Sunday, August 11, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Switching It Up

An old, old story found in most cultures involves a husband who complains that he works hard all day while his wife sits around the house doing nothing much and doesn't even always have supper ready when he comes home, takes her up on her offer to trade places, and of course makes a hilarious hash of it while she does his relatively straightforward fieldwork perfectly. They return to their normal fields of expertise and the husband respects his wife more - but what if they'd both been better at the other's job than the other one?

Then there's the standard parable about the person who thought his cross was too heavy to carry around accepting an offer to choose from an assortment of everybody else's and eventually choosing to leave with the one he came in with. But what would happen if one of the people with the crosses he rejected came in, hmm?

At the Mad Hatter's tea party the guests all shift down one periodically, with only the one in the lead making an improvement. In some games, notably specialty card games, conditions may arise in which characters exchange their game positions. In the Management Material card games, for example, the object is to use excuses to force other people to take projects while not doing them yourself, and by far the easiest person to force a project on is the person to your left; but it's possible to draw an Event Card which calls on everyone to pass their hands to the player on the right.

Generally speaking, when we see change-ups happening in fiction - Freaky Friday springs to mind, but of course the ur-text for this is The Prince and the Pauper - everybody wants to get their own lives back pretty soon, after Important Character Arc Stuff. In the Murphy/Ackroyd movie Trading Places, the character who is raised from poverty and the character whom he displaces are soon united against the common enemy playing with their lives. But what if there's a clear winner who isn't willing to give up the improvement? It's a side note in Diana Wynn Jones's Charmed Life that every one of the alternate Gwendolyns dragged out of one universe into an analogous place in the adjacent one finds an improved situation. E.C. Myers does some complex, and very dark, stuff with alternate universes and analogs in Fair Coin and Quantum Coin, but it quickly gets off the human, intimate scale of the individual with the crosses and the quarreling couple. (This is not intended as a negative criticism; no book can do everything, and when you increase the scale to so many alternate universes, it becomes impossible to care as much about the individuals in it; in fact this is a major theme of the book, as the protagonists try to take the least immoral course they can.)

I have been convalescent, and therefore indolent and dilatory, this morning, so it's taken me a long time to set up the question, and all this is really too vague to count as "an idea." But that's part of the process, too, and may as well be shown.

How do we take a good old-fashioned character-arc based "how the other guy lives" scenario, and introduce conflict between the characters and a thriller-type tension and danger, without losing the intimacy, applicability, and moral thrust of the original concept?

Is it even possible to write a thriller and retain the applicability to daily life that is the chief interest of the scenario?

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