I recently finished reading John Scalzi’s Redshirts. I recommend it. Three quarters of the book is a fairly entertaining send-up of Star Trek in much the same way that Galaxy Quest was– lighthearted, fast-paced, full of one-liners and the occasional winking nod. The last quarter of the book, without getting into any spoilers, turned right around into an existential gut punch.
Part of what makes up that gut punch is the idea of doppelgängers and alternate selves. A lot of characters have to deal with the concept, some of them left debating which version is “real” and what that even means. I can even imagine some characters in Redshirts—the ones who don’t get to find out—wondering what their alternate selves are like, what they believe, what their life experiences have been. It’s an appealing bit of daydreaming, a “what if” form of escapism that assumes the other version of you is living a better life somewhere. Redshirts does point out, however, that that’s not always the case.
As a transgender woman, there’s at least one alternate version of myself: the one that never transitioned. Even so, there are many selves like that, each with his own background. Maybe he embraced some conservative, anti-LGBT worldview that led to him suppressing his thoughts and identity. Maybe he was tortured half (or fully) to death in conversion therapy. Maybe he just never got the necessary support and resources, so he spends his life wishing and dreaming about what could’ve been. Same end result, different avenues. Different selves.
I also assume there’s a me out there who was bolder, braver, who started her transition years before I did. I’ll be honest, I’m a little jealous of her. But maybe I shouldn’t be. Maybe she started too soon, acted recklessly, cost herself the things that would’ve kept her in good shape. She might’ve rushed in where I rightfully feared to tread.
In short, I can at least understand the thought process behind the many-worlds interpretation. I think about cause and effect a lot, which leaves me digging out those moments where the timeline likely splits. The days and events that end up changing who you are as a person.
The comic book world shares the obsession; see Superman: Red Son for example. Those events, those causes and effects, form a Narrative: a potent and almost controlling story, pieces in an immense mortal puzzle — some of them impossible to forget. Some only make sense in hindsight. Some (like writing about existentialism and a sci-fi novel on an October weeknight) are so interwoven with themselves and other details that they’re borderline unknowable.
As an example: I’m a furry because of Half-Life.
That narrative– that story that gets me from Point A to Point B– goes like this:
After beating Half-Life, I started looking into its multiplayer, and then its mod scene. That led me to The Specialists. A mapping contest for that mod led me to its forums, where a number of regulars had forum signatures referencing the webcomic Jack. Jack is a moderately adolescent and considerably violent epic about the grim reaper, who happens to be a green rabbit. Jack had an IRC channel on Furnet, which exposed me to the wider furry community, which readily took me in as one of their own.
I went into the series of events as an ordinary (okay, “ordinary”) teenage dork and left a newfound rabbit, rapidly discovering herself and what the world had to offer. There were conflicts (dealing with identity, family, and creeps), there were triumphs, and there were side characters. I lost touch with several of those characters after that narrative was complete and I had gone through a recognizable character arc. I was only recently reminded that one of them still exists (and he’s got a solid following on Twitter, as it turns out). But of course he exists. They all exist. They’re real people with real lives.
One hallmark of a well-written character is that they exist outside of the story, outside of The Narrative. This is especially true of a well-written supporting character; the flattest, most insulting characters are those who clearly only exist at the whim and in service of the protagonist. (Even more insulting if those characters are the only women or PoC in the whole story.) A well-rounded character—a well-rounded world, for that matter—had plenty going on before the story began and carries on after the curtain draws.
An interesting barometer for that strength is fan fiction. If a character or world is well-realized, other writers have no difficulty peering into their existence and finding new stories. The most popular worlds and canons for fan fiction, such as the Harry Potter universe, offer a mix of well-developed characters, tons of implicit and explicit opportunities for side stories, and enough space for dei ex machina just in case they’re needed. The things that cause the source books to be good stories make the world ripe for elaboration and reinterpretation. They aren’t prerequisites, but they’re assets.
There’s a theory I’ve heard when it comes to character development: every character should feel like they’re the protagonist of their own novel. Not necessarily the one you’re writing at that moment (although that could introduce some interesting power dynamics), but they all have their own Narrative. A beginning and an end. For my first book, I tried to think of what those novels would be and where the characters are within their novel while the one I’m actually writing is taking place. I’m preemptively writing those side stories which may never actually come to fruition but still offer an extra opportunity for depth. It’s what makes me smile when someone asks what happens to Alex after the book wraps up. I know what happens. Maybe I’ll write it someday.
As is so often the case, thoughts of fictional selves bleed over into thoughts about my actual self. I wonder what my novel would be. I do occasionally think I’m boring, but not so much so that I wouldn’t have a character arc somewhere in me. There are definitely chains of cause and effect where I’ve changed at the end of it, where I’ve learned something about myself and the way the world works. I’ve had moments, staring out on a vista or tucking myself into bed, where I would’ve been fine with tacking “and she lived happily ever after” on the end of it. For someone with mental health issues like myself, “happily” is a relative term. Still, it works.
But I think it’s best that we don’t know when we’re in the throes of The Narrative. That we don’t know if what we’re doing is the main plot, an epilogue, or just some bit of character development to be referenced down the line. You never know if your novel will be about your divorce or if you’re about to spend your novel as a divorcee. Or if your novel foreshadows a divorce. I don’t think a person should know, or would want to know. Imagine the anxiety. It’s the worst of what famous people have to deal with, knowing that every moment and interaction matters in perpetual and ineffable ways, and you don’t even get the adoration or the big box office receipts.
But then, life is long in many cases. Most of us don’t have one story; a well-lived life is full of sequels. A robust, exciting one… well, that’s a full TV show. Each week, a new drama to face or villain to vanquish; each year, a grander story to be told, a larger goal to be attained. But even a TV show has a finale. And unless it’s the kind of show that kills off characters at will, even then the protagonist carries on outside of The Narrative.
Just as a well-written story lends itself to a lot of fan fiction, a well-lived life lends itself to a lot of “what if”.
What if I never met that person?
What if I got a different job?
What if I never transitioned?
But those are all the lives of alternate selves. They’re not part of my story. They could be better stories, for all I know. They could even be the heart of the story itself, each introducing a character arc, a change that happened in this world but not in some other universe. My Narrative, the biggest story of my life, may have already passed. That would be tragic, I think; I’ve lived a good life, but I like to hope there’s more I’ll get to do.
Best, then, to live as though The Narrative is only on its way. To live as though, while there may be this infinite cadre of alternate selves, we haven’t hit the point where it really mattered yet. That way, everything I’m doing is just character development. I’m building backstory and developing skills that’ll come in handy when The Narrative actually begins. They’ll make my story more dramatic and my character more well-rounded. Who wouldn’t want to be a well-rounded, well-written character?
I think characters should act the same way, too. They’re not living their lives as though they’re in the middle of a novel. They’re building their histories, moving not towards the end of an arc but to the start of the next one. They’re preparing for The Narrative, unaware that it’s already there. That means they had lives before the story and they’ll have lives after. Their stories don’t end with a clean “happily ever after” because they aren’t done living their lives. A part of their lives may end, but until they die it’s not the whole thing. There’s always another arc.
And, when they’re not in The Narrative, they can think about their own alternate selves. They can write their own fan fiction, too. There’s enough there to work with.
(Originally published in The Codex)