Update on My Novel: Month 8

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DECEMBER STATS
Days Writing: 7
New Words: 1,964
New Chapters: 0.5

Total Word-count: 25,907
Total Chapters: 7.5

Well, I knew that in December I was going to be limited in my work on With the Beast, and perhaps having already made that expectation it became easy to not prioritize it each day. I think I could have accomplished a bit more if I had tried, though just how much I can’t really say.

To be fair, though, it’s not as if I wasn’t writing anything during this month. I am rather proud of how I was able to maintain both this blog, and the spiritual one that I write. After doing those, and all the many other family/holiday activities, I simply found myself sapped of energy to write my novel.

And the section I am working on now definitely requires energy. I am about 25% of the way through the story and coming out of the first main transition. This is the point where we change from the first act into the second, and I am introducing the problems that will shadow the main characters from now until the very end.

Because of the narrative importance of these chapters, I have found myself writing and rewriting each passage over and over. It is slow, but it is progressing. With January I should be able to get myself firmly into the second act, and hopefully the work will pick up more quickly there. Even if it doesn’t though, that’s alright.

For this month my goal is to write during 22 days. I want to finish the chapter that I’m in the middle of, and add at least one more, maybe two. I’ll see how it goes, and will give you an update on February 1st.

Bad, but Not Too Bad

On Thursday I shared the middle chapter of my latest story. In it, our main character has discovered an object that will create for him anything that he imagines. He decides to entertain himself by creating two small creatures to fight to the death. This occurs, but rather than being fun, he finds himself horrified by its stark realism. It is all the more terrible because of his responsibility for the act. In this world, he has invented its first violence.

I wanted this moment to hit every reader as unquestionably wrong, but I also want them to see it as a mistake, not a sign that Jeret is the embodiment of pure evil. I try to bring about this perspective by immediately showing Jeret’s reaction of horror at what he has done. Perhaps he should have known better, but he did not. That doesn’t let him off the hook entirely, but it does shift him from the malicious category into the foolish and unthinking.

The fact, also, that he did not perform the violence himself, is an important factor. Consider a similar case in A Christmas Carol. Here Ebenezer Scrooge turns down a request to donate to the poor, suggesting that these people should go to the poorhouses. He is rebuffed by the statement that many would rather die than go to those miserable grindhouses. His response?

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

It is a truly terrible thing to say, and Scrooge later regrets these words. But at the same time, it isn’t as though Scrooge performs an actual act of violence in the story. He never so much as slaps another individual, he only thinks and says hard things. In fact, the story makes firm the fact that Scrooge really doesn’t know what he’s talking about in this moment. He says, in reference to how deplorable the situations in the poorhouses are “Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.” By which he means he has not verified the conditions of these facilities.

And so Scrooge is guilty of not taking an active interest in his fellow man, and much like Jeret he later sees the reality of his ignorant words and comes to regret them. A Christmas Carol never tries to suggest that what Scrooge does isn’t wrong, indeed the whole crux of the story is that what he does is wrong, but it carefully walks a line to make sure it isn’t irredeemably so.

On the flip side, consider the characters Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan from the stage play and Hitchcock film Rope. The story opens with them murdering a fellow student, and then holding a social for mutual friends. Throughout the party, the story takes some steps to explain the boys reasoning for their crime, and also to show them in a multi-dimensional, relatable light.

But in the end, no audience member is going to get over the fact that these two have done unspeakable wrong, nor indeed does the story ever expect you to condone their actions. It isn’t trying to make murderers more palatable to us, it is trying to caution us that men can reason their way into being unreasonable monsters.

Thus far we’ve talked about how to help keep a character from doing something that is irredeemably wrong, but another consideration is what actions are unquestionably wrong. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge simply wouldn’t have the same emotional impact if we didn’t dislike him from the outset.

We can have a character that is a thief and a liar, but still beloved by the audience, such as Captain Jack Sparrow and Starlord. Though they perform behavior that we pretty universally consider wrong, we give them a pass for some reason.

We can also have a character that says they have done something wrong, but which the audience doesn’t condemn them for. Think of Tony at the end of West Side Story. He is given some misinformation that his beloved Maria has died. This makes him reckless, and ultimately leads to his being mortally wounded, just as he sees that Maria is actually alive. As he fades in her arms he sadly confesses that he “didn’t believe hard enough.”

In a story about how loss of faith in humanity literally kills us, Tony’s crime is enough to warrant death. But obviously we, as the audience, don’t hold his momentary weakness against him. He might be flawed, but we don’t consider his actions as morally wrong.

The thing in common with Jack Sparrow, Starlord, and Tony is that they are never seen harming the innocent. Indeed, this seems to be a very important line in establishing the morality of a character. And so if you want the audience to think of your character as bad, the surest way is to have them hurt another. Ebenezer Scrooge is wrong because he is carelessly consigning others to suffering, he is redeemable because that cruelty is kept within careful bounds.

I believe that virtually every reader will agree that my main character, Jeret, did something wrong in creating two creatures to fight to the death. In the end, a being suffered at his whim, and that is bad. The fact that it was an artificial being of his own making does not let him off the hook. Indeed it makes him even more culpable.

When I first wrote this segment, I actually played around with it to make sure it would hit as impactfully as I could manage. One of his two creations was going to die, and I found that it was sadder to have it be the first one. There was something special about it being the first, about having heard it built piece-by-piece, and discovering the little quirks in its nature. It made that first creation more interesting, and therefore more valuable to the reader. It was good, and thus it was very wrong to destroy it.

But at the same time, I believe Jeret can be redeemed. Because while he did wrong, he was ignorant of the extent of it, and he has shown true and immediate remorse directly afterwards. We’ll see where that remorse takes him in the next chapter, coming this Thursday. See you there!

It’s Tough to Be a God: Part Two

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Part One

“Well,” Jeret said. “Why don’t I make myself something to get back to–to the base?” He had almost said “to get back to home,” but he refused to do that. It was not his home, it was the central point of his prison.

Jeret painted some more of the strange haze in the air, and started to imagine a Tramporter System. He pictured the wheels and platform, and the guideline pointing out in the proper direction. He even tried to imagined the Tramporter System Node back at the base, tethered to this first one.

The results were…disappointing. A couple of wheels materialized, and the general shape of a standing platform, but they all collapsed to the ground as separate pieces. He tried again, this time thinking of axles running through the wheels, keeping them connected to the body. And so they materialized, but still a bit wonky, and still without any power.

Well how exactly did a Tramporter’s power work? Jeret didn’t know. And it didn’t seem that this tool was going to figure it out for him. If he wanted to make something with it, he would have to understand that something in greater details.

Well maybe it didn’t have to be a Tramporter, then. At last he had a sort of cart now, even if it was misshapen. All he really needed now was something to pull it.

Jeret waved his tool around the end of the cart, imagining a metal ring bolted to the end, and from that ring a cable running out into the distance. Then, along that cable he started to imagine a pack of dogs tied by leashes. As they started to come into form they were frightful to say the least. Disproportionate body parts, matted fur, excessively shiny eyes, and making strange guttural noises constantly. Why was it so easy to think an idea, but so hard to actually picture it properly?

Jeret thought of them running off in the distance, and all at once they popped into existence and bounded off with the cart!

“Oh!” Jeret barely managed to fling himself onto the vehicle before it was whisked away. The whole thing suddenly jerked to the left, and he fell to all fours! Then the cart jerked as suddenly to the right and he gripped the bolted ring for dear life.

The ground was perfectly smooth, so there were no bumps in the ride, but the dogs did not know how to run together. Indeed they couldn’t, so unequal were their different limbs. One dog on the left was at a particular disadvantage, with two limbs too long and two limbs too short. It would alternate between bounding and limping, which transitions accounted for the sudden jerks in the cart.

When there was a moment of calmness, Jeret waved his tool over the floor of the cart, fashioning an iron handle attached to it. This he held firmly, gritting his teeth as yet one another erratic jerk swung him wildly, and then another.

Still, they were moving, and in what generally seemed to be the correct direction. Also they were moving far more quickly than Jeret would have been able to on his own. And so, strange and uncomfortable as the ride was, Jeret could not help but feel a great swell of pride. He had made a transportation device, a tool to solve his problem. Already his mind was overflowing with ideas for what to make once he got back to his base.

He would have a feast every night. All of his favorite foods forever available. He would make tools, and resources, and he would build whatever he wanted. He would make creatures, people, and a beautiful home to keep them in.

He could build that tower he had been thinking of! And a parachute to safely glide back down to Amoria. He’d be able to go home, to find his old friends to–to get exiled all over again? No, what did he want with Amoria anymore. They didn’t want him, so he didn’t want them. Not in the same way as before, anyway.

Maybe he could build an army instead. An entire arsenal of weapons and machines. He could turn this entire asteroid into a giant cannon and blast the Communion to bits! Then, and only then, he could come back down. Come to rule and reign, to squash anyone that dared to oppose him! To make them beg him for forgiveness. To close them up in their own tombs of exile forever.

A glint caught Jeret’s eye and he turned his head. It must be his base, though still far off in the distance. The dogs were not pointed towards it, though, they were veering about fifteen degrees too far to the left.

“Turn boys, turn!” Jeret commanded, but of course the dogs paid him no heed.

“This way!” he said, grabbing the cable and tugging it to the left. The dogs startled and leaped high into the air. The sled followed, and Jeret gripped his handle all the more tightly as his stomach fell beneath him! With a thunderous crash they all came back down to the ground. One of the wheels gave an ominous splintering sound, and started warbling side to side, making the entire vehicle hum in vibration.

Every bolt and plank started to strain, and Jeret didn’t know how long the vessel might last. He certainly hadn’t thought out this part out very well! Frantically he looked all about him, and found himself staring down at the ground, whizzing by him at five yards every second.

This would hurt.

Jeret flung himself to the side, bailing off of the cart and onto the ground. He hit it forcefully, and his head smacked onto the rock. Senses reeling, he went into a rapid roll, skin rubbing off for not being able to turn quickly enough. He bounced into the air, and the next impact hit on the side of his knee. It throbbed in pain as he made another three full revolutions and finally came to a stop on his belly.

Every inch of him ached, his arms were scraped and raw, and any movement sent spasms of pain through his knee.

“I could…have made…a brake” Jeret snarled into the stone. Then, wincing sharply, he pushed himself to his feet and started limping back towards base. “A simple strip of steel on a pin, so that it could be pressed against the wheel and slow everything down. I could have made a cushion to fall on! Or a knife to cut the dogs loose!”

As he walked he created a stick and some ropes, binding them onto his leg for a splint. After a few efforts, he successfully made some bandages coated in soothing ointment, and wrapped them around his arms.

He would get back to his base, and he would make the deepest, softest bed ever known. And he would lay on it for days and not move an inch. And he would have a cool, frosted glass filled with golden Taroyl Ale, and it would constantly refill itself anytime he took a sip. That was what he would do when he got back!

And then a thought occurred to him. Why did he really need to make it back to the base? He could make a bed right here. And food right here. And a hole and a toilet right here. Anywhere on this rock could be his base and he would never be lost without resources again.

And so he set to work. The bed wasn’t perfect, a little lumpy, and with a hideous pattern, but it was good enough. And the toilet was nothing more than a small seat on top of a deep chute, but it was good enough. And the Taroyl Ale didn’t taste quite right, it had been a very long time since he had had the delicacy, after all, and couldn’t perfectly recall the flavor. But it did dull his pain, and it did lull him to sleep, and he was content.

And so the would-be ruler reigned, day-by-day his limbs stinging less, but growing more stiff. Then, day-by-day, they became less stiff, but more itchy. And finally, day-by-day, they came back to their normal, healthy function.

Of course the greatest problem that faced him in all this was the boredom. And so it was on the second day of recovery that Jeret thought to create some gladiators.

It was no doubt because he was in a foul, painful mood that he wanted to see things fight. It would give him relief to see others suffer more than he. At first he started to fashion another dog, but when he got to the point of making it menacing he thought better of it and erased the whole thing. A dog was large enough to be a threat to him, which was not a problem that he needed right now!

Much better to make something small, something that would only be a threat to others of its own kind. What sort of creature would be good for that? He tried a few different kinds, but he had the same problem as before with them appearing like some sort of nightmare versions of the original design. He gave up on them before they were finished. Then the thought occurred to him: why try to make something that already existed? Perhaps it would be easy to invent something new. The fact was, Jeret’s memory was shifting and fleeting, but crafting something purely from imagination was far more consistent.

First he thought of the basic details: a small creature, small enough to fit in the palm of his hands. It was a dark gray color, with speckles of black all around. It had a tall, curved back, which was covered in tough plates. It would crawl around on four, tough little legs. He watched it slowly take shape in front of him, but he wasn’t finished yet.

Now he moved on to finer details. The legs were furry and soft, as well as the underbelly. It had black, beady little eyes, and a narrow slit for its mouth. And emanating from that mouth was its single tusk. This was a long thing, curving slightly upwards towards the end. It was a very vocal creature. Not with loud shrieks or whoops, but rather a skittering sort of chatter, with the occasional shout if in pain.

And then he started to think of how it moved and behaved, and as he did so, it started wriggling to life before him. It was a nervous little creature, one that liked to hide in holes. And it lived off of small insects, and posed absolutely no threat to any creature that was larger than it. It gave birth to litters of three or four live young every year. And, of course, it was extremely territorial. Males would claim certain regions, and if two were ever in the same domain, they would fight to the death!

The creature came more and more to life, and as it did Jeret slowly shifted from defining it to observing it. Eventually it was real enough that gravity took hold and it popped out of the haze and fell to the ground. Once there, it immediately bolted under his bed and lurked there in the shadows.

Jeret’s leg twinged slightly as he got out of bed himself and lay on the ground, watching the animal. It was bunching its legs up around its body, and projecting its thick shell towards him, muttering with its strange little clicks.

“I guess you’ll need a home,” Jeret said, then set to work crafting a simple wire grid. He drew it out in an enclosed circle, and added a few rocks in one corner for the creature to live in. Then he made himself a net on a pole, and slowly reached it under the bed towards the creature.

It stayed immobile for as long as it could, then suddenly skittered off to the side. Jeret had anticipated that, though, and caught it in one quick swoop. He swung the net over the enclosure, and dropped the pet into its new home. Immediately it scampered into a small hole in the rocks.

“Good,” he smiled, and then began working on a challenger. This one was a little lighter in color, so that he could tell it apart from the first. He also made it a little bigger, but also with a shorter tusk. Other than that, it had all the same basic criteria as the first.

This one he fashioned in the air above the enclosure, and as he added the final details it popped into reality, then fell into the midst of the first one’s home. No sooner did it touch the ground than the first gave a little squawk and charged out from its hovel. The second turned, and rushed to meet it.

Then, much to Jeret’s surprise, the first one flailed its legs wildly, trying to halt its momentum. It was afraid of the new one’s size, and was trying to get away. The second pounced instantly, gripping the other’s shell with its two front legs. The second rolled the first over, exposing its soft belly and legs frantically running in the air. The second buried its tusk into the other’s heart. One, two, three, four, murderous jabs. The legs of the first twitched horribly with each plunge and it gave out a series of spasmodic cries. Then, all at once, everything stopped.

Up above them Jeret was trembling and tearful. What had he done?!

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

 

On Monday I talked about how Jeret was introduced in the most humble of circumstances, but then given a gift that could elevate him to the highest. Before his ultimate reclamation, though, I wanted the story to take an interesting arc in the middle. Here Jeret has more power than what he began with, but also becomes more morally debased.

Perhaps you, the reader, were horrified at his idea of “gladiators” as soon as it was suggested. Perhaps, like him, you thought it sounded interesting and inconsequential. In either case, I hope that the actual fight itself hit all readers as very unsettling and authentic. Certainly that is the experience of Jeret.

This represents an interesting line to walk. Because I wanted Jeret to have done something bad, but I did not want him to be irredeemable. How do I make his wrong actions matter, but not to the point of damnation? On Monday I’ll explain a little bit about how I approached this, and also discuss the wider notion of characters being flawed but redeemable. Come back then, and in the meanwhile have a wonderful weekend!

First You Were There, Now You Are Here

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A literary hero usually changes over the course of their story. That probably isn’t a new idea to you. In fact, I have already discussed how the heavy use of adventure in many stories is usually an allegory for how we wish to change in real life. I have also discussed how stories capture our yearning to become our best selves.

In other words, there are things that we cannot do right now that we wish we could. And we hope that one day we might become the person who can do them. For today I’d like to take a closer look at that gap, and how stories establish how what the hero accomplishes at the end, would have been impossible for them to fulfill at the beginning.

Of course, not all stories are this way, there are always exceptions. A comforting pleasure of many serials is to return to the familiarity of characters who are exactly the same as when you last left them. Sherlock Holmes is an excellent example of this.

Right from the beginning, Shelock is already at his optimal level of skill and he can already crack the toughest of cases. He has no development necessary. We enjoy spending time in the presence of such a marvel, and each return to his flat is as cozy as it is exciting. And so things continue, from one rollicking adventure into the next, Holmes all the while incapable of being defeated by another.

That is, of course, until he is.

In what was meant to be the conclusive episode, Sherlock finds himself locked in a battle of wits with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Though Holmes has made the occasional misjudgment in the past, he has never lapsed in a moment that presented any actual danger. Now, though, for the first time, both his and Watson’s life are in very real jeopardy.

He is upset at himself for having compromised Watson’s safety, and so when an opportunity arises for Watson to escape, Holmes insists upon it…even though he knows it lessens his chances of emerging from the following struggle alive. Like a chess player that has lost the necessary pieces to win, Holmes is playing only for the stalemate. That is exactly what happens as he and Moriarty meet another by a waterfall and plummet to their mutual doom together.

Frankly an ending like this seems impossible from the beginning of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. So much time is spent establishing how flawless his mind is, so that anything less than a total triumph would have felt incomprehensible. And without a doubt, if the case of Moriarty had come up at that time, Holmes would have won the contest outright, because he was incapable of being incapable at that time.

But over the course of time, Sherlock became more like the rest of us. He has moments of warmth and consideration, sweet episodes that gradually make him a human being, instead of just a calculating machine. He is like a god, turned mortal through prolonged association with them. It is a transformation that is so subtle that we may not realize it is even occurring, right up until we read the shocking conclusion…and after a moment’s consideration decide that we are okay with it.

There another example of this sort of transformation in the film Minority Report. Here we are introduced to John Anderton, a police chief who lives in a future that has virtually eradicated murder. This is accomplished by use of premonitions that identify the crimes before they are committed, allowing would-be perpetrators to be arrested before they actually commit the act.

Of course things take an unexpected turn when the next premonition comes in, stating that John Anderton himself is going to commit a murder in thirty-six hours. His victim is a complete stranger, and the accusation seems entirely improbable. He simply is not the sort of person who could do such a thing. As such, he resists arrest and sets out on a mission to clear his name.

As we follow his exploits, we learn that he is carrying some deep wounds from his past, ones that have reduced his life to a hollow husk of the joy it once held. In time we learn that the man John is predicted to murder is unexpectedly connected to that past, and is directly responsible for all of his old wounds. Just like that, what had before seemed impossible becomes entirely probable. John, himself, asserts that he is going to kill this man.

But then he doesn’t. When the predestined moment arrives, John exercises his freedom to choose, and decides to not become a killer. And so what has up to this moment been presented as impossible: that the murder-sensing premonitions could be wrong, is now known to be possible.

Too often character development is shoehorned into a story because the writer believes it is supposed to be there. It is a season that is added as an afterthought, rather than as a core element. These stories, though, are ones where the change was absolutely fundamental to the narrative being told. There simply was no story without them.

In my latest short story, I have introduced a man that has happened across a curiosity. He has gained the power to create whatever it is he wishes. While that is an interesting premise, an interesting premise is not a story. I have only included the curious power because it is also a vehicle for his change, which change is the real point of the entire tale. Like Moriarty to Holmes and the premonition to John Anderton, the my character’s discovery of this creative power is a catalyst to help him become the person he must be. Help him become the person that he is not now. Help him do the things that he cannot now. Come back on Thursday as we push closer to this evolution.

It’s Tough to Be a God: Part One

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“Huuuaanngg!”

It wasn’t the most graceful of noises to ever come from Jeret’s mouth, but it was the best he could manage while his tongue slowly regained feeling. The paralysis fluid was finally losing its effect.

“Coooome onnn!” he slurred, rocking his body left-to-right. His momentum carried him past the tipping point and he rolled off of the pedestal he had been placed on.

“Oof!” he grunted as he landed face-first on the cold stone below. It was perfectly flat, without a single pore to break its surface. It almost seemed like metal.

Jeret grit his teeth and focused, exerting all of his energy to move his leg. Slowly it bent up at the knee. He strained his wrists, turning the palms against the ground. He tried to push himself up, but it was still like trying to lift a thousand pounds.

He paused here for a moment, swaying his limbs from side-to-side, trying to speed up their resurrection. He grimaced as a thousand pinpricks danced across his skin, but it was working. Slowly he rose up to a crawling position. He tried to push himself up even further, but quickly fell back onto his hands.

Crawling would have to do, then. Sluggishly he lifted one limb after another, turning on the spot until he faced towards the transport vessel. Of course he knew he would never be able to reach it in time, but still he had to give it a chase. It was the principle of the matter.

“You can’t leave me here!” he bellowed.

Already he could see the engines powering up for launch.

“You can’t take a man from his world! I will come back!”

The engines ignited, and rapidly ran through every color in the spectrum until they peaked at pure white. The whole vessel trembled for a second, then shot into the air like a bullet.

“I’ll find a way off! I will!”

At last he lifted himself to his feet, just in time to vainly shake his fist at the streak of light scorching across the night sky. And with that Jeret was exiled.

After a few more minutes of screaming and kicking, Jeret collapsed to his knees and dropped his face into his hands, tears streaming between his fingers.

“I never had a chance.”

That was certainly true. His first mark of “poor citizenship” had come years ago, when only a youth of fourteen years. This was quite significant, given that one was only eligible to receive demerits starting at the age of thirteen, and each citizen only had an allowance of 30 demerits to last them their whole life. If one managed to exhaust that pool, they would be deemed incapable of integrating with society, and exiled for life.

Though he was never any good at arithmetic, even at fourteen he had understood the implications fully. He would be banned before he was fifty. At first this realization had frightened him into going straight, which phase lasted for all of two weeks. Then he was in the back alleys, trying to burn chokum once more. He lost hope then, and resigned himself to the fact that he would be thrust out from society at some point, and that was all there was to it. Perhaps it had become a self-fulfilling prophecy for him, a condemnation that caught him only because he stopped trying to escape it. In either case, his prediction had now come true.

When at last Jeret lifted his eyes he numbly surveyed his empty world. All of it was that same, impossibly smooth stone. It neither rose in hills, nor fell in valleys. A single pedestal where the transport had just launched from provided the only variation in the horizon. It was there that he would find his cot, his toilet, and where his food supplies would be dropped by airship every month. That airship would be the closest he would ever come to another person.

The Communion had decided that it was too dangerous to populate an alien world with all of society’s outcasts together. Who knew what ingenious mischief such an accumulation of evil might achieve? And so the Communion had crafted thousands of tiny asteroids, each one fifty square miles in area, perfectly spherical, and home to a single, solitary criminal.

As Jeret looked across the lay of his prison he could already see the land dipping away to the horizon. Beyond that line were the dark points of the other asteroids, and beyond that the swirling blues and greens of Amoria, the giant planet that had once been his home. He still swam through its atmosphere, and was near enough to make out the lights of the cities below…but he would never again feel their warmth. It was cruelest condition of his sentence.

A random thought passed through Jeret’s mind. The gravity of his asteroid couldn’t extend out too far, could it? What if he were to build a very tall tower? Eventually the gravity would stop pulling down towards the asteroid, but instead off to the side, down towards Amoria, wouldn’t it? But what then? Fall for hours and be smashed into nothingness upon impact? Was that really so bad of a prospect anymore?

Not that any of this mattered, of course. It wasn’t as if a tower like that could be built by a score of men, let alone just one. Let alone just one without a single tool. Exiles weren’t supposed to build. Creation was a privilege, and exiles had no privileges.

As there was nothing else to do, Jeret walked to the pedestal. It was a flat dais, made of the same smooth rock as everything else. On it was his cot, his latrine, and his food box. That was it.

As there was nothing else to do, Jeret ate some of the food. It was bland and nourishing.

As there was nothing else to do, Jeret chose a direction and started walking. He figured he might as well see the other side of this asteroid, which would have a view of starry space. Of course, not being any good at arithmetic, Jeret did not realize that even a small, 50-miles-surface-area sphere is 12.5 miles to walk from one of its ends to the other. And so he did not reach the other end within an hour, nor within two.

He was about a half of the way to the other side, and the sky was already mostly composed of stars, with only a few remaining degrees of Amoria landscape still visible. Jeret wrongly assumed that he was already at the exact opposite pole of his asteroid, or at least very close to it. Therefore he concluded he might as well keep traveling forward to complete the circuit.

Another two hours slid by and he was now truly surrounded by stars, without a glimmer of Amoria in sight. He began to grow very afraid. He was hungry again, and had not thought to bring any of the food supplies with him. He did not understand why he was still seeing stars overhead, instead of the Amoria landscape. He concluded that he must be walking in circles, and it dawned on him that finding such a small thing as the pedestal within 50-square miles would be like looking for a needle in a haystack!

Miserable as a life alone on this rock seemed, he had not been ready to consider death, and certainly not in such a painful, drawn out way as starvation! Why had he ever strayed from the pedestal? He had walked away from it so nonchalantly, so unthinkingly. He had killed himself and he hadn’t even known it!

Jeret’s legs and hands started to shake, it felt like the world was somehow spinning beneath him. He wobbled down to his knees. Was he still breathing? It didn’t feel like any air was coming in! He clutched his chest and started inhaling hard and fast. Above him the stars expanded for eternity: so infinite, so vast, so lifeless! Beneath him the ground ran in infinite circles: so cold, so uncaring, so unrelenting! He fell onto his side, legs kicking fitfully as he was swallowed by fear and despair.

All turned black.

Jeret did not remember falling asleep. Indeed he could hardly have believed he was capable of it in that moment, yet somehow he did so. He lay perfectly still, with nothing but the stars over his head forever. Through the hours, Amoria turned, and as it did so it dragged along his little satellite to the dawn. And so, when at last he woke, Jeret was squinting up at a cloudless, sunny day.

Of course it was cloudless. He was above all the clouds now.

Jeret knew he should still feel just as panicked as before, but somehow he had lost the energy for it in his sleep. He felt nothing but the coldness of the ground beneath him, the dull ache of his empty belly, and the hardness of the pipe in his hand.

The pipe in his hand?

Jeret twisted his palm upwards and furrowed his brow in confusion. It wasn’t really a pipe. It was a pure cylinder, seemingly made of the same stone he lay on, and just as featureless, save for the small grooves that were etched around its top and bottom. He must have grabbed it in the night. What was it? And why was it here in his prison? Perhaps just a stray piece of material knocked loose when the asteroid was fabricated? A workman’s tool accidentally left behind?

Jeret stood up to stretch his legs, still holding the cylinder firmly in his hands.As the cylinder rose with his body, one of its ends left a strange, yellow trail behind it in the air. It was very subtle, and extremely transparent.

“Oh,” Jeret said softly. He cautiously reached his hand into the trail and felt nothing. He leaned forward to sniff and he smelled nothing. It was like a miniature haze, an illusion, suspended in the air. Jeret began to slowly wave the cylinder all about. Everywhere it went, the trail was left behind.

He looked closer at the cylinder. There were no vents, no exhausts, nothing to suggest where the yellow haze emitted from.

He looked closer at the trail, but it was so subtle that he couldn’t really focus on it. His eyes kept slipping to whatever was behind it. At one moment he thought its edges were sharp and well-defined, another they seemed to blur out into gradual nothingness. Did he see shimmering sparks in it, or was that only the sun glinting off the rock floor below? Was it staying the same shade of yellow, or was it starting to turn a little green?

Perhaps what was strangest of all, was once he thought he saw something in the haze, such as it changing color to green, then he started seeing that effect all the more strongly. And when he thought no, it really must have just been his imagination, then it really did seem to alter back to the same shade of yellow as before.

As entranced as Jeret’s mind was in this new discovery, his body was anxious to remind him of its needs. A thunderous growl rippled from his stomach and he looked down, recalling how hungry he was after a night with no dinner. What he wouldn’t give for a deep dish of Rustic Stew right now.

No sooner did the thought enter his mind, than he thought he saw a bowl of stew out of the corner of his eye. He snapped his head up and…there it was. Well, sort of. The haze had taken on a browner tint, and congealed together so that he could pick out individual pieces of potato and roast.

But it wasn’t perfect. Most of the haze still looked vague and unformed, and the whole thing was still just an image, flat and featureless. It didn’t have that delightful, smoky smell, or that bubbling, sloshing sound as the ladle dropped it by great globs into the bowl…

No sooner did those thoughts enter his mind then the sounds and scents truly began to emerge from the image. And the image didn’t seem so much like an image anymore. As he moved his head from side to side it seemed to have dimension, shape, and greater detail. He lifted his fingers to touch and there was something there! It didn’t feel like hot and thick broth, though. It didn’t have the soft texture of stewed vegetables, or the thick resistance of solid meat, or the…

And then it did! All at once Jeret’s fingers had pressed into hot stew, burning his hands with how real it was!

“Ah! Ah! Ah!” Jeret cried, shaking his hands until the fingers cooled down. Then he reached out, took the bowl in his hands, and lifted it out of the haze.

It was real. Totally real.

Even the wooden bowl and spoon were just like the ones he remembered from his favorite diner. It didn’t make sense that this could be here, but for the moment Jeret didn’t care. He blew over the surface of the bowl, willing the food to cool more quickly. When he did take his first bites it still scalded his tongue, but he didn’t care. It was delicious.

And it was real. Unbelievably really real. The flavors in his mouth, the texture of each bite, the lump of food flowing down his throat, the sense of filled contentedness in his belly.

By the time he emptied half the bowl, his hunger was satiated enough to start giving serious thought as to how this could be. He rejected the notion that this might be only a dream. A dream would have shifted into something else by now. No, somehow he really had made an authentic bowl of stew out of thin air.

Well, not quite thin air. Out of…haze?

Jeret lifted the stone cylinder until it was level with his eyes. What was this thing? Some toy that the Communion left for the convicts to play with? No, that couldn’t be. They were here to be punished, not to be entertained. And even outside of that, the technology of this thing was like nothing he had ever seen before. It didn’t seem possible that this cylinder should even exist, let alone be left in an exile’s prison.

A strange thought occurred to Jeret. He had woken up with this strange thing already in his hand. He had not see where exactly it had originated from. Could he have made it himself somehow? From his subconscious dreams? It would have seemed a ridiculous thought…if he hadn’t just made a bowl of stew…

Jeret shook his head. Really, did it even matter where it came from? What mattered was that he had it and he could use it. All he had to decide was what he was going to use it for next.

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

 

On Monday I talked about themes of power, responsibility, and duty. I mentioned that I wanted to write a story where I explored if power could have a purifying effect on someone. I thought it would be interesting to approach that topic by first establishing a man who has no power.

Jeret is an extremely miserable soul. He opens this story in a pathetic state, devoid of any privileges whatsoever. He still has his life, but absolutely nothing to do with it. He is, essentially, already dead; his body just hasn’t caught up to that fact.

My hope is that this groundwork was sufficiently humbling, so that his obtaining a bowl of stew already feels like a momentous victory. But of course, this is only the beginning. Jeret’s state of complete powerlessness at the beginning will be matched to a state of complete power by the end.

One of the most fundamental concepts of storytelling is this notion of establishing an initial state of the hero, which state should be markedly different from their state at the end. The closer these states can be to polar opposites, the greater the journey that lies between and the richer the story that can fill that gap.

I’ll explore this concept in greater detail with my next blog post on Monday. After that, we’ll get back to Jeret, and see how he transitions from one extreme to the other.

Coming at It from Both Ways

black and white people bar men
Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

My first story in this series was Shade. Here we met a hero who was fighting a losing battle, trying to keep a community safe from an unstoppable horde. Further compounding things was his connection to a former friend, which friend was controlled by the leader of that same unstoppable horde. In the end that hero sacrificed himself to free his friend, which friend then inherited the burden of defending the community.

The idea for this story was directly tied to the duty of fatherhood, and how a man must be willing to do all things for his wayward children, even lay down his life to reclaim them. But then I decided to take that initial thought, and run with in an entirely different way.

In The Last Duty, we met a character that was more explicitly the father of a wayward son. The story found with him having a conversation with a former-ruler, who also thought of himself as the father of a wayward people. The two men commiserate over their shared frustrations, and wonder aloud what a father is to do with a child that becomes a monster. Instead of dying to save them, as in Shade, they instead decide to destroy those children, and thus smother the evil that they have inadvertently sired.

A darker tale to be sure, and one that contradicts the themes of the first. Each story is like a different side in a debate, disputing with one another the proper duty of fathers to wayward children. The fact that I wrote out both sides of these arguments does not mean that I advocate for each. More so I just wanted to build up the entire spectrum of opinion around me, so that I could lay within and consider their virtues and follies.

I didn’t set up this narrative debate just for kicks and giggles, though, I was using it for some very serious contemplation. I am a Christian, and have always been given pause by the dual representation of God in the Holy Bible. In the Old Testament he seems to be a very angry father, one who is quick to punish wayward children. But then in the New Testament Jesus teaches about a God of love, who wants to save the sinner.

Is it possible that the raging and the loving God can exist as the same person? Is there a proper time for one type of fatherly duty, and a proper time for another? The debate goes on in me, but it has been helped by these stories that I have written.

As I wrote these stories, I considered another concept that intersected with this debate. It was that of responsibility, of how power is so easily misused, that at times the greatest use of it is in not using it. It is an idea expressed very eloquently in Schindler’s List. In this film Oskar Schindler tells Amon Goeth the following:

Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t… That’s what the Emperor said. A man stole something, he’s brought in before the Emperor, he throws himself down on the ground. He begs for mercy, he knows he’s going to die. And the Emperor pardons him. This worthless man, he lets him go… That’s power, Amon. That is power.

Going back to the Holy Bible, one is deeply moved by the account of Jesus hung on the cross, endowed with enough power to zap every Roman soldier to smithereens. But instead, he quietly restrains himself and says “Father forgive them.”

So now I wanted to examine this concept from various angles, too. I wanted to consider the appropriate use of one’s power, of how one chooses between condemnation and pardon.

As I mentioned a week ago, my original intent with The Toymaker was to write about a god that is trapped in a mortal frame. He was supposed to discover the tremendous power locked within him, and would then decide in which way to use it. Either he would condemn the evil he saw all about him, or he would find a way to benevolently forgive them.

That story changed in the course of writing it, though. He ended up only discovering a small sliver of his powers, and is never faced with the choice of destroying his people. He does, however, come to a different choice regarding his powers. He tracks down an old friend, and he wishes to heal her. He wants to make her whole, so that they can return to a dream that he has fervently held to.

But she asks him not to.

She cannot bear to have her scars so flippantly smoothed over, she feels that that would be disingenuous. In the end he respects her wishes, and instead embraces her brokenness. I thought this was a very interesting way to examine the nature of power. It wasn’t him turning down the power of vengeance and choosing to forgive, now it was him turning down the power of healing and choosing to accept someone broken. It was bittersweet, and it resonated very deeply with me. This, too, has very strong biblical themes. So much of the appeal of Jesus Christ is that he endured our pain, and therefore is able to sit with us in our broken places.

So thus far we have considered fathers that save, fathers that condemn, and fathers that empathize. We have looked at duty, responsibility, power, and ownership. Stories have this remarkable ability to let us plumb the depths of our hearts, and really consider a notion from every angle. We write in order to think out loud, to try the words and see if they taste right or not. If a concept confuses you, trying writing a story about it, and see if it starts to make more sense.

There still remains one more facet of these themes that I wish to explore, though. We often say that power corrupts, but with power comes responsibility, and responsibility has the ability to purify. Thus could not power be a vehicle for good, and not just evil? And going back to the idea of fatherhood, does one not become a father via the acceptance of power and responsibility?

Therefore I am going to write one more short story, one that opens with a selfish and petty man, who happens to be granted immense power. I will try to fashion the story into a process of purification for the man, and I will see if the idea is able to stick or not. This will conclude my multi-angled study of power, responsibility, duty, and fatherhood. Come back on Thursday to see the first chapter.

The Toymaker: Part Seven

dirt road between trees
Photo by Simon Matzinger on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

“So it’s you,” a quiet voice sighed from a corner.

It was dark inside, with the only light spilling to the floor from a broken window on the right. The voice had come from just beyond that light, tucked into the gray of a corner. The drummer slowly made his way in that direction, until the form of a small toy took shape in the shadows. He came to a stop in the dusty light.

“Dancer?” he asked, squinting to see her better.

“No.”

“Oh, but it is you. It must be.”

“No,” she returned more forcefully. “Whatever you came looking for, it isn’t here. It isn’t anywhere anymore.”

“Why not?”

The figure’s head turned until it was pointed firmly away. “Toys break. It’s what they do.”

“Oh,” he said blankly, not really understanding.

“You should go on now.”

“Not without you! I came to–”

“To what?!” the head spun back to face him. Now the drummer’s eyes were adjusted enough to be really sure that it was the dancer…but her face was stained and cracked, and hot tears were flinging from her eyes. “You came thinking we could just go back to how things were before? That nothing that happened in between would matter? It doesn’t work like that!”

“What did happen?” he crouched down by her.

She raised her hand, as if to say something, but after nothing came out she made a noise of exasperation and let the limb drop.

“If you don’t understand I can’t explain it,” she finally shot out. “I didn’t realize you were still so stupid about–everything.”

The drummer looked down sadly at that. It had struck something in him. “Yes, I am still stupid,” he said flatly. “Everyone confuses me. They’ve tricked me over and over, and I should have realized it, but they were all so much smarter than I am. I still don’t understand most of what everyone’s saying.”

A look of pity flashed across her face. “I’m–sorry. They did that to me, too.”

“Did it make you mad? I felt very mad about it after a while.”

“A lot,” she croaked, tears now flowing like little streams.

He reached out and took her little fingers in his hand. She started to pull her hand away, but stopped with just the fingertips still touching.

“And then I did bad things because I was so mad,” she said between clenched teeth. “And that made me like them.”

“I’m sorry, dancer–”

“Don’t call me that!” she balled her other hand in a fist and pounded it on the ground. “I’m not a dancer anymore.”

“But why not?”

“Look!” she said angrily, thrusting her palms down towards her legs. The drummer looked, but saw nothing. And then he understood…they were gone.

“Oh no!” he cried.

“Now you get it, do you? I’m broken, drummer. You can keep on beating your batons, but there’s no more gallivanting down the road to a magical City for me. It’s over.”

The drummer wiped away his tears. “No, it’s alright. There’s something wonderful, I can fix and make things now! I can–”

No!” she snapped, jabbing her finger at his face. “You have no right!”

“I’m trying to help!”

“And I’m telling you that you don’t get to! You. Left. ME!” She shot him a face full of fury, then threw herself to the opposite side and collapsed in shuddering sobs.

“I–” the drummer winced, not sure how to explain that she misunderstood.

“I–” it wasn’t his fault that everyone else had been so mean and delayed him.

“I know.”

He buried his face in his hands and the tears finally flowed out of him as freely as they were for the dancer. “It’s like you said, I’m still stupid. I get so mad because I was supposed to save you, but everyone tricked me and I was too stupid to see through it! I was supposed to, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t enough.”

And then no one said anything for quite a long while. They both just cradled their heads and mourned their wounds. Then, after a long while, they cradled one another and mourned the other’s hurt as well. And they were there for such a long time that the knight and the guards might have come to check on them, but they could hear that the two toys needed their time together.

“I–am glad to see you again,” the dancer said cautiously after they had both been quiet for a while. “I just wish it had been before things were too late.”

“Are they really too late?”

“I cannot walk. And I cannot have you trying to fix that. It would–I don’t know–it would be like saying being broken didn’t matter.”

“I see…” the drummer furrowed his brows thoughtfully, then raised them as a new suggestion occurred to him. “I could…carry you instead.”

“You’d get tired. I’d be a burden” the dancer said, but more importantly she did not say ‘no.’

“That’s my decision. And I think it’s okay for me to be burdened…seeing as I wasn’t there to stop you getting broken.”

The dancer bit her lip.

“Well…maybe you can carry me for a bit…if you want…”

The drummer rose to his knees and very gently slid one hand under the stumps that were all that remained of her legs. Then he put his other arm around her back, and she curled her own arm around his neck. At last he stood up, and together the two of them exited the building.

“Well,” the knight nodded to the drummer, “are we off to the road?”

“Yes,” the drummer said. “Off to the city at last.”

And so the five of them turned from the burned out village, and turned from the seedy town, and felt their way back onto the winding road. At long last they had found the way back towards the Great City. It would, of course, be a very, very long time before they found it, but that was alright.

 

Well, at long last we have come to the end of The Toymaker. On Monday I disclosed a great deal of how I first conceived of this story, and of how it evolved a great deal between that first conception and this final result. In the end, though, I feel that the story stayed true to its original intent, which was to be an examination of responsibility.

I believe that each one of us knows to be responsible for our mistakes, but we struggle to take ownership for the pains we never meant to cause. If there was no malicious intent, if it was just a mistake, if it was unavoidable due to circumstance, we tend to feel there is no need to say “I’m sorry.”

Perhaps we feel that those who are hurting want us to lie and say that it was all our fault. But really they just need us to hold their pain for a moment, to say that we appreciate the depth of their disappointment. They want a friend who is willing to sit in the hurt with them.

I feel very glad about what The Toymaker ended up becoming. I am still very interested in my original ideas for it, and perhaps I’ll still get around to telling that part of the story someday. Maybe some of its themes will bleed into my very next piece. I guess I’m really a lucky guy, I ended up getting two stories for the price of one!

For now it is time to start moving this latest series towards its close. Over the course of Shade, The Last Duty, and The Toymaker, I’ve been allowing myself to explore the same themes over and over, but each from a different perspective. I’d like to talk a little more about how writing is a way to explore every side of a debate, and how I’ve been doing just that for the last couple months. Come back on Monday to read about this, after which we will have one last story to conclude it all.