I am on the cusp of completing my story: The Toymaker. In it a small drummer toy is born to life, and then sent to find a mystical city. Along the way he makes a friend in another toy, a dancing ballerina. Unfortunately, the two are divided from one another when the dancer is kidnapped, and taken into a grimy town full of dirty hovels. The drummer charges in pursuit, but is further waylaid as one toy after another takes advantage of him. He become dirty and cracked, and even his innocent demeanor slowly becomes more desperate and angry. Almost he loses himself, but stops just short of doing so. In that same moment he discovers a strange connection that he has with some divine power, and by it is finally led back to the dancer that he has been searching for.
There is, of course, one or two more sentences to that outline, but I’ll leave it off so that you can see it for yourself this Thursday. It is very strange for me to read that synopsis, though, because it is absolutely nothing like the one that I started off with!
Whenever I get an idea for a story, I open up a text editor and get it down in as much detail as possible. Usually the idea is so small that it only fills out one paragraph, but I hope to transfer enough information that I can remember the heart of it for later development.
One night, I was making up a bedtime story for my son about a toy factory. As I spoke to him, my mind suggested to me a different plot. After the bedtime ritual was finished, and I left his room, this is the brief outline that I wrote down:
The Toy Factory. Idea of a man building a world, bit-by-bit giving it greater abilities and rules. Eventually a rebellion breaks out amongst it, and he himself is lost within its depths. Perhaps he has forgotten who he is, or was created in toy form by his own creations, and so his consciousness has been transposed to that toy and he needs to remember his original identity.
The Castle-God. Some character has created a people and a world, little machinations that he kept around him, and which presently moved out to pursue their own ambitions. Now he still lives in that same castle, but forgotten and lonely in its massive halls. The character could be rediscovered, many generations later, having been fashioning a new set of creations all this time, ones to destroy the first.
So, as you can see, I was already of two minds about which direction this story could go, but in each rendition I had this idea of a creator regretting his creation. A godlike character whose subjects have all gone astray, and who is later tempted to use his powers to abandon or destroy them.
While working on this blog I shared an entry about responsibility, and I mentioned how Victor Frankenstein regretted the monstrosity he created, and sought to destroy it. I realized that this was very similar to my Toy Factory/Castle-God stories, and decided to expand on it with that theme. So I married the two together: the Toymaker would be refashioned as a mortal within the world of his own creation, would rediscover his omnipotent identity, and then would decide what responsibility he had to his subjects: either to spare them or create an army to destroy them.
And then, to this, I decided to add one more wrinkle. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the story started with him already in mortal form? That way his rediscovery of his divine identity would be as much of a surprise to the reader as to himself.
Things Go Awry)
Sometimes stories don’t follow their plotlines though. I started off with a simple introduction, one where I introduced the world of the toys, and explained how they began as inanimate objects that gradually gained self-awareness. I emphasized that fact, by having the drummer (who would later be revealed to be the creator) witness another toy, a ballerina dancer, come to life.
But now that I had created this second character, I felt that I had to do something with her. I made her his companion on his initial journey, and the two played off of one another quite nicely. I came up with ways that they supported and depended on one another, quickly making the two of them feel “right” together.
The thing is, up until now I had just been meandering about freely to get the feel of the world, but now I realized this dancer was taking up such a large percentage of the opening that she had to be a main character now. I wanted to start pushing the plot forward by showing how despicable the created world had become, and the most obvious way to do that was by having these two innocent companions ripped apart. It worked well, but now it only further cemented this random side-character, the dancer, as the main catalyst for our drummer’s journey.
Now the moment where imbalance occurs is with the loss of that dancer, so every reader naturally assumes the story will right itself with their triumphant reunion. I had created an expectation, and I couldn’t just shirk that.
The Story Fights Back)
Alright, fine, I thought, he goes and he gets her back, but then the story progresses as normal. But every time I tried to write their reunion it felt wrong. It was just too quick, too easy. I kept writing about him almost reaching her, but each time I had to pull the rug out from under him at the last moment. This was because I had written it so that the dancer was everything to that poor drummer. The quest to regain her needed to be appropriately epic.
Unless she died? I thought maybe this could be what compels him to find his powers and condemn the world. Just as he’s about to reach her she’ll be irrevocably broken and that will make him snap.
But where, then, is the responsibility? This isn’t a creator accepting the burden of his creation going astray anymore, this is an angry tyrant exacting terrible vengeance. Not what I was going for at all.
One solution might have been to go back to the start and take her out entirely, but I didn’t like that. She had emerged naturally and organically, and I liked her being in the story. Quite frankly I had become personally invested in her arc, and really wanted to see where it would land.
And so, it was in this very problem that I also found my solution. Her becoming broken and him going into a rage was not going to serve a story about a god’s responsibility to his people, but it her being broken would serve a story about a little drummer’s responsibility to the toy that he loves.
The story had not been stalling on its first chapter, rather it had turned that first chapter into the entire story. It isn’t the story of how he regains boundless power, it is the story of how he makes amends to the dancer he could not save.
Maybe the bigger story still exists, but if so it is a tale for another time. With that in mind, I knew how I needed to close things. Only after great effort, after nearly losing himself but then calling himself back, only then would he be ready to rejoin the dancer. And in that moment, he would find her broken.
Not only broken, though, but angry. Angry at the world, angry at herself, and angry at him. The climax of the story will be how he hears that anger, and how he takes responsibility for it. I like this approach quite a lot, and I am excited to share it with you on Thursday. Then, at long last, we will be on to something new.
Quite regularly we look at ourselves. Bathroom mirrors are an integral part of every morning routine, after all, and even if we say we don’t care about appearances we can’t help but catch a glimpse every now and again.
During my youth I was in the Boy Scouts, and on occasion would go on camping trips, sometimes for as long as a week. Over that time I would never once see my reflection, and it would become a very a surreal experience. I could feel the dirt sticking to my sunburned face and knew that I must appear a mess, but I could only imagine to what degree. After coming home I would look in the mirror again and the imagined image was superseded by the real reflection. Some bits of who I was met my expectation, and others did not.
Even without extended periods away from silver-backed glass, each one one of us will invariably have moments where we go from looking at ourselves in the mirror to actually seeing ourselves. All at once the reality of our image comes into stark relief.
An example of this was just a few weeks ago when I noticed more smile-wrinkles around my eyes than there used to be. I’m far from old, and I’m not having a midlife crisis, but it was a moment of realizing that I had changed somewhere, and I was a little concerned that I hadn’t noticed it as it happened.
Each of us wants to change, of course. But we want to be in control of that change, to choose in which ways we are altered and in which we are not. We want to be smarter, more confident, and kinder, but we don’t want to get older, slower, and fatter along the way. When I saw those extra wrinkles around my eyes, it was not just me realizing that my face was changing, but that it was doing so without my permission.
We’re organic beings. We don’t get to selectively isolate parts of us to change while leaving the other’s untouched. You cannot help but ripple the whole tapestry when you start to pull on a thread.
Of course we know and accept that change and decay happens to everyone else, and theoretically we “know” that it must happen to us as well. But each one of us has that singular moment where we accept that change, uncontrollable change, really is our fate.
This was the story of Siddhattha Gotama, a young man born thousands of years ago, in-or-around present-day India. He was a royal prince, and his father took immense precautions to shelter him from the realities of life. Siddhattha later said that the cold facts of aging, sickness, and death did not distill in his heart until the age of 29.
No matter how protected he had been, sooner or later he had to face and accept that these realities did exist. Not so much that they existed generally, but that they existed for him. He perceived that he was just as subject to the wheel of time as all the rest of humanity, and the soberness of that moment led him on a great spiritual journey. A journey that concluded in his becoming the Buddha.
Change Through Reflection)
There is a very interesting element to that story of the Buddha. Notice that this major turning point in his life comes about as a result of reflecting on his life, and coming to accept the unpreventable, ever-changing nature of it. Siddhattha revokes the illusion of control in life…but by doing that then steers himself into a different path than he had been on. It would seem that by admitting his powerlessness, he gained just a bit more power.
This is extremely similar to the story of Socrates, who craved knowledge, and sought out sages to teach it to him. Instead he was disappointed to find that none of them knew anything at all. Then, after a little self-reflection, he realized that the only thing that he, or anyone else, could really know, was the fact that they knew nothing at all. And so by admitting his complete ignorance, he gained a nugget of knowledge.
In both of these historical stories, illusion and imagination are dropped, replaced with something truer, and both times as a result of properly seeing oneself. Many times when we look in the mirror we just see a face, but sometimes we get a glimpse of the actual soul.
Now these “stories” are biographical, they are about real-life people. But they are still stories, and the experiences drawn from them have certainly found their way into works of fiction as well. A pivotal moment of character development comes in a moment of quiet self-reflection in A Christmas Carol. Here the old curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge, sees his boyhood self, and how he was once so full of innocent wonder.
Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, “Poor boy!” and cried again.
“I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it’s too late now.”
“What is the matter?” asked the Spirit.
“Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.”
“I should like to have given him something: that’s all.” Only really that isn’t all. In this moment Ebenezer is finally starting to see himself rightly. He is seeing the man in the mirror as he really is, and there’s a thing or two he’d like to change about him.
And that is the real power of self-reflection, both in real life and in literature. It creates a moment where the individual has the opportunity to choose. Change is inevitable, it falls upon us all, but if we see ourselves rightly, we can choose which way that change will fall.
In my most recent story post, our protagonist had a pivotal moment of self-reflection. He was staring down another toy that had hurt him deeply, and seriously contemplated doing the same in turn. But then he stayed himself, because he realized that he was straying from the toy that he had been made as, and he didn’t want to do that. Sometimes the greatest change brought about by self-reflection is simply to return to where we had been before. On Thursday I will push that idea further, where as a reward for his rediscovery of self, the drummer will be refashioned in a higher form. Then, at last, he will be ready to return to his long-lost dancer.
When we are children, we tend to set our hopes and dreams on moments that are in the immediate future. We long for a birthday that is only a few weeks away, and then enjoy the fulfillment of that desire quickly.
Later, though, our imagination grows deeper, and we crave for things that are further out-of-reach. Some things can only be attained after years of effort, such as a higher degree, retirement, or notoriety in a particular field. Some things might never be attained at all, such as complete peace and happiness. In either case, we set our sights on shores far distant, so far that the path to them is sure to be unstable; for it seems a truth of life that a road cannot extend past a certain length without being broken up by detours, stray turns, and unexpected obstacles. There is no straightforward route to anything of substance.
It isn’t just the road that turns and changes, though, it is also those who take them. Whenever people pursue life’s greatest quests, not a one of them ever meets their destination. For many are forever lost in diversions and pitfalls along the way, while those that overcome these obstacles and reach their destination, are so changed as to be unrecognizable from the individuals that first began the journey.
Two great questions arise in us then. Am I the sort of journeyer that can make it through to the end? And if I am, who will I be at the end of it?
Questions Into Stories)
And as with all of life’s greatest questions, our race has learned to turn them into stories. We take the soul’s deepest pondering, and make it into a narrative thought-experiment.
Let us consider first the story of Dorothy who is seeking a way back home to Kansas. She is brought to a yellow, brick road that leads straight to a Wizard, which Wizard she is told will be able to help her return home. Though the path seems straightforward at first, she encounters many surprises along the way. She also meets some kindred spirits that need rescuing and finds an enemy in a frightful witch. Then, upon reaching her destination, Dorothy is given a new quest, to retrieve the broomstick from that evil witch. This journey does not have a clear-cut road to follow. Dorothy and her friends must forge their own way from here on.
Finally, after this new set of hurdles have been cleared, it is revealed that Dorothy actually had the power to return home all along. Although…really she didn’t. Yes, maybe she had the magical shoes that could transport her back to Kansas, but she was not ready to go home until this final moment. Because really the journey has been one of emotional maturity. There was a reason Dorothy came here: to make her transition from girlhood into womanhood. Only now, at the end of her long and winding path, is she prepared to stand on her own. And with that, her inner change is complete and she goes home.
This same basic outline is repeated in The Way, a 2010 film starring Martin Sheen. In this story a father decides to undertake a pilgrimage that his own son perished along. The man has felt that he never really understood his son, and hopes to fill that void with this journey.
Along the way he meets a few friends, each of which have similarly come on this pilgrimage to find something better in life. By the end, most of them have not obtained what they intended, but have instead found that which they needed. The man who wanted to lose weight, for example, has instead found something to believe in.
Why was there a disconnect between what these pilgrims wanted and what they actually needed? Generally it is because what they think they need is in the past. The man who wants to lose weight, for example, wishes to do so to regain the affection of his wife. But like Dorothy, the wish to “go back home” is insufficient. Journey’s are not about getting back to where you were, they are about going somewhere different.
Less Direct Routes)
The Lord of the Rings is a famous “journey” story, and one where the hero is certainly changed by the voyage. Frodo leaves the Shire and returns to it…but also he never does return. The Frodo that left his home naive and unscathed is markedly different from the warrior who returns. He is discontent with the smallness of hobbit-life now, and in the end he decides that he must leave.
But I would like to draw attention to the story’s use of detours in its epic adventure. Frodo’s path is defined for him in only the vaguest of terms: get to Bree, now on to Rivendell, then all the way to Mount Doom. But the roads to each of these places are far from clear. On every leg of the journey things go awry and the adventurers have to find their own path forward.
For example, on the way to Bree two of the hobbits become trapped by Old Man Willow and the party have to be rescued by Tom Bombadil. They spend two nights in his home, where they enjoy a brief respite, free from all their cares. It would be nice to stay here longer, but the world outside still needs saving. Ultimately the heroes have to reject the sanctuary and move back into danger, so that they can go on to do greater deeds.
Another detour takes place later when Frodo and Sam follow Gollum through a side-passage into Mordor. This route takes them into Shelob’s Lair, where disaster strikes and Frodo is seemingly killed. Sam grieves for the loss of the friend, but ultimately claims the burden of the ring for himself, resolute to see the mission through.
In each of these examples we see distractions and obstacles to the way forward. When a story features detours they provide the characters a chance to throw in the towel. They are inflection points where the entire journey could theoretically come to an end. When the heroes resolve to move forward, then, they do so all the more committed. If journeys are about characters changing and growing, detours are the catalysts to speed up that process. All good detours will not slow a story down, then, they will actually speed it up.
That was my intention with my drummer’s detour in the last section of The Toymaker. Getting waylaid at the factory took him off the path of rescuing the dancer, but he overcame the distractions here, put his head down to work, and earned his way back to freedom. Thus he was delayed in his quest, but the narrative was continuing to progress. He was still journeying forward, if only on the inside.
In my next story post we’ll set things up for the next switchback on his journey. It’s not going to be an easy quest, and there will be more detours along the way.
When the dancer and drummer do finally have their reunion, I will display another application of journeys in story-telling: usually you are only seeing one of several journeys happening at the same time. All this while that the drummer has been growing and changing, so too has the dancer. When they finally do reunite we will be able to see how their separate paths compare and contrast to one another. They will have been made unrecognizable to the innocent, carefree toys that began their journey together, and they will have to ask whether they can still make their trek together or not.
Wow these months sure go by fast! For July I shifted my commitment to be time-based, specifically I wanted to be working on my novel for a half hour each day. This time around I diligently tracked by progress, and in the end I met my goal 15 out of 31 days. There’s definitely room for improvement, but at least by having the metrics I’ll know whether my consistency is trending up or down now. For August I’m going to maintain a goal of 30 minutes every day, and at the very least I hope to hit 20 days.
So what did I accomplish with July? Well, I wrote at the end of June about a problem I had found in my plot. In the middle of the story I suddenly introduce a dozen new characters whom I never develop in the least. They were meant to only be background characters to the main cast, but I felt their arrival would create an expectation in the reader that they were important. So I decided to remove those characters, but that meant certain other developments had to be changed as well. Those new characters had been going to help the main characters build a large mill and divert a river, monumental tasks that no longer seemed feasible with their absence.
So I took those parts out of the story, and everything else related to them…which turned out to be a lot! I won’t go into all the details, but just one example was that the entire layout of the island where the story takes place had to be reshaped. One change rippled into another, and several scenes and side-plots were chopped off entirely. This, of course, left the story considerably lopsided, and so then I had to go over my entire outline and balance it all out again.
That’s what I spent all of July on. I’ve got about two-thirds of the new outline complete, and I’ll do the rest in August. And honestly? I’m liking this re-crafted story a whole lot better! Turns out that the novel needed far more pruning than I realized, and the whole thing seems a lot tighter and better focused now. I can hardly wait to give you my update in another month!
I remember the first story I read that didn’t have a proper ending. It was one of the many tales in One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). In this particular one the hero discovered a magic flying carpet, and by it managed to overcome the villain and was promised the hand of the beautiful princess. His every desire having been met he decided to take one last celebratory ride on the carpet the evening before his wedding day. At that point the carpet decided to get a mind of its own, and whisked him far and away, never to be seen again.
I thought that was a very strange and dissatisfying story, but it stuck with me. It seemed like it was supposed to mean something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then, several years later, I came across another story that brought me closer to an understanding.
This was a piece called Hypnerotomachia Poliphilli (or Strife of Love in a Dream). The basic outline is that a man is deeply in love with the beautiful Polia, though she spurns his every advance. He falls asleep and travels through a strange dreamscape, pursuing his love and assisted by all manner of mythic characters. In the end he finally does manage to win her heart, and is finally about to embrace her forever…when she vanishes into thin air and he wakes up alone.
Again, a very strange tale, but one that also lodges itself in the mind at least somewhat by virtue of that strangeness. So what is this all about? Well, it all came together for me when I heard the legend of how Alexander the Great became inconsolably distraught after he conquered all the known world powers, his one great dream. He had reached his “happily ever after” and that was the greatest curse of all.
Having only that one hope, the accomplishment of it, of consequence, must put an end to all my hopes; and what a wretch is he who must survive his hopes! Nothing remains when that day comes, but to sit down and weep like Alexander… (Way of the World, Act 2: Scene 3)
Now the message of those prior stories became clear. They are speaking to the natural destiny of man to ever have one dream to chase after and then another. If ever you achieve the goal you pursue, then that ideal vanishes and goes somewhere further ahead. It is the mirage you ever follow but never obtain, pressing onward without an ending.
To reiterate, it’s not that one can never obtain a reward, one might indeed gain the new job, the lover, the prestige; however it is the knowledge that even if they do so there will still be another mountain to climb after that. Which is worse, to ever drink and still be left thirsty, or to find a satiation that never allows for the sweetness of desire again? Alexander the Great seemed to feel that the latter was the greater curse.
Because really Alexander’s sorrow is simply due to never becoming any better. The literal definition of damnation is not be thrust into fire, but rather to be halted in all forward progression. If we are not improving, then what is the purpose for our continued existence? To have no path for growth is to frustrate the nature etched deep into our very souls.
These thoughts and others like them have haunted me ever since I read and pondered over these stories. That is the power of a narrative: to set a trajectory to the infinite, then leave it to the reader to follow the implications as far as his mind dares to explore. Or to put it another way, stories like these plant a germ within a new host, and then let it take root and branch itself out into other original expressions. As a result I have found myself writing new stories around this idea of the chase, of how achieving one objective is only to be followed by pursuing another.
Power Suit Racing)
My latest story was my most direct effort at giving that original expression. A story of a man chasing for the ideal, and upon obtaining what he thought it was, he now realizes that it has moved on to somewhere new. As with the tale in One Thousand and One Nights and also Hypnerotomochia Poliphilli, this is a story where there is a man, a woman, and a chase. But in this case the chase is away from the woman, trying to find a new and greater definition to life.
Of course the chase away from the one woman leads to a chase towards another. But as is common in these sorts of stories that woman is only a representation of something more. She is a type for discovering one’s true self, for finding a purpose and cause, she is the reason to become.
Of course Taki doesn’t know that this is the case until the end. He isn’t sure what he is chasing, but he knows that something is stirring inside. His moment of clarity doesn’t arrive until he is offered back what he had before. Sometimes it takes looking into the mirror of the past to be able to discern the change that has occurred, and to extrapolate the trajectory of the future. That is the case for him. His hesitation has been due to balancing between holding onto the past and reaching for the future. He sees the past, he is repulsed by it, and so he dives into the future.
In this particular story I changed the end of the script to be different from most others, though. Taki rushes alone into the great unknown, and this time it is the girl who chases after him.
Before Power Suit Racing I tried to do a different take on the chase with Washed Ashore. The chase in this tale turned out to be something very grim: one man pursuing another with fatal intent, each seemingly called by fate to ever pursue and be pursued. It was hinted that there was extensive collateral damage in the wake of their battle, yet neither was willing to relent.
With this story I meant to make reference to the chases that occur in a continual round within the same individual. The inherent weaknesses we are born with, the never-ending struggle we make with them, and the years of anxiety produced as a side-result of that conflict. You see this sort of approach in a story like Citizen Kane. The entire life of Charles Foster Kane is one continual struggle between his child-self and his overcompensating-self. The two sides wrestle for control, giving him alternating faces of sincerity and hypocrisy.
A more lighthearted example of this from my own life is that I am divided between introverted and extroverted tendencies. I want to feel comfortable, but also want to step outside of my comfort zone for some “betterment” of myself. And so that means a constant war between two sides of myself, one advocating for a sense safety and the other for healthy interaction. Thus neither side will entirely win out, but the hope is that the conglomerate of all my parts, the overall self, will be better for balancing between the two.
This is perhaps the most common way we experience an eternal chase within ourselves. Not so much an ever-progressing journey as a circling struggle between our different natures. Temptation, weakness, and fear challenged by virtue, resolve, and courage. Perhaps one doesn’t move forward so much as hold their ground, which can be a monumental victory in its own right. These are great races that are won by merely standing firm.
Mixing it All Together)
So here we have two very different takes on the chase. We have the one that is linear, moving on from one state to the next, achieving one dream and using it as a launching-off point towards another. Then there is the other that is cyclical, the one that finishes back at the beginning to go another round.
Now that I’ve written a story with each of these approaches I’d like to try and blend the two together. I recently saw the film I Can Only Imagine that did just this. In this film the main character found himself in a cycling struggle between his wounds and his faith. He holds out a belief that he was made for something more, but he also holds a fear that it just isn’t so. The cycle continues, it alternately raises him and breaks him down, and then he finally manages to break that cycle and finally chase on to the new.
On Thursday I’d like to take my own crack at that sort of story. I am going to present a man who carries two burdens: both very heavy, and each in danger of drowning him, one in anger and the other in grief. One of those burdens is one that can never be let go of, the burden of grief. He will always strive with it. The other though, one of hate, he will begin to realize it is possible to move on from, to cease chasing vengeance in order to pursue something better.
It’s always interesting to meet an old friend after years apart. Sometimes the person has changed entirely, and it feels like you’re new acquaintances all over again, meeting for the very first time. You’re trying to figure out who this person has transformed into, and perhaps a bit sad that the old friend is gone forever. One of the most common fears we have is the fear of change after all.
But at the same time, the worst fate I could think of is to have a life of never changing or evolving. I wouldn’t want a friend, someone that I care about, to be trapped in some sort of Peter Pan situation of never progressing. I would rather want for each of us to be moving forward to bigger and better things, improving ourselves and making accomplishments that we can be proud of. It’s been said that the day you stop learning is the day you start dying after all.
I remember the first time my family moved. I was about fifteen and I felt deeply divided between excitement for the new possibilities, and sorrow at the loss of all I had known. Having conflicting feelings for the same situation is inherently interesting, and naturally invites creative exploration. No wonder then that the idea of “change” has always been so central to literature.
Stories have long dedicated themselves to examining the phenomenon of change from every possible angle. There are stories where the change is quiet and subtle. Consider the novel Mrs. Dalloway, where Richard decides that he wants to tell his wife that he loves her, though it has been years since he has done so. And then, of course, there are times when the change is quite sudden and dramatic, such as from the very same novel when Septimus decides he will die rather than surrender his private soul.
Most stories are a combination of both subtle and dramatic changes, but obviously the latter grab our attention more. Dramatic changes can be recognized as the momentous occasions which serve as inflection points to the entire narrative, the bends in the river that shape the way it flows.
But we can limit our scope even further. There is a subcategory of changes in literature where one character ceases to be the person that they were, and thus becomes someone else. This sort of total transformation can be found in even the most ancient of fairy tales and religious texts, across all different cultures, and in a great number of stories of today.
It is interesting to note that these sorts of rebirths are very often composed with the exact same symbols and forms as one another. It seems that deep in our psyche we all believe that transformations such as these tend to come with specific trappings. There are four of them in all: an element of a loss, a calling, a mask, and a return.
Loss is inherent in transformation. Subtle changes might allow for a character to remain essentially the same, but transformation demands that something is let go. For every butterfly that emerges from a chrysalis there must come first the loss of a caterpillar. The loss is always something very significant too, something that is often taken against the main character’s wishes
Think of Luke Skywalker, Simba, and Bruce Wayne. Each lose their parent figures at the beginning of their tales. Edmond Dantes loses his freedom after being wrongfully accused. Paul, the Apostle, loses his sight on the road to Damascus.
Growth through pain seems to be one of the universal truths of our world, so it makes sense that it would accompany the transformations we write into our stories. For a character to have space for their new identity, then something about their current identity has to be taken out first. Now there is a hole inside of them, and what follows depends on how that hole is handled.
If the hole remains vacant then the character becomes a hollow shell of who they once were, an old husk that never recovers from their wounds. If it is filled with bitterness then they become a villain, broken and shaped by a cruel world. If it is filled with something noble, then they become the hero. It will only be filled with something noble, though, if that something noble calls out to them.
It is always right when our character hits bottom that something comes along to call them to something higher. This is one of the few times in a story where perfect timing will not be accused of being a coincidence. This isn’t dumb luck, you see, this is fate. The loss only happened because the calling was coming, or else the calling only came because the loss summoned it. Either way readers naturally accept that there is a cause-and-effect relationship here, and so they do not question the convenience of it.
And so Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke to learn the ways of the Force, the ghost of Simba’s Father reminds him of who he once was, Bruce Wayne commits himself to fighting injustice, Edmond is given both an education and a secret by Faria, and Paul hears the voice of the Lord.
The presence of callings in our lives means that our loss is not merely suffering for suffering’s sake. It suggests that our pain might be happening for a reason, that there is a purpose to it all. It takes the pessimism out of the pain and gives us hope for a healing.
As I mentioned above, the character that does not find their calling grows cold and cynical, they come to see the world as a place of random chance and inherent injustice. However there is also the possibility that the calling did come, but it was ignored. The calling will never be to do something easy, it has to require an entirely new way of life after all.
To the character willing to answer the call things will never be the same again. The calling shrouds that sufferer in some new, and now the transformation truly begins.
In real life it is commonly observed that after one has gone through an experience of personal transformation they somehow now “look different.” Exactly what has changed might be hard to pin down: a light in the eyes perhaps, a glow in the face, a subtle altering of the complexion. Some sort of ethereal mask seems to have lowered over their face, a change that is sensed more than seen.
In stories these changes are usually made far more explicit. Luke dons the robes and weapon of a Jedi Knight, Simba grows into an adult with a full mane, Bruce Wayne crafts a cape and cowl, Edmond assumes the title of a Count, and Saul begins to call himself Paul. They all now have a new identity, an image, or a name. It is something that makes their change tangible and quantifiable. Other characters and the audience can see the difference in them and know they are dealing with someone new.
We humans are remarkably capable of perceiving things that are invisible, imaginary, and internal. Even so, we usually seek for ways to bring physical representation to them all. We have our crucifixes, our sobriety chips, our gold medals, our college diplomas, and our wedding rings. None of these add directly to our faith, our strength, our intelligence, or our commitment, but they can be useful as reminders of them. Sometimes people fail to use their greater strength simply because they forget that they even have it. Similarly a hero in story often uses their mask to remind themselves of their new identity, and to steel their fortitude whenever the validity of their calling is challenged.
Finally, the full effect of a transformation can only be fully appreciated after the character is compared to what they were before. This might be as simple as having them come home to their humble beginnings for all their old friends to gape in awe at them, or else it might be to revisit an old temptation that they previously succumbed to. Either way the change is made evident in how the familiar situation now has an unfamiliar outcome.
Luke saves the friends that initially thought so little of him, Simba goes home to face the uncle that drove him away, Bruce brings justice to the man who unjustly killed his parents, Edmond exacts both revenge and mercy upon those who misused him, Paul joins the disciples and suffers the same way he once made them suffer.
It is the return that proves to us that the change is real. Until we are put back into the same scenario we might believe that it is only our surroundings which have been altered, and not our core natures. Returning to the same state, then, is the control which proves the transformation has been internal and not external. We truly are something new.
Thus far in Power Suit Racing I have incorporated the first phases of transformation in Taki’s tale. It began with him losing the love of his life, and with it his entire sense of purpose and identity. He wandered with a hole, unsure of his identity when he heard a voice calling out with an invitation. That invitation was to pursue a new venture, one that non-coincidentally involved donning a suit which altered his appearance.
But as we’ll see in my next post, sometimes when one puts on the garb of the future they find it doesn’t quite fit yet. Thursday’s entry will show the process by which he is able to fill the measure of this new person that he is becoming. And then, a week later, we will see the return where he will be compared to the person he used to be. I’ll see you then.
Taki felt a slight sense of reassurance as his suit hummed to life, filling its reserves with all of the kinetic energy he was generating. The unique function of Power Suits was their inertia-displacement-network, an interior mesh that could take his momentum and either absorb it or redirect it in another direction. The result was that Taki’s own body felt only a small fraction of the actual inertia, allowing him to survive impossibly high drops and make hair-pin turns at tremendous speeds.
All that was assuming that this crazy mishmash suit even worked, of course, and Taki was about to test that point. The ground was looming up to him at an incredible rate, and he spun his head to choose a target to bounce to. There was a vertical wall hanging from steel cables nearby, one that was low enough to reach with a small thrust.
Taki rolled in the air, changing from his freefall pose to a crouch, readying himself for impact. His feet hit the ground with a tremendous crack as he kicked off from it, angling in the direction of that vertical wall. The pavement beneath him buckled under the force of his departure and he spun up into the air, flung out with all the converted momentum of his freefall. Although to him it didn’t feel so much like a powerful fling, safe inside his suit it merely felt like a slight tug in that general direction.
Taki turned his head on a swivel, looking out for the other racers. Four others had chosen to peel off in a different direction, and the other three were following him to this vertical wall. That could get a little tight, but that’s what you got when you went for the most obvious route. In the end it didn’t matter which path you took to reach the destination, only that you got there first.
Taki rolled in the air, turning so that his feet would be planted against the wall. He extended his arms to signal the suit to divide his momentums. As his feet touched the walls’ surface he began running with most of his inertia propelling him forward, bounding down the length of wall at high speed. A small reserve of his momentum was consumed pushing him towards the wall, though, enabling him to defy gravity as he ran sideways along its surface.
It was a good start to the race, but Taki started looking for his next push. No matter how much energy you gained from that initial drop, it was never enough to carry you all the way to the finish. During the race one had to always be on the lookout for fresh sources of inertia.
Taki spotted another wall, this one horizontal, and it was painted in the bright yellow color that designated it as a “boost.” It was across and slightly up from him, far enough that it would strain all his remaining momentum to reach it. If he missed, he would clatter back down to the ground, bereft of any inertia, and would be unable to finish the race.
Timing was everything. Taki positioned himself, then pushed down hard with his last step and shifted his suit’s momentum towards the boost. His suit flung him in the desired direction, but it gave an ominous whine at the upwards strain. The noise distracted him so that he didn’t notice the green-suited competitor nearing him from behind.
A sickening thud sounded as the other racer collided into him with brutal force. Such moves were legal in the game, though they were still dangerous. Each suit could only tolerate so much of an impact before they would break apart and the racer would be exposed to all of the tremendous forces slamming into their body.
This other racer wasn’t specifically trying to break Taki’s suit, though, more so just shove him out of the way so that he would miss the boost. Instinctively Taki threw his hand out and gripped the ankle of his opponent, letting that racer’s suit continue to pull him in the correct direction. The two of them tumbled sideways onto the boost, and it propelled them forward with a blast, spinning them wildly through the open air.
Taki released his competitor and spun away, trying to get his bearings well enough to plan his landing. There was a tower just ahead of him, a hollow shaft that rose high into the air. He pointed his feet towards it, and on impact he kicked outwards and upwards, propelling himself higher up the inside of that shaft. He came near to another wall and kicked outwards and upwards from that one as well, returning to the first wall at a still higher point. He repeated this over and over, zig-zagging his way up the structure, hoping his momentum would last all the way to the top.
Once he cleared that top he would have a broad view, a big drop, and a lot of fresh inertia to work with. Hopefully that would be enough to make up for the considerable amount of time he was expending in here.
Taki closed the distance to the top of the shaft. His suit was straining to meet his repeated calls for more energy, but with a little extra tug from his arms he managed to clear the lip at the top.
For a brief moment Taki was suspended in midair, high enough that he could scan the entire rest of the raceway. He only had a split-second, but for him that would be enough.
First he picked out the finish line: a raised platform some hundred meters still distant.
Then he counted off every racer he could see still moving through the pitch. Two…three…four. The others must have crashed or run out of inertia. One of those four was hanging low and slow, likely not in the running for much longer. The other was up high on another tower, and the last, one in purple, was probably on track to reach the finish soonest. It was always hard to tell for sure in such a non-linear race.
Taki processed all of this, and then felt the rush as he began to plummet down towards the earth. His last act was to pick out his next series of moves. He would have to move quickly to catch the leader, that meant being bold and trusting that the rickety, old suit would be able to keep up.
As the air shrieked past his form he angled a tiny portion of his inertia to propel him slightly forwards. Thus he fell at a slant, gaining speed from the drop but also steering to be on approach to a distant boost laid out on the ground.
The bare ground rushed up to meet him, and with only three feet before impact Taki flung his inertia forward, reserving a tiny portion to push him upwards from the surface. The result was that he zipped forward like an arrow, barely skimming above the ground and avoiding all of its slowing friction.
He rocketed forward and hit the boost with some inertia still to spare. He pocketed that and watched the meter rise on his HUD as he flung forward with still greater speed. An upwards-sloping wall rushed outwards to fill his vision and he was running up its vertical stretch without a second thought. He summited that, then found himself looking down to the finishing platform just ahead. It was a single drop away.
His moment of elation wavered as he saw the purple streak of that other racer making for the prize. That racer was coming at it from a more grounded approach, sliding down a narrow beam that ended with a small jump to the platform. The racer was going to make it to the end before Taki.
“14 torques, right?” he thought back to that pretty assistant’s claims.He twisted for his approach and punched his inertia forward. He lurched both forwards and downwards, maintaining a straight shot for the victory. As he fell through the air his suit filled up with kinetic energy, which he immediately called upon to propel him still faster. And with that faster falling came still more energy, and still he strained it for greater speed.
His eyes flicked to the display on his HUD that estimated upcoming impact forces. 11 torques. 12. 13.
He streaked past a purple blur. At least he wasn’t going to lose, then, it was just a matter of being able to live to tell anyone about it now.
He gave one last push to correct his angle of approach and then prayed that there would be something left in the reserves to dispel some of the blow he was about to take.
The black-and-white checkered paint flew beneath him. Taki spun in the air to set himself up for a roll.
The hard, gray pavement grew near enough to make out its every dent and crack.
Taki touched the ground. A small plume of smoke erupted around him as the meager reserve of energy remaining in his suit dispelled as much of the forces as possible. Then, with nothing left to power the inertia-displacement-network, Taki truly felt the ground.
It was like a sledgehammer being swung into his knees, sending shockwaves up and down his legs and dissolving all his bones. He couldn’t have remained standing if he wanted. He fell to his side and flung sideways across the ground in a cyclone whirl. He hit the ground the crunch, metal pieces breaking off his suit and zipping through the air like shrapnel. The ground battered his ribs and punched the air out of his lungs. Then he ricocheted up into the air, only to slam back down again, this time taking the sledgehammer on his back.
The entire world was a rotating blur, and Taki didn’t even see what it was that slammed into his legs and threw him into a spin. Now he both rotated and spun, but he also noticed that he was starting to slow down. He punched down with his entire forearm, grinding the limb into the ground. The acrid smell of burning metal filled his nostrils and his arm felt like it was being sanded to the bone, but he held it down firmly and at last felt himself slowing to a stop.
The patch of world he could see outside the helmet became stationary, but his insides were still churning like a storm within. Every square inch of him was aching, but at least that meant he was still alive! He started to laugh, but stopped when that brought sharp pains from his bruised ribs.
He was facing up towards the sun and he just lay there, not wanting to move again for as long as he lived. Suddenly a face slid into view, looking down at him from above. It was that girl, the one that worked for Boro.
“That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen,” she said flatly.
“Yeah,” he winced. “Were you impressed?”
She scoffed and walked away.
“Hey, what’s your name?” he called after her, tenderly pushing himself up on his elbow. He winced, but slowly made his way back to his feet.
The girl was still walking away, pressing against the tide of other spectators that were rushing forward to greet the racers. They had all just arrived on the floating platform that hovered over the raceway and gave them a view of the action down below. The master of ceremonies swaggered forward and clapped Taki heavily on the back, a gesture Taki’s sore body did not appreciate.
“What a strategy!” the man bellowed. “I admit you had me scared there, but it seems you pulled through alright–”
“Yeah, yeah,” Taki said distractedly. He held out his digicard impatiently. “My winnings?” The man tutted at Taki’s bad manners, but swiped the card through a panel mounted to his arm and handed it back.
Taki elbowed his way through the small crowd and found Boro’s assistant moving away from the throng. She still had her back to him, but she was walking slowly. As if she wanted him to come talk to her more.
“Hey, hold up,” he called, hobbling his way over to her side. She didn’t try to get away from him, but she didn’t look at him either. “So wait, you’re mad at me?” He asked. “I won, didn’t I? And that’s good for you, isn’t it?”
“What do I care if Boro gets richer?” she said shortly.
“Well…what do you care about then?”
She scoffed and rolled her eyes.
“What? Were you worried about me?” His voice was hopeful.
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
“Well I don’t see why else you’d be upset.”
“Maybe I just don’t like to see a waste of good machinery.”
“Oh come on, it was my first race in years. I’m still getting back the feel of things.”
“And just what is it that brought you back here for your ‘first race in years?'” she asked pointedly, finally targeting him with her accusing glare.
He felt exposed and awkwardly fluttered his eyes downwards. “It was just–time for a change, I guess.”
“Uh-huh.” She folded her arms, unconvinced.
“I guess I was angry.” He surprised himself at the admission.
Her eyes narrowed, but some of the hostility seemed to dissipate. She leaned forward. Close, very close. Taki swallowed nervously.
“Well I don’t like boys who are angry,” she breathed so softly it was barely audible.
He blinked back at her, but she turned and stomped her way back to the spectator’s platform. He didn’t try to talk to her again, he shuffled onto a different side of the platform and silently wondered at the confusion that was churning inside of him.
Why was he worrying what some girl thought of him? Hadn’t coming here been about not caring what girls thought anymore? Well… and apparently also about being angry. Why had he said that? And now that girl seemed angry, too. Why did that bother him? Why did it excite him?…
What was her name?
Taki was pulled out of his reverie when the floating platform returned to the starting point of the raceway and all of the passengers disembarked. He looked forward, his former resolve crystallizing again in his heart, redoubling even. He strode purposefully over to Boro who was smiling broadly from the doorway of his shack.
“That was quite the stunt you pulled, sonny. Couldn’t have managed something like that with one of the pretty models, I promise you that.”
“Your suit did good,” Taki affirmed. “I imagine it’s going to take a while to repair it now?”
“Well yes…and there’s not going to be much of the winnings left after we detract the cost for that. But I like the way you run, so I’ll let you keep a full thirty percent of the remainder!”
“Keep it,” Taki said. “Use it for the down payment on my second suit.”
“Yes, I’m running in the next race available. Meanwhile you fix the first and I’ll swap back and forth between the two, paying off both as I go.”
“That’s…not standard practice,” Boro said in bewilderment, still trying to wrap his head around the notion.
“No it’s not, but I intend to run a streak that isn’t standard either. Now you said you liked the way I run and I’m giving you the opportunity to double your earnings. Do we have a deal or not?”
Out of the corner of his eye Taki saw the pretty assistant approaching the two of them. He pretended not to notice, instead giving Boro all of his attention. The squat man was squinting, sizing Taki up.
“Alright, deal,” Boro finally concluded, holding out his hand.
Taki shook it, then turned to sign up for the next race.
“Tala,” the girl’s voice rang out from behind him. “My name is Tala.”
He turned and smiled to her. She had a curious expression on her face, not one of approval, nor one of disappointment. Just curious. It was like she was sizing him up as well, wondering what he was capable of.
“Thank you, Tala,” he said politely. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” And with that he resumed his walk back to the grandstands. He, too, wondered what he was made of. Well, soon they all would have their answer.
On Monday I mentioned that for this post I needed to pull off an action sequence that would be both interesting and exciting. If this sport fell flat then the whole story would as well, as it is the central setting of the work.
To achieve the “interesting” I wanted the mechanics of the game to be unique and intricate. To achieve the “exciting” I wanted the pace to be snappy and action-packed. These two requirements put me in the middle of a difficult balancing act.
You see explaining the mechanics would be best if I went over them in the very moment of action. A big exposition dump that details everything beforehand just gets glossed over by the reader, with very little information actually being absorbed. Educators have long known the best method for teaching is to give a short description, followed immediately by active illustration. In your writing you should always strive for the same.
But I also knew that I couldn’t be bogging the action down with these explanations either. It’s supposed to be a fast-paced sport, and wedging a fat paragraph of exposition between every lightning-fast maneuver would absolutely kill the pace. Never forget that when two moments are interrupted by a wall of explanatory text between, it will feel to the reader as if the action took as long to happen as the time it took to read everything.
A lot of my effort therefore went into getting my descriptions as short and precise as possible, which is a very worthwhile exercise for its own sake! I’m personally pretty happy with the results, though I do feel some parts still flow better than others.
Another important part of this segment is that we see our main character undertaking a drastic change in his life. He is literally diving headlong into a fast and visceral world, hoping to find some missing part of himself therein. This idea of a character being reimagined as something new is a classic of literature. There has always been something epic in the notion of a character’s rebirth.
Often when an element is so integrated with literate we find that it comes with a whole train of associated tropes, and “rebirth” is no different. On Monday I’d like to explore those common trappings further, and then next Thursday we’ll start to see how Taki faces this push to evolve. I’ll see you there, and until then have a wonderful weekend!