-Robert A. Heinlein, Glory Road
This is a passage I like a lot from a book I also like a great deal. I was idly flipping through the book just the other day, and was struck yet again by the pithy reality of Heinlein’s observations. While it’s science fiction, Glory Road has much relevant insight into the kind of quest tale so many fantasy stories deal with. And although Heinlein is writing the passage in a military context --- his protagonist is at that point in the book a soldier --- I’ve often thought we could also say the passage is really every bit as applicable to life, isn’t it? (Theological musings aside, of course.) And it’s also completely applicable to our characters and plots when we’re writing. A friend of mine looked at me with raised eyebrows when I quoted the passage and mentioned this. “Don’t you think it’s a rather cynical take on life?” she asked. To which I replied that most cynics are merely realists who have seen a great deal of the realism life tends to offer. Sometimes way too much realism.
Literary and real life (there isn’t always too much difference, you know) do seem to include lots of surprise parties and practical jokes, don’t they? Sometimes much more positively than others. Let’s take surprise parties as an example. There are occasions when surprise parties seem to work really well (although I’ve never had one thrown for me); other times, those surprise parties everyone thought would be such terrific ideas, for one reason or another... well, no, they’re not so much. We would really prefer not to have to go through them. And practical jokes... well, I’ve never been much of a practical joker... much of the time, such jokes seem to range from the merely pointless to the downright cruel, as far as I can see. (Oh, stop it. I do so have a sense of humour.) Some of the surprise parties and practical jokes life throws at us are quite nasty, indeed. Death, divorce, loss of job, disease diagnosis --- there’s quite the catalogue of grim surprises and jokes we’re frequently faced with.
Of course, with our stories, it’s a different matter. In them, the Surprise Party and Practical Joke Departments have to be dominant forces and very actively at work, sometimes --- most of the time, truth be told --- in pretty nasty ways. The Fairy Godmother department tends to show up rarely; most of the time, she waves her magic wand only towards the end of the tale, when we’re pretty much all seeking resolution, redemption and maybe, just maybe, some sort of happy ending. But that’s kind of the way it has to be: if she’s actively present and dispensing minor or major miracles throughout the course of the plot --- other than keeping our protagonist alive, even through the deadliest of situations that would otherwise bring down most mere mortals --- then we don’t have much of a story. It really boils down to this, as I’ve said before. (Actually, it was my editor who said it and I commented on it --- you can read that particular pearl of wisdom here.) You have to throw rocks at your protagonist. Sorry, protagonist. But if everything is sweetness and light all the time for them... then we don’t really have much of a story, do we? It’s ironic that the very things we don’t want happening to ourselves become really absorbing and entertaining when they happen to others, real or imaginary. A tad creepy, what it says about us: while we’re not so enamoured with the idea of being hit with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune ourselves, we eagerly look forward to it occurring to others in real life, or our literary heroes. Hmm. Okay, a lot creepy, really.
Which is food for thought for another time.