What if in your story, your character is not in the place he wants to be? He yearns to return there.
When we yearn for something, we can build it up in our minds as much better than it actually is. Most people who’ve had crushes or relationships have experienced this; if the love is unrequited, the object of our affections attains a near-mythical status. A celebrity we don’t actually know takes on all the qualities of our ideal partner.
Following a breakup, the spurned lover can find himself in an agony of desire as he begins to idealize the relationship and focus on his ex’s best qualities. He may forget about the reasons they broke up in the first place. People who reunite after a split rarely stay together, unless they are committed to working out the problems that pushed them apart in the first place.
You could make the setting in your story the object of such yearning. Like Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, your character could spend his efforts trying to go home and arrive with a newfound appreciation of the place he left behind. Or, he could idealize it to the point where a return makes his situation worse.
In a story that takes place inside someone’s head, the setting could be entirely within the character. Films that use a similar technique include Shutter Island (2010; also a book), and to a smaller extent, Heavenly Creatures (1994). In the latter film, the two girls, Pauline and Juliet, imagine a fantastical kingdom in which they can escape the uncomfortable realities in which they live.
Yearning is such a strong feeling that it can really mess with characters. It can even mess with you, the reader. Dare I say it can mess with writers as well? Writing can feel like yearning, in that we long to be in the zone where our stories take place. We want to go there and live the lives our characters live–if we didn’t, we wouldn’t put ourselves through all this.
I had this revelation the other day and it blew my mind a little, so of course I’ll share. Some writers employ the technique of metafiction to deliberately knock you out of a story. Whaaaaat? you say. Bear with me; I’m getting to something.
They use ironic language and departure from narrative norms to point out that yes, you are reading a book and no, it’s not real but it could be, and wouldn’t that just be interesting as hell?
People have criticized Song of Susannah (Book VI of The Dark Tower) not just for its slow pacing and weaker structure, but also because Stephen King actually inserted a version of himself in this book.
WARNING: NOT REALLY A SPOILER BUT SKIP IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW.
Roland and Eddie go todash and are supposed to go to New York while Pere Callahan, Jake, and Oy go to Maine, but they all get switched. They end up in Maine and find King; he tells them he quit writing the story, and they tell him he has to finish it. Then they leave him with no memory of the encounter but a push to fish the manuscript out of a box in the basement and get back to work.
OKAY SORT OF SPOILER IS OVER NOW.
Sounds silly, doesn’t it? Well, it was, a little, but as a literary device, it’s absolute genius. What if putting himself in the story was not Stephen King being egotistical? What if this meta stuff makes it easier for the reader to imagine him/herself as a part of the story? If Roland and Eddie could come through into our earth–into Keystone Earth, if that’s where we really are–and give King some shit, then we could go to Mid-World.
Maybe there really are other worlds, as Jake Chambers says in The Gunslinger. Maybe we’re in one right now. Oddly, I’ve seen two unusual cars recently like the ones the can toi drive. The first was on the highway; the second, at my work. Maybe I’m about to go todash….maybe Roland of Gilead will come and save me. I can only hope.
Image: Elizabeth West
Metafiction’s purpose is to make you question what is fiction and what is reality. It seems King’s yearning to visit the setting he created and even infect his Constant Readers with it is so strong, he had to be there. He’s so consumed by it that it didn’t stay in The Dark Tower books; elements of Mid-World show up in many of his other works.
To thread Mid-World through the rest of his work this way is the ultimate use of setting. (Or maybe he didn’t make it up at all. All things serve the Beam.)
I know I’m inspired by it. I’ve just started Book VII, The Dark Tower, which I haven’t read since it came out in September 2004. Considering I sort of forgot what happens (not everything), it’s almost like reading it again for the first time. I remember the very end and that there is some crying ahead.
If I could write something like this or Harry Potter, something that made my readers as happy and angsty and slavishly devoted to the tale as this story makes me, then I would consider this nameless yearning in my author’s soul as satisfied. As it stands, I’m woefully short. But there’s still time. As Roland would say, there will be water if God wills it. And when I come to the clearing at the end of the path, I hope I will not have forgotten the face of my father.