Mostly Familiar…Mostly

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So here we are with a new week and a new series! Today I thought I would talk about a pattern of storytelling that is so ubiquitous it can very easily be overlooked. The pattern goes like this: an author writes a story that takes place in a real-life setting. The world is populated them with life-like characters, and they all have real-life problems to deal with. Then, from that entirely ordinary foundation the world suddenly diverges into the fantastic!

From the Oracle’s prophecies in Oedipus to a simple, magical wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia, to the superpower effects of radiation in Spider-Man, we love to take our plain and mundane world and inject a little magic into it. Think about how this pattern applies to Harry Potter, Stranger Things, The Matrix, Midnight Special, Cloverfield, Men in Black, Field of Dreams, Back to the Future, E.T., A Wrinkle in Time, Escape to Witch Mountain, Flight of the Navigator, The Neverending Story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Five Children and It, War of the Worlds, Dracula, Gulliver’s Travels, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan…I could go on for a while.

What is it about this formula that makes it so popular across all times and cultures of literature? Well, I can think of two elements.

 

To Explore)

First and foremost I believe that there is a thirst for fantasy and adventure baked into our very bones. Mankind was destined not only to live, but to thrive. We feel hunger and fatigue to ensure that our bodies will survive, but we also have wanderlust and fantasies to ensure that our spirits will, too.

Invention, exploration, creation…these are attributes inseparable from our history. We are where we are today only because of our unique ability to imagine a world different from our own. People conceived of steam power, printing presses, and sailing ships first as fantasies, and then they found ways to bring each of them to life.

But though every invention may have begun as a fantasy, it still had to somehow be grounded in reality, or else it could have never come to be. A great leap has to be launched into from the feet being firmly planted in the now. If you fantasize about the future world only in media res, with no thought for how you get to there from here, then it will never be anything real. To sail around the world you first must obtaining a ship.

How fitting, then, that all of the stories I listed above begin in the present, the familiar, the mundane, and then progress into the unknown. And where once Georges Méliès fantasized about everyday scientists building a rocket to go to the moon, now that that fantasy has become real it has been reimagined as a man being stranded on Mars in The Martian.

And that will ever be the pattern of things. People will never stop exploring, they will never cease to push further. Perhaps early man thought that if he only had a way to grow crops he and his family would be forever content. And then perhaps the medieval man thought all he needed was a way to light the streets at night. And then post-industrial era man simply wished for a way to fly through the sky.

The truth is it isn’t about having the food, the electricity, or the airplane, it is about taking what we have and making something more of it. As I said, it is baked into our bones. The inventors will continue to invent and the researchers continue to research. And as they do, the story-tellers will continue to weave tales of everyday people discovering new worlds.

 

To Find Truth)

The other reason why we love these stories is because they suggest that there are bigger truths out there than immediately meets the eye. Truths that most people are blind to, but once seen open up entire new worlds of possibilities. Mankind has a natural tendency to believe that there is something greater at play in our lives, whether it be God, Karma, nature, or something we do not even know the name of. Each of us hopes to be reached out to by that higher truth, and be taken from where we are now into a greater world.

So we seek out religion, civic office, or just being a nice person to those around us. We’re hoping to find a purpose, a calling, some great mystery that we were born to unravel. Skeptics may suggest that these are merely delusions of grandeur, but there is no denying that we come by these feelings naturally. They are in us, that is unavoidable, and we feel that there must be a reason for them. The author takes these feelings and paints them into a story.

Those stories tend to follow a fairly consistent pattern. First the main characters needs to be drawn into the fold, they need to pass through some sort of matrix or portal before they can witness the magic that they had previously been blind to. They are initiated into the truth, and then quickly discover their real self and purpose.

This new paradigm is not merely a side-venture for the hero, either. Where at first the magic was tucked away in a small corner where it could hardly be seen at all, eventually it will either overtake the natural world or else absorb the main character into its confines entirely. If the hero ever does go back to “ordinary life,” they will do so only as a permanently changed individual. The truth of that mystic world lives in them now, and will permeate through every moment hereafter.

Those that have felt called to something higher in real life will realize that these sorts of stories are not works of fiction at all. There may not be wizards or aliens or parallel worlds, but the themes behind them are as real as anything.

 

Perhaps these two reasons for why we tell stories that blend reality and fantasy are really just two sides of the same coin. Perhaps we explore to find truth, and perhaps we only find our true calling in exploration. In any case, these movements run deep within us and I suspect they always will. Never mind what summits we achieve, we will always find roots of the great unknown reaching through the familiar, calling us to follow.

On Thursday I’d like to expand to try my hand at a story that is set in a modern, realistic setting, but which bit-by-bit leads into the fantastic. And in this story I want to particularly focus on the sequential progression into greater and greater fantasy. I don’t want to start to tease the new world and then fully leap straight into it, I want it to bleed into our world more and more. Come on Thursday to see how it turns out.

The Death of Simon Bowie

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“I don’t know, I just always liked that sort of sound in–” Simon stopped speaking abruptly and turned to look about the room. He was the only one here. He was speaking to…no one.

What had he been talking about? Who had he thought he was saying it to?… He honestly couldn’t even remember. Perhaps he had been sleeping. He didn’t think he had been, but perhaps.

These things did happen to him from time-to-time. He couldn’t remember exactly when they started. Not until recently…he believed. And each time they occurred he felt his heart skip a beat. It was like jolting awake from the sensation of falling. Only it wasn’t his body falling, it was his mind, and he didn’t know how far it would have gone if he hadn’t woken in time to catch it.

A little shake of the head and Simon Bowie pushed himself up and out of the chair. He shuffled out of the room. He wanted to get away from the moment, to distract himself with something. He lumbered down the hall, eyes downwards to see that he planted his cane tip firmly into the carpet with each deliberate step. As he did so, he found himself face-to-face with a small girl smiling up at him, her hands clasped behind her back.

“Daddy, have you seen where my necklace got to?”

“No, Suzie. I don’t think I have.”

“Oh I know! It must have fallen off while I was swimming. I’ll go get it!” Without another word she bounded away with a youthful skip to her step.

“No wait,” he called out, suddenly concerned. “Suzie don’t go! It isn’t safe.”

He began hobbling after her. Something was wrong about this, he wasn’t sure what, but he remembered that it didn’t go well. “Please Suzie, don’t go so fast!” He reached the top of the staircase and paused. Though he needed to hurry he was afraid, and he took the steps slowly, clinging to the handrail with both hands for support. It was a spiral staircase, and he kept his eyes looking down the center to the floor below, trying to see Suzie and catch her before she went outside.

“Don’t go so fast, it’s too wet!” he called feebly. “It’s been raining and it’s all slippery.”

“It’s rain,” a cold voice said. “That’s what it does.”

Simon cocked his head to look behind his shoulder. It was…her. What was her name? It had been too long, he couldn’t remember. She looked pretty, but in a very haughty and cruel way. A teenage girl with a face blanked by malice.

“I don’t like it,” he heard himself say, but the voice was that of a small boy.

“If you don’t like it, then get Mother to buy you an umbrella.”

“She won’t.”

“That’s right she won’t. She doesn’t have to put up with you, does she?”

Simon shook his head.

“And why is that, Bowie?” she strained the last name like it was a disgusting creature. It wasn’t really his last name, it had been the other woman’s.

“Because I’m a half-breed,” he said dejectedly, reciting his assigned title.

“Good, glad you’ve been listening.”

“It’s not my fault.”

“It doesn’t have to be.”

Simon shuddered at the memory of cold rainwater trickling down his spine.

“You didn’t have to be so mean to me, Margaret,” he said with a tear in his eye.

“What’s this? Tears?” It was yet another voice this time. A tender one. He knew at once to whom it belonged.

“Joyce,” he breathed in awe. She still looked so beautiful. How had she not aged as he had?

“Darling, I’m so sorry,” she said, pulling him close and burying his face in her shoulder. “I didn’t want to go.”

That was why. Because she left.

He tried to suppress his sobs, but that just made his whole body shake so that he might as well have let them out.

“I’m sorry,” he finally managed to say between gulps. “I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t cry.”

Joyce lifted his head to look into her eyes. “Darling, you can cry! It’s okay. Why shouldn’t you?”

“I don’t want you to see me so broken-hearted.”

“It’s alright, you can be broken-hearted.”

Simon was at the bottom of the stairs. He didn’t remember getting here. He was looking across the hall towards the door. What was it he had been doing before Joyce and that other one came? It was important. He needed to remember, he needed to fix it, but it just kept slipping from him.

“Did you want to help me look for my necklace, Daddy?”

Oh that was it.

“Suzie, something’s wrong. I can’t remember what–”

“I’m going to go look for my necklace in the swimming pool. I’m going to slip in and drown.”

“No,” Simon shook his head. “That wasn’t how it happened. I was afraid of that, I think, but that’s not how it happened with you.” He screwed his eyes shut and pressed his fists against his temples. What was it? Why couldn’t he remember?

“Why?” Suzie asked with a frown. “Why do you say it was different?”

“Well…I just know that it was…you didn’t die here. Other things happened. Like–” he winced, unable to recall. For a moment he felt a dread, as if forgetting would mean that the other things never did happen. “Like you grew up and got married, remember?”

She paused, then smiled and nodded. Cool relief swept over Simon.

“Yes I did, didn’t I? I’d forgotten about that. Thank you.”

“Of course darling.” She vanished from his view. “Anything for you, darling.”

He paused and closed his eyes. He could not hold onto the present moment even if he wanted to. He just started to drift absently. It felt less like he was standing and more like he was floating on the top of a wave. He opened his eyes again. Had he been sleeping? Or was he sleeping now? Joyce was here again.

“You’re looking better,” she said kindly.

“I think I was able to help Suzie, I think she’ll be alright now.”

Joyce nodded. “I miss her.”

“I haven’t forgotten everything you know.”

“Not everything? What are some of the things that you remember?”

“I remembered the promise you made me make before you went.”

“Don’t lose your heart.”

“That’s right.”

“How is it going with that?”

Simon sighed long and hard. “I don’t know, Joyce. I really don’t… I try. But some days–these last days particularly–it’s been very hard.”

“What makes it so hard?”

“I feel so bad for getting to stay here when you had to leave. I feel guilty that I got to.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“It doesn’t have to be.”

A coldness took him and he pulled himself in tightly, as if to let it pass him by. But it didn’t. Even beneath his lids he could see her. She looked so beautiful. So haughty and cruel.

“Hiding away down here?”

“Leave me alone, Margaret,” his young voice said sourly.

She sneered. “It would be my pleasure, but I’m afraid the adults have left, so it’s my responsibility to see that you are taken care of.”

There is a world of difference between “cared for” and “taken care of.”

“Well I’ll just be down here, so you can leave me be.”

“But I haven’t even told you what today’s rule is though.”

“No more rules, Margaret.”

“Oh no? I think you’ll find this one particularly interesting…”

“I’m not playing.”

She smiled, and there was something triumphant about it. “Suit yourself,” she said softly as she turned away.

Something seemed terribly wrong. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he had just been duped. He frowned and tried to remember what had happened. It was important. Maybe if he remembered in time he would be able to change it…

“Sootie!” he cried, leaping to his feet in a flash of horror. His eyes opened and he was looking down to the bottom of a swimming pool. His daughter was in a rabbit hutch there. He reached down and pulled her out, but she was already lifeless.

“You should have listened to the rules,” Margaret was tutting behind him. “You might have made it in time if you hadn’t been so busy sulking. But that’s your choice.”

His temples were pulsing and his hands were shaking. He was going to hurt her. But before he could there came a sudden tear at his heart, like it beat too hard and had burst a little.

“Ohh!” he cried, collapsing to the floor. He tried to sit up but his heart rent again and he fell back once more.

“Oh no,” he murmured, “Joyce, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry? What do you have to be sorry for?” A gentle hand cradled against his cheek.

“My heart, I haven’t kept it like I was supposed to. One rule, and I broke it. It’s gone!”

“Why do you hold onto all of these things, Simon? Don’t you see how they’re just tormenting you.”

“Well I–I have to–”

“No, you can let them go. Will you let them go, darling? Will you?”

Her hand was over his fist, not prying the fingers open, but inviting them to do so on their own.

“What’s inside of there?” Suzie was asking.

“What?” he asked, shaking his head. “Oh, it’s a surprise. I got it for you, but I haven’t given it to you yet.”

“Is it that necklace?”

“Why…yes it is. It is, in fact. It’s your necklace.”

“Oh thank you! May I have it now?”

“No…I mean I want to, but something happened…”

“Oh not the drowning at the bottom of the pool again.”

“No, I was mistaken, that was something else. But something still happened, and it was too late to give this to you.”

“Well give it to me now and things will be different then, won’t they?”

Simon looked down and tried to open his hand, but he couldn’t. It was locked like a vise, the way it would if he was writhing on the ground having a heart attack. Or the way it would if he were pulling her hair.

“Let go of me!” Margaret shrieked, trying to wriggle out of his grasp but he wouldn’t let her. “I will punish you so badly!”

He didn’t care, it didn’t matter. He had passed that point. He simply tightened his grip, one hand around her hair, the other around her neck.

“Please!” she said, the first time he’d ever heard her use that word towards him. “I didn’t even actually say half the things you remember me saying. Or at least not the way you remember them.”

“You didn’t have to.”

Another throb of his heart and for a moment his vision blacked out to perfect whiteness.

“Why did you name me Suzie, anyway?”

“I don’t know, I just always liked that sort of sound in a name.”

“And why do you think I drowned in that car accident, Daddy?”

“Didn’t you? Don’t go so fast, it’s too wet!”

“There was an accident, but I didn’t drown.”

“Didn’t you? I’ve dreamt so many times that you did.”

Another throb, and he seemed to feel upside down, his lips were cold.

“Simon listen to me, it’s Joyce. Please let go.”

“I can’t,” he strained. “It’s broken. I never even got to give her your necklace.”

“You did, it’s around her neck now.”

“You’re choking me!” Margaret spluttered.

“No,” he snarled “I’m drowning you. I’m drowning–”

Wait no, he couldn’t breath. He was the one drowning! He opened his mouth but his lungs were deflated and couldn’t draw anything in. He was trying to swim up, but his hands were still in fists.

Just let go!

“Daddy, please let go, let me see what’s inside.”

“I can’t,” Simon cried. “I can’t let it go.”

“Please, Simon!”

“You’ll regret this!”

A shout was rumbling inside him, unable to break out into the audible world, tormenting him and constricting his throat. It kept growing. Louder and louder, though never heard. A suffocating wave of–

“Simon?” A quiet stillness fell. He seemed to be floating on the top of a wave. It was white all around him.

“Simon, it’s okay. I’m here with you now. I need you to try to focus on my voice.”

There was still a chattering, but it was strangely muted, like it came from far away. He tried to listen to Joyce’s voice, but it was hard.

“Just listen to me. The more you listen to me the more disconnected you’ll be from all the rest, the more you’ll be able to let go.”

“I broke it. I lost it.”

“You only say that because you’re holding onto those moments. There were good ones, too, don’t you remember them?”

“I–no.”

“It’s okay, just relax,” her hands were stroking over his fingers, teasing them apart. His heart was stopping.

“I lost them. These others are all I have.”

“It’s alright.”

“They define me.”

“No, you’ll find the rest soon.”

His fingers were unclenching. All his body seemed fuzzy, soft, disconnected.

“It’s alright,” she soothed. She was wiping away the last tears.

“I lost it,” he cried.

“I kept it.”

He let go.

***

I tend to be a very visual thinker, using mental images to represent emotions and experiences. For this story, everything began with me imagining two hands crumpling up a paper from a magazine. That crumpled page could no longer be read normally, but one could still make out individual words and pictures here and there, and could infer the basic meaning of it, such as whether it was an article, advertisement, or fine print.

I wanted to write a story like that. One where the reader didn’t need to understand the details, just the gist. As I suggested on Monday, my intention was to literally wrinkle a story, and by so doing give it the feel of a mind that is fraying.

The validity of all Simon’s memories and feelings are suspect. They blend so constantly into one another that one cannot tell whether he is recalling actual events, extrapolating implied meanings, or living out fantasies and fears.

But while the clear divisions may be impossible to find, I think the character of Simon is still understood. He is lonely, he is regretful, he is holding on to hurt. He has seen beautiful and wonderful things, but he is obsessing over the negative. It is his own grip that is crumpling his page, creasing it so that we (and he) cannot see the wholeness and completeness. His great quest is to relax his vise so that he may accept his full self.

And while Simon’s affliction may seem grim, I think that many of us can relate to it. Far too often we define ourselves from our trauma and regret. The emotions that tie us to our lives, to our very selves, are usually negative. We describe ourselves as “not something enough.”

Because of Simon’s insistence that his life be defined by these elements, it took an entire separation of self from life before he could let go of those parts. While he ended up finding his peace, hopefully each of us will be able to secure our own a bit sooner.

Character Wrinkles

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At the end of my last story I teased the fact that I used a character’s name to imbue the story with an extra dose of personality. What I meant by this was that almost no one ever refers to the main character by name. He is known primarily as “my father” and later on as “Pa.”

There are only two times where the character is actually named, and both times it is said by his wife. I thought it was a nice touch to show a sort of reverence for the man. As if all the world is too in awe to call him by name except for the woman he loves. The story never spells out this detail, and I would imagine the wrinkle won’t even be consciously noticed by most readers.

My hope, however, is that the reader’s subconscious will pick up on it, and view the man with greater respect without even knowing why. Whether this attempt of mine actually worked or not is probably impossible to test, but it was a fun way to add more depth to the story nonetheless.

Little quirks like these show up in stories all the time. In the 2011 film Warrior, Paddy Conlon is frequently seen listening to Moby Dick on audio-cassette. It is emblematic of his character’s own personal chase, one to regain the hearts of his sons. Also it draws a parallel between Paddy and the character Captain Ahab, as both have chased their demons too far, perhaps to their own demise. None of these similarities are ever spelled out explicitly, they are  just picked up on naturally by the viewer. It makes the Paddy’s character all the more rich and evocative just by lingering in the background.

Each of my tales in this latest series of stories has featured examples of these character wrinkles. I’ve already mentioned the one from Does What He Must, but now let’s take a look at the others.

In I Hated You, Jimmy my distinguishing characteristic was a little different. It was selected primarily for a more functional reason. Throughout that piece our narrator is describing to us events that are now years in past, and ones that he has made his peace with. Or at least it would seem that he has, except for how he becomes lost in the emotions of the moments he is recounting, even going so far as to make a particularly cold comment about the death of a school bully at one point.

My intention here was not to make our narrator a contradicting character, or to suggest that the peace he claims to have found was false. Instead I am merely trying to lend the emotion that fits for that particular moment of the story. I didn’t want my character to talk about the angry years of his youth with a sober, mature voice, it would have felt unnatural. And so I make it instead as if his voice is aging in step with his memories. Perhaps it makes for a narrator that doesn’t quite make sense, but I think it goes down more smoothly anyhow.

For Harold and Caroline I featured two main characters who were about as different as could be. Harold was flustered and sarcastic, Caroline was mousy and uncoordinated. I did, however, want the two of them to share one trait: each of them is holding back the things they want to say.

I believe that my readers got the sense that Harold was constantly biting his tongue. Every sarcasm and sigh of exasperation was but the tip of the iceberg of what he would like to express. Meanwhile Caroline was unwilling to be vulnerable, and so had to squash down all of her problems and frustrations. She is more open with her friends, but not at all with Harold.

My hope then was that each character would have a sense of being more than they appeared. That way it would feel fitting at the end that Harold has a secret charitable side, and that Caroline has a loving and supportive family. In that final scene each character is for the first time really seeing the other.

The Anther-Child was a piece in which we didn’t even meet our main character until halfway through the story. Up to that point he had only been described as part of a group, the Anther-Children as a whole. And even when he is first singled out it is done very impersonally as “one of the males.”

He is not being treated as an individual because his identity has not been individual until this moment. Then he is slowly given more and more focus. Each of the following sentences deals more and more with his experiences, and less and less with the other character’s. Soon all of the other characters depart entirely and he becomes the sole focus of the piece. At this point he expels his old essence and absorbs a new form from the ground around him. He has a new identity, and it perfectly coincides with how at this moment he has finally become the central character of the story.

Once again, the functional details of how the story is written are reflecting the characteristics of the protagonist and indirectly giving him greater depth.

I wanted to do one last story in this series, and it is going to take the idea of adding subtle character wrinkles in a different direction. I want to write a story about a character that is coming apart. I don’t want to add wrinkles to better define him, I want them to fray him and make him more obscure. I am going to try and write a piece from the perspective of a man who is dying, and as he does so gradually loses his grip on memory, reality, and finally his own identity. It sounds like quite the ambitious exercise, and I can’t claim any confidence for how it will turn out, but frankly I’m excited just to try!

Does What He Must

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“A man doesn’t do what he can. He does what he must.”

Those were the last words my father said to me before he left to fight in the great Civil War. He meant them by way of explaining why it was he had to go and leave our little farm and family, to fight for a cause he believed in.

It was the last time he said those words to me, but it was not the first. How he came by them, I do not know. For a man who lived as large as he, I would not be surprised to learn that he came up with them himself. In any case, they were his mantra all his days, a creed that he exemplified many times over.

My father showed the makings of a legend early in life, as early as the age of thirteen when he stood down old Hal Ritcher.

Hal Ritcher was the local drunk, a mean and spiteful man who led a life of profound disappointment and then punished all that were littler than him because of it. He was a particular nuisance to the children, and one day they caught his ire by playing too loudly in a nearby barn while he was trying to sleep off a hangover. He rushed out at them, brandishing a stick and screaming and cussing like the devil himself! He swore he’d see blood for their impertinence, then grabbed hold of the nearest one of them he could, poor, little Belle Sue.

Well my father wasn’t going to stand by to see her lashed, so he stepped forward and shouted at Hal Ritcher. Hal let her go and charged at my father with raised first. My father raised his own and in a flash laid Hal out flat with a single blow to the chin.

Now as I said my father was only thirteen years at the time, but all the children there said his blow rang like a hammer on an anvil! They wouldn’t have believed it possible if they hadn’t witnessed it with their own eyes.

“What did you hit him with?” one asked in awe.

“Just my hand.”

“But I didn’t think you could hit so hard.”

“Well neither did I. But I had to so I guess I just did. That’s how it is as a man, you know.”

“But you’re not a man, James,” Belle Sue frowned.

To which my father tossed the hair out of his eyes and grinned broadly at Hal Ritcher’s horizontal form. “Ain’t I, though?”

Five years later, when my father was eighteen, he attended a social party put on by the local cattle baron. After a great amount of coercion he had finally removed Belle Sue from the rest of the young men and was trying convince her to give him a kiss when a horrible shriek sounded from the fields.

One of the cattle hands had been giving the young children turns riding on his horse, when something spooked the critter and away it rushed with a small boy clinging on its back for dear life.

“Oh he’ll be killed!” a woman shrieked and a few of the ladies fainted straight away. Meanwhile the men bumbled about uselessly, calling for horses and ropes and all manner of things that wouldn’t arrive until it was much too late.

Not my father, though. He bounded out with steely determination, cutting through the property to the corner of the road where the bronco was sure to pass, reaching that junction at just the same moment as the steed. Somehow he leapt above its flashing hooves and threw his arm around its neck. Then he hauled down, running the creature’s head into the dust as he grabbed the poor boy off its back with his other hand.

I can only imagine the amazement that must have been on everyone’s face when my father came walking out of the cloud of dirt, the boy waving happily on his shoulder and the horse following sheepishly after.

“How’d you think to do that?” one of the cattle hands asked.

“I dunno,” my father said modestly. “I guess I just had to is all.”

Even Belle Sue threw up her hands in not-so-disappointed defeat. “Well, James, you’re a hero, now I supposed I’ll have to kiss you.” And she did just that.

That Belle Sue was quite a playful one, and I suppose you might have guessed already that the two of them got married. It was a long time before she relented and she led him on quite the chase, though she never had eyes for anyone else. The story of how they finally came together begins one day when a whole crowd of young men were gathered round her feet.

“When you going to stop playing your games and marry one of us?” they asked her.

“When I feel like it, I suppose,” she shrugged. “Seems you boys aren’t doing much to make me feel inclined that way, though.”

Boys?!

“Yes boys. And so I say until one of you proves your worth.”

“But how?”

“Hmmm…Oh I know! Haven’t any of you noticed that great, big lily growing on top of Heaven’s Peak? Now that’s the sort of flower a girl would love a man for! Honestly I can’t believe one of you hasn’t fetched it for me already, I’d say that I must have it.”

“On Heaven’s Peak?! That’s thirty feet of rock shooting straight up into the sky! Now how do you expect anyone to get up there to pick you a flower?”

“I’m sure I don’t know, I suppose only a man could manage it.”

Well that crowd of boys went away grumbling and she giggled to herself, never expecting anything to come of that conversation. But she hadn’t accounted for my father when he heard tell of what she said. Why he just walked away alone that same afternoon and came back before dark with that flower for her. Then the two of them had a quiet little conversation together in the gazebo, and when they came back they announced their engagement!

All my days growing up I heard her pester him to know how he had scaled that rock, but he never told his secret. He only ever said: “You said you must have it, so I had to get it.”

It was a happy home my siblings and I grew up in, at least for the first years while father was still there. I was only six when he left, as I said, to war. And as you might imagine, he quickly became a bona fide hero there, too. Soon he was made a Second Lieutenant and led a platoon of thirty men.

I met several of those men in the years after, and each told how when he first received his station he sat down with those men and promised that not a one of them would die on his watch. Though it might seem incredible, he delivered on that promise too, though they found themselves in many the tight spot during the war.

He managed that feat partly by his excellent training and marshaling of the men, and partly by taking on the most dangerous roles for himself, such as when they made their retreats and he would linger in the back to give the Johnny Rebs a target of his own hide to shoot at.

It was at one such retreat that they found themselves in a most dire strait. Their commanding officer had required them to dig their ditch with a cliff wall at their backs. When the bugle sounded retreat they knew they were all dead men. Though the wall could be scaled, it would be a slow process, and there was no chance that they would have it cleared before the enemy rushed into their trenches and picked them off like flies.

Well they all looked to my father in despair, but he just grit his teeth and said they all better get climbing then. One of them protested, said it would be better to die fighting than take such grim chances. My father swore again that not a one of them would die that day, except perhaps himself.

“C’mon now, Lieutenant,” one of them protested, “a slim chance is better than none. We’ll all run and see which one or two of us is lucky enough to escape. Not even you can hold back such a tide!”

“Maybe I can’t,” my father replied, “and yet I must.”

He ordered his men to retreat one last time, then stood at the lip of their ditch to welcome the enemy. As his men scrambled up the rock they heard the whooping and hollering of the foxes come for their prey. Though there was all manner of gunfire not a one of my father’s boys took a serious shot. Every now and again one of them would turn to see what went on below, and they saw my father bounding back and forth, cutting down the cowards who dared to aim at the backs of his men.

One man saw how my father took a shot himself, but still he went on. Another witnessed how he was skewered by a bayonet, but still he fought. A third said four men tackled him to the ground, but up he rose from their midst. Not a one of them saw exactly how or when he fell, but he must have at some point, though not until after his men were all safely away from that place.

And that was the last anyone knew of my father. Anyone but me.

While I wish I could say that I followed in his footsteps my whole life long, the truth is that growing up without him was hard. We lost our farm and home, we scrimped and scrounged our way through the rest of my childhood, and somewhere along the way I grew disheartened. I decided I had to find an easier way, a shortcut to happiness.

In short I fell in with some bad men, ones who weaned me off of the straight-and-narrow path that my mother had so painstakingly taught me to follow. At first it was drink, then gambling, then getting into fights in back alleys. I remember the day they brought me along for my first robbery. A part of me wondered how I had ever come to this, another part answered it had been coming for a long while now.

My posse promised it would be a quick holdup. No one was going to get hurt, and there was no chance of running into the law. Both of those statements were lies, for no sooner did our heist begin than it turned sideways. The man we were trying to rob resisted us, and the leader of our group, a fiery, short-tempered man, shot him dead on the spot. My shock didn’t even have a chance to set in before we heard the whole town erupting all around us. We tried to get out of there, but the law swept around on all sides and chased us towards a solitary barn.

I was the first to make the entrance, and as I turned to hold the door open for the rest of my gang I found that not a one of them still stood. Some were already laying dead in the street, the others were quickly getting that way. So I bolted that door shut and lay on the ground, trembling like a leaf.

“Hey you come out of there!” the Sheriff roared. ” And with your hands held high! I’ll give you thirty seconds to get sense and then we’ll unload on you!”

“I’ll fight them off,” I muttered, cocking my six-shooter. “Or I’ll grab a horse and escape. I’ll set fire to this barn and sneak out in the smoke. I’ll never let them take me alive–”

“Son.”

I turned in surprise, though I knew the voice so well that it did not frighten me. Standing at the end of a trough I saw my father, looking exactly the same as the day he rode out to war. He was viewing me with a sort of aching love, as if it hurt him to see me this way.

“Pa…what are you doing here?”

“Son, what are you?”

My face broke and I cried like the six-year-old I was when I lost him. “I’ve lost my way, Pa. I don’t know when or how, but I’m ashamed for you to see me like this.”

“I ain’t ashamed to see you, son. But you have done wrong, and it’s time to turn yourself in.”

“I can’t do it,” I gulped. “Once they brand me a thief and a killer that’s it! Even if they don’t hang me I’ll never escape the shadow of what I already done. I’m all alone now.”

My father nodded understandingly, but his face was firm. “You are alone, so long as you keep on this path you’ve been on. But if you turn son, if you turn right now, I’ll be in it. I promise.”

“…I would if I could. But I can’t.”

“A man doesn’t do what he can. He does what he must.”

Well that was that.

I took a few stabilizing breaths, then stood and took a few more.

“Alright, I’m coming out!” I shouted, throwing my gun out the window where the lawmen could see. I turned to look one last time at my father, and I almost asked how he was even able to be here like this. But then, I already knew his answer to that.

Raising up my hands, I walked out into the sun.

 

As I stated on Monday, my purpose with this was to create a piece that blended the elements of principle and example. I wanted it to be one part allegory, with archetypes that represented a core idea, and one part realism, with characters who were relatable.

Obviously the character of “the father” was a larger-than-life allegory. He is a flat character, one that is intended to only channel one personality trait: confidence. He always comes through, there’s nothing he can’t accomplish, he always knows exactly what to do and say.

The son, meanwhile, is a little more in-between. It wouldn’t be fair to say that he is entirely lifelike, as we simply do not have enough time with him to get a fully fleshed-out personality from him. Even so, in the short time that we do hear from him, he still shows a wide range emotions, including reverence, bitterness, fear, shame, and redemption.

His comment towards the end about how hard it was for him to live without a father is meant to jolt the reader out of the rose-tinted fairy tale and into a more somber reality. It’s meant to suggest that the idealized story of his father is nothing more than the perspective of a six-year-old boy who still believes his father could do no wrong. A perspective that he has maintained for the man who sired him, but lost for himself.

And that, ultimately, was the crux of my idea in marrying these two different perspectives. By laying them side-by-side and even having them overlap I meant to explore the way our view of the world changes as we age and mature. In some ways I believe our love for fairy tales is nothing more than a nostalgic longing for the simplicity of our childhood minds.

As I wrote this piece I realized I was writing “father” a lot, and reached a point where I thought someone ought to call the man by his name. It was at that point that I decided to add a little quirk to the story, something to give it personality. Do you know what I am referring to? I’ll talk a little bit more about it on Monday, as well as how to add indirect personality to stories and characters in general. I’ll see you then, and in the meantime have a wonderful weekend!

Principle and Example

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Repeated Tales)

In old France a beautiful woman named Belle is shocked by the hideous exterior of a cruel Beast. Fate intervenes to keep the two in close proximity, and over time each character’s heart begins to thaw and they grow to care for one another. True love is found, a spell is broken, and the two live happily ever after.

Meanwhile, over in Old England Elizabeth Bennet is shocked by the haughty snobbery of Mr. Darcy. Fate again intervenes to keep the two in close proximity, and again over time each character’s heart begins to thaw and they grow to care for one another. True love is found, previous hurts are mended, and the two live happily ever after.

Despite the similarity between these two stories, Pride and Prejudice is not assumed to be a reinterpretation of Beauty and the Beast. Perhaps Jane Austen was subconsciously influenced by the themes of that earlier work, but then every author is at least somewhat shaded by the ideas that have gone before.

It’s especially interesting to me how similar these two stories are, even when the setting of each is so different. Beauty and the Beast comes from a land of magic and fantasy, Pride and Prejudice is grounded strictly in a natural world, though perhaps one inhabited by caricatures.

Batman is the Scarlet Pimpernel, but with more radiation-powered bad-guys. The James Cameron film Avatar is the same story beats as Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves, but now set on an alien world. Star Wars takes the feudal Japan of The Hidden Fortress, and trades it for the vast emptiness of space. Ulysses drops the mythic gods of The Odyssey in favor of 20th century Dublin.

It seems perfectly clear that themes and basic plot constructs are not confined to particular genres or world-settings. It is possible to tell the same story with entirely different trappings. What then is the difference between a story set in realism and another set in fantasy? Are there certain strengths to each, or are they truly interchangeable?

 

Example vs Principle)

I’ve known several women who have said they want to find a man like Mr Darcy. I don’t think I know any, though, who have said they want to find a man like the Beast. Though their stories are the same and both characters are works of fiction, the Beast seems somehow more pretend to us. It feels strange to say that one would want to live in a world so completely given over to fantasy.

A story that is grounded in reality provides for us an “example.” Though it is not real, it feels real. It is an instance of life that reminds us of similar realities we ourselves have experienced. The applications of its lessons are obvious and direct, one can immediately understand that one should never judge a book by its cover in matter of the heart. However, because the lesson is so closely coupled with a lifelike situation, it is more limited in its application. For example it would be a stretch to apply the principles from Pride and Prejudice to issues of racial strife, but it is a far easier thing to do with Beauty and the Beast.

This is because more fantastic stories tend to provide us a “principle.” Principles might be tougher to chew on at first, but they are considerably more adaptable to a broad spectrum of scenarios. The Beast isn’t really a person, he’s an idea: ugliness. And ugliness can be recognized in all manner of different forms.

So which method should we learn by? Example or principle? Well… both, really. We try to teach our children principles, and then we model those principles by our example. A mathematics lesson usually begins by illustrating the principle in the form of a proof, and then shows its application with an example problem. Aspiring artists are educated on the theory behind color, shape, and balance, and are then shown specific examples from the masters that showcase the implementations of these principles.

Each of us is partial to one form of learning or the other, although we all benefit at least somewhat from both. There’s more than enough reason, therefore, to write stories that fall on either side of reality.

 

Blends and Exceptions)

Of course not every story falls neatly onto just one side of the spectrum or the other. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a story set in a realistic world and populated by believable characters. It’s just that two of those characters happen to be different incarnations of the same man, brought about by use of a fantastic serum. In Utterson we find a realistic example of a man dealing with a friend in trouble, and in Jekyll and Hyde we have a more allegorical depiction of addiction.

In recent decades the trend has been to take the more fantastic worlds, and inhabit them with more lifelike characters. Where superheroes like Superman were initially written to be allegorical idols of perfection, now they are usually just everyday people like you and me in a world just like our own. I’m not sure if that is better, worse, or neither, it’s just an interesting trend to note.

And of course, there are many stories that don’t have a point at all. They aren’t made to be relatable to us either by example or principle, they are merely meant to entertain us through a swashbuckling adventure. Pirates of the Caribbean, for example, lacks a relatable setting, is full of hyperbolic characters, and does not attempt any meaningful allegorical lesson. It is, however, just a lot of fun. I’m not sure how long these sorts of stories are remembered over long periods of time, though, they may be brief touchstones that garner a moment of attention and nothing more.

 

If you haven’t already, it’s well worth asking yourself what the lesson behind your own stories is meant to be. Whether it is a lesson taught by example or principle, whether in a realistic setting or a fantastic one, whether with lifelike characters or caricatures. All combinations of these are valid options, what matters is that whichever configuration you choose you do so intentionally.

Here in the United States of America we have a narrative type called “tall tales” which blends the two styles in an interesting way. These are stories of individuals that are said to have lived among ordinary people in an ordinary setting, but that performed superhuman feats when needed. Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, John Henry and more are larger-than-life characters that were too big for the reality they were cast in.

Previously I’ve written a lifelike-example in the form of I Hated You, Jimmy and also a fantasy-principle with The Anther-Child. This Thursday, though, I’d like to try my hand at a story that straddles the two extremes in the same way as one of these American “tall tales.” Come back then to see how it goes!

I Hated You, Jimmy

man sitting on door of school bus
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It was years before I forgave my parents for dragging me to Jimmy’s funeral. It’s not like they had fond feeling for the boy, but they just kept saying something about “community” and “civic duty” and stuff like that.

You’ll notice, by the way, that I spelled his name out properly, even at fifteen I knew that that “Jimi” moniker he wanted us to use was just stupid. You’re not important enough to rebrand yourself like some Rock and Roll Hall of Greats inductee.

In Loving Memory of James “Jimi” Watson…

I remembering sitting in my pew, looking down at the obituary, and rolling my eyes on the very first line. I should have stopped there, but I didn’t. I kept reading, and as I did my hands were shaking at the injustice of a revisionist history.

Friends remember James as a brave, yet tender boy. He was always so concerned about the smaller children at school, standing up for the underdog every day.

Perhaps you meant “standing them up” in their locker? Slamming their faces, spitting in their mouths, cornering the girls. He was starting to get old enough to be really scary, carrying a knife in his pocket and allegedly cutting someone on more than one occasion.

So, are we really all going to sit here and just pretend we don’t know the truth about what sort of person Jimmy really was?

I guess so. I’m sure not going to stand up and rock the boat.

I remember sitting there, trying to not feel so relieved about my life’s biggest obstacle having been removed. To be clear, I never wanted the school’s biggest bully to die in a car crash, I never wished any such thing on him. I had always just imagined his family having to move, or him getting thrown into juvie. This was not the way I had wanted to be liberated, but liberated I was. I sat there thinking all the rest of High School was going to be so much smoother.

And you know what? It really was.

I had always told my parents that Jimmy had some personal vendetta against me and they had always said that every kid feels that way. Jimmy’s timely death proved that they had been wrong. Because sure, there were still other bullies, and they still sucked, but life was noticeably better ever after his drunk step-dad got the both of them killed.

Sorry, that was cold.

I’m just not so used to expressing all my frustrations…. And really, now that I think about it, I lied earlier when I said I never wanted Jimmy to die. Sort of anyway. You see I did think those thoughts “I wish Jimmy would just die,” but when it actually happened it wasn’t what I had wanted at all. I wanted the idea of Jimmy to die, but not a person. And ever since that accident I’ve been piece-by-piece appreciating that Jimmy really was a person.

Strangely enough I first started picking up on that fact one day when I was feeling particularly grateful to not have Jimmy around anymore. It was a couple years later in the back of the theater with Grace. I was still trying to work up the nerve to put my arm around her when she leaned her head down onto my shoulder. In that moment I was really, truly happy, and the thought occurred to me that the happiness was only complete because I wasn’t afraid of Jimmy being around to ruin it.

And then, out of the blue, the thought occurred to me that Jimmy wasn’t around to experience it either. I mean sure, he’d had his “honeys” as he called them, but he didn’t know what it meant to really want to care for someone else. For the first time in my life I actually felt older than Jimmy.

The next time I found myself thinking about Jimmy was a year later at graduation, while we stood in line for our diploma ceremony. With his last name being Watson, and mine being Watts, he would have been right in front of me in line, instead I now stared at the back of Berkley Warren’s head instead.

Would he have had plans for going to college? Would he have even made it to the end of High School? Quite possibly not. Jimmy certainly wasn’t the most gifted of students, he was already struggling even in the Freshman year. A fact that probably made him quite bitter.

Or maybe not. With all the other problems he had going on at home, his school performance probably didn’t even compare.

Those problems were ones we kids understood only on the surface at the time. We knew his dad had been abusive, had been taken away to jail, and that his new step-dad was abusive, too. But we didn’t have any clue what that term “abusive” really amounted to. It was just a word back then. We were all told that we were supposed to be nice, no matter what, so that meant Jimmy didn’t have any excuse. None but the kids who were actually facing that stuff knew what it meant to live with it. Not even all of them knew.

I guess I still don’t really know what it means, do I? And I certainly don’t know what it meant to Jimmy personally. All I really know is that it’s heavy stuff, and I respect the fact that Jimmy’s behavior towards me was driven by that weight he carried.

After High School I moved away from my childhood home and went to college. Life started coming fast and I didn’t spend much much time thinking about the people I had once known. By the time the invitation to my 10-year High School Reunion showed up in my mailbox I got a job, married my wife, had a child, and bought a home.

It didn’t take too much encouraging from my wife to decide that I would go, ever since the birth of our son I had been thinking nostalgically about my old childhood home. The time was right for a pilgrimage.

For the most part I was amazed at how much everyone felt just the same to me. A little more weight, a little more facial hair, some bags under the eyes, but still the same people I had always known.

At least so it seemed until I started talking with Blake Johnson.

At first I tried to pretend that I didn’t see him, he had been another of the bullies, after all, and I didn’t want to fake a smile and pretend that bygones were bygones. He came directly up to me, though, shook me firmly by the hand, and gave a very sincere apology. That was why he had come here, he explained, to try and make amends for being such a burden to others in school.

It caught me entirely off guard, and all my preconceptions began to melt. We stood there for another fifteen minutes, going over all the usual talking point of one another’s work and families. As we did, I found that he was indistinguishable from all the other people here. He had grown up, he had changed, he had become a healthy member of society.

We didn’t talk about Jimmy in that conversation, but still my thoughts turned to him as I sat in my car later that night. Rather than start my drive home I was wrestling with something inside, trying to understand something that I hadn’t before.

At last it came through and I realized that I had been allowing myself to feel sympathy for who Jimmy was when he died, but I hadn’t ever considered that today he could have been someone different. And maybe he wouldn’t have changed, maybe today he would be a hardened criminal stewing in some jail cell. But that wasn’t the point. The point is he never got his chance to decide. Blake got his chance, but Jimmy never would.

All I would ever know of Jimmy was a fifteen-year-old kid who really didn’t know a thing in the world.

I thought about my own son waiting for me back home. He’s a pretty good kid, but not perfect. I would hate for anyone to write him off before he’s had a chance to come into his own.

I had thought several times about Jimmy over the years, but the first time ever I cried about him. I cried for a soul interrupted.

 

I mentioned that one of my problems in Harold and Caroline was that the criticism only flowed one way. Caroline was too passive of a character, and so their relationship lacked a back-and-forth to its give-and-take. The thing was, sometimes your character should be passive. In today’s example, the narrator was definitely the victim of Jimmy’s bullying, and that meant he had to hold a more submissive role.

My solution, though, was to write this from the narrator’s perspective, where the reader could hear the sharp barbs in his thoughts, without having to hear them coming out of his mouth. From this view we can tell that he is fighting back against Jimmy, just from a more passive-aggressive stance. Also the fact that this is written from the perspective of an adult reflecting on the past gives him a maturity that Jimmy never holds. Overall I feel a lot better about how I maintained an equal tension between the two while still allowing one to dominate over the other.

 

My other concern with Harold and Caroline was how it didn’t use sideplots effectively. It would introduce new characters and motivations, keep them around just long enough to push the main plot forward slightly, and then drop them without any sort of meaningful resolution.

In today’s piece I wanted to cover more than a decade in a very short span of time, so I knew that meant utilizing the same vignette-style separate scenes. This time, though, I toned them down to the point that they were just backdrops that the main narrative marched continuously in front of. My main technique in accomplishing this was in not having any of the other characters speak. We learn a couple names, Grace and Blake, but because we only hear of them second-hand we never mistake them for central characters and then have our expectations in that disappointed.

As a whole I liked this piece a good deal more than Harold and Caroline. There are still criticisms I could make of it, but for now I’d rather move on to something else.

This story and Harold and Caroline were some of my more grounded pieces, stories where nothing supernatural occurred whatsoever. Perhaps the way things work out for the characters might seem a little convenient or contrived, but that’s as strange as things get.

Softer, slice-of-life tales and rollicking power fantasies have more in common than you might think, though. More often then not, they both deal with the same basic themes, just they paint them with different colors. Come back on Monday where I will explore this concept even further.

Update on My Novel: Month 2

black pen near white printer paper
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With my last check-in a month ago I had a highly-detailed report of writing my novel for the month of May. I have no such report for June. Suffice it to say that June was the month where I burned out and didn’t write even a single word for more than half the days.

I might say that there are reasons for that: Summer vacation distractions, the natural ebb and flow of motivation, etc., but I wouldn’t be satisfied with such excuses. Because the idea is that I want to be writing my story regularly no matter what happens. Part of planning to do any great undertaking is planning how to do it even when things are hard. If I can only write during convenient periods, I’ll never get the darn thing finished.

Thankfully, I actually did make some plans for just such doldrums. It was these monthly reports. So long as I maintain these regular updated I’m unable to go too long before I take a long and hard look at my writing habits.

To that end I am recommitting to daily work on my blog, with the exception of three vacation days where I will most likely not have time for any personal projects. However I have decided not to commit to 500 words-per-day anymore. I noticed a trend where meeting that number was becoming more important than writing at a high-quality level. Maybe word-goals work for some people, but I think I will do better with a time commitment instead. That commitment will be 30 minutes-per day.

Thank you all for helping to keep me honest. I’m still hopeful for this project and look forward to letting you know how things are going one month from now.