We’re rootin’ for them… possibly because, if they can make it to the frigging Cracks of Doom and survive… well, then, dammit, maybe we can, too, at least insofar as whatever pile ‘o poop life is flinging at us this week. Even if they/we need a good ol’ deus ex machina, like an eagle swooping in to make a very convenient and timely rescue, to do it. Because deus ex machinas do happen in real life, just like they do in stories… just rather less frequently.
So… does any of this really address my obsession with the news? Well… perhaps not as much as I thought it would before beginning today’s ramblings. For me, it’s not about watching blood and circuses, or other gloating/tsking over other peoples’ misfortunes. It’s more just a deep-seated need to know what’s going on around me, even if there’s very little I can do to change most of it… and I’m not entirely sure where that comes from. I think it’s a fairly common writerly trait.
But thanks for putting up with me while I ruminated through it. Oops, gotta go… the network news is starting.