In its simplest terms, the premise of Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library is the do-over. In the moment between death and eternity, our protagonist, and some others, have a chance to relive their lives, making different choices. They can undo their mistakes, to atone for harm they caused, see the world as a different person, be a different person.
It’s an intriguing idea but I’m not inclined to spend much time applying it to my own life. Robert Frost wrote of “the road less travelled by” and the notion has teased the human imagination for years. But, in real life, we don’t get to back up and make another choice. In real life, we move forward, mistakes and all. Regret is a natural emotion, but wallowing in past sorrows is a recipe for discontent in the present and despair for the future.
But, while I reject the idea as a real person, as an author it fires my imagination. Every time I put pen to paper, (or fingers to keyboard) in my story, I’m making a choice for the characters–and for everything else, for that matter.
If I set my story in a small town, I’ve given up the possibility of writing glitz and glamour. If I set it on a ranch, I’d better be prepared to write about horses and cows and maybe sheep. If the heroine comes from a large family, the hero will have to win their approval. If she is an only child, or an orphan, she’ll be carrying that baggage and the love story will have to reflect that background.
But the real choices for an author come in the actions of my character. If she accepts a job in a foreign country, she will have a different story than if she takes one in the next town. When I decide which action she takes, I’m locking her into that life, even if it is fictional. There is no do-over for the book unless I toss what I’ve written and take a different course.
Authors like to play “what if.” For example, what if Scarlett O’Hara had loved Rhett Butler more than Tara? If she had had a chance for a do-over would she have acted differently? What would that have done to the story? Would you read it?
In my own book, Her One True Love, the heroine has a choice between two men. That choice will determine the rest of her life. Does she choose to marry the Mountie? She’ll have a life of adventure. She’ll have to follow him to postings all over the country. She’ll live with the knowledge that he is often in danger. She may become a bit of a sleuth herself helping him with his unsolved cases. Is that the life she wants?
Or, she can marry the preacher. She’ll have a settled life, near her sister. She’ll be the cynosure of the gossips for the rest of her life. She’ll play a major role in her husband’s ministry. She’ll be expected to teach Sunday School, and pour tea, and keep an immaculate house. Is that the life she wants?
As the main character of The Midnight Library discovers, no life is perfect.
But as readers or authors, we get to try out as many as our imaginations can conceive.
What about you, dear reader? Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you’d taken a different road?