In principle, people could live and act for an end without attempting to fit their lives into the structure of a particular narrative, apart from the general narrative of acting for an end. In practice, however, people feel a need to understand their lives in terms of much more concrete narratives, in other words as though a person’s life were a kind of story.
This happens first of all with some kind of overarching narrative regarding human life in general, and perhaps the rest of the universe as well. Thus for example we saw Eric Reitan argue that people have a need to believe that apparently random destructive events in their lives have a deeper meaning.
Second, people conceive of their lives as a particular story, one in which they are the protagonist, and to a certain degree the narrator as well.
This conception is correct to some degree, but incorrect if it is taken to an extreme. You are in a certain way the main character of your “story,” insofar as your knowledge is naturally centered on yourself, just as a story tends to follow the thought and action of its main character. Likewise, you are in a certain way the narrator, insofar as you make choices about the course of your life. Still, your control is incomplete, because you are not the first cause, and because although you can make your own choices, many other circumstances and events are outside your power.
And yet not just any journey will do. The sense in which plot is an artificial product of what an author does, it that an author has the duty of focusing the events in the story down to just those which somehow relate to the journey which is the plot. This can be tightly focused or loosely focused. In a spy thriller, the purpose of every scene may be to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Some pieces which originally seem to be off, unrelated to the others, will as we proceed prove to be part of the same cohesive image being revealed as other pieces of the puzzle are put together.
But in what we often call a “character driven” or “theme driven” novel instead of a tightly plotted novel, the importance of relevancy is still there. Even if the arc of a novel is “the events which happened in this character’s life”, for the novel to actually be gripping the author must subtly impost a filter whereby we not really seeing all the events. We see only the events which tie in to a thematic note or progression through which we see the character’s life. If, at the end of the novel, the reader looks back and says, “Why did you include that section? It seemed like it was going somewhere but it never resolved.” Then the author has failed to plot well.
In our real lives we have many of these dead ends, things which build up and seem important and then just trail off. A good novelist subtly prunes away these, leaving only what forms a coherent structure, and it’s that structure which is the plot. Fail to do that and you have only an amorphous mess of writing, however craftsman-like.
This suggests a second, perhaps somewhat unconscious, way in which we are the narrator of our story. Elsewhere I pointed out that we do not actually remember much of our lives. It is possible that we naturally prune away, by forgetting them, the “dead ends,” namely seemingly random events that lead nowhere, because they do not fit well into the plot of our lives.
Whether or not this kind of pruning occurs, however, we certainly do attempt to fit our lives into particular structures. So for example young men and women sometimes think of their lives as though it were a romance novel, which ends with marriage and “they lived happily ever after.” Since of course life goes on after marriage, once they are actually married, they quickly realize that the story must be of a somewhat different nature. Nonetheless, it is still possible to suppose that the previous part of their lives had the specific structure or plot of a story leading up to marriage. But suppose someone has a troubled marriage that ultimately leads to a divorce. This person may have significant difficulty understanding their life. They will still desire to understand it as a kind of story, but the previous interpretation no longer works. It feels rather like a Harry Potter story that ends “with Harry Potter being tortured to death and the Dursley family dancing on his grave.” In such a case, people will tend to go back and rewrite the story from the beginning, not in the sense of changing the events, which is impossible (although selective memory may help here, as noted above), but by composing a new plot. Thus for example the new plot may involve the marriage as a learning experience, rather than as the goal of life.