Will You Remember Me?

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Taking Names)

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.

 

The Hook)

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.

 

The Personification)

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.

Meet My Friend, the Story

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What is Shakespeare?)

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.

Strong Personalities)

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.

A Mind of its Own

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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.

 

Meandering)

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.

Three at the most.

Possibly four?

This Changes Everything!

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Beings of Change)

I’ve never had the convenience of meeting the same person twice. I’ve known many people under the same name, and usually all somewhat similar to each other, but each comes from a slightly different context that has changed them. We speak of individuals, but inside every body lives a legion.

Our ability to change who we are is one of the greatest traits of humanity. It means that the sinner can repent, the simple can become wise, and the downtrodden can learn to hope. Obviously each of these traits can also flow in the opposite direction, too, but it is worth the risk of good people turning evil to preserve the opportunity for evil people to turn good.

Much of our thought is in fact spent contemplating how different we once were in the past, and how different we hope to be in the future. Both remorse and contentment are based upon perceiving a change of oneself, either for the better or the worse.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. We are beings that refuse to remain in one place for long, and that ever-shifting nature is sure to bleed through into all our creations. It was always inevitable that authors would endeavor to imbue their characters that same transient nature that was imbued in them.

 

Dramatic Change)

Indeed many stories have chosen to make the changing nature of their character the entire focus of their tale! A Christmas Carol would be a story about absolutely nothing, if it did not feature the total transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge. Every scene and every experience is targeted towards pulling at that man’s strings, puppeteering him into the person he ought to be.

On the flip-side, tragedies are usually about the loss that comes by being unable to change. King Arthur has a lofty vision for a different sort of government, and for a time it seems he will achieve his aim. But it requires that his subjects to lift themselves higher, to overcome their vices and their follies. When they fail to do so, and instead hold on to their common vices, so too the kingdom must fall back to their debased level.

The example of dramatic change in a story that I wish to focus most closely on, though, is that of Mister Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen goes to great lengths to get the reader to thoroughly despise the story’s leading man right from the outset. Then she has the challenging task of making us love him by the end.

This is wisely accomplished by gradually effecting the change over a great many scenes. At one party we see him recant his unwillingness to dance with Elizabeth, in another we hear tell of his generosity and kindness, shortly thereafter we witness his warmth to his guests, and in a letter we learn of the misunderstanding that led to his previous callous behavior. Then, finally at the end, he is selflessly sacrifices a massive amount of wealth for the woman he has come to love.

Just like Elizabeth Bennett, we have come to see him differently from how we did at first, and because the process has been so gradual and natural, we are able to believe in it. What is unique about Pride and Prejudice, though, is that while Mr Darcy does change somewhat over the course of the story, far more it is only the perspective of him that really evolves.

Whether this is the case or not, it feels like Jane Austen fully developed the character in her mind before beginning any writing, flaws and virtues and all. Then, all she had to do was introduce us to Darcy on a bad day–any character can be made to look negative when cast in the worst light–and then she just reintroduced us to the same man over and over in kinder and kinder lights.

Each new scene he still feels like a consistent character, because he remains the same person, just illuminated in a different way. And by blending all of these views together we finally come to understand him as a whole. By the end we perceive that he is still just as capable of being stuffy and judgmental to those he believes have malicious intent…but now we know that he also has a kinder and gentler side for those he trusts as well.

 

Subtle Change)

But not every story has to feature a complete reversal to change how we feel about a character. There are many tales that feature a great subtlety in how the character we are introduced to is shifted into someone else.

In the novel Mrs Dalloway, the entire arc of her husband, Richard, is that he progresses from feeling disconnected to his wife, to wanting to tell her that he loves her, to deciding not to actually go through it. Thus there is nothing particularly dramatic to his trajectory, but that does not mean his changes are insignificant. On the contrary, even in their quietness they mean everything.

Quite recently, I saw a film which had an excellent use of subtle change, the World War 1 drama 1917. In this movie two young soldiers are given the burden of carrying all-important orders to the front line. Their route is fraught with danger, but the lives of thousands of their comrades depends upon their success.

The film goes to great lengths to establish authenticity in its opening sequences, the dangers that the two face are very grounded. This sharp realism serves to make their situation all the more harrowing. You truly feel that two young boys have been sent out to face a very real menace, a horrible burden for anyone to bear, let alone those so inexperienced.

Things do become more grandiose as the film continues, but the vulnerability of the boys, particularly of the main character, Lance Corporal Schofield, remains. And that sense of youthful vulnerability continues clear to the end, when that main character finally collapses beneath a tree and pulls a tin out of his breast pocket. Therein we see the pictures of his wife and two little girls, which is a small revelation to the viewer. The question has been raised previously whether Schofield had a family, but with how the film has cast him in such a young and vulnerable light that seemed impossible.

Now, though, as with Mr Darcy, the perspective shifts. And though he is the same boy we have seen the whole film long, he is now colored in a new light. Where before he was only a boy, now he is a young father, shadowed by a big and scary world, but still trying his hardest to do his duty.

 

Thursday I shared the second piece of my current story, in which our main character started to be cast in a new light, just as Mr Darcy and Lance Corporal Schofield were. He yet remains the same man as before, but we start to feel differently about him. Clearly something ominous is looming before him.

As with the examples I have shared today, I hope it will be a story where it is the reader that changes more than the character. Also my hope is that when we see him at the end of the story, we will be able to resolve all of the previous perspectives that he will have been shown in. We’ll see whether I’m able to pull this off or not with my third and final entry this Thursday. See you there!

Get to the Point

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A Reason For the Chaos)

One of my favorite films is Gravity, in which a cloud of debris is orbiting the earth, each piece of shrapnel racing through space faster than a bullet. This cloud of destruction happens across a low-orbiting space shuttle, where it kills every astronaut but one, who must now try to find a new vehicle back to earth.

The film is known for its intense moments of action, in which utter chaos explodes across the screen for extended periods of time. Each one of these sequences directly pushes the plot forward, as the aftermath defines what resources are still available for the character to use.

But then, between each moment of intense action, there are quieter moments where we get to know our leading lady a better. After the initial wave of destruction she slowly floats towards the International Space Station, while musing about a daughter that she lost and how this thrust her into a constant state of depression.

The second-third of the film culminates in another quiet moment, one where she finally comes to terms with that tragedy in her life. These moments of quiet introspection do not move forward the one of her getting back to earth, but they do provide us a reason to care that she does.

In a previous blog post I made a comment that the means and the ends of a story are often flipped between the audience and the character. Usually the character puts up with the moments of intense action so that they can get to the “good stuff,” the quiet reprieve that makes it all worth it. But often the audience puts up with the quiet reprieve so that they can get to their “good stuff,” the rousing action!

 

Interesting in Its Own Right)

Of course just because a scene is calmer does not have to mean that it is boring. Obviously the ideal is for the quiet, introspective moments to be just as fascinating in their own right. One film that I felt did an excellent job of this was First Man. This movie is peppered throughout with sudden scenes of tragic destruction, which certainly do their part to add a sense of grim despair to the film.

Yet as sudden and impactful as those moment were, I was more moved by the quiet scenes of Neil Armstrong silently grieving the loss of his young daughter. The simple scenes of a family under duress were not distractions from the greater plot, they were themselves the main event.

Nowhere is this more evident than in how the film draws itself to a close. After a prolonged space sequence, a breathtaking view of the moon, and a euphoric world reaction to the returning heroes…the camera then pulls close to Neil and his wife looking somberly at one another through a pane of glass while he remains in quarantine. Their eyes reflect a longing to be closer, but also a sadness at still not knowing how to talk to each other. So they just join fingertips and look.

Because of the excellent performances I found myself genuinely caring about their family drama, indeed even more than that of the trip to the moon. And I considered more how his space-ventures were hurting his family than how his family was hurting his space-ventures.

 

Pulling Double Duty)

But where Gravity and First Man clearly separate plot-pushing action from character-building reprieve, other stories try to accomplish both at the same time. In my opinion, being able to pull off such multitasking is impressive, but a story that doesn’t feature it is not therefore inherently inferior. In music some expressions are particularly delightful on the ear, yet not every composition needs to feature them.

An example of a story that expertly accomplishes two things at once, though, is Ad Astra. It opens with our main character expressing his total commitment to the mission aboard a space-scraping tower, not allowing anything to get in the way of his focus, including trivial things like family, connection, and self-care. Then an accident occurs, the tower explodes, and his character is sent spinning like a ragdoll through the upper reaches of the atmosphere.

It is an exciting sequence, and it certainly starts the story off with a bang! But it is doing more than just entertaining, it is also a subtle piece of character development. Ad Astra is a man who is falling apart from the inside. He thinks he has things totally in control, but in reality he is at great risk of self-imploding. Though he manages to survive the fall from the tower–barely–he may not survive the fall from himself.

Another example of the film pulling double duty occurs when our hero has a very unexpected battle with a brutal primate. The creature is defined by its great primal rage, something that Ad Astra has long tried to suppress in himself, but is starting to burst out of him everywhere.

The film continues the pattern of subtext and allegory. Each scene of action is also one of introspection, each scene of introspection is energized by inner turmoil.

 

On Thursday I posted the first piece of a story that featured slow scenes that lazily indulge heavily in character and environment. First we met our main character, Howie Stuggs, in a diner, having an inconsequential conversation with his waitress about apple pie. Then we learned about his general opinions of big city folk versus small town folk. Only after that did I start to move the plot forward as Howie began to scope out the location for his next job. But even this moved forward at a very slow and deliberate pace, and was peppered throughout with character quirks that mean nothing to the plot that will follow.

The purpose of these details was not to push the plot forward, though, it was to provide insight to the man Howie Stuggs. Why did I feel that this was a valid use of time for this story? Because at the end of the day, this story really isn’t about the events that transpire, it is about the person that does them. If it was about the events, then I should “trim the fat” and be succinct. But since this is a character piece, I do not consider any of these moments to be a waste.

With my next post I will continue Howie’s little story, and in it the plot will continue to move forward at a snail’s pace. The man behind the tale, however, will be brought into even deeper relief, and hopefully just getting to know him will be a satisfying reward for the reader’s time. There are still a few more character wrinkles yet to show, and then finally the purpose of them will come out in the third and final section.

I Regret You

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Karma)

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

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

The irony does not end here though.

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

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

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

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

 

Growth)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Scales of Justice)

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

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

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

First You Were There, Now You Are Here

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A literary hero usually changes over the course of their story. That probably isn’t a new idea to you. In fact, I have already discussed how the heavy use of adventure in many stories is usually an allegory for how we wish to change in real life. I have also discussed how stories capture our yearning to become our best selves.

In other words, there are things that we cannot do right now that we wish we could. And we hope that one day we might become the person who can do them. For today I’d like to take a closer look at that gap, and how stories establish how what the hero accomplishes at the end, would have been impossible for them to fulfill at the beginning.

Of course, not all stories are this way, there are always exceptions. A comforting pleasure of many serials is to return to the familiarity of characters who are exactly the same as when you last left them. Sherlock Holmes is an excellent example of this.

Right from the beginning, Shelock is already at his optimal level of skill and he can already crack the toughest of cases. He has no development necessary. We enjoy spending time in the presence of such a marvel, and each return to his flat is as cozy as it is exciting. And so things continue, from one rollicking adventure into the next, Holmes all the while incapable of being defeated by another.

That is, of course, until he is.

In what was meant to be the conclusive episode, Sherlock finds himself locked in a battle of wits with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Though Holmes has made the occasional misjudgment in the past, he has never lapsed in a moment that presented any actual danger. Now, though, for the first time, both his and Watson’s life are in very real jeopardy.

He is upset at himself for having compromised Watson’s safety, and so when an opportunity arises for Watson to escape, Holmes insists upon it…even though he knows it lessens his chances of emerging from the following struggle alive. Like a chess player that has lost the necessary pieces to win, Holmes is playing only for the stalemate. That is exactly what happens as he and Moriarty meet another by a waterfall and plummet to their mutual doom together.

Frankly an ending like this seems impossible from the beginning of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. So much time is spent establishing how flawless his mind is, so that anything less than a total triumph would have felt incomprehensible. And without a doubt, if the case of Moriarty had come up at that time, Holmes would have won the contest outright, because he was incapable of being incapable at that time.

But over the course of time, Sherlock became more like the rest of us. He has moments of warmth and consideration, sweet episodes that gradually make him a human being, instead of just a calculating machine. He is like a god, turned mortal through prolonged association with them. It is a transformation that is so subtle that we may not realize it is even occurring, right up until we read the shocking conclusion…and after a moment’s consideration decide that we are okay with it.

There another example of this sort of transformation in the film Minority Report. Here we are introduced to John Anderton, a police chief who lives in a future that has virtually eradicated murder. This is accomplished by use of premonitions that identify the crimes before they are committed, allowing would-be perpetrators to be arrested before they actually commit the act.

Of course things take an unexpected turn when the next premonition comes in, stating that John Anderton himself is going to commit a murder in thirty-six hours. His victim is a complete stranger, and the accusation seems entirely improbable. He simply is not the sort of person who could do such a thing. As such, he resists arrest and sets out on a mission to clear his name.

As we follow his exploits, we learn that he is carrying some deep wounds from his past, ones that have reduced his life to a hollow husk of the joy it once held. In time we learn that the man John is predicted to murder is unexpectedly connected to that past, and is directly responsible for all of his old wounds. Just like that, what had before seemed impossible becomes entirely probable. John, himself, asserts that he is going to kill this man.

But then he doesn’t. When the predestined moment arrives, John exercises his freedom to choose, and decides to not become a killer. And so what has up to this moment been presented as impossible: that the murder-sensing premonitions could be wrong, is now known to be possible.

Too often character development is shoehorned into a story because the writer believes it is supposed to be there. It is a season that is added as an afterthought, rather than as a core element. These stories, though, are ones where the change was absolutely fundamental to the narrative being told. There simply was no story without them.

In my latest short story, I have introduced a man that has happened across a curiosity. He has gained the power to create whatever it is he wishes. While that is an interesting premise, an interesting premise is not a story. I have only included the curious power because it is also a vehicle for his change, which change is the real point of the entire tale. Like Moriarty to Holmes and the premonition to John Anderton, the my character’s discovery of this creative power is a catalyst to help him become the person he must be. Help him become the person that he is not now. Help him do the things that he cannot now. Come back on Thursday as we push closer to this evolution.

The Changing of a Story

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The Kernel)

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Theme)

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

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

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

 

Things Go Awry)

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

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

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

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

 

The Story Fights Back)

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

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

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

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

 

The Solution)

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

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

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

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

Stop, You Fool!

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

 

Creating Suspense)

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

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

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

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

 

Poor, Naive Fools)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Meta-Narrative)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Character Wrinkles

portrait of man
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At the end of my last story I teased the fact that I used a character’s name to imbue the story with an extra dose of personality. What I meant by this was that almost no one ever refers to the main character by name. He is known primarily as “my father” and later on as “Pa.”

There are only two times where the character is actually named, and both times it is said by his wife. I thought it was a nice touch to show a sort of reverence for the man. As if all the world is too in awe to call him by name except for the woman he loves. The story never spells out this detail, and I would imagine the wrinkle won’t even be consciously noticed by most readers.

My hope, however, is that the reader’s subconscious will pick up on it, and view the man with greater respect without even knowing why. Whether this attempt of mine actually worked or not is probably impossible to test, but it was a fun way to add more depth to the story nonetheless.

Little quirks like these show up in stories all the time. In the 2011 film Warrior, Paddy Conlon is frequently seen listening to Moby Dick on audio-cassette. It is emblematic of his character’s own personal chase, one to regain the hearts of his sons. Also it draws a parallel between Paddy and the character Captain Ahab, as both have chased their demons too far, perhaps to their own demise. None of these similarities are ever spelled out explicitly, they are  just picked up on naturally by the viewer. It makes the Paddy’s character all the more rich and evocative just by lingering in the background.

Each of my tales in this latest series of stories has featured examples of these character wrinkles. I’ve already mentioned the one from Does What He Must, but now let’s take a look at the others.

In I Hated You, Jimmy my distinguishing characteristic was a little different. It was selected primarily for a more functional reason. Throughout that piece our narrator is describing to us events that are now years in past, and ones that he has made his peace with. Or at least it would seem that he has, except for how he becomes lost in the emotions of the moments he is recounting, even going so far as to make a particularly cold comment about the death of a school bully at one point.

My intention here was not to make our narrator a contradicting character, or to suggest that the peace he claims to have found was false. Instead I am merely trying to lend the emotion that fits for that particular moment of the story. I didn’t want my character to talk about the angry years of his youth with a sober, mature voice, it would have felt unnatural. And so I make it instead as if his voice is aging in step with his memories. Perhaps it makes for a narrator that doesn’t quite make sense, but I think it goes down more smoothly anyhow.

For Harold and Caroline I featured two main characters who were about as different as could be. Harold was flustered and sarcastic, Caroline was mousy and uncoordinated. I did, however, want the two of them to share one trait: each of them is holding back the things they want to say.

I believe that my readers got the sense that Harold was constantly biting his tongue. Every sarcasm and sigh of exasperation was but the tip of the iceberg of what he would like to express. Meanwhile Caroline was unwilling to be vulnerable, and so had to squash down all of her problems and frustrations. She is more open with her friends, but not at all with Harold.

My hope then was that each character would have a sense of being more than they appeared. That way it would feel fitting at the end that Harold has a secret charitable side, and that Caroline has a loving and supportive family. In that final scene each character is for the first time really seeing the other.

The Anther-Child was a piece in which we didn’t even meet our main character until halfway through the story. Up to that point he had only been described as part of a group, the Anther-Children as a whole. And even when he is first singled out it is done very impersonally as “one of the males.”

He is not being treated as an individual because his identity has not been individual until this moment. Then he is slowly given more and more focus. Each of the following sentences deals more and more with his experiences, and less and less with the other character’s. Soon all of the other characters depart entirely and he becomes the sole focus of the piece. At this point he expels his old essence and absorbs a new form from the ground around him. He has a new identity, and it perfectly coincides with how at this moment he has finally become the central character of the story.

Once again, the functional details of how the story is written are reflecting the characteristics of the protagonist and indirectly giving him greater depth.

I wanted to do one last story in this series, and it is going to take the idea of adding subtle character wrinkles in a different direction. I want to write a story about a character that is coming apart. I don’t want to add wrinkles to better define him, I want them to fray him and make him more obscure. I am going to try and write a piece from the perspective of a man who is dying, and as he does so gradually loses his grip on memory, reality, and finally his own identity. It sounds like quite the ambitious exercise, and I can’t claim any confidence for how it will turn out, but frankly I’m excited just to try!