West Side Story was never going to end happily. We listen to Tony and Maria plotting to get away from all the rottenness in their world, and we long to see them do exactly that…but we can sense that they never are going to attain their happily ever after.
Why? Well, even if we didn’t know that their story was based on Romeo and Juliet, we would still feel that a happy ending wouldn’t fit after all the scenes of anger, misunderstanding, and escalating violence that make up the rest of the film. Even though Tony and Maria cannot appreciate the wheels of destiny turning against them, we can. We know that violence can only beget violence, choices must result in consequences, and Tony has a reckoning to face for killing Bernardo…just as Bernardo had a reckoning to face for killing Riff…just as Riff had a reckoning to face for oppressing the immigrant Puerto Ricans…just as…well, you get the picture.
There is a principle of logic called inductive reasoning. It states that if we perceive the transformation from one state to the next, then we can extrapolate what the next state after that will be, even before we see it, by simply applying the same transformation again. In West Side Story we are able to recognize the pattern of each succeeding scene, and can then extend that pattern out in our mind.
What is interesting is that even though the ending of West Side Story is therefore predictable, it still remains a satisfying tale. Having the expectation to feel sad at the end does not prevent our ability to be so when the time comes.
Of course, the ability to predict the end of a story often comes into play even before the opening titles show. There are recognizable patterns over whole bodies of stories, which we call genres, and we still enjoy them. Even though in most romances, westerns, and superhero tales you can predict the ending before you have even seen the beginning, we still consume them in droves.
But, of course, where there is culture, soon there will be counter-culture. This is nothing new. Art has established patterns and then defied those patterns over and over through the centuries, and will always continue to do so.
So come the late-eighties/early-nineties, romantic films often followed a pattern of the guy and girl initially disliking each other, being forced to spend a prolonged amount of time together even so, until finally their walls were broken down and they found they had a great deal in common. This was Beauty and the Beast, You’ve Got Mail, and When Harry Met Sally.
Then this pattern of initial dislike and eventual love was swapped. Now the couple begins with a meet-cute, the relationship progresses promisingly, but then something comes along to break everything up. Things look pretty dire for a moment, but this is still a romance and needs to have a happy ending, so there is a triumphant moment of the couple coming back together at the end. We see this pattern taking firm hold in the late-nineties/early-2000s with titles like Notting Hill, The Notebook, and The Parent Trap.
But, of course, this pattern could not last forever either. Soon films were dropping the happy ending part entirely, and letting things end in that more dour break-up note. The couple may seem so right for each other at the beginning, but little quirks expand into major chasms, and eventually they can’t stand the person they used to love. They might come back together enough to have a mutual respect for one another, but that is all. And so in the mid-2000s-to-mid-2010s we were given 500 Days of Summer and La La Land.
Of course, patterns cycle. And so while 500 Days of Summer’s break-up finish might have felt revolutionary when it first came out, it was actually repeating another story told decades prior in Annie Hall. And the hate-each-other-then-love-each-other of You’ve Got Mail can be traced back entire centuries to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Tipping Your Hand)
But while the overarching trend of genres is one of subversion and defying the audience’s expectation, each of these films on an individual level still follows the rule of establishing a pattern and adhering to it in a predictable way. Especially upon a second viewing one is able to appreciate how the later plot points were being seeded early on.
For example, La La Land opens with our two would-be-lovers aggravating one another on the road. Significantly, each of them is trying to reach a destination related to their dream-careers, which they are chasing at the expense of courtesy for one another. Now, just from that opening, is it any wonder that their eventual relationship does not last, overridden instead by their pull to their careers? Later, when they have a moment where their dreams are in alignment, they are able to be together, but they were always going to drive apart again in the end.
You’ve Got Mail, on the other hand, opens with our two-would-be-lovers exchanging sincere and heartfelt messages, connecting remotely, while growing increasingly more disillusioned with their current partners. Sure, when they meet in person things do not get off to a good start, but already the film has established a tone of these two converging, bit-by-bit overcoming each element of opposition until nothing remains in their way. The ending, once again, is obvious.
And this is key. Yes, it is fine to try and disrupt the genre as a whole, and if you go against the grain you may surprise your reader in a delightful way. But… even if this is your intention, still your story must be true to itself. It should never disrupt itself. Defy genre conventions by all means, but do not make promises and establish expectations at your story’s outset, betray those later, and expect the audience to enjoy that experience. You will not come across as bold and unconventional, only as inexperienced. If a story begins as one thing and ends as another, then it simply appears that the writer was not skilled enough to establish a believable sequence of cause-and-effect to tie their intended beginning to their intended ending.
In the end, we look down on a two-faced story just as much as we look down on a two-faced person. We want our stories to know themselves and be themselves. We want them to have an identity, and to be consistent to it. And while we may want them to surprise us, we want them to do so in a way that feels fitting and authentic with what has already transpired.
In my own story I have sown seeds of somberness and doomed fate, and I have then tried to remain consistent to those throughout the whole. I am now fast approaching the end, and it is especially important to me that everything tie off in a way that satisfies every raised expectation. With this Thursday’s post, try and consider what ways I am answering the themes raised at the beginning of the story.
Mira shrugged. “What can you be? You have no ultimate fate, no place of belonging…what is there to define you?”
“I suppose…having no fate is itself a fate. No place could itself be considered a place.”
She nodded. “I suppose so. But the population there must be very small indeed.”
“It must be only one.”
“Yes. Otherwise it would not be ‘no fate’ or ‘no place.’ Tell me, do you know how you were born?”
“How I was–? What? No. I know nothing of the matter.”
“Perhaps you weren’t!” she breathed
“What are you saying?! I must have been born!”
“Yes, of course,” she shook her head. “Please, you should pay no mind to half the things that I say. As I told you, I am a dreamer, and my fancies come over me so that sometimes they seem real enough to speak of them. I’m sorry.”
“That’s alright. They are…interesting to me. They sound of nonsense, yet ring of truth…Oh look at me, I’m sounding just like you now.”
She smiled. “We all start sounding alike once we get talking to one another. Haven’t you noticed? It is unavoidable here.”
“But who was the first to sound this way, then?”
She grinned broadly at the question. “Now that I have never wondered about. Was it one of our ancestors that spoke so? Or is it dictated by the Mind of the Wheel?” Her eyebrow raised. “Perhaps it was me who dictated it all along, reaching through the past for generations to set my people in harmony for when I came!”
I smiled. “It’s a lovely thought, but I don’t think so. Just listen to yourself speaking right now, it’s an entirely different voice! You fall back into that weightless, refined way of talking that everyone else has from time-to-time, but then you have these moments of eyes flashing and expressions of wonder! And I think that that is the genuine you. It the moments where you scrape your identity back from the pull of the masses.”
She laughed. “You truly do know yourself so well, and me even better than I know myself! You are so grounded, which is strange for one who has no fate. And I float so freely, when my fate is the most grounded of them all. But perhaps that is how these things work. You stand apart from the spinning of our world upon its axis, and thus can see so clearly what is only a blur to us pinned upon it. I know what you are now. You are a phantom, a ghost that momentarily lays at a tangent to our world. Would you…would you hold my hand?”
She held out her palm and I gladly took it.
“Oh, it’s so cold!” she exclaimed.
“Sorry,” I said and tried to pull my hand back, but she seized upon it all the more earnestly.
“No, it’s alright. Just let me hold it, and I’ll have you warmed up in no time!”
“But your hands are so small,” I smiled.
“So? Don’t you be underestimating me now!” She eagerly rubbed her thumbs over the back of my hand, and indeed I felt a refreshing heat starting to spread throughout my fingers. “There, you see? You thought unfairly of me. Though I suppose it’s only natural when you have been marked separately from the rest of us. That must make you assume that there is nothing we transient folk can offer you?”
“Hmm…I suppose that I have always had a sense of not being able to rely upon another.”
“And you are right. None of us will be able to follow you on your journey for very long. We can only walk a short distance with you, and you must do very much alone. But that doesn’t mean we cannot help you in the moment. You do not have to deny what simple things we can and do offer. Never forget that, Graye.”
“Thank you.” We were silent for a moment. “My hands are very rough, as well, aren’t they?”
“Yes, very,” she laughed. “You are accustomed to hard labor? Of course you are. Tell me, what is your work like?”
“Nothing of note. It is a menial labor, and with no purpose such as your people have here. I carry things that people need from one place to another, that is all. We travel far, we see many things, we lift and pull and sweat all day.”
“But you chose this work? That is correct, isn’t it, that people choose their work out in the greater world?”
“Some of them do. Some of them have it chosen for them. Some, like me, made their own choice, but from very few options. It was either this or work the fields.”
“Ah, so a very isolated choice, but still a choice! And why did you not work the fields?”
“I don’t know. It wasn’t right for me.”
“Working a field feels too much like belonging,” she suggested and I nodded. “You weren’t born to make deliveries either, but you were born to wander, and the vocation you chose brought you nearer to that.”
“And you were born to belong?”
“Yes. I belong here more than any other.”
“You keep saying things like that, but then why are you so different from anyone else that I’ve met here? You hardly seem a part of them at all.”
“I belong here, but not to them. These people–they are surveyors, they are measurers, they are outsiders come to delve into the Void. But I? I belong to the Void!”
I gasped, though I knew not why. I could not even fathom what such a statement like that even meant.
“Yes,” she continued. “They are the strangers and I am the native. They are stewards, but mine is the crown.”
“What does–? How does–? In what way–?” I wondered to myself how she could claim to belong to the Void, an entity so empty and blank, yet she was so full of life that it seemed to burst from every tip of her hair.
“But that is the evidence that I am of the Void,” her eyes flashed as she read my mind. “It is like a magnet, all negative on one side, but all positive on the other. The very fact that the Void is so empty and hollow within requires it me to be so vivacious and exuberant without. I am all life, Graye! I am all passion!”
Her voice was raising almost to a shout and her fingers were frantically clutching at and releasing my own hand. A deep flush was rising from the base of her neck and into her cheeks, and her eyes opened wide and refused to blink.
“I feel so much!” she exclaimed. “I am overcome by wonder and amazement everywhere! I find all this world so fascinating, but I find you even more. You and I, Graye, we are each one of a kind, but in such opposite ways. I am the Void, and thus the foundation beneath this entire world. I am the single, null dimension upon which all has been established, and through which all new reality is about to burst. But you, you are a drifter and a shadow, phasing past this world, having little to do with these people, and nothing to do with me. You have paused here very briefly, to make contact, but now I shall retract into infinite nothingness, while you expand to fill infinite everything. And then, when we are perfectly nothing and perfectly everything, then at last we might be together.”
Her voice was so shrill, her face so manic, that I felt a genuine fear of her. A strange thing for one so small and slight as she. No sooner did the unease enter my mind, though, then she blinked rapidly, and slowly the trance pulled away from her eyes, and once more I felt that I looked into the eyes of Mira. She looked away, then back to me sadly.
“I’m sorry, Graye. Please forgive me. These things are in me…I don’t understand them…”
I gave half a smile. “These are strange times we live in. Only promise me one thing. Whatever other voices that clamor within you, promise me that there will always remain something of Mira. Something of Mira forever?”
She grimaced. “Oh you poor boy.” She said it kindly, and with sincere sorrow. “Don’t you know that it is the sweetest things that are the most transitory? The quickest to bloom are the first to fade away forever. The brighter I burn, the sooner I expire.”
“No,” I blinked back tears. “Don’t say that!”
“Don’t weep for what must be temporary,” she sighed, touching her hand to my face. “This is why you are remiss to accept kindness from us fleeting souls, isn’t it? It is a hard thing for the unending to accept ends. The sweetness of my moment will fill me to the end, but never can fill you.”
“Never,” I wept.
She wrapped her arms around my head and pulled it down to rest in the crook of her neck. “But a moment is infinite in its own way, Graye. In its time it never expires.”
“That…doesn’t make sense.”
“If you stretch yourself to infinity then all moments become literally nothing, occupying no space whatsoever. But if you shrink yourself down into a moment, slow down time until you possess nothing more than a single tick, then that moment is everything, it is the entire infinite. There is no difference between living in a moment and living forever. They are two paths to the same.”
“Then…when I am infinite moments…will I be able to enter your single infinite moment?”
She drew back and looked me in my tear-stained eyes. “I hope so, Graye. How I hope so. But come now. I have something to show you.”
Of course I required no persuading. She turned and began to walk off towards the hole in the wall that led back to the city and I followed. But no sooner did we set out than we realized how we had whiled away the hours during our conversation. It seemed impossible for a whole day to have passed, but somehow it had. The sun was already lowering to the horizon, and night would soon be upon us.
And we, unwittingly, had spent much of our conversations idly pacing around in a circle, no doubt moved by the wheel to expire our quota of steps before the day came to its close. And so it was, while we were yet twenty paces from the wall, our feet grew so heavy that it seemed impossible to take another step. There simply was no other option but to set down right where we were, and make our night upon the cool stones.
And so I lay down there, and Mira lay down six steps ahead of me. We turned to look at one another, longing and sorrow in our eyes. I extended my hand out to touch her and she held out hers for me. But we were out of reach.
On Monday I spoke about characters that become immortal in our minds. Some figures make such a strong impression that they become the very embodiment of an idea, and thus are forever brought to the foreground whenever that idea comes up. For example, who can hear of terms like tragic love and shattered youthfulness without thinking of characters like Romeo and Juliet?
Trying to accomplish such an impact in my own story is no small feat. Indeed, I would say that my chances of success are always very slim. Even in the hands of the most skilled writers, the majority of their characters will slip into the forgotten. Still, I endeavored to do what I could, by writing out scenes for Mira and Graye that were extremely expressive and full of wonder. If there were any concepts for these characters to stake their claim on, I wanted it to be that of awe for the infinite, and for the tragedy of would-be-lovers whose lines run parallel, and thus are forever destined to be close, yet never intersect.
Of course there is still more that I intend to do in this story to try and make these characters immortal. I am still leading up to my climatic scene of destruction, which will sever these two from each other in a particularly somber way.
Obviously that somber ending will hardly come as a surprise, the story has been moving towards such a conclusion for quite a long while now. I imagine that even if I had not started the tale by detailing what was would transpire at the end, that I could still pause here, ask the audience what they thought would happen, and every person would have more or less an accurate idea of what would follow.
Readers understand that where there is tension there must be release, where there desire there must be opportunity, and where there is betrayal there must be a reckoning. They are able to see the shape of the story as it shifts from one scene into the next, and by that induce how the story will now shift into the next.
Or at least they can if the story is well-formed. For there are stories that do not follow this convention, and they tend to feel feels random and inconsistent. But let’s take some time to examine this notion in greater detail. In my next post we will consider some famous examples of stories with clearly defined trajectories, and the reasons why they feel so satisfying to us when we read them.
Full Days Writing: 5
Partial Days Writing: 3
New Words: 1376
New Chapters: 0.3
Total Word-count: 47,133
Total Chapters: 13.3
For a while now I have reported declining numbers each month, and each month come up with a plan to resolve that, and each month that plan hasn’t worked. Consider how many words I have written each succeeding month this year:
A very steady trend down, and fast approaching zero. For June I said I was going to start tracking partial days and full days of writing, in order to encourage me to write something even if only a small amount.
Ultimately, that did not pan out. I’m sure I could make up a number of excuses for why my numbers are continuing to decline, such as starting at a new job and generally having less time due to the new baby in our family, those reasons would sound hollow. The simple truth is that my motivation has been declining. There have been many days in the past months where I could have written…and just didn’t want to.
I am far from giving up on this project, though. I still do care for the story, and frankly have put in too much time and effort to call it quits now. I’m still going to keep working on it, and will hold myself to a higher standard moving forward.
To this end, I am making the following changes: no more partial-days/full-days, no more “my goal is to write this many days for the month,” no more set amounts of time to write for, and no more set amounts of words. We’re just going to go back to basics. My goal is to write every day, full stop.
I will still track how many days I write, and how many words, so that I can measure trends, but there will be no more quotas. This might seem counter-intuitive for increasing productivity, but really I just want to get rid of all the clutter and bring the focus back to pure writing. Perhaps this plan will backfire, in which case I’ll just re-evaluate it at the start of next month.
Wish me luck!
Though I wrote very little for the month of June, I did write some, and here is a snippet from that work. Enjoy!
The next day William digs some burlap sacks out of their gear and throws them in a pile on the ground, next to his cutlass and field journal.
“How many sugarcanes are out there?” Clara asks him.
“I think it actually is just ‘sugarcane,’ even when you’re talking about more than one.”
“Never mind, it doesn’t matter.”
“Oh, so how many sugarcanes are there.”
“No, see, if there is just one sugarcane you just say ‘one sugarcane.’ And if there are two sugarcane you still just say ‘two sugarcane.’ Just like ‘one sheep,’ and ‘two sheep.'”
“So how many…”
“…sugarcane are there?”
“Well…I didn’t count their number exactly, but back when I was taking inventory of the island I did estimate what I saw. A few dozen here, about a hundred there, and so on. In any case there’s more than a thousand of them.”
“More than a thousand!”
“Or at least there had better be! I’m counting on it!”
“So that we have enough for filling our field?”
“Exactly. Each cane that I bring back should give us about four or five setts–that’s what you call the chunk you plant in the ground that the new stalk grows from–and it will take more than sixty-six hundred of those to fill our whole field!”
“Well Daddy is going to be busy all day!” Clara laughs to Eleanor, who is now walking up to the two.
“Aren’t we all, and every day?”
“Yes, and with no holidays,” Clara pouts.
“Now that is a problem” William concedes. “But for now, the cane isn’t going to wait.” He picks up all of the supplies that he has prepared, kisses his wife and daughter goodbye, and treks off for the first cluster.
I have always found it interesting which character names I am able to remember, and which ones I am not. For example, I struggle to remember the name of the young boy in the film Up. He is one of the two central characters, I can picture him and hear his voice, yet I draw a blank on his name until Google informs me that it is Russell. On the other hand, I can tell you that the old man and his wife are Carl and Ellie. No question about it, I just know it.
Carl is the other main character, of course, but Ellie is hardly featured in the film at all. And yet I remember her, simply because her character hooked into me through one of the film’s deeply emotional scenes. The scene in question takes place late in the film, when Carl looks through an old photo album Ellie had been filling out before her death. He finds a surprise towards the end of the book, she had left a hidden message for him, urging him to go and find a new adventure. It was, I thought, the most charged moment of the entire film. And so I remember her.
We often speak of a hook relating to the beginning of the story as a whole, but it also applies to a character as well. Writing a bland character with a colorful name isn’t going to be enough, the character also needs to have something about them which makes a strong impression in your mind.
Darth Vader’s memorability is not due to having a unique name and being the “main villain,” but because of his wonderfully haunting portrayal. Black, glossy, half-machine-half-skeleton, with a strained, laborious breath and deep, rich voice. That appearance is so striking and vivid that one can’t help but internalize his image forever. From the very first moment he appears on screen he is like no one else in that move, and remains so throughout the entirety of the saga.
Sherlock Holmes could have just been “that detective with a weird name,” if not for how distinctive Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made his introduction. In that scene Holmes effortlessly dissects even the minutest details of his new acquaintance, John Watson. Yes, that treat was then replicated so frequently that it lost its punch, but the first time you experience it, the effect is so novel and delightful that it will stick with you for a lifetime.
Oedipus has obviously come to be the punchline of an uncomfortable joke, the defining element of an awkward complex. But therein lies the evidence of how strong a hook he was written with. The uncomfortable nature of his relationship to mother and father has immortalized him, making his name long outlive his own story. For the masses have generally forgotten the narrative perfection of his tale’s irony, but the idea of Oedipus continues forever.
The Story of the Character)
Each of these characters becomes an icon of their story because they are, themselves, an entire story on their own. Even without telling the greater narrative of the one ring, I could regale you with the isolated account of Frodo leaving his beloved Shire to enter the wider world. I do not have to explain the international drama between England and France in A Tale of Two Cities to explain the aching beauty of Sydney Carton’s sacrifice. I don’t have to plot out all the twists and turns of Treasure Island to get you to appreciate the excitement of a young boy, Jim Hawkins, finding himself in possession of a Treasure Map.
Frankly these characters are sometimes even bigger than the story that contains them. Most people don’t know how the legend of Robin Hood ends, and those that do find it rather lackluster. But the idea of a brilliant archer traipsing around in a disguise, directly beneath his enemy’s nose, seeking to “rob from the rich to give to the poor” is so strong an image that his ending doesn’t even matter.
Thus these characters are immortal because their moments are immortal. Indeed, a character written well will not only survive longer than the knowledge of their tale, but even the lifespan of entire nations. Many governments have risen and fallen since the introduction of Gilgamesh, Arjuna, Juliet, Snow White, Aladdin, and Hercules, yet they continue to stand through every changing tide.
There is one other key element that defines all of these timeless characters. Each one of them is the definition for some idea or archetype. Robin Hood reinvented what it means to be an ordinary man standing against oppression for what is right. Any character that wishes to be as timeless as he, must reinvent that wheel in a way that somehow rings more true to us than his story does.
Tom Sawyer personifies rowdy youth, Captain Ahab relentless vengeance, and Romeo youthful tragedy. We remember Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde because of how well they speak to our sense of dual nature. William Tell sticks in the mind for the ingeniously cruel situation of only being able to save your son by shooting an apple off of his head.
Each of these characters takes an idea, and wraps it in a new invention: a story. Then, any time we think of that idea, we think of the character, we think of the story, and they become a shorthand for expressing the condition of human life.
With my latest story I have been trying to write an ode to impending doom, to inescapable fate, to incontrovertible destruction. My aim is to write something that captures the essence to such a degree that it redefines the term. I want my characters to live on as the personifications of these ideas. Difficult and arrogant? Absolutely. A story character only ever manages to accomplish this once in a very, very, very long while. But still it is the goal I always try to reach for. Otherwise, my stories and my characters are guaranteed to soon be forgotten.
The next day, when we awoke, we briefly discussed how if the theories of these people were correct, then this was to be the last normal day of our lives. One full, ordinary day, and then, on the next, everything would change.
And as I have suggested before, it wasn’t as though we us doubted the theories of these people. Even before they had disclosed their plot, we had already felt the gist of it. Felt it when we were still back at Peyrock plantation and read our charter. Felt it every step of our journey. Felt it when we saw the void and stepped within these strange walls.
If the locals here had tried to keep the purpose for summoning us a secret, still we would have requested to stay in the Coventry for a few days. And if they had denied that, we would have taken camp just without the walls. For we would have felt the electricity in the air, would have sensed the cloud of doom, would have felt our lives rushing to meet their apex. It would have been like when a great beast stalks you, and you do not perceive it by your eyes or ears, yet you can feel that it is there.
So what were we to do with one final day in the world as we knew it? Each of us felt it was only right to spend the moment apart from one other. Let each man go and find his own private shrine, his own method of solace, his own way to connect to life and bid it farewell. We had never truly parted ways the day prior, after diverging we had then converged right back together at the Slab Altar. This time each path would truly be our own.
When I left I did not know what I was looking for. I wandered the streets aimlessly, trying to find something that would call to me, something that would feel right in my soul. I say I wandered aimlessly, but there was one intentionality: I tried to follow the most barren streets that I could. Each road was more desolate than the prior, and so I meant to slip further and further into my solitude.
Presently I wasn’t walking across roads at all, for I was beyond any structure that required them. My way opened into an open field, dotted here and there by clumps of fine, gray grass. I was coming quite near to the walls, at a section that I had not seen previously. To my surprise, the walls on either side of me sloped steeply down into nothing, leaving a wide and intentional opening in the place’s fortifications. Perhaps these walls were not for protection? But for what, then?
Mulling that over I passed through the portal and continue with the field as it gently sloped up to a small crest, upon which stood a solitary tree. I had seen a few of these trees as we journeyed here. They were very sparse, interrupting the otherwise unbroken landscape perhaps once every square mile. Each of them appeared to be dead, entirely blackened in their branches and featuring absolutely no leaves whatsoever. Their limbs stood out naked and at irregular angles, giving the illusion of a creature frozen in pain.
Slowly I crept up to it. It seemed so delicate that I felt if I made too much noise it might just wither into dust and blow away. Presently I stepped into its shadow, and as I did so I discovered a most strange phenomenon. Most prominent in that shadow was the outline of the tree and its branches, just as one would expect, but then there was also a sort of soft haze–a partial shadow–in between the sections cast by the branches, and this half-shadow answered to no form of the tree that I could see. Nor was it stationary, rather it sort of shimmered and overlapped, growing thicker at some places and thinner at others, like smoke that billows into itself and apart again.
With a frown I stared up at the spaces between the branches of the tree, and presently came to see that there was a haze between them as well. Was it a heat haze? Perhaps the branches of this tree focused the sun’s radiation in some way?
I extended my hand, reached into the haze, and felt something so slight that I almost missed it entirely. It felt as if I was pressing my fingers through a curtain that only half-existed. I pinched my fingers together and it was like holding the finest paper imaginable, one so frail that it remained in my grasp for only a moment, then disintegrated into nothingness.
“It is leaves,” I said. “Leaves that are thinner than anything I know…. So the tree is alive.”
I smiled and scanned over it with my eyes. I gazed over tortured limbs, knobbly joints, bark as black as onyx, and a woman’s face right beneath my outstretched arm: youthful, beautiful, and staring back at me in utter amusement.
“Oh!” I cried in surprise.
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly, but was unable to suppress her laugh. “I didn’t mean to frighten you, I really thought you would have noticed me before!”
“You–you’ve been standing there this whole time?” I asked in disbelief, clutching at my heart.
“The whole time,” she nodded. “To tell you the truth, you were so enraptured in this tree, and so oblivious to me, that I was half wondering if I hadn’t turned invisible, or become a ghost!”
“You thought you had become a ghost?”
“Well…of course not really. But you must know how it is, when you get so lost in your fancies that they almost seem to be real?”
“But why didn’t you say something?”
“I wanted to see what would happen,” she shrugged playfully. “I half expected you were going to turn and walk away without seeing me at all. Then I would have known for sure that I was a ghost!”
My heart was still racing, but the more she spoke, the more I couldn’t help but be soothed by her soft and fervent voice. Her eyes had a tremendous earnestness to them, and I could tell she was never far from seeing hidden wonders in the world, beauty in things that others would consider mundane. Thus I couldn’t help but release my frustration, and instead felt an intense desire to know this young woman better.
“Who are you?” I finally asked.
“Mira. And who are you?”
“My name is Graye. I’m one of–”
“You’re one of those boys from so far away. You came in the caravan that delivered the scrying sticks to us. Of course, I know.”
“And you’re–you’re a member of the Coventry.”
“Naturally. Specifically I am of the seventh house, given the charge of caretaking for all the other houses.”
“Oh, I don’t know anything about that.”
“The Coventry is composed of seven great houses, and each one has a different responsibility. The first house is the Priests of Oolant, who actually perform all of our ceremonies. The second house is the Scribes, who keep careful ledgers of every action and cycle-fulfillment. The third is the Researchers. The fourth is the Rememberers. The fifth is the Populaters. The sixth is the Growers. And we, of the seventh, are the Caretakers.”
“I see,” and inwardly I thought that surely each house was numbered according to its importance, hence why the first house was reserved for the priests. What a pity it must be for her to be of the seventh.
“No, that isn’t true at all!” Mira piped up. “I know the greater world can be petty and rank one group of people over another, but really things are not like that here. We Caretakers are considered just as essential in our role as the priests.”
“What?” I said defensively. “I didn’t say otherwise!”
Her eyes narrowed. I tried to hold the gaze, but finally my eyes turned down to my feet. “Do you know everything of my mind?” I asked bashfully.
“Only what you wear on the surface….
“Like clothing,” I said at the exact same moment as her. I smiled at that, but of course she was very familiar with such things, being a native of this place.
“Is anyone ever able to know another’s mind any deeper?” I asked.
“Yes, individuals can grow quite intimate with one another’s mind.”
“And…have you ever?”
“That is considered a rude question,” she said, but smirked playfully as she did so.
I looked away bashfully, and then felt all the more bashful for knowing that she could still sense my mind. She didn’t appear offended in the least.
“So…do you enjoy being a caretaker?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“I do. I find it very satisfying. Obviously there are pleasantries to some of the other houses that we do not enjoy. But if one enjoys the work of caring for the old and sick, for keeping things clean and orderly, for fixing and building anew, then one can be happy. And I do. I find it very satisfying.”
“What pleasantries are afforded to the other houses?”
“Well, the Researchers get to explore and discover, of course. And everyone envies the Scribes for being the the voice of information. The Populaters…well I’m sure you can imagine what for them.”
I wasn’t sure, and I cocked my eyebrow in confusion. Then I saw how she blushed and I didn’t need a shared-mind to understand why.
“Oh!” I exclaimed. “The artificially inflated populations, yes I see! Back home they–well they tell stories about that.” Privately I thought to myself that I was quite glad Mira did not belong to the House of Populaters. But of course it was not a private thought, and before I could hide it Mira smiled coyly.
It was a very awkward, very vulnerable place to be. I had the sense that Mira was more attuned to understanding the mind than any of the others I had met in this land, and that meant feeling perpetually exposed in ways that I was naturally uncomfortable with. Yet in spite of all that, I didn’t want to go. I was enjoying her presence, and I hoped that she did not regret being in mine.
“It’s alright. I like talking to you,” she offered sweetly.
She shrugged. “I just do. Why do you like being with me?”
“You’re very sincere…and beautiful.”
“Well, you seem to know yourself quite well, don’t you? Most people are not so aware of themselves, and why they want what they do.”
“I suppose I’m too much in wonder of other things to properly understand myself. They tell me I’m a daydreamer.”
“What were you doing here under the tree before I came?”
“Yes, but what of?”
“The completing of the cycle, and all that happens next?”
“No, I care very little about that.”
“You what?! But what could matter more?”
She shrugged. “Nothing. Yet I just don’t care. It has everything to do with the world, but nothing to do with me.”
I furrowed my brow and she glanced away.
“I know that’s a strange thing to say, but it just doesn’t. I far prefer, for example, talking with you than thinking about that. That has to do with me.”
“Then what were you thinking about of tomorrow, if not of the cycle?”
“Oh, just of my day, my comings and goings, the little things that I must do.”
For the first time she sounded just like everyone else, talking about things that were only surface-deep, and clearly concealing something else.
“Please,” she said softly. “Could we speak about us?”
I nodded slowly, and let my unsaid questions dissipate.
“Tell me, then, what does it mean to be a Graye?”
“Well,” I said, “I am from a small hamlet called Omayo. I was born in the third year of the worst famine that region has ever known. I was the seventh child, but I never knew of my brothers and sisters. All of them died before I was aware of anything.”
“Was there an eighth?”
“No. I was alone.”
“So…you were one of seven, and alone.”
“And when you entered our village you were one of seven of forty, and yet just as alone.”
“There were forty Treksmen assigned to this campaign, were there not?”
“Yes, but one of them died before we left, and three more refused to accompany us.”
“Perhaps they were not with you on the road, but I assure you that they have each wandered this quest in their own ways. We are all called, and even if we try to run from the calling, we inadvertently fulfill it. The one who died before the journey even began, that was what he was called to do.”
“You know him?”
“I sense him through you.”
“So I and my companions who survived? We did so because that was our fate?”
“At that point, yes. But your fates do diverge. I knew it from when I first watched you arrive. As I said, you entered with seven, but already you were marked alone.”
“Marked for what?”
“The same for which you were marked among your seven siblings: to be the only one to survive.”
“My companions…are going to die?”
“A great many of us are about to die. Almost all. Surely you have felt that? Everyone here can feel that. It is so sure that it may as well have already occurred.”
“But not me,” I breathed.
“You know it. I can tell. You have always known that you were marked to be a survivor. Though you did not know what lay before you on the road, you always knew that your fate was beyond it. To what, you do not know. There is a saying here, that one is not known until they are all known. Meaning you have told me where you came from, and normally I would say that is insufficient until you can also tell me where you are going. But in your case, matters are different, aren’t they? For you are endless.”
“And, if endless…” I began slowly.
“Then there is nowhere to which I can belong.” We said it in unison.
On Monday I spoke about introducing a character at the end of a tale, and how they can still feel significant to the story by making them an extension of arcs that are already in play. That was the approach I took with Mira, allowing her to be the voice of the themes that have permeated the story ever since it began. The hope is that even though her name is new, she will feel like someone we have already known for a long while.
But this was not the only trick I tried to utilize to make her stick in the reader’s mind. I made a special effort to write her in a flirtatious, fun, and dreamy manner. Romance has not been an element of the story thus far, and hopefully this unique conversation will make the moment all the more impactful on the reader.
It was an interesting thing getting to know my wife. Of course I didn’t know that she was going to be my wife when I first met her. At first her role in my life was simply that of “intriguing woman.”
But as I said, it was interesting getting to know her, and it was because of how quickly she became integrated into my story. It was only a short time later, just a matter of months, that I came to realize she was now one of the most important individuals in my life. I remember at the time finding that a very strange thing. I realized that some of the conversations I was having with her were already more open and honest than I had ever had with another person. I had spent my whole life around other people, and I had always thought that I was very close to them. But now she came, and in a matter of months, not decades, knew me better than they did.
Many of our bonds in life are formed slowly, over the long march of time. The individual strands are woven together, one or two each day, until a powerful cord is formed. But this is not true for all of our relationships. Some of them come out of the blue and get straight to our roots, and do so almost immediately.
I had a similar experience when I started meeting with a therapist and a recovery group. The transition from complete strangers to intimate friends was, if possible, even more jarring here. Literally the same day that I met these people, I was disclosing things that I hadn’t been able to say to anyone else. In some cases, things I wasn’t even yet ready to say to my wife.
Over the next weeks, as each individual shared more and more of their story, I found myself being inserted into their experience. They were inviting me right into the formative years of their childhood, and I was inviting them into mine.
We became fast friends, in fact I consider them to be my best friends. And not because we’re the best of buddies who share so many common interests. In fact, to be frank, most of these people were not the friends that I would have chosen for me under normal circumstances. We all had very different hobbies, demographics, ages, and life philosophies. Under normal circumstances I would have considered them a nice acquaintance, but nothing more.
But these weren’t normal circumstances. These people were part of my story now. I had no choice but to love them.
Closure and Final Acts)
I believe one reason why we are able to grow close to people who have only just arrived in, is because our future is unknown. Since we do not know the exact path of tomorrow, it is entirely possible that this new face is a hinge that we are about to turn on. If something about the situation tells us that this person is significant, we pay attention.
Most of us have years left to live, after all, and that is plenty of time for a new face to start mattering to us very much. At any point of life we might be about to discover a new arc in our story.
But this doesn’t work so well in fictional stories. When new characters introduce themselves in the third act, we’re usually keenly aware that it is the third act, and therefore know that they only are here to help resolve the previous arcs, not to begin any new ones.
And yet…there is a way to introduce a new character at the very end of a story, and still have them be significant to it. The secret is not to have them introduce a new arc that ends before it begins, it is to have them tie directly into an already-existing arc, one that has been running ever since the beginning of the tale.
Roots in the Past)
An example of this would be the introduction of Private Ryan in the Steven Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan. The film goes on for a very long while before the character is revealed, with many twists and turns to get there. Indeed, by the time we meet him all of the characters have already concluded their arcs, or are ready to. The story doesn’t have time to raise any more questions, only to start answering them.
Thus it is that Private Ryan’s arrival ushers in the final act. Given how brief of a presence he has in the story, his own arc is very brief. There is only a small conflict that he must resolve, and the process of doing so is quite straightforward.
And yet, in spite of all this, Private Ryan does not feel like a tacked-on character who is only relevant to the finale. He feels absolutely integral to the entire tale that has transpired, even before he appeared on the screen. For even if his face has not been present, his shadow has been.
Because, you see, the entire film has been all about him, even without him there. The premise of the movie is that a squad is sent to find him and bring him home. Each adversity that they face to carry out that task, every loss they suffer, every companion who dies in the effort…all of it brings them back to the same question, over and over: is this sacrifice worth the saving of one man?
And the fact that he is an enigma through the majority of the film actually increases that tension, because they aren’t making the sacrifice for a friend, but for a complete stranger. So then it becomes a story about principles and morals, and whether those words have any meaning in the heart of a war.
Thus by the time Private Ryan shows up on the scene, we have already been discussing him a great deal, thinking about him a great deal, forming all manner of opinions about him. We feel that we already know him extensively, even though we’re just barely meeting him. He is a central character to the story, even if he graces it with his physical presence but for a moment.
In Raise the Black Sun I want to take this notion one step further. I am about to introduce a brand new character, one who I intend to feel interwoven with everything that has come before. Unlike Private Ryan she has not been spoken about by name, but she has been spoken about.
Because, you see, all throughout the story there has been a strong theme of a doomed fate. It has hung over every scene like a thick cloud about to burst. With the next section of my story I am going to introduce a young woman who will come to personify that theme to our main character. She will take everything that has been allegory, and put her face to it. So even though I have not spoken her name at any point previous, my hope is that it will feel like we were already talking about her the whole time, we just didn’t know it. Come back on Thursday to see if I’m able to pull that off.
Here, too, I found the reality far removed from that which I had imagined. Whenever I had heard of “sacrifices,” I had pictured a captive bound and struggling upon a raised altar, while some unholy priest recited incantations in a strange tongue, then plunged a curved blade into the victim’s heart.
But this was not so.
The officiators of the sacrifices were called priests, and they did wear ceremonial black clothing, but here the similarities to my fantasy ended. There were three of these priests overseeing the work, and they calmly stood upon the center of the Slab Altar, while a communion of Coventry citizens waited patiently to the side.
When the priests were ready for their next subject, a single individual would emerge from the ranks of the communion, softly step onto the stone, and glide across it to the priests waiting at the center. There were no words spoken in this process, and I wondered how each next individual knew that it was there time to be offered up. No director called out names, no lots were drawn, there was no discussion of any sort. But also there was never a time where two started forward at the same time moment and then had to decide which of them was actually to go, nor was there ever a moment’s pause from when the priests finished with one subject and the next began his or her march forward. Somehow each person just knew that it was their turn, and went forward to fill that station, without the slightest sign of hesitation or doubt.
The Slab Altar was such a wide piece of stone, that standing off of its edge I could not hear the words that transpired in the middle, where all the business was carried out quietly and calmly. But it was clear that one of the priests was some sort of greeter, and he was always the one that first hailed the subject when he or she arrived, and the two would then exchange a few short words.
I gathered he must have been asking them their name, for then he would turn to the second priest, who inscribed upon a long scroll that rolled out of a large box at its bottom, and then rolled back into the box at its top. It was belted around his waist, and had knobs on the side for scrolling his parchment when the current portion of it was filled. A few more words were exchanged, perhaps to verify the subject’s commitment, perhaps to recite some special words, I do not know.
But after those words the subject proceeded five yards farther to the third and final priest, who was the executioner. This priest did not wear the same frightful hood as executioners in our own corner of the world, but he was blindfolded by a long and thick length of black cloth. There was also a half-band around the back of his head, covering his ears, so that he was deaf as well as blind.
Clearly the priest was not to know the person to whom he would perform his office. I wondered whether that was meant as a statement on fate, and how it falls upon us all without care for name or station, or whether it was simply to protect the executioner from the grief of knowing whenever he slew a loved one.
In any case, the only way that the executioner could know that it was time to perform his duty was when the sacrificial subject took a small hammer off of the ground and lightly tapped the priest with it upon the left shoulder. Thus he was not even permitted to feel the touch of the soul he was to sunder.
And then, when the hammer had barely so much as breathed upon the outer folds of his shoulder lapels, the executioner spun suddenly on the spot, snapped his wrists, and whirled his blade through the space where the subject stood.
A few words of that blade. It was of an enormous length, at least seven feet long, yet so narrow that from my distance it appeared little more than a wire. It held its gently curved shape with a strength that belied its thin frame, and proved time and again that it could cleanly and completely cut through anything it encountered without any loss of inertia. The priest held it at an angle, so that the blade would strike true, regardless if the subject was quite short, or quite tall.
It is not my intention to sensationalize the account of what I saw, so I shall not linger on the image of the sundered subject, but know that the blade was perfectly effective. As to what happened to the body after its halves fell upon the surface of the altar…I do not know how to describe it properly. As my companions and I had intuited the night prior, human blood was the only essence that was permitted entry into that stone, and I saw with my own eyes that this was very much the case. Indeed, it was true to such a degree that in less than a half-minute, all that remained of the body was black dust that blew away in the wind, leaving no mess to be cleaned.
I saw that fine powder blow away, the only sign of what had once been a soul, and I was reminded of the Scrayer and his strange weapon, and I wondered at that for a moment.
But then I shook my head and turned back to the executioner. As soon as he had swung his sword, he turned back to his repose, wiped a cloth down the blade, then steadily waited for the signal to swing again. His every movement was regular as clockwork, he always swung at exactly the same angle, he never hesitated even a fraction of a second after the hammer touched his shoulder.
There was never a tear, never a cry, never a shout. It was the calmest of things I have ever witnessed, nothing more than the procedural filling of a quota.
I stayed there, transfixed, through the entire afternoon. When at last the sun lowered in the sky, the crowd of potential victims dispersed, all at the same moment, as if with a shared understanding of the exact second that they were not needed. The priest with the box and the scroll tucked his pen away. The priest that had greeted the subjects took the small hammer off the ground and tapped the executioner’s right shoulder, the opposite side from what was used to signal that the executioner needed to swing his sword.
I thought that a very daring thing to do, for what if the executioner’s reflexes confused the meaning? But they did not. He felt the tap and immediately sheathed his blade, then removed blindfold and ear-guards. The three priests left, and I and my companions were left there all alone.
We turned and made our way down the streets, coming to a place where the citizens were coming out to sell their wares. I say “sell,” but there was no exchange of currency whatsoever. Indeed, I suppose the only time these people had anything to do with money was when they interacted with foreigners, such as when they had hired our caravan to bring them their bracken.
Or perhaps they had not hired it with money? Did not our masters say this was a matter that had exceeded payment? Perhaps we had been sent here simply because we were called for, nothing more than cogs within the wheel.
In any case, the citizens of this town still put out little shops, but then they abandoned them for anyone to come and take what they had need of. No one peered at wares, or weighed whether they wanted it, or haggled over prices. They strode purposefully for the things they intended and picked them up without a second glance. Everyone received exactly what they needed, and thus were not any worse for the loss of all that had been in their carts. As one might imagine, it was quite an efficient process, and the the entire township was satisfied before even an hour had passed.
“We cannot gather our carts up until you have taken your own,” a voice said beside us, and we turned to see one of the vendors there, a tall woman in gray.
“Take? But we–we haven’t brought anything of our own,” Nanth pointed out.
“It does not matter, the Mind of the Wheel moved you here, just as it moved us to make enough for your needs, as well as for our own.” She gestured, and we could see that each cart still held a small portion of its wares: food and soap and coal and everything else we might possibly need back at our room, all in just the right quantity for our number.
“The Mind of the Wheel?” Moal repeated. “It is a benevolent force, then? To take such precise care for you?”
She smiled at the thought. “Benevolence is indulgent, rewarding even beyond what has been earned. The Wheel is…far more efficient. It is a well-calibrated machine.”
“So…it is not really good.”
“But also not bad.”
Thus we went and took our wares, and as soon as we had, every townsperson packed up their cart and rolled it back to their home. Now the space was clear, and the community socialized with one another throughout the rest of the evening.
It was an evening in the streets such as I had never seen before. No rowdy taverns with drunks stumbling off of the curb, no shrill voices of a lover’s spat, no street urchins gathering in the alley to compare their pickpocketed loot.
To be sure, there was food and music, but each was reserved and careful not to intrude upon the activities of others. Many people collected around the various minstrels and lute-players and whistlers, near enough to enjoy the ambient noise, but far enough that they could carry gentle conversations with one another.
I overheard many of those conversations, but never heard a word of idle gossip. Rather they spoke mainly of their work and their ideas. In several cases one member of the party seemed to be leading all the others in a sort of logical deductive game that I did not understand.
There were other activities, too. Many tables were placed lazily all about the street, so that as I walked down it I was required to weave around games of stick-rolling, pattern sequencing, and card-based strategy. All were played out gently and calmly, without cheating or passionate competition.
And as my companions and I made our way through their fun, a fair number of the tables called out to us and gestured to their empty chairs. Several of my companions joined in the games, I did not.
For after having ambled about all the day long, I felt a strong desire for repose. I was not tired, I had been accustomed to strenuous work over the last several months after all, yet part of me urged that it was time to head back to our room.
“Did you want to go see what they are building over there?” Ro’Kano suddenly said. He was still at my side, and was pointing to a group of young adults who were assembling a tall machination from boxes, gears, and rope just a little farther down the road.
“No,” I said. “You go along, I’m going to retire for the night.”
Ro’Kano had a strange look, like he had known that I was going to say something like that. I thought I saw a small smile cross his lips.
“I’ll come with you,” he said, and so together we went back to our room. I had intended only to relax there, but no sooner had I removed my boots and washed my face than I felt the most sudden fatigue come all over me.
“I hope you don’t mind,” I said to Ro’Kano. “But I was going to turn to bed a little early tonight, you may do as you please.”
Again he smiled, and again it was a knowing grin, but did not say a word. He only watched me intently as I crossed the room to my bunk, sat on the cot, and swung my legs up onto it. As soon as I did he nodded in satisfaction.
“Eight-thousand and four-hundred steps,” he pronounced. “Exactly.”
On Monday I spoke about the character of a story, and how it not only has a personality, but individual wants and tendencies as well. Raise the Black Sun has had a particularly steady and ponderous personality to it. It takes its time, it dwells on somber topics, and it balances them out with periods of long repose. Previously the story wanted to dwell on the hopelessness of a broken caravan and I let it. Then it wanted to dwell on the idea of a machine baked into the world’s system and I let it.
For today it wanted to take a long and idle walk, one that observed the world with calm contentment. It wanted to do so, whether during the observation of quiet villagers at play, or during the observation of the masses being slaughtered. The story wanted to explore each in the same steady, measured pace and I let it.
It is an interesting character that this story has, to be sure. I am nearing its end now, and I suspect that there will only be two more sections to it.
In the next of those sections I am going to introduce an entirely new character, though. Obviously she won’t remain in the story for very long, given that she is only appearing at the very end, but I still mean for her to have quite a meaningful impact on the story. This is a bit of a challenge, as usually all the important characters are introduced early in the story, so that they have time to integrate with the deeper dramas. However, this isn’t the first time that a story has ever introduced a crucial character at the very end. Come back on Monday where we consider how other tales have dealt with this task, and then on Thursday we’ll see my own attempt at doing the same.
The best stories permeate with character. As I suggested at the end of my last post, I do not mean “characters,” in the terms of protagonist, antagonist, etc. I actually mean that the story, as a whole, has a personality that is vibrant and consistent.
When one thinks of the works of Shakespeare one thinks of a sort of story. It isn’t just a story set in a Medieval setting, for there are many medieval stories that do not feel Shakespearean. It isn’t just a story that is old, for there are many old stories that do not feel Shakespearean. It isn’t just a play…well, you get the idea.
Yes, there are many similar qualities about each of Shakespeare’s works: the setting, language, and themes, but there is also this fact that they are told with a consistent sort of flavor. Shakespeare is often referred to as “the bard,” and one really does get the sense that each of these stories are being regaled to them by some troubadour in a low-lit tavern. And so consistent is the character of these stories, that we start to feel that we can picture the person recounting them to us.
He is verbose, in no hurry to rush through anything at all. He is poetic, finding lyrical amusement in the simplest of moments, ever ready to give a moment sharpest color. He is observant, finding equal importance in a scene of epic battle, as in a lone and private soliloquy. He is both cynical and romantic, having seen the weariness of the world he knows full that there are dark and terrible things within it, but he has also watched long enough to see that eventually good does triumph and righteousness prevails.
And now, at last, we have an idea of the character in Shakespearean dramas. They are told in a way that is verbose, poetic, observant to every detail, full of darkness, but still believing in the light. Whether or not these qualities accurately convey the flesh-and-blood man called William Shakespeare, they do convey the character of his stories.
Another story might have all the trappings of a Shakespearean drama on paper, and yet feel nothing like that. Similarly a story might be set in outer space, but have this very same Shakespearean style to it.
Of course, not every story has such a strong personality to it. A story can be uneven in how it presents itself, or it might be consistent in a meek and understated way. It might tell you what happened, but not tell you who it itself is.
Of course these qualities are fitting descriptions for people as well. Some people are inconsistent, hopping from one manic state to another. Some people are quiet and reserved, trying to speak as little as possible. Some people love to talk, and put out a great many words, but never give you any insight as to who they, themselves, are.
And, as has been frequently observed, these usually are not the sort of people that we are drawn to. We might say that it isn’t fair that some people are more likeable than others, but fair or otherwise, we still tend to gravitate to those that show a strong and vibrant personality.
And we tend to gravitate to stories that do the same as well.
In fact, there have been times where I am arguing against naysayers of my favorite films or books, and I find myself saying “yes, yes, you’re absolutely right, the plot plays fast and loose sometimes, the characters have a few wooden lines, and that whole sequence in the middle should have been cut out entirely…. but the story is so sincere, it’s so alive, I can’t help but love it in spite of its flaws.”
And on the other hand I have argued against stories that others have loved because “even though it was very well made, very high caliber, and very impressive from a technical perspective…it just seemed too full of itself and self-indulgent for me to like it.”
Now it took me a while to realize what was going on in these defenses and critiques, but finally I figured it out. My friends and I weren’t talking about books or films, we were talking about people. We were getting so passionate about these stories because each one of them was oozing personality, to the point that they felt like a real person. Thus we stood up for the movies that had the same personalities we appreciated in flesh-and-blood people, and we criticized the ones that matched personalities of people we found off-putting.
These aren’t just stories, then, they are friends and enemies! Is it any wonder, then, why we get so defensive when someone scoffs at our favorite movie of the year? It isn’t just a film, they insulted, it’s our bosom buddy!
Choose Your Companions Wisely)
So what does all this mean for you as a writer? Well, first and foremost, choose your story’s voice, and then let it speak out! One of the greatest frustrations in mass media today is stories that are unwilling to come across too strong. They are marketed for mass appeal, and therefore go to great lengths to not offend anybody, which means they don’t dare stand for anything significant one way or another.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t have a personality, they do, it’s just a wishy-washy, tell-you-what-you-want-to-hear, two-faced, spineless, people-pleaser sort of personality. That can help your story from making any enemies, but it will also make your story struggle to find any lasting friends.
When Dashiell Hammet decided to have his stories lean heavily into noir, and gave them the voice of a gruff and weathered detective, he ensured that some people would shake their heads and say “that’s just not my type of thing.” But he also ensured that many others would fall in love with his stories.
So what is the character of my own latest story, Raise the Black Sun? Clearly a character that is grim and somber, the whole story speaks in a very melancholic, very measured way. And some people aren’t going to want to spend their time with such a mopey companion, and that’s alright, I don’t blame them. It simply isn’t the most winning of personalities.
But I’ve accepted that limitation, because I, myself, would rather like to sit with it and hear what it has to say. I will continue to do just that with my next post for it on Thursday. After all, sometimes a friend who knows how to be sad is exactly what you need.
My companions and I could tell that we had finally come to the heart of the matter and we leaned in close as our host continued to unveil the secrets of his order.
“It was years before our ancestors discovered the value of the sacrifices,” the man said. “As with everything else, the births and deaths of our people were already regulated by the turning of the wheel. That much was known.
“But about this time they began to branch their experiments into geology, and it did not take them long to unearth the Slab Altar. Of course, back then that was not its name. To them it appeared to be nothing more than a sheet of unnaturally black rock, upon which nothing ever grew. This was curious enough, though, and the more they explored its qualities, the more they found to pique their curiosity.
“For example, the tool has not been made that can so much as scratch its surface. Not even the great powers of time and erosion seem to have any effect upon it, it remains forever unchanged. For another, animals avoid it at every cost. Even ants will laboriously crawl around its perimeter rather than set foot upon it. And an ant, or any other creature, that is dropped upon its surface will instantly die and shrivel into literal nothingness. For a third, the Mind of the Wheel manifests most powerfully when standing near to or upon the surface. And finally, it is actually not a ‘slab.’ It was partially unearthed, and what we see of it now is the head of a very long and shaft of rock, thrust down through the earth at an angle, extending an estimated three thousand feet before it break out the cliff wall and come into the presence of the Void. Of course we have never dug that full distance, but it so unique of a stone that we are convinced it runs the full depth.
“As I have mentioned before, you have already felt the Mind before, when you all perceived in unison that your companions had perished under a purpose, but not necessarily for something. Go and stand upon the Slab Altar and your feelings will become all the more unified. Stay there long enough and your very actions will cease to be your own. You will start to move in trances, tracing intricate footpaths around its edges, making strange hand signs in the air.”
“We know something of this,” Bayhu spoke up, then proceeded to explain the Job Mind which steered every Treksman through their deliveries.
“Is that so?!” our host’s eyes went wide. “Thank you for telling me this. I was unaware of such things. I am convinced in some way this ‘Job Mind’ is itself a manifestation of the Wheel. If we were not already at The End, I would request my order to analyze the matter further.”
“At the end of what?” I asked.
“The End,” he said solemnly. “The End of all sacrifices. And tell me, were you aware that the first of all sacrifices began after a caravan, such as yours, delivered scrying sticks to the Coventry, just as you have done now? Many generations ago.”
“Scrying sticks?” Nanth wrinkled his brow. “No one has called them that for years, it’sjust an old superstition! They are but dried bracken, a simple fuel for burning.”
“But of course,” the man smiled. “For the populations have long since moved away from their old homes here at the Outer Reach. Oh yes, did you not know? Once this entire field was dotted with villages. Here, at the only place that scrying sticks can truly function. As the settlements left this place, the sticks would have lost their animation, being too far removed from the Wheel’s Mind. You have assumed myth of the truths that you moved from.”
“You mean…they really can show you the future out here?” Nanth asked in awe.
“What? No! Is that what your legends say? Ha, you’ve adulterated the truth as well as forgotten it! No, nothing so dramatic as that. Scrying sticks do not tell you anything…but they suggest very much. The forms that they take are an enigma, a puzzle that still has to be worked out before anything of meaning can be divined. They merely point you in the right direction.”
“And they…pointed towards sacrifices on the Slab Altar?” Ro’Kano guessed.
“They pointed towards cycles and patterns, some figures that our ancestors had already seen replicated in their experiments of the Void, some which were new to them, and answered to phenomena that would not be identified until centuries later. But the greatest truth shown by the scrying sticks was that all of these patterns directly followed upon one another. For each figure they wrote was inscribed within the others, and all in an interlaced pattern. It all combined in one great, round shape, from which our ancestors invented the name of “the Wheel.” It was clear the meaning of those figures and the picture: each cog is related. Our lives, our deaths…all of it…all are cogs bringing about one final revolution. Our coming and going, our working and sleeping, our children being born, our dying, it was all for something. The scrying sticks indicated a point at the head of the Wheel where every cycle strikes at the same moment. A point where everything comes into perfect alignment. Or rather…it showed it almost.”
Our host paused, for he had been speaking very quickly and had to regain his breath. As soon as possible he continued.
“There was a gap in the picture made by the sticks, a great chasm down the center, a tall shaft where nothing sat. And its shape was not random, our ancestors recognized the very top of it: it answered perfectly to the ratios of that mysterious slab of black rock that penetrated down into the Void. All the other cycles worked around it, but that shaft had to be filled for all their revolutions to be made complete.”
“Filled?” I asked, already sensing dread for the answer.
“The ancestors had already learned before…by a grave misfortune…that though the slab could not be cut by any tool, there was one essence that could permeate into it.”
“Human blood,” we all said in unison and he nodded.
“The shaft must be filled. The world depends on it. Our world is one of systems, those systems must emanate from the Void, for they are strongest around it. The purpose of those systems is to reach the great culmination where all come into perfect harmony. But that harmony cannot actually resonate unless the one gap in the system is filled. If the harmony does not occur, then the systems will break. They cannot restart unless they complete. And if the systems break, then surely everything that is a part of them will be destroyed…and that includes all of humanity. And so you see…the gap must be filled. And it must be filled by willing souls. The one place where the Mind of the Wheel does not compel us, we must compel ourselves. It is poetic, is it not, that in the one shaft where the system provides freedom, we must chain ourselves so to the work?”
It was a long while before any of us spoke, but at last I ventured the thought that I believe was in all of our minds then.
“But…what if not? Forgive me, but I see a great deal of conjecture, not conclusion. It could be that your ancestors saw the patterns that they wanted to see, interpreted the things that they were already looking for.”
Our host smiled, but it was pained. “As outsiders, you are not under our stricter laws, and it is well for you. For were you a citizen, you would now be executed for heresy. I am sure you did not consider it, but you sow the seeds that would break the cycle and doom us all, the greatest offense that any man can do. No, no, you needn’t apologize, as I said, you are new to our ways, and so leniency is to be expected. And…of course what you say is a natural thought to have. Of course it is. I do not blame you for it. Just as there is a gap in the cycles, there is a gap in the knowledge. It is not written out in black and white. Some of these things are technically only supposed. There are unknowns.
“But, my dear boy, this is not faith, this is science. We have the numbers, we follow the patterns and they work. We make our sacrifices without fail. Every hundred there is a tremor from the heart of the Void. Every ten thousand there is a tremor and a flash of light. Every hundred thousand is tremor, flash, and the inkling of something coming into view. Every million…and the Black Sun starts to emerge, only for a moment, but you can feel its gravity crackling. Any uncertainty of our course is answered by the effectiveness of it. And if you do not believe me now, ask yourself again tomorrow, and then the next, for already you are starting to think as we are. You will find yourself more and more convinced, just as all the rest of us, that this is the only way forward. You will feel the spirit of this place and know that this is the only right thing to do. You will share the mind of us all.”
And, of a truth, when I had suggested that the conclusions drawn by these people might be amiss, I had already felt a twinge in myself for doing so. For when he had first explained those conclusions, there was a part in me that resonated to his chorus. It was that same part that had felt a doomed fate ever since we first set out on this journey. It was a sense that this work must be done. Yes it was dire, yes it was dark, yes it was sure to culminate in something terrible…yet even so it must be. The machine could not be stopped. I could recognize that plain as day. It had to go on.
Even if for evil.
Our visit soon drew to a close. Our host concluded by explaining to us what we had already supposed: over all these generations the people of this covnetry had nearly filled the tally of the Slab Altar, nearly performed the requisite number of sacrifices to make every other set of numbers and cycles work out properly, and had done so on schedule, so as to coincide the final sacrifice with the great point of culmination.
Our dried bracken (or scrying sticks) had been sent for to make confirmation of this fact. And then, when everything was verified, the great completion of the cycles would occur three days from now, and the Black Sun would be raised from its depths to usher in the new era.
And with that he bid us farewell and sent us to retire for the day. Of course, one might wonder how our minds could rest after all these thoughts and revelations that had been awoken in them? The end of the world was upon us, what had we to do with sleep?
Yet somehow sleep we did. Fatigue injected into our veins and brought us into the same cadence of sleep which was our regular enjoyment every night that we remained at the Coventry. No doubt, this was also one of the regulated systems that our host had told us about.
The next day we had no discussion of leaving from that place. If the locals were right, then three day’s journey would hardly remove us from the cosmic events about to transpire. And if they were wrong–but, well, we had little suspicion that they were.
So there was nothing for it but to remain and bear witness to all that followed. We ambled across the streets for a time, having no clear intention for where we would go or what we would see. We parted company without a word, trailing down our own private alleys and corridors.
Except for that where I went, Ro’Kano never left my side. No matter which path I took, he followed, and whenever I asked what way he would like us to go he simply responded “oh, I don’t mind. Whichever way you’re headed.”
Well, of course I presently found myself headed to the back courtyard, where the Slab Altar rested, ready to receive its daily fill of life. And as Ro’Kano and I approached the place, we made note of each of my companions also hidden about in various nooks and alcoves.
The altar truly was a geological marvel. Pure black all across, without the slightest variation in color or shade over the whole surface. Indeed, if not for the light reflecting upon it, I would have thought it was as empty as the Void that lurked just beyond the wall.
That reflecting light presented an interesting phenomenon of its own. For at most times the Altar reflected almost no light at all, it had only two faint glimmers slowly crawling its perimeter edge on opposite sides. It took them about three minutes to each travel the half of the circle to where the other glimmer had originated, and then they expanded suddenly, swooping across the entire surface in a single, blinding glare. Then the light retracted back into those two faint points, and they began crawling around the perimeter once more.
But enough of that. No doubt you would rather hear what I have to say of the sacrifices themselves.
I spoke on Monday about how I was letting this story run pretty loose with where it wanted to go and for how long it wanted to be there. Surely that couldn’t be any more evident than in this conversation continued from the last section, where the Treksmen learn the history of the Coventry, and did so for over three thousand words!
It is funny to remember the stories I wrote as a teenager, where I could not make a moment last for even a paragraph. Events that were meant to be grand and sweeping would expire within a single page, simply because I couldn’t think of anything more to say. I certainly don’t have that problem now!
I know that this last conversation has run on for quite a long while, but it was a very important discussion, a hinge point that answers so many of the questions from before, and also raises all the new questions to be addressed by the rest of the story. I honestly felt that I could not force it through any more quickly, for to do so would have been to break the tension of the entire work.
That is an interesting idea right there: the tension of the entire work. We often speak of the “style” of a story, or its themes, or its voice, or its perspective…but I believe that all of these words are trying to get at the same thing, which none of them capture it in its entirety. On Monday I spoke about a story having “wants,” and that too hints at this “tension of the work.”
Another way to express it might be that a story has a character. Not the main character, or any other individual within the tale, but that the story itself has a personality. And the best stories have a strong one, and they remain consistent to it until the end.
Perhaps this is all a bit much, so let’s pause for now, and we’ll return next Monday to hash it out more fully. Come back after the weekend for that, and then on Thursday we’ll continue the plot of Raise the Black Sun.
Do you write a story to express yourself, or does a story express itself through your writing? Many the creative soul has spoken of being moved to make things in a particular way, following the inspiration of external sources, inventing something that they did not fully understand when they began the work. Sometimes they still didn’t understand it after it was done. This creates a sense of creations that exist apart from their creator.
Michelangelo famously declared that he did not create anything in his sculptures, he only removed the excess stone until the already-existing figure was exposed for everyone to see. Thus, in a sense, even before Michelangelo did his work, the sculpture was already in there, still totally real, even if momentarily hidden.
Many authors also speak of their stories having “wants” like that of an actual person. You might start the scene where the the hero overcomes his flaws and comes to the rescue, but when you try to put together the words they just feel forced and ill-fitting. You come to realize that redemption doesn’t fit the character as written, it isn’t the arc that he wants to follow. He wants to take you somewhere else.
At Odds With Your Character)
This might present a problem, though, because where your character does want to go might not be very useful for the work as a whole. Perhaps it gives them a truer expression, but as a side-effect leaves your story without any cathartic resolution.
So what do you do? Force them back into the bottle? Make them go through that redemptive arc, even though it feels hollow? Try to add seeds of remorse for them in earlier scenes, knowing full well that they might feel awkwardly tacked on? I don’t know about you, but I believe I’ve read and watched many stories that did exactly this. Characters are developed in interesting ways, with very real personalities and interesting needs. And then, suddenly, all of that gets cast aside as the “story” robs them of their development, so that it can tack on a totally cliché ending.
On the other hand, I’ve also seen stories that indulge in their characters long past my point of caring. If a character is very strong, then it might be well worth following them wherever they might go, but honestly, most story characters are only serviceable to a point. I have dropped off of many television series when they seemed to forget their initial premise and instead became the “main character variety hour.”
A Question of Time)
One of the most common causes I have seen for mangling the desires of a story or the desires of a character is when the work is being shoehorned into a scope that does not fit it. For example, truly interesting characters take time to fully develop. When they are part of a film that is mandated to run for two hours and no more, then all too often character development gets cut short and leaves too many things unsaid.
On the other hand, an ensemble of one-dimensional characters is excellent for developing a tight, focused narrative that delivers on a single idea, and then bows out before it can overstay its welcome. But when this platform is dragged out in a long-running television series, the original focus has to become blurred into many pointless subplots, uninteresting character dives, and drama for pure drama’s sake.
A Sharp Focus)
So how do I approach this matter in my own stories? Well it depends on the format.
For example, I am working on a novel that I want to be a particular length (80,000 to 120,000 words), deliver a single moral at its end, feature only a select few themes on the side, and close out without any loose threads whatsoever.
Given how tight and focused I want this work to be, I didn’t write a single word of my first draft until I had my characters and settings hammered out thoroughly. Early drafts saw a cast of dozens, which I realized meant either I would bloat my story out much further than intended, or else I would have to cut off some threads prematurely. Instead I scrapped that setup and brought it down to a total of four characters.
Some of those characters were too shallow in their original design, and I realized they wouldn’t remain interesting for the duration of the tale. Others were too complex, which meant they might become more interesting than the final, central message, which was intended to be greater than any single individual. Thus I redistributed character qualities, taking complexity from the ones that were too sharply defined, and giving them to the ones that were softer.
And only after I had all of my characters fully established, and in harmony with the scope or the overall tale, did I start to actually write my first draft. Undoubtedly some possible diversions were lost in managing them so closely, but that’s alright. I didn’t want diversions. I want this story to be what I want it to be, and I will do my more freeform experimentation elsewhere.
Specifically, I will do it here. One of the main points of this blog has always been to invent characters and situations that are as imaginative and complicated as I please, and then turn them loose to see what comes of it. Sometimes the well runs dry very quickly, and I don’t try to artificially extend things. Sometimes it keeps going on, week after week, because the story refuses to be wrapped up quickly. That’s fine, too.
As it turns out, my most recent story falls firmly into that last camp. When I first conceived of Raise the Black Sun, I figured it would run for about 4,000 words, maybe 6,000. It has now passed 10,000, and still going strong. The reason for this is because I come into each of these short stories with only a loose outline, and then let the work roam freely between each checkpoint.
And yes, sometimes they roam outside of their boundaries, in which case I change the plot to accommodate where they want to go instead. It is incredibly indulgent, and that’s entirely the point. Being able to cut loose like this once in a while has led me to some very promising discoveries, and I will always want this outlet in some form or another.
Admittedly, this does run the risk of alienating readers with its indulgence, and while I hope people aren’t bored with how long some of these stories have run, I do acknowledge that that is entirely a possibility. Let’s just say that there’s a reason why I make this stuff available to you free of charge and without any advertisements!
(Actually, if you subscribe to my blog, please let me know if there are advertisements at the bottom of the emails that come whenever I make a new post. There shouldn’t be, but I haven’t been able to verify whether that is the case.)
Anyway, if you are not sick yet of my ambling through Raise the Black Sun, feel free to come see what new forays await us on Thursday! And if you are sick of Raise the Black Sun, don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll have it wrapped up in another post or two.