So in my last posting I wrote about the difference between the plot of a story and what the story is about. That got me to thinking about a question I have kicked around a few times in the past – does a story need to be about anything? Does it have to have a point or a message, or is it ok sometimes to just have a story that is entertaining, but doesn’t do anything beyond that?
Flipping over to history teacher mode for a moment, I can say that writers of many previous generations would have found the idea deeply strange. A writer in the Renaissance did intend that their reader would enjoy their poetry or their prose, but they also intended that reader to learn a point of philosophy or ethics or what have you from it. That was the point of writing, and of reading. To write something that didn’t have a lesson for its audience, or to read such a thing, probably would have been regarded as a waste of time.
Going back a little further, even what seem to us to be quite fantastical tales of characters like King Arthur have, or were intended to have, lessons in them. The Arthurian stories are full of crazy stuff like cannibal giants and invisible knights and dolorous strokes laying waste to the countryside, but all that amazing, delightful stuff also has at its core a bunch of lessons we’re supposed to learn. Modern audiences don’t necessarily recognize them really well because the lessons are for the members of a warrior aristocracy with attitudes that are quite alien to us in a lot of ways, but they’re there. The Arthur stories want to teach you about loyalty, about use of force, and a code of personal behaviour.
So, the idea of stories teaching us something has very long roots. This is not a very startling realization. We have known this since being introduced to Aesop’s fables as little children, or perhaps to Biblical parables. But can you have a story without one? Can you write a story that entertains, and does nothing else?
I thought about this some, and I don’t know that I’m finished, and I’m sure that what I have come up with is not in any way definitive. But I thought about what I describe as one of my guilty pleasures in reading, the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell. It’s probably unfair to think of them as a guilty pleasure, given the series’ vast success and popularity, but what I mean by that is that these are (I feel reasonably confident in saying) not books written To Make A Point, they are not nominated for Booker Prizes, but they are meant to be exciting tales for an evening in a comfortable chair. I love them.
I suspect Cornwell’s main objective was to write (very meticulously researched) accounts of a period in history that interests him in an entertaining and engaging way, and to give us a hero that we, his readers, would enjoy following around through adventure after adventure. In that he succeeded brilliantly, I think. I’m not sure (since I have never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Cornwell) that there is much intent beyond that.
But as I thought about the series again, I realized that there are lessons there. To take just the most obvious example: our protagonist, Richard Sharpe, begins the series quite fixated on wealth (understandable, since he is as poor as they come) and the power that comes with rank (again understandable, since he is the victim of those with power over him). He does become wealthy (at least twice) and rises in rank, but these successes are fleeting. More importantly, neither seems to bring him all that much satisfaction, and certainly doesn’t bring him any kind of peace. He is driven onwards, into more adventures that strip his wealth away and bring him into more dangers.
At the end (?) of the series, we find him living in relatively humble means again and in relative obscurity, retired to his wife’s (well, they aren’t technically husband and wife, but come on) farm in Normandy. But he is also described as being content at last. He hasn’t settled down with one of the gorgeous, perilous women with whom he has nigh-on endless encounters, but with a sensible, intelligent lady who thinks of herself as plain but appreciates Sharpe for who he is. He’s described as being happy. Not because of wealth, and not because of status, but because a rootless person finally found a home.
So there probably is a lesson. I’m not sure whether it is Cornwell’s intent that the series be About That, or if it just sort of appears organically. I think there are lots of other things the Sharpe books are About: the importance of friendship and the horror and cost of war prominent among them, and I’m not sure again that Bernard Cornwell deliberately set out to write on these themes. It’s been suggested to me in the past that there are things in my writing that I don’t remember setting out to put there.
I wouldn’t presume to know if that happens to anyone else, or to Bernard Cornwell in particular. I do know that he writes characters very well indeed – even people who only show up for a scene or two are brought to vivid life so that we feel we know them, what they would be like and how they would act.
To me that’s a big part of what makes the stories so pleasant to read – the characters are unfailingly a joy – and I wonder if, when you write a good story, part of what is required is that you get the characters right in a way Cornwell always does. You have to understand people on some level, and convey that understanding in your writing. Perhaps if you do that, write about people truly and well, there will be things your story is About, even if it wasn’t exactly your intent as a writer to put them there. Maybe if a story is entertaining, it sort of has to be About something, because the stories that grab us and engage us strongly are the ones that tell us about people and all our issues in a genuine way.
I’m not sure yet. That’s kind of where I am right now on the issue though. Let me know what you think if you like.
Trying to write lately. Sickness and some other issues have been making it tough. On y va.