“The Birds and I Don’t Like Change”

Real life and fiction are different when it comes to the notion of change, specifically, how much of it we want.

Ten years ago. I was sitting on our bed, watching TV, and our daughter came in with our four cockatiels perched on her shoulders and hands. The four got one look at our new bedspread/comforter, shrieked, and flew off to the safety of the living room. Our daughter did not run, but eyed the new bed covering, and said, “The birds and I don’t like change.”

Bird owners will recognize the reaction. For a prey animal, any change in the environment is a potential threat until proven otherwise. This includes large items, such as ladders or brightly colored brooms being brought into the house, new big-screen TVs with people playing basketball on them, and yes, new bedspreads. If you’re a cockatiel, you fly. If you’re human, you may be more open to changes in your environment, um, well….kind of.

We are and we are not. Some people love to travel to far-off places; others are agoraphobic. Some are always looking for ways to change their circumstances; others are content to stay where they are and not “rock the boat.” For some, tranquility is the highest good. Others become restless and will seek to stir the pot at the first sign the folks around them are getting too comfortable.

As individuals, we have our moods, and most of us both like and dislike change, depending on how much, and what kind, and how much control we have over it. Too much change, even good change, is stressful. Too little causes stagnation, and we know it. Most of us fall on one side or the other of the likes change/doesn’t like change spectrum. And while we may not know ourselves perfectly well, this is something I think all of us can answer, immediately, and accurately: How open am I to change?

I’m on the not-open-to-change side. Oh yeah, there are some changes I definitely want. I want people to stop doing stuff I don’t like. I want to try new restaurants. I want new carpet. That kind of thing. But my routine, oh, I am stuck on my routine. I tend to do the same things at the same time on the the same day of every week. In some ways, my routine is my salvation. My routine allows the bills to be paid, the laundry to get done, and the trash to be taken out, but it also allows me to get together with friends, to exercise, to write, to garden, and to hang out with my family. I do not like having my routine disrupted. I am not spontaneous. Spontaneity screams danger to me.

Well, that’s my life, but I must take care not to write that way, because change is always the center of fiction. What happens next? Plot is change.

They say there are only two plots, the quest, and the-stranger-comes-into-town. Your protagonist is either the hero compelled to go out, slay the dragon, and put the world to rights, or your hero is quietly minding his own business, and the disruptive factor suddenly rides in on a horse. Many tales appear to be a combination of the two. Sandwiching the plot often are two brief places in which a) we are introduced to the character and see his/her regular life, and b) everything is resolved, explained and everyone goes back to whatever they were doing previously. I like those bookends. They are where I want to live.

But not how I want to write. I recall years ago seeing Kurt Vonnegut being interviewed on some show. He said the number one thing a writer needed to do was be mean to his characters. Whatever you are thinking of doing to your protagonist, double down and make it worse. Doing so will raise the stakes, and energize the plot.

Our mortal animal bodies are in tune with Vonnegut’s advice. We are programmed to protect our lives, even as we understand fully that perfect safety comes at too high a price, that price being a lack of personal growth. If I become too comfortable, or lazy, or timid, I know I must shake things up. I must leave the castle and confront the demon. I do this for possible rewards, and also just to stay in shape, for the day I am confronted by change I had not anticipated, be it a new bedspread, or a trip to the vet, dragon-slaying, or chasing the bad guys out of Dodge.

Hates change. Takes few risks. Refuses to confront demons.

Phot0: Mine. All rights reserved.

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