Back when I was a younger man– last week! I swear!– and getting my hands dirty in the craft of playwriting, I spent a lot of time worrying about one thing in particular: will the play I’m writing work for an audience ten years from now? Will it work for an audience fifty years from now?
Because there are two kinds of successful plays: the topical ones that tap into the zeitgeist of the time; and the ones that aren’t topical or aren’t overtly topical, that could play any time and work.
There are advantages to each. The topical play tends to be much more successful but for a much shorter period of time, and is probably best avoided unless you happen to already be writing scripts for a theater troupe. But if you don’t expect the play to see the stage for a while, you run a serious risk of having your script be dated by the time it’s in the hands of a potential producer.
So the second kind tends to be preferable for most. The problem then arises: how in the hell do you do that, being, as you are, a writer living a topical existence?
Creating a world we can all agree on
It’s a much more interesting problem when writing a novel. With very few exceptions a play is a representation of a reality we can all agree on, i.e., our own. (Of course there are caveats with this. I don’t ordinarily break out into song, for instance. And then there’s the new Spider-Man musical, which is actually “a reality nobody can agree on.”)
Novels are comparatively much more dangerous. In a book you command all of the senses of your reader: they only see, hear, smell, or otherwise experience what you give them. You own the reality entirely, in other words. So it had better be something the reader can accept, because there are plenty of ways to lose them.
It’s easy to get carried away by what you can pull off in a novel. You can introduce anything– magic, vampires, future worlds, impossible past worlds, an immortal man— and as long as you’re internally consistent, you’re probably going to do okay. But just as the events in a play have to exist within the framework of a larger (if unseen) world, a novel has to exist in a world that is fully developed.
In other words, the world the story inhabits has to be as three dimensional as the characters.
You ever read a story where the characters are defined only by one or two characteristics? Like, they were purely evil and that was all there was to them? (Or in film, the “I’m only here to be the sidekick, I have no existence outside of this role” characters.) Real people are a mixture of a lot of competing motivations. Likewise, the real world isn’t a collection of archetypal good or evil, no matter what you may have learned from Fox News. It’s mostly gray.
Here, I think, is where books whose topics are largely religious or political– the two things you should never discuss in polite company– go wrong. If you’ve written a story about a Born-Again Christian out looking for miracles, well, you can get away with that just fine as long as your protagonist lives in a complicated, gray-shaded world rather than one in which he or she is combating the forces of Satan in our everyday world. Likewise, if you’ve written a story in which the liberal forces of the world are trying to take away your freedom, you need to stop watching Glenn Beck.
Of course, half the problem with stories like these is that the author actually does see the world this way, in which case I can’t help them, and I’m going to have to ask them to stand a little further away from me, please.
But for the rest of us, it’s helpful to remember the gray world, especially when we’re imagining our own version of it. If you’re building a future, for example, if you don’t develop it enough for there to be gray, it’s going to be wanting.
Incidentally, I’m convinced this is why so many future-world stories involve military-type frameworks: a large portion of the population can be defined narrowly by rank-and-file. Much easier and cleaner. Plus: uniforms!