How horribly boring would a story be with no villains, incredible disasters, or problems of any kind. Narrow escapes, fantastic plot twists, and (a personal favorite of mine!) wonderful character development, that’s what makes a gripping story. This last piece often occurs when a character’s life has been completely and horribly upended. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, four children are sent away from their city which is being destroyed by bombs to live with an old professor in the country with the most incredible magical wardrobe. Frodo is given a ring, and before long he is chased from his home by creepy, screeching creatures on horses which drive him to wondrous new places, both beautiful and dangerous. In the Train to Busan Seok-woo starts out as a boring dishonest businessman till he and his little girl are attacked by zombies. Suddenly, heroic traits starts emerging while some characters around him let fear and panic drive them to become worse than the zombies they fear.
Let’s take a step back. If Tolkien had written an epic 900 paged account of Sam and Frodo talking in a pub in the Shire, it is highly unlikely that I would have read it, as much as I love those characters (although to be fair, I’m sure there are plenty of people who would make it through the whole thing). It’s even harder to imagine that I would read a story about four school children in London who went to school each morning and did homework each evening with fairly perfect lives. I certainly would not have watched a movie of a man just sitting in a train from Seoul to Busan. Like I said, stories without problems often have the problem of being terribly boring. Disaster, dangers, character growth.
I have to give it to real life: it rarely writes a boring story. The question is: does it write a good story? Emptied store shelves straight from a saga like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, mass panic like what we see in the Train to Busan, and character growth? 2020 has done something to all of us, that much at least is for sure.
I already knew this but this year it has become even more abundantly clear: I don’t wish being chased by black riders on my worst enemy. Nor do I have any desired to have my city bombed. I don’t wish for the borders between countries to close, people (including myself) to be laid off from work, and I wish no one would have died from a virus which attacks the lungs. We suddenly find ourselves living characters at the beginning of a completely new story which is not nearly as boring as we wish it would be.
Many of us, like Frodo, wish these times had never come to us. We can look at the ancient tales or our grandparents’ lives or the future and wish. But it doesn’t change the story. We are here in 2020, Australia is burning, people are dying, and confusion, fear, and anger are rampant. A loud world is getting louder. If I had been the author, I would not have written the situation like this. But I’m not.
I am merely a character.
But that is why we read the truly great stories, isn’t it? We get to know the characters. They stay inside our heads. Maybe we’ve had crushes on characters, felt like they were our mentors, or maybe we’ve been inspired by them. I’ve experienced all these things at one time or another. Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, and Lucy Pevensie: these characters are friends who have taught me something about how to approach the world and myself in a way that’s more than just interesting. I am not interested in the black riders for their own sake, I am interested in how Frodo escapes them and, more importantly, how he is brave when confronting them. I read to follow Lucy into the wardrobe so we can both can look and see with wonder in our eyes and hearts despite the traumatic destruction we’ve seen. Reading about these characters can help us understand who we are and help us become who we are.
It’s time to be those kinds of characters.
2020 makes a great plot twist. Everyone cheering out the end of 2019 (which no one seemed to be particularly fond of); everyone hopeful for a new decade. Suddenly, we are all under lockdown and fighting for toilet paper. This pandemic would also make one heck of a beginning of you wanted to write gripping and “deep” sort of novel. Many of us are characters who have lost someone dear or something important like an income for our family or the ability to spend time with loved ones. We may very easily turn into zombies ourselves: grasping and greedily descending, bitting others in our hunger to be satisfied or feel less dead inside. We could give into the ring. We could be too afraid to explore new corridors and open the wardrobe door. But maybe that’s not who we are.
It’s all wrong
By rights we shouldn’t even be here.
But we are.
It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo.
The ones that really mattered.
Full of darkness and danger they were,
and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end.
Because how could the end be happy.
How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened.
But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow.
Even darkness must pass.
A new day will come.
And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.
Those were the stories that stayed with you.
That meant something.
Even if you were too small to understand why.
But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand.
I know now.
Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t.
Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo : What are we holding on to, Sam?
Sam : That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.