Balancing Fantasy and Authenticity

balance cookies dessert food
Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

Humans are funny things. We’re just as capable of finding meaning in a wild flight of fancy as in a calm, lifelike drama. We can learn rudimentary life lessons from wizards and space pirates, and we can live out power fantasies through the “neighbors next door.”

It’s not as though fantasy and authenticity are an all-or-nothing affair, either. To some degree every story straddles a balance between the two. The most imaginative of all fantasies still requires something relatable to establish a common grounding, otherwise the reader will not be able to understand what is going on. Consider the following passage

The Collans repeatedly phased through the entire Baryth spectrum, giving rise to the deepest Gerru yet. It coalesced with the Hinter fields and the resulting Delawa washed over them all.

This is meaningless without any context. It’s perfectly fine for an author to make up characters and phrases, but if you’re going to reference a Baryth spectrum you first need to define it in terms that are grounded in my real world understanding.

On the other hand, even a narrative that strives to capture true-life characters and events must take some creative liberties to fill the gaps in our historical records. Otherwise it isn’t a story, it is just another one of those historical records, a mere timeline of occurrences. For example, when Napoleon was in exile on Elba there must have been a moment of decision that led to his triumphant return to France. We know the world events that likely influenced his decisions, but we do not know exactly which point it was that convinced him the time was right to return. Any narrative of this man’s rise then fall and rise then fall would likely feel compelled to capture this pivotal turn between the two halves of that trajectory. As such the narrative would need to fabricate some fitting scene for this moment, one that is at least true to the man if not the history books.

On Thursday I posted a story where I tried to give a very down-to-earth report on the fictional end of the world. I knew that I wanted to employ an understated style of narration and avoid any melodramatic statements, so that I could create an authentic atmosphere for this tale of mankind’s demise.

At a certain point, though, I had a narrative decision to make on where that commitment to authenticity ended. I had in mind a symmetry of astronomers and archaeologists discovering the signs of the world’s impending doom simultaneously from the heavens above and the earth below. These signs would be foretelling of events that would be pretty extreme, and in extremity comes all sorts of complications with authenticity. And so the decision I faced was between maintaining that narrative symmetry, or else trying to be more authentic to the principles of physics, astronomy, and geology.

Ultimately I decided to go with the narrative symmetry. I was already giving a fictional account and I didn’t take issue then with bending the natural laws to fit my purpose. I made that decision simply by examining what mattered to me as the author, what points were most important for me to convey, and then being true to those cores. Another author with different priorities would be perfectly justified in making the opposite decision. In fact, in other stories I, too, would make the opposite decision to favor the more authentic approach. Consider the following mostly true account of the real-life mathematician and logician Kurt Gödel.

Kurt Gödel was a contemporary of Albert Einstein, and even a good friend of his. Where Einstein shook the world with his advancements in physics, Gödel defined some of the greatest principles of mathematics and logic to this day. He discovered his love for these sciences in his youth, and completed a dissertation in that field when only 23 years of age. This dissertation, called the Incompleteness Theorem, turned the entire scientific world on its head when first published. One of the most intriguing applications of this work has to do with how it defines the limits of science. You see the Incompleteness Theorem proves that there are truths which are true, but which cannot be proven as such.

This proof does not dispute the fact that the natural holds universal truths and mathematical principles, but only establishes that not all of these can be discovered through the calculations of science. This discovery came at a time where mathematicians were beginning to boast that soon they would have answers to every question in the world. The Incompleteness Theorem proved that they would not.

Gödel not only provided the proofs in the papers he wrote, he also illustrated them tragically through his own life. Though he maintained an amazing genius and a strict regime of reason in his professional work, yet he held onto deep and irrational fears in his personal life. In June of 1936 a personal hero of his was assassinated by a former student, having been given tea laced with a fatal poison. The loss shook Gödel personally and deeply and germinated a paranoia in his young mind, specifically a fear of being poisoned himself.

Though Gödel maintained his composure well enough to lead an accomplished and fulfilling life, the fears persisted and grew as he advanced in years. By the time he reached 70 years he refused to take any food that was not prepared for him by his beloved wife, Adele. She remained his singular constant, the only one whom he dared to trust. When, in 1977, she was hospitalized, he ate nothing at all, shriveling away to a mere 65 pounds until at last he died. She soon followed him.

Gödel remains one of the greatest geniuses the world has ever known, seeing the facts and realities that others never could. Yet for it all there was an incompleteness to him, much as the one that he had defined for the science he loved. For in them both there were mysteries and shadows that defied all reason, questions that could find no answers.

As I said at the outset, this story is mostly true, there was only one point in this account which I fabricated. Gödel did, indeed, have a personal hero that was killed by a former student, and it was this event that sparked his deep paranoia. However that professor was not assassinated via poison, but rather shot with a common pistol. I do not know why a shooting resulted in Gödel fearing poison more than guns, but somehow it did. Changing the method of assassination gives the story a better symmetry, however in this case I would choose to err on the side of authenticity. The literary qualities are already remarkable as they are, there is foreshadowing and allegory, triumph and tragedy, character and plot. All these authentic elements I would argue should be allowed to shine more brightly by repressing the urge to fabricate any enhancements to them.

If in your own stories you find yourself testing that line between the fantastic and the authentic, I recommend you pause to take in your narrative side-by-side with your objectives. There isn’t a cut-and-dried answer as to where you should draw that line of authenticity, you simply have to weigh what principles are the most important to you in this tale and what is lost be being more imaginative versus more realistic. In the end all your story really needs to be true to is itself.

 

This Thursday I’ll be sharing a new short story that walks the line between what is real and what is imagined, and that within its own narrative. Our main character will be a psychologist helping a patient to tease the truth of actual events out from the truths of the heart. I hope to see you then.

Doing the Hard, Hard Work

white printer paper with black and silver gel pen on top
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Do you ever have that experience where you sit down at your table and churn out thousands of words of pure gold that require no polishing whatsoever? Yeah, me either. I suppose there are times where I can get into a writing “groove” and the thoughts flow more easily, but even these sessions are going to need extensive refactoring later down the road. The fact is, actual pure gold is only found through long refinement and never in a flash of alchemy.

Certainly when masters sit at their craft they can make their work appear easy, but that is only by the quiet accumulation of skill through years of hard labor. People are not simply born with the “creative” chromosome that magically makes artistic expression effortless to them. To suggest otherwise is one of the worst insults you can give to a creator, as it suggests they did nothing more notable than win some genetic lottery. Original, quality work does not come about by luck or accident, it only comes about in one way, and that is through doing the hard, hard work.

Of course, that hard work often isn’t very glamorous. It’s slogging and frustrating and dirty. At first that might seem like a depressing outlook, but I think if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll agree that it is actually much better this way. If we could effortlessly flick out perfect creative expressions with every turn of the wrist then there wouldn’t be much value in a masterpiece anymore, now would there? The value is derived entirely because of the long, torturous effort that we know went into it. Being able to say that the work was crushing but we did it anyhow means we persevered where others gave up, and now we have something to show for it that they never will.

That doesn’t mean we have to make that work more difficult than necessary. As I suggested at the end of my last post, there are a few rules of thumb that can take the gargantuan task of correcting all of the errors in your story, and break it into more manageable pieces. I’d like to share them with you.

First off, I always like to simply read through my story over and over, fixing any glaring issues that I come across on the way. If I find a grammar error I fix it, if a sentence feels clunky I reword it, if I slipped from first-person to third I correct it. In short, anything that stands out like a sore thumb and can be quickly corrected, I take care of it. Of course some plot-holes and weak scenes are more complex and resist any sort of quick-fix. For any of these I just make a note of them and move on, I’ll be circling back to them at a later point. To me this process is a lot like sanding a rough piece of wood. Each pass leaves those snarls and knots a little bit smoother until they feel comfortable enough to handle for a more in-depth inspection. I know that I’ve reached the end of this stage when I have a read through that goes from start to finish without any new problems discovered.

If I feel like continuing on to the next step of clean-up I will, but it’s important to note that this is a process best not rushed. If you are editing your work while burned out, you are going to be sloppy and miss things. As much as possible you want to write with a clear mind, so if at any point it’s buzzing with all the minutia of your work, go and get a breath of fresh air. That principle works the other way, too. If at any point you think your story is complete, the absolute best it can ever be, take a break and come back to it later with a fresh pair of eyes for a second opinion. Most times you’ll probably realize you were too close to the grain to acknowledge the errors it still held.

Back to the polishing process, though. After I’ve completed all of my general corrections in my story I’ll move on to more targeted ones. I’ll do an entire read-through where I only resolve those complex plot-holes and weak scenes I mentioned above. I’ll cut and paste sections around and brainstorm ideas until I can unfold all of the wrinkles in my story.

Then I’ll do an in-depth dive into grammar. For this I recommend putting together a cheat-sheet of core principles that each sentence can be tested against. Don’t move on from sentence until you are convinced it either satisfies every rule or else is a justified exception to it.

I also strongly recommend one set of read-throughs just for evaluating the cadence of the story. When you have spent so much time focusing on individual words and sentences you’ve probably lost sight of the bigger picture. Each phrase may flow wonderfully now, but do the themes still do so as well?

As with before, it is of utmost importance to maintain that fresh perspective while you are working. If you haven’t already, try reading your work out loud for a change. Sentences that seemed fine in your head may sound clunky when you have to speak them. If there’s a friend or family member willing to read through it, offer it to them for a their opinion. Bring your work to a writing group to get feedback as well. Just be sure that you aren’t asking for opinions on a piece that is still laden with misspellings and narrative faux pas. If you do, that’s all your readers will be able to comment on. It’s just too rough for them to see anything else.

One other tip I would offer is that you use some sort of version controlled software to write your story in. If you’re not familiar with that term an example would be Google Docs where at any time you can look back at all the edits you have made and examine previous iterations of the same document. There are two benefits to this. The first is that it allows you to make changes without the fear of losing any previous iterations. Sometimes we go back and forth on how a scene should play out and its nice to be able to swap between options as needed. Another neat feature is that you can provide a boost to your motivation when you’re feeling low. With a few clicks of a button you can see the journey of your work from its rough genesis to the quality novel that stands before you today. If you were able to make it this far, surely you can make it to the next level, too.

Now it would disingenuous of me to suggest that I hold myself to this regime for each of my blog posts. For these I have a deadline I must meet, and while I try to follow these steps for as long as I can, sooner or later I have to just accept that my craft is good enough and move forward with it. I think there is a value to learning how to work with deadlines, but for my longer, more personal writings I absolutely do strive give them the thorough treatment. I think that they deserve my best, and it really is amazing to see how much better a story becomes once all of the clutter gets out of its way.

Next time you pick up your favorite novel, remind yourself that you do not see all the hours of labor and crumpled early drafts that went into its creation. It was not always the polished, final product that you hold today, at one point it looked much like your own flawed and error-riddled manuscript. The difference between great authors and amateurs is simply their willingness to persist in the hard labor of improving their story. Thus all that stands between you and your masterpiece is a simple decision, the decision to roll up your  sleeves, and get to work.

 

Over these next three days I am going to write up a short story for Thursday’s blog post. At the end of that story I am going to let you peek behind the curtain at its earliest form and each iteration that followed, leading up to the finished product. Obviously I will be using the processes and tips that I have just illustrated to bring my work through those varied iterations. Given the short time constraint, I am sure there will yet remain a great deal of correction to be done on my story, but hopefully it’ll be enough to convince you of the value of my approach. I’ll see you then!

Critique UP

close up of text
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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 disingenuous 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

art bright colors cotton
Photo by Fancycrave.com on Pexels.com

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

athlete athletic baseball boy
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

black and white sport fight boxer
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

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.

Conflict

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.

Loss

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.

Decision

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.

Outmatched

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.

Sacrifice

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

closeup photo of gray cat
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

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.

1)

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.

2)

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.

3)

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.