The Hamlet Principle

I had an epiphany- okay, not that amazing, so maybe just a realization – today during a discussion my seniors were having on Hamlet. The discussion was heated, as many on Hamlet are, which I believe was the result of so much in the play being what I’ve termed to this point “ambiguous.” But today, I realized something about good storytelling. For lack of a better term, I’m calling it the Hamlet Principle. All caps. Lame, I know, but here goes:

Good stories hold up a mirror and force us to take a good, hard look at ourselves. Our lives, our desires, our perspectives, our worldview, everything. If a story is written properly, it will not preach to us. Instead, it will simply act as a mirror, forcing us to look back at us and see us for who we truly are. I think this is the product of properly drawn characters.

Hamlet enters into this because of the way my students viewed Ophelia. Some students believed that Ophelia was pointless as a character since all she did was react to the men in the play, go crazy, and die. Others felt sympathetic for her, watching her get jerked around by Hamlet for four acts until she finally snaps. It’s the same way with responses to Hamlet. What’s been interesting to me is not so much the fact that my students have taken vastly differing perspectives on Hamlet, but what conclusions I can draw about the kind of people they are from these perspectives. Does someone believe Hamlet treats Ophelia the way he does because he’s protecting her from his coming downfall? To me, that sounds like someone who believes that true love is still possible. Does someone see Hamlet as a big fat jerk who’s only out for self-interest? Sounds like a student who’s a little more cynical about the possibility of relationships working out for the best. And all this because of Shakespeare’s gift for storytelling.

I guess where I’m going with this is as a writer to trust the reader. I need to not worry about manipulating the reader to achieve a desired outcome. Instead, I need to worry about reproducing authentic characters who feel as much as possible like real people, behaving like real people do. Because people are complicated, they’re not “types.” Even the people who we think we “get” contain twists and turns below the surface that make them fascinating. So the characters we create and set loose into our made-up worlds should be equally complex.

I’m realizing more and more that’s the reason I got into writing. Sure I love a good metaphor as much as the next geek, but I think I love people more. They are just freaking fascinating. And the best stories are the ones where we examine them, and in the process examine ourselves.

Stories as a mirror. Cool concept. Mad challenging to duplicate on the page. Sigh. The work continues.