Life imitates life

Thursday, 28 October 2004 — 1:20pm | Literature

Earlier today I read Janet Lo’s life story (in thirty seconds, but re-enacted by something quite different from bunnies). It’s one of those blog posts, the sort of which you will probably never read on this page, where she charts her course through those formative years of K-12 schooling and fluctuating levels of involvement. I could get into how she is now herself an educator in the making and correlate it to the circular journey of the Campbellian hero, but I won’t. Instead, I want to focus on what she says as she brings the story to its conclusion and ties it up in a neat little knot: she calls the one who first offered her a volunteer position in the Education Students’ Association “the catalyst that changed my life” – not at all an inaccurate assessment, given that it eventually led to her serving an entire year on the Students’ Union Executive.

But let’s consider the word “catalyst” for a second.

Whenever we examine literature – and for the purposes of this post, I’ll relegate the discussion to narrative works of fiction – we ask ourselves about the premises of the piece: the questions it poses and how it answers them, if it does at all. Placing different narratives in juxtaposition is a matter of finding common questions, and comparing or contrasting the respective approaches.

One of the questions that exists in such abundance that it could justifiably be termed universal is this: How do people change?

Is it by catalysis? Are we shaped by catastrophic events, plot twists, critical moments of paradigmatic unhinging? Janet seems to think so, and she’s not alone. The supposition that people’s lives and characteristics are residual effects of things that happened to them is the hallmark of the “origin story” that we so commonly associate with the comic book superhero. Batman would have been an ordinary spoiled kid with a stratospheric inheritance had Joe Chill not knocked off Thomas and Martha Wayne. Peter Parker would still be an isolated gifted kid, dwelling in loneliness until the day he enrolls in post-secondary and volunteers for his faculty association, had he not taken a nipping at the hands (legs?) of a radioactive arachnid.

The singular catalyst is perhaps most easily discernable in comics and pulp adventures where the archetypes are broadest, but appear in all forms. You’ll often see some readers or editors of fiction draw a line between plot-driven and character-driven stories. I would posit that the two are never mutually exclusive, though one often comes out on top as the dominant narrative thread.

The other model of character development is evolutionary, and works by way of one’s gradual responses to circumstance. I find it curious that more often than not, it is a process of decay. To cite an interdisciplinary example, one could make a case that Michael Corleone stopped being the detached and indifferent war hero the moment he killed Solozzo in the restaurant, but the real progression of who he becomes can hardly be pinned on one incident alone. He was conditioned by his immersion in a culture of crime, fear and fratricide.

The real puzzle, in the end, is what the relation is between how literary characters are defined and how is it we change as people – be it in our involvements, our sociability or whatever makes us unique. Perhaps marking out the turning points, the catalysts, are a purely retrospective analysis when we engage in the act of storytelling.

Do we tell stories, or do they tell us?

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