Similarities Between a Good Novel and a Good Life


As I sit here in a bathroom stall at work allowing my body to perform its biological duty (doody) I am struck by all of the similarities that a novel has with real life.

A story should have a good protagonist and a compelling narrative. A good protagonist should feel like an actual human being, complete with desires, motivations, goals, flaws, quirks, etc. A compelling narrative is one which is driven by the protagonist. Without these key ingredients a story falls apart; it grows stale.

Similarly, without those same key ingredients, life can grow stale.

Now that I’m older and – debatably – wiser, I realize how stale my life used to be, and I lived in that fashion because I wasn’t an active protagonist in the pages of my own life story. I had desires, certainly—namely, the creative pursuit of being a full-time musician and songwriter—but I buried them within the deep, dark crevices of the moldy pantry inside my brain. Here they remained much of the time. Every now and then, I’d feel inspired and pull my bottled desires off the shelf—pick up my guitar and try to write a song—but most of my free, waking hours were spent fixated on Netflix or playing video games.

As a result, my life was bland and hard to read. It had no clear purpose. It didn’t have a well-defined narrative. It was just kind of there…plodding along. It was the mushy middle of a novel’s early drafts.

Then I decided to make a change, which you can read about here. I had a revelation and that took my narrative in a different direction.

I decided to become a Master of my Time. I still watch TV and play video games, but the main difference is that now I donate time to those activities in doses, when I need to recharge and refill the creative well. And I am learning to apply this time donation system to other activities as well. I spend more of my time exercising, reading, writing, and cooking, with energy to spare. And if the TV is on, it’s typically tuned to relaxing music or something educational.

The revelation about myself changed my desire and gave me an altered drive. It was a much-needed plot twist that pushed my narrative in a different direction.

Now a bit about habits, which are like little plot points that can either hinder the protagonist or propel them forward.

When I first decided to create a better narrative for my life a few years ago, I identified goals I wanted to achieve. Over time I have been working out how to achieve them. It comes down to replacing bad habits and routines with good ones.

This is easier said than done, of course. It doesn’t happen overnight and can feel overwhelming when you look at all the things that need changing. The key is to break it down into manageable chunks. Just replace one habit at a time. Start with one. Something easy. After it becomes a routine (which may take weeks, months, years, depending on how ingrained the behavior is), focus on the next bad habit, replacing it with something else until it becomes routine, and so on and so forth.

It was hard at first, but the neat thing is that the healthy changes seem to compound on themselves. I replace a bad habit with a good one and turn it into a routine. The good routine leads me to another bad habit replacement, and then another and another…and the easier it becomes to make even more changes. For me, a weekend used to mean going out, getting wasted, spending way too much money and losing the entire next day to the abominable hangover. Now, it means going to bed at a reasonable hour, running 5ks and going on nature walks (and, of course, writing).

Once again, if you’re looking to develop new habits and turn them into fruitful routines I highly recommend The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It offers plenty of insight into human behavior, addictions, why we do what we do – all that good stuff. And it offers sensible solutions.

So how is all this like a novel?

A good novel is driven by the protagonist. The plot unfolds and reveals itself around them as they pursue their goals. It doesn’t just happen to them. It is similar to life. When I allowed life to simply happen to me I was much less satisfied. Now that I drive the story, the bits of life that reveal themselves are much more pleasant and organic—they don’t just force themselves into my plot.

Perhaps all this is a stretch, but I will attempt to make further connections to novels and life in future posts as I put these thoughts together.

What I’m ultimately trying to get at is that a novel, like life, can grow stale without desires and goals that the protagonist (you) actively pursues leading to more plot points and revelations (habits) that weave into the plot organically (routines).  Without good routines in place a potentially good novel will never get written and a potentially good life will never be lived.