Marie: (coldly) I came to congratulate you, Nicky.
Nicholas: (uncertainly) What for?
Marie: (sarcastically) For finding, from all Russia's countless cretins, idiots and incompetents, the men least qualified to run your government.
Nicholas: (taken aback) Would you like some tea?
Marie: (refusing to be put off) I’ve taken tea. I’ve tried to understand you, but I can’t.
Nicholas: (appeasingly) I sometimes fail to judge men well.
Marie: Sometimes? How can one man make so many mistakes? Why did you stop our Austrian campaign?
Nicholas: Our casualties were terrible.
Marie: Surely you knew they would be before you started. Theirs were larger.
Nicholas: (amused at last) Mother, what do you know about strategy?
Marie: (coldly amused in turn) What do you? What are you doing here, anyway? There isn’t a battlefield within 500 miles.
Nicholas: (quietly) It’s important that I’m here.
Marie: Your place is in Petersburg. Don’t you know about the riots and scandals and starvation? They hate your wife. They think she’s a German spy. How can you let that foolish woman ruin your country?
Nicholas: (intensely) Leave Sunny out of this.
Marie: Someone has to make you see sense about this. Can’t you think of anyone else? Can’t you think of the rest of your family? Can’t you think of Russia? I wish your father were alive.
Nicholas: Don't throw him at me.
Marie: He knew how to be a Tsar. He'd have burned Vienna down, stamped on the Germans, shot the strikers, anything to give Russia peace. And he’d certainly have known how to deal with Rasputin.
Nicholas: (stoutly) He is a man of God.
Marie: (incredulous) Do you believe that?
Nicholas: (doggedly) He works miracles. He keeps my son alive.
Marie: (persisting) Do you believe that, Nicky?
Nicholas: (defensively) Sunny does. She needs him.
Marie: Hang him. I don’t wish any man harm, but so many Russians will die.
Nicholas: I can’t!
Marie: At least send him to Siberia.
Nicholas: I can’t!
Marie: (out of patience) He’s going to destroy us! Millions will suffer, and all because you can’t say no to your wife!
Nicholas: It’s in God’s hands.
Marie: (outraged) That’s no answer!
Nicholas: (finally snapping) Don’t you think I see what’s happening?
Marie: (furious) Then act! Come back home, hang this man, send Alexandra to Livadia, and deal with the real problem!
Nicholas: I can’t!
Marie: (disbelievingly) In Heaven’s name, Nicholas, what can you do?
Nicholas: (resignedly) Just what I’m doing, Mama. There’s nothing else that can be done.
The dialogue is crisp, incisive and believable, the situation critical: it’s about the last opportunity to change anything. Nicholas’ intransigence, and Mommy’s increasing incredulity, is the stuff of great writing. And it’s that situation I want to focus on, because despite the fact you may come away thinking what a hopeless dolt Nicky is, it’s all too believable and commonplace. Here’s the crux of what we can take away from their exchange:
We often know exactly what needs to be done to effect major positive change in our lives (not always, of course… sometimes people are hopelessly oblivious) and yet we are often totally unable to enact it.
Ah, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? There’s several reasons, applicable in life and stories:
1) Fear: even if life headed for a spectacular train wreck, the known is at least the known. The unknown brought on by change is often more terrifying. We cling to the known, even when it’s not working, because at least it’s familiar. Irrational, but true.
2) Inertia: it takes much energy to change course, to make meaningful change, even if done incrementally --- perhaps especially incrementally. We’re terrible at keeping change going.
3) Denial: “I don’t really need to implement painful, profound change. Things will improve on their own.” (Cripes, are you kidding me? This is major. If there’s one characteristic humanity excels at, it’s the ability to rationalize away the need to confront painful decisions.)
4) Selfishness: changes can be unpleasant, particularly if we’re talking about things like lowering standards of living to make the planet more livable.
5) Inability: sometimes we really do lack skills or resources to make change work. Yeah, it’s possible. But of the reasons I’ve mentioned, it’s the least valid. I’m reminded of Miss Piggy’s response to Kermit the Frog saying he doesn’t have time to do something for her. Her threatening response? “Make time.”
What it really boils down to is: what are we (or story characters) prepared to do to bring about fundamentally needed change? Unfortunately, with most people, things must degenerate into crisis before anything is attempted --- by which time it may be too late. And as we saw above, some can’t bring themselves to implement change even then, meaning they get caught in the approaching holocaust.
Now, this is great news for writers. The more reluctant characters are to make major positive changes in their lives, the juicier the situations we get to write for them. But for real people in real situations… well, not so much.
It’s partly why our planet is in the mess it is.
(Oh, by the way… this is my 100th blog post! Happy anniversary to me!)