Core Needs

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This last Thursday I posted a short, simple story about a father and son who were experiencing a moment of frustration and exhaustion. Each was tired of their shared struggle, and each had their own idea of what it was they needed in order to be happy. For the son, Teddy, he felt he needed to have his nasogastric tube removed and thus be relieved from his constant soreness and discomfort. The father, Christopher, needed Teddy to understand why it was important for the tube to remain, and thus continue enduring all of that soreness and discomfort.

It should be immediately apparent that these two needs were incompatible with each other. For either to be met would mean to deny the other one. As such the two characters found themselves not only struggling with the situation but with one another, trying to convince the other to give way. Neither was successful.

Fortunately for these two characters, neither of their supposed needs were what they truly needed. Beneath the surface there were deeper core needs, and eventually each of the characters stumbled upon them. In reality it was Teddy who needed his father to understand him. Teddy didn’t need the pain to be taken away, he just needed someone to appreciate how great that pain really was. He needed to be validated and heard. Christopher, meanwhile, really needed to process his own guilt and express sorrow for it. Perhaps it is irrational for a father to feel guilty when a child feels ill, and yet emotions don’t have to be rational to be real. Valid or not, Christopher needed to acknowledged that he did indeed feel that way and get those thoughts of inadequacy of his chest.

These core desires, happily, were not so incompatible with one another. Teddy cried and his father empathized with him. This had the dual effect of Teddy feeling heard, while amplifying Christopher’s sense of guilt to the point that he could recognize and voice it. Both characters grew, and more importantly they grew together.

This idea of characters thinking they need one thing, and then discovering that deep down they really needed something else is not a new notion by any means. It’s a concept that finds its roots in actual life experience. Hopefully each one of us has had those experiences of finally understanding the reasons and motivators behind the strange things that we do. Suddenly behavior that seemed to us random or without purpose, now is recognized as being driven by a basic inner need. No wonder, that authors have sought to recreate such poignant moments of epiphany in their stories.

Consider the tale of The Bishop’s Wife. Or maybe the tale of Mary Poppins. If you think about it, these are actually the exact same story, just with two different coats of paint. In each we begin with a father, one who is busy with his important business and civic duties. They are both proud and hard working, but each has a problem as well. In the case of The Bishop’s Wife it is that he doesn’t have enough money to build the church he dreams of, and in Mary Poppins it is that he needs someone to care for his children and keep them out of his hair.

In each story the father petitions for help, one through prayer and another through an advertisement. Each is looking for help in obtaining what they need. An assistant comes to each, one in the form of an angel and the other as a nanny. Both fathers are appalled to find that these assistants are not what they were hoping for at all! Rather than having their problems being solved they are instead compounded, weighing down on both men’s “important” work until at last something breaks and they reach their low point of the story.

It is only at this point where dreams have been lost that the two men are able to recognize what truly matters to them: their families. Suddenly their initial needs don’t seem like real needs anymore, just wants. Each story ends happily as they realize that they have had the power all along to give themselves that which is really important.

It might be tempting to scoff at the fathers in these stories being so misguided with their priorities in life. We would think that we all would know exactly what it was we needed in life, but in reality this is rarely the case. Our intuition will usually lead us correctly, but the challenge is in even knowing which of the many influences that drive us is that same voice of pure intuition. Whenever we have particularly strong wants or fears, those signals can often override the quieter, calmer voice deep within.

Sometimes we may even receive the answers to our deeper needs, feel better because of it, and still not recognize what just happened! There is a film I like which illustrates this very well. It is called The Way, and it tells of a group of four strangers who meet along the Camino de Santiago, a route of Catholic pilgrimage. Each of these four has come to this pilgrimage for a specific need in life. One is to quit smoking, another is to lose weight, another is to get past writer’s block. These are obviously very external, very surface needs. Eventually the crew reach their destination, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and having fulfilled their pilgrimage conclude that none of them have experienced the miraculous changes that they had hoped for. The smoker still smokes, the overweight man still likes fatty foods. They laugh at their naïvety, and then wander off in their separate ways.

However the attentive viewer will realize that the story is actually not being cynical at all. Though they did not receive the desire that they had voiced, each of them did, in fact, receive something that they needed even more. Things such as obtaining a friendship, a connection to a higher power, and the beginning of understanding one’s place in the world. None of this is ever called out explicitly, and I commend the film for its subtlety on the matter. It feels more authentic because of it.

Watching this film taught me a fascinating lesson about how stories can feature main characters which are motivated by core needs that not even they understand. It is the same for us in real life.

Often we do not realize we are ill until we have symptoms, and then we wish the symptoms away when really we need to be cured of the illness at our core. Then the symptoms will resolve themselves. Surface flaws like a smoking addiction and being overweight are unpleasant and it is natural to wish them away. But they will never leave us until we under the root causes beneath them, and address those instead. It may be that are psyche feels it needs these flaws to relieve guilt or anxiety. It is those deeper sensations of guilt and anxiety, then, that we need to find answers to before we can move forward.

On Thursday I will be presenting a story that is built entirely around a character and his needs. He will have surface needs that he recognizes, core needs that he does not, deep-seated self-doubts that confuse him, and moments of epiphany which he only partially comprehends. Also, in the spirit of the season it will be a story focused around giving and the reviving of the soul. I hope to see you then.

A Minute at a Time

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Christopher slowly cracked the door open, taking a peek into his son’s bedroom. Heavy curtains shaded the room in a perpetual dusk, and it took his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. His hopes of finding the child fast asleep quickly faded as he instead made out the silhouette of the little two-year-old sitting upright on his bed, clawing at the tube running into his nose.

“I don’t like it!” Teddy squawked in frustration as he caught sight of his father.

“I know, Ted, I know,” Christopher muttered, quickly closing the distance to his son and gently pulling his chubby hands down from his face. “I don’t like it either.” He tutted sympathetically at the red marks on the cheek where Teddy has successfully pried the tape loose. “Here, let me fix this.”

“No! Take it off!” the child squirmed, trying to fight Christopher off as he realigned the tube and taped it back into place.

“Don’t you remember what we said about this?” Christopher asked, his voice strained by the ongoing struggle. “We know it’s really, really hard. But this is so important because this is how you get your medicine. If you don’t get your medicine you’re going to be really sick like before. Understand?”

Teddy did not understand. He only became more agitated and began to lunge for the side of the bed, trying to get away from his father. “Let me go!” he whined.

“If you can’t sleep you don’t have to,” Christopher conceded.

Naps with Teddy were hit or miss these days. When he was able to sleep things were so much better. Sleep was the one time that he was free from the otherwise constant aches and pains, even if only for a short time. On the other hand, not being able to sleep meant that those aches and pains would now be compounded with general crankiness. The little boy might escalate in frustration for hours until sheer exhaustion would finally force him to lose consciousness. It looked like this afternoon was going to be one of the hard ones.

“Let’s try and eat some food, then,” Christopher suggested. Teddy had refused to eat any lunch before his nap.

“No,” Teddy shook his head as Christopher scooped him into his arms. “It’s ouchie.” By way of explanation he wrapped his hands around his throat.

“We’ll get some formula, then, something that isn’t too rough on you.”

Teddy didn’t protest, but he gave a small whimper of dissatisfaction. They made their way to the kitchen, and once there Christopher put his son down in a chair and began preparing the bottle. The child whimpered louder and rubbed his eyes slowly, but he was too tired to try and move from the spot.

“I want Mommy,” Teddy finally moaned.

“I know, buddy, I know,” Christopher sighed. “Mommy pulled the midday shift for today, though,” he explained before realizing his son wouldn’t understand. “Mommy had to do some extra work.”

“No,” Teddy shook his head.

“It’s important. So we can pay for your medicine.”

“No more medicine,” the toddler started clawing at his tube again.

“Hey, hey, don’t do that!” Christopher chided in exasperation. He spun the lid onto the bottle and rushed over to stop Teddy. “Kiddo, c’mon…”

Another brief struggle ensued as Christopher resettled the tube again. He tried to think of how to explain these things to his son, not for the first time. After a moment he shook his head in defeat, not for the first time. How was a toddler to understand having to hurt for his own greater good? A toddler shouldn’t have to understand those sorts of things. “Teddy I know you don’t want to have your medicine. But Mommy and Daddy need you to have it.”

“Why?” Teddy croaked.

“Just because we need you to.” Christopher stroked his son’s hair. “And we also need you to trust us. We need you to do this just because we love you.”

Teddy grimaced, and squirmed to get away from his father’s affection, too grumpy to accept that kindness right now. So Christopher grabbed the bottle instead. “Here, try this,” Christopher placed the nipple into his son’s mouth, where it hung loosely as Teddy just gave his father a withering look. “Don’t you want to try to drink some?”

“It’s ouchie,” Teddy merely repeated, tapping his throat lightly.

Christopher hung his head in defeat. The child didn’t go into a tantrum, he didn’t scream, and he didn’t throw anything. His eyes just started welling up with tears until he blinked and they gushed down his cheeks, a whimpering cry quivering from his lips.

Christopher felt the tension in him break and he started to cry as well. He knelt down on the floor and wrapped his hands around Teddy’s legs, clasping them behind his bottom, holding him ever so gently yet with such fervent intent.

“I’m—I’m sorry, Teddy,” Christopher gulped out. “I’m just so sorry.”

For a sweet, bitter moment they just rested there, breaking the silence only with the soft sound of their mutual sobs. Every now and then Christopher would look in his son’s eye and briefly reaffirm the difficulty of the situation.

“It’s really hard. Isn’t it, Teddy?” he’d say and Teddy would nod sadly and say “Yeah.”

“You don’t like doing this, do you?” he’d say and Teddy would shake his head and say “No.”

“You just want to be all better right now, huh?” he’d say and Teddy would nod again and say “Yes, daddy.”

As the tears started to slow down one last thing broke in Christopher and behind a fresh curtain of tears he muttered. “I wanted to never let something like this happen to you, Ted. I’m sorry.”

Teddy didn’t say anything, but he looked at his father intently, and as he did so his eyes stopped watering. Finally he raised the bottle back to his lips and took a few deep gulps from its contents.

“Good boy,” Christopher smiled, wiping away both of their tears. “You want to read a book?”

Teddy nodded and Christopher scooped him back up. Together they moved over to the living room bookcase, and selected a favorite story, one about an anthropomorphic boat. Christopher sat down on the nearby couch, Teddy on his lap, opened the book and began to read.

At five pages in Christopher noticed that Teddy had stopped sucking from the bottle and when he glanced down he found that the child was asleep. Christopher sighed contentedly, closed the book, and reclined more fully into the couch.

He began gently stroking his son’s back and he looked upwards, mouthing a silent prayer of thanks. Things were still hard and in only an hour the struggle would start all over again. But for now, this was enough.

*

As I mentioned on Monday, our nature is such that we give and take influence to and from those we are closest with. We are defined at least in part by where others’ shadows intersect with our own. In this story I tried to present a father and son that are hurting together. Though their specific roles in their shared challenge are different, they still do share that challenge. When one of them hurts, both of them feel it.

Also note how this story is presented in contrast to the short piece from last week. In both cases we began with a father trying to connect with a son. In this one, as in Cursed, the father is trying to give something to the child. Ekal was trying to give his son moral strength and Christopher was trying to give his son understanding. In both cases the son was not able to receive it. The difference here is that then Christopher transitions into taking, allowing himself to empathize for a moment with his son’s pain instead. Many relationships struggle when both parties are trying to actively push their influence on one another, never stopping to receive back in turn. We know that to converse is to exchange words in a back-and-forth discourse, but sometimes we forget to do the same with our emotions and empathy.

If there was a single word I would use to describe this short piece it would be “need.” Both Christopher and Teddy are coming into the situation with their own needs. At first they don’t even know what those needs are, and have to dig a little deeper to find what truly resonates. Character needs are obviously a huge consideration when sitting down to author a story, and I’m going to take some time next week to delve further into it. We’ll look more closely at the needs presented in this short story, and then consider ways other classic stories have incorporated their characters’ needs in a nuanced and meaningful manner. I’ll see you on Monday for that post!

Following Footsteps

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Children tend to look like their parents. You’ve probably noticed this. Not only that, but they tend to act like them, too. For most of my life I merely attributed that to developmental nurturing, I assumed that people just tended to become like those they spent most of their time around. Undoubtedly that is true to a great degree, but it was remarkable to me when my wife and I first met our son how many of our personality traits and temperaments he already possessed, even before he could have learned them from us through direct experience.

I guess that makes sense. Why would we assume that the only things we pass on through our heredity are the physical attributes like facial structure and eye color? And so I believe that people have both a spark of individuality that is all their own, and then are added upon by all the people that are most important in their lives.

 

Projections)

This is an important consideration in crafting a character for a story. I’m sure you’ve heard that it is that each character in your story must have their own voice, their own characterizations, to be unique and distinct from one another. That is generally good advice, but we also shouldn’t t force them to be different just for the sake of being different. If your story includes two characters that are closely tied to one another, either by family relation, or years of association, it will feel more honest for them to share personality traits that they have projected onto one another. If one character is a descendant of another, ask yourself what characteristics they might have inherited from their forebearers.

There is an excellent example of this in the Lord of the Rings with the characterization of Aragorn. I’m specifically referring to the film adaptation here, as his character is one area where the film improved on the book. Aragorn is supposed to be a king, but he has removed himself from that path because he is haunted by the idea of failure. Why? Well among his ancestry there was a former king who was guilty a great betrayal, one which plunged the world into its current sea of darkness.

Aragorn says of the matter, “The same blood flows in my veins. The same weakness.” It is clear he is not expressing a hypothesis, a mere assumption that weakness probably exists in him, rather the conviction in his voice suggests that he has personally had moments of being weak, of failing, of shunning his duty. And when in his introspection he has tried to identify why he is so flawed he has recognized this as his inheritance from his ancestor. Thus he fears making the same mistakes as those that went before, and ironically, it is in his running from his title that he self-fulfills his own fears of failing to measure up. He makes himself more into the image of his forefather by trying to avoid that very thing.

This is a wonderfully rich character, and all by delving into some soulful examinations on what has made this man and who it was that did that making.

 

Second Parents)

Of course not all those that mold us are of our direct lineage. In our infancy and early childhood our parents and other direct family members are undoubtedly our greatest influence, but as we venture out into the world those initial personality traits start to get bent my new interactions. We have our mentors and friends, neighbors and coworkers. All of them rub off on us and can even forever alter the character we first began as. For better and for worse.

Typically when we use expressions like “he was a second father to me” or “she took me in like I was her own child” we often are referring to this sort of influence. We perceive that some person has remade us to be more like they are, and we signify this by assigning them a secondary-parent title. I’m not sure if there is anyone who doesn’t have these remaking characters in their lives, and it is a fascinating phenomenon to draw on in our stories.

In Les Miserables we have a harsh and fearful man in the form of Jean Valjean. He is a former convict and under the strict French regime he will always be a convict. Born in poverty and defined by his background to never amount to much. He fills that role well, even going so far as to beat and rob a priest whose only crime was showing him kindness.

When that priest responds to that cruelty with only greater kindness Jean Valjean is deeply moved and ultimately transformed. He has a moment of conflict between this new influence and this new impressions that has been made on him, then he ultimately allows himself to be remade in the likeness of that priest. He becomes devout, self-sacrificing, and generous, completely unrecognizable from the man of his origins.

 

Competing Voices)

It is very clever of Jean Valjean to have that moment of conflict between the two voices within him. After all, we do not typically emulate only one single persona in our lives either. We are mixed beings with a plethora of influences chattering within us. Some people even describe how those voices take the actual sound of a person that they know: a mother, a friend, a coworker. Those voices might disagree with each other, even argue. When a decision is difficult to make, we might remain at a standstill until we are able to identify which of all these competing voices really represents our own true self. Not all influences are good, after all, and at some point we have to prune ourselves to the person we really want to be.

Where do we find examples of this in stories? Actually we find them once more with Aragorn and Jean Valjean.

Aragorn is afraid of his heritage and own personal weakness. However that is not all that defines him. One mentor’s voice, that of Elrond, urges him to “Put aside the ranger. Become who you were born to be.” Elrond’s advice is able to strike a chord in Aragon, in no small part due to the fact that Elrond is literally a second father to him. When Aragorn’s birth father died it was Elrond who raised him as a son, and so has imprinted in the man a sense of wisdom and power. This is actually an element of the character that is better defined in the book than in the film, and is critical to understanding how and why Aragon is able to answer that call and evolve into something greater.

Jean Valjean, meanwhile, is not entirely in the clear after defeats his previous persona and turns over a new life. Throughout the rest of the tale he is haunted by the cruel guard that was set over him during his many years in prison: Javert. Javert is a manifestation of the voice in Jean Valjean that would pull him back to his former self, who tells him he can never be anything more than a convict. Javert tries to persuade Jean Valjean of this many times, and at times it is clear that Valjean is almost convinced by his arguments. It is only by constantly reaffirming his newness of soul that Valjean is able to hold onto his better life until the very end.

 

In conclusion, as we define the characters of our stories we ought to consider not only how they behave but also why they do so. What was their personality originally? How was that personality built on through nurturing influence? How was that then challenged by external influences? How are they, in turn, influencing others? For indeed, we cannot view influence as flowing one way only.

Parents, mentors, and friends may mold a man or woman, but they will also be molded in turn by that same individual. That’s a notion that deserves a little more elaboration, and on Thursday I will post a story that highlights this concept. Where my previous story gave a tragic tale of a father unable to connect with his son, this next one will portray a father who successfully gives to his child, but also receives from him as well. I hope to see you then.

Cursed

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Talce had gray, reflective eyes, devoid of any perceivable irises. Indeed they appeared less like eyes than polished, metal balls that had been inserted into his sockets. Those eyes had been the greatest source of shame to him all his days. They were the sign of the terrible curse and burden which he bore, that of being a life-taker. From his early youth he had learned to walk with his head perpetually bowed downwards, hiding those eyes from those who passed him by. It simply was not pleasant to witness the way people would recoil in revulsion and fear whenever they saw his face.

And there was certainly great fear in them, it was the root that lurked behind all of the hatred the villagers showed to him. That was a hard thing to be responsible for, and yet, he was also greatly indebted to it. For it was only that fear which held the local villagers in check, preventing them from outright cornering and killing him. The definition of a life-taker was, as the name implied, that he could instantly snuff out any creature’s life with no more than a blink of those shining eyes. And so it was with good reason that the people feared him, shunned him, ignored him, and anonymously tormented him… but never would they dare face him in open hostility.

Of course he had never actually done something so horrible as exerting his power on another…. Except once. While in his youth he had been chased down an alley by a massive and furious dog. Though he had not seen where it had come from, it had surely been been set on him by the village boys. No doubt they saw it as an opportunity to enjoy either of two potential outcomes. Perhaps, if they were lucky, they would rid themselves of him once and for all in a tragic “accident.” If not, they would finally be able to catch a glimpse of that terrible power he held. For though they hated what he could do, he knew they were also in awe of it.

Well, whichever dark corner they may have been watching him from, they got their wish. Backed against a wall, with his heart thumping in his chest, he had felt himself what the fear of death was like. Though he had never unleashed his shade he had always known by instinct how to do so. It was a reflex in him as basic as breathing. It had taken less than a moment, a single rush of a dark mist, and the dog moved no more.

There was a common misconception that life-takers’ eyes did not function as those in other people, simply because of how featureless those eyes appeared to be. But they could see, and they could cry. Talce had cried in that moment. Not because of his fear of the dog, but because of the fear of himself.

He was crying again, years later. His head was bowed at this time, too, even though he was in the presence of the one man that had never shunned him.

“Son, look to me” Ekal’s voice croaked from the bed, reaching down to the young man’s chin and turning his face upwards. “Let us see each other this one last time.” Ekal had been about to say something more, but then his face was contorted by another spasm of pain.

A spasm of empathy crossed Talce’s face as well.

“Talce, we do not have long,” Ekal gasped out when the agony had finally subsided. “Give me your hand,” he extended his palm outwards.

Talce did not respond to his father’s request. Instead he looked downwards again. “Who did this?” his voice was barely a whisper, and even so it quavered with seething rage.

Ekal’s face contorted once more, though this time not because of the physical pain. “Talce, do not dwell on this,” he pleaded earnestly. “What is done is done. All that matters now is your liberation.” He thrust his open palm out more urgently to his son.

There was only one way by which a person could be rid of their curse. They could relinquish it to a willing soul, one that was crossing from this life to the next. No ordinary person would offer to carry any sort of curse into the eternities, let alone the burden of a life-taker. Ekal, however, was no ordinary person. And the townspeople knew it. The logic had been simple: mortally wound the old man and let him take the hated curse to his grave.

“Malkil. Tohvy. Harras. Banu.” Talce spat out the names. He had noticed them awkwardly watching from across the street when he had entered the home. Quite likely they were the same men who years earlier had set the dog after him, now emboldened by both age and drink. “Was it them?”

“It was fools!” Ekal shouted back, raising himself on his elbow at great effort. “Worth less than the thoughts you’ve already given them.”

“You think they will spare me once they no longer fear me?! That they will welcome me with open arms after all these years?”

“No,” Ekal sighed. “You will have to run.”

Talce shook his head bitterly. “And leave you unavenged? My own father?”

Ekal tried to keep himself propped upwards, but his arm began to shake and he was about to fall back onto the cot. Talce instinctively threw his hands around his father’s head to lower it down gently. For the cot was thin, and the wood underneath it was hard. Ekal smiled at him, even through his pain.

“Please, son,” he said kindly. “Listen to me. You are a good son and I wish you to always be so. This thing you consider…it simply is not worth the risk.”

“I know they’ll be laying in wait for me,” Talce nodded. “Clearly they meant for tonight to be the end, one way or another. I wouldn’t fall for their trap, though. They’re fools, just as you say.” He nodded again. “This I can do, father.”

“I know it,” Ekal breathed, but there was a tremble of horror in his voice.

Talce felt himself a tremor in himself echoing with his father’s timbre. It was that same fear of self gnawing as it had that day in the alley with the dog. But over that another voice was raging.

“And what of it?!” Talce snapped. “There’s a justice in this. They brought it on themselves!” He blinked back angry tears. “You are my father! It is because of my respect for you that I must–”

“No!” Ekal interrupted firmly. Even angrily. “If you have any respect for me at all you will let this go!” He extended his palm again, reaching to find his son’s hand. But subconsciously Talce had closed his own hands into tight fists. “What kindness do you do me by losing your soul?” Ekal reproved. “If once you are willing to kill to get what you want, then where does that end?”

Talce scowled and looked away. He knew what his father meant. The men’s families and friends, the entire village, they would not tolerate a life-taker willing to unleash his curse. Not even in a cause of “justice.” What would he do when they raised up against him, too? Just let them kill him? Never. If anything, the few men who had beaten his father were only carrying out the will of the entire village, the surface manifestation of all that lied beneath. He could snuff out every life in this town and never once spill a drop of innocent blood.

For as featureless as a life-taker’s eyes were said to be, Ekal had still seen and understood the shadow that had passed across his son’s face with those latest thoughts. For the first time in his life, Talce saw the same horror in his father’s face that the townspeople had always reserved for him.

“Please,” the old man whimpered, his eyes fluttering with the strain of staying open. “They’ve already taken me. Please don’t let them take my son! Please, no.” Unable to extend his hand any longer Ekal merely laid it flat on his side, the fingers quivering for the feel of his child.

The loving plea swayed Talce for a moment. But the more he felt moved by the love of his father the more his corresponding hate for those that would killed the man swelled within him. All his life he had lacked the self-control and depth of character to shoulder this burden on his own. He did not have the mastery in himself to not use this power. He knew it and his father knew it. It was as much as love for his son as fear for him that made Ekal wish to unburden him. He was not ready for that father to leave him, yet leaving he was.

Hot tears rolled down Talce’s cheeks and splashed on the dying man’s covers. “I really wish that I could,” he strained out through gritted teeth. “I really do.” A strange guttural growl echoed from his throat, the strain of his very soul rending in two.

Taking their lives would just be so easy. So effortless. As easy as blinking his eyes.

Ekal’s eyes had closed, but his lips continued to shudder. “Talce, no” he moaned weakly. “No, Talce. Talce…” His hand groped in the dark, reaching but not finding.

Much as he hated himself for it, Talce could not be with his father like this. He could not bear the look of disappointment in his face and the piteous pleading noises. The brokenness. He turned his back and hardened his heart, striding out of the room, to the main entrance, and out into the street. He was already raising that dark mist, the shade that was his only remaining companion. They wouldn’t have a chance.

***

A common source of conflict and disappointment in our lives is nothing more than our expectations not being met. On Monday I discussed the rift we see between parents and their children, and I would argue a great deal of that divide comes from just these sorts of expectations not being met. Children begin life holding their parents in the highest regard, and at some point are disappointed to learn that they are not as perfect as at first believed. Parents disappoint themselves with their own failings, and are disappointed when their children choose something other than what they had intended for them.

Also, sometimes closer to the heart than even family love is personal pride, and when this is the case working out problems together is sidelined for championing one’s own desires. These were the sorts of things I wanted to emulate in today’s story. Talce truly does love his father, but he loves him on his own terms, not on his father’s. Further, he is a disappointment to himself, and has come to believe in his villager’s perspective of him, rather than Ekal’s. As such he is does not feel capable of meeting the loftier expectations, and rather assumes the more base role that he knows he can fill.

I’ve wanted to do a scene that could serve as the origin for a villain and I thought this would be an interesting way to do it. It’s an approach for such a character that feels more honest to me. Perhaps I’ll have to integrate Talce into some larger story at some point.

Now, though, I’d like to spend a little bit more time on these ideas of projected expectations, filling roles, and the nature of father and mother figures in literature. To sum it all up, I want to look at what how we are defined by others, and how that is reflected in literature. Come back next week when we’ll see what we find.

Something Old, Something New

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Sadly, it seems to be in our nature that wherever we find a distinction between two entities, we almost invariably set them in opposition to one another. We hear of the battle of the sexes, of ongoing racial discrimination, of citizens divided down party lines. Battle, discriminate, divide. These are not passive words for merely identifying differences between each other, these are phrases suggesting fundamental opposition and inevitable hostile action.

If that is not enough, the tension is ratcheted up still further because we also happen to love and need each other. We are social beings, existing within families, communities, and nations, but all these conglomerations will result in our contrasts being awkwardly smashed together. To eradicate those that are different from us would only be self-destructive to our entire social ecosystem, but to preserve them will be a source of constant friction.

Of course this is the stuff that drama is made of! The very lifeblood of literature itself. I could quite easily dedicate an entire post to each of these human differences and explore how they relate to stories. Perhaps one day I will. For now, though, I want to focus on a very specific instance: that of the older generation in contrast to the newer.

I choose this subject because it has always with us and yet remains so rife with confusion and mixed feelings. We love our children and we love our parents. They truly are a part of us, and yet we constantly have fundamental disagreements as well. Why is that? Let’s take a look at some classic stories and see if they can’t shed any light on this phenomenon of humanity.

 

Youth)

First there are stories which are from the perspective of the rising generation trying to shake off the harmful traditions of the past. Surely there is no more famed example of this than Romeo and Juliet. Here the hate of the fathers is literally killing the children, stifling out all of the passion and energy that they burn with.

The parents in Shakespeare’s story seem to suggest that after a certain age we become set in our ways, and perhaps not for the better. Three-year-olds can be mortal enemies one moment, and then five minutes later all is forgiven and they are friends again. After a certain age setting aside old wounds doesn’t come so easily anymore, and blood feuds last forever.

Romeo and Juliet asks why should the children inherit the flaws and prejudices of their parents, though? It just grumbling that our parents are uncool, you understand, it’s that they are actually damaging us and we can do things better. In fact that is the pattern of the world. Our ancestors had slavery, they had terrible plagues, they had mass illiteracy. Humanity evolved past these limitations through the sequential improvements of one new generation after another. Now it’s the current youth’s turn to take it a step further. And if we can’t…well then maybe the poison is our only remaining choice, Romeo.

What is it that Romeo and Juliet tells us the rising generation wants? In a word: improvement.

 

Elder)

The older generation’s perspective, meanwhile, is often represented in stories as the elders steering the impetuous and naïve youth from their own self-destruction. There is an excellent example of this in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Here the tenets of tradition are being challenged on a macro level by the world at large, and on the micro level by Topol’s three eldest daughters. These young women are choosing their hearts over duty, embracing foreign philosophies, and even rejecting the foundations of their faith.

It’s not the younger generation means to be hurtful, it’s just that they seem to take their way of life for granted. They do not see that that life is a precarious tower of blocks that will topple if too many pieces are removed. All of the elders’ cautions go unheeded, though, and their predictions come to tragic fruition when those same foreign philosophies and cultures drive them from their homes, booting them out like the traditions they were built on.

From this perspective slavery, the plague, and illiteracy may indeed have been overcome in the past, but these are not beasts that once slain can never return. If we aren’t careful, it is entirely possible that we’ll undo all those advances and revert to a lower form of life.

The older generation wants the younger one to acknowledge that they have hard-earned wisdom to offer. To accept that they accomplished some tremendous things, and did so without setting aside their morals and principles. It wants the children to use their foundation and build off of that. To not have to relearn the same lessons over and over.

What is it that the Fiddler on the Roof tells us the older generation wants? In a word: stability.

 

Something in Between)

So what is it? Are we shaking off the antiquated and dangerous methods of the past and becoming the smartest, strongest, kindest generation yet? Or are we trifling with relics we don’t understand, slipping into moral depravity, and sliding back towards the evilest generations yet?

In The Last Grasshopper I described how it was necessary for the previous generation to clear the way for the new, to leave a space for them to fill and iterate on. However I also made the point that the next generation sprouts only from the seeds that that previous generation planted. The story was meant to suggest there needs to be a harmony of both foundation and change.

Because in the end, as I suggested before, we really do depend on one another. We cannot exist without the previous generation and we cannot perpetuate our existence without the next. Stories most frequently tell of conflicts between two sides, one that is good and one that is bad. But in this we forget that what we more commonly see in this world is conflicts between members of the same good side.

The friction between our differences is not meant to drive us towards that conflict, but rather to refine each other into something mutually better. After all, neither of the two generations’ desires that we mentioned above, improvement or stability, are wrong desires to have. Both are worth pursuing, but if the pursuit of either is too reckless or too stringent, it will jeopardize the other. The trick is working together to find the right compromise by which both can be secured. It is a two-way street, but when both sides are able to fully appreciate the validity in the other, only then can they realize that they are able to work together for the improvement of all.

 

In my next story I wish to look more closely at this idea of two sides locked in a duality of opposing, yet needing, one another. Specifically I will give a scene of a father and a son in deepest moral conflict, and all because of their mutual love for one another. That piece will be up this next Thursday, I’ll see you then!

The Last Grasshopper

closeup photo of brown grasshopper
Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

Once the fields had been green and lush, covered by tall blades of grass rolling in the wind. Now they were scattered over only by the occasional dry stalks: brown, brittle and crackling under every chilly breeze. These remaining sentinels pointed up to skies that were overcast and perpetually stormy, a curtain of gray broken only by the occasional crack of lightning and thunder.

Across these fields’ shriveled husks there crawled a single warden, an old and weathered grasshopper. Of all the changes that it had experienced, it was this solitude that struck it as the most strange. For though it had been born in a time when the earth was still new, when flowers were in bloom and water was running, it had not witnessed any of this at the first. Instead it had been hatched within the ground, buried among the masses.

There the first life it had known had been dark and churning. The entire universe seemed a rolling, crawling mass. Its brothers and sisters were innumerable, swarming and pressing it, urging it to claw upwards, to chew through pod and earth, to climb until at last it burst out into the air and greeted its first sunrise.

Here at last it had stumbled upon the nature of its reality, to exist suspended between two great infinites. There was that of the never-ending depths beneath, the earth of its birth. There was that of the ongoing expanses above, the sky that it would dissipate into at the other end of life. Between those two extremes it would dwell: crawling, hopping, and flying, ever wavering between the two yet never fully belonging to either.

What it did belong to was the community. Each new day saw another geyser of small white nymphs like itself bubbling out from beneath the earth and crawling up to take their claim of the land. The ocean of greenery seemed endless, yet the appetite of their horde was relentless. They moved as a body from one field to another, ingesting and digesting, eating all that they could in a race to grow. And grow they did, first doubling in size, then tripling, then molting into a new form that could bear still more multiplications.

Perhaps if they had had a mind that could contemplate their nature, they might have considered the effects of eating this perishable food. For if the plant was alive as they had been, and if it could die and be consumed, and if that entity then became a part of their bodies and now defined them, then were they not consigning themselves to the same eventual fate? Perhaps had they found some immortal food that did not die in the eating of it, then they would have lived forever. But it was too late, they had eaten that fruit and now they bore the common curse of all the earth.

And death did, in fact, begin to manifest. Indeed, all that prevented them for overrunning the entire landscape was that now they were large enough to capture the attention of the birds, and the spiders, and the mantises, and all other manner of predatory life. So as they grew in mass, they diminished in numbers, such that an equilibrium was more or less maintained.

They were still legion, but with each following day they were lesser and lesser of a legion. By the time they approached full maturity and began to mate, their only remained enough to replace their initial numbers and thus not make any gains against nature’s balances. Here the grasshoppers found the beginning of their fulfillment, their great purpose to recreate themselves in new forms. Here was how they cheated nature and gained their immortality.

But that victory was momentary, and the world was already signalling a turning of the tides. For even as the grasshoppers planted their eggs in the soil, they were finding that the ground was colder and harder than it had been before. The loose moisture in it was beginning to freeze and the chill of the night seemed to persist longer into each new morning, suggesting soon it would overtake the days entirely in one eternal slumber.

In anticipation of that great sleep one grasshopper after another succumbed to the elements, curled up, and perished. In doing so their last duty to the next generation was being fulfilled: they were leaving a space in the world for their children to fill. Immortality was still the promise, but immortality only through death. Through incarnation.

Some fell when caught out in the cold. Others starved from the sparseness of food remaining. Others were simply too old and frail to support living any longer. Though when born in the spring they had defied numbering, yet they were finite. Numerically and mortally. As they entered late autumn they could be counted as no more than a thousand. A week later they were no more than a hundred. Before another week was spent there remained that only one.

That final grasshopper did not even know that it was the last of its kind, it simply was aware that it no longer encountered any others of its race. Of course every year saw a “last grasshopper,” by the nature of things some creature had to fill that role, and this year it happened to be this one. In some ways that may seem a momentous thing, yet it passed by each year with none to take any note of it. Perhaps that was fitting. Life began in heat and noise, but then tapered out in a long, slow decrescendo. There would be no loud crash to signal the end, only a muting into nothingness.

And yet not quite nothingness. For the seeds were already in the earth, and in time legions would rise again. None of that next generation would know of this, their nearest forebearer. This final grasshopper was a last strand, stretching from its edge of the infinite towards the other until it would break under the strain of that distance. The next year’s generation would not know of that past, yet they would still owe their entire existence to it.

The grasshopper raised its foreleg for another step, but its clawed foot failed to grasp the stalk, and instead it fell to the ground.

***

I really enjoyed writing out this piece. As I mentioned on Monday, the changing seasons has given me a lot of thoughts about the nature of existence, mortality, beginnings and endings, birth and death. It helped me to process and give closure to those sensations by just being able to find words that gave better definition to those ideas. It serves as an important lesson that we need to pause, take in the world, and then channel it through our imagination to create something new from that experience. I hope each one of us can live our days being inspired by all that richness which surrounds us.

Even as I concluded with this piece, though, it was already bringing up new thoughts and ideas that I still want to explore further. Specifically I want to take some time to linger on the idea of the passing of a torch. This is obviously a classic theme in stories, and there are many takes on the ideas of mentors, tradition, and old flame rekindling in a youthful disciple. Sometimes, though, this rite of passage does not occur so smoothly. On Monday we’ll speak some more about this concept, and I hope to see you then. In the meantime, have an excellent weekend!

Live a Life

light sunset people water
Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

Professionally I work as a software developer. The industry has come a long ways since it exploded among the workforce a half century ago. A lot of those changes, particularly those related to work/life balance, I am very grateful for. Things are generally a lot better in the tech environment, although you can still find some sectors holding onto those less-than-ideal business patterns. For example, video game development studios and tech startups still commonly maintain a mentality that employees need to work 80-hour weeks, coding until they crash on mattresses under their desks. There persists an unhealthy expectation that if you work for these industries then that work has to be the single most important thing in your life. Family relationships, social interaction, and even mental stability are all secondary to pursuing the company’s creative vision, and must be sacrificed as needed.

Of course the tech district isn’t entirely unique in this mindset. Any sort of entrepreneurial or artistic field tends to demand the same voracious pursuit of craft and career at the expense of all else. And of course, given that story writing is also a creative industry, it is plagued with its fair share of workaholics as well.

And to be fair, professional competition and poor management are actually far less demanding taskmasters than our own inner passions can be. Sometimes people work ridiculous hours because they choose to do so. And so there is perpetuated the idea of the artist that cannot be tied to family, or community, or religious devotion, or any other obligation that distracts from their personal muse.

It’s an understandable conclusion. The natural assumption would be that minimizing certain aspects of one’s life in order to maximize others would result in more time for the things that matter most and greater advancements in them. Moderation in all things sounds far too limiting, a sure recipe for mediocrity in all things. Is it, though?

In reality this “focused” approach to life is nothing more a narrow approach to life. It only results in being less developed as a person, and, ironically, less developed creatively, too. For the sake of those creative passions, sometimes you really do need to take a break from those creative passions. Here are three reasons why that is the case.

1)  Experience

Write what you know. It’s advice we’ve all heard before and there’s some good reasons to heed it. On the surface level this means to draw from your actual experiences, to give your voice to the corner of life that you have inhabited. It means you shine a light that is informed and authoritative. When Herman Melville penned the experience of the Pequod in Moby Dick, there was an authenticity in his details that was only possible due to the years he had spent as a sailor and whaler. He not only captured the specifics of how a sailor would perform his chores, but also the specifics of what went on in the heart of the sailor during those very moments.

Even further, though, the advice is advising you to write about the truths and perspectives which you personally hold. Don’t write about some trendy cause if you don’t actually have passion for it. Don’t promote conclusions in your story that you, yourself don’t believe in. When audiences viewed Schindler’s List for the first time they were touched by the film’s deep earnestness, which in no small part was due to the fact that the subject matter clearly mattered to Steven Spielberg, given his personal history in the Jewish faith.

Write what you know, write what you feel, write what is true to you.

But how are you to write any of this unless you have been able to actually experience it? How can you convincingly write of heroes standing for what they believe in until you’ve gone out there and found a cause that is bigger than yourself? How can you speak of the power of love until you can say you would choose the happiness of another over your own? Going back to the example of Schindler’s List, Spielberg had the rights to the story a full 10 years before he began producing the film. Why? Because he didn’t feel “mature” enough to tackle the subject. He wanted to experience what it was like to have a family and find his place in the world.

Being grounded in the full breadth of life gives you a foundation from which truly sincere stories can be told. People want stories that speak to their heart, after all, and we find those in the ones that were spoken from the heart.

2) Breaking through the monotony

I remember writing my first little stories in my mid-teenage years. I churned out a fantasy adventure, then followed it up with another fantasy adventure, and topped it all off with a third fantasy adventure. Even when I wasn’t trying to write a sequel to a previous story, all my tales felt exactly the same.

It’s really not very surprising. At the time I was very much being influenced by the new Lord of the Rings films, as these had arrested my attention like nothing before. I knew I wanted to write about things that excited me, and there was very little else that did then.

Today I still think fantasy adventure is pretty exciting, and I still like to dabble in some of those original ideas I had. But I’m not limited to only that anymore. I’ve discovered a fascinating world of math and logic, and I’m excited by stories involving time travel, conundrums, and the systematic discovery of new theories. I’ve experienced very poignant emotions at home with my family, and I’m excited by stories that explore relationships, how they are built and how they break, and what constitutes a healthy one.

Even better, I can mix and match these various themes together for entirely new expressions. I could write about relationships among fantasy characters that travel through time. In fact, I did just that very thing and I loved it!

I trust my point here is clear. If you aren’t hunting for new life experiences then you aren’t going to be finding new wells of passion from which to draw, and your writing will run the risk of growing stale and repetitive. Next time you find yourself repeating the same tired paths in your stories, put down your pen, go outside, and walk a road you’ve never been down before.

3) Only as strong as your weakest link

Humans are complex beings with multiple fundamental needs. When it comes to our physical nature we know that each of those needs has to be met and kept in balance. We cannot give up on eating, and then compensate for that deficiency by drinking an excess of water. Though we may be wonderfully hydrated, we will still die.

Why would it be any different for our emotional, mental, or spiritual natures? Absolutely we have creative needs that we must make time for, but we cannot expect an overabundance in that category to compensate for starving our social needs. Any accomplishment in one area of life is only impressive insofar as it is not counterbalanced with a failure in another.

Celebrities provide the most public insight into individuals who strive to excel at some facet of their lives. It seems that a good portion of that pop culture is comprised of artists whose lives are falling apart due to dedicating too much of themselves to their singular craft. Fortunately, another good portion is also made up of stars whose lives are rebounding after they took a serious look inside, identified which parts were being left undernourished, and are now giving themselves the self-care they always needed.

When one part of us suffers, all parts of us suffer. If you give your craft 90% of yourself and your mental health only 10%, your work will not ultimately rise to the level of that 90, it will drop to the depth of that 10. Life is not a game where we can min/max our attributes and expect to come out ahead for having done so.

 

In conclusion, moderation in all things is not antiquated advice, it is not some myth that is obsolete in our world of speed and competition. It will always bear relevance to us, because our nature as humans remain the same, even though the world around us may change. That nature is such that we achieve our greatest capacities when we are balanced between all our various sectors of life. Moderation in all things is not mediocrity in all things, rather it is fulfillment in each. If you truly love your creative aspects, take a break from them to truly live your life to its fullest. You will be happier, fuller, and even more creative for it.

For my next short story I wish to focus on just one of the topics I referenced above, specifically that idea of taking inspiration from our real life experiences. At this point in time the seasons are rapidly changing where I live and my mind has been caught up with themes on the passage of time and generations, the death of one year and the birth of the next. I’m going to try and capture those sensations and write them into a short piece for Thursday. Come back then to see how it turns out.