A series of diagrams might help to summarise what has been covered so far and might perhaps indicate to us where this will lead.
The common assumption, when we talk about ‘writing fiction’, is that a writer sits down and interfaces in some way with his or her imagination, something like this:
In practise, we have asserted that every writer to some degree or another has an established ‘life position’ based on his or her past and the 'story' created around that. Every writer is, in other words, already writing a kind of ‘life narrative’ stemming from their own real life experiences. This is often unconscious, but can influence the choices made and actions taken by a writer when interacting with the imagination. So what we get is something like this:
Again in practise, what this means is that the resulting work of fiction is, to one degree or another, influenced by the writer’s own perceptions about Life.
There are four basic life positions:
‘I’m happy in a happy world’
‘I’m happy in a neutral world’
‘I’m sad in a neutral world’
‘I’m sad in a sad world’
Writers who see the world as a happy place in which they are happy tend towards writing Epic stories.
Writers who see the world as a neutral place in which they are happy tend to pen Comic stories.
Writers who see the world as a neutral place in which they are sad tend towards writing Tragic stories.
While those who see the world as a sad place in which they are sad often end up writing Ironic stories.
Of course there are shadings and nuances, and writers who see life one way are capable of writing stories that reflect another view — this isn’t about psychoanalysis or trying to compartment writers into ‘blocs’. This is about looking at the dynamics of story composition, and inviting writers to examine the ways in which the supposedly simple interaction in the first diagram above often turns out to be a little more complicated and interesting.
Given that the four basic genres given above break down into a series of mechanical steps, as we saw earlier — so, in the case of an Epic, for example, a vacuum-laden protagonist is launched on a quest by a wise old figure, and guided this way and that through the use of various other known and almost universal archetypes — it might be possible to extrapolate from that exactly how life positions also break down into manageable parts.
This might become clearer if we return to our previous ‘avatar writers’, Joe and Jill. Joe, for whatever reason, has adopted an ‘I’m sad in a sad world’ position and tends towards writing dark fiction, horror and unresolved crime, that sort of thing; Jill, on the other hand, has an ‘I’m happy in a happy world’ outlook and tends to specialise in romantic comedies. Both want to strengthen their fiction writing and perhaps broaden their range, and so agree to examine more closely the unconscious positions that they have taken.
Let’s start with Joe. It actually doesn’t matter much how he came to be so miserable. Perhaps his childhood was full of anguish and illness and his adolescence contained much heartbreak. The details are not as important as the conclusions he has arrived at about the ‘story’ of his life. As far as he can see, based on the kind of thing that has happened to him so far, his life will be a tale of growing misery, ending in gloom, and his fiction reflects that. In fact, like many writers, the thing driving Joe’s fiction is the need to somehow communicate the experience of his life position — in other words, the themes, images, characters and events in Joe’s stories are selected from his imagination in order to try to convey the existential ‘I’m sad in a sad world’ position to as many readers as he can reach.
In his life narrative, though, Joe sees himself as a protagonist. We all do, in our own stories. This protagonist is the element which bears the most ‘need’: the protagonist is the centrally hollow and most vacuum-driven character. Somewhere in Joe’s narrative was a potentially wise old figure who turned out to be a big disappointment or who was too weak to give much guidance. Consequently, the ‘quest’ of Joe’s life has been vague, wandering and verging on meaningless. Other archetypes — perhaps a comic companion, or someone whom Joe looked up to, or a partner, or a figure very much like himself who made even darker choices — haunt his life, appearing and participating, but usually betraying or disappointing him, at least as far as he can perceive. There might be a ‘villain’ in this picture, or Joe might picture himself as a kind of anti-hero in his own life story. If Joe wanted to get pscyho-analytic about this, he could go into some detail and name these elements in his life so far. All that’s needed now is for Joe to have a couple of realisations about this for him to be able to step back just a little from the life position he has adopted. From that slightly removed perspective, Joe should now be able to see that the relationship he has had with his imagination may well have been dominated by these elements.
This can have two results: Joe will see with some clarity how the fiction that he has been writing has been an attempt to encapsulate and communicate to some degree his life narrative; or he will perceive more clearly how he might be able to make different choices and write different stories altogether, if he so wishes. Either way, he can use these realisations to become a better writer.
Jill is also her own protagonist, though in a different context. She is still, as far as her life narrative goes, the lead character, possessed of the most ‘need’. In her case, though, it will probably be easier for her to spot the positive influence of a wise older benefactor of some kind, someone who perhaps acted as a mentor and launched her in a particular career direction. She might also be able to then isolate those other archetypes in her life: the funny friend, the emerging warrior type, the friend who always seemed to be drowning somehow, and even the person very much like herself who made different choices. The villain might stand out distinctly, as someone quite different from the other elements.
Jill’s result will be much the same as Joe’s: she’ll be able to step back and make stronger or freer choices about how she writes. Her relationship with her imagination, in other words, will become simplified and more straightforward.
What is the point? The point is to build in the writer the independence and freedom necessary for a healthier and more conscious relationship with his or her imagination. It doesn’t necessarily mean ‘happier stories’, even though one effect of this would probably be that writers formerly ‘trapped’ into writing Ironies or Tragedies might feel that they could now try their hands at Comedies or Epics. It doesn’t necessarily mean ‘darker’ stories, though some who have written only light-hearted stuff so far might be tempted to pen a mystery thriller or horror story. What it means is a tendency to approach the simplicity with which we began:
A writer interacting with his or her imagination, and selecting material from it irrespective of any personal experience which may predetermine such selections — that’s the aim.