While enjoying the above song from Skillet, this author was struck by a sudden revelation about modern fiction. There is an item missing from it that once was pronounced throughout myriad genres, especially sci-fi and fantasy. What is this absent thing? Only the most important ingredient of all, the one without which man cannot survive: the will to live.
To some, this may sound simplistic, but it is not. More than one man has endured excruciating pain or horrible scenarios out of a base desire to live. The power of one’s desire to see another day, to experience the fullness of his or her allotted time on this world, should never be underestimated.
Unfortunately, in the current era, it is an idea regularly underrated and widely derided in fiction. The desire to live because life is a gift worth fighting for has been misconstrued as a simple desire not to die, to avoid the supposed nothingness that waits for each of us on the other side of the curtain. This present misuse of the will to live ignores the inherent value of life itself.
Many writers today cast the will to live in the light that belongs to the craven soul. This is the spirit of wickedness that leads one to commit murder in order to preserve his own life, or which convinces one man to inform on another, braver person so that he may live in comfort. Loki’s attempt to sacrifice Thor to the Grandmaster in Thor: Ragnarok is one example of this weaselly determination to survive another day. DJ’s betrayal of Finn and Rose in Last Jedi also qualifies.
This base wish to live, which trades a man’s honor and soul for a few extra hours, days, or years of existence is indeed a vile use of the will to survive. What a number of contemporary writers no longer realize, remember, or acknowledge is that it is not the only type of motivation to keep living. Relying on the schools of Realism and Naturalism, which see humanity as a higher form of animal, these authors miss out on a far more genuine characteristic of mankind.
Andre Norton touched on this trait many times in her fiction. One of the main tactics her Dark Ones and their servants would utilize to attempt to defeat the protagonists was despair. More than one hero or heroine in Norton’s novels and short stories was tempted to simply throw in the towel, to let the darkness take them. What point was there to fighting longer, when the evil was so strong as to blot out the sun? Resistance was futile; the darkness was too strong. All was lost.
Yet even when the hero or heroine’s reason acquiesced to this argument, something primal inside of them refused to give in. Norton never named this strange instinct, this dogged determination to fight to the last breath. Whether this was because she herself found it inscrutable or decided that her characters could not know just what it was within them that scorned retreat remains up for debate. In either case, naming it did not matter. What mattered was that it was present; a reserve of power that, once tapped, overflowed out of the hero/heroine and allowed them to vanquish their supernatural enemies.
Contrasted with the coward’s attempts to survive, this kind of will to live is not self-preservative in the slightest. This heroic choice to live, to survive against all odds, comes from two wellsprings of spiritual power. Although disparate, the two often work together quite well. One such source is the stubborn determination not to be conquered by malevolent outside forces. These can be either spiritual powers or more human antagonists. The other desire arises when an individual is unjustly attacked.
Frontiersman Hugh Glass is a good example of the latter case. Mauled by a grizzly bear, the two men left to bury Glass after he died stripped him of his valuable rifle and other belongings before leaving him in the wilderness. Awakening alone, he set his broken leg, allowed maggots to eat his deadened flesh to prevent gangrene, and crawled over two hundred miles in the course of six weeks to reach Fort Kiowa on the Missouri River. After recovering there, Glass set off in pursuit of the men who had left him to die, both out of a desire for vengeance and to retrieve his valuable rifle. Forgiving one of the men, he suggested the other remain in the U.S. Army to avoid future retribution.
The former fountain of will is found in a man’s devotion to a cause and his willingness to die for it if necessary. In Norton’s ‘Ware Hawk, the heroine Tirtha and her Falconer companion face a master of the Dark in the adventure’s finale. All appears lost as he demands Tirtha hand over her birthright, an object of Power which was given to her family for protection. Barely alive after her back was broken in an earlier battle, Tirtha still refuses his demand, knowing full well that she will likely die for her defiance. Yet she does so anyway, sustained by her will to live long enough to accomplish the geas put upon her clan in ages past.
Some view such strength as simple rebelliousness, likewise dismissing Hugh Glass’ feats as the result of a wish for revenge and an ultimately fear-borne desire to avoid the inevitable a little longer. This is, quite obviously, not the case. For one thing, if it were true, then mankind would not have built cities nor expanded beyond the hunter/gatherer stage of civilization. He certainly would not have landed on the moon and returned to Earth.
As Norton and many other writers of her time knew, there is something in man that refuses to quit on life. Not every man will be able to survive practicing these types of valiant “last stands,” it is true. But even though the individual should sacrifice himself in such a battle, by his self-surrender he preserves what has gone before at the same time he looks to the future that will be built upon the things he is dying to preserve.
For this reason it is vitally important for authors to recognize and respect their characters’ will to live. Though our heroes and heroines may play the leading role in a tragedy, the fact that they do not physically survive a final stand against their enemy does not mean they strove in vain. If they lived long enough to secure the villain’s defeat – either in person or by protecting the real challenger’s life – their determination to never despair of life itself is a worthy motivation.
So go and write about heroes who never quit on life, future authors. Or, if your story requires it, tell about heroes who die seeing and defending this truth. Life is an inherently valuable and worthwhile gift, no matter how difficult it may be to hold onto. Why tell our fellow men anything different?