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Friday, February 5, 2016

A Fateful Quandary

The symbol for the Wheel of Time in the series of the same name by Robert Jordan.

One of the most important qualities of a good fiction writer is to be able to present a story that appears self-sustaining, as if it could happen without an author to speak it into being. In almost all cases, a story is so much better if it presents the illusion of being a transcription of events in an alternative world, not just a product of someone’s imagination. Stories that fail to do this feel shallow and lacking in dimensions, as the readers keep getting pulled out of their immersion by forced happenings or breaking of the fourth wall.

Fictional stories are usually created by a process of creating characters, places, and objects, deciding a set of key events and experiences to put the characters through, and then linking these events with details to make them coherent. In other words, a fiction writer creates everything in a story for a purpose. In this way, the story has an inextricable element of fate, its world being shaped to the will of the writer. Any aspiring fiction author must be wary of this, and take steps to hide it.

Though there may be no way to eliminate the connection between author and story, there are ways to create the illusion that it isn’t there. One of these is to write a mechanism for fate into the story. This could come in many forms, such as the Force, the Wheel of Time, the lion deity Aslan of Narnia, or even the ambiguous “greater forces at work” found in The Lord of the Rings. These powers serve as a buffer between the writer and story, allowing happenings which would otherwise come across as too convenient.

Another possibility is to forgo fate altogether and create the illusion of uncertainty, making the reader feel like anything could happen. This type of story feels more natural, as its events are seen to more realistically fall into place by chance and the will of the characters. Such a story style ups the stakes; if the characters don’t have some supernatural protection against the odds, and if there isn’t a higher power working behind the scenes to make events play out a certain way, then there is more tension and excitement to keep the readers engaged.

Pulling off such a trick is a skillful art. We think of the things that need to happen—This person needs to join the main characters, that person needs to be diverted, these characters need to go on a mission even though someone else is much more qualified—and it is tempting to simply give the characters a little help, to use our pens to nudge events in the right direction. We must keep in mind, however, that smart readers are going to notice, and it will cheapen their immersion in our world. We don’t have to give up on our unlikely heroes though—anything can happen in fiction, and with enough imagination, it can be made to look natural.