Monday, September 24, 2012

Lagomorphs on my mind

I mentioned some weeks back about how formative certain books are on a person. If you’ve read my opinions online, you probably know that the Harry Potter series and Lord of the Rings had big impacts on me as well (If you didn’t, now you know. I should also mention Dune while I’m at it because as hyped up as people made it, it still blew me away when I read it).

One book that I particularly love but haven’t mentioned is Watership Down. If you haven’t read it, you have to. On the surface, it’s about rabbits. But, to paraphrase a deleted scene from Donny Darko—it isn’t really about rabbits. It’s about people.

The struggle of a small prey animal is, in many ways, our struggle in the face of a seemingly hostile universe. The rabbits, like us, have only their wits. And each other.

But enough about meaning and philosophy. I want to comment on it as a writer. The thing is, I love this book as a writer because I am always looking for ways for my characters to solve issues without violence. And this book does that in spades. Don’t get me wrong—violence is not only entertaining but often necessary in a story. It is, after all, a part of life. But all too often, the main character solves a problem by hacking or shooting his way through, which isn’t creative at all.

Frankly, when guileless violence solves a problem, it bores me (ruses and clever tactics are a different story though). It gets boring because we’ve seen it done so often. The Iliad is full of battle scenes—magnificent, gory battle scenes—but which scene does everyone remember? The one with the wooden horse. When you think about it, Achilles didn’t get his own story. He was just one guy in a story full of characters. But when The Iliad was over, Odysseus gets a whole nother book devoted to him.

A clever hero can always resort to violence (Odysseus certainly didn’t hold back when he found those guys schmoozing his wife). But a character whose only skill is violence can’t achieve much else. Conan, for instance, used cunning and stealth as much as muscle, a fact often ignored when people besides Howard write about him.

The rabbits in Watership Down do fight on occasion. There are some great action scenes (usually chases—they are rabbits after all). But they really shine when they use their brains. This book is in many ways about using adverse conditions in an environment to one’s advantage. When the rabbits survive an encounter, they learn from it. Instead of just saying “whew, that was close!” they often say “how can we use that later?”

It’s a good attitude for a rabbit to have. And it’s a good attitude for people, too.

For a writer, this kind of resolution is a challenge. The best tricks take hundreds of pages to unfold, delivering the ultimate Aha! moment at the end of the story.

Something to think about.

PS: There may be more rabbit stories to come. Apologies if that isn’t your thing. Like I said before: I’m a world person. To my mind, there is no such thing as a boring animal, just unimaginative people.

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