The laws of fiction aren’t the laws of life. Luck is a deciding factor in many aspects of our lives. Some people are born with better cards, born into the one percent. Some people are dealt such a stunningly bad hand I can only reel vicariously at the things that strike them and think, no, this much can’t happen to one person. One of my students has had so many illnesses, physical and emotional, and so many concussions, it doesn’t seem possible that she could have one more stroke of bad luck—and then one hits her.
Many years ago, I did quite a dance with bad luck and good luck, though none of my misfortunes were anywhere near as bad as hers. I was living in the Jamestown area outside of Williamsburg, Virginia, a low-lying area of wetlands near the James River. It was wonderful place for walking and running, and the townhouse I rented had a beautiful wildflower garden my landlady had put in. And then I got new neighbors. Bad luck. Their younger children were undisciplined and inconsiderate, so noisy I felt they were in my apartment all the time. My neighbor on the other side who had kids the same age agreed—those little boys were terrors. She didn’t want her children to play with them. When the wild boys finally settled down at night, their teenaged sister entertained other teens in the neighborhood on the front lawn. Every night. I had to leave if I wanted to reclaim my peace of mind, so I found a quiet place out in the country, further inland on the other side of Williamsburg. Moving was inconvenient and expensive, but it was just my chance misfortune that I had to do it.
Within a month, two hurricanes struck almost back to back. The place I had been driven out of near Jamestown was flooded up to the second story. In retrospect, I had good luck to get bad neighbors. But the people who didn’t move, who might have tried to work with the homeowners’ association about the noise—they had bad luck. And none of them had earned it. Even the loud family couldn’t summon two hurricanes. This story would not work as fiction.
Overcoming adversity is the essence of a strong story in fiction, but bad luck isn’t the primary obstacle and good luck isn’t the source of success. The protagonist is in pursuit of a goal and her obstacles are organic to that pursuit. Her actions, not her luck, determine her success or failure, while the actions of antagonist, also a willful actor, create setbacks and conflicts. Readers don’t like to see chance events determine the plot. It feels as though the author cheated if she turns the plot around an unearned blessing or random disaster.
If I want to work luck into fiction, I need to give it context, such as a shamanic culture’s prediction that if you refuse your calling as a seer or healer, bad luck will follow you until you accept the call. (As the title suggests, this is a theme in the first Mae Martin mystery, The Calling.) Another way to work with good or bad fortune is to set it as prior history. A character in Shaman’s Blues describes himself as a “trauma magnet.” Some of his bad luck, he invited by recklessness; some it was a bad roll of the dice. But this enters the story as a pre-existing condition—quite literally, since it’s set in 2010 and he’s uninsured and uninsurable. That’s his background. What happens in the plot depends on his choices, given his circumstances at the point at which the story begins.
I recently read a powerful novel, Peter Heller’s The Painter, in which nature is almost a character. The protagonist, through a series of emotionally driven decisions, ends up being pursued on back country roads by someone who seems determined to kill him. The author develops everything that builds up to this chase, so there are no events that feel like luck. We know the lead character has a good truck for rough-track driving; he camps and fishes throughout the book and the truck is ever-present in the story. He’s in an unfamiliar stretch of mountains and woods but in a region he knows well. And the weather has been threatening. The flash flood he encounters is random luck, but he put himself in the situation, and it’s the decision he makes in reaction to it that determines which kind of luck it is, and what kind of man he is, too.
That’s the satisfaction of fiction. The catharsis, the resolution. It can make us feel that even luck itself is within the grasp of our limited human strength.