Just add angel?
When is an angel helpful to a piece of writing? It’s a question that crossed my mind a few times as I helped judge a fiction contest recently. Two of the stories had angels in them. In the first story, the angel appeared at the beginning. In the second, it appeared at the end. One appearance annoyed me. The other intrigued me. Can you guess which was which?
What does an angel do to a story? Functionally, it seems to me that angels represent the absolute value that drives the story. They embody that which lies at the heart of the story’s value system. The question, then, is where is that value best placed for maximum dramatic value?
Depends on how you look at the function of a protagonist. Is a protagonist supposed to change through his or her own volition, or should that change be foisted upon the character from without? I personally think it is much more interesting to see what arises from the choices of a volitional protagonist, because then we see a character creating him or herself, rather than as a ball of clay changed only from without. Maybe it’s the Mormon in me, chanting, “Do what is right, let the consequence follow.”
Angels who show up at the end of a story, then, annoy me. They arrive to set everything in order, or reap vengeance, or deliver the moral. They overshadow the volition of the protagonist. They make the protagonist’s volition seem small and inconsequential, which leads me to ask, “Why have we been following a dramatically insignificant protagonist all this time?”
The angels at the beginning of a story intrigue me. They set a goal before the protagonist; often a veiled goal whose true identity and importance are revealed later through the actions of the protagonist. Angels at the beginning hold out promises. Of course, they aren’t always inviting people into adventure; sometimes they’re forcing them into it: think of the angel that kept Adam and Even away from the tree of life, setting the entire human race into a gigantic story.
I tested my ideas out on some scripture stories, and found that, for the most part, they seem to uphold me.
The three angels sent to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah set Abraham out on perilous quest. (Not to mention the angel who saves Abraham from the sacrificial altar in the Pearl of Great Price – not as the climax of the story, but as the event that sends Abraham into a lifetime of troubles and adventure.)
The angels who put the coal on Isaiah’s lips. (Off you go, little prophet!)
The angel Jacob wrestles with.
The angel who announces Mary’s pregnancy.
The angel who warns Joseph to move his family to Egypt.
The angel who fortifies Nephi’s resolve through a vision of the tree of life. (Thinking on this further, another angel shows up in Nephi’s story to rip into his brothers, but this angel isn’t nearly as interesting dramatically, since all the angel does is level the playing field and give us a little revenge thrill
The angel who sends Alma the Younger into a new life.
And finally, a set of angels that has sent a world of Christians on a two-thousand year quest to see the second coming of Jesus.
Yeah. I say, if you’re going to use an angel, put it at the beginning. Use the angel as the fuse instead of as the explosion. An angel explosion just isn’t very interesting.