In the fourth book in the excellent fantasy series Five Kingdoms by Brandon Mull, the main character decides that, even knowing what he knows at this point, he would go back in time and do it all again.
At a writing workshop I and some writer friends went to recently, we were told that, because a story always involves loss, the main character would always wish, at the end of the story, not to have experienced the events of the story.
Clearly there’s a disjuncture between commercial and literary fiction, and I prefer commercial fiction. See below for more on why.
A Worthwhile Journey
The stories I like to read are stories in which a character loses or gives up something valuable, but gets something even more valuable in exchange: treasure, a new friend, self-knowledge, or possibly all of the above. No character in such a story would decide that the exchange wasn’t worthwhile.
Research in behavioral economics involving coffee mugs and chocolate bars supports the idea that you prefer whatever you’ve already got to a disproportionate degree. In other words, we overvalue what we have and resist giving it up in exchange for what we don’t have, even if what we don’t have is of equal or greater value, because of what is called the endowment effect.
It seems to me that this economic logic applies at the beginning of a story: after hearing the call to adventure, characters often hesitate before proceeding because they think they prefer the status quo. The same logic would seem to apply at the end, though: having undergone the necessary changes, who would want to reverse them?
Physics tells us we couldn’t go backwards even if we wanted to. Oh, arrow, of entropic time!
Moreover, the rules of the ever-popular Jung/Campbell/Lucas Hero’s Journey stipulate that “you can never go home”.
To put it yet another way, you can never step in the same river twice because you (and the river) are different.
To return to Brandon Mull’s Five Kingdoms, in the fourth volume, the main character, Cole, literally has to decide whether to undo everything that has happened to him so far.
At the beginning of book 1, Sky Raiders, Cole followed some friends and neighbors who were kidnapped and brought into a magic realm to be sold as slaves. He’s been captured and sold, he’s escaped and fought and run for his life, and now he’s being hunted by powerful enemies while trying to help the heirs to the magic realm overcome a tyrant. He’ll probably never see his parents or sister or Earth again, and he’ll probably die fighting for the rebellion before he turns twelve, or spend eternity in some kind of evil magic prison. Better to sit out the adventure altogether, right? Wouldn’t Cole rather stay home himself, even if his friends still get abducted? Maybe he and his friends can all stay home if he goes back far enough in time! Surely the rebellion can take care of itself?
Cole thinks about it and decides not to erase all his adventures. He has new friends in the magic realm, and their cause is now his own. He would feel horrible knowing he had the chance to help them and looked the other way.
I don’t think he’s really being offered the chance to go back in time; it’s just a very convincing illusion. His moral worth is being tested by some kind of powerful sorceress. By choosing to remain where he is, with his new friends, he passes her test. And mine.
Wherefore sad stories?
If the main character of a novel wants to go back and undo everything I’ve just read about, isn’t that like saying the reader has put time into imagining all his experiences for nothing? For less than nothing, in fact: for loss! For a ton of vicarious unpleasantness and pain!
There’s a place for tragedy, for stories that end badly. There’s a place for naturalism, for stories that go nowhere in particular. Both kinds can teach us something, and either one can close on a note of real regret.
However, fiction gives us a valuable opportunity to organize events in such a way that everything actually works out all right. Achieving satisfaction in life is hard. Fiction can not only provide a kind of vicarious satisfaction but inspire people to go after the real thing. I think at least some of the time—if not most of the time!—fiction should tell us what life should be like, rather than just hold up a mirror of how it usually is, warts and all.
When and Why I Read Five Kingdoms
I’ve been waiting years for the author to finish publishing the whole series so I could buy the box set and read the whole thing at once.
Genre: fiction (young adult fantasy)
Amazon link: Five Kingdoms
Sky Raiders (Five Kingdoms 1)
Date started / date finished: 23-Apr-2018 / 25-Apr-2018
Originally published in: 2014
Rogue Knight (Five Kingdoms 2)
Date started / date finished: 25-Apr-2018 / 02-May-2018
Originally published in: 2014
Crystal Keepers (Five Kingdoms 3)
Date started / date finished: 02-May-2018 / 07-May-2018
Originally published in: 2015
Death Weavers (Five Kingdoms 4)
Date started / date finished: 13-May-2018 / 15-May-2018
Originally published in: 2016
Time Jumpers (Five Kingdoms 5)
Date started / date finished: 15-May-2018 / 18-May-2018
Originally published in: 2018