In one of my first classes as a creative writing major a professor told me that snow was a significant literary symbol meant to serve as a great equalizer among humanity. She said something like “Social status doesn’t matter, everyone has to deal with snow and it shows we are all struggling with the same things on the inside.” I call bullshit. And I say this as an avid reader and aspiring writer, no one should have to work that hard to see the symbolism and its meaning in an author’s work. Plus, snow is setting and sometimes snow is just snow.
In terms of equalizers in fiction I have a different idea to throw out there. It’s pain. Pain is something everyone can relate to on some level. Some more than others, and seeing different types of pain on the page, screen or stage will affect people in different ways, but it will affect everyone. Also, pain is part of every story. The agonizing background of the anti-hero that propels him through the narrative. The physical wounds of a soldier trying to fight his way home. The angst of unrequited love.
Pain is a part of all narrative precisely because everyone can relate to it on some level. It will always conjure up emotion. Sometime it’s fear. Other times it’s anger. Still others it’s grief. Almost always there are feelings of empathy.
Pain helps us identify with the story. It helps us stop looking at characters as characters and makes us start looking at them as people. It makes the story more real to us. We identify with a character’s failures, and his suffering. But that also makes us rejoice in and celebrate in his triumphs even more. In short, making it real enriches the story for us.
My favorite novel is Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. The story is driven in large part by the protagonist’s fear of a cookie cutter lifestyle, the internal pain it causes and his rebellion against it. It was a concept that intensely resonated with me and allowed me to feel every page of the novel, and every frame of the movie.
Pain can invoke feelings of anger, fear and grief. Wait a minute. Actually so can snow. Maybe my old professor had it right all along.