Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

On the inadvisability of true love

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I don’t believe in true love. At least not in fiction. In real life, it’s another story—I’ve been happily married for years now, thank you—but as a narrative device, it’s often an excuse to avoid inconvenient questions and the challenge of constructing a plausible plot. Perhaps because it’s so difficult to dramatize the process of falling in love, works of art that depict it convincingly are startlingly rare. It’s much easier to pretend that your two main characters are joined by destiny, with the universe conspiring in their favor, a convention that goes as far back as courtly romance, and has since been exploited by the likes of Nicholas Sparks and Nora Ephron. Clearly, audiences respond to it, but for me, all it does is rob characters of their most important quality: their free will. Once we sense that characters are being pushed together by the plot in which they find themselves, the choices they make cease to matter, and so does the story itself.

In a way, this is really a particular illustration of a more general problem, which is that fate or destiny has no place in most decent  fiction (with an important exception that I’ll discuss below). Plot, on its most basic level, is about characters making meaningful decisions, and while it’s certainly possible for a writer to nudge his characters one way or the other, this only works if it’s cleverly disguised. Making destiny an active player in the story automatically renders all other actions meaningless, or at least waters them down unforgivably. My main problem with the Harry Potter series, for instance, is its insistence on Harry’s exceptional destiny, as if being taken from under the stairs at the Dursleys and sent to Hogwarts wasn’t exceptional enough. Harry’s special status robs the series of much of its suspense, and it’s a testament to J.K. Rowling’s raw narrative skill that she managed to write seven engaging novels on her way to a preordained conclusion. In most other cases, however, I tune out whenever the talk turns to a Chosen One: it’s a sign that the author just isn’t going to let the characters go their own way.

Which is only a reminder that even if you believe that such forces apply in reality, they generally don’t belong in fiction. We may not know exactly how the world works, or if there’s some larger pattern in which we all play a part, and the consideration of such possibilities—no matter what you decide—is an important part of every examined life. In fiction, however, unless you’re supremely confident in your abilities, or writing for a very limited audience, it’s often necessary to exclude certain possibilities for the sake of good storytelling. Many of my favorite writers, from Chesterton to John Updike, hold nuanced religious beliefs, but very few have written readable fiction that turns on an act of explicit divine intervention, and for good reason. Not everyone believes in divine intervention, or true love, but most of us, at least in practice, believe in free will and individual responsibility. Most good fiction, whatever we hope or think in private, takes place in a world in which people are left to their own devices, in love as in all other things.

That said, there’s an exception to this rule, and it’s a negative one. As I’ve said in my post about the unfair universe, many great works of art turn on a single moment of cosmic unfairness: from Oedipus Rex to Vertigo, King Lear to The Postman Always Rings Twice, some of my favorite stories trap their characters like a fly in a web, daring them to extricate themselves, usually with unfortunate results. So why am I more happy with an unfair universe than one in which everything is destined to turn out fine? It’s far more entertaining, on an intuitive level, to see a character fight against a hostile destiny than to overcome his or her problems with the help of fate. Taken too far, this can also be irritating, as in the victim story, or those romances where a series of contrived events conspire to keep two appealing characters apart. And in general, one act of cosmic unfairness is enough. But it reminds us that what we want out of life is not always what we want out of fiction, and it’s the writer’s job to tell the difference. (On that note: Happy Valentine’s Day!)

Written by nevalalee

February 14, 2012 at 10:17 am

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