Recently, a friend posted a note on social media: Tell me something good about 2020. “That it will eventually come to an end,” I commented, to be witty but also brutally honest–and that was before my county posted record levels of new covid cases this past week. Of course there have been some genuinely good things about 2020 that I’m grateful for–bursts of joy that take me away from the gloom of our time, like the bluebird family we fed this summer. And it hit me recently that the chaos of 2020 offers a pretty big gift, too, especially for writers.
Let me back up a second.
I’ve been working on an extensive metaphor about human behavior and how it can be applied to fictional characters for going on a decade, and taught a 90-minute class about it at the last UnConference and at a Writer’s Digest conference. It’s about the territory a character traverses throughout the course of a novel, beginning in their center, where they likely are at the start of a story, and ranging out, beyond their comfort zones, into uncharted territory and eventually to–and perhaps even over–the edge. Imagine it like an expanse of land:
- the center is marked with an X and sits squarely within a comfort zone filled with the people you love, your community, your home, and the landmarks of your life
- uncharted territory is outside of this known space, rocky and wild
- the edge can be visualized as the edge of land itself, the home of a beyond-this-place-there-be-dragons placard after which lies nothing but wild sea (It’s exceptionally windy here. You have a hard time keeping your feet.)
In the metaphor, the closer a person gets to the edge, the less predictable the outcome because that person’s will is less likely to impact an outcome. When a character goes over the edge, things are genuinely unpredictable, because chaos is in charge.
The nature of chaos is also important to keep in mind. It doesn’t have values, doesn’t have a center or family or anything to care about or remember. It simply is the sea and its many storms.
To tap into that edgy place in the class, I might ask participants to “Consider something you’ve done that you regret, that you would not do again.” The question should lead you to recall a time when you were close to or completely out of control–right at the edge or over it, with your feet barely clinging to their grip of the land or already wet with water.
Most novels bring us to one of two scenarios:
- The Storm Threatens. Some stories take protagonists right up to the edge; characters retain control but come ever-so-close to losing it. Consider The Bridges of Madison County, the story of Francesca Johnson, a housewife who has an intense affair with a stranger when her family leaves for a multi-day excursion. The experience drives her to new revelations about herself: I am the type of woman who will have an affair. I now know what it means to have a soulmate. I see now there is more to life. And she has a choice to make–give up the love/lover, or give up everything she has built including her family. And it was a hard choice for her, you know, the hardest choice of her life. She was at the edge, or in this case the bridge. Ultimately, she decided not to cross the bridge, but rather to walk back to the life she had built. She maintained control in the face of a true chaos moment, whatever you think of her choices, and that’s the point.
- The Storm Wins. Some stories go further, and the main character ultimately loses control to whatever end. Consider The Lord of the Rings and how Frodo Baggins–kind and pure–travels from his cozy home, out beyond food-filled fields that marked the farthest he and Sam had ever traveled up to that point, all in order to destroy an evil ring and save the world. After, they grappled with a wild, uncharted territory; and increasing doubts over Frodo’s ability to control the ring’s will to dominate him. Until he learns that even he is corruptible, as far from his center as he would ever be, by the molten sea of chaos at Mount Doom, where indeed there are dragons (well, ‘fellbeasts’).
Again, the bottom line to remember here is that the closer you get to the edge, the less in control you will be, until you have no control whatsoever.
And now I’m going to dive into something I didn’t touch upon in my class, so if you took it, grab a pencil!
The Strength of Tethers
Everything that leads up to a complete loss of control shows you something not just about a character’s goal but about a character’s character, and can even show you what they care about the most. Imagine that when a character leaves home they leave with multiple tethers attached to their person that span from wherever they are on the map and lead back to center. These tethers remind our character who they are and why they do what they do. But as they get closer to the edge, some of those tethers will break. In fact, due to the nature of chaos itself, our tethers may even tangle with one another and the weakest of them will give way to the stronger.
The strongest surviving tether reveals the core value of a character in a moment in time; it is that thing that remains even in the fiercest winds when we’re still in possession of our will, with our feet still barely under us.
What is the name of that tether? Is it called justice? Is it called freedom? Is it called righteousness? Is it called family? Is it called money? What is it that keeps that character moving, even in the face of tornadoes and hurricanes, their toes and chests and faces wet with chaos? Why do they persist? Why is the goal they carry worth this battle against the forces of chaos, even if they might lose control?
Let’s circle back to Francesca. The tether to fidelity broke first because a previously undiscovered tether to passion/soulmate/undiscovered self was stronger. But when she had a choice to permanently change her life, she didn’t cross the bridge with her lover. The strongest tether for Francesca was family and the life she’d built with them. (That Francesca’s adult children ultimately learn of her request to have her ashes scattered near the Roseman Bridge is a poignant footnote.)
We understand how simple pleasures make up Frodo’s core values early, and see them lost one by one. He has already lost his tethers to laughter and food, when he snaps at his dear friend Sam. Frodo’s most enduring, most precious core value is his utter love for and devotion to his home, the Shire, even after he realizes that he will likely never make it back. Then even that tether snaps as the ring and Mount Doom ask everything of him and he has to succumb to whatever chaos has in store.
Which brings me back to where I began this essay, with a promise that there’s a gift here, somewhere, for writers.
We’re at the edge, right now, most of us. We feel the chaos that is 2020 all around, and know how it has affected our behavior. And we can use that–and perhaps should use that–to reflect on what it means to be human.
Because this is it, my friends, the last stand of humanity; chaos and its forces take us into the realm of animal, as we struggle to survive, to keep our heads above water, to breathe.
So what does the last stand of humanity reveal?
The Gift of Chaos
Comedian Jim Gaffigan, known for his clean, apolitical humor, recently snapped some tethers after speaking up against authoritarianism. I’m not here to talk politics, but I do want to showcase how the previous sentence is supported by what Jim revealed, as he explained to his followers what happened and why on his Facebook page.
I feel a responsibility to coming generations, my children but selfishly I didn’t want to explain to my grandchildren that I didn’t fight to stop Trump. Maybe they will see that I stood up for decency, rule of law, and equality. That’s way more important to me than selling out an arena.
He also, over Twitter, mentioned that he’s still apologizing to his wife for all of the f-bombs.
Jim held tight to the tethers of “clean brand,” “apolitical person,” “expectations of spouse,” “selling out an arena,” “never alienating fans,” etc, before some event or new knowledge that he felt as a particularly strong wind compelled him to take a firm stand–both feet on that edge, toes gripping the earth–and hold ever more tightly to that one tether he himself named “decency, rule of law, and equality.”
And now we know something about him we didn’t know before. His nature is more defined. Because we can see his values, and we see those values prioritized because of chaos.
The gift of chaos is that it reveals human nature at its core. It gives us a rare moment to steep in it, think about ourselves and our neighbors, and who each of us are when the push of chaos winds comes to shove. Not everyone will behave in the same way, obviously; we see that, all around us. But that doesn’t necessarily mean what we think it might on the surface of things, as we are hanging on from our own vantage point at the edge, our own perspectives crystallized because we are in some ways as uncluttered of mind as we’ve ever been–all extraneous thoughts having blown away.
We know here what is important to us.
We know who we are, which tethers are strongest.
We know who our neighbors are–or at least we think we do, even if we never knew all of their tethers, and it’s harder to see them clearly with the wind in our eyes, and we may be mistaken on at least some of it; we don’t know the name of the storm they’re facing and can’t assume it’s the same as the one chapping our skin right now.
It’s a good time to remember that our One Tether, like Frodo’s One Ring, is uniquely held by us and us alone. And to feel compassion, as we can, for all of the Frodos out there who are trying and trying to make it through the storm intact, and to hopefully, eventually, find their way back home.
It’s a good time to think about humanity.
Hang on to your feet, my friends. Beware the wind. And if we do find ourselves in the sea of chaos, let’s look for one another out there, and try to hang onto one another as best we can.
Tell me something good about 2020.
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