In the latest issue of Science News, I read of a glaciologist who spent a summer waiting for Greenland’s Petermann Glacier to calf an iceberg: “Everything signaled the glacier was ready to go. Melt ponds were pooling on its surface, and massive cracks were opening on the icy tongue that stretched offshore…”
A year later, on August 4, 2010, a piece of ice four times the size of Manhattan broke off that same Greenland glacier. Here’s the thing: Jason Box, our determined glaciologist, wasn’t looking.
When I read that part, I thought, Of course.
To the fiction writer, there’s no other way it could have gone. He had to miss it, the same way Gatsby had to fall in love with a girl who could never love him back. The way Captain Ahab had to be injured—but not killed, at least not in their initial encounter—by Moby Dick. And, Holden Caulfield’s brother had to die. He had to. (Each of these events, btw, happens before the story begins—a lesson in itself.)
We are fiction-writers. Our job is to save our characters. To swoop in and rescue them from the sort of big and small dangers we can all identify with. The very same things—lost love, missed opportunity, fractured families—we all fear.
In this way, we work like super-heroes.
Or--better--we give them a chance to save themselves. A means to right their own lives, to make their own peace with their pasts, to write their own endings. An opportunity to find, or to shun, redemption.
In this way, we work like God.
When novelist John Irving was a boy, he recovered the charred remnants of a poor, mentally retarded pig farmer from the deceased’s burned down barn. In the wake of the tragedy, Irving started spinning stories to his friends. The body, burned beyond recognition, wasn’t Piggy Sneed's body at all, he said. Piggy Sneed had escaped. He’d retired in sunny Florida. He burned the barn down for the insurance money. Yes, Piggy Sneed, whom everyone had looked down on, was the cleverest of us all. He’d had it planned all along.
He tells the story in his essay, “Trying to Save Piggy Sneed,” found in the same-titled book, and likens the event to his work as a novelist: “…I realize that a writer’s work is setting fire to Piggy Sneed—and trying to save him—again and again; forever.”
Okay, now, it's your turn. Set the fire, send the iceberg into the sea, kill the big brother. Go, do it. Create the catastrophe—and every catastrophe, I could argue, is ultimately the reckoning of loneliness. It could be that the only thing we really fear is being alone.
Create the doom, then, light the path. Make a way—any way—and give your character a chance to take the path. This is the dignity in fiction, that we treat characters humanely, decently: we let them choose.