I may get eaten by a rabid Tyrannosaurus Rex tonight. My fear of getting clipped by a biker while walking across an overpass and getting knocked into I-5 traffic may come true. Any number of wretched things may happen to me at any given moment in this imagined “timeline” of my life. We all like to pretend that we’ll die peacefully in our beds, holding the hand of the love of our life as we slip off to Bliss, but really, zombies may be just a few blocks away with a big appetite.
Tonight in my writing group, one of our members shared a piece she had written for a women’s conference about how her cancer survival story changed the way she looked at life. It was beautiful, and I gave her a big hug when she finished reading it. I don’t have any right to tell her story or use her words to convey my point, but it certainly got my gears going (at some point, this has to do with writing, I swear).
My grandpa died when I was about seven, and I remember a long period where I would lie in bed and think about what death was, when it would come, and what it would be like if you knew when it was coming. Cancer stories fascinated me. Terminal diseases turned people that fought them into heroes. It was probably in some sappy Lifetime movie, but I remember hearing these brave souls called angels, because they show us how we should be living, and I always thought that profoundly beautiful. Every time I would hear one of these stories, I would remind myself that I needed to make every day important, that I heard it for a reason.
Tonight, I was reminded that I need to make sure I enjoy life since I don’t know how much of it I have left, but I also realized that I need to make sure my characters enjoy their lives too. First of all, I need to finish writing their tales so that they can be passed on for others to enjoy. I also need to ensure that these characters meet what those who have a life-threatening illness often encounter: reconciliation. Now in real life, a quick car accident can prevent someone from having the chance to reflect on life and discover its meaning before it ends, and their death doesn’t necessarily follow a story arc like in a novel. I’m not allowed to have a character get killed by a tornado unless tornadoes were part of my story. A character can’t be on an epic quest and drown in a puddle because their armor was too heavy (history be damned). In story, death has to have meaning. The dying character or those around him/her have to reconcile that character’s significance to my story or else the reader will hurl it out the window and go watch Misery for revenge ideas on me.
When I’m writing characters, I have to pretend as if their days were numbered, especially if they are actually going to die in the story. Whether or not the character knows it, I have to give each day, each event meaning. The reader will recognize the thought I give to these details to help them appreciate having known the character. I have to play God, giving someone one more day, over and over again, until I’ve finally conveyed my theme or message. Whether or not the character dies in the story, the reader needs to recognize the beauty in what happened, whether it be tragic, humorous, or happily-ever-after.
I better not have dreams about dinosaurs tonight.