Running Aground

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Normally I use Wednesdays to post a chapter of my current short story. But I’ve just wrapped up work on Covalent, and I want to take a moment to examine that story, what went well, and what could have been improved on. So next week will be the first chapter of my new short story: Secrets in the Mountain.

Where Are We Going?

Not for the first time, this short story got away from me! Covalent began with a very clear vision for how to begin and how to end, but all the in-between I would have to figure out along the way.

Many times this approach has worked for me. I get to roam freely, but having a clear destination in mind allows me to still end up where I want. Sometimes, though, I manage to thwart my plans the ending without even realizing it. I don’t recognize how the steps I am taking make the intended conclusion a poor fit until they’ve already been taken and published. At that point I have to let go of the ending and feel my way to a new sort of conclusion.

So what was the original intention for Covalent? Well, I always wanted it to be a story about three children in a strange and dangerous forest, where the youngest of them has a connection to a parallel world that he uses to help protect the others. That parallel world would provide them many advantages, but through it the boy would also inadvertently wake the most dangerous menace yet! Wielding powers he did not understand may have introduced their new foe, but gaining a true mastery of that power would be their only hope of surviving. The boy would have no choice but to delve still further into the parallel world.

Which is pretty much where the current story has brought us, so far all seems well. But the rest of the story was going to show how the boy had to surrender more and more of himself to the alternate world, which would result in his transformation, gradually changing him from human to machine. He would have to sacrifice his body and soul, giving up his own identity to protect the other two children.

And this arc has been compromised by some of the things that I recently wrote into the story. First and foremost, it is essential that the boy is sacrificing everything so that his friends can be spared the same fate. He is supposed to turn into the machine so that they don’t have to, just as young soldiers endure the horrors of war so that the “folks back home” don’t have to. But in my current iteration, I have already ruined both of the friends that the boy is supposed to be protecting. This completely undoes my central theme!

Tied in Knots)

I got into this conundrum through the best of intentions. First there was the matter of needing Cace to go back to the Ether after his last visit had nearly killed him. I realized that there needed to be a moment of desperate need, a situation that he would be willing to risk his life to resolve. So I had Rolar be attacked by a beast and left dying. Cace rushed into the Ether to save him, which was exactly where I wanted him to be.

But now, how was he to save him? I thought it would be cheap for him to just flip a few switches and bring Rolar back, right as rain. Things had been broken and I wanted there to be a real cost for saving Rolar. I went with the first idea that occurred to me: Cace had to swap parts of Rolar with those of another creature, which resulted in Rolar surviving, but also being transformed in the overworld.

But now Rolar was the one being ravaged from Cace’s expeditions to the Ether, not Cace. Rolar’s normal life is already ruined, which breaks half of that theme of Cace sacrificing himself to preserve normalcy for his friends.

But what about his other friend, Aylme? Well, I wanted to develop her while Cace was busy trying to save Rolar. I wanted to show how much grit and determination she had, trying to save the two boys while they were unconscious. Once again, though, I felt that there needed to be a cost here. I didn’t want the segment to be “oh no, something bad is happening, but Aylme works really hard and escapes the threat entirely, so it really didn’t have any impact.” Another major theme of this story is that the danger is real. It has teeth. So it only felt natural to have Aylme rescue the boys, but she ends up being taken by the threat instead. Which felt like a great story beat in the moment, but now the second half of my motivation for Cace’s ongoing sacrifice is gone.

At this point Cace is virtually alone. Aylme is completely unconscious and under the control of the enemy and Rolar has been reduced to a half-monster, almost entirely devoid of his original character and nuance. So now Cace wouldn’t be fighting for them at all, because they’re already pretty much lost.

At this point I could try and continue the story anyway, coming up with a new arc for Cace and a new conclusion. Maybe Cace doesn’t sacrifice himself to preserve them, but to retrieve them. But if I do that then it’s no longer the story that I was initially so excited to tell. I felt it would be better to fade to black instead, and then revisit it later.

Some Positives)

And I really would like to revisit it, because there actually is a lot of good that came out of this free-roaming process.

For one thing, I now know the exact nature of the Ether and of the water-beast that Cace inadvertently unleashed. In my previous notes I didn’t really understand the rules of these things, but through this exercise I’ve been able to clear that all up. The Ether is a large machine, with individual modules interconnected, which modules can be rearranged to invent new things in the overworld. That’s a great mechanic, and something I didn’t have before taking this journey. The water-beast is based off of resonance and rippling effects. It disrupts all living things to force them into harmonizing with itself. That is also a compelling idea.

Another thing I discovered was the importance of characters flinging themselves into danger for one another. I still want to change things so that Cace is the one primarily making sacrifices for his friends, but I don’t want to lose the bit of Rolar and Aylme throwing themselves into the fire for their friends, too. There was a great segment in the middle of the story where Rolar rushed to battle to save Cace, then Aylme rushed to save Rolar, then Cace dove into the Ether to bring Rolar’s consciousness back, then Aylme hauled the boys to safety while they were trapped in the Ether. This was very endearing, and I absolutely want to hold onto that and have it as a central theme.

How I Would Move Forward)

If I had more of this blog written ahead of time, I probably would have tried to revise things before they were already published. I believe the simplest shift would be to keep the story beats mostly the same, but to cut down on the costs that Rolar and Aylme had to pay for their heroics.

First I would have had Cace fill the broken pieces in Rolar with his own submodules, resulting in a mostly-normal Rolar, but a drastically shifted Cace. And I still would have wanted Aylme to be attacked by the dark water entity, but instead of being entirely lost, perhaps she could have just had her consciousness split. Part of her would still be with Cace and Rolar, but it would be tormented by the other half of her consciousness, which now served the enemy and was trying to bring about their demise.

For what it’s worth, I do think I will end up making these changes to the story, just not yet. I’ll see how I’m feeling at the time, but right now my intention is to make Covalent the next story that I revise in The Editor’s Bench. I’ll wait until I’ve finished with The Storm before making the decision final, but one way or another I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of this story!

How to Change a Heart

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Christmas Hearts)

Character development is a central consideration of every tale. Most stories are not just about what things happened, but about how those events changed a character forever. Consider the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life. This features a main character, George Bailey, who is miserable in life, tied to a sleepy, little town when he really to see the world and build amazing things. This perpetual dissatisfaction is then amplified by some legal trouble, and in a moment of despair he tries to take his own life.

He is interrupted in that attempt, though, when an angel comes to show him how meaningful his “wasted life” really is. The mission of this angel is to help George regain his fervor for life over the course of an extremely eventful night. Given that this transformation is the core of the story, it occurs gradually, one stirring of the heartstrings after another. Bit by bit George is made to see how positive of an influence he has had on one friend after another, and how much darker the world would be if he’d never been a part of it.

Of course, there is a climatic tipping point, the moment which finally pushes him over the edge. It is when George Bailey sees the love of his life as an old maid, and she recoils from him in horror. This is too terrible a sight for him to hold back his heart any longer, and at long last he pleads for his old life to be restored.

This, of course, is very similar to the journey of the old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Here an uncaring and unfeeling man is shown the folly of his ways through his own eventful night. First he is reminded of the joy that he once held but lost, and then he is shown the genuine mirth that still lives in the world today, but which he has shut himself out from.

Just as with George Bailey, these changes gradually stir Ebenezer’s heart. But also like George Bailey, it takes a final a climatic moment to actually push him over the edge. And so Scrooge ultimately comes face-to-face with his own future death, totally alone and unmourned. If the story had begun with this sight it wouldn’t have felt convincing for Ebenezer to be transformed just like that. But because this revelation is the summation of everything that came before we accept it when Scrooge finally recants his old way of life and is born anew.

From these two examples it seems very clear that a character’s transformation needs to be a gradual, procedural event. It would, of course, be unacceptable if the complete transformation were to occur all at once.

Right?

A Different Sort of Hero)

Well, what about the transformation of another Christmas mascot: The Grinch? For virtually the entirety of his tale, the Grinch remains a cynical, bitter, mischievous character. He’s annoyed by the noisy celebrations of the kind-hearted Whos, and one year decides to show them how shallow their mirth really is. He disguises himself as Santa Claus and breaks into their homes in the dead of night, stealing all of their Christmas decorations and presents.

After hours of labor he takes the stolen goods back to his home in Mount Crumpit, and waits in anticipation for the Whos to awake. He is sure that once they find all of their Christmas treasures taken they will collapse in tears.

The thing is, though, the Grinch’s philosophy is based upon a false premise. He believes that the Whos’ joyfulness is a sham, nothing more than the enjoyment of “things,” and by taking away those things he will unveil to them just how shallow they really are.

And so it comes as a great shock to the Grinch when the Whos do not cry that Christmas morning. Instead they join hands and sing a happy holiday tune, not one bit fazed by the loss of the things he stole. Their trappings of Christmas were not the cause of their happiness, they were the outward manifestation of it. And so he may have taken away the wrappings, but the gift of joy remains unbreakable in their hearts.

In short: the Grinch was wrong.

Which realization hits him like a ton of bricks, and the impact of this philosophy-shattering incident is best conveyed by having his character do a complete transformation right on the spot. Having him go on a lengthy pilgrimage to get to the bottom of his muddled feelings would not properly communicate the power of the message that he has just received. No, it is far better to change him in a single scene from a scheming cynic to a believing optimist.

And the Grinch is not the only character to have a sudden shift like this. The same thing occurs to Jean Valjean in Les Miserables when he stops viewing himself as an irredeemable convict. It also happens to Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov when she is healed of her spite and able to embrace genuine love once more. All at once these become totally different characters, but that fits due to the sudden, paradigm-shifting experiences that they pass through.

Different Requirements)

So, in summary, you often want to show a character’s heart changing gradually, especially when the core of the story is how that transformation occurs. There are exceptions, though, such as when you want to show that a character’s preconceived notions of the world are shattered in a single moment, which is best communicated with an immediate reversal in their trajectory.

And, in fact, there are plenty of stories that utilize both forms of transformation. Jean Valjean’s sudden change in Les Miserables is met with the slower transformation of Javert. Grushenka’s sudden reversal in The Brothers Karamazov is matched by the gradual maturing of her beloved Dmitri.

In my latest story, Covalent, I have been trying to accomplish both forms of transformation as well. On the one hand I have been showing Cace steadily coming into his own in the Ether, growing from a young, impotent boy into a powerful warrior. This gradual change was marked in the last section by some subtle changes occurring to his body: a lengthening of the limbs and his mouth being replaced with a grille.

Rolar, on the other hand, has been absolutely worked over by the events that recently transpired! He was brought to death’s door by a warden beast and could only be saved by replacing large parts of his body with those of the same beast that tried to kill him. As a result, I have subjected him to an immediate and dramatic change, one where his body and intellect were made almost entirely unrecognizable.

Both types of change are helping to communicate the same thing to the reader: that the story is moving into new waters. The strange that became familiar is now eclipsed by a new strangeness. We’ll see just what form that unfamiliarity takes when I continue the story on Wednesday!

Well That Was Exhausting

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Wearing Down)

In the most recent chapter of Covalent I have one of my main characters, Aylme, brought to her absolute limit as she has rushes her unconscious comrades from danger, including one that is quite a bit larger than she is. Thus far she has been quick-thinking, resourceful, and determined, but one exertion after another I have been wearing the character down to the bone. She is exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically, nearly out of fresh ideas, fighting down fear, and asking more of her muscles than ever before. And, I hope, the readers are feeling that same exhaustion themselves, as if they have been right alongside her, wearing down their minds and bodies as she has.

Coincidentally, I am also trying to create that exact same sensation in my refactoring of The Storm. Here I have two sailors caught in a storm, their boats tethered together, working to their limits to overcome one life-threatening threat after another.

But why do some action-packed stories make us feel energized, like we’ve just been for a brisk walk, while others give us the sense of having been put through the wringer, totally depleted of all our energy? Well, let’s take a look at one of my favorite exhausting films to see what lessons we can glean from it.

The Master of Exhaust)

If there’s any director who has a monopoly on tiring tales, it’s Steven Spielberg. Think of Indiana Jones staggering to his feet after the lengthy tank fight in The Last Crusade. Think of Martin Brody hanging from the sinking mast at the end of Jaws. Think of Captain Miller slumped on the ground at the end of Saving Private Ryan. Think of Alan Grant reclining into his helicopter seat at the end of Jurassic Park. All of these characters have gone to their absolute limits and beyond. Whatever they have achieved by the end of their story, they have obtained it only by wringing out every last bit of themselves, down to the last drop. In fact, some of them have given so much that they won’t be making it home alive.

But these films are all from the height of Spielberg’s career, and I’m going to instead bring attention to one of his lesser-known works, a made-for-television movie that came out in 1971 called Duel. This film tells the story of a simple man named David Mann, who is driving through the Mojave desert for a business trip. Along the way he overtakes a large diesel truck. The truck driver attempts to pass him back again, but Mann maintains his lead, and in doing so incurs the wrath of the other man. And when I say “incurs the wrath,” I mean that the diesel truck driver now means to out-and-out kill him, as evidenced when he nearly baits Mann into driving full-speed into an oncoming vehicle!

Thus begins the duel for which the film is named. Mann is at an extreme disadvantage in his small sedan. He has a bit of an edge in speed and dexterity, but those are small comforts given the size and strength of the relentless behemoth that bears down on him in one life-threatening attack after another.

In terms of character and themes, Duel is a pretty simple film. There are very few characters, very few locations, and it only runs for 90 minutes. But in that simplicity it allows itself to focus purely on one aspect: the exhaustion of a relentless chase. It fills out its time and wears out its audience by consistently coming up with one nail-biting sequence after another. There is that moment where the diesel truck is pressing Mann’s car from behind, trying to force it into an oncoming train. Then there is that time Mann runs for a phone booth to call the police, just to have the truck come blasting down, smashing the booth to bits. Then there are the moments Mann tries to lose himself behind the killer-vehicle, just to find that it has hidden in wait further down the road.

The film exhausts the viewer because it employs one unique danger after another. Each is new and novel and takes a little bit of our energy to process. If we saw the same sort of thrill repeated over and over it wouldn’t get our blood pumping nearly so much, but the constantly fresh experiences take a toll on us over time.

This isn’t all, though. The film also employs another trick that Spielberg utilized many times later in his other films. It shows us the main character breaking down, one small part at a time. Mann doesn’t pass through a battle, heal back at home, then return fresh to another fight. No, he slowly falls apart in one, long, continuous grind. He progresses from relaxed, to irritated, to angry, to horrified, to fearful, to flat-out desperate. And even has he breaks down, his car gets dents and dings, breaks its radiator, loses parts, and has trouble even starting. Each new scene it is looking worse and worse, that much closer to falling apart entirely.

90 minutes might not be very long for a film, but it is extremely long for such a prolonged beatdown! And being the empathetic creatures that we are, we cannot help but share in its burden.

Applying the Lessons)

One unique danger after another, a single, unwavering deterioration of the character. These are the two principles that create an exhausting tale.

And I have tried to employ both of these principles in Covalent. I have kept the focus locked on Aylme for the last chapter, and will continue to do so in the next, showing a single, prolonged instance of her being worn down bit-by-bit, her resources progressively breaking around her, one novel situation being replaced by another, constantly driving towards that point of collapse. I have also been doing the exact same thing in The Storm, describing how both the nerve and the boats of our sailors break apart from one unique trauma after another.

At the end of it all, if I’ve done things right, my audiences will not have done anything directly strenuous themselves, but they’ll still be utterly fatigued just for having been witness to all these agonizing trials. My stories won’t just take the vitality from my characters, they will demand a small bit of life from the readers as well!

Revising The Storm- Week 9

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I haven’t quite finished with Oscar’s struggle against the waves, and after that I’m going to throw in a few more challenges before Harry gives his confession. I don’t just want to add trouble for trouble’s sake, though. I also want to develop character and plot. Take, for example, Harry. Thus far he’s been the clueless fool, but I want Oscar and he to start having a more nuanced relationship.

All of which is going to make this middle section a fair bit longer. Maybe too long. But I often find it’s best to throw in all the ideas that seem promising, and then it’s always an option to carve out the best version of the story afterwards. So on we go!

Keeping Up Speed)

Oscar’s boat was slow to answer the call, its propellers spun valiantly, but the vessel was nearly double its normal weight, and as it crawled towards the peak of the wave it grew slower and slower. The stern tried to follow the path of least resistance, tried to tip either to one side or the other, and Oscar had to spin the wheel back-and-forth to counter its shying. He poured everything he had into the engines, forcing the craft to obey!

Then came a sudden blow from behind and the sound of crunching. Oscar’s boat had slowed down faster than Harry could turn his own boat out of the way!

“Harry!” Oscar shouted in anger, but then he felt the push. Harry’s vessel was still pressing forward, and even against the slope of the wave, Oscar realized he was accelerating again. So he snapped his eyes back forward and steered his way through the top of the wave. The surf finally broke over his prow, and the boat gained speed as it rushed down the wave’s backside.

“Alright, Harry, that was lucky,” he pulled the mic back to his mouth. “But you keep your distance on the way up these waves, you hear?”

Oscar didn’t hear any response, but then realized he still had the button on his mic locked down. He released it just in time to hear the last of Harry’s reply.

“–and I’m sorry.”

“I don’t want your ‘sorry,’ Harry,” he shot back. “Just competence.”

Well this segment was entirely new, and the next few will be as well. I like to think that I’ve been able to get back into the original voice of this story, but I’m curious to see whether that’s true when I read it all together.

I have mentioned that my reason for adding these new pieces is to make the journey feel more exhausting, but I don’t want to be making things longer just for the sake of having them be longer. Pacing is important, but if a scene is only present to keep the pace right, then you have architecture that is superficial. Better to have scenes that pull double duty, both helping maintain the proper cadence and developing plot or character.

This was why I had this piece build up to the point of Oscar criticizing Harry for only having apologies and not competence. Oscar isn’t just throwing out a random insult in the heat of the moment here, he is expressing a much deeper wound. Consider how that line will take on a greater meaning when the audience finds out that Harry’s incompetence resulted in the death of Oscar’s son. “Sorry” doesn’t carry any weight at all after something like that.

Losing Power)

Oscar dropped the mic to the desk and busied himself setting the throttle. Through the next dozen waves he tried to maintain a steady clip forward. It was an agonizing balancing act. They needed to move forward quickly enough to make headway against the waves, but that meant consuming a lot of fuel, which the two of them were running dangerously low on. Harry, who had been fighting against the storm for longer, was running particularly low on it.

“Oh–oh–” Harry’s concerned voice came over the radio.

“What is it?” Oscar demanded, but just then he felt the strain of Harry’s boat pulling back against his own and he knew.

“I’m out of fuel.”

“Entirely?!”

“I–I think so.”

“Don’t you have a spare tank?”

“Yeah, I used it already!”

They came to the rise of the next wave. Oscar’s boat started to burst through the crown, but Harry’s boat wasn’t able to maintain speed. It held Oscar’s boat like an anchor, and he felt himself moving backward with the wave. Harry cried out in fear as his boat cut low through the water’s rise, drenching his deck, and threatening to smash the windows on his wheelhouse.

“You there?” Oscar demanded as they finally broke through to the other side.

“Barely!”

“Run out to the front of the boat, here comes my spare tank.”

Oscar locked his wheel in place, grabbed the plastic tank from under a seat, and dashed to the back of the boat. He paused to pour a fifth of its contents into his own fuel-starved engine, then he stood with his foot on the stern and threw the canister through the air into Harry’s waiting arms.

As Oscar looked backwards he tried to pick out the Broken Horn, to determine if they were far enough away to turn around. That spare tank had only had a gallon of diesel remaining, and divided across the two of them it wouldn’t last even an hour. Were they far enough from the cape to turn around now?

And in answer to his questions he saw only blackness. The Broken Horn wasn’t visible at all through the darkness that pressed close to them. Oscar couldn’t even see forty yards distant. Perhaps they had pushed away from the cape, or they might have been sliding even closer to it. He couldn’t tell. When they turned, they would have no way of telling how near the dangers were until they were right upon them!

Depart to Return Again

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A Gap Between)

There is an unspoken rule in storytelling that if two characters meet together for a scene and depart at the end, then the next scene won’t begin with them meeting once more. Two scenes later they might, but it is always preferred to have that space of at least one scene between every coming together.

The reason for this is purely aesthetic. Because while we understand that any period of time might transpire between two scenes, they remain a sequential experience to the audience. It just feels wrong to read of two people walking apart and then immediately read of the same two people walking back together. Where one scene concludes by asking a question we do not expect to already have the answer at the opening of the next.

To be clear, two characters can meet in one scene and then progress together into the next, but they cannot move apart and then return together immediately. In a story we measure the passage of time by changes. We need to feel the separation and the return, the change of clothes and sets, the gaps which create that artificial sense of minutes and hours spinning by.

Let’s look at a specific example of what I’m talking about.

Investigating Structure)

The film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is a hardboiled detective noir. Like many of that genre it features a core set of characters that interact with one another many times over. Promises are broken, bribes are offered, and threats are extended at reckless abandon, requiring the same characters to depart and return again many times over.

And yet, the film firmly follows this rule of letting characters stay apart for a scene before reuniting them. Here are how the opening scenes play out.

Scene 1: Sam Spade and Miles Archer are partner detectives. Their secretary Effie Perine introduces a new client to them, Ruth Wonderly.

Scene 2: Miles Archer goes from the first scene to meet with an unknown murderer who guns him down.

Scene 3: Sam Spade receives a call in his apartment that Miles Archer has been killed. He calls Effie and asks her to break the news to Archer’s wife.

Scene 4: Sam Spade arrives at the scene of the murder and discusses the matter with the police there.

Scene 5: Sam goes to his apartment and is grilled by Polhaus and Dundy, two police detectives.

Scene 6: Sam is back in the office with secretary Effie Perine. Archer’s widow comes to meet with Sam.

At this point notice how Sam Spade and his secretary Effie Perine are the two characters that have shared the most scenes together: 3 out of 6. But each of these scenes together are separated from the others by at least one intermediary scene.

Scene 7: Spade goes to the new client Ruth Wonderly’s apartment. She admits to having lied earlier.

Scene 8: Spade returns to his office with Effie Perine (once again notice that they were kept apart by Scene 7 before reuniting), and meets another new client named Joel Cairo.

Scene 9: Spade is being tailed by an unknown man on the streets. He arrives back at Ruth Wonderly’s apartment and calls her out on more lies.

Scene 10: Spade and Wonderly go back to his office together and tell Joel Cairo to meet them there. In the middle of their argument detectives Polhaus and Dundy come to grill Spade further.

Scenes 7, 8, 9, and 10 therefore involved Spade and Wonderly, Spade and Cairo, Spade and Wonderly again, and Spade and Wonderly and Cairo. This limited cast of characters is interacting with each another rapid fire, but they still get spaced out with a scene between them, or else move together to the next scene without parting in between.

The arrival of Joel Cairo greatly helps to maintain this hopscotch pattern, as it provides a second thread for Spade to pull on in addition to the one with Wonderly. He is able to bounce between progressing each of these lines and the interactions never feels awkward as a result.

Here the film comes to a tricky juncture, though. In the last scene pretty much every known character came together. So how to progress forward? Well, Scene 11 opens with Sam confronting the man who had been tailing him earlier. Yet another thread to pull on while letting the others gestate.

Scene 11 does also provide the first and only exception in the entire film to the rule of giving characters a scene apart, though. For after conversing with the new man, Wilmer, Spade bumps into Joel Cairo once more. And while these two men are technically revisiting each other two scenes in a row, the brief conversation with Wilmer in between helps to offset the awkwardness of that.

Deliberate Pacing)

Even stories that spend a long time in a single setting will deliberately pace themselves in this way. You can find an excellent example of this in another Humphrey Bogart classic: Casablanca. Watch the scene near the start where we first come to Rick’s Café Americain. It is an extended sequence of nearly a half hour, with many of the same characters repeated. But we hop from one conversation to another and back again. One thread is established about some stolen visas, another about an upcoming arrest, another about a mysterious revolutionary arriving, and then back to the first. Everything flows seamlessly and is aesthetically pleasing because just enough space is given around each character and thread before we return to them.

And to be clear, a story does not naturally divide itself into staggered pacing like this. It comes about by a very intentional weaving. In writing my own stories it is often necessary for me to refactor my structure when I realized I wasn’t giving each moment enough space to breathe.

I have been careful to manage this very thing in my latest piece: The Punctured Football. This is a short story with a limited set of characters, but look at the scenes and you will see that I change which character is interacting with the protagonist each time. The same individuals never meet back-to-back. And I’ll be keeping that rule as I conclude the story on Thursday. Come back then and make note of how I drive the whole thing forward while hopping between its multiple different threads.

Taking a Look Back: Part Two

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Here we are with just more section left in The Favored Son: Alternate! This Thursday I’ll post the conclusion, then be ready to move on to something new. A week ago I took a look at half of the lessons I learned during this long process, today we’ll be looking at the rest. Without further ado, let’s dive right in.

Relationship Stuff)

The story opened with a group of boys who, if not the best of friends, still felt the kinship of being in the same order. Obviously things did not remain that way, though. I always knew that betrayal and drawing lines in the sand was going to a major component of this tale, and I recently wrote about that very concept. With this story I specifically wanted to focus on Tharol’s reaction to being betrayed, and how pre-emptively strikes against the coming treason. On the one hand I wanted his actions to feel clever and resourceful, while on the other I wanted to question the morality of resorting to the same sort of underhanded tactics as his foes. Even if we feel Reis deserved what he got, I think it is still a pitiable moment when he realizes what his friend has done to him.

I also talked about the hero’s relationship to him- or herself. Many tales remove one support from the protagonist after another, until at last they stand alone. By the end of the story Tharol has discovered that half of the boys in the order are traitors, and the other half have mistaken him for being a traitor himself! Not only this, but as we learned last week, even his mentor was trying to cast him off from the order for his own good. Tharol needed to be made alone so that he wouldn’t be dragged down with the ship. I think that is a very compelling notion, and if I ever expand on this narrative that would be an ongoing theme in the plot that followed.

I also spoke about a story’s relationship to the audience, and how it strives to be relatable to us in our everyday lives, or else in our private fantasies. Tharol is experiencing a situation that not many readers will be able to directly identify with, but my hope is that he reacts to the events in the same way that the reader would if in that same situation. If I managed to pull it off, then he becomes a vehicle for the audience to feel like they went through the experiences with Tharol.

Forms of Communication)

Storytelling is a form of communication. And having had many years to explore the possibilities of story-communication, humanity has developed some very nuanced techniques. I dedicated one of my posts to consider protagonists that say one thing but imply another, who have jumbled feelings on the same matter, and who have to deal with multiple relationships intersecting with each other.

I tried to include elements of this in my story as well. I think one of my best implementations of this was after Master Palthio had been poisoned and Tharol was left alone in the room with Beesk, Inol, and Reis. Each of the other boys turns and makes meaningful eye contact with him, all without seeing that the others are doing the same thing. At this moment the audience is aware that each of them is believing a different reality. Beesk and Inol think Tharol is afraid that a boy accidentally brought poisoned wine to the dinner, and Reis thinks that Tharol suspects Beesk and Inol of trying to pull a fast one on him. But in reality Tharol knows that Reis is the guilty party, and now he must carefully play all the different sides so that no ones becomes suspicious of how much he really knows.

I spent another of my blog posts discussing communication through forms other than dialogue. Specifically I called out how a story can use scenes of action to drive plot and character development. Laced through The Favored Son were a number of competitions and fights, and I tried to lace each of these with special meaning. The scuffle between Tharol and the pickpocket in the marketplace showed the expertise Master Palthio was weaving into his boys, the standoff between Lord Amathur and the rebels showed how little Tharol understands about the politics around him, and the several practice duels reinforced the growing rifts between the boys. And at the end of the story we are seeing all of the separate lines become lethal as competing ideologies are proved by the sword.

And the Others)

Finally there were two other one-off lessons that I explored while writing this story. The first had to do with the flow of character development, and how it can be a steady arc, or it can be a fluctuating river, or it can be a firm stillness. Tharol’s development has the most natural progression of all the characters. Sometimes his growth accelerates and sometimes it plateaus, but overall it is consistent from start to finish. For Reis there is a certain ambiguity during half of the story, as we really aren’t sure what he is all about. Then, as we reveal him to be a traitor, his development suddenly spikes rapidly. And Master Palthio is a constant throughout the whole story, never really changing, yet suddenly seen in a far clearer light at the end.

Finally I spoke about the use of suspense in a story. It is used when the audience is waiting for some unknown fallout, whether negative or positive. If negative it generates anxiety, if positive it generates anticipation.

There is a lot of waiting in my story. We know things are going to go down, but we don’t know what. A grave, yet nebulous, threat hangs over the entire story, giving us anxiety. At the same time, we see Tharol setting wheels in motion with the poisoned wine in an attempt to counter whatever is coming, and this gives us a sense of anticipation. I tried to build up both halves of suspense in equal measure, then let both of them crash out in the climatic finale. This is meant to provide an ending that is both positive and negative, and hopefully extremely satisfying in each.

Having done all this, all that remains is to wrap up all the loose ends of the story. Come back this Thursday when I post the final chapter of The Favored Son: Alternate, and let’s see if I can put a bow on everything that I’ve learned along the way!

The Shape of Change

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The Underlying Sameness)

The 2003 film Shattered Glass portrays the rise and fall of real-life journalist Stephen Glass and it employs a very interesting character arc for him. What is interesting is that he doesn’t change one bit from the start of the movie to the end…and yet it very much feels like he does.

At the outset of the film Stephen Glass is a junior member of the staff for The New Republic. His writing quickly gains traction, though, as he somehow manages to land one earth-shattering story after another. Before long he is writing front-page material and is one of the most successful writers ever for the magazine.

But as I said, Stephen Glass is a real life person, and he became infamous to the news world when it was discovered he made up all of those amazing articles. There wasn’t a shred of truth to what he wrote, and even if you weren’t aware of this before renting the movie, the fact was plastered all throughout its marketing and taglines.

So right from the get-go the audience knows that this innocent-seeming character is actually a compulsive liar. And the film begins with him this way and it ends with him this way. He doesn’t really evolve from start to finish.

What does change, though, is the entire environment around him. He goes from being a nobody, to being lauded, to being reviled. And so while we don’t see an evolution in the character, we see an arc in the sort of lies he has to tell. At first they’re simple fabrications about his daily life meant to make his coworkers like him. Then they become grand fish-stories meant to captivate a national audience. Then they become desperate cover-ups to dissuade others from finding out the truth.

We see him shift from unassuming, to drunk with success, to frantic and fearful. Frankly the character doesn’t need to change, because we spend so much time getting to know all the different sides of him just as he already is.

This is somewhat similar to the arc of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Throughout the movie we see him progress from an innocent boy to a hungry, young man, to a grasping tycoon, to a broken elder. As with Stephen Glass the man changes quite a great deal on the surface.

But then, in the very final scene, we are made to realize that for all his changing methods, his intention has always been the same: to recapture his childlike joy. All the change we perceived was simply the steady increase of desperation as he repeatedly failed in that one, simple goal.

Pendulum’s Center)

There is an entirely different sort of character arc in the 1992 film Lorenzo’s Oil. This is another true-life story about two parents whose son is diagnosed with an incredibly rare and totally lethal disease. The two hopefully inquire whether a cure for the disease might be found, but are saddened to learn that the medical community is giving the matter very little attention. The disease simply affects too small of a population to be a priority.

Though the parents have no medical training of their own they take it upon themselves to research the matter. They tirelessly search for a cure, and in this they swing back and forth from discovery to setback, hope to despair, elation to defeat. In one scene we might see them laughing together and chatting animatedly, in the next they are shouting and collapsing in tears. Medical research is, of course, a very hard process of trial and error, and it is impossible for them to separate their emotions from all its inherent hills and valleys.

But their character’s are not only swinging back and forth between two states. With every turn of the pendulum they grow more solidified overall. Emotional blisters become callouses, wounds toughen into scars, passing ideas become a life’s work. Every setback that does not unseat them only serves to deepen their resolve in the cause. Though they know that much of the damage to their son will be forever irreversible, they are going to see this journey through to the bitter end. And so while the arc appears to swing back and forth, it is actually steadily rising from start to finish.

Compare this to the relentless chase that Captain Ahab commits his vessel to in Moby Dick. He, too, seems to teeter back and forth, half giving in to his conscience, but then always hardening himself back to the chase. While at the beginning of the story he almost seems within reason, by the end he has entrenched himself time and time again, until finally his heart is a stone and his face a flint.

The Sharp Turn)

There are also characters that suddenly redefine themselves in a single moment. They have an experience of immense significance, one that they cannot endure and remain the same person any longer.

There is a twofold example of this in Les Miserable. The first is Jean Valjean, who is a former convict that breaks his parole and is now wanted by the law. By the time we meet him at the start of the tale he has resigned himself to the life of a criminal and has no other intention than to steal his way through life.

To that end he ransacks the home of a priest who had showed him kindness, and when he is discovered by the priest knocks him over the head and runs away. The next day the priest has an opportunity to take vengeance on Valjean, but instead frees him from all consequence and implores him to be a better man. Jean Valjean is shocked by the graciousness and from that moment dedicates himself to the work of good. And like the characters in our previous section he entrenches himself in that cause against all opposition.

The second example from Les Miserables is laid out in perfect symmetry to the first. Whereas Jean Valjean is changed at the start and consistent through the rest, Javert is consistent through the whole until he is changed at the end. In Javert’s case his consistency is in the cause of cold justice. He stubbornly refuses to accept Valjean’s repentance as genuine, entrenches himself against forgiveness, and ever tries to have the man incarcerated.

At the end he falls into the hands of revolutionaries, and is given over to Valjean to be killed. Instead, though, Valjean spares him, even as he was once spared. Like Valjean, Javert is so moved by the mercy that he cannot carry on the life he had been leading. He has to turn it a complete 180 degrees.

And to keep the symmetry consistent, where Valjean awoke to a new life, Javert consigns himself to the grave.

On Thursday I posted the most recent chapter of my story and I paused to wonder whether I had given my protagonist the correct shape in his character arc. He gradually rises with a noble cause, until all at once the rug is pulled out from under him and he sharply falls out of grace with his peers. Of all the patterns I have related today the third one matches him best.

And I think it fits him well. I meant for Tharol to be deeply changed by his downfall, which meant that his decline needed to be quite impactful. This, of course, suggested a very sudden turn of events, and I wrote a scene that accomplished exactly that.

Sometimes it is better for a character to change only gradually, or to remain steadfast as the world changes around them instead, but in my case I need a sharp turn. Come back on Thursday to see how that change carries through towards the end of the tale.

Do You Like Me?

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Strict or Lax)

One decade ago I served a mission for my church, and there were a lot of rules that we missionaries were expected to abide by. Our days were regimented out on a very specific schedule, we were to follow a rigid dress code, we avoided all forms of entertainment media, and we were expected to uphold a very careful image.

Some missionaries took the rules to heart. They sincerely tried their best every day to follow them to the letter. Other missionaries, considered them to be suggestions, and were known for being perpetual rule breakers.

What I found very interesting was that the strict missionaries and the lax ones would butt heads over protocol, but both sides still got along with one another as friends. Even if missionaries disagreed, even the lax ones could respect the sincerely strict, and the strict ones could respect the sincerely lax.

But there was a third class of missionaries, and these ones rubbed everyone the wrong way: the two-faced missionary.

There were a few missionaries that would put on pious airs whenever they were around our mission president, and then cut loose whenever they were in private. No one was able to respect them, because they were too slippery to really know who you were dealing with.

After observing this pattern, I have come to see that it is true everywhere. We can have disagreements with others, yet still respect them so long as they are sincere. But insincerity, or two-facedness? No one is comfortable with that.

 

The Slimy Villain)

Consider Tony Wendice from the classic Hitchcock film Dial M for Murder. The movie opens with him plotting to murder his wife, Margot Wendice, and blackmailing an accomplice into carrying out the deed for him. His watertight plan runs into trouble when his crony, Charles Swann, bungles the task, and ends up being killed by Margot in self defense.

Not willing to be defeated, Tony wrangles things so that he can instead frame his wife for murder, making it appear that Charles had been blackmailing Margot, and she had killed him in cold blood. This is, of course, a sticky operation, and Tony must deflect every suspicion of his own involvement. He goes to to great lengths to appear as noble to the inspectors as he can.

This has an interesting effect, because we, the audience, know that he is lying through his teeth with every word. And so the more positive he makes himself look to the other characters in the story, the more shameless and depraved he becomes to the audience. When he finally does get his just desserts, it is a very satisfying payoff for the viewer.

 

The Insincere Peddler)

Getting the audience to hate the villain by casting him as insincere makes sense. Interestingly, though, it is also possible to begin with a character that is slippery, and then transform them into the hero instead. Indeed, a common protagonist is that of the insincere peddler. This is a character who goes to great lengths to convince others of something that they, themselves, do not believe in. Their character arc thus begins as slippery snake-oil salesmen, but they can evolve into genuine believers by the end.

Consider, for example, Professor Emelius Browne in the Walt Disney classic Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The man is a sham, who copies spells and incantations from old books, then sells them to any sap who is dumb enough to believe in such nonsense. He is in for a surprise, then, when one of his students, Miss Price, turns up on his doorstep and demonstrates that the spells work perfectly well for her and always have.

Through a series of adventures Browne begins to care for Miss Price, and also for the orphaned children under her care. He feels the pull towards family, but he resists it. Just as how he has dodged his nation’s war, he also runs away from this responsibility, ever remaining the shill.

But then, of course, fate intervenes and Miss Price and the children are captured by Nazi soldiers. Browne desperately wants to come to their rescue, but doing so is going to take a little bit of magic on his part. For the first time, he has to start believing in something.

He manages to pull it off, and it becomes the turning point for his character. By the end of the film he has supported Miss Price in her battle with the invading forces, pledged to be a father to the orphaned children, and joined the army to do his civic duty in the war. We didn’t care for him at the outset of the story, but he really does win us over by the end.

 

The Disbelieving Missionary)

Another fine example of a character who does not practice what he preaches can be found in the film I Can Only Imagine. This is the story of the real-life band Mercy Me, and specifically of its lead-singer Bart Millard.

Bart is desperate for success in the spiritual music scene, and is undoubtedly a very talented musician. But what he gets told over and over again is that he comes across as fake and insincere in his message. He talks about grace and healing, but is himself brimming with resentment and hurt. The last thing he wants to do is reconnect with his abusive father who wounded him, but it makes every song about forgiveness ring hollow.

After he has had his hopes and dreams crushed a few times he finally goes back to the skeletons in his closet, finds closure for past wrongs, and ultimately feels the very grace he’s been trying to sell to others. At long last his songs ring true.

These positive examples begin with the insincere and jaded, and end with the genuine and believing. There is a great cathartic satisfaction in that transformation, and the greater the dislike at the beginning, the greater the enjoyment in learning how to love these characters by the end.

 

Now in my own story we have a particularly two-faced character in Julian. The man continually attests to his own virtue, but shamelessly claws for every advantage that he can. This is interesting, because he is not the pirate in this story.

Bartholomew, on the other hand, is a ruthless cutthroat, but he has the decency to admit as much. He isn’t a worthy character, but we respect him for at least seeing his own flaws clearly. We may not approve of him, but it is easier to like him.

Captain Molley, of course, is the truly virtuous character. He has his principles and he holds to them sincerely. He isn’t a particularly warm character, but again we can respect him because of his being so true to himself.

I want to take these characters, their convictions, and do some interesting things with them in the second half of the story. Julian is not going to have an arc of redemption, this isn’t the right sort of story for that, but I do want to make him pitiable. I want to let my audiences remain disdainful of his slippery nature, but also feel bad for his plight.

For Bartholomew, I want to reveal a more slippery side than we have perceived thus far. Indeed, I want the audience to realize that he is no more sincere than Julian, he’s only better at hiding his second face.

And for Captain Molley, I want to put a few chinks in his armor. It won’t be that he is a two-faced liar, though, just a man under considerable strain, who feels his grip on himself breaking.

I’m excited to see how this all turns out, and hope that you will find it satisfying. Come back on Thursday to see how I start developing these dramas.

You Never Really Knew Me

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Characters Exposed)

Stories have the unique ability to show us things about their characters that we could never know about another person in real life. At their most intimate, they detail for us the moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings of the character, to a degree that we will never have, even with our closest friends.

Indeed, in the most detailed of stories we come to know a character better than they even know themselves, as we are able to flip back through the pages to recall things that they cannot. Their lives are literally an open book to us.

Thus Harry Potter might moan about his latest disagreement with Ron, and wonder whether this really and truly the end of their friendship…and we just sigh and wonder how long it will be until he realizes that they are pals forever. Silly Harry, doesn’t he realize he’s the protagonist and Ron is his confidante? Narrative archetypes demand that they remain on speaking terms!

That, perhaps, is the greatest truth which we know about these individuals that they do not: that they are a character in a story. Harry might wonder if this is really the end for him when he encounters Lord Voldemort at the end of The Goblet of Fire, but we know this only book four of seven, there’s no way he isn’t going to make it out of this alive!

 

Flip the Script)

Given that this balance usually tips in favor of the reader, it can make things interesting to instead reserve some information related the main character, and refuse to share it with the reader.

This, for example, is what makes Tyler Durden such an unsettling character in Fight Club. The unnamed narrator is an open book to us. He tells us all his feelings, we’re with him at every critical point of his story, we understand him through and through. But Tyler Durden?

The man is a complete enigma. He’s charismatic and winning, but we’re never quite sure what to really make of him. He escalates his plans to more and more extreme behavior. He always seems to be on the cusp of committing some horrible crime against humanity, but then pulls back at just the last second, double- and triple-bluffing us at every turn. We are sure that he is holding secrets close to his chest, and we are both fascinated and terrified as to what they might be.

Which of course is what makes the twist of that story so compelling. It turns out that our “open book” narrator is the one harboring secrets, not Tyler Durden. Or perhaps one could say that the narrator is Tyler Durden’s closely guarded secret. For the two men are one-and-the-same, alternate personalities living in the same body.

 

Suspense)

And this is the heart of suspense. Suspense is not about popping something shocking at the reader. Suspense is about having them fully anticipate the something shocking…but leaving them uncertain as to which way it will come at them from. It isn’t enough just for a character to have a secret, the audience has to actually know that they have a secret, but no one can tell when or how it will be unveiled.

Consider the sequence in Schindler’s List where the title character tries to convince the psychopathic Amon Goeth that true strength is in having the power to hurt another, yet choosing not to. It is a nice speech, it clearly makes an impact, and as a result we see Amon fighting down the urge to lash out at the Jewish prisoners he watches over.

But even while he strives to maintain composure, we can see that it is eroding out from under  him. Just what is his personal limit? We do not know. We anticipate a breakdown, and every encounter has us anxious that this might be the moment where he finally snaps. Which, tragically, he does.

 

Terror)

Strong levels of suspense eventually stray into the realm of terror. And this is where some of the most compelling villains in stories arise. A character that is antagonistic, but one-dimensional and perfectly understood, can certainly be disliked, but usually fails to imbue the audience with the same terror that the protagonists feel. In Lord of the Rings we may be anxious for Frodo and Aragorn’s well-being, but we do not feel personally uneasy about the specter of Sauron’s all-seeing eye.

Villains that are an enigma, however, can terrify us directly. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula we have the no-secret villain in the titular vampire, and we do not fear him very greatly. But we also have a deeply-secretive adversary in the form of Renfield. And Renfield, as a result, is straight up unsettling, breathing a sense of menace right into the reader’s living room.

His mind is immediately a mystery to us by virtue of his being insane. We read about the experiments he performs in his cell at the asylum, first feeding flies to spiders, and then spiders to birds, and then eating the birds himself when he is denied a cat. He mutters about how he is trying to accumulate more and more life energy through the consumption of so many others.

We also know that he is connected with the vampire Dracula, but that he harbors motivations and intentions that are in constant, erratic flux. At times he seems genuinely friendly to our heroes, and at others to the vampire. We never know when or how he will take his stand, and so we feel very unnerved by him.

True to his volatile nature, he proves to be unpredictable right to the very end, both unlocking the door for Dracula to enter the domain of the heroes, but also fighting against him to his own demise. In all, he is a rather minor character, but he remains deeply memorable for the many tantalizing secrets that he has been wrapped in.

 

I mentioned in my last post that one of the main characters in my story had reasons for the decisions that he made, but I chose not to disclose them within the narrative. Doing so was meant to make him feel more unreliable. Indeed, I want all three of the characters in my story to be brimming with unsaid motivations and secrets. Each one of them has their own nugget of information that they are not sharing with the others or the readers, and each of them is going to become highly unpredictable when the others near it. Come back on Thursday as we push this tension further, and hopefully create a strong sense of suspense in the reader!

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.