Human beings are often helpless in the face of overwhelming events and circumstances.
At least as individuals, but often on a larger scale as well. Earthquakes, tidal waves and hurricanes make no distinction between the worthy and the unworthy. If you are caught in the path of one of nature’s juggernauts, you are toast.
Or not. Sometimes one person is swept to safety while another goes under. A child finds a safe pocket in the rubble while a strong man is felled. A tornado shears off half a house, but misses the bedrooms where the family is sleeping. Controlling outcomes in such situations is simply beyond us.
We can take all manner of precautions, and some people will live longer than others, but in the end, none of us can expect to live forever, however careful we may be.
In the face of our essential helplessness before the caprices of fate, it’s no wonder that people seek out such areas of control as we can find. For some, religion and the propitiation of higher powers fill a need. For others it’s money or political power, enabling them to build enclaves that set them apart from the general run of humanity – for a time.
And humanity has done very well in using our intelligence to gain some foothold in controlling our environment – in part. We’ve invented agriculture to secure a food supply, we have invented technologies and medicines and worked wonders of engineering to provide ourselves with shelter, transportation, energy and communications beyond the dreams of our ancestors. But our own works have side-effects we didn’t anticipate. Advances in agriculture have created mono-cultures vulnerable to widespread devastation, chemical threats to the honeybees that help a myriad other species to propagate, and threats to the clean water and air on which we all rely. Our industries are having adverse affects on the climate. Our very success at survival creates new problems as populations grow and clash. All our efforts at control act like pinching off part of a balloon, leaving the rest to pop up elsewhere, bigger than ever.
What’s the point of this reflection on mortality and doom? Just that there are ways -and there are other ways – of dealing with our helplessness. A robot is perfectly controlled, but could it dance as gracefully as any of us who hear the music and feel its influence, and give way to that influence and allow ourselves to move freely, guided by the pulse and the pace of it? Giving up a little control gains something in effect.
Similarly, the world of imagination offers a vast potential for power. We can imagine anything we choose. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve imagined winning the lottery, or being with the man of my dreams, or winning the acclaim of all the people whose opinions matter to me. These are idle imaginings that do little more than lull me in the face of my real life problems.
On the other hand, when I start with the world I know, where I am often overwhelmed by my problems, by fears and needs and personal failings, and I imagine facing those – or greater – problems and dealing with plausible consequences, then I can bring in all kinds of strange and magical elements to the story, and it’s much more interesting and engaging than simple wish fulfillment could be. Accepting the things I can’t control into the fantasy world turns fantasy into a dance. The power of imagination is not in making a wish list, but in envisioning more satisfying ways of facing the realities, the problems and dangers we know.
Having my computer face the window of my office is a mixed blessing. I can see the sunshine on a winter’s day, and the bare limbs of a tree stark against the snow – but that same sunshine glares in my eyes as I look at the computer screen. My solution was to get a cheap sun visor at a dollar store. The visor was a poor fit. It had a hard plastic band sized for someone with a smaller hat size, and pinched the sides of my head if I snugged it down, so I generally wore it perched on top of my head with the visor tilted down to shield my eyes as best it could.
This week that hard plastic band broke. Without it, the visor lacked the structure to hold it to my head at all. When I broke a piece out of the middle and put the two side-ends back in their casing, I could make it fit at last. But now, the broken ends of that band poked at my brow. Today I got out needle and thread and a length of thick brocade ribbon, thinking to sew it across the break and cushion those broken ends.
As I sewed, my visor’s transformation from cheap mass-produced item to unique, custom-fit accessory reminded me of the tale of the Velveteen Rabbit. The toy becomes real because of how thoroughly it is loved and used, although it grows worn and threadbare in the process. The damages are what make it distinguishable from every other toy rabbit on the toy store shelf. The same adventures that damage it give it character.
Broken and mended as it is, my visor now has character. Character is an issue familiar to all writers. Our characters seem real to the extent that they have unique experiences that have touched them and changed them, from which they’ve learned and grown and become someone distinguishable from anyone else in the world.
I came to appreciate this principle first through visual arts. Especially the functional-art bookmarks I’ve been making for years now. Because of the bookmarks, I had the ribbon on hand that I needed in order to adapt my visor to my needs.
There are a vast array of colors, patterns and styles of ribbons, from narrow satin to wide brocade, to printed cottons and wire-edged organzas. There are beads in as many sizes and colors, from tiny glass seed beads, to large rough-cut shells, or many sizes of pearls, to shiny metal icons, to natural stones from quartz to jasper to opal and ruby, rough nuggets or precisely cut shapes. The potential variations I could create with my bookmarks seem truly endless. Each combination acquires a unique character.
Why settle for stereotypes in writing characters when the potential combinations of human qualities and experiences must be at least as variable as with beads and ribbons? People come in all sizes and shapes, from families rich, poor, and everywhere in between, with backgrounds touching every sort of work and industry, political belief, educational training and interconnections within their communities. Every person embodies a small world of unique characteristics at birth, and our experiences in life only add to the depth of that identity. We each become more real as we love and explore our lives. I, for one, want to remember that if my characters ever seem shallow, it’s because I haven’t looked at them deeply enough and found the experiences that make them real.