Sunday, March 31, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: The Alternative Life

One reason I read, and write, and play the kinds of games I do is that one life doesn't seem like enough. No one can do everything she wants to do; and most things one would like to do have either long patches of unrewarding dullness, steep learning curves, or circumstantial limitations like, say, physical impossibility. I can't live in the Pleistocene, I don't have the temperament for academia, and my body is being a bugger about letting me garden, let alone do avocational archeology which is theoretically within my reach. Like everyone else, I have to focus on overcoming the dullness, learning curves, and circumstantial limitations of the one thing that matters most. Which is storytelling. Which encompasses all other possible lives, as it happens.

The conventional wisdom says: "Write what you know." But how boring would that be? I say, "Write what you'd like to know," and then you have an excuse to go find out.

So you decide to write about who you'd like to be. Say, someone capable of sailing solo around the world. Not in a race or anything. Just sailing, between the lonely sea and the sky, with flying fishes jumping on board in certain latitudes, going ashore in Tahiti and Singapore and remote Arctic islands and it's all very pleasant, and gives you an excuse to read up on Tahiti and Singapore and remote Arctic islands, but while you're reading up you realize that an endless travelogue makes poor reading and the parts of the research that draw you on, that excite you, perversely that make the concept attractive, aren't pleasant at all. A story is about characters in conflict. If you want this alternate life of yours to be worth reading about, you'll have to disrupt your alternate self's good time.

So you start with all the reasons you do not, in fact, sail solo around the world, and figure out how your alternate self copes with them, and why it's worth it to her.

For starters, you probably wouldn't find this fantasy compelling enough to write about if you couldn't sail, but odds are good you're not a competent enough sailor to go solo. Your alternate self must be or she wouldn't be doing it - would she? Maybe, if she had compelling enough circumstances; if she didn't expect to be alone, or if something is pushing her away from her native shores hard enough that death by incompetence in the watery deep seems preferable.

You probably don't have enough money, either, or any way to make your round-the-world tour self-supporting. Your character must have one or the other or she wouldn't be doing it - would she? Maybe. What if, instead of being richer than you, she's poorer? What if that push factor is enough to make stealing a yacht (fully stocked) a good enough short term solution that she decided to postpone thinking about the long-term?

Whoa, wait a minute, you don't want to be a thief!

Okay, maybe she doesn't steal it exactly. Maybe she salvages it. Maybe she's out in a little dinghy, the only place she can get away from - Who? What? Something terrible - an abusive family situation? The snowballing effects of some small mistake, made in the wrong place at the wrong time, drawing the attention of the wrong person? Think about that later. She's in her dinghy on the morning after a storm and there's the yacht, all its lines slack, drifting but sound, and she hails and gets no answer. It's abandoned, or maybe there's a corpse washing around in the hold, or maybe the only inhabitant is a seasick cat. But there's food. There's charts. There's fishing tackle. It's a simple enough rig and a small enough yacht that she thinks she could figure out how to handle it alone. And then she could just sail away from all her troubles...

But of course the troubles follow her. Either physically, if it's a thriller; or mentally, because we don't leave our troubles behind, we cling to them even as we run away. If she was in an abusive relationship she has the scars of that. If she's running from someone, someone must be chasing her. If she's made one mistake, she's likely to make another. And that yacht, though I believe legally hers by right of salvage, wasn't always abandoned or empty. Someone else was sailing her for a reason, and is no longer doing so for a reason, and those reasons can present their own challenges in addition to the ones she brings with her. And of course, there's the ocean to deal with. Being alone in a storm. Seasickness. Access to fresh water. The endless work of sailing, which is bound to entail more than you or she at first envision. Fetching up in foreign parts with no money and no passport.

And by now she's not an alternate you anymore. She's something much better - she's herself. A character. Someone who can give you an entree into the alternate life you can't live, and be more interesting than you.

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