Critique UP

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So here we are at the start of a new series. Each time I finish a session of stories I am well aware of all the shortcomings in my work, but they don’t bother me too much. The fact is that three days is a very quick sprint to bring a story from initial concept to polished conclusion, no matter how short it may be. Almost every Thursday morning finds me setting aside a long list of improvements for my story, just so that I can meet my deadline. Not every creative effort has to be targeting perfection, after all, and its never been my ambition for this blog to produce top-quality narratives that are ready for publishing. Really I just wanted this blog to be a constant stream of ideas and experience, knowing full well that for every nugget of gold there’s going to be a lots of dirt clods along the way.

But not all of my work is meant for practice, I do also write other stories that I am trying to polish and mold into their best possible forms. In these situations I have to seriously weigh every shortcoming and flaw that I see in my work, and even open myself up to asking others what problems they see in it as well. Opening up one’s work for critique is a very vulnerable thing to do, and it’s hard to not get emotionally wounded by the criticisms that inevitably follow. I don’t really want to focus on the proper way to receive those critiques, though, I feel there are plenty of resources available that cover that end of the exchange. Instead I’d rather take some time for the other side of things, discussing how to give helpful and nurturing feedback if ever you are asked your opinion on a piece.

We’ll begin by looking at the wrong method for providing critique. Unfortunately, it is the more common method, our culture has developed a trend for sharp and cynical put-downs whenever evaluating other people’s creative efforts. We even provide this “service” to the creator when they never even asked for our feedback. The title of “critic” is all too accurate, and many who carry this title seek nothing more than to cut stories apart for the entertainment of others. Indeed at times it seems that professional critics view themselves as performers, whose purpose has more to do with amusing the audience with their biting wit, instead of actually providing a fair and meaningful dissection of a work. With the advent of social media and a “comments sections” at the bottom of most internet articles we’ve even taken the meta a step further with the audience critiquing the work of that critic.

In addition to this penchant for snark, our culture is also very competitive. Our main method for appraising a work is to compare it to another and see which is better. Art schools and creative industries have very little patience for any but the top two percent, and cuts from the programs are quick and severe. Perhaps these methods really are the best for producing revenue, I don’t know, but I have a hard time believing that they are ideal for cultivating happy and creative people.

I actually spent a short stint of college in one of those art programs, and quite frankly I did amazing. That’s not to say that I “succeeded” in the program, quite frankly I was in the bottom half of each class I took and I never had a prayer of progressing to the more specialized projects. But I say that I did amazing simply because I developed and improved. I listened to the instruction that was given and I went from drawing shapeless lumps to recognizable figures. I don’t care that no one was ever going to pay me for this stuff, I was better than before and that was enough for me.

I think that’s a fair and honest critique of myself. It doesn’t make my work out to be something more than it was, but it also doesn’t discredit the good that was accomplished. So can we develop a method for a kinder form of honest critique like this? I believe so. Really it all comes down to intent, intent of the author and intent of the reader. When we have these sorted out, nurturing feedback will follow naturally.

Appreciating the intent of the author has two branches, the first of which has to do with understanding their intent in even writing the story. When we provide feedback for a story our default metric seems to be “well do I like it.” But we all know that “liking” something is often subjective, and that there are many things which we do not like but which we can still acknowledge were well made and which seem to have accurately captured the author’s intent. Perhaps the author’s intent was even to make something which, by nature, was unlikable. Should we say they did a poor job because they succeeded in the very thing they set out to do?

Another question we should ask ourselves is what was the author’s intent in even seeking our critique? The simple truth is that not all people that request critique really want it. When my three-year-old son shows me his latest drawing he does not really want to know what I think of his picture, he just wants to know what I think of him. You might be tempted to say well that is a three-year-old and a grown adult is a very different thing. I’m afraid I would disagree. We may have learned how to be more subtle with our years of experience, but we very often play the same games we employed as children. To be clear, I am not advocating that you coddle others or give them ingenuine praise for their work, I am merely suggesting that you reflect on what their true intentions are and then use your own wisdom in choosing how to respond.

But now let’s assume a scenario where the author truly is looking for constructive criticism. More than anything they want to improve so that their work can be the best it can be, and you could do them a great favor in helping them to hone their craft. How can we do this in a way that doesn’t come at the expense of kindness?

As I’ve tried to find a way to express this sort of positive critique my mind settled on mathematics of all things. In order to provide any review you first have to identify three values related to it. We have to know the value of what was written, we’ll call that value 1. Next we must know the value of the ideal, or the potential of what could have been written, we’ll call that value 3. And finally we have to know the difference between those two values, obviously that is 2. Now with these three values there are two ways we can express their relations to one another. The first way follows the pattern of “This is what you should have done (3), but these are all the things you did wrong (2), and this is what we were left with as a result (1).”

3 – 2 = 1

The is the pattern of the cynical and competitive methods mentioned above. You can recognize it in a review by the abundance of that middle term “these are all the things you did wrong” in all its various forms. As the mathematical equation suggests, this sort of critique is literally a negative perspective, one that pulls a work down to a lower term.

But now for that other way of expressing these values. You could instead use the pattern of “This is what you’ve already accomplished (1), and by incorporating these other elements into that foundation (2), this is what you your work could become (3).”

1 + 2 = 3

This sort of approach is literally a positive perspective, one that looks to lift the author to a higher term. Please note that all the same information has been conveyed with this approach, we haven’t had to leave out any of our recommended improvements by expressing things more kindly. I think we sometimes forget that brutal honesty is not the only kind of honesty, and it is not a more honest form of honesty because of its brutality. Uplifting honesty is just as honest, and greatly more helpful.

I want to stress here the importance of the first term “this is what you have already accomplished.” In either form of critique we need to establish a base metric, so why not do that with the good the author has already accomplished? A truly fair analysis of a work should be willing to give equal attention both to what is good and what is lacking, not solely focused on the negative. I think you’ll find you are far less likely to convince anyone of how they can grow in their work until you first convince them that you see the work which has already occurred.

For the second term, notice how in the positive form we are stressing a relationship between what they have done and what they could do to improve. Incorporate these elements into your foundation. We are suggesting that this better form of writing belongs in their story, whereas the negative approach suggests that all those good things are apart from their story which makes their situation seem hopeless.

And of course in the third term we leave them with a vision, an invigorating glimpse of what they can become. In the negative approach we leave them at the lowest positive value of the equation. It all comes down to the direction you want your critique to flow it, are you going to use it to drag them to the lowest possible point or uplift them to the highest?

I sincerely feel that the thoughtful critique of creative work does so much more than improve the work in question, it has the potential to improve the very soul who authored it. As writers, we of all people should understand that our words can have great power, both to break and to build, it is our obligation and privilege to do the latter.

On Thursday I’d like to present a short story on which I will immediately provide a quick analysis. I will try to do so in a way that is honest and fair, which takes into account all of its flaws and shortcomings, but which presents them in a way that is kind and encouraging. Obviously that all sounds quite self-serving, but you know something? I don’t think there’s anything  wrong with that! Feel free to come back then if you want to see me be nice to myself 🙂

The Weaver’s Loom

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Over the last four weeks we have been examining the traditional narrative roles found in most stories: the hero, the villain, the mentor, and the love interest. To aid in this I have also created narrative examples of each of these characters, CeeKaelthe Clockmaker, and Ayla; and for each of these my focus was on being true to their role and to create a through-line for them that had its own natural beginning, middle, and end. Ultimately, though, it was never my intention to make a series of isolated vignettes, from the very beginning I had an idea for an overarching storyline that would have a theme and arc all its own. Indeed, it bears mentioning that in addition to the four character archetypes mentioned above the story itself is a fifth character, the most important of them all. It has its own wants and wrinkles, after all, and like any other character it weaves all of its disparate parts into one greater whole.

Experienced authors use their entire array of tools in order to simultaneously develop both character and story. For example, consider how a clever use of juxtaposition can be used to accomplish the threefold tasks of establishing the hero’s character in one scene, the villain’s character in the next scene, and also presenting a thesis on the contrasts between these rivals. From the first scene we understand the hero is good, from the second we understand that the villain is evil, and from the juxtaposition we understand that this difference between the two will be the determining factor in why one will succeed and the other will fail.

With the overarching theme and plot of the story in mind, we can begin to give deeper focus to our individual characters, crafting each of them to be ready for integration into that whole. The experienced author does not want a story comprised entirely of isolated scenes where only a single character’s through-line is progressed at a time. This results in a story that is flat and detached. As much as possible, the drama of every scene ought to involve two or more of the characters each coming with their own personal intentions and each leaving a little closer to their own personal conclusions because of the encounter. Indeed, when all is said and done, a proper story is nothing more than a long, elegant dance.

Of course not all of the separate character threads is necessarily going to receive the same amount of attention, nor necessarily be present from start to finish. Perhaps some characters, such as the hero and villain, may have an arc that stretches from the first to the last pages, but others like a mentor may very well have their denouement as early as in the first act. This is all well and fine, as long as each character’s line is complete. Or in other world, each character should have a complete story that is all their own. It doesn’t have to be a large or complex story, but it should be meaningful to that character and should lead to a personal conclusion that feels appropriate for them. When you don’t give each character their own narrative resolution you are left with “loose ends” and a story that feels unfinished or lazy.

As always, there may be exceptions to this rule. Perhaps you need to leave a few threads open to tie into a sequel, perhaps one of the themes of your story is that not everything in life has a tidy resolution. Just be sure that if you are deviating from this principle that you are doing so intentionally. The trap you absolutely want to avoid is where the author wants to push the main character towards a specific sequence, and facilitates it by introducing an entirely new character whose sole motivation is such as drive them towards providing that needed push. After fulfilling that purpose the character is now useless to the story and therefore falls off to the side with all their momentum going nowhere. And no, just killing them off so you don’t have to explain what happened with them is not a proper fix. If this character needs to push the hero to their needed resolution, they should are in turn also be pushed to their own natural closure as well. A still better solution, of course, is to not be introducing new characters just to fulfill a single function. If possible, look at your other main characters and see if any of them can fulfill that function instead while still staying in stride with their greater arc.

Many authors may find that introducing and sustaining character arcs are far easier tasks than bringing them to their satisfying conclusions. How and where and what should that culmination be? One common and satisfying technique is to conclude many of these threads in a single climatic sequence. Often the final scenes of a story feature the greatest levels of danger, action, or intrigue, but they can also feature the greatest levels of drama and emotion if the hopes and dreams of many hang in the balance. There is a power in a story that is able to simultaneously hand out both salvation and destruction with the same strokes of the pen. Consider the film Warrior, in which the audience has been simultaneously following the stories of two estranged brothers. They are flawed characters, but there are reasons to care for each of them and so it is agonizing as the realization sets in that their individual desires are mutually exclusive to one another. Success for either will only occur at the expense of the other. All of this builds up until the final climax where the two brothers literally fight one another to get their own way, with each impact bringing one closer to success and the other to failure. Everything comes down to this singular moment, and the choices they make here are just as meaningful as the initial ones that set them towards this conflict.

At this point we’ve considered our overall themes and story, we’ve designed each character to support that story and one another, we’ve been careful to ensure each of the characters has their own miniature through-line with a meaningful resolution, and we’ve terminated these various arcs in a satisfying conclusion. But like any complex undertaking, the work is not yet complete. The house might be built, but it is covered in dust and soot and it would be ingenuine of me to not mention all the clean-up work that follows a rough first draft. Just “mentioning” it may not seem sufficient and I don’t mean by glossing over this act of glossing over to suggest that it is either a quick or a trivial undertaking. Rather it is out of respect of just how large and complex this phase of story-crafting is that I think I had better wait for later blog posts to give it the in-depth treatment it really deserves.

There is one particular element of this clean-up process that I do believe bears special consideration here, though, one that is directly related to this act of weaving together the various threads of character and plot. This is the consideration of tone and cadence across the story as a whole. Perhaps each character had a satisfying rhythm to their arc when crafted in isolation, but now their individual scenes are separated with other plot moments in between, ones which will pull the mood of the story to any number of different places. Obviously the first consideration ought to involve ordering scenes so that the emotional tone with which one finishes naturally matches up to the tone with which the next begins. Where chronology or other considerations make this impossible, then the dissonance can be addressed by writing a short connecting sequence that changes the tone from the prior to the latter. For example a sad scene could pull away to an examination of the environment, which could gracefully shift from night to sunrise, which now allows us to descend on the more cheerful drama that is next to unfold. The art of the transition is yet another of the many tools that every author ought to take time to keep well-maintained and sharp.

Over the next few days I’ll be going through this entire process in miniature as I take each of the individual parts of the Revelate series and graft them into a single, complete tale. On Thursday I’ll present the outcome of that task, and that will conclude our time in that world. I hope to see you there for the culmination of it all.

Hey, Coach, I Love You

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A classic consideration when designing the protagonist of a story is what will their arc be? Is this a coming-of-age experience? A heroic epic? A tragic downfall? Will it truly be an “arc” in shape, where the character will consistently slope towards their destination without any deviation, or will there be an inflection point where the arc abruptly changes from one eventuality to another? While all these considerations are essential in the formation of a well-rounded protagonist, it is important to note that there exist other characters who typically do not include such an arc. These roles instead remain stagnant, and represent constants. These characters typically function as guiding fixtures by which the main character flings him- or herself to the story’s resolutions.

Such permanency, of course finds, its roots in our very human desire to find something constant to depend on. Each of needs a degree of certainty in our lives, the kind that is only possible when one has become a part of something greater than oneself. We are all drawn to find some north star or solitary mountain peak that we can chart our course and measure our progress by, something by which we can know we are facing a good direction and advancing in its way. Popularity and worldly luxuries may be fun to pursue for a while, but their fickle nature leaves much to be desired, and our hearts tells us that if we had a more secure foundation we could build upon it something of ourselves that would last forever. We look for this sort of constant foundation in our pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, scientific laws, philosophical certainties, and any other exploration of deep and constant truths.

But when we find that something upon which we can make our mark, there yet remains the concern of knowing how exactly to go about doing that. We want to be an apprentice to this craft, but to be so we need a master. For any greater calling to avoid extinction, it will require experts to propagate its teachings to the rising generation, and here we see the role of the mentor taking form. In our literature, heroes tend to represent those still in their youth and working out who they want to be in life, but mentors have already gone through this process and are grounded in their elevated ways. Perhaps in their backstory they once wandered through their own self-defining adventures, too, but all that was resolved long ago and ever since they have held to the conclusions that they now share with others. We need teachers and guides in our lives, and we look for them in religious prophets, wise professors, respected town elders, and weathered coaches. These sages have been where we are now, and they are now where we wish to be.

With this understanding the core attributes of quality literary mentors become obvious. There are a three main qualities that we ought to consider when attempting to craft a mentor that any reader would want to be taken under the wing of.

The Mentor as a Parent

Sometimes the mentor character may be a literal parent of the main character, but often they are not. The reason for this is that we each have a heritage given to us by the home we were raised in, but we also have a vocation that was chosen by us after we left that nest. And so the mentor is the father-figure or mother-figure in inducting us through that second birth, the birth into our great life work.

And what does it mean to be a father or mother figure? What do I mean when I say someone was a second father to me, or that someone welcomed me like my own mother? At the root of it means that here is someone who has been reshaping me to be like them. I identify the men who reform me in their own likeness to be my fathers and the women who nurture me to share their own qualities to be my mothers.

The Mentor as the Ideal

Of course a mentor is more than just a teacher. No doubt each of us can remember teachers that left us with no passion for the lessons they taught, while others made the material come alive. It isn’t so much the subject as the person behind the instruction, and our mentors, therefore, have to possess certain characteristics about them, specifically the very ones we wish we held ourselves.

Most often the literary mentor will not only have found the way the hero wishes to walk, they will be the person the hero wishes to be. They possess all the wisdom, the power, and the will that the heroes recognize the roots of in themselves. Indeed the mentor would probably be undertaking the hero’s great quest already if they still had the youth and vitality to do so, but since they cannot they send the hero in their stead.

The Mentor as the Catalyst

Which brings us to our last point, the mentor is the one that gives the heroes their mission. Every great cause comes with work that needs to be done in it and that work is never-ending and needs all willing hands to participate. All that remains for us is to find the role that we fit into, the one that both plays to our greatest strengths and will shore up our greatest weaknesses.

In choosing this undertaking we turn again to the wisdom of a mentor. We trust in their ability to see us for what we are and what we can become, to have our best interests at heart, to give us the advice that will be good for us. Very often it is the mentor who first tells the hero in no uncertain terms exactly what they must do. Perhaps the main character isn’t ready to receive that counsel yet, but inevitably they will return to take the mantle that rightfully belongs to them when they are ready to accept their calling.


Now all of this is well and good, but frankly it isn’t enough. We may want to fill the stature of our mentor, but we don’t necessarily want to win their hearts, not in any greater sense than that of a parental approval anyway. And all the guidance and instruction and advice will do us little good if we don’t also have a passion for the work behind it all. Passing curiosity will not suffice here, the journey of a thousand miles is bound to be fraught with pitfalls and dangers, anything less than burning desire will see us throw down cane and cowl at the first sign of trouble and flee back home.

So where is the love, the passion, and the determination? Storytellers have long recognized the need for these elements and have saved some of their finest characterizations to fill this role. Of course we are speaking here of the love interest in a story. This role can, of course, be misued for the sole pupose of selling tickets, feeding off of our voyeuristic pleasure in watching two humans romance one another, but of course this approach misses the point entirely. Yes, it is a fact that the root emotions we are trying to emulate are love and passion, and yes this does make romantic love an excellent allegory for that concept. But we must not lose sight of the ideal for the façade that is representing it. The tired cliche of burly men rescuing damsels in distress isn’t what literary romance should be all about. What should really be at the root of that romance is the notion of all heroes, male and female alike, finding a cause for which they are willing to lay down their lives. It is about being selfless for something that is more important than the self. It is about finding the power to fight for that which is right, to find the satisfaction in protecting that which we love. These are universal needs to all races, sexes, and creeds, and these needs can only be met in deep, abiding love.

It is the discovery of a passion such as this that will make meek men mighty, and weak women wise. The selfish will sacrifice and the proud will be prudent. Why? Because if the mentor represents all of the wonderful things that lie at the heart of the hero, the loved one represents all of the wonderful things that do not. The best love interests are those that complement the hero, the ones that make up for the hero’s weaknesses and help him or her to become that which they could not otherwise be.

And now at last we are coming to the human experience at the core of the literary love interest. It all has to do with the basic truth that we are flawed and incomplete beings on our own, and that we depend on the strengths and abilities of others to become a composite in some greater being. That union to others is something each of us needs to be whole and healthy, and we have been given the sense of love to drive us to those meaningful connections. Again, that connection might be to anything: a church, a community, an army, a family, or indeed another individual. The point is that the resulting connection is greater than the individual because it is comprised of more than just an individual. It lifts and supports us and makes us into more than we are, and we love it for those reasons.


And so we can see that the mentor and the love interest work together in tandem more than might have been expected, they are two halves of the same principle. Most often the mentor holds the superior mind, and the love interest holds the superior heart, together they can bestow these upon the hero in his or her quest to become the best version of themselves that they can be. They work together to stoke our passion where it is waning, but also to reign in our excess where it would lead us to folly. They teach us moderation and direction, they keep our engine running warm but not overheating.

Each one of us personally needs both of these characters in our lives, and each of our heroes needs them as well. On Thursday I posted a piece of the Revelate storyline from the perspective of a character called the Clockmaker. As with most mentors, his was not a dynamic and changing character, rather he remained a constant, one that spoke to the other more malleable characters with confidence and truth. His influence helped both Kael and Ayla to discover their own roles in this story and know how to act.

Another key character in that post was Ayla, who is, of course, the love interest for the story. In every form that our main character had moved through she has remained the constant motivation for each transformation he undertakes. In his first two forms he finds her captivating due to how she feels what he cannot and does what he doesn’t dare. Through her he redefines himself, only to find that he is too late, though there yet remains a hope that if there is an afterlife out there for him, it will necessarily be with her.

Ayla is the one remaining that character that requires special attention in this Revelate series. Please come back Thursday where I will share a few remaining scenes from her perspective. In that effort I will be taking particular care to fashion her as the complement to both Cee and Kael, and better establish how it is that she motivates them to be more than what they are.

The Good Fight

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One of the endearing elements of the typical literary protagonist is that they are usually unaware of their role as the hero of the story. Instead, when we first meet our main characters they are just ordinary people like all the rest of us, with no notion of the wonders they are soon to witness, nor the titans they are soon to become. Even as they are in the midst of accomplishing their tremendous feats they still may not realize their own legend, they’re simply trying to do what seems right for its own sake. This idea that someone just like us can achieve unexpected greatness through steady, good works is an optimistic and motivating message for all readers. One day when we look back at the accumulation of all our little efforts to do what is right we also hope to see a legacy worth being proud of. In other words, each of us needs our own story to be the hero of. That need is universal, it is not a career option that only a few of us must apply for. That need is the answer to the age-old question “what is the meaning of life?” In no uncertain terms, the purpose is for each of us to become our own hero. With that principle in mind, it becomes clear that if we wish to create meaningful heroes in our stories the key is to understand the human condition first. When we do that, the stages that define the hero become self-evident.


Those that have no purpose in their lives aspire to find their great calling. Those that feel insignificant trust that greatness can come from the smallest of places. Those who are slogging through adversity seek reassurance that doing their best will be enough when all is said and done. Those that are burdened with guilt hold faith that what a person is now does not decide who they must be tomorrow. As we consider each of these life situations where we seek to find the hero inside a common theme emerges: conflict.

It is in the face of opposition that we feel the need for our inner hero, and indeed it is that opposition which gives the word “hero” any meaning. Our ultimate purpose in life is to strive, to overcome, and to become something greater. Indeed, without strife you can have the mentor, the lover, the confidant, the bystander, and even a main character, but you will never have any hero. Before you can tell your story you must first know the relationship between the hero and their conflict. That source of conflict might originate in another villainous character, a life situation, or an inner flaw, but there must be something that the would-be hero stands morally opposed to. Just like us when we face our life trials, the hero has to fundamentally feel that the opposition is against their very nature.


Diametric opposition isn’t enough by itself, though. The fact is that many of us live compromised lives, finding that it is easier to turn a blind eye and quiet our conscience than to act. We are naturally averse to conflict, after all, and so we attempt to mitigate evil rather than eradicate it. We even reach the point of doing things that go against our very nature for their convenience, and in so doing sin against the heart within us. All too often, people will not lift themselves above this self-cheating lifestyle except when some terrible loss occurs to awaken their resolve.

And so, make no mistake, the villain of a successful story means serious business. They do not come merely as the irritator or the inconveniencer, they come as the destroyer and the ravager. If left unchecked, they will take all that the protagonist holds most dear, and they communicate this intention by destroying the first of that which the main character loves. Indeed they typically destroy the one person or thing which that character holds most precious of all.


In our modern vernacular we sometimes call this moment of loss “hitting rock bottom.”  The evil we chose to not get involved with has invaded us directly, demanding our attention. We feel simultaneously burdened with animosity towards it, but also paralyzed with guilt and self-doubt. In this moment we perceive two great choices gaping wide for us.

The first is to despair, to be consumed by our shame and to give ourselves over to the adversary. We let this tragedy happen on our watch after all, so we deserve to be destroyed as that which we loved was destroyed. This is Simba in The Lion King feeling personally responsible for the loss of his father and running away from all that he was born to be, while his evil uncle reigns unchecked.

The other option is to throw down the challenge. Perhaps there have been mistakes made and prices paid for them, but the call of the hero is to refuse that this evil be allowed to go on any further. This isn’t about “joining” a fight against the villain either, it is a moment of claiming that fight for your own. Perhaps others may fill the ranks beside you, but they are ancillary. This is the hero’s own personal war.


The balance of power always seems to be in the hand of the opponent, though. They had a headstart on us after all and most often have seduced the masses into supporting them. There seems to be a fundamental rule of the universe that doing the right thing is always the more difficult path to follow. If it were the easier thing to do, we already would have done it after all. It was the notion of an uphill battle that gave us our pause in the first place.

And so it would feel dishonest to us if a story presented a hero that resolved themselves to the conflict, marched right into the thieves’ den, and by their greater brute force destroyed every enemy immediately. Again, if the hero already held the greater strength, they would have resolved the situation back at the very start. It is imperative, therefore, that the hero is to be the underdog here, and we should feel that they cannot win in a direct assault. If the hero is not stronger, then they must rely on something else. Often the hero is smarter, calculating, and more daring. They use their intelligence to leverage the enemy’s own power against them, letting the foes collapse under the weight of their own hubris.


Change inevitably involves sacrifice. It was loss that brought us into our life predicament, but it is sacrifice that will get us out. On the smaller end that may simply be a sacrifice of our time and energy in overcoming our life situation, and on the higher end it may be a sacrifice of our entire lifestyle in overcoming our inner demons. In order to make space for wine, you first must pour out the water that was already in the cup.

As we just said, the villain usually has more power than the hero, but the hero has the greater determination, the greater resolve to see things through to the end no matter the cost. And it certainly will come at a cost, in some cases even the cost of the hero’s life. Often I see stories being averse to take this step of the hero’s journey, too afraid of a bittersweet ending. Even worse, some stories flirt with the idea of sacrifice, suggesting it is about to happen, but then pull their punch at the very end. Perhaps I’ll discuss this matter at greater length in another post, but for now I’ll just say sacrifice is sacred, and ought not to be treated lightly for emotional manipulation.

More important than what is actually sacrificed by the hero for the victory is the fact that they are willing to sacrifice all. After all, when any of us attempt to change our own lifestyles, we will soon find that there is no winning from half-hearted measures, we have to be willing to sacrifice whatever is called over.


A week ago I pointed out that the classic archetype of heroes striving against villains is an obvious reenactment of the universal war between good and evil. That we tend to look for ourselves in the hero reveals our bias that we are each of us basically good. That is an optimistic notion and one that I personally agree with. There is something noble inside each of us, and it is that nobility which compels mankind to write these heroic tales; tales which serve the dual purpose of fanning the flames of those in the midst of their own great life adventure, as well as to stoke the embers of those who are waning in them.

Last Thursday I shared a story about a hero that followed through each of the steps I’ve mentioned above. In that story we met a character named Kael who was conflicted about his own dual nature, one part being good and the other being evil. Kael tried to compromise between the two parts until he was driven to decide between the two when he lost the trust of Ayla, the character he loved most. As he attempted to make things right, he found himself outmatched by his opponent, and only by being both cleverer and more willing to sacrifice he eventually found his triumph and became the hero at the story’s end.

At the opening of Kael’s story, he encountered a sage-life character, whose purpose was to  provide Kael the core questions which led him to his great purpose. That role of the wise mentor is another essential role in literature and one that I will pursue in my next story entry on Thursday. I’ll see you then.

How to be a Good Badguy

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Almost every story includes some sort of antagonist character, a villain who stands in contrast to all that the hero seeks to accomplish, and the entire crux of the story is to discover which of their competing resolves will win out in the end. Not that that outcome is actually in question most of the time, our culture loves a happy ending, and so with rare exception each story will conclude with good triumphing over evil. In fact, I cannot conceive of a more common and ancient archetype in all of literature than that of the eternal struggle between right and wrong. In another post we will discuss more about why we humans have this obsession for fundamental conflict, but for the time being let’s just accept that we do, and then both the need for and purpose of villains becomes immediately obvious. For how else can that strife between good and evil be represented unless there is some embodiment of that good and of that evil? And how better to embody these than in some living characters with whom the metaphorical battle can now be acted out literally? Thus our varied villains each wear one of the many faces of evil, giving us insight into another small slice of that metaphysical concept, and helping us all to better understand our universal enemy. Having established the purpose of villains, now we can consider what it is that makes one well crafted or poorly designed.


Villains need to be essential. By this I mean that the actions and characteristics of the villain in your story, ought to be the only way your villain could be. Think of the last story you read and ask if it would have worked had the author had left everything else just as it was, but then replaced the villain with some different evil character. If so, then that story just featured a generic villain who was unessential to the greater arc of the plot.

One of my all-time favorite stories, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, features a non-essential villain, and is admittedly weaker because of it. I am referring to the slave-catchers that are in pursuit of Eliza, Tom Loker and Marks. They each have their own characterizations, Marks is small and slimy while Loker is large and rough, and each brings their unique talents to their sinister work. Eventually Loker is wounded in a chase and then abandoned by his comrades. Rather than being left to die by his quarry, he is cared for by the Quakers, and in the process comes to experience a change of heart. It’s a nice story, but it really could have happened that way if Loker had been any other sort of vile character. He might have been small and slimy like Marks, for example, and his arc could have remained just as plausible. As a result, Loker is ultimately entirely forgettable and I actually had to Google his name just to remember what it was. So how exactly do you make your villain essential? Well, that brings us to our next point.


Your villain should define your hero. Going back to the first paragraph of this post, your villain is meant to be an incarnation of evil, but not just evil generally, evil of a specific type. They are meant to represent or be defined by specific vices, one that stand in contrast to the hero’s specific virtues. In general, though, those virtues that define a literary hero are most often only obtained by them towards the end of their stories, they do not possess them at the start. When we think of the good half of Ebenezer Scrooge we see him as a kindhearted and generous man, but he does not exist in this form until the end of his eventful night. Nicholas Nickleby is always a good person, but he is not the mighty protector of lost souls until strife and experience grow him into that role. Jim Hawkins is an unassuming boy when he leaves for Treasure Island, but by the end he has grown into a resourceful and determined young man.

These arcs and character growths each occur as a result of that main character’s conflict with the villain, the protagonist only becomes a hero by the opposition they face. Most often the villain begins the story by holding the balance of power, after all, and so can only be overcome by one that is diametrically opposed to them. Thus the hero learns love because he needs it to counter the villain’s hate, kindness to counter the villains cruelty, tranquility to counter rage, leadership to counter manipulation, courage to counter control. This is what is meant by a hero being defined by the villain that they grow to surpass.

It turns out Uncle Tom’s Cabin also has another villain that actually is essential to its story, one that defines the hero through his characteristics. Simon Legree is superstitious and fearful, and he manifests this by being unbearably cruel and savage, trying to force a sense of control on a world he doesn’t trust. By his viciousness he breaks one slave after another, but try as he might, he can’t seem to break Uncle Tom. As Simon presses down harder and harder on Tom, Tom is driven more and more towards faithfulness and courage, the exactly opposite characteristics of Simon. Though the power seems to be in Simon’s hand, he remains flighty and nervous while Tom is grounded and steady all the way through to the end. Not only is Tom a contrast to Simon, he becomes that contrast through him.


Finally, villains should also be interesting. Now I know that sounds stupidly obvious, yet we see this simple concept eluding most literary villains. One of the ways I most commonly observe this is in how a villain is introduced. So many authors, probably anxious not to slow the pace in actual character exposition, try to use as few sentences as possible to drive home the point that this character is a really bad person. The introduction to the main villain will therefore involve them doing some callous evil, such as killing in cold blood, which will establish them as irredeemable and deserving of the justice that will soon follow.

“My Lord, what should we do with this village of totally innocent bystanders?”

“Dispose of them, I suppose.” Maniacal laughter follows.

Oh my! Well this certainly is a very bad person here, isn’t it? Aside from the fact that this is so routine a trope that it has lost all impact, it is also a sign of lazy writing. What are you going to do in the sequel when you need to raise the stakes with a deeper force of evil?

“My Lord, what should we do with these two villages of totally innocent bystanders?”

That might sound facetious of me, but I’m actually trying to draw attention to the current pattern of evil-escalation in these more lazy stories. Instead of evil growing deeper, it simply grows broader. I rarely like to give specific negative examples in these blogs, so I’ll just say take a look at most comic book series, either in print or film. They tend to begin with threats to individuals, then progress to threats to cities, then threats to the whole world, and finally threats to the entire universe…what’s next, threats to a multiverse? Oh wait…

No, if you want to make a real impact, your villains can’t just be evil, they need to be uniquely evil. Readers will respond to a single ingenious act of evil on a small scale than to a generic act of evil on a universal scale. Consider the story of William Tell.

William Tell is described as a famous crossbowman who stood in defiance of the local ruler Albrecht Gessler. Gessler decided to make an example of him by arresting William and his son and ordering their execution. Then, struck by a sinister stroke of cruel genius, Gessler made an offer to William that he would spare their lives if William would demonstrate his prowess with the bow by shooting an apple off of his own son’s head at considerable distance. The obvious dilemma is that now William’s only possibility of saving his son’s life is to risk slaying him with his own hands. As a father myself, the cruelty of this hope mingled with horror is just as chilling now as it was five centuries ago, never mind that only two lives are at stake here.


A story is only as strong as its weakest of components, and a villain is one of the most critical of those pieces. When a villain is done well, it does not only produce a memorable character, it also elevates the entire story along with it. This next Thursday I will try to present the other side of the coin with the hero’s perspective from the Revelate series. As I do so I will give particular attention to ensuring that that hero is defined by the opposition he faces. I’ll see you then.


Tales of the Fairy

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I’ve always been partial to fairy tales and allegories, stories like Aesop’s Tortoise and the Hare or Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid. In addition to their insightful messages, I find that their structures stimulate the imagination and fill the reader with a sense of wonder. Unfortunately, I very rarely see these stories getting the fanfare they deserve, and I’m sure this is primarily due to how easy it is to take them for granted. Since people have known these stories their whole lives they believe they understand everything there is to know about them. In fact, because most people were first exposed to them as young children, they assume the stories must be childish by nature. You’ll notice they don’t make the same assumption of allegories they come across later in life. For example many consider Plato’s The Cave to be a far more intellectual and cerebral story, simply because they first encountered it in some college level history or philosophy class. This bias is absolutely understandable, but it says more about the reader’s mindset at the time of meeting a story than it does about the story itself.

A common rebuttal might be no, fairy tales really are just more immature as a general rule. Their messages are quaint and unrealistic, and so they can be dismissed out of hand. This perception no doubt would arise from the fact that fairy tales, for the most part, strive to define sharp cutoffs between truth and error, whereas society has trained us to see the world in shades of gray. Isn’t this whole business of “true love conquering all” just too corny and impractical? The real world doesn’t work like that, does it? While I do agree that day-to-day life is far more messy than the idealized environments given in most fairy tales, that’s kind of the point. You see, fairy tales are actually following a tried-and-true method for complex learning, one where core principles can be observed in isolation and then combined and applied to real-life scenarios. We’ll look at an example of this with Snow White in a moment, but for now let me point out that you can see this exact same pattern in the study of harder sciences, such as physics. “Imagine a sphere with perfectly distributed weight accelerating through a complete vacuum” they say, but where in life are you expected to ever find a perfectly uniform sphere and a complete vacuum to throw it through? The theoretical experiment is merely a fairy tale, an allegory, but through working the problem out the physicist is able to identify universal relationships which, when combined together, accurately model our complex world with astonishing accuracy.

Well that’s all well and good, but what if I just don’t like the style of them. I prefer things with more subtlety and nuance. I want characters who change and evolve, fairy tale heroes are always so flat and one-dimensional. Also I want settings that are more imitative of real life so I can relate to them, not all this fantasy imagery. Now to all this I must admit that personal taste is of course subjective, and without a doubt modern tastes are swaying away from fairy tales. However those tastes sway on a pendulum, and it will probably come back around to allegory at some point once it is no longer “cool” to distance oneself from it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these modern tastes, mind you, but there isn’t anything inherently superior in them either. Personally I think there is plenty of space to appreciate idealized fairy tales and nuanced realities, both are just as impressive when pulled off well.

But let’s take a closer look at the notion that fairy tale characters are flawed by being so one-dimensional and that their stories lack multiple layers. For the first point, I’ll just start off by admitting right away that yes, fairy tale characters are usually very flat and lack any meaningful development or arc. Just look at Snow White. She is a princess of the medieval era, surely any real-life adolescent in her shoes would be a complex combination of all the competing influences likely in that climate. Where’s the burden of political strife between neighboring kingdoms, the ignorance inherent in antiquated superstition, the trials of being a woman in a patriarchal society, the formative changes of female adolescence, and on top of all that a healthy dose of mommy-issues to boot? She’s going through all this and her response is to just go sing with birds in the woods?!

Now of course, what these critiques fail to appreciate is that the characters in fairy tales don’t behave in a lifelike manner because they aren’t supposed to. You see, Snow White, as suggested before, isn’t actually a representation of a medieval princess at all, she is a representation of a singular, isolated idea, an intentionally one-dimensional concept. And what is that one-dimension she occupies, what single notion is she designed to represent? Innocence. Adding little character wrinkles and nuances might make her a better person but it would also make her a far worse allegory. The more defined as a character she is, the less universally she is able to represent innocence to us. When we view her as intended by the author, the whole singing in the woods makes a whole lot more sense. Innocence doesn’t care about the matters of court, the injustices of the world, the scheming of enemies, innocence is just, well, innocent.

Snow White’s evil stepmother is just as flat and one-dimensional, too, but she represents something far more sinister. Vanity. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves could be renamed Innocence and Vanity, for the entire story is purely a dissertation on those two subjects and the interplay between the two of them. And what is that interplay? Well, vanity wants something, she is vanity after all, and that desire puts innocence and vanity at odds with one another. For innocence to survive she must flee from where vanity resides and if ever vanity catches up to her she will poison innocence and kill it. The symbolism here is very clear and can be summarized succinctly. Vanity pursues, taints, and finally destroys innocence. This is a somber thought, and one that once understood becomes applicable to many layers of real life. It is in the personal application that we begin to see the complexity inherent in fairy tales.

On the one hand I can use this template and apply it to my relationship with the world. I would say there lies a bright and hopeful innocence inside of me, one that wants to create and live and chase its dreams. Those innocent desires can be threatened, though, when surrounded by a vain world that derides the hopeful’s efforts and crushes their hopes with sharp cynicism and cruel mockery. I need to be careful to keep that world at bay so that I can remain uncorrupted and optimistic.

But then on the other hand, I start to think this template is a model for my relationship with my son. My son is innocent, so full of life and wonder. I am vain, and the same hopes and dreams I just mentioned before are ones I pursue for my own prestige and pleasure, purely selfish desires. If I allow my vanity to rule me I am cautioned by the tale that my son’s innocence will be the price I have to pay. Many a bright child has lost a part of themselves when they were left under-nurtured and unconnected from parents that were too busy pursuing their own dreams.

But looking at both of those prior examples now I start to think that both the innocence and vanity lie within me all at the same time. Sometimes what I do is done with honest intentions and it is innocent, sometimes it is done for selfish gain, and it is vanity. I never have made a choice that was partially divided between the two, it was either one or the other, thus we see that these concepts truly do stand at odds to one another. Each time I make a choice that is driven by vanity, I can feel that good innocence in me diminish a little bit and at times I have driven it down to the point where it seems to die. Sometimes I cannot even recall how to act purely from the heart anymore.

Snow White is a meditation on some very sobering thoughts, and this somberness deserves to be paused on and felt in their full impact. But this isn’t where the story of Snow White ends, is it? After innocence has been destroyed by vanity and left powerless for a time, she ultimately comes back to life. Not by her own power, mind you, but by true love’s first kiss. This is the most important lesson of the entire story. The dual-message of Snow White is first a warning that each of us will feel the death of innocence within us at the hands of vanity, but when this happens the story affirms we can rekindle that innocence anew by an act of pure love. This isn’t as grandiose as the arrival of a charming prince to whisk us away, nor is it going to be able to solve all of our problems, but these moments do exist and they are profound influences in our lives, no matter how small and simple they may be. This is where the parent reconciles with their estranged child, the kind word from a friend that compels an artist to try again, the tearful apology to oneself followed by a commitment to be a better person. This is healing in the midst of sorrow, and through it what was lost can be rekindled, and the potential for a happily ever after can return.

If you start looking at fairy tales with the mindset of finding what core principles the characters represent, you may be surprised at all the profound lessons they have been trying to teach us. Pinocchio is mortal man striving through earth life to become like his real father, Hansel and Gretel are the pairing of both resourcefulness and bravery against all the world, Beauty and the Beast is an examination on the natures of true beauty and true ugliness, and the Little Mermaid is about the infinite value of the human soul.

When we hear these stories as children we feel them connect to something to our inner selves, yet do not have the capacity to understand exactly what it means. We know there is a truth here, but we cannot give voice to what that truth is. When we visit these stories again with the experiences and scars of adult life, we start to give names to the reasons why we loved them.

I’m definitely not ready to craft my own fairy tale that could hope to stand among these giants, however I would like to try at simply creating a character that represents a single, constant idea. That character may not seem like much a person, but I hope to make him represent a real part of a person, and when his thread is combined with others I hope a tapestry of meaning will emerge. Please come back Thursday to meet this first allegory.

Finding Your Focus

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Over the last month I’ve rather enjoyed my foray into the surreal and the imaginative. My theme for this series was to embrace the dreams, the nightmares, the meditations, and the free-associative thinking that manifest our subconscious to us. We began with Sculpting Light, took a darker turn with Free Cleaning Service, had a sleepy stroll through a Deep Forest, and most recently meditated on childhood with Tico the Jester. As I suggested at the end of that last story, however, there has been another purpose in this series apart from exploring the workings of the subconscious mind. My other reason for conducting this series has been to craft stories where each had a different central focus. I briefly mentioned the need for these in my Cliché vs Story post, where I suggested that a timeless narrative often turns out better when focusing on the character’s experience, and then trusting the audience to empathize with that journey. Now that’s not always the case for a narrative, and certainly not the case for other types of story. Today we’ll break down a few of the most common focuses a story can have, the strengths inherent in each of their designs, and the examples I gave for each of these in my most recent stories.

The Reader

To start off we’ll look at the opposite of what I recommended for narrative-driven stories. There are times where your singular and primary focus as a writer should indeed be the mind of the person reading your work. I don’t just mean that you write to elicit specific emotions from the reader, most every type of story will aim to accomplish that, but rather that you seek to incorporate your reader’s individual life experience as an actual element of your tale. Your work, as it lays on the page, is left unfinished and can only be completed by what your audience puts into it.

The story of The Lady, or the Tiger presents a jilted lover who holds the power to give the man who has spurned her either death at the paws of a tiger or else a life happy with the woman he prefers. What she chooses is not ever revealed, though, rather the audience is asked to answer the question of how it concludes. Why? Because the story isn’t really about the woman and what she would or would not do, it is about inviting every reader to look inside of themselves and answer what they would do in such a situation.

My first story of this series, Sculpting Light, was designed with the readers as its focus. It does not feature a specific question that I want the readers to ask themselves, but it was an invitation to them to take a journey into their own free-associative thinking. Throughout its body I try to awaken the reader’s subconscious by transitioning from one topic to another on a whim, striving for that familiar game of associations where the most tenuous of connections are enough to weave all manner of categories together. Then, at the end, I conclude with a single beam of light racing off into infinite space, but that was never meant to be a conclusion. It was meant to be an invitation, an opportunity for the readers to now ask themselves where they think that beam of light goes, or what it reminds them of, what it is like, or even what it is not like. I’ve shown you how my mind works, now how does yours?

The Character

Obviously the most common focus for a story is that of the character. The author spends time trying to really get to know the story’s protagonist and then ensures that every outcome is consistent with that protagonist’s principles and behavior. If the protagonist is to evolve in the story he or she must do so in a way that is believable, a way that feels warranted. The conclusion that the protagonist secures must be the one that is true to all that has followed before. If this is done well and the character’s arcs feel honest, then the anticipation is that the audience will be able to enter the hero’s shoes and feel every plight as if it was their own.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth the morbid end that finds our main characters are only the ones that they have brought upon themselves. As Lady Macbeth pressed her husband to take life, so to she then feels pressed by guilt to take her own. As Macbeth was willing to attain a throne by the shedding of others’ blood, so to he was doomed to lose that throne by the spilling of his own blood. It simply was not in their nature to have the story resolve itself in any other way.

My short story Free Cleaning Service was a story that focused primarily on character above all else. Jim Morgan is so haunted by memories of what he’s done and seen that eventually he conjures up a manifestation of the very evil he has always feared would be led back to his home. Bit by bit he’s felt his soul being smothered by association with all that is dark in the world, and in the conclusion he awakens to a literal darkness and the entering of its agent of destruction.

The Environment

Some stories set aside both character and audience, and instead try to capture the truths of an entire portion of the world. The focus here might be on a specific time, or a place, or an event. While it isn’t required, often these sorts of stories are written when an author is trying to capture the spirit of an era, intending for the audience to not lose sight of the lessons that were inherent to that environment. This could also be a story that challenges our concept of reality by presenting another far-flung world to which the reader comes as a guest.

At its core, Of Mice and Men is not really a story about its characters, it is about a time and a place, an experience in history. George Milton and Lennie Small are only provided as representations of the greater story that many people were living through during the Great Depression in America. The tale captures the atmosphere that pervaded that chapter of humanity, and the overwhelming frustration it brought that a man no longer seemed entitled to the sweat of his brow, that he may toil and try and do his best, but still be guaranteed nothing. The story is about an environment where everyone has a dream, a hope, or a plan, but the machinations of an uncaring world will crush them all alike.

In my story Deep Forest it was my intention to capture a mood more than anything else. I thought of a place that was rich and heavy and full of mysteries and ancient whispers, then I set about writing a story that captured it. Yes, there was a main protagonist, but she wasn’t present for the reader to get caught up in her as an individual, but just to serve as eyes and ears that let the reader feel that they were in that forest themselves. What thoughts and feelings might have been invoked in the reader by the piece wasn’t my main concern, either, really I just wanted them to be able to appreciate the Forest for what it was and that was it.

The Concept

Another common type of story is all about examining a principle, a lesson, a concept, or an abstract idea. These could be allegories, fables, parables or moral lessons which seek to instruct, or they may simply be trying to capture one of the common human experiences, such as love, loss, hope, or dismay. In either case the form of the story is trying to give embodiment to a naturally disembodied concept, and their quality will be determined by how well they capture the true nature of that idea.

The Tortoise and the Hare, for example, is not really about either of its titular characters. Its sole focus is to communicate its underlying moral, slow and steady wins the race. Now once this principle is understood it will be up to the readers to identify which ambitions they have approached too vigorously and then burned out on, and how they might approach them with a more measured cadence. But this isn’t the same as writing with the Reader as the main concern, as this sort of inner dialogue comes about only by having the expression of the principle, not the Reader, as the measure of its success.

My most recent short piece, Tico the Jester, is my personal example of a story that had a concept as its central focus. In that tale the little girl and her toy jester are ancillary to the root examination of childhood innocence, its dependence upon ignorance, and the pattern of how it is lost in times of grief. I chose my characters for how well I felt they served these themes, but had I thought of a more fitting representation for childhood innocence I would have changed the entire setting and cast without a second thought.

The Community

The final focus for a story is that of the community. This is the ensemble piece where no single character carries the full meaning of the tale, but rather their united ripples merge into a single wave of significance. The purpose of this narrative may be to communicate an optimistic message of how an entire society unites to bring about some good greater than any one individual could accomplish, or it might be more somber in how it shows characters’ individual flaws accentuating one another to bring about some horrible tragedy that ought not to have ever been.

The Lord of the Rings is a story of an undertaking that is so massive that no one person could accomplish it alone. Certainly there is a sole ring-bearer, but from the start to the finish he is only able to succeed by being supported-and even literally carried-by an entire community of souls around him. More than that, his one quest is only a shadow of the greater struggle that is raging in all the world around, one in which every man’s soul is being put to the test for good to triumph over evil. The message of the story is that great things can be accomplished, but only by the concerted efforts of thousands of individuals contributing as one.

My example for a community-focused story will come in the form of my next post on Thursday. It will be a pretty unusual looking community, and it will remain consistent with the dream-like meditative series we are about to conclude, but it will nonetheless have at its core an examination of how disparate characters combine for the benefit and destruction of one another.


In the end, it all really comes down to a question of who or what is your story being true to? Should your characters have this conversation, or should the plot take this turn, or should you detail the finer points of this setting? Yes, if it will be helpful to your subject, whether that be audience, character, environment, concept, or community. Indeed many of the decisions you have to face as an author will only be resolved when you have identified what it is your story must be true to.