Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How do good things happen?

    Very often, good things come about slowly.  I'm not announcing a metaphysical rule with no exceptions.  Maybe there is such a thing as love at first sight.  If so, then there is at least one good thing that happens quickly.
    But if you consider many important good things in life, you find they take time, cooperation, hard work, long-range thinking, and investment.  When a man plants a tree, it is an act of hope and faith, because he knows that the good results of the tree may not appear in his lifetime.  When a wife and husband beget a child, they hope for a lifetime of good.
    A church opens a preschool; the congregation struggles to heat the building, find teachers, shovel snow, serve nutritious lunches, etc.  After a generation, perhaps the preschool is closed--but along the way much good happened.
    An order of nuns founds a hospital.  The sisters raise money, build buildings, recruit board members, hire doctors, and do a million other things, with the result that dying people receive comfort and sick people return to health.  God willing, the hospital continues to produce such goods for centuries.
    A merchant starts a business which makes a useful product or provides a helpful service.  Those are good things.  If the business succeeds, the merchant makes a profit, and her enterprise provides more of the useful product or helpful service.
    And so it goes.  Very often, good things come about slowly.  That's the real world, the world of non-fiction.  For writers of fiction, it can be a real headache.  Stories, as we learned in our high school English class, need conflict.  The protagonist faces a challenge, an enemy, a danger, an obstacle, a worry, something that drives the story.  In complicated stories there may be multiple protagonists with multiple antagonists; in a short story it might be one person trying to solve one problem--what can I give my husband for Christmas when we have no money?
    Conflict usually builds to denouement.  Tension mounts, followed by resolution.  Every year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter faces some new challenge, which is at least partially resolved before summer.  The overall conflict with Lord Voldemort builds over many years, but each volume in the series needs and has some resolution.
    And there is the problem.  Fiction must have conflict and resolution, but in the real world good things come about slowly.  How does one write a good story without falsifying goodness?  Here's one way: our heroes defend a peaceful, free life from those who would take it away.  The goodness of the Shire is won by generations of boring hobbits who grow food, dig holes, plant trees, brew beer, and never have adventures.  Frodo and his companions fight to save the Shire from Sauron; their war is exciting, but ordinary hobbits aren't.  You can find the same basic theme in crime stories and war stories; the good guys are defending the slow ordinariness of good things.
    What happens when an author crafts a huge story, a long story, with lots of conflict?  I'm thinking of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire.  The story is engaging, but gradually the reader detects an unreality to it.  I don't mean the fantasy setting.  The characters of the story, and there are dozens and dozens of important characters in this sprawling tale, fight and scheme and murder and betray for thousands of pages.  With all this destruction, where do the good things come from?  Martin himself seems aware of the problem; he describes the despair and hopelessness of the peasantry as the slaughter goes on.  Nevertheless the soap opera-like battles of the rich and powerful go on and on; Westeros never runs out of good things.  That seems weird.


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