In fantasy and other fiction, a lot of stories begin with the question “What if…?” Humans love to explore what might be and what might have been. It’s entertainment, but it’s also a way to learn about ourselves and about the world we live in. Today’s guest post is by chick lit / romance author Deb Nam-Krane.
The Importance of Alternate Realities
Even though my writing stays firmly in the world of Newtonian physics, it’s important for me to know that for all of my characters there’s an alternate reality or, as I call it one of my books, everyone’s unique If Only.
Contemplating what could have been is as painful in fiction as it is in real life; with the benefit of hindsight, our pasts could have been perfect… or could they have? How many SF/F works feature someone going back in time to get the destiny they should have had, only to find that altering history is more complicated than changing a few details? And how many stories across genres center around someone trying to recapture the glory of their youth, only to find that it wasn’t as glorious as they remembered it? Alternate versions of the past, in my opinion, are best used as a tool to help a character come to terms with their present and progress to a better future.
In my debut novel, The Smartest Girl in the Room, my main character is filled with regret because of both the choices she made and, worse, circumstances she couldn’t control. At one point, she fantasizes about what her world could have looked like if only she had had different parents and two men hadn’t lied to her. Underlying all of that is her regret that she didn’t have the power to change those facts. That ache, more than anything else, is what motivates her actions throughout the second half of the novel.
Sometimes the fantasy of what could have been allows a character to see what actually is. Later in my series, two characters with a complicated history find themselves wishing that one essential detail between them could be changed, then later settle for imagining a world in which the truth was known from the outset. In one character’s imagination, the other becomes a better version of themselves. That rumination allows the character to see that the other has, over time, started to become the better person they were always capable of being.
It’s important not to make one character solely responsible for the difference between what could have been and what actually was, even if that character is a “villain” (perhaps especially so). As my characters start imagining the better world they could have had, they see that the person they’ve blamed for their troubles was only one person that needed to change; other, beloved figures would have needed courage, acceptance and/or patience. The world imagined here is possible, but because of all of the moving pieces that would have needed to come together perfectly, not probable. Reality, tragic as it was, becomes something both can make peace with. That understanding finally allows the two characters to stop being haunted by the actions of others and genuinely move forward.
As writers, it’s all too easy for us to live in our heads; we know that if we do that too often, we won’t get anything of consequence done (including our writing!). We need to take that insight into our stories as well; if any of our characters spend too much time imagining what could have been, they will never make a reality that they can ultimately live with. Sometimes, that can make for a compelling story- the modern version of the person who “could have been a contender”- but in most cases we have to eventually move our characters out of their regrets and into action, however subtle it may be.
If we’ve done our jobs right, the reality our characters create for themselves will be something that is true to them, even if it isn’t the happy ending they would imagine for themselves. That, after all, is life: everyday trials and tribulations punctuated by challenges and (hopefully) those brief moments when our dreams come true. That’s what our characters should experience as well.
About Deb Nam-Krane (guest poster):
Deborah Nam-Krane was born in New York, raised in Cambridge and educated in Boston. You’re forgiven for assuming she’s prejudiced toward anything city or urban. She’s been writing in one way or another since she was eight years old (and telling stories well before that). It only took 27 years, but she’s finally ready to let the world read her series, The New Pioneers. The first book in the series- The Smartest Girl in the Room– was released in late March.
Please connect with Deborah Nam-Krane on any of the following sites: