Monday, April 20, 2009

On choice and sacrifice and writing in Eden

(Warning: if haven't read Harry Potter, you may find some spoilers. But then again, if you haven't read it by now, you probably don't care about reading spoilers.)

If you asked me what one element is in all of my favorite books, in all of the texts that I reread and carry around with me in my heart, it would be personal sacrifice.

I come to this from a variety of sources: religion (Jesus laying down his life for his friends), fairy tales (the Little Mermaid giving up, as she believed, her chance at a soul), life (is this not what motherhood is all about?), and a bounding hope for miracles, even when things are darkest. It’s the sun that rises directly from that darkness that I read for. And I am sure I am not the only one. Many others love Harry and Aslan and others who sacrifice what they have for something greater. It doesn’t have to be giving up one’s life. I can be giving up one’s fears or chances. But always, the character gives up something they want out of love for someone else or a sense of justice, and the payoff is greater than that which they forfeited.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? It is not as easy to do as it looks. I can think of books where I know the writer was trying to do this, and yet, failed to get it across. Instead, the characters come across as too willing to give up their personalities and all their own desires and directions and let other characters’ wills trample their own. Since I’ve got a character who’s got to sacrifice his fear of the consequences in order to confront the truth, I’ve been pondering what makes it work, and how to avoid messing up.

I think it’s in the plotting. Specifically, in the choices the character makes before that last great choice.

Let’s think of a character who sacrifices everything in the end. Harry Potter Harry Potter gives up everything in the end. Our hearts are in our mouths and tears on our cheeks as we read him going into the forest. He isn’t giving up his personality. But he’s willing to give away his life. What is the difference between Harry and the character whose sacrifice doesn’t quite work?

Both authors obviously want to say that the characters are making a noble choice , that it is their own free will to give up something they want. So far, so good.

But to make a true choice, the choices must be equally compelling.

The weak character gives themselves up because it’s “in their nature” to be self-sacrificing. They’re noble, it’s “what they’re like.” Because “they can’t do anything different.” Now, this character may still succeed—maybe they’re the underdog, and we feel the injustices they experience. Maybe there’s another reader connection. But to keep the noble choice noble, it’s got to be something they choose when they can full well choose differently. That’s how real life is set up, all the way back to the Garden of Eden. There is opposition in all things because without the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, choosing the fruit of the Tree of Life isn’t really a choice. A person “choosing” good without a real option remains in a state of innocence and ignorance because they don’t really comprehend the depth of the good choice. There is no sacrifice and no learning. No incredible sunrise after the night. Just a medium sort of gray. No victory.

Let’s think about Harry again. We know Harry’s choice is a real, full choice because he’s failed to sacrifice himself in the past. Failure. That’s key. Because he hasn’t always done this. He’s been nasty to Hermione. He’s cursed Malfoy with sectumsempra. He’s hated Snape. And yet this time, when it counts the most, he decides NOT to be self-centered, but to give all. It’s a real choice.

This sort of thing repeats itself in the lives of other characters. Luke in Tim Bowler’s Firmament has done what Skin’s gang wants him to do before. He knows what will happen if he doesn’t comply. So when he does refuse to show up at the house they’re supposed to be breaking into, we know this is a real choice, because we already know what it will cost him—and he does, too. Marcelo in Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork, knows what one action will set in motion because he’s seen the ruthlessness of the lawyers he’s working for already. And because he’s already folded and done what his father wanted.

J.K. Rowling gave an excellent talk about the value of failure in a Harvard commencement address recently. If she hadn’t utterly failed, would she have been able to write Harry? I think not—or at least, not to the depth that kept the entire world enthralled with his story. We as writers should not be afraid to let our characters fail. We should have the courage to use the memory of our own failures to color our characters.

So let those characters sacrifice, and give them their rewards for doing it. But let them do it with the bittersweet flavor of an apple from Eden, so that when they finally do get the fruit of the Tree of Life, it means something to them—and to the reader.