We live in a constantly changing world. Some of the changes are relatively stable, like the cycle of day and night, or of the years or the seasons. Others seems stable but have a way of turning around and shocking the heck out of you. Then of course there are the bombs life drops on you, where everything turns inside out and forces you to either re-evaluate what you believe or get completely lost in your own delusions.
Not that this should be news to anyone who reads this blog. After all, we authorial types go to a lot of trouble to ensure our characters get to suffer from the life-changing type of change in all the worst ways before we finally – if we’re feeling nice – grant the poor sap a happy ending.
Really, it’s a wonder there aren’t more short stories where an author’s characters gang up on them for making their lives miserable (it’s also rather surprising that some of us don’t spend more time wondering who the heck is the Author when it comes to our lives. Mine reads between crappy soap opera and comic relief, with the occasional glimmer of a redemption fic buried in there somewhere).
After all, what’s the Hero’s Journey but a detailed manual of how to throw breaking change at some poor sod in order to turn them into a hero? If you do it right, you only need to contrive the triggering change because the rest will flow from the character’s choices – after all Author ex machina gets a bit tiresome if you’re lobbing mountains at the poor sod every chapter (for reasons I prefer not to examine too closely I keep hearing Scotland the Brave every time I say that… hear, hear the mountains falling ).
The key thing is, they change. The farm boy takes up the sword (or lightsaber) and saves the world from the Evil Empire – and loses his simpler, easier life in the process. The spoiled princess discovers there’s a lot more to princessing than she thought – and probably loses at least one parent in the process.
In fiction as much as in life, people hate being forced to change. They fight it with every fiber of their being, demanding to be nostalgic about the old farm (that they didn’t really like when they were living there, but it looks a hell of a lot nicer after spending a year on the run from the Evil Empire), whining, throwing the occasional temper tantrum… I’m sure you don’t have to be a character to recognize the parallels here. If someone’s got to change, until they recognize and accept that fact, they’re going to dig their heels in and refuse to move.
Some folk will succeed. They eventually find themselves left behind and lost in a world they no longer understand. Usually bitter, often confused, and sometimes outright delusional, those who manage to fight the inevitable for long enough are left fossilized inside their own skulls.
The ones who let the force of change sweep them along and never question anything are probably just as pitiable. They’re the ones who grab every fad and bounce from bright shiny to bright shiny without any idea that this new thing might not be the best thing since sliced bread.
The people who do best, at least as far as I can see, are the ones who know what they will not allow to change, and hold to that while letting other things adjust to their circumstances. I’m quite prepared to be left behind by a society that decides it’s perfectly fine to kill people for something they didn’t choose to have or be. On the other claw, if the polite way to introduce oneself shifts, I’m not going to bitch too much unless the new method turns out to be utterly ridiculous. That kind of philosophy is usually enough to survive most change.
Which, of course, is why authors usually throw the kind of change that will break characters trying to survive a changing world. We’re a sadistic bunch, happily tossing our characters into situations where they have no way to cope and watching the fallout. It makes readers happy, so we give them more of it. As long as the character gets a happy-ish ending, all’s well, right?
Such is narrative causality. We don’t think about the poor sap’s PTSD. He’s won the war, vanquished the Great Evil, got the girl… and we walk away and let people think he’s going to be happy afterwards. Because that, too, makes readers happy.