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.
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.
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.
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!
“Add me to the next race,” Taki called out to the registrar, who was seated once more at a small desk and taking applications.
The man looked Taki over, noting the shredded suit barely still hanging onto his battered body.
“That race is in less than half an hour,” the man sniffed, ” and you don’t appear to be…ready.”
“I have my other suit being prepped right now,” Taki waved. “I’ll be ready to run.”
The registrar gave Taki another look-over, this time tabulating all of his scrapes and bruises. He shrugged. Taki got the impression the man didn’t like him very much, but had no doubt been instructed to maintain a very low bar to entry.
“Well then come back here when your other suit is ready to be scanned in. And in the meanwhile get yourself over to the medical tent.”
“Thank you, will do.” Taki strode back to Boro’s shack and deposited the shambles of his current suit, then went to the tent the registrar had referenced. There were no medics inside, this was only an Alley Tier raceway after all, but there were all the basic bandages and disinfectants, and any racer had free access to them. Taki started working on a particularly nasty gouge on his shoulder when he heard a step behind him at the tent’s entrance.
“Hello, Tala,” he nodded as he turned to face her.
“Are you looking forward to a grudge match?” she asked, eliciting a bewildered expression from him.
“What do you mean?”
“That runner who tried to throw you last race, you remember him? You grabbed him and hit the boost together.”
“Well he spun out hard after the boost and he’s been tailing you ever since you got off the spectator’s platform. Right after you signed up for the next race he did as well.”
“Could be a coincidence.”
“Sure,” she scoffed. “It could be.”
“I guess I’d better watch out for him.”
“I guess you’d better.”
There was a heavy pause, an awkwardness from Taki wanting to continue the conversation but not knowing quite how.
“Well, I better go help Boro if you want to get your suit in time for the next race. Good luck not dying out there spark plug!” Then she dashed away before he could say another word.
Spark plug? Was that supposed to be a good thing or not? It didn’t sound particularly flattering. Taki shook his head and tried to focus back on his work. All the adrenaline from the race was fading, and he was only now starting to realize how sore and tender he really felt. It was going to be a hard second race…especially if one of the runners had it in for him.
Well, that was how it was sometimes. One couldn’t wait for fair weather when all of life was a storm.
By the time Taki had himself patched up Boro was putting the final touches on the new suit. It was just as haphazard as the last, but Taki wasn’t so concerned about that anymore. Taki got into the outfit and clunked his way over to the starting drop for the next race. There were seven other racers there, one of which was in the same green suit as the racer Tala had warned him of. That racer’s mask was tinted, so that Taki could not see his expressions. In any case Taki thought it a good idea to position himself as far from that racer as possible, then he looked down at the track beneath them.
As always, the track had been changed between races. Each of the various components that made up the raceway were either on moving arms or else fitted with small thrusters, allowing for an architect to craft a new experience each time.
The change to the track for this race wasn’t particularly interesting. Really it just looked like some giant had shaken the whole track, jumbling the pieces around in a random fashion.
Perhaps the one thing that was interesting was the placement of the race’s end. That platform had been moved to the middle of the track and highly elevated. This would be a more vertical race, then, one where the racers would circle around the final platform, trying to build up enough inertia to vault all the way to the top.
The key to those sorts of races was to find a cycle of boosts, dives, towers, and gravity wells, all linked together and looped through over and over while storing away an ever-increasing reserve of inertia. Then, when one’s banks were full the racer could do an almighty thrust up to the finish.
Taki had been so caught up with the raceway he had completely missed the countdown. As with the first race he vaulted over the edge a moment later than all of the other racers. Or rather, later than all of the other racers but one. Out of the corner of his eye he happened to notice that the green racer had held back, waiting for him to jump first.
Taki spun around as he fell through the air, turning face-up just in time to see the green racer plummeting down to him. It was too late to get out of the way, and so he braced for the impact.
Taki’s suit had already built up enough of a reserve to take the hit without him feeling any of the collision, that wasn’t a concern. What was a concern was that now the other racer had wrapped his arms around Taki’s, locking the two of them together. With the two of them pinned this way the other racer began burning through his own inertia, propelling them downwards like a rocket. The two of them hurtled past all the other racers, screeching towards the pavement below.
This wasn’t a strategy for winning. It was purely a revenge move, one that was entirely illegal and lethal. Taki gritted his teeth and tried to wriggle out of the other man’s grasp, but the lock was too tight and there was no breaking it.
Taki’s eyes fluttered from side-to-side, trying to find some way to escape. His roving eyes happened to light upon the corner of his HUD where his conserved inertia levels were indicated. He had a massive excess there, not too surprising given all of their extra speed.
Taki craned his head backwards, measuring the distance to the ground: 20 meters.
He glanced at the other corner of his HUD which gave the estimated impact force: 34 torques and counting.
Looked back to the ground: 10 meters.
Taki gave a sharp pulse from his own thrusters, not upwards but in a spin. The two of them rolled, now placing Taki on top. The other man thrashed in shock, finally letting go of Taki’s arms.
Right before impact Taki placed his feet on the man’s chest and kicked off, angling his suit to propel him upwards. There was a massive crack and he burst into the air, climbing through space just as quickly as he had been falling through it.
Taki didn’t know if the other man’s suit would have enough energy reserves to displace the force of both Taki’s thrust and the ground beneath. Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t. It was on that racer’s own head.
Instead Taki was intent on his target: the end platform. All his incredible excess of energy streamed out as billowing pockets of compressed air, vaulting him high into the sky, lifting him to the level of the winning platform. He passed above it, then angled himself down again, firing with his thrusters for a nice, soft landing on the pavement.
And just like that, he had won again.
Taki dropped to his knees and sighed out long and low. He had managed to survive, but his hands were clammy and his body was shaking. He thought he might be sick.
Power Suit Racing tended to attract some of the most desperate and degenerate of society. Frustrating as it was, revenge-mongers were just a part of the sport. Taki didn’t have long to stay alone in his shock. Already the spectator platform was descending to him, and everyone on-board seemed quite animated. The speed of his run must have broken a number of records.
Taki stood to meet them, feeling his resolve return and deepen. This was just a race, one of many. It was over and now it was time to move on to the next. No stopping, no waiting.
Less than an hour later Taki was in the next race, running sideways along a beam, reaching his arm out for a pole. He gripped it and swung himself around to another platform, planting his feet and sprinting towards the finish platform. He had burned too much of his inertia and couldn’t propel himself quickly enough. Another racer in gold won that race and Taki took second. Not as big of a payout, but he would still receive something.
“So you said you came here because you were mad,” Tala said to him as he used a spanner to refit the gloves of his suit. “Tell me about that.”
“Why do you care?”
Tala shrugged. “I like to know what drives a man, I suppose. So, did you kill someone?”
Taki had his feet planted in a wide stance, trying to keep his balance as he slid down an angled platform, coming down the home stretch to the final. Another racer suddenly careened at him from the left, trying to take him out. Taki barely got his hand up and fired a blast just in time to send that competitor spinning away.
Taki’s decline leveled out, came to an end, and he shot out through open space. He threw his hands out and caught the lip of the final platform, but in his moment of distraction had failed to jump high enough to mount it. He gave a blast from the boots of suit, causing his whole body to swing up and around like a pendulum, flipping him onto its surface. He had made it, but during his slight delay another racer had just barely beat him to the win. Second place again.
“Not any sort of crime?” Tala asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Hmm, okay then.” She looked disappointed. “So what are you running from, then? A girl?”
Taki rolled his eyes. “Why couldn’t it be that I’m running towards something?”
“You said you were angry. People don’t run towards things when they’re angry, only when they’re passionate. Anyway, definitely sounds like a girl.”
Taki landed in the center of the gravity well. Here a racer would be suspended in midair, lifting and falling with the pulsing energy. The trick was to figure out the cadence of that pulsation and press against it during an expansion-interval. That resulted the in the runner being catapulted out at terrific speeds. Taki tried to calm his panting breath, looking for that stillness which would allow him to sense the subtle shifts of the pulses.
He paused, waited through a few seconds to be sure he had it right, then thrust! Right as he burst forward another racer slammed him from the side, spinning him to the ground and out of the race.
“They keep targeting me directly!” Taki fumed to Boro.
“You’ve been doing well,” Boro shrugged. “They figure you’re their toughest competition.”
“Well I’m not very flattered.”
Boro sighed. “Listen kid, most of the runners in these races are losers. Now every so often a loser happens to have a little talent and they win a few races, but that streak lasts only four, maybe five races. Because really they’re still a loser, and they don’t know how to make the transition to being a winner. Then the other losers will pull them back down every time. It’s the how it works in this world.”
“But if you do make the transition to be a winner?”
“Then they can’t ever stop you.”
“How do you do it?”
Boro put down his tools and leaned close to Taki, looking him right in the eyes. “You did it once already. In that second race when the guy tried to squash you on the dive. You took his attack and you used it.”
“Really I was just trying to survive.”
“Well from now on winning is surviving. Look, they’re gonna to be coming after you like that. Every. Single. Race. You gotta run with their attacks now, not against them.”
Taki nodded to show he understood. “It sounds hard.”
Boro returned to his work. “Only a winner ever manages it.”
Taki saw the other racer out of the corner of his eye, but he was too late to avoid the hit. The two collided and the other racer threw him into a nearby boost. This boost was not a useful one, though, it was angled upwards, pointing uselessly out to the skies. Sometimes boosts were setup this way, providing red herrings for racers that weren’t paying attention.
Taki hurtled up in the air and spun around, taking in his new, less than ideal surroundings. In this race the final platform was quite low, 50 meters directly beneath him now. The problem was that the fall between him and it was entirely littered by various obstacles. There were a couple platforms running at odd angles, another boost going in the wrong direction, a giant, horizontal fan spinning dangerously…
Taki gritted his teeth, there was nothing but to go for it. He thrust himself downwards, adding his stored inertia to the natural pull of gravity. As he plummeted he gave a sharp twist and wound around the first of the platforms in his way. Now the next platform was coming up quick and he needed to go sideways, so he threw a thrust to the side, scraping across the last few feet of the platform as he rounded its edge.
He burst right, then left, not daring to slow his dive one bit. He needed to keep up as much momentum as possible for the end. The last obstacle was a wide tarmac shell that stretched over the entire top of the finish platform. It was intended to force runners into taking a sideways route to the end.
Taki streaked down to that shell and slammed his feet down against it, simultaneously throwing a downwards thrust and letting his suit’s impact resistors kick in. Under the triple blow the rock burst apart and he fell through the hole and onto the finish below. Finally a first place.
“See I like guys who have a passion for something,” Tala explained.
“I’m really not sure why you keep telling me about what you like and don’t like in guys. I mean I haven’t ever even asked you to dinner.”
“And yeah, about that,” she said accusingly. “What’s your problem there?”
“Oh…uh, well if I did ask would you say ‘yes’ to me?”
She scoffed. “No way. I only like guys who have a passion.”
Three weeks past by in a blur. Every night Taki went to bed sore and exhausted, each morning he raced the next day away. He was surprised at how much frustration he had to burn, but finally he seemed to be getting through it. He had already topped the Alley races and now he was being barraged by sponsors from the higher leagues, each asking him if he was ready to make the transition to the big time. He had made enough winnings to pay off both of his suits, and had even commissioned Boro to make him a third one with higher-grade parts. It would be perfect for an advance to the Street Tier.
But now that he was standing on the precipice of the future Taki felt himself hesitating. The whole point of these races had been to just plunge ahead without a plan, now he was being asked to decide what came next. That sounded a lot like having a plan again.
It was with his muddled around thoughts of the future that he walked off of the observer platform towards Boro’s shack, fresh off yet another win. As he neared the small structure he was pulled out of his reverie by a sense that something was off. Both Boro and Tala were standing outside with arms folded, watching him with apprehensive expressions.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Someone came down to talk to you, boy,” Boro said.
“What? Another sponsor?”
“No,” Tala said softly.
Taki frowned, but clearly the two weren’t going to be forthcoming about this. He sighed and walked through the door. There was a richly dressed woman he didn’t think he knew standing with her back to him. As she heard the door open she turned around to face him.
I mentioned on Monday about the common story archetype of rebirth. I explained that in today’s post we would see Taki fighting to fill the measure of his new identity. Certainly he started this adventure with some natural skill and an inclination for how to race, but as he became more of a threat to the other runners he had to learn to adapt to their attacks.
This growth in his technique is meant to parallel his growth within as well. He is no longer able to identify as just another part of the pack, he is becoming more elevated than the rest of the rabble he runs with. This is leading to a point of decision, evidenced by the conflicting feelings he has for graduating to the higher leagues of the sport. Though that path seems natural and obvious, a voice inside is resisting.
It is at this point of indecision that we are finally ready to see the final component of a character’s transformation: the return. In this case it is the return of his old love interest, come to invite him back to the life he thought he had lost. Next week we will see how he deals with this temptation, and whether he has truly changed or not.
Before that, though, I want to take a brief look at something more technical. I wanted to cover a lot of ground with this section of the story, and that led me to including a montage sequence. All at once the entire timescale of the story shifted to something far more rapid, and then it had to ease back out for the final scene. How exactly does an author manage a shift from one timescale to another anyway? Come back on Monday as we take a deeper dive on that subject, and then on Thursday we’ll have the last entry in Power Suit Racing. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!
This last Thursday I posted the first third of a short story that starred a pretty deplorable character. Jake was either born without ethical restraints, or else he managed to sand them away over time. Also, he happens to be a jerk. Particularly vicious was the scene where he sees a stranger and proceeds to scathingly critique him as one of the lowest dregs of humanity.
And yet, I actually intended for that scene to ultimately make the audience feel more sympathetic to Jake. In time, as more of his character is revealed, it will become evident that that vicious mockery is more inwardly directed than outwards. Jake still has problems, and is still the story’s villain, but he is more of a victim of his actions than anyone else.
As I wrote the segment where Jake mocks a stranger I allowed myself to be crueler because of my knowledge that it was self-reflective for him. However I also knew that the reader wouldn’t have this information, and so might misread the moment. And that was intended.
It’s almost unavoidable at the beginning of a story for readers to make first impressions and take all that they are shown at face value. One of my favorite things is when an author is aware of these two facts, and structure their story so that it will support the readers’ in their initial perceptions upon a first reading, and then challenge them upon a second.
I could, of course, have opened the story by establishing how much Jake loathes himself, but then the audience would have been sympathetic to him from the outset. That would have limited their ability to despise him, so instead I let him introduce himself as he believes himself to be: creepy, unrepentant, and cruel. When at the end of my post he started applying these sorts of labels to himself, the readers only heard him echoing their own thoughts for him. Perhaps as they come to see how miserable he is they might feel bad for having made those initial judgments.
Or maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll feel he is only receiving his just desserts. Either way, the reader will be making a choice, thus be more actively engaged in the story, and thus be more affected by it.
A Christmas Carol)
In writing my story this way I’m actually paying homage to one of my most favorite tales of all time: A Christmas Carol. When we are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge we are not told first about his unhappy childhood, about how he was banished from his home by an unfeeling father. We don’t hear about his immense poverty and his drive to become something more. We don’t know the tragedy of how that misguided ambition ultimately lost him the love of his life.
No, we do not hear about those things until later, so that there can be nothing in the way of our reviling this bitter and cold man. All we know at the outset is that he is cruel, deservedly despised, and we very easily dismiss him.
But then, as these sadder elements of his life are unfolded, we find ourselves grieving for the lost child still within him and we are deeply relieved when his soul eventually finds its reclamation. From the first impressions we are able understand why the world is so disbelieving of his dramatic transformation, but by the end of our journey we are believing of it ourselves.
The fact is, if Charles Dickens had laid out the story to capture our sympathy for Scrooge first, then his reclamation would not have tasted nearly so sweet. To despise a character, and then pity him, and then joy for him is a far more moving arc than any other arrangement of those same sensations.
Another favorite example of this is from the film Citizen Kane. Charles Foster Kane is not a very pleasant person. He happens to be rich, powerful, and a genius, but also pompous, self-righteous, and manipulative. He possesses a constant hunger for more, and by his obsessive and overbearing nature he manages to sour his every relationship until all that remain in his household are the servants.
We’ve seen how he demands control of every situation. He tries to force love and friendship from those that would have given it willingly. He wants to own happiness, to buy it. He lavishes the woman he loves with gifts until she feels smothered and ends the relationship. It is almost pitiable, except for the fact that he is wholly responsible for his own suffering.
Then he dies with a single word on his lips: “Rosebud,” which is revealed to be the name of a sled he played with as a young boy at his parent’s home. There he was happy, and it was a simple and authentic happiness. Tragically that moment of bliss was taken from him suddenly, and he has never since found it again. Just like that we understand his enigma.
We realize that he has been made afraid of all good things being taken away. He wants to be in control so that he won’t be hurt again. And, ironically, it has been his avid pursuing that has lead to his constant losing, a vicious and never-ending cycle of loss and clutching.
In all of these cases the understanding that dawns on the reader is not meant to excuse the main character’s flaws. What they have done is still just as wrong, but now at least we see the motivations that led them to do those wrong things. Actions can be both wrong and understandable, after all. and the beginning of prejudice is when we forget that there is a humanity behind the mistakes people make.
I think we can all agree that the world needs more stories like these. I’m not going to get political on this forum, but it is clear that intolerance for opposing ideals is a depressing epidemic of our lives. It’s not wrong to want this world to be better, but society will never be improved via argument or insult. If someone doesn’t agree with your particular point-of-view then there is an understandable, even if misguided, reason for that. People don’t need to be forced into becoming better, they only need a sympathetic voice that truly hears, understands, and validates their concerns. When nurtured in this way people will naturally recognize their own faults and rise to their best.
When it comes to writing, though, this sort of sympathy for a negative character can be difficult to pull off. It’s difficult to do in real life, so of course it would be tricky in the written word, too. I don’t mind admitting that I’m nervous about tackling the subject with Jake. At the very least I do understand the template to follow: first introduce the character as they are perceived, then reveal them as they actually are.
Characters are everything in a story. They represent our different ideals and beliefs, they give us an emotional anchor, and they serve as the bridge to immerse us into the world of the story. If a story was devoid of any characters then it really would not qualify as a narrative, it could more accurately be called a bland list of events.
Obviously the most common form of a character is that of a human character, or else an object or animal that has been anthropomorphized to behave like a human. The key qualities of this sort of character are as follows:
They are a distinct entity
They have a personality
They have individual desires
They have the ability to choose
When a character possesses each of these attributes then readers will consider it a person, and assume that it is similar to them. If any of these qualities are missing then it is no longer considered a person, instead it might be seen as an object, or a machine, or an illusion, or a piece of set dressing. Even if the subject in question is depicted as a human, if it never shows any personality or individuality then it will be considered a non-essential “extra.”
This phenomena of fiction is called out in a very meta way during an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, one entitled The Measure of a Man. Here we see the android member of the crew, Data, facing a trial to determine whether he has any “human” rights or not. There are several philosophical arguments presented as to what it means to be alive, but the fact is the audience themselves are already settled on the matter long before the case even begins.
This is because the audience has already seen that Data acts autonomously, driven by his own desires, and in possession of his own distinct personality. Even if Data weren’t humanoid in appearance, the audience would have already accepted him as a person, far more so than the show’s countless “human” extras who are introduced and killed off without ever uttering a single word.
But while every person in a story is a character, not every character is necessarily a person. Specifically I wish to examine the characters that have desire, and even personality, but which never manifest as distinct or embodied beings. These are characters that are never seen, but are felt everywhere throughout a story’s pages.
Often these sorts of characters take the form of some great force in the world, such as nature, karma, or God. Examples of these characters would include the operating-behind-the-scenes aliens in Midnight Special and Escape to Witch Mountain. It is the Force in Star Wars. It is the plague in Oedipus.
One of my favorite examples, though, is from a little-known Iranian film called the Color of Paradise. Here a man is trying to achieve status and comfort in the world, all while shirking his duties to his blind son. No matter how hard he works to improve his station everything falls apart, seemingly as though some intelligent being is actively resisting him. That being is never seen and never named, but the viewer understands it to be the natural karma for the unkindness he has shown to his son. He will never be able to succeed until he has first made things right in the home.
Thus we see that the karma in this story wants something. It has opinions, and it has the ability to interact as an equal with all other characters. It serves the necessary role of bringing balance to a world of unbalanced men.
During my current series of stories it was my intention to incorporate some of these hidden characters in each of my tales. Let’s take a look at how I did so.
The first short piece I posted was the intro to the novel I am currently working on, which is entitled With the Beast. In this intro the reader arrives at an isolated island, here to witness a tragic memory, a memory of deep personal regret. Associated with this memory is a family of four characters, each of which represent different virtues and ideals. By this we understand that this memory is allegorical, a memory that personifies concepts and feelings.
But as each of these concepts are now embodied as persons it is now the readers themselves that become the unseen force. The exact details of what it is they regret are shrouded by the nature of the allegory and instead become reduced to a vague force of will. One way this is represented is by the very island that the story takes place on. Our four adventurers have come to try and develop a promising future, wresting from the land riches and accomplishment. In that way this island is a character that resists and concedes to their efforts, and what exactly it is meant to symbolize is left open to interpretation by the reader.
After With the Beast I posted a story called The Heart of Something Wild. This story features a man who has just inherited rule over his tribe in Africa. He knows that certain members of that tribe will try to challenge his right to rule, and for the sake of preserving peace he intends to let them depose him.
Though he tries to do just that, the main character finds that some force subverts all of his actions and ultimately restores rule back to him. That force, as the title of the story suggests, is the Wild. The story is meant to suggest that above politics and man-made laws there are also measures and balances more eternal. When necessary, those more eternal forces will intervene in our lives to bring about what is right. My greatest fear with this story would be that readers saw the end as a deus ex machina moment where everything just coincidentally seems to turn right for the hero. It wasn’t a coincidence, it was the conscious influence of an immortal nature.
Finally, just this last Thursday I posted the second section of Glimmer. In this segment I introduced the threat to our main character and her mission. This opposition did not take the form of a living, breathing character, though, but rather of an infinite void. This void possess neither emotions nor desires, it simply expands in such a way that undoes all life and existence. This makes it fundamentally an enemy of all living beings, although this short story suggests we bring the void upon ourselves when we hide from bravery and mute our yearnings to live as heroes.
This is therefore a force both grand and universal, but also personal and intimate. It did not make sense to me for any conscious being to have this sort of range, it would have been impossible to keep track of all its infinite perspectives. Also I feel it makes the essence more terrifying if it merely flows onward as an unyielding force of nature, immune to any appeals of pathos.
It’s easy when designing a story to forget about these larger-than-life characters, but successfully incorporating them can add a fascinating dynamic to the whole. The presence of these characters speaks to a common intuition that there are things out there bigger than us. It suggests that for man to chart his course successfully through life, he needs to take into account forces both seen and unseen.
Obviously there are plenty of stories that these sorts of characters might not be a good fit for, but if you’ve been looking for an extra layer of depth in your work this might be just what you needed. Come back on Thursday when we’ll see the continued manifestations of our infinite and impersonal void in part three of Glimmer.
On Monday I posted the first part of my new short story, which featured a character assigned a mission to carry out on a distant world. Amidst feelings of fear and doubt she transported down to that world, and her concerns were suspended by the novelty of the new terrain that she found. During this exploration she noticed a strange phenomena in the distance, and a journey to that location resulted in her meeting a new character. Finally, her discussion with that new character brought back up the assignment that she was assigned at the very beginning, and along with it all of her apprehensions.
In this way her objective remained an ever-present motivation of the story, even while I introduced other new ideas, characters, and places that will also be of importance. This way of introducing new plot and having it naturally return to your main arc is incredibly useful when you have a great many elements to introduce to the reader.
Think of the beginning of any story, where the reader has to be made aware of the characters, events, society, balance of power, driving motivations, and any mechanics unique to your story. You can’t just dump all of that on them up front with a fact-sheet, you need to drip it out piece by piece. But, while trickling out these new elements of your story you must not get totally lost in their side-plots, the core arc of your story must always be present.
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s Roverandom we begin simply enough with a small dog and a wizard. The former upsets the latter and is turned into a toy as a result. This simple beginning establishes two of the main characters, the fact that there is magic in this story, and the dog’s great motivation: to become a real dog again.
There then begins one sequential plot after another, including trips up to the moon and down into the ocean. There are new mechanics and new characters added at a measured pace, making sure that the story never becomes overwhelming but also doesn’t grow stale. Each of these side-plots and characters never strays far from the main thrust of the story, either. Each eventually circles back to our dog’s core objective of undoing the spell he is under.
In fact, several of the side-plots in Roverandom end up being integral to the resolution of the story’s main plot. Two plots featuring different kind caretakers that Roverandom is divided in his loyalty between blend together when an unexpected relation between the two is revealed. A side-trip to the bottom of the ocean becomes essential to softening the older wizard’s heart so that eventually he will free the dog from his curse.
These different plotlines dovetailing together towards a singular whole provides a pleasant and balanced feel to the story. It makes the ending more impressive because it is only achieved by the sum of so many other parts. And so juggling between different arcs is not only beneficial at the beginning of the story, but also in bringing the whole to a satisfying close.
Of course the intro I published for With the Beast did not include the end of that novel, but it did introduce two seemingly disparate arcs. First there is one where the reader has evidently come to witness, and even to enact, some tragic destruction. The exact nature of that destruction is unclear, but its imminence looms heavy over the story’s tone. At the same time we are also being introduced to a family of four that are seeking their destiny, hoping to build a magnificent legacy on their own personal island.
These two themes stand in stark contrast to one another, and there is a strong implication that the two are going to come together in conflict. Indeed, that is the case. Throughout the rest of the story each arc will progress in greater and greater contrast such that neither narrative arc can come to their natural conclusion so long as the other remains. They therefore will break upon one another in a climatic finale.
But this idea of side-stepping between multiple plotlines is by no means limited to just the beginning or ending of a story. It also happens to be one of the best tricks for keeping the pace up in the middle of a tale. Most plots are naturally most exciting at their beginnings and at their endings, and it’s all too easy to lose a reader in the central chapters that bridge between the two.
But if the middle of one arc is paired with the beginning of another arc, then the overall experience still remains fresh. Or if the middle of the arc is paired with the climatic ending of a previous arc, then the overall experience still remains exciting.
Now there is no shortage of examples of this. Just consider the many television serials on the air today. Of course there are series where every episode is its own self-contained plot, such as with the Twilight Zone, but the ones that tell an ongoing tale need to both provide a small conclusion at the end of each episode, but also maintain an ongoing arc that extends beyond itself. Side characters will suddenly come to the forefront, new revelations will upend previous plotlines, and earlier arcs will be brought to their close.
Consider the mini-series Roots, which is a multigenerational tale of African slaves in America. As each rising generation is going to become the focus of the next episode, the series spends time establishing them with the audience even before resolving the current generation’s arc. By the time we see the end of Kunta Kinte’s story we’re already well-invested in the ongoing struggles of his daughter Kizzy.
Recently the work on my With the Beast novel hit a wall where all of its momentum suddenly seemed to evaporate. As I looked closer I realized that I was right in the middle of the tale, and I was bringing all of my introductory plotlines to a close before beginning any of the arcs for the latter half. As you might imagine, it felt like the story was finishing halfway through, and the entire pace had come to a screeching halt. Now I’m stagger out some of those arcs so that there remains an unbroken chain from start to end.
I also experimented with this in miniscule when I posted The Heart of Something Wild. Here I began with a plot about a new chief facing his impending demise. I spent some time on his fears and anxiety, but then introduced a new plot when he began caring for a wounded creature. That plot took the forefront until a new wrinkle was introduced by his closest friendship coming to an end. That falling out simultaneously began another arc for the conflict he now had with that former ally. Already plots were being picked up and dropped with no down time in between, and this was all before the story was half over!
Like I mentioned at the beginning, my new short story Glimmer has staggered its central arc of the main character’s sacrifice with that of discovering a new world and its inhabitants. With my next entry the story will further evolve with the emergence of a new enemy and, and an introduction to the souls that lie in the balance of that ensuing struggle. Then, a week later we will have the third and final section of that story, which will feature all of these separate threads finding their various resolutions in one another. I’ll see you then.
One of the most common metrics people use when deciding the quality of a story is how it makes them feel. A story that makes one feel more is considered better than a story that makes one feel less. Interestingly, we even appreciate the stories that make us feel deeply negative emotions. A tale that ends in tragedy instantly seems to have an air of greater maturity and significance about it.
Obviously the most efficient way to bring great sadness to a story is through the death of a main character. This can give your readers quite the shock as well, because stories often reflect life the way we feel it is “supposed to be.” The two lovers come together, evil is defeated, and peace reigns supreme. So when a wrench gets thrown into this happy formula and a main character leaves their artificial world prematurely, we feel pretty shaken up.
When dealing with such powerful elements, though, authors need to exercise the utmost of care. Any craftsman can tell you that a very powerful tool can accomplish very powerful things, but only when it is used in the right way.
In my opinion our core emotions, such as fear, love, joy, and grief are powerful, sacred things. Because of their power it is easy for us to get addicted to them, and we may start looking for artificial ways to produce them. Authors should not be so profane as to take advantage of such readers.
Authors should instead take great care that they do not activate these core emotions without meaningful intent. It is fine for a story to evoke powerful feelings if it has a worthy point to communicate in the process, otherwise the story is disrespecting the sanctity of these feelings, likely to make a quick buck.
Meaningful Character Death)
Therefore it is important that if a character is to die that it feels appropriate. A big frustration of mine is when a tale shoehorns in a character death simply to try and give itself an importance that has not been earned.
The 1950 film Cheaper by the Dozen features the antics of a family with twelve children. That family is quirky, to say the least, and much of the drama is based around their simultaneous love and embarrassment of one another. It’s a charming film, sprinkled with little provincial wisdoms throughout. “No person with inner dignity is ever embarrassed.” And then, at the end, the father suddenly dies.
Nothing in the film has been leading to this moment and nothing significant is obtained by it. Really it just feels like the story didn’t know how to end and figured a gut-punch was as good an option as any. Rather than landing with the intended gravity it instead just gives the film a disjointed experience.
An important writing rule you should live by is to never pen a plot point for the sole purpose of eliciting a specific emotion. You should never kill a character only to make the reader sad. When a character dies it should happen because it is fitting, because it is right for their arc, because it brings a satisfying closure to the whole.
Of course, for every rule there is also an exception. Consider the most classic sad story of them all: Romeo and Juliet. This story doubles the ante on most tragic endings by closing with the death of not just one, but two main characters! When we look for the narrative meaning to their deaths, though, we come up short. Their deaths seem senseless, the result of a mistake, and devoid of any point. And that, ironically, is the point. These deaths should not have happened, and that is the great tragedy of the story. When hatred kills love there is no closure or satisfaction to be found. Thus we are sad, but we are sad meaningfully.
If there is any plot device that can elicit a more powerful reaction than a tragic death, it must be the death that is also a sacrifice for some greater good. Sacrifice affects us on a level so deep that it seems to be sacred. We are moved by it, even if we do not fully understand why.
Once again, though, with such potent power there also comes a great risk of horrible misuse. The absolute worst way to employ sacrifice is to dilute it with overuse and cheap manipulation. Consider the stories that repeatedly pretend they are going to sacrifice a character so that the audience feels sad, only to flip the script at the last moment so that now the audience feels relieved at the character’s survival. It’s tawdry and manipulative.
Sadly, there are many stories that do exactly this. You need not look any further than comic book plots or old cowboy serials to find a deluge of this trick. The hero “dies” for their cause and everyone feels very, very sad. Then, suddenly, the hero comes back, and they were never dead at all. They were too tough to die, or too wily, or maybe just too lucky. As I said in my last post, this gimmick is one of my greatest pet peeves in stories. You might be forgiven for trying this once or twice, but stories ceaselessly repeat this stunt in a way that insults the intelligence of their audience.
This isn’t to say that a doomed character cannot be saved in a way that doesn’t feel cheap. A week ago I mentioned the Disney animated film Hercules for its portrayal of a hero fighting an uphill battle. This also happens to be a story where the main character intends to sacrifice himself but is saved by divine intervention, all while still respecting its audience’s intelligence.
You see Hercules only survives because he is sacrificing himself. His great dream is to be reinstated as a god, but is told that he cannot until he achieves the status of a “true hero.” Unsure of what that means, he continues along his way and ultimately comes to love a woman who dies and is taken to the underworld. He makes a deal with Hades to exchange his life for hers, fully intending to carry through with the bargain. It is that act of sacrifice, one which carries on right to the moment that the fates cut his thread of life, that defines him as a true hero. He becomes a god in the very moment of his demise and survives his own death. Not because he is tough, or wily, or lucky, but because he was willing to give his all for what is right.
Perhaps one of the greatest tales of sacrifice though is the one story I’ve mentioned more than any other on this blog. In A Tale of Two Cities Sydney Carton is hardly the character one would expect to be a martyr, he is a drunk and a cynic, a man of great potential that has squandered it all in purchase of misery and regret.
In the last chapters, though, he sees his chance to trade his life for that of the man he envies most, the man he feels he could have been. By carrying through with this sacrifice and bearing that man’s death it as though he has also earned his life. He becomes calm, confident, and content, and wishes for no more. In return for paying the ultimate price he reclaims not one, but two lives that day.
That idea of reclamation is truly at the heart of sacrifice, and stories can provide a duality of emotions by it. If a martyr wins the hearts of others through their own death then there can be triumph through defeat, and happiness in the same moment as sadness. That makes for a very fascinating narrative experience, and I’m going to try and capture it with my next short story. This Thursday I will post the first part of that story. That first portion will not include the actual act of sacrifice, but it will introduce us to the character that has been consigned to die for the greater good.
Now and again a familiar echo will take you back there. Seeing a field of grain, or feeling the warm sunlight washing across your skin. Hearing the croak of a frog at night. You close your eyes and the skin pricks with the memories, a familiar trance stirs once more.
Now you can hear the subtle raise in pitch as the wind passes between your arms. You taste the salt in that air as it passes to your lungs. The granular texture of sand caught in your hair. The heat of the unshaded sun mixed with the coldness of the ocean breeze, it causes you to alternate between shivers and sweats. You are somewhere else.
Opening your eyes you see yourself transported to the familiar scrawl of that coastline, the lazy surf rocking against it and back again in tiny waves. Though you have not been here in years you remember the details perfectly.
Turning around you face east and see that you are standing only on a sandbar, the island proper now a hundred yards ahead. It is a hulking mass of green, mountain clothed in forest. The larger peak on the right side, the northern side, gives the landmass an overall lopsided appearance, as though it might unbalance and fall back into the sea at any moment. The mountainous green is skirted all about by outcroppings of gray cliffs against which the western tide crashes in frothing white foam.
Lowering your gaze to the island’s only sandy coast you spy the small shape of the Whit family’s vessel, a simple wooden boat tipped to one side with a stray furl of sail whipping in the breeze. Its owners are disembarking from it now, and though they are far off you know their silhouettes instantly: two men, a woman, and a small girl.
At the sight of them you feel a familiar ache in your core, a longing and regret. Why have you returned to this place? You have traced these paths many times already, and each time you have followed the same bootprints, bent the same leaves, broken the same bones. It never changes. Is peering into the sweetness of their faces worth the agony of their later corpses?
But you have arrived, and to begin a memory is to already slip to its conclusion. It must be seen through. And so, as if on cue, you feel yourself step forward into the water, splashing your way to the island and its explorers. The water is shallow, never rising more than halfway to your knees, sloshing pleasantly until you return to crunching sand.
The explorers are more familiar to you than family. Beings that live within. Nearest is the patriarch, John Whit. He is crouched beside the boat, packing away all of the charts and compasses of their completed sea voyage. Every instrument and paper has their proper storage place now that their use is complete, and the satchel into which he tucks them is just the right size to accommodate them all.
As he works he tucks his gray mane behind wide ears, exposing a long, bald forehead and leathery, copper skin. He is a proud man of a proud heritage, one that is noble in virtue, if not in blood. It is for his own late father’s great service that this very island was gifted to the Whit family.
John turns and faces the sea he led his family across. He charted their course well and saw them through with a careful hand. Indeed he hopes to chart them rightly still, for he sees in this land an opportunity to build on the foundation established by his ancestors. He wishes to take that which he was given and prove he was worthy of the gift by adding to it something more.
Beside him is his son, William Whit, packing seed and dirt samples into a large sack that he slings over his shoulder. He is the only child of John, and has lived life comfortably and well, so evidenced by the beginnings of a potbelly beneath his folded arms. His whole life he has wanted for nothing but an opportunity to make his own mark, to give expression to his great ambition. Perhaps his father has the careful hands to steer, but he will be the surging steed that carries the family forward.
For where John looks backwards to heritage, William looks forward to legacy. He stands erect and strokes his chin thoughtfully, ruffling the close beard as his deep set eyes peer out at their surroundings with a gaze that is both penetrating and discerning. Upon these untamed wilds William sees overlaid a future of bridges and statues, ports and shops, a center of trade and wonders of construction. Important diplomats and even royalty walk the streets about him, and deeper inland he can hear the hum of mills and factories. He sees the land rich and giving, and can hardly wait to plumb its secrets.
At William’s feet young Clara babbles to her doll. Her yellow curls stand in stark contrast to her father’s dark scruff. Ivory arms hold the toy aloft, and she speaks to it of the infiniteness of the ocean and how as they sailed across it she felt that they would remain motionless in its eternities forever.
From moment to moment her eyes stray from the doll to the hulking island mountain before her. There is a wariness of the unknown in her expression. All her short life “home” has meant one place and one place only, so that this new land might as well be an entirely alien world.
She mutters something to her doll about how these forests and mountains are more “real” than she had expected. Indeed to one that has only seen such sights in the sketches of storybooks, the living and breathing wild has so much more “realness” to it that it becomes as terrifying as it is exhilarating! She slowly crosses the sand to her mother’s skirts and buries her face in their familiar closeness.
Eleanor Whit strokes her daughter’s hair with a hand thin and veiny. Her slight frame is wiry and toned for labor. She was not raised in the comfort of her husband and learned while young how to do her share and still more. Her auburn hair is drawn back into a snug bun, the better to not get in the way of her work. The angular features of her face survey the rest of her family, even as the family surveys the land.
She sees the stoic resolve in John, the anxious excitement in William, the curious apprehension in Clara. Far more interesting to her than the island is the effect it will have on this family. Much like the water through which they have just passed, trials and opportunities serve to dichotomize individuals, buoying up those that are worthy and sinking those that are not. The isolated nature of this island is such that they, separated from the influences of the world and society, can grow intimately acquainted with who they are inside and become what they will ultimately be.
Eleanor does not regret the moment, she only gives it the solemn consideration that it is due. In the same breath she resolves to do her utmost to see them through to a happy end.
John gives their gear a final look-over and is at last satisfied that he has all they need to set up their first camp. He has distributed their equipment into three packs, one for each of the adults. The rest remains safely stowed in the bottom of the boat for them to return for later.
“How does it look, William?” he asks as he hands the first of the packs to him.
“Good, good,” William smiles. “Plenty of opportunity for manufacturing with all of the natural resources. Wood, rock… There’s also a couple bays over there that are large enough for a port, and with the distinct climate we could probably also grow some produce that’s hard to get on the mainland.”
“Sounds promising,” Eleanor beams cheerfully, stepping forward to take her pack from John. “So what comes next?”
“Well we need to find a camp first of all,” John asserts. “Somewhere further inland where we can keep dry.” He gestures to the rocky cliffs that mark the end of their beach. “That means finding our way on top of there somehow. We’ll need more rope.” So saying he turns back to the boat and extracts a few more lengths.
William turns and surveys the rock in question. “Yes, be good to get a better look at the rest of the island from up there, too. What about over there?” He points to the southern edge. “Can’t tell for sure what is round that bend but it looks like the rock slopes more gently there.”
As Eleanor follows William’s gaze she gives an involuntary shiver. It isn’t much, but her slight frame cannot hide it. John notices it and asks “Are you up for the climb, Eleanor?”
She is about to answer when Clara tugs at her sleeve. She, too, has followed the conversation and her eyes are wide with apprehension.
“I don’t want to, mother.”
Eleanor tuts at John. “Of course, I’ll be fine.” Then, turning to her daughter: “And there’s not a thing to worry about, Clara. You’ll be locked safe with me the whole way.”
John looks to William who just shrugs and nods.
“Well, what are we waiting for, then?” Eleanor asks. “Hadn’t we better get going?”
“The sooner the better” John concedes and they turn their backs to the waterline. Four abreast they walk down that long shore: John and William on the left, Clara clutching her mother’s hand and burying her face in it. Four embers reaching out for something to catch their spark and set the world alight.
And so they were.
This is meant to be the intro to the novel I’m currently working on. It is my first time doing anything past the planning and outlining stages, so I admit it was a bit daunting to actually give a voice to the story.
As I mentioned on Monday, though, I had as my guide the intention to establish the mood of the story and then begin on the first arc. Obviously there is a lot of mood here, in fact it might be too much, but at least it is pointing in the direction I want. Thoughtful, pondering, and reflective. I think that is captured even in the very first line “Now and again a familiar echo will take you back there.”
Also writing in the second person definitely stands out, and gives a distinctive tone. Again, I wonder if it isn’t coming across too strongly, but I do like how it naturally encourages introspection in the reader. I’ll probably be going back and forth on how deep I want this tone to be, and would love to get any feedback on it!
After establishing the story’s mood, though, my next object was to move directly into the first plot points and establishing the story’s main arc. And so I established that these are explorers trying to make something of themselves in their own virgin corner of the world. Amidst the hope and optimism I’ve sowed traces of underlying menace, and it is easy to predict that these themes will escalate throughout the tale.
By this method I’ve been able to establish expectations in the reader, which serves the double purpose of giving them a roadmap ahead, and also allowing me to subvert those expectations as desired.
Another interesting decision in establishing the mood was choosing where to begin the story geographically. I knew it took place on an island, but I could have opened in the forest, or on a cave, or any other number of places. I chose a coastline though because I felt it spoke to a subconscious association with things deep and timeless. That’s a notion I’d like to look at in greater detail next week, this idea of speaking in a universal and symbolic nature. I’ll see you Monday when we delve into it!
New Year’s Eve is funny. Here we are on December 31st, and tonight at 11:59:59 PM it will be the absolute end of the entire year. And then one second later it will be the absolute beginning of another year. Clocks make endings and beginnings look so easy to craft. Any author that has sat down to begin their next great novel has no doubt found it a far trickier business to start putting the words onto an empty canvas.
The clocks are cheating, I suppose. They don’t come up with anything creative when they herald the beginning of a new year, or day, or second. They simply tick one iteration forward, the exact same process as for the moment that came before, and the exact same as for the moment that will follow. The truth is no new day or year is truly a beginning out of nothing. Each beginning exists within a context, being preceded by prior beginnings and followed by others.
That same principle applies to authors and the stories they craft. Virtually every tale is going to begin in media res. Characters are not springing into existence out of nothing. They were already born some time ago, have done and seen things, have developed personal opinions, and have expectations for what the world has in store for them. Thus when you begin your story you are not telling the start of your characters, you are not even telling the start of events, you are only telling the start of your story. Your story should have bounds, a scope defined by its themes and arcs. Once those bounds of the story are understood, it is already clear with what scene it should be opened.
Let’s look at an example. In preparation for Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien developed one of the most extensive backstories ever known. He wrote a comprehensive history of the world and even charted out main characters’ family trees. None of that exposition is what he opens with, though, all of that information is tucked away in an appendix completely separate from the story. Because none of that context is relevant to the bounds of what his story is actually about.
What his story is actually about is a group of small and provincial people rising as heroes to hold back the hordes of evil for another generation. Therefore the arc of the story mandates that Lord of the Rings start somewhere in that quiet and provincial. Thus the first chapter is A Long-expected Party, and here we see that the greatest excitement in the lives of Frodo, Sam, and the other hobbits is nothing more than a big birthday celebration. The humble beginning is established and the arc is ready to run its trajectory.
But knowing where your story begins is only half of the problem. Even if you know exactly what your first scene is, you still have to figure out that opening phrase. The problem here seems to be an infinity of possibilities. We could describe the setting, or a character, or we could start right in the middle of a conversation and set the scene after the fact. What sort of narrator are we using? What sort of vocabulary? What if we just write something to get us started, and later come back to fix it?
My general rule-of-thumb is to start with the tone, or the mood. You hopefully have a sense of how you want your story to feel, the style it is going to be utilizing. You know whether you want it to be a fast-hitting thriller or a slow, simmering epic. You know whether it is humorous, or serious, or maybe a little bit of both. Your reader doesn’t know any of this, though, and it is one of the first things they probably want to be informed of, even before being introduced to main characters and themes.
Some of my favorite stories have used this technique, and every time reread I am instantly transported back to their domain through their use of tone-deliberate openings. Let’s look at examples of this from Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, and Harry Potter.
Call me Ishmael. Three words and the tone of the story is already established. The narrator is speaking to us directly, and even has a personal name. We’re ready to hear a tale from an individual, a grizzled seaman with personality and perspective. We know that the story is going to be colored by his opinion and belief, and that he’s willing to break the fourth wall.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We have a far more traditional and omniscient narrator here. As such we do not expect the story to express personal opinions, but rather the absolute “facts.” Also we should note that the writing already has a poetic balancing of opposites. Best and worst, this is a central theme of the entire story and we’re already introduced to it within the very first sentence.
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. There is an unmistakable humor to this opening, one that suggests to us a more lighthearted and fun tale. Furthermore the emphasis on things being “perfectly normal” seems to be exaggerated, and thus hints to us that things are not going to remain that way. Strange and adventurous things are coming, and probably very soon.
A story that begins with a strong sense of mood and then presents the first of its overarching themes is instantly engaging and consistent with all that will follow. These are principles that I have been following while crafting my current novel. On Thursday I will present the introduction to that novel, and you can be sure it will start with mood and arc. I can’t wait to share it with you to start off the new year!
This last Thursday I posted a short, simple story about a father and son who were experiencing a moment of frustration and exhaustion. Each was tired of their shared struggle, and each had their own idea of what it was they needed in order to be happy. For the son, Teddy, he felt he needed to have his nasogastric tube removed and thus be relieved from his constant soreness and discomfort. The father, Christopher, needed Teddy to understand why it was important for the tube to remain, and thus continue enduring all of that soreness and discomfort.
It should be immediately apparent that these two needs were incompatible with each other. For either to be met would mean to deny the other one. As such the two characters found themselves not only struggling with the situation but with one another, trying to convince the other to give way. Neither was successful.
Fortunately for these two characters, neither of their supposed needs were what they truly needed. Beneath the surface there were deeper core needs, and eventually each of the characters stumbled upon them. In reality it was Teddy who needed his father to understand him. Teddy didn’t need the pain to be taken away, he just needed someone to appreciate how great that pain really was. He needed to be validated and heard. Christopher, meanwhile, really needed to process his own guilt and express sorrow for it. Perhaps it is irrational for a father to feel guilty when a child feels ill, and yet emotions don’t have to be rational to be real. Valid or not, Christopher needed to acknowledged that he did indeed feel that way and get those thoughts of inadequacy of his chest.
These core desires, happily, were not so incompatible with one another. Teddy cried and his father empathized with him. This had the dual effect of Teddy feeling heard, while amplifying Christopher’s sense of guilt to the point that he could recognize and voice it. Both characters grew, and more importantly they grew together.
This idea of characters thinking they need one thing, and then discovering that deep down they really needed something else is not a new notion by any means. It’s a concept that finds its roots in actual life experience. Hopefully each one of us has had those experiences of finally understanding the reasons and motivators behind the strange things that we do. Suddenly behavior that seemed to us random or without purpose, now is recognized as being driven by a basic inner need. No wonder, that authors have sought to recreate such poignant moments of epiphany in their stories.
Consider the tale of The Bishop’s Wife. Or maybe the tale of Mary Poppins. If you think about it, these are actually the exact same story, just with two different coats of paint. In each we begin with a father, one who is busy with his important business and civic duties. They are both proud and hard working, but each has a problem as well. In the case of The Bishop’s Wife it is that he doesn’t have enough money to build the church he dreams of, and in Mary Poppins it is that he needs someone to care for his children and keep them out of his hair.
In each story the father petitions for help, one through prayer and another through an advertisement. Each is looking for help in obtaining what they need. An assistant comes to each, one in the form of an angel and the other as a nanny. Both fathers are appalled to find that these assistants are not what they were hoping for at all! Rather than having their problems being solved they are instead compounded, weighing down on both men’s “important” work until at last something breaks and they reach their low point of the story.
It is only at this point where dreams have been lost that the two men are able to recognize what truly matters to them: their families. Suddenly their initial needs don’t seem like real needs anymore, just wants. Each story ends happily as they realize that they have had the power all along to give themselves that which is really important.
It might be tempting to scoff at the fathers in these stories being so misguided with their priorities in life. We would think that we all would know exactly what it was we needed in life, but in reality this is rarely the case. Our intuition will usually lead us correctly, but the challenge is in even knowing which of the many influences that drive us is that same voice of pure intuition. Whenever we have particularly strong wants or fears, those signals can often override the quieter, calmer voice deep within.
Sometimes we may even receive the answers to our deeper needs, feel better because of it, and still not recognize what just happened! There is a film I like which illustrates this very well. It is called The Way, and it tells of a group of four strangers who meet along the Camino de Santiago, a route of Catholic pilgrimage. Each of these four has come to this pilgrimage for a specific need in life. One is to quit smoking, another is to lose weight, another is to get past writer’s block. These are obviously very external, very surface needs. Eventually the crew reach their destination, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and having fulfilled their pilgrimage conclude that none of them have experienced the miraculous changes that they had hoped for. The smoker still smokes, the overweight man still likes fatty foods. They laugh at their naïvety, and then wander off in their separate ways.
However the attentive viewer will realize that the story is actually not being cynical at all. Though they did not receive the desire that they had voiced, each of them did, in fact, receive something that they needed even more. Things such as obtaining a friendship, a connection to a higher power, and the beginning of understanding one’s place in the world. None of this is ever called out explicitly, and I commend the film for its subtlety on the matter. It feels more authentic because of it.
Watching this film taught me a fascinating lesson about how stories can feature main characters which are motivated by core needs that not even they understand. It is the same for us in real life.
Often we do not realize we are ill until we have symptoms, and then we wish the symptoms away when really we need to be cured of the illness at our core. Then the symptoms will resolve themselves. Surface flaws like a smoking addiction and being overweight are unpleasant and it is natural to wish them away. But they will never leave us until we under the root causes beneath them, and address those instead. It may be that are psyche feels it needs these flaws to relieve guilt or anxiety. It is those deeper sensations of guilt and anxiety, then, that we need to find answers to before we can move forward.
On Thursday I will be presenting a story that is built entirely around a character and his needs. He will have surface needs that he recognizes, core needs that he does not, deep-seated self-doubts that confuse him, and moments of epiphany which he only partially comprehends. Also, in the spirit of the season it will be a story focused around giving and the reviving of the soul. I hope to see you then.