Know Jack #291 Past Tense
Life is at once simpler and more complicated for fictional characters. As the story is being written, they can be lounging, ice-cold drink in hand, besides the pool on a summer day. Everything is right with the world.
Suddenly the author gets up to get a cup of coffee, grab a snack, and read his mail. When the writer comes back an hour later the character is still there beside the pool, the ice has not melted in his drink, the sun has not burned his skin, and everything is still right with the world.
The sad part for our character, let’s call him Sam, is that no time has passed. He hasn’t spent an hour at the poolside—he has spent no time at all. Time and Sam’s life are suspended until the author writes the next line. For Sam the who, what, and the resumption of when are unknown to all but the author—and even he may not yet know.
There is one thing certain. Unless the author wishes to wipe away the essence of Sam, whatever has transpired thus far in the story cannot be altered significantly. If in the pages of the past Sam has laid a gun on the table, that gun is not only still there, it is of necessity, destined to play a role in Sam’s future.
It is popular these days to think real life operates that way and that there is only this moment and the future it opens. But, the moment is never really here, is it? For it swiftly fades into the next. That is not actually how time works. It is how we perceive it and how we are compelled to live it.
Erase the past and there remains no rhyme or reason for either the present or the future. The author may begin in medias res, but until he builds a world of backstory, we have no points of reference for what comes next. The past is the only time from which we can learn why Sam is like he is and thinks as he thinks.
As Napoleon advanced into Russia, the Czar’s army lacking the strength to mount a sufficient resistance scorched the earth as they retreated. All that lay in their wake—the country they loved—was destroyed. In eradicating what they abandoned, they were laying waste to any future the invaders might hope to have there.
The strategy worked but only because the Russians returned to rebuild, replant, and resume the lives they had left behind. Without that return, there would have been no victory?
Be yourself, we are told. But, no one really wants that. When we summon all that is “us”, collect all those guns left on the table, all the drinks by the pool, all the battles we have fought, all the bridges we have burned, and throw open the book, no one wants to read that story. They want scorched earth upon which they can rebuild and replant.
Time is as simple and as complicated for us as it is for fictional characters. Maybe that is because none of them are really fictional at all, only pieces of people stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster. My characters live in pasts hidden and forgotten, pasts real and imagined, pasts that are ours, and pasts that belong to others.