For some time now, I have been thinking of a post on writing about good and evil. Can good be interesting? What are the pitfalls people run into when designing villains. This sort of thing. Most likely, it will be in three parts—Writing About Good Settings, Writing About Good Characters, and Writing About Evil.
Here is the first:
photo by Prince Jvstin
Must Good Be Dull? – Part One: Setting
“I want to go to Hell when I die. Heaven is so boring.’
Very few sentences annoy me more than the one above. I have actually heard real people say this. The first time was in high school, but I have since heard adults express the same idea.
What would make a person prefer pain and suffering to peace and perfection? (Of course, these folks are not picturing pain and suffering. They are picturing sinners having a good time sinning together.) Having contemplated this at length, I have come to the conclusion it is due to a lack of imagination. They cannot picture a nice place that is interesting, so they would prefer to be tortured and suffer for eternity.
In the defense of the future moaners in the pit of flames, it is difficult to describe a place without pain and sorrow and make it sound interesting. Descriptions of Heaven usually go something like this: “And then we walked through the door. Beyond, everything was beautiful and nice. It was idyllic and grand and wonderful and joyous. And perfect. Oh, the joy! Did I mention perfect? Even nicer than that. For the rest of eternity, we were all as happy as clams.” Not really something that engages the imagination.
But not being able to describe it so that it sounds interesting is not the same as it not being interesting.
I learned this in a roleplaying game. Many years ago, our characters discovered the World of the Imagination. It was a fascinating place filled with Greek heroes who had prospered instead of coming to their tragic Greek end. It was also especially conducive to creative works. Our characters piled in with great enthusiasm, all eager to create great works of art.
Now, as I writer, I can assure you that writing is very interesting. I love writing. I look forward to doing it. I think about it. I long for writing time. I am fascinated by the process of writing. But what I learned that day was that the act of writing and the act of describing somebody who is writing are not the same thing:
“Okay, Moderator. This is going to be great! My character writes a great work! Then, I write another one! Um…then, I write another one. Then, I write a…zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.”
Is writing boring? No! It is quite exciting. One thinks about what to say. One rejoices when the plotlines unexpectedly come together. One bangs a hole through the wall with one’s head when the words refuse to cooperate. One fights the temptation to surf/play games/read email or the news. One enjoys the flow of creativity that makes one feel active and alive. One “burns with the bliss and suffers the sorrows” of one’s characters lives.
But is this exciting to describe to someone else? Hardly. Even other writers are often bored, as is witnessed by this conversation overheard at the Wright Household:
Me: “Hey, Handsome, you’re home. I wrote a whole chapter today!”
John: “Mm. That’s nice, Dear. My day at work sucked. My computer crashed 375 times and a rabid turtle bit my ear.” *
Whose conversation was the more interesting?.
True, a good author could probably make writing sound interesting, but doing so takes talent. Usually, to do so, the author would probably dramatize the writing process by showing the author struggling with a problem
But is writing only enjoyable on days when I must struggle to overcome a problem? Not at all.
In fact, quite the opposite. The best writing days are often the ones where nothing goes wrong, days when I get to enjoy the act of writing, that wonderful, fulfilling feeling of ideas flowing like a fountain from God (or the Muse or whatever) to my thoughts, through my fingers, to the paper. This type of day is the best of all to experience and the hardest to make interesting on paper.
About now, you are probably asking yourself: “What does this have to do with Heaven?” If Heaven were a place where the things people did were as enjoyable as writing is for a writer, it would be a very wonderful place indeed.
But it might not that enjoyable to read about.
So, our challenge is: how can we make Heaven sound interesting enough that that children will not grow up to choose lives of vice, decadence and crime sheerly because they feel Hell would be more interesting. (Pound your foot with a hammer, Kid, and tell me how much interesting that is. Now do that another hundred, million billion times. Having fun yet? Uh huh.)
So, what do we do?
I have spent a great deal of time thinking about this. I hope with time to come up with more ideas on how to write about Heaven and make it interesting, but so far, I have come up with two ideas.
1) Metaphors – If we cannot make Heaven sound intriguing by describing it directly, then how about comparing it to things that do sound intriguing.
We cannot make a person picture something peaceful and perfect as desirable just by just saying, “It was peaceful and perfect.” But we can take something that we do know, something concrete and real to us, and compare Heaven to this thing.
Haven’t we all had moments of grace, moments of bliss? What images come to mind when we remember them? If we take these images—ideas that do fill us with hope or with longing—and tie them to our image of Heaven. Then, Heaven can become a place that we can experience emotionally, even if we cannot visualize it.
I tried this once in Prospero In Hell. Sadly, the scene is too long to go here. So here, instead, as an example, is my favorite scene of this type from Prospero In Hell. Only in this version, I do it backward, likening not being in Heaven to something negative:
“Imagine you went to live in a house that looked a great deal like your father’s mansion, only nothing was ever quite right. The doors would not close properly. The well did not work. The servants were rude. The walls were moldy. The halls smelled of rotting fruit, and no matter how many logs you put on the fire, you were always cold.
“Nor can you ever grow used to this new house, precisely because it reminds you so much of your old home. You cannot see the blighted rose without recalling the beauty of your old gardens. You cannot walk the corridors without its layout bringing to mind the house you loved. You cannot look through the dingy windows at the overcast sky without remembering the glorious skies above the mansion of your youth. Everything you see makes you heartsick for the original, of which this current place is but a dark reflection. That is what it is like to remember Heaven and dwell on earth.”
2) Nature Descriptions – every description of Heaven I have ever read has made my eyes glaze over. And yet, I have read descriptions of nature, of mountains and rivers and forest, that have trembled with beauty and completely held my attention. Many nature descriptions include only things that one might find in paradise. So why are they so much more vivid?
Look at this excerpt from The Mountains of California by John Muir (1894)
Along its eastern margin rises the mighty Sierra, miles in height, reposing like a smooth, cumulous cloud in the sunny sky, and so gloriously colored, and so luminous, it seems to be not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city. Along the top, and extending a good way down, you see a pale, pearl-gray belt of snow; and below it a belt of blue and dark purple, marking the extension of the forests; and along the base of the range a broad belt of rose-purple and yellow, where lie the miner’s gold-fields and the foot-hill gardens. All these colored belts blending smoothly make a wall of light ineffably fine, and as beautiful as a rainbow, yet firm as adamant.
…In early spring, say from February to April, the whole of this foot-hill belt is a paradise of bees and flowers. Refreshing rains then fall freely, … and the sunshine is balmy and delightful.
What is it that makes descriptions of nature breathtaking, but descriptions of Heaven boring? Could it be the specifics? Whatever it is, if a description of a craggy peak glistening beneath the sun can be dynamic, so can a description of the most beautiful place in existence.
In conclusion, with metaphor and by learning the tricks of nature writers, we may be able to lend majesty and wonder to otherwise static descriptions of Heaven.
What other ideas or techniques have the rest of you seen/thought of that might aid us in saving the unimaginative from an eternity of fire and hammers strikes?
Next week: Must Good Be Dull – Part Two: Saving Deadly Dull Do-Right
* I am sorry to say that this is not a realistic example of a conversation at the Wright Household. The real conversation sounds more like this:
Me: “I wrote a whole chapter today”
John: “My day at work sucked. My computer crashed 562 times and a rabid turtle clamped on my ear so hard it had to be removed by a Boy Scout extraction team.”
Me (wondering if he even heard me. Could I have forgotten to vocalize? Like the opposite problem to what happens to Austin Powers when he has no inner monologue?): “That’s the third rabid turtle this week! Can’t your office do anything to stop this?”