We Can Do This the Easy Way, Or the Hard Way

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A Split Path)

On Thursday I will be posting the final entry in my latest short story. After the previous post, I pointed out that this ending could go one of two ways, either path serving as a fitting culmination to its themes.

From the very beginning of that story, Jeret has been shown as unfit for society. After a life of crime, his community finally ousted him, sending him on permanent exile to a floating asteroid. There he discovered a magical device, one that could create anything that he conceived of. Very shortly after discovering it, he fantasized about using this ability to wreak havoc on his home-world, destroying those that had condemned him. Condemnation and destruction have been consistent threads through his entire tale.

At the end of my most recent post, he has come to condemn and wish violence upon a race of beings that he himself created. He has come full circle, now becoming the authority that would blot out the rogues of his own nation. Thus he has the same hands as those that condemned him…which also means he has the hands that could liberate him instead. All that remains, then, is to see which path he will pursue.

In 1882, Frank R. Stockton published a short story that also came to a junction. In it, a princess loves a young man, but that man has been selected for a barbaric test of chance. He is placed in an arena, and must choose between one of two doors to open. Behind one is a ferocious tiger that will eat him, behind the other is a woman that he must marry.

The princess is seated in the stands, watching the trial, and she knows which fate is behind each door. She also knows the identity of the woman that has been selected as the man’s potential wife, and she suspects that the young man already has feelings for that woman. At the pivotal moment, the young man looks up to the princess, who motions towards a particular door, which he goes to open.

Then Stockton turns the narrative towards the reader: “And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?”

The end.

Do you think the princess condemned him to die out of jealousy, or do you think she let him live with another out of a sincere care for his well-being? What does your answer say about how you view feminine nature and romance?

This ambiguity works because there is still a complete story presented. It is not the story of the young man, his arc is most definitely not concluded. But there is a complete arc in the princess and in the question. No matter what she chooses, the princess has lost the man, her romantic story is concluded either way. The only question is whether she has done so graciously or not. It is a story of unrequited love, and it fittingly ends that subject with a hollow openness.

With the advent of social media, spurned lovers are able to follow the minutest details of old crushes from afar. Do they do so hoping to see their old flame find happiness, or hoping to see them in broken relationships and miserable? Perhaps a little bit of both? If you were given the power, which choice would you make?

If this story had a specific ending, then it would not make you consider your own conscience or question your own motives. In this case, a double-ended story serves a meditative purpose. It is the story of a conundrum.

Choose the Better Path)

But such an ending would not fit my own tale very well. Yes, my story is allegorical, and hopefully inspires introspection; but in the end I want to make a statement about humanity, not ask a question of it. In tomorrow’s post Jeret will choose what he chooses, and there will be a specific outcome for that. I do, though, want the audience to understand what would have befallen him if he had chosen the opposite, so that I can compare and contrast which route was better.

One of may favorite stories of all time is an excellent example of this sort of ending. In the Frank Capra film It’s A Wonderful Life, we meet a man who is very unhappy with the hand he has been dealt. George Bailey has wanted to get away from his quaint hometown ever since he graduated High School. He has big ambitions, and he wants to see the world and do amazing things.

But one thing after another stops him from ever accomplishing that. Obligations come to him from his late father, his brother, his wife and children, and his community. Duty and responsibility prevent him from ever living his dream, until he starts to realize that he will never have a life of significance.

One Christmas Eve, his passive disappointment turns into a sincere loathing for life, once an unfortunate string of events has him drunk, beaten, and facing time in prison. In this moment, where he feels so terribly low, he commits suicide and ends a life of misery. The End.

Well, not quite.

The story makes absolutely clear that this is the tragic conclusion that the story has been building towards. But then, right before he can take his life, heaven intervenes. A guardian angel appears and shows George that he has been seeing one story, when really another was at play.

It is true that George has never traveled the world and made the things he wanted to. But it is also true that he has made a real impact on the world for good. In between his heartaches and disappointments, he has brought joy into a place where it otherwise would not have been.

George learns that his life has been full of worth, if he is willing to see it. But it isn’t just George that has changed, the underlying story architecture has as well. Before the lengthy introspection, a happy ending just would not have worked, it would have felt tacked on and cheap. But the threads are revealed to be multidimensional, building towards a sad conclusion from one perspective, but also fitting for a happy one from another. Doesn’t that ring so true for our own lives as well?

My latest story, as it has been written, is building towards a tragic ending. A sad demise is the natural trajectory of all that has transpired. This Thursday I am going to try and inflect things, though. I will attempt to turn the threads so that they could have been pointing towards a good ending all along. Come back in a few days to see how it turns out.

I Regret You

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Karma)

Oedipus is introduced at the outset of his story as a well-meaning king of Thebes. Not all is well in Thebes, though, the city has been cursed with a plague. Oedipus seeks guidance from the Oracle for how to dispel this plague, and she tells him it is a punishment for a imbalance of justice in the city. As she points out, the prior king’s murderer was never found or punished, and so the curse will remain until he is.

Anxious to bring relief to his people, Oedipus vows to track down this killer and bring him to justice. He relentlessly pursues the fiend…which makes things rather awkward when he discovers that he, himself is the perpetrator! Years ago he killed the king in a scuffle, believing the man to be someone else.

The irony does not end here though.

As it turns out, the king Oedipus killed is actually his own father. Why did Oedipus not recognize the man he fought as either his father or the king? Well, because his father tried to have Oedipus killed as an infant, after the Oracle predicted that the son would one day destroy him. Instead, Oedipus was left alone in the wild, until a husband and wife passed by and adopted him.

Thus the father set in motion the vehicle of his own destruction, and Oedipus’s sin of patricide, even if performed ignorantly, condemns the son as well. It is a tragic tale, but also a very balanced one. Characters do wrong things, and retribution finds them in a very poetic manner. It turns out that audiences greatly enjoy stories with this sort of balance. Whether or not they believe in karma for the real world, people tend to like it in their stories.

In my story, It’s Tough to Be a God, the main character has discovered a tool that permits him to create anything that he wishes. He does not appreciate the solemn responsibility that such power requires, though, and in a moment of foolishness, constructs two creatures for the sole pleasure of watching them fight to the death. He regrets that decision, and does not repeat it…but also he has not payed for that sin. As such, I feel the story lacks a cathartic balance, which I intend to correct in the next half of the story.

But balance, karma, and catharsis are not only about punishing characters in a story.

 

Growth)

An essential element in most stories is character development, and often a story seeks to prove to the reader that the character is different at the end from how they were at the beginning. An excellent way to show this comparison is to have the character possess a flaw earlier in the story, and by it set in motion the karma that will destroy them at the end. Just as with Oedipus. But then a twist comes, because by the time we reach the end our hero has changed. They are no longer the same person that they were at the beginning, and they no longer possess the flaw that created the karmic demon. So they defeat it instead, freed from the past by having overcome it.

An excellent example of this sort of tale is the Disney animated film Aladdin. In this, the titular character discovers an object of immense power: a genie that will grant him three wishes. Aladdin squanders his first wish in selfish pursuit. He tries to achieve the life that he has always dreamed of. His second wish is burned in a moment of sudden danger. Then Aladdin decides to walk back on a promise he made to the genie, that he would free him with his third and final wish.

As Aladdin explains, if he frees the genie, then he loses his power. All of the façade he has carefully built up will be torn down, and he isn’t willing to lose control over his fate. This unwillingness to surrender control is Aladdin’s fatal flaw. Because of it, he leaves the door open for a new character to take power. Jafar steals the lamp, and like Aladdin, spends his first two wishes reaching for greater and greater power. Aladdin seeks to stop him, but he isn’t just facing a Sorcerer Sultan Jafar, he is facing the undeniable power of his own karmic justice. If this were Oedipus, Aladdin would now be destroyed for having been selfish before.

But then the twist comes. Aladdin knows Jafar’s weakness because it was his own weakness as well: insecurity. He knows that Jafar’s power is propped up only by the genie, and that Jafar’s greatest fear, like his, would be to lose control over that power. And so he appeals to that fear, and taunts Jafar. He points out that so long as the genie gave Jafar his power, he will always be able to take it away. Jafar takes the bait, and wishes to be made into a genie himself, unaware that the power he receives will be counterbalanced by eternal imprisonment. His karma catches up to him.

Aladdin defeats Jafar, but really he is defeating his own former self. And so, his first action upon gaining control of the original genie is to grant him the freedom he had promised. He is no longer required to pay for his crimes, because he isn’t a criminal anymore.

 

Scales of Justice)

As a reader, we require our stories to give us catharsis and balance. Subconsciously we are weighing the scales, silently waiting for each imbalance to be righted. But while we demand fulfillment, we are not so demanding as to how exactly it is delivered. Sometimes the sinner will pay for his own sins. Sometimes he might repent, and another sinner is tricked into paying for him. Sometimes a sacrificial lamb covers the cost. Just so long as the cost is paid, the story satisfies us.

Quite honestly I’m still trying to figure out how to make the balance work in It’s Tough to Be a God. I can feel that it isn’t there yet, and I will keep mulling it over until I find the right balance. I haven’t quite decided who must pay the price for Jeret’s wrongs in the end.

What I have decided, though, is in which form the karmic demons will arise. In my next post we will see how Jeret, by his own hand, has created the forces that seek to destroy him. Come back on Thursday to meet this specter of justice!

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!

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.

Coming at It from Both Ways

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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 Changing of a Story

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The Kernel)

I am on the cusp of completing my story: The Toymaker. In it a small drummer toy is born to life, and then sent to find a mystical city. Along the way he makes a friend in another toy, a dancing ballerina. Unfortunately, the two are divided from one another when the dancer is kidnapped, and taken into a grimy town full of dirty hovels. The drummer charges in pursuit, but is further waylaid as one toy after another takes advantage of him. He become dirty and cracked, and even his innocent demeanor slowly becomes more desperate and angry. Almost he loses himself, but stops just short of doing so. In that same moment he discovers a strange connection that he has with some divine power, and by it is finally led back to the dancer that he has been searching for.

There is, of course, one or two more sentences to that outline, but I’ll leave it off so that you can see it for yourself this Thursday. It is very strange for me to read that synopsis, though, because it is absolutely nothing like the one that I started off with!

Whenever I get an idea for a story, I open up a text editor and get it down in as much detail as possible. Usually the idea is so small that it only fills out one paragraph, but I hope to transfer enough information that I can remember the heart of it for later development.

One night, I was making up a bedtime story for my son about a toy factory. As I spoke to him, my mind suggested to me a different plot. After the bedtime ritual was finished, and I left his room, this is the brief outline that I wrote down:

The Toy Factory. Idea of a man building a world, bit-by-bit giving it greater abilities and rules. Eventually a rebellion breaks out amongst it, and he himself is lost within its depths. Perhaps he has forgotten who he is, or was created in toy form by his own creations, and so his consciousness has been transposed to that toy and he needs to remember his original identity.
OR
The Castle-God. Some character has created a people and a world, little machinations that he kept around him, and which presently moved out to pursue their own ambitions. Now he still lives in that same castle, but forgotten and lonely in its massive halls. The character could be rediscovered, many generations later, having been fashioning a new set of creations all this time, ones to destroy the first.

 

The Theme)

So, as you can see, I was already of two minds about which direction this story could go, but in each rendition I had this idea of a creator regretting his creation. A godlike character whose subjects have all gone astray, and who is later tempted to use his powers to abandon or destroy them.

While working on this blog I shared an entry about responsibility, and I mentioned how Victor Frankenstein regretted the monstrosity he created, and sought to destroy it. I realized that this was very similar to my Toy Factory/Castle-God stories, and decided to expand on it with that theme. So I married the two together: the Toymaker would be refashioned as a mortal within the world of his own creation, would rediscover his omnipotent identity, and then would decide what responsibility he had to his subjects: either to spare them or create an army to destroy them.

And then, to this, I decided to add one more wrinkle. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the story started with him already in mortal form? That way his rediscovery of his divine identity would be as much of a surprise to the reader as to himself.

 

Things Go Awry)

Sometimes stories don’t follow their plotlines though. I started off with a simple introduction, one where I introduced the world of the toys, and explained how they began as inanimate objects that gradually gained self-awareness. I emphasized that fact, by having the drummer (who would later be revealed to be the creator) witness another toy, a ballerina dancer, come to life.

But now that I had created this second character, I felt that I had to do something with her. I made her his companion on his initial journey, and the two played off of one another quite nicely. I came up with ways that they supported and depended on one another, quickly making the two of them feel “right” together.

The thing is, up until now I had just been meandering about freely to get the feel of the world, but now I realized this dancer was taking up such a large percentage of the opening that she had to be a main character now. I wanted to start pushing the plot forward by showing how despicable the created world had become, and the most obvious way to do that was by having these two innocent companions ripped apart. It worked well, but now it only further cemented this random side-character, the dancer, as the main catalyst for our drummer’s journey.

Now the moment where imbalance occurs is with the loss of that dancer, so every reader naturally assumes the story will right itself with their triumphant reunion. I had created an expectation, and I couldn’t just shirk that.

 

The Story Fights Back)

Alright, fine, I thought, he goes and he gets her back, but then the story progresses as normal. But every time I tried to write their reunion it felt wrong. It was just too quick, too easy. I kept writing about him almost reaching her, but each time I had to pull the rug out from under him at the last moment. This was because I had written it so that the dancer was everything to that poor drummer. The quest to regain her needed to be appropriately epic.

Unless she died? I thought maybe this could be what compels him to find his powers and condemn the world. Just as he’s about to reach her she’ll be irrevocably broken and that will make him snap.

But where, then, is the responsibility? This isn’t a creator accepting the burden of his creation going astray anymore, this is an angry tyrant exacting terrible vengeance. Not what I was going for at all.

One solution might have been to go back to the start and take her out entirely, but I didn’t like that. She had emerged naturally and organically, and I liked her being in the story. Quite frankly I had become personally invested in her arc, and really wanted to see where it would land.

 

The Solution)

And so, it was in this very problem that I also found my solution. Her becoming broken and him going into a rage was not going to serve a story about a god’s responsibility to his people, but it her being broken would serve a story about a little drummer’s responsibility to the toy that he loves.

The story had not been stalling on its first chapter, rather it had turned that first chapter into the entire story. It isn’t the story of how he regains boundless power, it is the story of how he makes amends to the dancer he could not save.

Maybe the bigger story still exists, but if so it is a tale for another time. With that in mind, I knew how I needed to close things. Only after great effort, after nearly losing himself but then calling himself back, only then would he be ready to rejoin the dancer. And in that moment, he would find her broken.

Not only broken, though, but angry. Angry at the world, angry at herself, and angry at him. The climax of the story will be how he hears that anger, and how he takes responsibility for it. I like this approach quite a lot, and I am excited to share it with you on Thursday. Then, at long last, we will be on to something new.

A Little Self-Reflection

man standing in front of mirror
Photo by Joshua Brits on Pexels.com

Seeing Ourselves)

Quite regularly we look at ourselves. Bathroom mirrors are an integral part of every morning routine, after all, and even if we say we don’t care about appearances we can’t help but catch a glimpse every now and again.

During my youth I was in the Boy Scouts, and on occasion would go on camping trips, sometimes for as long as a week. Over that time I would never once see my reflection, and it would become a very a surreal experience. I could feel the dirt sticking to my sunburned face and knew that I must appear a mess, but I could only imagine to what degree. After coming home I would look in the mirror again and the imagined image was superseded by the real reflection. Some bits of who I was met my expectation, and others did not.

Even without extended periods away from silver-backed glass, each one one of us will invariably have moments where we go from looking at ourselves in the mirror to actually seeing ourselves. All at once the reality of our image comes into stark relief.

An example of this was just a few weeks ago when I noticed more smile-wrinkles around my eyes than there used to be. I’m far from old, and I’m not having a midlife crisis, but it was a moment of realizing that I had changed somewhere, and I was a little concerned that I hadn’t noticed it as it happened.

 

Inescapable Change)

Each of us wants to change, of course. But we want to be in control of that change, to choose in which ways we are altered and in which we are not. We want to be smarter, more confident, and kinder, but we don’t want to get older, slower, and fatter along the way. When I saw those extra wrinkles around my eyes, it was not just me realizing that my face was changing, but that it was doing so without my permission.

We’re organic beings. We don’t get to selectively isolate parts of us to change while leaving the other’s untouched. You cannot help but ripple the whole tapestry when you start to pull on a thread.

Of course we know and accept that change and decay happens to everyone else, and theoretically we “know” that it must happen to us as well. But each one of us has that singular moment where we accept that change, uncontrollable change, really is our fate.

This was the story of Siddhattha Gotama, a young man born thousands of years ago, in-or-around present-day India. He was a royal prince, and his father took immense precautions to shelter him from the realities of life. Siddhattha later said that the cold facts of aging, sickness, and death did not distill in his heart until the age of 29.

No matter how protected he had been, sooner or later he had to face and accept that these realities did exist. Not so much that they existed generally, but that they existed for him. He perceived that he was just as subject to the wheel of time as all the rest of humanity, and the soberness of that moment led him on a great spiritual journey. A journey that concluded in his becoming the Buddha.

 

Change Through Reflection)

There is a very interesting element to that story of the Buddha. Notice that this major turning point in his life comes about as a result of reflecting on his life, and coming to accept the unpreventable, ever-changing nature of it. Siddhattha revokes the illusion of control in life…but by doing that then steers himself into a different path than he had been on. It would seem that by admitting his powerlessness, he gained just a bit more power.

This is extremely similar to the story of Socrates, who craved knowledge, and sought out sages to teach it to him. Instead he was disappointed to find that none of them knew anything at all. Then, after a little self-reflection, he realized that the only thing that he, or anyone else, could really know, was the fact that they knew nothing at all. And so by admitting his complete ignorance, he gained a nugget of knowledge.

In both of these historical stories, illusion and imagination are dropped, replaced with something truer, and both times as a result of properly seeing oneself. Many times when we look in the mirror we just see a face, but sometimes we get a glimpse of the actual soul.

Now these “stories” are biographical, they are about real-life people. But they are still stories, and the experiences drawn from them have certainly found their way into works of fiction as well. A pivotal moment of character development comes in a moment of quiet self-reflection in A Christmas Carol. Here the old curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge, sees his boyhood self, and how he was once so full of innocent wonder.

Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, “Poor boy!” and cried again.
“I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it’s too late now.”
“What is the matter?” asked the Spirit.
“Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.”

“I should like to have given him something: that’s all.” Only really that isn’t all. In this moment Ebenezer is finally starting to see himself rightly. He is seeing the man in the mirror as he really is, and there’s a thing or two he’d like to change about him.

And that is the real power of self-reflection, both in real life and in literature. It creates a moment where the individual has the opportunity to choose. Change is inevitable, it falls upon us all, but if we see ourselves rightly, we can choose which way that change will fall.

In my most recent story post, our protagonist had a pivotal moment of self-reflection. He was staring down another toy that had hurt him deeply, and seriously contemplated doing the same in turn. But then he stayed himself, because he realized that he was straying from the toy that he had been made as, and he didn’t want to do that. Sometimes the greatest change brought about by self-reflection is simply to return to where we had been before. On Thursday I will push that idea further, where as a reward for his rediscovery of self, the drummer will be refashioned in a higher form. Then, at last, he will be ready to return to his long-lost dancer.

It’s a Long Way Home

white and brown wooden house near calm body of water under cumulus clouds
Photo by Nathan Moore on Pexels.com

Empty Halls)

They say you can’t go home again. In my case that is most definitely true because, you see, the new owners blew it up!

True story. One Sunday they left for church, and while they were gone a gas line started leaking. The garage filled up with the gas until finally the vapor came in contact with some faulty wiring that ignited it…. And that was that.

There have been several times that I have wanted to retrace the steps of my childhood, and at least this one avenue for doing so is forever closed to me. Though, now that I think about it, even the parts of my childhood that didn’t burn down still feel just as cut off. I could walk the old, familiar streets of my youth, but I will not be the same boy that tread them once before. That experience is lost to memory alone.

Memory, nostalgia, the past. There is a sort of sad sweetness that accompanies us when we consider these words. We enjoy the ruminations at first, but inevitably they lead us to our losses. There are things we had back then which we will never have again: old friendships, innocence, an unbridled sense of wonder.

Even worse is the realization of the things we didn’t have, and now have lost the last opportunity for: apologies left unsaid, causes left unchampioned, joys left unclaimed.

Loss. And regret.

These are ponderous things to think about, and it comes as no surprise that many stories have sought to tackle this reality of human life. How Green Was My Valley is one achingly somber example. In this film and book we start with the main character Huw, who is living as a young boy in an idyllic Welsh village. His family are close, loving, and happy.

From there the threads are slowly unraveled. Though there are one or two greater tragedies, so much of the falling apart feels like the quiet, but persistent, erosion of time. In a word, life happens, and eventually the boy, now grown to a young man, cannot find the beautiful childhood home in the walls that surround him today. Though he has stayed ever-faithful, those moments have left of their own accord. He realizes the vanity of trying to hold onto that which cannot be held, and finally he, too, departs.

 

Never Hopeless)

Much of that story rings true, and yet we often struggle with this sense of permanent loss. It seems that it is a core part of our nature to believe in reclamation. To believe that yes, something might be lost, but also that it can be restored, or at least replaced.

Some might say that this is merely idle dreaming, a lie that we tell ourselves to try and cope with our loss. But on the other hand, there is no shortage of prodigal sons that attest to a once-stained soul being made as clean as the day they were born.

Perhaps circumstances and moments are lost forever, but hearts and souls are not. The impermanence of the world can be real, and yet not discredit the enduring nature of heaven. Perhaps our great confusion arises simply from conflating these two places as one.

That is certainly the case in the Disney animated feature Hercules. Throughout this film, Hercules is forever hoping to return to his home with the gods. He left them long ago, and simply wishes to restore things back as they were. He attempts to achieve this by the accrual of worldly talent and fame.

In the end end, none of these efforts succeed. No matter of finite accomplishments will be able to add up to the infinite reward that he seeks. He has mistakenly assumed that the path back home depends on physical prowess. Fortunately, fate intervenes, and Hercules finds himself facing a situation where he can save another, but only at the loss of his own life. It is then, by surrendering himself to impermanence of the world, by subjecting himself to change, and decay, and death, that finally he overcomes them and becomes immortal.

There is a very spiritual message at the heart of this, one reflected in many world religions. Instead of feeling bad about the childhood home burning down, I can accept that those moments were lost to me already. And maybe if I stop worrying about the losses and the regrets I formed in that place, I’ll be able to rediscover the infinite, childlike soul. Like Hercules, I can go home, but only if I am looking for it within.

 

The Endless Pursuit)

And then begins the most difficult journey of all. For voyages into the soul do not come with well-placed markers and paved roads. It is rugged territory, and fraught with dangers.

That is not all. It is a long quest, too, the longest that there is. Because you see, chasing the infinite, childlike soul is like chasing a mirage. With each step you draw nearer…but then it slips farther on. Always. Hercules was able to walk it to the end, but he was a god. For we mere mortals it is unattainable.

So in this journey we stumble over a world forever in flux, hoping that when the last of that changeable terrain slips out from beneath our feet that we find ourselves treading water in the infinite.

There exist stories that explore this dynamic, too. Roverandom is a charming tale about a dog that just wants to find the wizard who turned him into a toy, and ask him to please change him back into a real dog. That’s it. And then the entire rest of the story is how that wizard keeps slipping further and further away. Roverandom finds himself on the moon, in a seaside cove, and deep beneath the sea, until one starts to believe that this journey will continue forever.

It is this sort of ever-slipping pursuit that I have tried to imbue in my story The Toymaker. Here a drummer chases after his first friend, a delicate dancer. But though he makes a valiant effort, he never seems to draw any nearer to her. Last week he was about to perform a daring raid on a high-security building, all in the hopes of finding more information on her whereabouts. As you might expect, all that he will really find is just another breadcrumb to follow.

But his journey is not in vain. With each effort he is growing as an individual. He is coming to recognize right from wrong, and friend from fiend. He is learning his own strengths, and using them to take a stand for what is right. Perhaps when he has finally plumbed the fullest depths of his soul, he will at last have the power to locate his missing friend.

Come back on Thursday to see how his story progresses, and until then, happy trails!

Journeys and Detours

aerial photo of winding road
Photo by David Bartus on Pexels.com

The Journeyman’s Questions)

When we are children, we tend to set our hopes and dreams on moments that are in the immediate future. We long for a birthday that is only a few weeks away, and then enjoy the fulfillment of that desire quickly.

Later, though, our imagination grows deeper, and we crave for things that are further out-of-reach. Some things can only be attained after years of effort, such as a higher degree, retirement, or notoriety in a particular field. Some things might never be attained at all, such as complete peace and happiness. In either case, we set our sights on shores far distant, so far that the path to them is sure to be unstable; for it seems a truth of life that a road cannot extend past a certain length without being broken up by detours, stray turns, and unexpected obstacles. There is no straightforward route to anything of substance.

It isn’t just the road that turns and changes, though, it is also those who take them. Whenever people pursue life’s greatest quests, not a one of them ever meets their destination. For many are forever lost in diversions and pitfalls along the way, while those that overcome these obstacles and reach their destination, are so changed as to be unrecognizable from the individuals that first began the journey.

Two great questions arise in us then. Am I the sort of journeyer that can make it through to the end? And if I am, who will I be at the end of it?

 

Questions Into Stories)

And as with all of life’s greatest questions, our race has learned to turn them into stories. We take the soul’s deepest pondering, and make it into a narrative thought-experiment.

Let us consider first the story of Dorothy who is seeking a way back home to Kansas. She is brought to a yellow, brick road that leads straight to a Wizard, which Wizard she is told will be able to help her return home. Though the path seems straightforward at first, she encounters many surprises along the way. She also meets some kindred spirits that need rescuing and finds an enemy in a frightful witch.

Then, upon reaching her destination, Dorothy is given a new quest, to retrieve the broomstick from that evil witch. This journey does not have a clear-cut road to follow. Dorothy and her friends must forge their own way from here on.

Finally, after this new set of hurdles have been cleared, it is revealed that Dorothy actually had the power to return home all along. Although…really she didn’t. Yes, maybe she had the magical shoes that could transport her back to Kansas, but she was not ready to go home until this final moment. Because really the journey has been one of emotional maturity. There was a reason Dorothy came here: to make her transition from girlhood into womanhood. Only now, at the end of her long and winding path, is she prepared to stand on her own. And with that, her inner change is complete and she goes home.

This same basic outline is repeated in The Way, a 2010 film starring Martin Sheen. In this story a father decides to undertake a pilgrimage that his own son perished along. The man has felt that he never really understood his son, and hopes to fill that void with this journey.

Along the way he meets a few friends, each of which have similarly come on this pilgrimage to find something better in life. By the end, most of them have not obtained what they intended, but have instead found that which they needed. The man who wanted to lose weight, for example, has instead found something to believe in.

Why was there a disconnect between what these pilgrims wanted and what they actually needed? Generally it is because what they think they need is in the past. The man who wants to lose weight, for example, wishes to do so to regain the affection of his wife. But like Dorothy, the wish to “go back home” is insufficient. Journey’s are not about getting back to where you were, they are about going somewhere different.

 

Less Direct Routes)

The Lord of the Rings is a famous “journey” story, and one where the hero is certainly changed by the voyage. Frodo leaves the Shire and returns to it…but also he never does return. The Frodo that left his home naive and unscathed is markedly different from the warrior who returns. He is discontent with the smallness of hobbit-life now, and in the end he decides that he must leave.

But I would like to draw attention to the story’s use of detours in its epic adventure. Frodo’s path is defined for him in only the vaguest of terms: get to Bree, now on to Rivendell, then all the way to Mount Doom. But the roads to each of these places are far from clear. On every leg of the journey things go awry and the adventurers have to find their own path forward.

For example, on the way to Bree two of the hobbits become trapped by Old Man Willow and the party have to be rescued by Tom Bombadil. They spend two nights in his home, where they enjoy a brief respite, free from all their cares. It would be nice to stay here longer, but the world outside still needs saving. Ultimately the heroes have to reject the sanctuary and move back into danger, so that they can go on to do greater deeds.

Another detour takes place later when Frodo and Sam follow Gollum through a side-passage into Mordor. This route takes them into Shelob’s Lair, where disaster strikes and Frodo is seemingly killed. Sam grieves for the loss of the friend, but ultimately claims the burden of the ring for himself, resolute to see the mission through.

In each of these examples we see distractions and obstacles to the way forward. When a story features detours they provide the characters a chance to throw in the towel. They are inflection points where the entire journey could theoretically come to an end. When the heroes resolve to move forward, then, they do so all the more committed. If journeys are about characters changing and growing, detours are the catalysts to speed up that process. All good detours will not slow a story down, then, they will actually speed it up.

That was my intention with my drummer’s detour in the last section of The Toymaker. Getting waylaid at the factory took him off the path of rescuing the dancer, but he overcame the distractions here, put his head down to work, and earned his way back to freedom. Thus he was delayed in his quest, but the narrative was continuing to progress. He was still journeying forward, if only on the inside.

In my next story post we’ll set things up for the next switchback on his journey. It’s not going to be an easy quest, and there will be more detours along the way.

When the dancer and drummer do finally have their reunion, I will display another application of journeys in story-telling: usually you are only seeing one of several journeys happening at the same time. All this while that the drummer has been growing and changing, so too has the dancer. When they finally do reunite we will be able to see how their separate paths compare and contrast to one another. They will have been made unrecognizable to the innocent, carefree toys that began their journey together, and they will have to ask whether they can still make their trek together or not.

Stop, You Fool!

red and yellow stop sticker
Photo by Linda Eller-Shein on Pexels.com

In a previous post I discussed the matter of giving the reader and the main character different amounts of information. In most stories the reader and main character share the exact same knowledge base, and have roughly the same intelligence as one another. This creates a very comfortable sync, and reduces the friction in adopting a fictional perspective.

 

Creating Suspense)

But sometimes you do not want your story to be comfortable, sometimes you want the reader to feel friction. An excellent way to accomplish this is by providing the audience with more information than the main character.

This is done very cleverly in Wait Until Dark. In this suspenseful thriller, three criminals are trying to trick an innocent, blind lady into giving them a doll that has been stuffed with cocaine. They attempt this by all manner of manipulation, each of them posing as a different character in a wildly convoluted facade.  One of them plays the part of a sympathetic friend, another as a police detective who accuses her husband of infidelity, and the third as an unhinged menace that threatens her with violence. They work at her from each side, and though she is clever she literally cannot see through all of their deceit.

Most notable is a scene where she discovers the missing doll and excitedly calls the “sympathetic friend,” telling him that she has found it and needs him to come over straight away to help her dispose of it. Of course, the audience already knows that he is one of the villains, and so we cringe and say “No, don’t call him! You’re setting yourself up!” It’s not that she’s foolish, it’s just that she’s ignorant while we are not.

In Dial M For Murder the audience knows from the outset who the real murderer is, and therefore watches in agony as all the evidence instead condemns an innocent woman. Rope also reveals its secrets right from the outset, so that the audience feels the constant suspense of an undiscovered body laying just out of sight. In Psycho we watch in dread anticipation as the detective enters the house that we already know houses a lunatic killer.

 

Poor, Naive Fools)

It is not always necessary to divide the information given to the audience and the main character, though. Another approach is for the main character to be naive, and therefore incapable of processing their situation as clearly as the audience will. This was my approach on Thursday. Here a naive toy drummer is taken advantage of by some unsavory types. That he is being taken advantage of is painfully obvious, but he never clues in on it. We’ll have to cut him some slack, though, in the story he literally was born just yesterday!

And so the audience cringes as he willfully puts his faith in the wrong people. Each step that he thinks is getting him closer to his goal, is actually taking him farther away.

I’ll be honest, it was hard for me to write these sequences. Just like the audience, my gut desire is for him to see through the deception and do the right thing. In fact when I first started writing stories in my teenage years that was exactly what happened. The heroes did the first exact right thing, then the next exact right thing, and then the next and the next, and then they had won and the story was over.

And you know what? They were very boring stories. And so while I wish the drummer could be a bit brighter, he can’t be. He has to be duped and go to where the story needs him to go.

At least he won’t be alone in his follies, though. Along the way he’ll have the company of all the many other literary characters who have been fooled by cunning villains. Consider, for example, Disney’s film depiction of Pinocchio, which directly inspired this tale of my little drummer.

In this movie Pinocchio is also a newly fashioned toy, and also one that lacks any street smarts whatsoever. A cat and fox convince him to leave school in search of fun. A puppet master promises him fame and wealth, while really only exploiting Pinocchio. Later Pinocchio falls in with a gang of lawless boys, and nearly loses his own humanity as a result. And once again, through the entire film, the audience knows that Pinocchio is making the wrong choices, but he simply doesn’t have the experience to recognize it himself.

 

The Meta-Narrative)

Not all naivete is so dour, though. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Huckleberry Finn. This, too, is a young and uneducated boy, one who does not understand the deeper things that the reader does. A great moment in his story comes when he considers the plight of his friend Jim, who is a runaway slave trying to gain his freedom. Finn has grown up in the South, and has been taught that it is not only illegal to help a runaway slave, it is immoral. Though it causes him great consternation, Huckleberry Finn ultimately resolves to help his friend, even though he believes it will damn him to hell to do so.

Of course Mark Twain intends for the audience to see the matter quite differently. Readers will understand that Huckleberry Finn is actually doing a good and honest thing, and that he is cleansing his soul, rather than dirtying it.

Stories that rely on these different levels of understanding between reader and character provide two narratives at once. First there is the plain and simple story of the character: Pinocchio faces great adversity in his quest to become a real boy, Huckleberry Finn has grave misgivings, but still helps his friend. But beyond this there is also a meta-examination of the experience that is occurring. The author and the audience are having a conversation on the subject matter even as it is happening.

Is a child such as Pinocchio guilty, if all his follies are made in ignorance? Does he deserve to be punished for wrong if he does not know it is wrong? Whether deserved or not, the world does punish the gullible. So what dangers await our children if they are left so uneducated and naive?

How can a social climate be used to make those like Huckleberry Finn cross good for bad, and bad for good? Do we rely too much on arguments and laws and reasons, when really all we ought to do is follow our own conscience?

A common theme of these meta-narratives is that our society has corrupted the innocent. We ought to be able to live entirely naive and trusting, and not be taken advantage for it. We ought to be able to live purely from our conscience, and not be conflicted for so doing. Maybe that isn’t how life is, but it is how it should be.

In Toymaker I have endeavored to weave both of these themes into the story. In Thursday’s post we saw our innocent drummer tricked by other devious characters, and we feel that he shouldn’t have been. We saw his conscience trying to warn him about their wiles, but he was compelled to sideline it, and he shouldn’t have. So no, he shouldn’t be in this situation, but he is, and now he will have to deal with it. And all these messages and all the tension are able to come through by simply letting the audience understand more than the character does.

In my next post we’ll see our naive fool beginning to see through his follies. He’ll start to recognize that there are those that are trustworthy and those that are not. He’ll even find a new friend to help him live more shrewdly. Come back on Thursday to see how it goes.