Buttercup in laptop case

Ripping Off Life

All the regulars here are familiar with the concept if not also the practice of ripping off history and current events to add spice (I’m tempted to say artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative) and depth to world-building, plotting, and at times, characterization. Unfortunately, as the last week has demonstrated rather effectively, the big flaw with pulling chunks of history and filing the serial numbers off is that narrative needs to make sense.

Life not only doesn’t need to make sense, life bloody refuses to have anything to do with making sense.

Despite how it looks sometimes, this doesn’t have anything to do with life or some deity having it in for you. It’s simply that in a novel there will be maybe a dozen or so characters who have an impact on the plot. Actual casts of thousands are rare, and ones that are done well are even rarer.

But real life has billions of people, all of them doing their damndest to advance their own personal “plot” as it were, and when you’ve got that many interacting variables, things get chaotic. This is why nobody has ever managed to accurately forecast weather (beyond a best guess that’s relatively close something like 2/3 of the time so long as you’re not looking beyond the next day or so) or traffic (ditto, but on a scale of minutes). By the time there’s enough data collected and the numbers have been crunched, the forecast is out of date (this, incidentally, is the reason behind having long, complicated passwords. It doesn’t make them impossible to guess. It makes the other guy’s not so long, not so complicated password much easier to guess in comparison, so the other guy’s account is the one that gets hijacked. The old joke about the two guys and the bear writ large).

The thing about the chaos and the unpredictable results is that… it is unpredictable. And we can’t write the same things into our plots without setting it up because it looks far too much like Deus Ex Author.

While Deus Ex Machina was once a perfectly acceptable way to resolve a messy plot tangle, it went out of fashion sometime between the height of ancient Greek theater and now. Although I don’t doubt that it still hangs around in a suitable disguise, metaphorically sliding a fishnet-stockinged leg out from the shadows and whispering, “You wanna plot resolution?”

Whether the Deus in question is hanging around to sandbag those who are tempted and go through their pockets for loose characters is another question, but given the last few weeks I wouldn’t be surprised. I’ve said for years that the Ultimate Author is a pantser. Now I’m sure of it.

After all, who but the Ultimate Author would decide that things need to be made worse? As if this bloody year hasn’t been bad enough. Apparently it’s going to be just that much more rewarding when we recover from it – although I’ve got some serious doubts about the Author’s plotting at this point. Honestly, the whole World In Peril line is getting old. Can we please have some Whirled Peas with Happily Ever Afters for a few quiet decades?

It’s not like life hasn’t delivered those on occasion. Sure they’re rare, but they’re not non-existent. After the whole World At War followed by Uneasy Peace with multiple reruns deal, a bit of happily ever aftering sounds kind of nice. As does a bit of boredom.

The problem, of course, comes with the other awkward fact of real life: one person’s Utopia is another person’s Hell on Earth. Frankly, I wouldn’t even think of inflicting my personal utopia on most other folks because I know it would drive them spare in no time flat.

Alas, there are far too many folks out there who haven’t figured out that something being right for them doesn’t make it right for everyone else. Well, beyond the obvious: nobody is big on murder (although the definition can vary from the extremely narrow “it’s murder if they’re in my family, otherwise it’s self-defense” all the way to the – horribly annoying and sets my teeth on edge every time I encounter it – “it’s murder if I kill someone” (and never mind the notion that there is such a thing as a lawful killing)) or theft (or rather, nobody likes other people taking their stuff, and most people manage to extend it to “taking stuff that’s not yours is bad”).

I’m not going into some of the other major crimes since ultimately they come down to hurting someone or taking something from someone. Nobody wants to be hurt and nobody wants their possessions taken from them. Most cultures have rules against hurting people and taking people’s possessions. Some just don’t consider anyone who isn’t part of said culture to be “people”. Others – like modern Western culture which is at least part of why there are so many attempts to neuter it – regard everyone as “people” and try to apply the rules to everyone.

Anyway, the whole thing with a utopia is that it’s going to suit a relatively small group of people and make the rest miserable. It actually doesn’t matter what the utopia is, it’s going to do this, because people are inherently contrary, fussy, mucky curmudgeons who wouldn’t recognize a “good thing” if they sat on it (Really it’s because we all define “good” in the sense of “good for us” slightly differently).

For me, good includes the rather important fact that I’m able to stay supplied with my narcolepsy medication. Anything that doesn’t include either a cure (which is a pipe dream) or a supply of the medication that keeps me more or less awake during the day is a non-starter. Other people don’t have that criteria. They wouldn’t want a lot of the music I like, either (my taste is eclectic at best). And most of humanity would think it weird that I consider a damn good library to be an essential part of any sort of utopia.

So, yeah, ripping off real life to add gravitas to your world is helpful, but there are a lot of potential dangers. Life is too chaotic for anything else.

Oh, and have a Princess Buttercup in my work laptop case.

23 comments

    1. This reminds me of George Carlin’s Ultimate Reduction Of The Law: “Don’t hurt people, or take their stuff.”

      “Not taking other people’s stuff” definitely extends to taking their cats.

    2. Cat includes self. Just try to get it out of the laptop case when you want to put the laptop in there.

  1. I think that plotter or pantser could be a legitimate topic of theological dispute.

    If I understand Calvinist theories of election correctly (I am sure I do not), God can not only have information about the outcomes of individual human choice, He can determine them in advance from a very early point in time.

    Which implies that this story line could have been plotted in advance.

    Some of the theories of whatever it is that is going on that Richard Fernandez has developed imply that things will get worse until a new status quo stabilizes.

    Anyway, I definitely don’t think human ability can duplicate God’s ability WRT plotting. Yet, I’ve found myself trying to plot something that borrowed from 2018 and 2016, in terms of slow rolling societal chaos.

    I think I may have just noticed cause for an artistic crisis of faith; The outcome I have picked for my story plot does not match my expectations for the US getting out of a period of societal chaos. OTOH, I’m planning on being outspoken that I froze design choices early, without complete information.

    1. Plotting slow rolling societal chaos isn’t something I’ve seen anyone do well. The chaos part tends to work against that. And yeah, not being able to see how to get from “here” to the planned “there” will definitely freeze your writing.

      Also, if Himself is a plotter, I’m officially terrified.

      1. I’m trying to make the chaos a setting detail, that the viewpoint character does not realize, because the society is a little too alien to him.

        The plot is probably a little bit of a mismatch. 1. It assumes a single bad guy that can be dealt with, and then things are okay. 2. I’m assuming a bunch of moving pieces that are not a result of societal instability.

        1, in particular is not my current thinking on the current mess.

        If I come up with something better, I’ll use it, otherwise I will just stick with what I have. Not every project can be perfect, especially when one is trying to figure out basic tasks.

  2. Ah, the easily portable cat…
    Speaking of plotting, and stealing from real life – Kate, were you originally from Brisbane, Queensland? I have a WIP partially set in that city during WWII, and I have some questions about certain locations there… if you are, and want to be involved, PM me at clyahayes-at-mailofgee-dot-com;

  3. I’ve used the Battle of Leipzig (Battle of Nations) as proof that fiction can’t hold a candle to reality. No editor would allow even David Weber or Tom Kratman to get away with the ending if that episode. Heck, even Tom Clancy would have been blue penciled for it!

      1. You could probably get away with it, but it would be tricky and you might even cite-somewhere-the Battle Of Leipzig as something that was even more confusing. It would require you to set up a lot of dominoes and make it clear how they could and couldn’t fall.

    1. So the idea is that God isn’t a plotter or a pantser but rather the guy who says, “Hey wouldn’t it be a hoot if I did this…”?

      1. Something like that. I have two alternative explanations for this:
        1) Mother Nature drinks. To excess.
        2) The entity actually running things is Coyote the Trickster. (Whether or not _he_ enjoys the uisgebagh is a question I decline to touch.)

  4. The more history I read, the more I realize that very little in the world is logical or well-plotted. It seems so easy to think that history always behaves in a linear fashion and that this (whatever this is) is the only possible outcome but slightly different choices can give a very different outcome.

    Those choices are being made constantly. Interesting times!

  5. We have ancient Greek plays where the only explanation of some things is that the playwright deliberately introduced a final problem so as to have an excuse to introduce a deus ex machina.

  6. I’ve been trying to write by the “checkpoint” idea-there’s parts of the story I need to hit, but as long as I don’t wander too far off the path, the passage is ordained.

    There are some issues with that-my biggest was that when I wrote Solist At Large, I had to trim out about a third of the book because I went to interesting places that didn’t help the story any. And, I had probably too many plot points for a first novel in any series.

    My next novel, The Winter Solist has a lot more checkpoints and is (hopefully) a lot tighter. But, you have to make even your most outrageous fiction believable and have an explanation somewhere-even if it’s in your head. “Just because” works only once, maybe twice. More than that, your reader will notice and that is the thing that kills interest in a story faster than anything. Atomic Robo and The Ring Of Fire, for example, killed any interest by me in the series-previously or in the future-because it had about eight or nine “just because” throughout the story. That, and there were points of resolution that I thought were foolish in a mustache-twirlling sort of way. You can get away with one classical “tie the girl to the tracks” classic genre villain in a series. You really can’t do two.

    1. My next novel, The Winter Solist
      Waiting… I liked the first one. I’m pretty sure I said so on Amazon… Yep. That might be my longest review, ever.

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