Your Life as a Picaresque

You know what might help you see the coming year in an exciting light? Picture your life as a picaresque.

A picaresque is a type of novel where a hero, often low-born or somewhat roguish, hits the road embarking on a series of adventures, encountering various characters, living by their wits, and after many highs and lows generally reaches a happy ending. (The term comes from picaro, Spanish for rogue.)

Some examples:

Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha – a deluded elderly gentleman sets out to bring chivalry to the world, fancying himself a knight errant.

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – a backwoods boy sails the river on a raft helping a slave escape to the free states.

Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger – a poor boy in India, Balram, survives as a driver and wends his way in and out of crime and political intrigue.

(Yes, there’s a shortage of picaresques with female heroes, so perhaps one of you dear readers will write that.)

For me, though, the quintessential picaresque is Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones. After being turned out of his boyhood home, the charming bastard Tom enlists in the army, picks up a barber for a sidekick, engages in both brawls and swordfights, dallies with a villainous Lady, endures a trial for murder, and has intimate relations with a woman who may or may not be this mother. He ends up no longer a bastard and free to marry his true love.

Here’s why you should picture your life as a picaresque. It will make your days feel more adventurous, even though you’re probably stumbling from mundane tasks to various hardships, with hopefully a little happiness mixed in.

Think of times in your life that were like a picaresque. For example, I recall coming to New York City as a young man to seek my fortune. I knew only one soul here, a wannabe actor, and we shared a delightful meal comprised of one can of soup.

When bad things happen—your kid turns on you, your bank account goes negative—you stew a bit, figure out your next move, then enter the next episode. My personal fortune-seeking involved oh-so-many dashed dreams. But I’m still on my feet, thanks to the fellow-rogue alongside me in the picture above.

And you can imagine a new adventure waits around each turn in the road, which may be a sock in the face or a sack of gold. Hard to say. And you know what? Adventures really do await you if you allow them to. Just open yourself to the world as did Tom and Balram and Huck and Quixote and see what the hell happens.

Alex Steele
President, Gotham Writers Workshop

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