As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. Life itself has an inherent randomness to it that makes no sense from day to day or from one moment to the next. True, we have plans and schedules to keep us focused and organized, but life just doesn’t follow the script no matter what. How many times have you arrived at a destination or appointment only to find out that your contact, client, or meeting has been moved or canceled for no good reason? Or, how many days have you begun with an idea or vision of what your day will look like only to be surprised when everything changes after lunch?
An event can be described as random if it cannot be predicted or explained by past experience. When we read fiction, we want to see something new and unexpected; not just rehashed versions of things we’ve already seen. Life is chaotic. I’m not saying that to be ironic or cute, but because it’s true. The universe can be chaotic and random at times, so why should fiction avoid such qualities?
We may ask: why make stories at all if they don’t tell us what we need to know or give us concrete answers? Perhaps it’s better then to learn how to cope with uncertainty and accept that many questions in life aren’t meant to have answers. But, we can also turn to masters of fiction to help us explore some of these difficult to answer questions about our very existence.
One of the literary masters who uses fiction as a way to reflect the randomness of life is William Faulkner, who used his own unconventional rules when it comes to writing. His novel, The Sound and the Fury, is a story told by multiple people at different times with different points of view. The structure changes rapidly, often jumping between narrators mid-paragraph without any real transition or warning. This unpredictability reflects the true nature of life, which has moments that shift rapidly and often change your view on things before you can even register what happened.
Faulkner could see the randomness around him and harnessed that in his storytelling. He used his novels to help others understand that no matter how hard we try to control life and tell ourselves we’re safe from something bad happening, sometimes, all it takes is a single moment for everything to be changed forever, and not always for the better.
Another great example of randomness depicted in fiction is William S. Burroughs’ renowned novel, Naked Lunch. In this book, Burroughs follows protagonist Bill Lee through his life, illustrating random events and situations that are constantly occurring. Each chapter focuses on one single drug experience, telling various stories with no particular order or reason to be read from start to finish. Burroughs proves fiction can depict real-life occurrences in an organized yet chaotic fashion that parallels true life. Indeed, its very randomness is what makes Naked Lunch such a believable and classic story.
If we want to get real, fictional stories are not necessarily based on true events so much as they’re based on elements within us. Realism is something that translates our emotions onto paper or screen, but that comes from both what happens to us (or someone we know) and how we interpret it afterward. Rather than saying fiction should be random, I’d argue that fiction should depict randomness. After all, fiction isn’t just about provoking an emotional response in readers through an imaginary world; fiction is also meant to mirror real-world realities. How many times have you read a story and not been able to predict what happens next? How many stories have you read that were predictable from the start? The former is more of what you should aim to read than the latter; those stories that best depict life’s randomness are those that you should delve into the most.
Fiction has always been an important tool for exploration, reflection, and understanding our own humanity. It doesn’t always provide easy answers; sometimes, fiction just provides a way for us to think through things when we don’t want (or can’t) search for them ourselves. Truly great stories emerge from seemingly random events which coalesce into an experience readers can’t forget. It feels as if too many stories today are following more rigid structures and plot developments that don’t invite for the randomness that makes truly memorable stories unfold in unexpected ways. Without fiction that truly reflects life’s randomness, literature will suffer.