This fine little philosophical gem appeared in my last post. (Yes, you read that correctly: my conceit knows no bounds as I have finally crossed the line, sunk to a new low, and started quoting myself. Oh, the humanity.) But I maintain the gem is true, despite indignant flak I took from a friend over it. “Laughably romantic notions?” she snorted. “Harsh condemnation, dude.”
Well, maybe. (Although truth often hurts. It might ultimately make you free, but it’s seldom painless in the process, mercilessly shining that piercing, brilliant beam of pure white light into the void and pinning you like a butterfly.) But let’s just unpack that admission a moment or six, shall we? We can even do it from a literary context, if that makes things easier/less threatening.
My favourite genre, and the one I tend to write in pretty much most of the time, is fantasy (science fiction is a close second). It’s been that way more decades than I want to count, ever since my sainted mother casually gifted 10-year-old me a relatively small novel whose first line read, “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.” (To this day, I’ve no idea why she gave me that copy of The Hobbit; while both my parents were very supportive of reading, fantasy was definitely not her preferred choice of genre --- not to mention there was also much less of it back in the Dark Ages. Unfortunately, she’s no longer around to ask.)
Now, in fantasy, it doesn’t matter whether your hero is a four-foot-tall Hobbit or a Man who is the rightful heir to the thrones of not one, but two separate realms --- we picture ourselves (well, I do, anyway) striding (no pun intended) alongside them, viewing incredible sunrises/sunsets and unspoiled wild vistas like massive, ancient forests, deep underground cities, windswept grassy plains extending forever in all directions… well, you get the general idea. Except…
…What writers conveniently tend to leave out, most of the time, is the fact that Tramping Through Said Vistas is a bloody uncomfortable, not to mention woefully hazardous, prospect, at least for the vast majority of us accustomed to creature comforts. (Spoiler alert: this is where the ‘laughably romantic notions about ourselves’ part of the quote applies.) Filmed versions of these Tramping Through Said Vistas really don’t help, either, as we gaze on our heroes after weeks in the bush, not a hair out of place, apparently not stinking to high heaven or starving to death on entirely unsatisfactory meals that haven’t a hint of gourmet in them, clothes miraculously clean and unscathed.
In other words, many of us follow this philosophy: “I’m all for hiking in mountain forests all day long… but at night, I want to retire to my hotel for a hot jacuzzi and sauna before heading over to the four-star restaurant, then bedding down in a nice warm bed in my climate-controlled room. I’ll watch dramatic rain/snow storms through the window, thanks.”
Also, most of us aren’t really cut out for the heroic life: walking half a world away to reach a mountain housing a very territorial, lethal, irritable dragon who probably isn’t at all interested in negotiating a treaty of mutual peace and coexistence… or walking half a world away, pursued by undead wraiths and other unfriendly creatures, in order to traverse a toxic desert wasteland so as to fling a magic ring into an active volcanic vent halfway up the side of a mountain… well, great to read about, or watch, but actually do it? Umm, maybe not.
That leads us to a very important question: so… how do we get people and protagonists to undertake the insanely dangerous/adventurous?
Well, most people --- and most literary characters --- must be jolted into action by what Will referred to as ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,’ and that jolt has to be powerful enough to overcome what I’ve just now christened ‘The Double I Curse of Character/Person Demotivation.’ (Quite catchy, don’t you think? Definitely destined to become a catchphrase in psychological texts and writing manuals everywhere.) What are these two concepts residing in the ninth letter of the alphabet? Well… (drum roll, please): Inertia and Inadequacy (ta da!).
Never mind what Mr. Webster might have to say, Inertia is one of the prime forces at work in the lives of pretty much all real people and literary characters alike. It’s the tendency to leave things alone, let them just bumble along, regardless of whether they’re proceeding well or poorly, because it takes too much time, effort or energy to change things. I like to envision inertia as the great slab of sticky rubber cement most of us are plastered to life’s tapestry with.
Likewise, my homegrown definition of Inadequacy is it’s the idea we’re not big enough, or important enough, or gifted enough, or attractive enough, or skilled enough, or courageous enough… (again, you get the idea) to make any kind of difference… so why bother even trying? This is a far more negative concept than Inertia; in fact, it must rank as one of the most pernicious curses we as a species labour under… we, or any other literary species you’d care to name.
And what jolt can overcome these two dreaded forces? Well, that’s easy: I call it ‘Immediate Personal Threat’ (another catchphrase destined to become a classic, I’m sure); that is, something that, right now, threatens our lives or our way of life, or the lives of our loved ones. It doesn’t matter what literary situation, what literary character you look at, pretty much all of them are motivated by some sort of Immediate Personal Threat. (“Gah! That damned Ring could put the Devil’s own lieutenant in charge of all of us by next Tuesday! We gotta do something about it, right now!”)
Frodo: I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.
Me: You will? Gosh, that’s swell! No worries, here’s a scenic map of beautiful suburban Mordor, complete with scenic attractions. See? There’s Mount Doom, right there… along with scheduled eruption times! Have fun storming the castle, kid!
I just love a happy ending.