Novelists watch life unfold and shake our heads. There’s a test to tell just how absurd it all is. We ask ourselves, what our would editors say if we went to them with a particularly odd story.
”Have I got an idea for you. Let me do a modern day Titanic novel, okay? Only this time, the captain will be the bad guy–not the boyfriend with the sparkly necklace–AND (here’s the twist) he’ll also be the good guy–the new Leonardo DiCaprio. Isn’t that better? See, he gets too close to shore when he’s showing off to a female crew member (bad guy), then he’s not sure what to do after he crashes (bad guy), but along the way, he falls into a life boat, and the lifeboat crew takes off with him, when all he really wants to do at that point is stay and go down with his ship.” (good guy)
I try to explain, since she doesn’t seem to understand. “It’s a story of transformation, see? He wants to go down with his ship, but he’s kind of a klutz. He hits his shin, or his big toe and he can’t swim back to deck. It’s a great story. Even if it doesn’t, well, end happily.”
At this point I would have to manually jerk said editor’s hands off her ears. “Did you hear me?” I would demand. And she, eyes glazing over, would say: “Have you lost your mind? Nobody, and I mean nobody, would believe a story like that!”
How many of us can’t believe it? Can we count the mistakes of Captain Francesco Schettino of Costa’s Concordia this past week? Showing off. Denying reality. Dithering. Abandoning ship. Lying about the way he abandoned ship? Most of us were raised to believe that people in positions of great authority (especially people in dashing uniforms) are heroes, or at the very least, heroes in training.
This time, not so much.
This morning I read a wonderful article from the Greater Good Science Center by Zeno Franco and Matt Langdon. The Captain Who Fell into the Lifeboat talks about heroism, and how to recognize it. Unfortunately Captain Schettino failed on every level. He didn’t take the accident seriously enough. He gave into pressure from others, which may not only have caused the accident, but also delayed response. He didn’t consider the long term results of his actions. He tried to justify his decisions, even claiming he acted heroically by steering the vessel into shallower waters. He let his own fears overcome the demand for leadership and “fell” into a lifeboat to avoid taking charge.
Now contrast this with Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, who in 2009 managed, with raw courage and outer calm, to land a disabled Airbus A320 in the Hudson River, and get every single passenger out and to safety.
One of the differences between most literary and commercial fiction is the concept of the hero. A thoughtful, insightful literary author could make an interesting story out of Captain Schettino’s fateful day, the forces that drove him to make so many bad decisions, ending, perhaps, with a trial and no conviction, because, after all, the real world isn’t fair. In short, no heroes aboard.
A more commercial approach? Captain Sullenberger and crew, facing challenge after challenge landing that Airbus and somehow, against all odds, making sure everyone is rescued. Heroes aplenty.
None of us really know what we would do in a time of crisis. But me, I’ll take the story about the “captain-who-tried” over the “one-who-didn’t.” Call me an optimist, but I do believe in heroes. And sometimes my faith is vindicated.