One of my favourite DVD box-sets is the HBO series Rome. Originally broadcast between 2005 and 2007, it was a retelling of the story of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and the end of the Roman democracy. Many of the characters were the big names well known from history, but alongside it, the scriptwriters had created some fictional characters of a more ordinary nature. Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are soldiers in Caesar’s army who, through a mixture of fortune and misadventure, happen to find themselves shaping history. When the two soldiers once again find themselves before the great leaders, not only saved from certain death but responsible for an act of mercy with political ramifications, Caesar comments that the men must have powerful gods. Powerful gods indeed, for two ordinary men who are unexpectedly responsible for Caesar’s rise to dictatorship, and then his subsequent murder.
Powerful gods, or skilled scriptwriters, who want to weave the lives of fictional characters into the bigger story and therefore need to place their heroes at key points in history, and keep them alive against the odds until the end of the series. But this is what all writers do; they become the gods, picking and choosing the fortunes and misfortunes of the characters they create. Charlotte Bronte always intended Jane Eyre to marry Rochester, but not at the first attempt. Victor Frankenstein is never going to escape from his monstrous creation. Lizzie Bennett has to fall in love with a man she despises. Writers, powerful gods with their characters’ lives in their hands; there is only ever one plot device between happiness and despair.
I wonder what kind of god I am. So far my endings have been mostly happy, with redemptions, satisfying conclusions and just rewards. But I have made my characters work hard for their happy endings. Take Marianne in After the Rain. My power over her was to trap her in a marriage that made her miserable, then steer her course to a deserted wilderness where her path could cross with that of another lost soul; it is a chance meeting that saves them both, but not before it has caused more anguish. And then there is Arris, the main character of my unwritten fantasy novel; all he wants in life is independence and an opportunity to prove himself, but I set him on a course that means he can only achieve his goals by rescuing the girl he loves after a hideous and life-changing assault and by killing his hero and mentor in order to save his own life. A more benevolent god would have found an easier ending for him, but I sacrificed his happiness for the more interesting plot line. It is a dark power.
Like I said, it is what writers do. The pragmatism of it is inevitable. I’m not really a god, just a writer, trying to come up with the most exciting story. And yet at times, it feels like I have no control over it. Take my worst victim of this dark power – David Waltham, in The Most Beloved Boy. His death is not just a plot device to achieve an end, it IS the plot. It hadn’t ever been my original intention. I had planned for David to return to his home town ill and weakened but surviving, even if it was a life with less potential than previously expected. But in the new format, without the fantasy element and the previous episodes, that wasn’t strong enough to work on its own. The anger and hatred directed at Dan for bringing his friend home in such a state wasn’t justified. And there was no reason for Dan to stay and face his demons. It was only enough to be part of a story. But if David died, it became the whole story. A promise to his dying friend gave Dan a bittersweet reason to stay at the same time as making the hostility against him even worse. With this change, the story had a plot, a bloody good one. It was the only thing to do. And so the hand of god reached in and cut short the life of a character I loved. I played the cruel and powerful god, but it wasn’t easy reconciling myself to that decision. I had created him to be loving and kind and courageous and honourable, so l could hardly bear the thought of killing him off. His death is a great source of pain and grief to the other characters in the novel, a senseless and devastating outcome for a life that deserves a happy ending. But that was the point. His whole life was sacrificed for the sake of a novel. It still makes me sad, but as god of this world, I would not change it.
And now I am attempting the play god again, with a new set of characters. The novel that I have been trying to get going for the last two years has gained a bit more momentum recently, thanks to a tragic deus ex machina – tragic for the characters but much more exciting for me to write. My main character will suffer before he finds his resolution, but it is the only way his story will ever get written. In order to give life, I must destroy it. I am powerful god indeed.