Stranger Than Fiction: “You Don’t Control Your Fate,” But You Can Tell Your Story

What stands out in Stranger Than Fiction isn’t just Harold’s lack of control over his fate; it is his lack of authorship over his life. He is not in control of his destiny, but neither is he the one writing his own story as he sees it. This is implied at the start of the film when we are told that “This is a story about a man named Harold Crick,” rather than “This is Harold Crick’s story,” or “The Story of Harold Crick.” The narrative is not told through his eyes and he is little more than an object in his own story. We receive barely any information about how Harold sees his life or what he thinks other than the fact that he does sometimes “hear a deep and endless ocean” while filing. Harold’s lack of authorship is also introduced at the start by the description of him as “a man of remarkably few words.” Without words, it seems difficult to imagine how one would conceptualize their life and understand their identity, because how do you think without language? Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it seems that without language or some means of expression, a person couldn’t experience their life as anything more than a series of sense impressions and fleeting emotions. And Harold is expressionless, in his lack of verbal communication as well as in his impassive facial expression.

His story is told instead by the author Kay Eiffel. It is her story about Harold that shapes our perception of him. To be the author, however, does not mean the same as being the decider of his fate, which Kay demonstrates. She is writing Harold’s story, but she does not determine his story, per se. Many authors (such as the wonderful George Saunders if anyone saw him speak here a few weeks ago) say that they do not where a story will go when they start it, but that they make decisions along the way and let the ending emerge as the story begins to take shape itself. This idea is expressed by Kay when she tells Penny that the ending “came [to her] inexplicably and without method,” suggesting that the ability to choose your fate is as elusive in writing as it is in life. Yet, Kay is nonetheless the author because she is the one telling the story; she is the one choosing how to interpret and express the events of Harold’s life.

Harold does finally become the author when he decides to let Kay finish the book, knowingly facing his imminent death. With this action, he is no longer an object within the story to whom events happen; he becomes a subject who makes decisions based on his own understanding of events. With this control over his perception, he becomes the author because he has chosen to see his story in this way. We can see this at the end when he tells Anna, “I didn’t have a choice. I had to.” Although he says that he had no choice in what he did, he saw it this way by himself. He is finally the one telling his story.

I think this importance of writing your own story in the shaping of your identity is interesting to consider in relation to our digital stories because we’re not really writing about something that has shaped our identity as such (no one can really step back from their life and see what actually made them the way they are); we’re writing about something that we perceive as significant to our identities, something that we have chosen out of everything as the story to express. When people say, “it changed my life,” I think what they’re saying more than anything is that it changed how they thought about their life. You may not be able to control or shape your identity, but you can have some say over how you understand it. And finally, I also think this film is relevant to our digital stories because (and I don’t think I’m alone here) I deeply empathize with Kay in that continuous struggle to find the right note to end on.

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