I love the fact that stories make my real life look like the dim cousin with snot on his cheek. Things that happen in stories don’t happen in the real lives of real people, and that’s kind of the point. Stories are so unreal we can sink into them without squirming. Come on, nobody wants to be told about real life when they have a real life of their own to deal with.
We don’t live in stories. We’re not going to bring down a corrupt government with nothing but our pistol and a three-day beard. We’re not going to get seduced by some leather and lace vampire prince crime lord saxophone player assassin. We don’t wield magic swords that sweaty fan boys buy replicas of to wear with their fake chainmail and cheap boots. These things are not going to happen to us. We’re going to update spreadsheets, build houses, mow the yard, eat junk food, chase our kids, watch bad TV, go to the bathroom, and sleep. Maybe we’ll drink a margarita. And die. Not from the margarita I hope.
Stories resemble our real lives in almost no way at all, but still we want to understand our lives through stories. Life is big and scary, but fun little stories unfold in familiar ways. Stories strip the detail off our flabby lives and leave us with the polished bones.
Let me demonstrate. I’ll summarize the well-known tale of Luke Skywalker in the very first Star Wars film.
Normal Life. Luke’s a whiny, reckless farm boy on a boring planet hot enough to melt all George Lucas’ Oscars. He wants adventure and glory more than anything else, so he bitches about his chores and drives his uncle insane.
The Adventure Begins. Luke meets wise but scruffy Obi-Wan, and then the evil Empire turns Luke’s family into medium-rare lawn art. Luke makes his first decision. He joins Obi-Wan and right away gets into trouble in a bar. It’s all he can do to avoid tripping over dismembered arms.
Loyal Friends Appear. Luke flees the planet just ahead of the Empire, courtesy of cynical Han Solo and his wookie friend, Chewbacca, who’s like a huge, psychotic shih tzu. We find out that wookies tear off people’s arms, and that Obi-Wan can be given a migraine from a hundred light years away, even when he’s in hyperspace. Luke gets to show he can use his mystical powers to outsmart levitating D&D dice.
Bad Decisions and Worse Results. Luke has recklessly followed Obi-Wan and is rewarded by getting sucked into the arms of the evil Empire, particularly the villain Darth Vader. Then, like a moron, Luke recklessly decides to save the princess. That results in:
- being trapped in a room with a dozen maniacs shooting blasters
- almost getting crushed after some garbage monster humps his leg
- getting stuck on a ledge with storm troopers shooting at him, or at least at the walls near him, and being saved only by heroic wire work and an incestuous smooch.
- seeing Darth Vader murder the beloved Obi-Wan, producing a disappointing lack of gore.
Setting Up the Big Fight. Luke escapes from the Death Star after a two minute space battle that could have been replaced by footage from any film about WWII air combat. However, he’s leading his enemies right back to the rebel base. Luke’s crappy decisions have now endangered the base and the entire rebellion made up of every white male extra in Hollywood. What does Luke do? He rolls up his sleeves and does some determined moping. Luke and his friends reach the rebel base, and the rebels plan the ultimate assault on the Death Star, which all the pilots agree is pretty much doomed.
The Dark Moment. The assault goes poorly, if getting 95% of your force wiped out can be considered a poor showing. When the rebel base is seconds from annihilation, when the deadliest villain in the galaxy is about to give his son Luke the ultimate time out, when things could not possibly get any worse, and it’s all Luke’s fault—Luke grows up. Rather than recklessly relying on his targeting computer, he trusts his instincts and obeys the disembodied voice of a dead man. Luke fires an awesome sci-fi torpedo into a port the size of a wamp rat. I still don’t know how big that is, but it blows the Death Star into a jillion cheesy 1977 special effects bits.
Wrap Up. Luke gets a shiny medal from a cute princess with whom he has an ambiguous relationship, and about 5,000 rebel soldiers watch while wondering what the mess hall is serving for lunch. And hoping it’s not wamp rat. Luke gets adventure and glory because he changed from a whiny, reckless youth into a confident man with mystical powers and a badass black wardrobe in the sequel.
The story is clear and structured and non-threatening. It’s a nice way to understand things. But here’s my take on real life for Luke Skywalker.
Real Life. Luke’s a whiny, reckless farm boy who wants adventure and glory. He works on his uncle’s sand farm, until the sand market crashes and they go broke. They move to the city where Luke sells deep fried wamp rat on a stick. He does well, opens his own wamp rat stand, and then opens a few more.
Luke meets a girl who can stomach the aroma of wamp rat, she marries him, and they crank out some kids. He recklessly opens a blue milk smoothie franchise, and he loses everything except one broken down wamp rat stand. He recovers by adding grilled wamp rat and wamp rat fingers to the menu.
Luke grows up, stops making reckless decisions, and saves his money, even though there’s nothing worth a damn to buy on this stupid planet. As the kids grow, they take family vacations to the planet’s other squalid cities. Things seem really good.
The kids leave home, and Luke turns the wamp rat business over to his son. His wife gets tired of hearing his stories about the droids he owned when he was a kid, and he spends more time in the garage rebuilding classic land-speeders. He breaks his leg in a horrible bantha accident, and he never dances again. The city raises the taxes on his mud brick hovel, and his idiot son runs the business into the ground. Luke and his wife move to a small sand farm and rarely see their kids. Not only does Luke never leave the planet for adventure, he ends up back where he started, on a sand farm. I could go on, but you see where I’m headed with this.
Luke’s story and Luke’s real life both contain lots of references to wamp rats, so they’re alike in that way. Also, Real Luke and Story Luke both learn to stop flailing off to rescue every princess that comes along, getting their mentors killed and/or sending their blue milk smoothie franchises into bankruptcy. The difference is that Story Luke takes 121 minutes to learn that, while Real Luke takes half a lifetime. That’s a lot fewer trips to the bathroom, even with 64 ounces of Dr. Pepper inside you. Of course, Real Luke doesn’t get any medals, or mystical powers, or a light saber, but restoring land-speeders is probably fun.
If Real Luke saw Story Luke’s tale, would he understand more about his real life? Would it help him grow up and stay away from schemes involving blue milk? Would it convince him to stop wasting his time on land-speeders and go have some adventures? I think it might, but I could be wrong. I guarantee one thing though. It would convince him that you should never let anything bigger than a beagle hump your leg.