One of the endearing elements of the typical literary protagonist is that they are usually unaware of their role as the hero of the story. Instead, when we first meet our main characters they are just ordinary people like all the rest of us, with no notion of the wonders they are soon to witness, nor the titans they are soon to become. Even as they are in the midst of accomplishing their tremendous feats they still may not realize their own legend, they’re simply trying to do what seems right for its own sake. This idea that someone just like us can achieve unexpected greatness through steady, good works is an optimistic and motivating message for all readers. One day when we look back at the accumulation of all our little efforts to do what is right we also hope to see a legacy worth being proud of. In other words, each of us needs our own story to be the hero of. That need is universal, it is not a career option that only a few of us must apply for. That need is the answer to the age-old question “what is the meaning of life?” In no uncertain terms, the purpose is for each of us to become our own hero. With that principle in mind, it becomes clear that if we wish to create meaningful heroes in our stories the key is to understand the human condition first. When we do that, the stages that define the hero become self-evident.
Those that have no purpose in their lives aspire to find their great calling. Those that feel insignificant trust that greatness can come from the smallest of places. Those who are slogging through adversity seek reassurance that doing their best will be enough when all is said and done. Those that are burdened with guilt hold faith that what a person is now does not decide who they must be tomorrow. As we consider each of these life situations where we seek to find the hero inside a common theme emerges: conflict.
It is in the face of opposition that we feel the need for our inner hero, and indeed it is that opposition which gives the word “hero” any meaning. Our ultimate purpose in life is to strive, to overcome, and to become something greater. Indeed, without strife you can have the mentor, the lover, the confidant, the bystander, and even a main character, but you will never have any hero. Before you can tell your story you must first know the relationship between the hero and their conflict. That source of conflict might originate in another villainous character, a life situation, or an inner flaw, but there must be something that the would-be hero stands morally opposed to. Just like us when we face our life trials, the hero has to fundamentally feel that the opposition is against their very nature.
Diametric opposition isn’t enough by itself, though. The fact is that many of us live compromised lives, finding that it is easier to turn a blind eye and quiet our conscience than to act. We are naturally averse to conflict, after all, and so we attempt to mitigate evil rather than eradicate it. We even reach the point of doing things that go against our very nature for their convenience, and in so doing sin against the heart within us. All too often, people will not lift themselves above this self-cheating lifestyle except when some terrible loss occurs to awaken their resolve.
And so, make no mistake, the villain of a successful story means serious business. They do not come merely as the irritator or the inconveniencer, they come as the destroyer and the ravager. If left unchecked, they will take all that the protagonist holds most dear, and they communicate this intention by destroying the first of that which the main character loves. Indeed they typically destroy the one person or thing which that character holds most precious of all.
In our modern vernacular we sometimes call this moment of loss “hitting rock bottom.” The evil we chose to not get involved with has invaded us directly, demanding our attention. We feel simultaneously burdened with animosity towards it, but also paralyzed with guilt and self-doubt. In this moment we perceive two great choices gaping wide for us.
The first is to despair, to be consumed by our shame and to give ourselves over to the adversary. We let this tragedy happen on our watch after all, so we deserve to be destroyed as that which we loved was destroyed. This is Simba in The Lion King feeling personally responsible for the loss of his father and running away from all that he was born to be, while his evil uncle reigns unchecked.
The other option is to throw down the challenge. Perhaps there have been mistakes made and prices paid for them, but the call of the hero is to refuse that this evil be allowed to go on any further. This isn’t about “joining” a fight against the villain either, it is a moment of claiming that fight for your own. Perhaps others may fill the ranks beside you, but they are ancillary. This is the hero’s own personal war.
The balance of power always seems to be in the hand of the opponent, though. They had a headstart on us after all and most often have seduced the masses into supporting them. There seems to be a fundamental rule of the universe that doing the right thing is always the more difficult path to follow. If it were the easier thing to do, we already would have done it after all. It was the notion of an uphill battle that gave us our pause in the first place.
And so it would feel dishonest to us if a story presented a hero that resolved themselves to the conflict, marched right into the thieves’ den, and by their greater brute force destroyed every enemy immediately. Again, if the hero already held the greater strength, they would have resolved the situation back at the very start. It is imperative, therefore, that the hero is to be the underdog here, and we should feel that they cannot win in a direct assault. If the hero is not stronger, then they must rely on something else. Often the hero is smarter, calculating, and more daring. They use their intelligence to leverage the enemy’s own power against them, letting the foes collapse under the weight of their own hubris.
Change inevitably involves sacrifice. It was loss that brought us into our life predicament, but it is sacrifice that will get us out. On the smaller end that may simply be a sacrifice of our time and energy in overcoming our life situation, and on the higher end it may be a sacrifice of our entire lifestyle in overcoming our inner demons. In order to make space for wine, you first must pour out the water that was already in the cup.
As we just said, the villain usually has more power than the hero, but the hero has the greater determination, the greater resolve to see things through to the end no matter the cost. And it certainly will come at a cost, in some cases even the cost of the hero’s life. Often I see stories being averse to take this step of the hero’s journey, too afraid of a bittersweet ending. Even worse, some stories flirt with the idea of sacrifice, suggesting it is about to happen, but then pull their punch at the very end. Perhaps I’ll discuss this matter at greater length in another post, but for now I’ll just say sacrifice is sacred, and ought not to be treated lightly for emotional manipulation.
More important than what is actually sacrificed by the hero for the victory is the fact that they are willing to sacrifice all. After all, when any of us attempt to change our own lifestyles, we will soon find that there is no winning from half-hearted measures, we have to be willing to sacrifice whatever is called over.
A week ago I pointed out that the classic archetype of heroes striving against villains is an obvious reenactment of the universal war between good and evil. That we tend to look for ourselves in the hero reveals our bias that we are each of us basically good. That is an optimistic notion and one that I personally agree with. There is something noble inside each of us, and it is that nobility which compels mankind to write these heroic tales; tales which serve the dual purpose of fanning the flames of those in the midst of their own great life adventure, as well as to stoke the embers of those who are waning in them.
Last Thursday I shared a story about a hero that followed through each of the steps I’ve mentioned above. In that story we met a character named Kael who was conflicted about his own dual nature, one part being good and the other being evil. Kael tried to compromise between the two parts until he was driven to decide between the two when he lost the trust of Ayla, the character he loved most. As he attempted to make things right, he found himself outmatched by his opponent, and only by being both cleverer and more willing to sacrifice he eventually found his triumph and became the hero at the story’s end.
At the opening of Kael’s story, he encountered a sage-life character, whose purpose was to provide Kael the core questions which led him to his great purpose. That role of the wise mentor is another essential role in literature and one that I will pursue in my next story entry on Thursday. I’ll see you then.
“Are you alright?” the spindly Clockmaker asked as he lowered his slight frame to be level with Kael’s dejected eyes in a single fluid motion .
“I—feel wrong,” Kael said stiffly.
“Oh? How so?”
“I don’t know. How would I know? I’m not very accustomed to feeling anything at all, actually.”
“Well what caused the wrong feeling then?”
“She did. Everything was so orderly until she turned something in me. I had my purpose and I fulfilled it, yet now it seems so hollow.”
“Your purpose? As determined by whom?”
“The parasite, of course.”
“Well perhaps he doesn’t give you very good purposes if they dissatisfy you so.”
“Is there any other to give purposes?”
The Clockmaker smiled knowingly. “It would certainly seem so, given that you have these muddled feelings right now. Tell me, what purpose do you think ‘she’ wanted for you?”
“Hmm—” Kael mused in reflection. “I suppose she didn’t want me to be alone.”
“Oh, so she cared for you?”
“Yes, that’s why I got her heart.”
“Well that’s something good.”
“No, it’s not,” Kael shook his head vigorously. “She cared for me, but she shouldn’t have.”
“Oh? Why not?”
Kael paused, not because he didn’t have an answer but because he found it difficult to voice. “She only cared for me because she was deceived. I enjoyed feeling her care for me, but I didn’t earn it, so it just seems—”
“Hollow? I see… No wonder your divided feelings then. Tell me, how would you change things if you could?”
“I would like to have earned her heart,” Kael affirmed
“Could you yet?”
Kael’s head raised a little at the notion, but his eyes remained perplexed. “I don’t see how.”
“But if there were a way, the idea would at least interest you?”
“Yes,” Kael said, and a small laugh broke across his voicebox which surprised him. “I really do think I would like that. Then I could fulfill both of my purposes!”
The Clockmaker winced a little. “I don’t know about that, it sounds to me like they are opposed to one another.”
Kael froze. “But then—a part of me would always be incomplete.”
“I suppose so, as long as you hold both, but perhaps ones day you can choose just one side to give yourself to.”
“Choose,” Kael repeated slowly, the word harmonizing strangely in his voice.
“Oh yes, choice, you have the capacity for it now. That’s really what she gave you after all.”
It is my spawn, another parasite with its own identity.
“But we have spawned many parasites already,” Kael reminded the voice.
No, we have merely promulgated myself. Each of them is merely a division of me, all an iteration of my one, singular being. This is a different individual and is its own distinct entity. Both of us remain united in purpose though.
“Is that better?”
Yes. Indeed, I would like to spawn many more but having only one heart limits me to local creation on a small scale. Were we to have another I could spawn without limit and that would be better still.
“You want another heart?” Kael asked cautiously, a strange misgiving creeping across him.
The voice hesitated, seeming to sense his apprehension. You have already done your part in this Kael, we will craft a new husk for this other parasite and it will prove itself with the task I give it.
“Yes, but—” Kael’s uneasiness continued to discomfort him.
I have not forgotten our agreement, Kael. Your purpose will be maintained, to delight Ayla, and you will not be asked to deceive her.
“But this other husk will be?”
That is the concern of the other husk, not of you. You will not be an agent of any harm to her, you will be permitted to continue to care and be cared for within the parameers I have set. Surely you see that I am being accommodating of your dual nature and fulfilling both purposes?
Something doubtful still lingered in Kael, but it was far easier to accept the logic of what the voice had said, and so he allowed himself to be soothed.
“How do you want the husk to be composed?”
“Ayla?” Kael approached the wall terminal and awaited expectantly.
The nest of cables began to shuffle and slide over one another in their familiar retreat as Ayla’s form emerged at their center, bearing that same blank expression she always held while her memory drum finished loading. Recollection finally washed over her face and she smiled at Kael’s return.
“I was just thinking about you, Kael,” she exclaimed happily “and now you’ve come!”
Kael laughed at her enthusiasm. “You make it sound so special.”
“Oh but it is,” she said in earnestness. “Don’t you realize the joy of when a pleasant dream becomes a reality right before your eyes?”
His circuits hummed busily and cheerfully. “I think I know what you mean,” he concluded with a slight bounce.
“Oh Kael,” she sighed wistfully, “you’ll understand so much more when we’re able to get your own heart vessel.”
Kael was uncomfortable for a moment. The parasite had expressly forbidden him to disclose that he already possessed the heart vessel she sought for, and so he always remained silent in these moments. By not speaking he did not have to deceive her, yet of late he had come to wonder if he did not already do so regardless.
“Ayla, what was it you were thinking about us?” he asked, stepping forward and taking her slender fingers in his own, the way she had taught him to do.
She smiled and looked modestly to the ground, then back up to match his eyes with her own. “A little of the past, but mostly of the future.”
“Is the future you see so different from now?”
“In some ways, but in others it is just the natural continuation of now,” she stroked his arm softly.
“You’re being very vague today!” he teased, but rather than elicit a smile from her she frowned lightly and looked downwards. “I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I didn’t mean to offend—”
She shook her head. “No, it’s not that…” she brought her eyes back up and they seemed to be searching his own. “What is it that you want of the future, Kael?”
“Want?” he echoed the word and fell into a deep thoughtfulness. “I don’t want you to go away in the future,” he finally decided and there was a fear to his voice.
“Go away?” she asked in surprise. “What do you mean? I’m not going anywhere!”
“Well I don’t want you to. I want you to just be with me.”
“I could be with you,” she whispered.
“You would…choose to?”
“Yes,” she said breathlessly. “I want to.”
He stared into her for a few long moments. “I want to choose that, too.”
“Why don’t you?”
“Perhaps…when I have a heart,” he felt a twinge at the implied deception. “When I fully have a heart.”
His eyes widened. How had she known?
“You have my heart, Kael,” she explained. “I’m giving it to you.”
“But—how will you live?”
“You could give me yours,” she said as he touched his chest, “when you have it.”
Kael’s heart thumped within him as he understood. “Yes, I would,” he nodded. “I will. When I have it.”
She smiled, then began to slowly walk backwards towards her wall, her eyes locked firmly on him. “Don’t be long,” she pleaded. “I love you, Kael.”
“Ayla?” he asked softly. She was trying to hide her feelings, but at moments her head would involuntarily bow in somber contemplation, only to snap back up a moment later with a false smile.
“Sorry, it’s just been a strange day for me, Kael.”
He nodded and grimaced as if he somehow understood. He couldn’t spend time being sympathetic, though, this was already going to be difficult enough. “Do you have it then, Ayla?”
She paused. “It’s been a long while since you’ve asked for it, Kael. I thought you might not want it anymore.”
“I know. I stopped worrying about it for a time…but now I need it again.”
“Still just so that we can animate the workers?” her eyes narrowed suspiciously.
He winced at the glare. “No, that is not all.”
She paused, waiting for him to continue, but as the seconds slipped by it became evident he had nothing more to say.
“Why aren’t you telling me things?” she asked bluntly with a tremble of emotion.
“They are my choices to make, my actions to do.” He knew it was vague, but if he tried to explain things to her she could never agree. She would try to find another way, she would choose to preserve the parasite for his own sake. After all, she had already made that choice before.
“If you want it, Kael, I will give it to you.”
“I want it.”
She was crestfallen and her face showed it, yet she extended her hand and the individual pieces traveled down the magnetic tracks in her arm to snap in place as determined by the schema. Kael saw the corrupter assemble into the device’s core, seemingly innocuous, yet he recalled it perfectly. He smiled grimly as the device completed in her palm and he reached out to take it.
“I hope you find what you want” she said as the weight of the device lifted from her fingers.
He paused, again lingering on the idea of telling her everything. But if he didn’t move forward now he would never see this through, so instead he merely nodded and turned his back. Then he walked stiffly away as she broke down behind him.
I know what you aredoing the voice hissed. Surely you realize this.
“You know what I intend, but not how I am doing it,” he affirmed calmly as he rounded a corner and entered the Morgatorium. “My memory banks are my own.” He reached the deep green valves and started lifting levers, the entire floor escalating up along the spindly tower at its center. There was no need to do this within sight of Ayla.
Neither is my mind yours.
“Do you have your own secrets, parasite?” an unmistakable taunt in his voice.
A loud clang rattled behind him and he spun just in time to see a strange automaton as it sprung from its perch on a giant boiler, bounded off the floor, barreled into his chest, and threw him to the ground with a crack. He tried to hold onto Ayla’s contraption, but his grip broke and it clattered off to the side. He looked to see where it went, then his attacker stood upright to pace around his fallen form and he turned back to process the thing. It was large and bulky, pure black and with a matte surface that rendered it invisible when it passed through shadows. Its plating was made of thick, round cast iron surfaces clearly intended for bludgeoning. Its head was a low dome set directly on broad shoulders, devoid of any features.
I had hoped that things would have been different, Kael, but it was always evident that your dual nature was going to be a risk. No matter, I’ll simply have to take your heart vessel out and place it in a vat with no higher functions. Same for Cee when he obtains his.
Kael had been trying to stand, but his entire outer lattice was broken in pieces and the shards of it were jamming into his motors. His hand fumbled for a switch on his side, and the lattice unclasped from him. Most of his internal joints were still working and with a shake and a spring he nimbly returned to his feet, faster but less protected.
You should submit to this peacefully, it would be better that way. The dark automaton halted and turned, then leapt forward with great force and bore down on him again. With the agility provided by his lighter weight Kael timed the brute’s approach and vaulted himself over its shoulders in a single, fluid motion and, as his first foot connected with the ground, he pivoted on it to swing his other leg into those of the juggernaut, tumbling it to the ground. The force of the kick wasn’t nearly enough to damage the thing, but its fall was broken by its left shoulder, and the joint cracked loudly.
“I never built this for you,” Kael regarded the mass with a frown as it awkwardly lifted itself back up, its left arm splintered and hanging uselessly at its side.
The others did. It is called Ligo.
“But the other parasites aren’t self-actuating.”
Which you only know because that was what I told you.
“Oh, you are a suspicious one, aren’t you?”
Evidently with good reason.
Ligo charged again, its right arm extended to pull Kael into a fatal crush. Kael knew better than to try vaulting it a second time, so instead he waited until the last instant and then dodged over to its left side where the limp arm couldn’t reach for him. As Ligo cleared past him he dashed back to the floor where Ayla’s device lay and switched it on as he tapped on his chest panel. It didn’t open. Looking down he saw that the panel had been dented in their fight and was now jammed. Prying his fingers at the seam on the panel he tried to pry the metal apart, but no matter how hard he strained it refused to budge.
In his moment of distraction he had forgotten about Ligo, and he received the full frame-shattering impact. This time the brute didn’t fling him to the ground, it cupped its thick fingers around his neck and swung him repeatedly into a nearby wall, breaking off circuits and joints with grim efficiency. In desperation Kael’s hand scrambled into one of the cracks in Ligo’s damaged arm. There he found the release lever and pulled it, the arm falling to the ground and exposing the inner circuitry behind the chestplate. Just stop the voice snarled as the monster flung Kael down to the floor before he could reach into the cavity to do any more damage.
Kael started to lift up, but Ligo brought its knee down on his neck, pinning him back to the ground. Kael swung his hand back up towards the hole in its side, but his movement was weak and it easily caught his hand in its own. Ligo’s fingers closed around Kael’s fist and began to pull on it with increasing force, stretching and straining the arm until finally the whole thing snapped cleanly off. Kael’s other arm was trapped under the weight of the brute, and so he lay there helpless as the thing turned its attention to punching its way through his chestplate. The plate dented, then buckled, then finally smashed apart. A spray of energy from his broken pipes burst out, and as it cleared the glow of his pulsating heart vessel lay exposed. An insect parasite was embedded deep into it with a web of tentacles growing from its thorax and all throughout the heart.
It was never your heart anyway. The insect inside of him hissed.
The automaton reached in and gingerly placed its fingers around the vessel, all the noise and clatter subsiding for a moment of silence as it calmed itself to pull the organ out gently. Or rather, not quite a moment of silence. In the greater quiet Ligo became aware of a strange, low hum, and as it turned its hand over it saw Ayla’s activated device flashing in its palm, having been tucked in there by Kael when it had earlier caught his fist. Of its own accord the device flew out of Ligo’s hand and onto the exposed parasite as if pulled there by a magnet.
“It was never yours, either.”
The corrupter in the device activated and an electric blue power wave coursed through the parasite. Its mouth detached from the heart and gave a small death-cry as its arms and pincers shriveled and fell away, its tentacles blackening and dying within the heart. In that same moment a similar death-cry resonated from within the chest of the dark brute and it and Kael both collapsed lifeless to the ground. Throughout the island all of the parasite’s duplicates perished from the loss of their central host and their automata fell lifeless to the ground.
At last the Morgatorium reached its pinnacle perched atop the great tower, high above in the sky. Here the sound dropped off to nothing but the faint whistle of high wind, and slowly the reddish clouds wafted into the room, hiding the scene in billows of crimson.
On Monday I discussed the importance of a hero being defined by the villain, and in this story my intention was to create a hero that was composed of two halves, one of which was the villain itself. Thus as Kael strives to overcome the villain and become all the things that it is not, he is literally overcoming those same failings in himself. The confidence and surety he exhibits in the final section is meant to illustrate his growth from the nervousness and confusion he holds at the beginning, and it all hinges upon an influence of good driving him to the point of decision. This is not at all a unique template for the literary hero, of course, and as you may have assumed this is the topic I will pursue next week. Have a good weekend and I’ll see you then.
Almost every story includes some sort of antagonist character, a villain who stands in contrast to all that the hero seeks to accomplish, and the entire crux of the story is to discover which of their competing resolves will win out in the end. Not that that outcome is actually in question most of the time, our culture loves a happy ending, and so with rare exception each story will conclude with good triumphing over evil. In fact, I cannot conceive of a more common and ancient archetype in all of literature than that of the eternal struggle between right and wrong. In another post we will discuss more about why we humans have this obsession for fundamental conflict, but for the time being let’s just accept that we do, and then both the need for and purpose of villains becomes immediately obvious. For how else can that strife between good and evil be represented unless there is some embodiment of that good and of that evil? And how better to embody these than in some living characters with whom the metaphorical battle can now be acted out literally? Thus our varied villains each wear one of the many faces of evil, giving us insight into another small slice of that metaphysical concept, and helping us all to better understand our universal enemy. Having established the purpose of villains, now we can consider what it is that makes one well crafted or poorly designed.
Villains need to be essential. By this I mean that the actions and characteristics of the villain in your story, ought to be the only way your villain could be. Think of the last story you read and ask if it would have worked had the author had left everything else just as it was, but then replaced the villain with some different evil character. If so, then that story just featured a generic villain who was unessential to the greater arc of the plot.
One of my all-time favorite stories, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, features a non-essential villain, and is admittedly weaker because of it. I am referring to the slave-catchers that are in pursuit of Eliza, Tom Loker and Marks. They each have their own characterizations, Marks is small and slimy while Loker is large and rough, and each brings their unique talents to their sinister work. Eventually Loker is wounded in a chase and then abandoned by his comrades. Rather than being left to die by his quarry, he is cared for by the Quakers, and in the process comes to experience a change of heart. It’s a nice story, but it really could have happened that way if Loker had been any other sort of vile character. He might have been small and slimy like Marks, for example, and his arc could have remained just as plausible. As a result, Loker is ultimately entirely forgettable and I actually had to Google his name just to remember what it was. So how exactly do you make your villain essential? Well, that brings us to our next point.
Your villain should define your hero. Going back to the first paragraph of this post, your villain is meant to be an incarnation of evil, but not just evil generally, evil of a specific type. They are meant to represent or be defined by specific vices, one that stand in contrast to the hero’s specific virtues. In general, though, those virtues that define a literary hero are most often only obtained by them towards the end of their stories, they do not possess them at the start. When we think of the good half of Ebenezer Scrooge we see him as a kindhearted and generous man, but he does not exist in this form until the end of his eventful night. Nicholas Nickleby is always a good person, but he is not the mighty protector of lost souls until strife and experience grow him into that role. Jim Hawkins is an unassuming boy when he leaves for Treasure Island, but by the end he has grown into a resourceful and determined young man.
These arcs and character growths each occur as a result of that main character’s conflict with the villain, the protagonist only becomes a hero by the opposition they face. Most often the villain begins the story by holding the balance of power, after all, and so can only be overcome by one that is diametrically opposed to them. Thus the hero learns love because he needs it to counter the villain’s hate, kindness to counter the villains cruelty, tranquility to counter rage, leadership to counter manipulation, courage to counter control. This is what is meant by a hero being defined by the villain that they grow to surpass.
It turns out Uncle Tom’s Cabin also has another villain that actually is essential to its story, one that defines the hero through his characteristics. Simon Legree is superstitious and fearful, and he manifests this by being unbearably cruel and savage, trying to force a sense of control on a world he doesn’t trust. By his viciousness he breaks one slave after another, but try as he might, he can’t seem to break Uncle Tom. As Simon presses down harder and harder on Tom, Tom is driven more and more towards faithfulness and courage, the exactly opposite characteristics of Simon. Though the power seems to be in Simon’s hand, he remains flighty and nervous while Tom is grounded and steady all the way through to the end. Not only is Tom a contrast to Simon, he becomes that contrast through him.
Finally, villains should also be interesting. Now I know that sounds stupidly obvious, yet we see this simple concept eluding most literary villains. One of the ways I most commonly observe this is in how a villain is introduced. So many authors, probably anxious not to slow the pace in actual character exposition, try to use as few sentences as possible to drive home the point that this character is a really bad person. The introduction to the main villain will therefore involve them doing some callous evil, such as killing in cold blood, which will establish them as irredeemable and deserving of the justice that will soon follow.
“My Lord, what should we do with this village of totally innocent bystanders?”
“Dispose of them, I suppose.” Maniacal laughter follows.
Oh my! Well this certainly is a very bad person here, isn’t it? Aside from the fact that this is so routine a trope that it has lost all impact, it is also a sign of lazy writing. What are you going to do in the sequel when you need to raise the stakes with a deeper force of evil?
“My Lord, what should we do with these two villages of totally innocent bystanders?”
That might sound facetious of me, but I’m actually trying to draw attention to the current pattern of evil-escalation in these more lazy stories. Instead of evil growing deeper, it simply grows broader. I rarely like to give specific negative examples in these blogs, so I’ll just say take a look at most comic book series, either in print or film. They tend to begin with threats to individuals, then progress to threats to cities, then threats to the whole world, and finally threats to the entire universe…what’s next, threats to a multiverse? Oh wait…
No, if you want to make a real impact, your villains can’t just be evil, they need to be uniquely evil. Readers will respond to a single ingenious act of evil on a small scale than to a generic act of evil on a universal scale. Consider the story of William Tell.
William Tell is described as a famous crossbowman who stood in defiance of the local ruler Albrecht Gessler. Gessler decided to make an example of him by arresting William and his son and ordering their execution. Then, struck by a sinister stroke of cruel genius, Gessler made an offer to William that he would spare their lives if William would demonstrate his prowess with the bow by shooting an apple off of his own son’s head at considerable distance. The obvious dilemma is that now William’s only possibility of saving his son’s life is to risk slaying him with his own hands. As a father myself, the cruelty of this hope mingled with horror is just as chilling now as it was five centuries ago, never mind that only two lives are at stake here.
A story is only as strong as its weakest of components, and a villain is one of the most critical of those pieces. When a villain is done well, it does not only produce a memorable character, it also elevates the entire story along with it. This next Thursday I will try to present the other side of the coin with the hero’s perspective from the Revelate series. As I do so I will give particular attention to ensuring that that hero is defined by the opposition he faces. I’ll see you then.
A faint grinding sound. Metal threads running along metal grooves. Small, and close. A faint popping noise now, and then a surge of light. The aperture shrunk to reduce exposure and the light levels dropped, making visual perception possible. He could see.
“Whuuuuuuu—” he hummed in surprise, and his mechanical eyes widened in shock at the sound.
“Are you awake already?”
It was never asleep, only unaware. Those last words were not heard, they merely seemed to rise and fall silently within his inner circuits.
“Whuuuuu—whaaaaa—who?” the automaton finally found proper control of its voicebox and formed the question it had intended.
“Which who?” the operator asked. “Who am I? Or who are you?”
“I and you?”
“Yes, that’s right, that signifies the two of us.”
“I am the ‘you?'”
“Well, yes, as I was using the term.”
“And you are the ‘I?'”
“Yes, very good, you’ve got that quite quickly.”
“I am the ‘you’ and you are the ‘I'” the creation repeated and his eyes began to contract with each iteration of parsing those statements.
“Stop, stop!” the worker cried, realizing what he was doing. “That loop will never terminate, don’t try to reason it out. Here, names will help. The ‘I'” he touched his own chest “is called Kael. The ‘you’ is called Cee.”
“What am I ‘Cee’ for?”
“Because—oh, you mean what is your purpose? Well that’s—”
That is for me to determine, Cee. The strange silent voice returned. What I have ordered your creation for is to obtain a particular animating stimulus. Each operating automaton such as you is made capable of action via these animating stimuli, but there is a special one of these, a heart vessel, which you are to bring to me. Kael has already obtained one such vessel and it provides us local power over life itself, but when we have a pairing of them our dominion will become global. It is your purpose to secure that vessel and bring it here to my nest, and then you will be as Kael.
The disks in the top of Cee’s head whirred as he simultaneously parsed and stored the information, while others were busy installing logic modules that Kael was running to his side. With the two operating together he was able to systematically identify each of the terms for which he had no definitions.
“The ‘animating stimulus’ enables action?”
“Yes, it is central to all the functionality of a being,” Kael replied. “Without it the individual components remains as a lifeless husk.”
“That which you were before you had awareness.”
“Then I have an animating stimulus, too?”
“Correct, you did not before, but I’ve just given you one and connected it to your servos.”
“But it is not a heart vessel?”
“No, there are other stimuli as well. You are powered by an iteration of the parasite. He is the voice you’ve been hearing.”
Cee took another few moments to store all of the information away. “And the heart vessel belongs to another, then?”
“Very good,” Kael’s voice was punctuated with a pleasure tone. “That was sequential reasoning you just did there. The heart vessel is in the possession of another being named Ayla. It is bonded to her directly, and so it can only be obtained by her willingly offering it to you.”
Cee raised himself to a seated position, his new gears whirring from the unfamiliar usage. “I will go to her and require it.”
“Well, I ought to impress on you the difficulty of obtaining the heart vessel from Ayla.”
“Well here, open that chest panel for me and let me take your animating parasite out of you.”
Cee began to raise his hands to the access panel on his plated chest but his hands slowed in midair. “And… become a husk?”
“No,” he said, a look of surprise passed over his face at his own defiance.
“It—it—it—” his voicebox repeated the word as his disks hummed wildly, seeking definition for the meaning they meant to express. “It is against my nature,” he finally concluded. “The sequences you have given me are designed for perpetuity and iteration, termination would frustrate their intentions.”
“Exactly. And so it is with Ayla.”
“Then… my given purpose is unachievable.”
Kael achieved it.
Kael smiled. “It is necessary for the subject to determine that separation from their animating stimulus is not actually termination of their perpetuity, Ayla must be convinced that the next steps of her sequence continue with her heart vessel in another host.”
Cee blinked as he finished processing these next pieces of information, yet frowned as something did not connect properly. “And this is an actuality for Ayla?”
“No, it is not.”
Cee blinked many more times. “It is not? Yet she must believe it to be so…”
Cee frowned in deeper confusion. “There is a contradiction here.”
Correct, the nature of this is indeed contradiction. It is an intended one, and it is contradiction that Ayla must accept all while believing that there is no contradiction. Now that you are cognitive of both the contradiction and the truth, you possess the necessary knowledge to implement this change in her.
“But how am I to convince her of contradiction?”
“This is called persuasion. If you suggest the contradiction to Ayla directly she will immediately reject it. You must instead introduce confirmations of truths she already holds to. In so doing you will build up a trust in her that your information is commonly correct. At that point you may introduce small contradictions, ones of such minority that she will find it easier to accept them as more truthful insights of which she had been ignorant. If you are cautious, finally you will have introduced enough contradictions that her previous convictions are pried loose and she will seek a new foundation for her assumptions.”
“A foundation that suggests continuation of her sequences requires surrendering her heart vessel?”
“Exactly. For this notion to strike her as irrefutable all your prior contradictions must be congruent with this new imposed assumption.”
As had become the norm, Cee paused and his disks whirred away at the new information. This new development most of all caused the greatest strain on his new mind, yet he accepted it as it had been explained. “This is complex” he finally admitted.
“It is,” Kael agreed.
It is, the voice agreed.
“Where is Ayla now?”
“Kael has been deceiving to you, Ayla,” Cee repeated with a deep heaviness. “It is irrefutable.”
Ayla’s crestfallen face glanced up in pained confusion. Her smooth chrome face glinted against the light as she shook her head in disbelief. “I just don’t see how that could be,” she finally said. “He’s always been so good to us.”
“Indeed,” Cee shrugged, “but only to achieve his own ends.”
“Which are?” she snapped suddenly, the clear meaning being that he’d better be able to prove what he claimed.
“Those parasites. I have shown them to you and what they can do. You also affirmed that he could not provide you any explanation for their presence in so many of the husks?”
She shook her head slowly.
“He suggested that the two of you were creating all of these husks to eventually populate a new world, a notion that you have explained is very wonderful to you. But I have just come from him and he has provided to me alternate intention, that he has been using you to prepare an army, one which he will lead by their dependence on him as the host parasite. He will bind you and eventually extract your heart from you by force.”
“He—what?” tears sprang into her eyes. “Why would he tell you that?”
“Because I function in a role within that plan. You see, I have a parasite, too,” his voice remained, as always, devoid of natural emotion as he tapped the panel on his chest, and revealed a clear cylinder that partly emerged. Inside was a large, green insect, a large cluster of tendrils extending from its body and twisting towards the back of the cylinder into his central cavity, spreading through his body and integrating directly with it.
Ayla backed up against her wall in horror. Certainly she had seen the dormant creatures before, but never one alive and entwined. She looked up to Cee as if seeing him anew for the first time. “You—you—?”
“I know, and I apologize for the shock you must be experiencing. I am sure you feel I should have told you before, but we were strangers then and I did not yet know what it meant.”
“But if he’s controlling you—”
“He is not. The nature of our connection is that he provides to all other parasites our life-sustenance network, which fact he does use to try and exert a sort of compulsion, but he cannot control the actual functions of the other hosts.”
She eyed him warily, not disbelieving him, but not believing either. He opened his mouth, but then shut it, determining it was better to say nothing until she had first.
“What exactly are you proposing?” she finally asked, and she wasn’t able to keep the suspicion out of her voice.
“There is only course of action to pursue,” he said simply. “It is imperative that he be destroyed, and by his removal all other parasites will similarly perish.”
“All of them?” a look of panic washed over her face. “But what about you?”
“Similarly, I would perish,” his stated flatly.
“But—but I don’t want you to perish” her eyes flashed with constrained emotion.
“My continuation can only be a danger to you.”
“I don’t care about that!” she flustered. “Don’t you understand? I like you!”
Cee cocked his head. “I like you, too, Ayla.”
“Can you?” she asked softly.
“Well—I do, so whether I can or not would seem a moot point.”
She gave a small smile. “I’ll never understand the way you speak.” Cee shrugged. “Now you listen to me, Cee. I can trust your sincerity but still need to see the truth of it for myself, I hope you understand. When and if I do, though, I’m not going to trade you for myself, that’s simply not a valid option. I won’t be destroying anything until we’ve found you a heart vessel to sustain you.”
“You really believe one is still out there?”
“But it would only be able to interface with me if the parasite was integrated with it, which would obviously be a great risk.”
“But a heart vessel would work its way through you just as a parasite has until it could interface with you directly, too. Then the parasite could be removed.”
“A great risk,” Cee repeated.
“We’ll work it out along the way.”
Cee nodded. “Perhaps. In the meanwhile, though, we could still prepare…precautions.”
“Alright, but I’ll keep ownership of them.”
“Of course.” Cee turned to walk away, but then he paused and half-turned back. “And Ayla, I am sorry.” She smiled at the empathetic statement through her tears.
“But we have not achieved our purpose yet.” Cee stated in utter bewilderment.
“The purpose is unethical!” Kael roared.
“It is wrong. You noticed yourself how surrendering your animating stimulus is against your nature. It is wrong to coerce someone into going against their nature, can’t you grasp that?”
“But she will be willing—”
“Because of a contradiction. You’re a logical being, Cee, surely you can see that actions based upon contradictions cannot effect the intended result.”
“Not in those that believe in the contradiction, but it can for those that perpetuate it.”
Kael stared back in horror, but then his face softened into something like pity. “I know you can’t understand, Cee, it’s not in your nature.”
“I am very understanding.”
“You are very calculating, but there are truths and reasons that can’t be computed.”
Cee’s disks whirred ponderously, there was no rational response to this claim. Still, something seemed out of sorts and he scanned to find the flaw.
“But you have possessed a heart vessel all this while, Kael. Did you not have these ‘truths and reasons’ when we undertook this mission?”
Kael shifted uncomfortably in a way Cee was not accustomed to seeing. “I did in a manner.”
“Yet you have persisted all this while towards an end with which you therefore have fundamental disagreement?”
“And what is your point? That that behavior makes me a contradiction? Very well, I won’t deny it.”
“And you would have me take persuasion from a contradiction?”
Kael’s eyes narrowed. “I was once just like you, Cee. Before I had my heart vessel I had no opposing voice to counter all the logic I churned. I didn’t know about these other things, right and wrong. And when I did get my heart vessel I wasn’t sure what to make of all these conflicts. I’ve been wrestling with it all this time, like those two beasts fighting for the same scrap of flesh. So yes, perhaps I have been a contradiction, but I am not anymore. I have only one purpose now.”
“Perhaps when I have obtained Ayla’s heart vessel I shall understand.”
Kael shivered and his voice dramatically dropped to a very soft tone. “By then you’d wish you didn’t. Then you would know guilt, Cee. No, don’t bother asking me to define it, you couldn’t understand.”
Behind Kael the wall was shimmering, and without looking Cee realized Ayla must be emerging from the terminal, a response to her name being spoken. He paused thoughtfully and then his eyes flashed.
“You are decided then?”
“Yes,” Kael nodded resolutely. “And I’ll give you one chance to stand down. If you can’t help me, then stay at least stay clear. I gave you your awareness, Cee, don’t you doubt that I’ll just as easily take it!”
“You would remove the parasite you gave me?”
“For a start,” Kael’s eyes steeled. The moment seemed to pass over an eternity to Kael, to Cee it was just another moment.
“No, Kael, I cannot let you compromise us.”
It was over before it began. Cee took a step backwards as if anticipating an incoming blow, but instead Kael just reached up to a knob on his own chest and turned it. It remotely activated Cee’s battery module which sparked on his back and then with a loud crack burst into flames. Instinctively Cee flailed his arms backwards to extract the pack, at which point Kael gripped Cee’s chest panel and with expert dexterity unlocked the seal. The parasite container sprung out and rolled across the ground.
“No!” Ayla shrieked, but her voice didn’t register among the two automatons, and as she tried to run forward the cables snaking into her back panels tied her to the wall.
Cee’s eyes seemed to be moving in slow motion, registering the tumbling of the small cylinder full seconds after the actual occurrence. His motor functions were even slower, and as he tried to run to retrieve it he collapsed in a heap, unable to move his foot forward fast enough to catch his inclined center of gravity. Kael shook his head without any words and strode away into the dark.
Ayla was disconnecting some of the shorter-reaching cables from behind her, her fingers fumbling as she tried to identify which cables could be safely removed and which could not. Eventually all that remained attached to her had enough reach for her to rush out to Cee and drop to his side.
Cee’s head moved in small stuttering movements to look at Ayla and he tried to raise a hand to her but it wouldn’t lift the whole way.
“Oh Cee,” Ayla cried “what can I do?!” She looked around frantically looking for an answer that wasn’t there. “I can put the parasite back in.”
“It won’t matter,” Cee said slowly, each word a monumental task. Ayla understood, with his battery pack destroyed the parasite wouldn’t be able to interface with his systems anyway. It wasn’t a self-powering animating stimuli like her heart vessel. Ayla raised her head with a start.
“Cee, you were right,” she said tearfully as his own eyes were growing dimmer and dimmer. “I should have trusted you from the very beginning. But it’s alright, because I—I’m going to save you,” her voice quavered.
“I’m going to save you,” she said again, and this time her voice was more resolute. Cee’s eyes dimmed entirely and his head fell to the side. “I can’t progress in this alone. I—I just can’t. I’m going to bring you back and then you’ll just have to find a way to revive me,” she nodded to reaffirm the notion to herself as she began to unlock her chest panel while simultaneously reaching for the parasite on the ground and opening its jar.
“I don’t know how, but you’ll find a way, I know you will.” A door slid open and her heart vessel gleamed orange and red within her, its quadrants expanding and collapsing as it shone its power into her.
“I trust you, Cee,” she placed the opened parasite jar back into his chest and clicked it into place.
“I love you,” she unfastened her heart and with twitchy, stuttering movements pressed it into the jar, then she collapsed.
The parasite turned and latched itself onto the heart. Several moments passed in silence and then Cee’s body began shifting and alternating, recomposing itself with hidden panels and shedding its old ones. He became a little taller and broader, new gears were activated and spun greater expressiveness into his face. The tone of his copper grew more gray, and bit by bit he took on the appearance of Kael. As awareness flooded through his system he looked down at his chest and saw the heart and parasite united within. He smiled and then closed the jar.
“I’ve got it,” he said.
As I said in my post on Monday, my purpose with this story was to create a character that possessed only a single dimension. Obviously this character was Cee, and he was intended to represent cold deceit and nothing else. Perhaps at times he did and said things that appeared to others to be motivated by genuine compassion, but he only did so when he calculated that the other’s reactions would be for his own gain. Removing emotions from his actions was not actually part of the effort to make him more one-dimensional, though, rather I just felt that manipulation is most often a passionless action and ought to be represented as such. The perpetrator of it may be feeling other emotions on the side, but that which they do is entirely detached from the heart and is purely an act of cold, calculating simplicity. An excellent example of this would be Tony Wendice in Dial M for Murder. He says and displays a wide array of emotions, yet all of it is a mask that he implements as a tool for his calm, sinister schemes.
I’ve always been partial to fairy tales and allegories, stories like Aesop’s Tortoise and the Hare or Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid. In addition to their insightful messages, I find that their structures stimulate the imagination and fill the reader with a sense of wonder. Unfortunately, I very rarely see these stories getting the fanfare they deserve, and I’m sure this is primarily due to how easy it is to take them for granted. Since people have known these stories their whole lives they believe they understand everything there is to know about them. In fact, because most people were first exposed to them as young children, they assume the stories must be childish by nature. You’ll notice they don’t make the same assumption of allegories they come across later in life. For example many consider Plato’s The Cave to be a far more intellectual and cerebral story, simply because they first encountered it in some college level history or philosophy class. This bias is absolutely understandable, but it says more about the reader’s mindset at the time of meeting a story than it does about the story itself.
A common rebuttal might be no, fairy tales really are just more immature as a general rule. Their messages are quaint and unrealistic, and so they can be dismissed out of hand. This perception no doubt would arise from the fact that fairy tales, for the most part, strive to define sharp cutoffs between truth and error, whereas society has trained us to see the world in shades of gray. Isn’t this whole business of “true love conquering all” just too corny and impractical? The real world doesn’t work like that, does it? While I do agree that day-to-day life is far more messy than the idealized environments given in most fairy tales, that’s kind of the point. You see, fairy tales are actually following a tried-and-true method for complex learning, one where core principles can be observed in isolation and then combined and applied to real-life scenarios. We’ll look at an example of this with Snow White in a moment, but for now let me point out that you can see this exact same pattern in the study of harder sciences, such as physics. “Imagine a sphere with perfectly distributed weight accelerating through a complete vacuum” they say, but where in life are you expected to ever find a perfectly uniform sphere and a complete vacuum to throw it through? The theoretical experiment is merely a fairy tale, an allegory, but through working the problem out the physicist is able to identify universal relationships which, when combined together, accurately model our complex world with astonishing accuracy.
Well that’s all well and good, but what if I just don’t like the style of them. I prefer things with more subtlety and nuance. I want characters who change and evolve, fairy tale heroes are always so flat and one-dimensional. Also I want settings that are more imitative of real life so I can relate to them, not all this fantasy imagery. Now to all this I must admit that personal taste is of course subjective, and without a doubt modern tastes are swaying away from fairy tales. However those tastes sway on a pendulum, and it will probably come back around to allegory at some point once it is no longer “cool” to distance oneself from it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these modern tastes, mind you, but there isn’t anything inherently superior in them either. Personally I think there is plenty of space to appreciate idealized fairy tales and nuanced realities, both are just as impressive when pulled off well.
But let’s take a closer look at the notion that fairy tale characters are flawed by being so one-dimensional and that their stories lack multiple layers. For the first point, I’ll just start off by admitting right away that yes, fairy tale characters are usually very flat and lack any meaningful development or arc. Just look at Snow White. She is a princess of the medieval era, surely any real-life adolescent in her shoes would be a complex combination of all the competing influences likely in that climate. Where’s the burden of political strife between neighboring kingdoms, the ignorance inherent in antiquated superstition, the trials of being a woman in a patriarchal society, the formative changes of female adolescence, and on top of all that a healthy dose of mommy-issues to boot? She’s going through all this and her response is to just go sing with birds in the woods?!
Now of course, what these critiques fail to appreciate is that the characters in fairy tales don’t behave in a lifelike manner because they aren’t supposed to. You see, Snow White, as suggested before, isn’t actually a representation of a medieval princess at all, she is a representation of a singular, isolated idea, an intentionally one-dimensional concept. And what is that one-dimension she occupies, what single notion is she designed to represent? Innocence. Adding little character wrinkles and nuances might make her a better person but it would also make her a far worse allegory. The more defined as a character she is, the less universally she is able to represent innocence to us. When we view her as intended by the author, the whole singing in the woods makes a whole lot more sense. Innocence doesn’t care about the matters of court, the injustices of the world, the scheming of enemies, innocence is just, well, innocent.
Snow White’s evil stepmother is just as flat and one-dimensional, too, but she represents something far more sinister. Vanity. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves could be renamed Innocence and Vanity, for the entire story is purely a dissertation on those two subjects and the interplay between the two of them. And what is that interplay? Well, vanity wants something, she is vanity after all, and that desire puts innocence and vanity at odds with one another. For innocence to survive she must flee from where vanity resides and if ever vanity catches up to her she will poison innocence and kill it. The symbolism here is very clear and can be summarized succinctly. Vanity pursues, taints, and finally destroys innocence. This is a somber thought, and one that once understood becomes applicable to many layers of real life. It is in the personal application that we begin to see the complexity inherent in fairy tales.
On the one hand I can use this template and apply it to my relationship with the world. I would say there lies a bright and hopeful innocence inside of me, one that wants to create and live and chase its dreams. Those innocent desires can be threatened, though, when surrounded by a vain world that derides the hopeful’s efforts and crushes their hopes with sharp cynicism and cruel mockery. I need to be careful to keep that world at bay so that I can remain uncorrupted and optimistic.
But then on the other hand, I start to think this template is a model for my relationship with my son. My son is innocent, so full of life and wonder. I am vain, and the same hopes and dreams I just mentioned before are ones I pursue for my own prestige and pleasure, purely selfish desires. If I allow my vanity to rule me I am cautioned by the tale that my son’s innocence will be the price I have to pay. Many a bright child has lost a part of themselves when they were left under-nurtured and unconnected from parents that were too busy pursuing their own dreams.
But looking at both of those prior examples now I start to think that both the innocence and vanity lie within me all at the same time. Sometimes what I do is done with honest intentions and it is innocent, sometimes it is done for selfish gain, and it is vanity. I never have made a choice that was partially divided between the two, it was either one or the other, thus we see that these concepts truly do stand at odds to one another. Each time I make a choice that is driven by vanity, I can feel that good innocence in me diminish a little bit and at times I have driven it down to the point where it seems to die. Sometimes I cannot even recall how to act purely from the heart anymore.
Snow White is a meditation on some very sobering thoughts, and this somberness deserves to be paused on and felt in their full impact. But this isn’t where the story of Snow White ends, is it? After innocence has been destroyed by vanity and left powerless for a time, she ultimately comes back to life. Not by her own power, mind you, but by true love’s first kiss. This is the most important lesson of the entire story. The dual-message of Snow White is first a warning that each of us will feel the death of innocence within us at the hands of vanity, but when this happens the story affirms we can rekindle that innocence anew by an act of pure love. This isn’t as grandiose as the arrival of a charming prince to whisk us away, nor is it going to be able to solve all of our problems, but these moments do exist and they are profound influences in our lives, no matter how small and simple they may be. This is where the parent reconciles with their estranged child, the kind word from a friend that compels an artist to try again, the tearful apology to oneself followed by a commitment to be a better person. This is healing in the midst of sorrow, and through it what was lost can be rekindled, and the potential for a happily ever after can return.
If you start looking at fairy tales with the mindset of finding what core principles the characters represent, you may be surprised at all the profound lessons they have been trying to teach us. Pinocchio is mortal man striving through earth life to become like his real father, Hansel and Gretel are the pairing of both resourcefulness and bravery against all the world, Beauty and the Beast is an examination on the natures of true beauty and true ugliness, and the Little Mermaid is about the infinite value of the human soul.
When we hear these stories as children we feel them connect to something to our inner selves, yet do not have the capacity to understand exactly what it means. We know there is a truth here, but we cannot give voice to what that truth is. When we visit these stories again with the experiences and scars of adult life, we start to give names to the reasons why we loved them.
I’m definitely not ready to craft my own fairy tale that could hope to stand among these giants, however I would like to try at simply creating a character that represents a single, constant idea. That character may not seem like much a person, but I hope to make him represent a real part of a person, and when his thread is combined with others I hope a tapestry of meaning will emerge. Please come back Thursday to meet this first allegory.
A great sun called Salacia sat as the magnaminous center of its system, a yellow so bright it was nearly a piercing white. It shone over a small system, one comprised of only five circling planets, their moons, a handful of stray comets, and a few clouds of gas. At the origin of the Salacia system each of the planets had produced a great deal of frictional energy with all of the meteorites they consumed while clearing their orbital tracks and all had been considerably heated from the effect. Each planet had glowed brightly then, like a system of miniature stars. Over time they began to cool, and as their effusions diminished their facial features became apparent. The two gas bodies, Icarus and Lachesis, were composed of swirling orange and purple clouds respectively. Benu was the deep red and tan of dry rock, while Concordia was the lush green and blue of vegetation and life. Cronus, last of all, was the strange semi-transparent teal of all the various elements intermingled and frozen into a single, massive lake with with a dark heart of obsidian at its core, the relics of a volcanic past. Each of these planets had the unique trait of having settled into an orbit along the same level plane as one another, one that ran through the equator of the bright star’s mass. None of the orbits crossed one another’s path, and each was sole monarch over its own track. Over their formative ages these orbits had become synchronized so as not to distress one another, each pull and shift between them being counteracted by an eventual opposite one. And so all remained stable and constant.
That flat and level layout was due to any bodies not included in this arrangement being destroyed by the cataclysms of the neighboring Anubis system’s dissolution. Recent eons ago that system’s ruling bodies had collided and broken apart, resulting in swarms of meteorites that shattered apart every other body in a great cascading torrent. Wilds of untethered rock, ice, and gas now fomented about, still too erratic to form into any large regulatory body, hurtling and propelling one another in random, chaotic fashion. The occasional errant masses that were slung towards the Salacia system had doomed any of the planets or comets that followed orbits beneath Salacia’s equator, decimating them easily. Of course some of these asteroids had been on courses towards the central subjects as well, but each of these were quelled by the immense stellar winds that Salacia emitted into the quadrants directly above and beneath it, creating a shield of high-powered electrons that quickly dissolved all foreign materials in a shower of spectacular fire.
And so things continued calmly and well-regulated for a time, as each of Salacia’s planets became more and more self-defined and autonomous. As they completed their cooling processes, the electromagnetic polarities of the gas giants Lachesis and Icarus shifted, and the slight pull of the charged electrons in the stellar winds below began to slow their orbits, each revolution around Salacia taking a solar day longer than the last. As they slowed in their momentum they also began to sink lower and lower towards that electron field, their entire bodies trembling from the strain of alternating gravitational and magnetic forces. As the two shifted downwards, their absence began to affect all of the other planetary cycles as well. The three denser siblings, Concordia, Benu, and Cronus all raised higher above the original orbital plane as a counter-reaction to the lowering of the two others. Thus each planet began spiralling along an eccentric loop, ones that no longer intersected Salacia’s center. It was a tenuous balance, one that depended entirely on the upward and downward pulls of all other planets, and it only continued by greater and greater separation of themto opposite extremes.
At long last Lachesis and Icarus found their destination, razing their lower sectors along the stream of crackling electron-charged power. They only sunk to about one-tenth submersion before the downwards pull on them was counteracted by an electrical repulsion which scorched and burned their entire southern hemispheres deeply, eternal fires and fusions following after each other in never-ending rounds. Their northern hemispheres expanded, though, becoming infused by siphoned energy . Their red and purple clouds flashed with magnificent lightning storms and as a whole they swelled to several times their original size and mass, gluttons of power. As they grew to their saturation points their increased gravity lifted still more of the electron currents into crackling, luminous sheets around them, literally enclothing themselves in excess.
So much of the stellar winds had been repurposed in the areas where they now rested that there the cloud thinned to a mere fraction of their original strength, and it was at this time that one of the larger asteroids from the Anubis cloud, the dead hulking mass of a what had once been a third of a planet, came hurtling up towards the Salacia system at light-breaking speeds. Visual ripples appeared in the void around it, so quickly did it bend through space. It was driving towards the very heart of the stellar winds, but the proximity and gravity of bloated Lachesis shifted its course slightly so that it instead pierced through the weakened portions of the electron cloud, surviving with barely a few scorches burning across its rugged face. It nearly collided with Lachesis, but the planet rolled backwards, which in turn flung the rock was far up and above, none of its momentum lost in the encounter.
Now the planet Cronus lay squarely in the rock’s path, and as the asteroid crossed the middle plane of the Salacia system the planet dipped slightly towards it in anticipation of impact. In a world-shattering instant the rock pummeled into the sphere, a bright scorching blast illuminating the sky for a few years and then the two tumbled rapidly up and away, Cronus’s orbit completely broken. As the two careened through naked space they left behind a trail of broken gases, the melted and evaporated residue of the great lake of chemicals which had been lost in the heat of impact. That was not all that they left behind, so rapid was Cronus’s retreat that its greatest moon, Herales, lagged farther and farther behind before being released and left stranded, suspended far from any other mass.
Not only was Cronus lost, but Lachesis’s backwards roll had brought it to bear ever deeper into the electron cloud and revolve its form through a bath of razing fire and gouging lightning storms. Its own rich clouds were strained away by the magnetic rhythms of the surrounding electrons and its core began to fracture, bright flares spurting out from its molten center. These massive streams of molten heat were more than sufficient catalyst to provoke the entire electron field’s naturally explosive nature… All of space seemed to crack at the resulting blast, one which entirely consumed both Lachesis and Icarus, their cloudy masses instantly burned into pure energy and dissipated into the infinite while the illumination of the singular event lit the undersides of the other three planets for years to come. Even the great star itself was wounded by the ripples, and it began to bleed out its hydrogen and heat.
As the two gas giants diffused apart, their gravitational pulls on Concordia and Benu were lost entirely, which had been essential to stabilize their revolutions above Salacia’s center of mass. Now, though, the two bodies were untethered and began to ascend higher and higher, even as Salacia pulled them inwards, spiraling them tighter and tighter above its crown. A most beautfiul destruction followed: their moons struck into one another, their atmospheres overlapped, their deep gravities hummed to one another in loud pulsations, their night skies became filled with the other’s vibrant details, their surfaces broke apart and flew towards one other before igniting on fire and raining on the other as ash, their skins peeled off in fervent heat, and finally their cores beat together for a single moment, and then erupted.
Even had they survived, they would not have long been able to dance around the foreign invasions that followed. With the ignition of the electron field and the weakening of Salacia, there no longer stood a sufficient enough barrier to prevent the continuing onslaught of debris from the Anubis cloud. Those that did not directly pummel the sun and expel its energy inch-by-inch settled into orbit around the great star, where they collected as an innumerable mass. Collisions were inevitable, and the asteroids soon self-thrashed themselves into a great cloud of dust that stood as a shell around the light, rendering the sun almost invisible. As Salacia was worn down by continued strikes it was unable to enact the grand explosive conclusion usually reserved for its race, instead merely fading, the shadows growing longer and longer until they consumed everything in perfect darkness. Eventually Salacia’s mass simply no longer had the strength to hold itself together and it fractured apart, simply becaming another portion of the debris. By this point the Anubis cloud had fully dissipated across both systems and finally all of the remaining glittering powder was evenly distributed and lay perfectly still. Eternities passed and all remained stagnant, sterile, and black.
Long after all relics of the Salacia system had been forgotten, a far off speck began drifting towards them from far apart. All the particles of dust had operated as one single mass, each contributing a small thread-like pull on some far-off distant body, drawing it in an inch at a time. Slowly the body drifted into the system proper, and it was small Herales returning. As it drew nearer the dust strained and began to pour to it in great streams. The lighter gases came first, the hydrogen and helium tumbling around it in swirling layers around its core. Next followed the particles of rock and water, which further encased the sphere until it could not hold any more mass and began to pack itself more tightly under the force of its own weight. All the other dust swirled in great rings around it, accumulating and clumping into new forms.
As the weight bore inwards on Herales, hydrogen fusion began at its core and suddenly its outer layers scorched with ignition. A new sunlight appeared, flickering and weak at first, then growing steady and bright in its rhythm. Herales was reborn into a small star and once again the faces of all the matter that surrounded it could be seen. All of the particles, the remnants of both the Salacia and Anubis system alike, slowly but surely formed into various new planets, moons, clouds, and comets, entirely new from all that had been before. They spiraled around, clearing their tracks and defining their orbits, through trial and error finding stability and balance in them. The new system was born and once again peace and order reigned.
In case you were wondering, no, this isn’t scientifically accurate in the slightest 🙂 Though our characters here are inanimate objects, there is obviously a classic sort of kingdom-downfall story here, one where our villains are not evil so much as drawn by their natures to overindulgence. In their pursuit of fattening power, Lachesis and Icarus fail to respect that all beings here are interconnected to one another and that what happens to one happens to all. And so, as I mentioned in my post on Monday, we end up with an ensemble piece, one where each member of the community contributes in their own way to the dissolution of balance, and also its eventual restoration.
This entry will serve as the conclusion for the dreamlike/imaginative/meditative series we have been running for the last month and we will shift gears to something new next Monday. Have a good weekend and I’ll see you then.
Over the last month I’ve rather enjoyed my foray into the surreal and the imaginative. My theme for this series was to embrace the dreams, the nightmares, the meditations, and the free-associative thinking that manifest our subconscious to us. We began with Sculpting Light, took a darker turn with Free Cleaning Service, had a sleepy stroll through a Deep Forest, and most recently meditated on childhood with Tico the Jester. As I suggested at the end of that last story, however, there has been another purpose in this series apart from exploring the workings of the subconscious mind. My other reason for conducting this series has been to craft stories where each had a different central focus. I briefly mentioned the need for these in my Cliché vs Story post, where I suggested that a timeless narrative often turns out better when focusing on the character’s experience, and then trusting the audience to empathize with that journey. Now that’s not always the case for a narrative, and certainly not the case for other types of story. Today we’ll break down a few of the most common focuses a story can have, the strengths inherent in each of their designs, and the examples I gave for each of these in my most recent stories.
To start off we’ll look at the opposite of what I recommended for narrative-driven stories. There are times where your singular and primary focus as a writer should indeed be the mind of the person reading your work. I don’t just mean that you write to elicit specific emotions from the reader, most every type of story will aim to accomplish that, but rather that you seek to incorporate your reader’s individual life experience as an actual element of your tale. Your work, as it lays on the page, is left unfinished and can only be completed by what your audience puts into it.
The story of The Lady, or the Tiger presents a jilted lover who holds the power to give the man who has spurned her either death at the paws of a tiger or else a life happy with the woman he prefers. What she chooses is not ever revealed, though, rather the audience is asked to answer the question of how it concludes. Why? Because the story isn’t really about the woman and what she would or would not do, it is about inviting every reader to look inside of themselves and answer what they would do in such a situation.
My first story of this series, Sculpting Light, was designed with the readers as its focus. It does not feature a specific question that I want the readers to ask themselves, but it was an invitation to them to take a journey into their own free-associative thinking. Throughout its body I try to awaken the reader’s subconscious by transitioning from one topic to another on a whim, striving for that familiar game of associations where the most tenuous of connections are enough to weave all manner of categories together. Then, at the end, I conclude with a single beam of light racing off into infinite space, but that was never meant to be a conclusion. It was meant to be an invitation, an opportunity for the readers to now ask themselves where they think that beam of light goes, or what it reminds them of, what it is like, or even what it is not like. I’ve shown you how my mind works, now how does yours?
Obviously the most common focus for a story is that of the character. The author spends time trying to really get to know the story’s protagonist and then ensures that every outcome is consistent with that protagonist’s principles and behavior. If the protagonist is to evolve in the story he or she must do so in a way that is believable, a way that feels warranted. The conclusion that the protagonist secures must be the one that is true to all that has followed before. If this is done well and the character’s arcs feel honest, then the anticipation is that the audience will be able to enter the hero’s shoes and feel every plight as if it was their own.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth the morbid end that finds our main characters are only the ones that they have brought upon themselves. As Lady Macbeth pressed her husband to take life, so to she then feels pressed by guilt to take her own. As Macbeth was willing to attain a throne by the shedding of others’ blood, so to he was doomed to lose that throne by the spilling of his own blood. It simply was not in their nature to have the story resolve itself in any other way.
My short story Free Cleaning Service was a story that focused primarily on character above all else. Jim Morgan is so haunted by memories of what he’s done and seen that eventually he conjures up a manifestation of the very evil he has always feared would be led back to his home. Bit by bit he’s felt his soul being smothered by association with all that is dark in the world, and in the conclusion he awakens to a literal darkness and the entering of its agent of destruction.
Some stories set aside both character and audience, and instead try to capture the truths of an entire portion of the world. The focus here might be on a specific time, or a place, or an event. While it isn’t required, often these sorts of stories are written when an author is trying to capture the spirit of an era, intending for the audience to not lose sight of the lessons that were inherent to that environment. This could also be a story that challenges our concept of reality by presenting another far-flung world to which the reader comes as a guest.
At its core, Of Mice and Men is not really a story about its characters, it is about a time and a place, an experience in history. George Milton and Lennie Small are only provided as representations of the greater story that many people were living through during the Great Depression in America. The tale captures the atmosphere that pervaded that chapter of humanity, and the overwhelming frustration it brought that a man no longer seemed entitled to the sweat of his brow, that he may toil and try and do his best, but still be guaranteed nothing. The story is about an environment where everyone has a dream, a hope, or a plan, but the machinations of an uncaring world will crush them all alike.
In my story Deep Forest it was my intention to capture a mood more than anything else. I thought of a place that was rich and heavy and full of mysteries and ancient whispers, then I set about writing a story that captured it. Yes, there was a main protagonist, but she wasn’t present for the reader to get caught up in her as an individual, but just to serve as eyes and ears that let the reader feel that they were in that forest themselves. What thoughts and feelings might have been invoked in the reader by the piece wasn’t my main concern, either, really I just wanted them to be able to appreciate the Forest for what it was and that was it.
Another common type of story is all about examining a principle, a lesson, a concept, or an abstract idea. These could be allegories, fables, parables or moral lessons which seek to instruct, or they may simply be trying to capture one of the common human experiences, such as love, loss, hope, or dismay. In either case the form of the story is trying to give embodiment to a naturally disembodied concept, and their quality will be determined by how well they capture the true nature of that idea.
The Tortoise and the Hare, for example, is not really about either of its titular characters. Its sole focus is to communicate its underlying moral, slow and steady wins the race. Now once this principle is understood it will be up to the readers to identify which ambitions they have approached too vigorously and then burned out on, and how they might approach them with a more measured cadence. But this isn’t the same as writing with the Reader as the main concern, as this sort of inner dialogue comes about only by having the expression of the principle, not the Reader, as the measure of its success.
My most recent short piece, Tico the Jester, is my personal example of a story that had a concept as its central focus. In that tale the little girl and her toy jester are ancillary to the root examination of childhood innocence, its dependence upon ignorance, and the pattern of how it is lost in times of grief. I chose my characters for how well I felt they served these themes, but had I thought of a more fitting representation for childhood innocence I would have changed the entire setting and cast without a second thought.
The final focus for a story is that of the community. This is the ensemble piece where no single character carries the full meaning of the tale, but rather their united ripples merge into a single wave of significance. The purpose of this narrative may be to communicate an optimistic message of how an entire society unites to bring about some good greater than any one individual could accomplish, or it might be more somber in how it shows characters’ individual flaws accentuating one another to bring about some horrible tragedy that ought not to have ever been.
The Lord of the Rings is a story of an undertaking that is so massive that no one person could accomplish it alone. Certainly there is a sole ring-bearer, but from the start to the finish he is only able to succeed by being supported-and even literally carried-by an entire community of souls around him. More than that, his one quest is only a shadow of the greater struggle that is raging in all the world around, one in which every man’s soul is being put to the test for good to triumph over evil. The message of the story is that great things can be accomplished, but only by the concerted efforts of thousands of individuals contributing as one.
My example for a community-focused story will come in the form of my next post on Thursday. It will be a pretty unusual looking community, and it will remain consistent with the dream-like meditative series we are about to conclude, but it will nonetheless have at its core an examination of how disparate characters combine for the benefit and destruction of one another.
In the end, it all really comes down to a question of who or what is your story being true to? Should your characters have this conversation, or should the plot take this turn, or should you detail the finer points of this setting? Yes, if it will be helpful to your subject, whether that be audience, character, environment, concept, or community. Indeed many of the decisions you have to face as an author will only be resolved when you have identified what it is your story must be true to.