Monday, October 20, 2014

Questless and Restless

Sacchi Green

There’s something about being on a quest, having a significant goal and striving toward it, that’s beneficial to a human’s well-being. If we don’t face any real challenges (or any that have a chance of being within our power to meet) we make up games to fill that lack. Maybe the mental and emotional exercise involved produces endorphins the way physical exercise often does, and/or maybe it’s hard-wired into our psyches from prehistoric times when the essential quest was for food and safety and survival in general, and only those who succeeded passed along their genes. It’s potentially beneficial to humanity as a whole, too, if we assume (as I suppose I do) that the exploration and migration that led our ancestors to populate most of the world, and the many advances in agriculture and science and other forms of “progress,” are good things. (I could argue either side of that proposition, but I’d just as soon not do it now.)

Not everyone has the same level of this sort of drive, and sometimes, in those who do, it manifests itself in destructive ways. Adolescents (of any age) may do stupid and even terrible things in a drive to be noticed, to feel some sort of power in a world in which they feel otherwise powerless. Their quest is to matter somehow. Or people who have achieved great wealth may be so addicted to the “game” that they’re driven to accumulate more and more, by any means possible, no matter how much harm is done to others. Wars are often seen by one or both sides as noble quests for righteous goals, and by some individual participants as quests for glory. Exploration and colonization have led to great suffering and even annihilation of those whose lands have been colonized. Quests for revenge are by their nature destructive, and tend to go far beyond any possible justice. But the drive to explore, to discover, to achieve great goals, whether on a communal or personal level, still feels like an essential and beneficial human trait. (And not necessarily only human; animals sometimes quest for new territory, mates, safety, just as we do, but whether they do this for any reasons beyond harsh necessity, we can’t tell.)

But our topic this time is really meant to apply to individual, personal quests, largely our own, and I’ve clearly been avoiding grappling with the heart of the matter. To my own surprise, at this stage in my life I don’t think I have much in the way of personal quests to discuss. There were certainly things I wanted to accomplish, and there were things I did more or less accomplish, although they weren’t necessarily the same things. Some dreams will go unfulfilled—I won’t travel around the world and become intimately familiar with those “faraway places” I used to read about—who’s old enough to remember that song? But I value the travel I’ve managed to do, and keep up pretty well on what’s happening in the world as it is now, which is far different from the world I used to read about anyway. And I won’t write “deathless” prose, but I’ve had indications that my writing has touched and even helped a few people, and I’ve helped some beginning writers who have the potential to do far more than I ever could, so I don’t feel that my quest, if I can call it that, has been entirely in vain.

Okay, I’m done with the pseudo-philosophizing part. Let’s get down to what we do as writers. In the “rules” about writing fiction, the quest imperative goes without saying (but is said anyway, and emphatically.) The main character in a story must have a quest, something to gain, and the elements of a story must work together to forward, obstruct, and forward again that quest. Every aspect should have some meaning related to the whole. In erotica, the goal is usually a sexual one, although for me the best erotica includes other intertwined factors. Readers’ mileage may vary.

But I came across some very interesting speculation recently about the role of a writer. A friend on a discussion group called our attention to a NYT article about a study undertaken at the Yale Mind and Development Lab. Here’s a link: 

The study found that the majority of people, whether religious or atheist, believe in some sort of fate,  “defined as the view that life events happen for a reason and that there is an underlying order to life that determines how events turn out.”

They go on to say that this view only works when related to understanding the psychological perspectives of others: “This drive serves us well when we think about the actions of other people, who actually possess these psychological states, because it helps us figure out why people behave as they do and to respond appropriately. But it can lead us into error when we overextend it, causing us to infer psychological states even when none exist. This fosters the illusion that the world itself is full of purpose and design…In other words, the more likely people are to think about other people’s purposes and intentions, the more likely they are to also infer purpose and intention in human life itself.”

Hmm. Who is more likely to think about people’s purposes and intentions than writers of fiction? Another friend on the discussion group posed the question of writers being complicit in supporting this view of all life events happening for a reason. I, flippant as ever, responded that we writers get to be “gods and the creators of our fictional worlds. So of course everything in our stories has to have a reason--and that rifle hanging on the wall in the first act of the play had better be fired before the end. (Was it Chekhov who decreed that?)”

Upon further thought, I decided that we have to make our stories, our mini-worlds, have meaning and purpose and action that makes sense, because, as in playing games, people read fiction to fulfill a need for quests. If we don’t fill that need, they won’t read our work. Whether reinforcing beliefs that everything happens for a reason is harmful, I can’t say, but the need would be there anyway, so filling it may be a good thing. Fictional quests don’t always have to end well for the characters involved; the popularity of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books proves that. But the quest itself, the seeking, the striving, exercises psychological and emotional "muscles" that desperately need that stimulation. (On second or third thought, maybe the Game of Thrones world manages the trick of exercising those muscles and at the same time dispelling the belief that everything happens for a human-centered reason.)  

What do you folks think?  



  1. Sacchi:
    I think our brains are hard wired to learn and retain life principals through stories. Usta be it was all mouth to ear, now we put pen and paper in between and lately e-bits. If you are at all familiar with the late Joseph Campbell, his life work was deconstructing the stories of cultures and civilizations, long gone. One of his works, the most readable for me, "Hero with a Thousand Faces" explored the hero myth in ancient and modern stories. It inspired this guy, George Lucas, to make some films about a kid on a hero's quest. What was the name of that movie again....

  2. Good point, Spencer. I'm somewhat familiar with Joseph Campbell, and some others who have done this sort of work. Well-researched fiction like Mary Renault's The Bull from the Sea and The King Must Die also dig into the histories behind the stories and the timeless role these stories play.

  3. I'm reading Game of Thrones as we speak - at page 3200 of 4700 pages and a cast of thousands! How Martin kept track of all these characters boggles my mind. It truly is a masterwork of fantasy fiction and like you said Sacchi doesn't end well for most of the questors! An amazing read. I was stunned when Ned Stark was executed - I thought he was the one to carry the story through to the end - and when Jamie Lannister turned out to be so cold blooded - Martin certainly doesn't play by the rules - not that he should of course.

  4. JP, Game of Thrones makes me think that the thrill of the quest may be much more important (to readers, at least) than the outcome.

  5. I think the quest--big picture quest--is to deal efficiently with whatever the voyage throws at us. Our knowledge of ourselves and others will ideally bring out a logic of reason we can comfortably live by. We just need to teach ourselves how to learn from our mistakes.

    Fiction, on the other hand, has to walk a story line, not necessarily a linear line, but a story that had all the wild swings between the predictable and the unexpected, as real life does, may not read as believable to a reader.

  6. There are a whole slew of idea threads here, Sacchi, especially for a relatively short post. I think I see a semantic confusion, though. The conviction that everything "happens for a reason" is not at all the same concept as "everyone has a reason for what he or she does". One postulates a sort of grand pattern, while the other is talking about motivation.

    And speaking of motivation, there's quite a bit of recent psychological research that suggests many of our stated reasons for our actions are in fact post hoc justifications. In some cases at least, we act, then try to explain why. An uncomfortable notion, for me, but supported by at least some experimental evidence (though many human psych experiments are way too contrived to be convincing, to me at least).

    Pulling this into the realm of fiction - sometimes our characters may not in fact understand their own reasons. I find such characters more interesting than those who are sure of themselves. Unreliable narrators we are - even when talking to ourselves!

  7. Lisabet's made a key distinction here. I totally believe that everyone has a reason for what he or she does. Pondering that is the path to compassion, I think. On the other hand, I am driven to distraction by the platitude that "everything happens for a reason." In my observation, that one is all too often used as a bludgeon to tell someone else how to feel or to provide empty comfort where perhaps shared grief would be a better response.

    I do think of myself in a creator relationship with the stories I write, and I have to say it's a scary vision to have of a God. My reasons, the things that make stuff happen in my stories, are all about what's interesting—not about what's pleasant or fair. I suppose, in that sense, everything might well happen for a reason. Too often, though, there's a conflation occurring—that the reason is in line with justice or karma or something. I'm not giving my characters justice, though. I'm experimenting on them, trying to work things out about myself and the world.

    I do think we have emotional muscles that need stimulation. Part of what we like about genre, I think, is that we like that stimulation to have different flavors. In horror, we often see quests doomed to fail. In epic fantasy, we often see quests that "work out" according to an underlying sense of destiny.

    Very thought-provoking post, Sacchi. I could go on and on. Thanks for this.

  8. I wasn't clear enough about the Yale study. Their point was just what you're saying; there are reasons for human behavior, but too often we extrapolate that perception of pattern to thinking that "everything happens for a reason." Well, there's the "butterfly wing" effect, so that in one sense everything does affect everything else, but that (I think) is another matter. The example used in the study report was of the man badly injured in the Boston Marathon bombing who met his now-wife, a nurse, while being treated in the hospital. There's a clear cause-and-effect there, but not the way he interpreted it, saying that the reason he was injured was in order to meet her. I cringed when I first read that, well before I saw this article. .


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