States of Change

I’m planning a wedding, and it’s got me thinking about how we live our lives. For the most part, we make small, inconsequential choices (ignoring the possibility of butterfly effect situations: stopping to buy a candy bar, which makes us late for the train, which means we are distracted when the taxi comes out of nowhere to hit us). Sure, these actions always have consequences of some kind (sunburn today = skin cancer in 20 years), but for the most part are unimportant.

But there are a few times in our lives when we make a choice that forces a change of state: we will no longer be the same thing we were before.

Putting aside all the situations that would be like this but that we could not control (tsunami, random mugging, diagnosis of a genetic illness, getting older), we are left with a few opportunities where we can make a choice and change who we are.

Getting married is one of them: once I am wed, I will never again be able to be “unwed.” Sure, I could be divorced, separated, or widowed, but I can never again go back to the “never married” state. It’s a one-time deal.

Outwardly, this doesn’t necessarily mean much: I check a different box on government forms, woo. And I don’t know if it will change my actual relationship with my significant other–some people say yes, but then there are a lot of people who are married in all but name, and they don’t seem that different–but this idea that I am consciously changing myself in a way that I can’t take back is pernicious.

There don’t seem to be many of these kinds of choices in life. Having kids, certainly: you can never really undo that, even if they are given up for adoption. Death, of course, is a major one, at least until we get some cryogenics going on.

Writing a novel is one, I think: even if you aren’t yet published, you have created something that will never actually go away, even if it is mostly just a folder on your desktop.

Some stories require this kind of grand-scale state-changing choice, but it’s sort of surprising that not all are required to. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo at first does not make a state-changing choice: he is just going on a walk because Gandalf told him to. It could be argued that taking on the ring in Rivendell “transforms” him into the Ringbearer, and he could never again not be the ringbearer, but I don’t think that’s true. Yes, he decides to stick with it, but there are multiple times when he nearly (or actually does!) lose the ring. And (while it wouldn’t have been a good story) there remains a choice that he could have made: to just turn around and go home.

But a state change does happen in American Gods, but not until very late in the story, when Shadow has already experienced much of the hero’s journey. It is similarly the pivotal moment in Good Omens, when our young antiChrist chooses to stop the apocalypse.  (What do you mean, you hadn’t read that one yet? Go read that book, right this instant!)

And the excellent Life of Pi does not offer much in the way of choice at all for our hero: he must make a series of small decisions. True, the stakes are high, but there is no one crucial decision.

For the broad swath of our lives, we make choices, but rarely do we make these kinds of life-altering decisions. Have you made one that I’ve overlooked? Are these choices similarly critical to our characters as they are to us? Tell me what you think.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “States of Change

  1. The approaching nuptials sure has you waxing philosophical, doesn’t it? I imagine choosing a career and making a career change come close, though not quite the same magnitude as getting married. On the darker side (keeping fictional characters in mind) the choice to kill someone, to betray, and similar cases where one embraces the dark side.

    Regarding LOTR, Frodo does not make a choice, but Aragorn (the other protagonist we tend to forget) does when he accepts Anduril and takes the Dimholt road. There he changes from being Ranger to being King. Strider become Elessar.

    Should all stories have a state-changing choice? I think sometimes all the little choices can add up to the same result. Frodo never made a big choice to change, but he repeatedly chose not to give up and in the end it did leave him different. But a character making a single big choice can be either a very effective inciting incident, or the turning point that leads to a mind-blowing climax (if not the climax/anti-climax itself).

    • Maybe a little philosophical. 😉

      Good point about Aragorn, and I think *maybe* we can include Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog. After I wrote this, I did realize that many books start with someone dealing with the after-effects of a change of state–so a lot happen “off screen.” Not every story needs one, of course, but I still find it interesting that something that is so big a deal doesn’t have MORE focus.

      • Perhaps that’s because the change more often than not is simply a device to advance the plot. It only receives greater focus when the story is actually about the change/choice itself.

        How are the arrangements going, by the way? Got enough paper roses yet?

      • Well enough, I hope! Can you ever have enough paper flowers? 😉

  2. I think about this often, I’m sure in every life there are crossroads that define your later life and each one of those decisions alters your present outcome. One of those decisions for me was made upon my separation from the navy [ I won’t depress you with how long ago that was]. My path at that time was to major in Forestry and I had enrolled at Montana State University and was supposed to report for enrollment on Sept 1. The navy in all its wisdom decided not to separated me until Sept 15th so the decision was made to go back to Central Mo State for another year and transfer later. The rest of the story is that I met your Grandmother, married, and how your father all within a year after we married. I finally got to Montana 45 years later. I wouldn’t change that decision for the world but often wonder where my life would have gone if those 14 days of extra naval experience had not happened. Granpa Jack

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