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.
Khalil spun around in surprise and found Paki peering into the hut, his eyes locked on Urafiki.
“Yes,” Khalil grinned. “It is soothed, well fed, and resting. It will not eat you today.”
“I am grateful” Paki laughed back as he stepped fully into the home. “Am I disturbing you now?”
“No, Paki, in fact I’ve wanted to speak with you.”
“About the challenge?”
Paki shook his head. “I do not see why you are so hesitant about it. Who else would you have stand with you? I am the finest warrior in all of the camp, everyone says so.”
“I would say so, too,” Khalil sighed. “But I would also say that one man against two makes for difficult odds. By that I mean no slight to you.”
Paki waved dismissively. “Did you not hear how I fought two Oroko at once in their last raid?” He folded his arms impressively and assumed the boastful stance he always used when recounting battlefield glories. “I used my disadvantage to my advantage. You see, I let one of them–”
“Stab you in the arm so that you could reel him in with your other hand,” Khalil finished. “And then you could dispatch of the other in one-on-one combat. Yes, I know the story, Paki…. Everyone in the camp knows the story, just as everyone in the camp knows how you fight. Abasi has even sparred with you!”
“And I have sparred with him!” Paki added forcefully, frowning at the stings to his pride. “You really believe that I could not defend you?”
“You would protect me too well! Even if it cost you your own life.”
Paki nodded slowly, his frown turning into contemplation. “I see now. And you are right, there is a great risk in this.” He nodded his head in deep thought, then spoke with conviction. “But…this is also what is right. You being our chief is right. Protecting my friend is right. This is the honorable fight for me, and it is the natural order of things that that which is honorable comes with great risk. All the more glory that follows it as well.” This last part he added with a broad smile. “I do wish to earn my calling as head warrior after all.”
Khalil grimaced and shook his head. “Is it right for me to be chief, though? Suppose you could defeat Abasi and whomever he chooses for his companion, what would happen then? Abasi has raised great support these past months, and his death would not be taken well. It could mean civil war for our tribe.”
“And what of us who support you? If you were to fall we would rebel against this coup.” Paki made a spitting noise, but did not actually desecrate the floor of his friend’s hut.
“If you did then you would be rebelling against me, as well!” Khalil snapped and fully spat on the ground. “I am going to ask–I am going to order–all those loyal to me to accept what I have already accepted. We must choose the better compromise here, and the better is that I die quickly and the tribe loses neither its best warrior nor its unity.”
“And serve Abasi? The man is a fool!” Tears were forming in Paki’s eyes. It was impossible to tell if they were of sorrow or anger.
“He will need all of the help you can provide,” Khalil admitted, “I need you to be there for him.”
Paki did not respond, he only hung his head downwards with his eyes closed, tears seeping from them.
“Paki I am now a chief, and though my legacy may be short, let me at least have this one choice to do what is right for the tribe. And for you.” He stepped forward and raised his hand to place it on Paki’s shoulder. But Paki heaved backwards and out of reach, staring up at Khalil with a deep wound. He held the gaze for a moment and sniffed angrily, then stormed out of the hut without another word.
Khalil’s hand was still suspended in the air, but slowly he closed the fingers into a fist and turned back. He was surprised to see Urafiki awake, watching him from the basket. Urafiki was making a low growl in its throat, and its eyes were narrowed. Those eyes were not on Khalil, though, but on Paki’s retreating back.
The moon had already begun waning when Paki and Khalil returned to the camp, and now it seemed to shrink more quickly than usual with every passing day. Khalil had tried to catch Abasi’s eye a few times to see what lurked within, but the warrior was steadfastly avoiding him at all times. Khalil supposed that was gracious of Abasi, better to be ignored by him than to be publicly taunted.
More unpleasant was the fact that Paki was now avoiding him, too. When they had their feasts Paki would come for food and then carry it back to his hut. When they held their councils Paki would stare ceaselessly at the ground and never speak a word. The thought had occurred to Khalil that as chief he could demand Paki and Abasi to acknowledge his presence, but what would be the point of that? To satiate his pride? He would be gone before long anyway.
As promised, Khalil held a private meeting with the elders and warriors he knew to be most sympathetic to his cause. He thanked them for their support and then ordered them to respect the rituals and traditions of the tribe. If he was to fall, then preserving the community was what mattered most. Some of them tried to argue, but he merely held up his hand and revealed his intention to face the challenge unaided. The significance of that was clear. He would die, and if Khalil was no longer around for them to rally behind, then it would be hard to justify any rebellion.
Those supporters now avoided making eye contact with Khalil as well. Pleasantries would have sounded too hollow, so numb silence prevailed instead. When Khalil felt the loneliness become overwhelming him he would go back to his hut and be with Urafiki. Though their time together had been short, they had already developed a close bond. Khalil made a collar-restraint so that the creature would not be able to bite him when applying the poultice to its wounds. When it came time for the next application of the salve, though, he found himself hesitating to put the restraint on his friend.
Urafiki’s biting him was not unjustified from the creature’s perspective. How could it understand that he meant it goodwill with the stinging cure? If anything Urafiki was being quite forgiving, and it felt wrong to therefore suppress it. And so Khalil tossed the wood and string contraption to the side and administered the poultice to Urafiki’s hurt while bracing for the bite. It didn’t come. Urafiki raised itself up and hissed, but never latched onto Khalil’s arm as before. All following treatments followed this same pattern and soon Urafiki’s condition was markedly improved.
After a week the creature began to move around the floor of the hut, crawling on four legs like a dog. With the finger-like claws on its hands it could climb up onto Khalil’s table and cot, and at times would also raise up on its back legs. It could stretch up to three times its regular height, and in doing so revealed a long, spindly body beneath the bat-like wings that stretched between its joints.
Khalil had found the creature to be playful, its favorite activity being play-fighting with him. Generally this was initiated as he was ambling about the hut and Urafiki would bowl into his legs from behind, knocking him to the ground. In a flash Urafiki would move up to his chest and neck and hiss menacingly, pausing to let him grip it and throw it to the side. Then it would circle about and make another lunge.
Khalil was grateful that the creature did not try to venture out of his hut, any camp members who had caught a glimpse of Urafiki in his home had all hurried away, disturbed by its strange and somewhat sinister appearance. As such Khalil knew that the creature would have to return to the wild, and so it was that on the afternoon preceding the new moon he lifted Urafiki into his arms and hobbled out of the camp’s clearing, looking for a quiet clump of trees to meditate under.
“You won’t be able to stay here anymore,” he said while stroking Urafiki. “You have your strength back and now you must leave. I hope things go better for you than before?”
Khalil found a quiet corner of the jungle, and knelt down to meditate and pray. As he did, Urafiki paced around him like a sentinel. Khalil quieted his mind and connected with his core. As he did so, he was unsurprised to find a well of fear and sorrow bursting out over him. He had done well in repressing it these past days, but this consignment to death went too strongly against all his basic instincts. Khalil did not try to fight the torrent of tears and shaking, letting them roll over him in one successive wave after another. With each one he collapsed more and more until he was laying prone on the ground, fatigued by the surging emotions. The did not engulf him, though, rather they expressed themselves and then moved on. As their ripples slowly diminished he at last felt the quiet peace of their absence. There simply was not any capacity to grieve left in him.
The beating of the drum back at camp signaled that the sun had just begun to dip between the horizon. All challenges to the chief were to be made before it had set completely, and it was Khalil’s duty to be there to receive them. Wiping his face with the back of his hand he rose to his feet and staggered back towards camp.
Urafiki instinctively followed but Khalil shook his hand at it with a loud “Shah!” and it halted. It did not retreat though, only paused and transfixed with eyes of confusion.
“Live a long and happy life, my friend,” Khalil bowed, then continued his walk to the center of camp.
Here the beginnings of a bonfire were crackling and the tribe members were trickling one-by-one into the circle of its glow. Khalil nodded to the priest beating on the drum, and stood at attention on the circular rug at the head of the gathering. Already he could see a ripple moving through the crowd and Abasi emerged from their depths to approach him. Khalil closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, then looked to the man and nodded.
“Great chief,” Abasi saluted him, bowing low and then rising. “Though your rule has been brief it has been gracious. I want it to be known that I have no disrespect for your character.”
Khalil nodded blandly. Abasi meant no offense but he was come to kill him? What was he supposed to say to that?
“Even so,” Abasi continued, “may all the tribe bear witness that I come to deliver a challenge to Khalil, son of Kibali…”
“…on behalf of Paki, son of Jomo.”
There was another stir in the crowd as a second figure emerged from their midst. Paki was covered in full war paints and carrying two war clubs on his shoulder. On one end of them was the heavy cudgel, the other end was whittled down to a vicious point. Paki strode up to Khalil, meeting his gaze for the first time in days with harshly intent eyes. He held out one of the clubs to Abasi and gave only the shallowest of nods to Khalil.
“I challenge your right as ruler of this tribe,” he murmured in a low whisper.
Khalil was taken aback, but kept the surprise from his face. “Is this an honorable fight, too, Paki?” he asked coolly.
“We’re past that now.”
“Paki, son of Jomo,” the priest with the drum chimed in. “You have challenged our chief, and so there must be a blood duel. You cannot withdraw until one of you lies dead. You understand?”
“And you have chosen Abasi as your companion in this challenge?”
“Khalil, son of Kibali, you have been challenged. Who will fight as your companion?”
Khalil shook his head. “None stand with me.”
The priest sighed. “So be it.” He waved to the other priests and they spaced themselves out, pressing the crowd back to form an open circle with the bonfire at its center. Paki and Abasi backed away to one side of the circle and Khalil turned to another of the priest’s who had retrieved a war club for him.
“When I strike the drum the challenge will begin,” the first priest announced.
Khalil looked to Paki first, and then Abasi. Abasi must have known that the tribe would more willingly fall into line behind Paki, and he would still receive a promotion for his loyalty, probably be made head warrior. It made sense. And yet…. though it was a clever and rational betrayal on Paki’s part…it was still a betrayal.
Abasi and Paki advanced at him from either direction, Abasi hanging back slightly to allow Paki the honor of the kill. Khalil stood motionless, letting them advance. As Paki’s figure loomed nearer though he found himself gripping the handle of the club he had been given.
Paki stepped into a charge and raised his war club high. Khalil’s heart skipped a beat. Not out of fear, but of anger. He moved so suddenly he caught himself by surprise, swinging up in answer to Paki’s challenge. Paki was caught off guard by the motion and barely managed to transition his own attack into a block. He did not fully deflect Khalil’s blow, instead diverting it to his shoulder, where it connected with a cracking thud.
Paki roared in anger, easily ducked under Khalil’s next swing, and then swept Khalil’s legs out from under him. The world turned on its side and Khalil fell onto his back, hard. He was winded and dazed, and unable to hold onto his club as Abasi kicked it out of his grasp. Above him Paki was turning his own club over, pointing the sharp end down towards Khalil’s heart. Paki looked upwards, giving a war cry as he plunged the weapon downwards.
It never connected. To Khalil’s surprise a white blur streaked through the air and wrapped itself around Paki’s head. The warrior shrieked in surprise and lurched backwards, trying to grapple the blanket that had secured itself to his face. Suddenly he stopped his struggling, instead raising himself higher and higher, clear up onto his tiptoes, his hands limp at his side. It seemed as though he were in a trance, then suddenly the spell was broken and he collapsed down to the ground, dead. The white “something” spun off from Paki’s face and revealed itself to be Urafiki.
Khalil staggered back up to his feet as Urafiki slowly raised up onto its back legs, its arms dangling a few inches off the ground. It was hissing menacingly, with ears flattened back against the skull and mandibles were drawn back to reveal its gaping mouth. Its eyes were wide and bloodshot, staring intently as Abasi.
Abasi was clearly unnerved, backing away as Urafiki sidled side-to-side before lunging forward at him.
“No!” Khalil cried, lurching to the side just in time to intercept the creature. He wrapped his arms around the beast, but it was manic, scrabbling up and over his shoulder. Khalil fumbled at his waist, pulling out a knife and stabbing the creature in the side. Urafiki cried in pain and dug a claw into Khalil’s arm.
“Just stop!” Khalil ordered, but the creature was filled with the bloodlust and continued to writhe after Abasi. Khalil drew out the knife and plunged it again, rewarded with another gouge from the creature’s claw, this time in the side of his neck.
Urafiki gave a confused cry, but lurched once more for Abasi.
“I’m sorry,” Khalil gasped, finally burying the knife in Urafiki’s heart. The creature seized up in his arms, going rigid and then slowly limp. Khalil looked into its eyes, wild and wondering, then fading into emptiness.
As I mentioned in an earlier post about communication, it is essential for the audience to feel connected to the character so that they may share in the emotions they are feeling. I would imagine, and intend, that most readers will feel sorrier for Urafiki’s loss than Paki’s. In the bigger scheme of things that might seem unbalanced, given that Khalil and Paki have shared an entire life together, but the audience did not personally experience that history. Instead our window has spent more time on Khalil and Urafiki’s relationship and it has been a more positive one as well. Therefore I am able to steer the reader to giving that loss the far greater weight.
On Monday I also wrote about the concept of characters and plotlines subverting the reader’s expectations with a surprising reveal. I suggested in that post that usually a character’s actions are telegraphed well in advance so that their shifts and turns are expected. Paki’s betrayal would fall under that category, as I first show him being greatly distressed and then removed from Khalil.
Urafiki’s sudden involvement may not have come as too much of a surprise either, most readers probably assumed that the creature was going to get involved in the ending somehow. My hope, though, was that Khalil then slaying Urafiki would come as a shock. Urafiki was his friend and Abasi was his enemy, so it seems counterintuitive for him to do that. However I have tried to establish a trait that Khalil honors duty above friendship, and so hopefully it will still feel honest.
I also hope that Khalil’s surviving the challenge feels earned. Obviously I set him up as the underdog, and therefore needed him to come out of the ordeal by more unconventional means. That’s a common theme to stories, the hero who somehow manages to best the insurmountable challenge. I’d like to spend some time exploring that idea this next Monday.
Then, on Thursday, we’ll have the third and final piece of The Heart of Something Wild I’ve been working on this story right up to the final minute, and still felt that the closing segment needs to feel less rushed. Come back in a week to read that conclusion.
Lately I’ve discovered a new favorite food condiment. It’s pepper jam. The combination of sweet and spicy, two flavors that usually stand in contrast to one another, is a very arresting experience. Each side of this pairing has to be kept in just the right balance, though, otherwise one side overwhelms the other and ruins the effect.
And just what is that effect? What is it about contrasting tastes that captivates our fascination and pleasure? To answer this I consider the wisdom of our friend Ishmael, in Moby Dick. “To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.”
If ever I eat something sweet, and nothing but sweet, soon enough the sweetness of it will be lost on me and the food becomes disinteresting. But when I eat something with contrast, let’s say a salted caramel, then I am constantly experiencing both the salt and the sweet at the same moment. I cannot become over-saturated with either because the other keeps it fresh and novel. By entertaining two tastes at once I am able to longer appreciate the depths of each.
This same principle holds true for writing as well. If we present our themes and characters to the audience and they are all very similar to one another, the reader will quickly become over-saturated and the work will feel flat. But by allowing multiple contrasting elements to occupy the same page the story will become textured and interesting. Over the last month I’ve been trying to do just that, writing stories that walked two lines at once, and with each story I tried to capture a different facet of contrast in writing.
To begin with I posted The Last Grasshopper, which dealt heavily with themes of birth and death, old and new. However the piece was meant to challenge the idea that these elements are actually the opposites we initially think them to be. These themes were presented against a backdrop of seasons changing continuously from one to another and then back again, suggesting that birth and death are not dichotomous from one another, but may actually be two points along a continuous spectrum. A spectrum that, in fact, cycles back on itself, meaning that neither of these two states is able to exist without the other.
In this way I was trying to echo an idea from one of my favorite stories of all time: L’homme qui Plantait des Arbres (The Man Who Planted Trees). In this tale we meet an old man who has spent his entire life planting seeds in a stark and barren wasteland. Over the course of years and then decades, an entire half century in all, this man sees his life work accumulate in massive and lush forests, an entire transformation of the surrounding climate, and a joy of life restored to the locals who live in that region. The situation at the beginning of the tale and at the end seem to belong to completely opposite worlds, and yet they occupy the same geographic space. The tale suggests that barrenness and lushness exist on the same continuum as one another, in fact they define the continuum, and traversal along it would not be possible without the presence of both. And that traversal is negotiated simply by the amount of steady, continual cultivation we are willing to commit to.
That challenge of continual good effort was examined more closely in my next story. Cursed presented a father and a son who both loved one another, and yet had a terrible rift due to their contrasting priorities. The father was trying to relieve the son of a moral burden, but prematurely, before the son was able to naturally overcome his own failings. The result was necessary conflict. They cannot avoid one another, they are father and son, but they cannot see eye-to-eye and so there is opposition. I meant for this to be a reflection of life experience, where we strive for good, but by necessity live a world with constant opposition to that good. We cannot simply divorce ourselves from all the evil, we just have to try to wrest something good out of an eternal battle.
I find a very similar sort of message in the John Steinbeck novella Of Mice and Men. Here we have men who hope. Though they have been beaten down before in life yet they must still hope because that is human nature. However there is no reason to assume that their hopes will be realized, and in the face of increasing opposition we start to feel that their “hopes” are actually only “wishes,” ones for which there will be no granting. The story ends tragically, a somber end that does not rest in the greener fields that were hoped for. Or does it? It seems the story suggests that the contrast of evil and good may find their roots in the world around us and the world that awaits after death. Perhaps here wishes get crushed, only to be granted afterwards.
That idea of solutions that come outside of the box was something I wanted to explore in my third story. In A Minute at a Time we again meet a father and son at odds with one another. It seems, again, that neither can find relief except for at the expense of the other. But then they relinquish their goals for a moment of honest vulnerability. They commiserate together and realize that at their core all they really need is one another. I meant to suggest that opposites can be resolved, and perhaps that resolution comes at a cost of letting them go.
Of course overcoming opposition at a cost is a very common theme to stories. Perhaps the evil of the world can be defeated, but what sacrifices are you willing to pay to accomplish that feat? The video game Alan Wake provided a meta commentary on this. In that story the titular character finds a dark story manifesting itself into the real world, establishing a plot of wanton destruction. As a writer, he is trying to redirect the arc of that story, a feat that was previously attempted unsuccessfully by a poet, Thomas Zane. As Alan Wake explains, Thomas Zane failed because he tried to rewrite the ending of the story to be bright and cheerful at no cost. As Alan says: “There’s light, and there’s darkness. Cause and effect. There’s guilt and there’s atonement. But the scales always need to balance. Everything has a price. That’s where Zane had gone wrong. There’s a long journey through the night back into the light.” He writes a new ending, one where his objective is obtained, but only at great cost, the loss of himself. The story accepts this offering, and thus ends things on a bittersweet note.
At this point I felt that things had gotten quite heavy. What’s more I didn’t want to leave things feeling like all this war of opposition had to always be so grim and unpleasant. The fact is most of us actively enjoy doing sacrificing for another’s happiness. And we often find that we have guidance and help in our long journeys of self improvement. Gifts from Daniel Bronn…and Jerry was meant to capture that more cheerful side of contrasts. Daniel is happy and kind, Jerry is jaded and reserved. Now in the first half of the story these two sides have been shown as being in opposition to one another. In fact that first half ends with Jerry planning to terminate his own employment to get away from the friction he is feeling.
Next week I’ll be completing that story, and in that second half we will see that like salt and caramel, the Daniel and Jerry can combine for something greater. Daniel, with his wealth and compassion, will provide the means for the charitable contributions. Jerry, with his experience on the rougher side of life, will be able to actually deliver the gifts with a needed dose of empathy and understanding. They’ll still be two very different men at the end, but that won’t be putting them in opposition any more. This is actually a theme I’ve explored before on this blog, in one of my very first stories: Scars and Soothing.
Hopefully this series of stories has been to illustrate the infinite possibilities of mixing and matching the many contrasting flavors of story-telling. Keep your stories interesting by putting them at odds with themselves. Give them tensions by establishing fundamental opposition. Give them nuance by suggesting those contrasts may not actually be so opposed to one another as originally believed.
Talce had gray, reflective eyes, devoid of any perceivable irises. Indeed they appeared less like eyes than polished, metal balls that had been inserted into his sockets. Those eyes had been the greatest source of shame to him all his days. They were the sign of the terrible curse and burden which he bore, that of being a life-taker. From his early youth he had learned to walk with his head perpetually bowed downwards, hiding those eyes from those who passed him by. It simply was not pleasant to witness the way people would recoil in revulsion and fear whenever they saw his face.
And there was certainly great fear in them, it was the root that lurked behind all of the hatred the villagers showed to him. That was a hard thing to be responsible for, and yet, he was also greatly indebted to it. For it was only that fear which held the local villagers in check, preventing them from outright cornering and killing him. The definition of a life-taker was, as the name implied, that he could instantly snuff out any creature’s life with no more than a blink of those shining eyes. And so it was with good reason that the people feared him, shunned him, ignored him, and anonymously tormented him… but never would they dare face him in open hostility.
Of course he had never actually done something so horrible as exerting his power on another…. Except once. While in his youth he had been chased down an alley by a massive and furious dog. Though he had not seen where it had come from, it had surely been been set on him by the village boys. No doubt they saw it as an opportunity to enjoy either of two potential outcomes. Perhaps, if they were lucky, they would rid themselves of him once and for all in a tragic “accident.” If not, they would finally be able to catch a glimpse of that terrible power he held. For though they hated what he could do, he knew they were also in awe of it.
Well, whichever dark corner they may have been watching him from, they got their wish. Backed against a wall, with his heart thumping in his chest, he had felt himself what the fear of death was like. Though he had never unleashed his shade he had always known by instinct how to do so. It was a reflex in him as basic as breathing. It had taken less than a moment, a single rush of a dark mist, and the dog moved no more.
There was a common misconception that life-takers’ eyes did not function as those in other people, simply because of how featureless those eyes appeared to be. But they could see, and they could cry. Talce had cried in that moment. Not because of his fear of the dog, but because of the fear of himself.
He was crying again, years later. His head was bowed at this time, too, even though he was in the presence of the one man that had never shunned him.
“Son, look to me” Ekal’s voice croaked from the bed, reaching down to the young man’s chin and turning his face upwards. “Let us see each other this one last time.” Ekal had been about to say something more, but then his face was contorted by another spasm of pain.
A spasm of empathy crossed Talce’s face as well.
“Talce, we do not have long,” Ekal gasped out when the agony had finally subsided. “Give me your hand,” he extended his palm outwards.
Talce did not respond to his father’s request. Instead he looked downwards again. “Who did this?” his voice was barely a whisper, and even so it quavered with seething rage.
Ekal’s face contorted once more, though this time not because of the physical pain. “Talce, do not dwell on this,” he pleaded earnestly. “What is done is done. All that matters now is your liberation.” He thrust his open palm out more urgently to his son.
There was only one way by which a person could be rid of their curse. They could relinquish it to a willing soul, one that was crossing from this life to the next. No ordinary person would offer to carry any sort of curse into the eternities, let alone the burden of a life-taker. Ekal, however, was no ordinary person. And the townspeople knew it. The logic had been simple: mortally wound the old man and let him take the hated curse to his grave.
“Malkil. Tohvy. Harras. Banu.” Talce spat out the names. He had noticed them awkwardly watching from across the street when he had entered the home. Quite likely they were the same men who years earlier had set the dog after him, now emboldened by both age and drink. “Was it them?”
“It was fools!” Ekal shouted back, raising himself on his elbow at great effort. “Worth less than the thoughts you’ve already given them.”
“You think they will spare me once they no longer fear me?! That they will welcome me with open arms after all these years?”
“No,” Ekal sighed. “You will have to run.”
Talce shook his head bitterly. “And leave you unavenged? My own father?”
Ekal tried to keep himself propped upwards, but his arm began to shake and he was about to fall back onto the cot. Talce instinctively threw his hands around his father’s head to lower it down gently. For the cot was thin, and the wood underneath it was hard. Ekal smiled at him, even through his pain.
“Please, son,” he said kindly. “Listen to me. You are a good son and I wish you to always be so. This thing you consider…it simply is not worth the risk.”
“I know they’ll be laying in wait for me,” Talce nodded. “Clearly they meant for tonight to be the end, one way or another. I wouldn’t fall for their trap, though. They’re fools, just as you say.” He nodded again. “This I can do, father.”
“I know it,” Ekal breathed, but there was a tremble of horror in his voice.
Talce felt himself a tremor in himself echoing with his father’s timbre. It was that same fear of self gnawing as it had that day in the alley with the dog. But over that another voice was raging.
“And what of it?!” Talce snapped. “There’s a justice in this. They brought it on themselves!” He blinked back angry tears. “You are my father! It is because of my respect for you that I must–”
“No!” Ekal interrupted firmly. Even angrily. “If you have any respect for me at all you will let this go!” He extended his palm again, reaching to find his son’s hand. But subconsciously Talce had closed his own hands into tight fists. “What kindness do you do me by losing your soul?” Ekal reproved. “If once you are willing to kill to get what you want, then where does that end?”
Talce scowled and looked away. He knew what his father meant. The men’s families and friends, the entire village, they would not tolerate a life-taker willing to unleash his curse. Not even in a cause of “justice.” What would he do when they raised up against him, too? Just let them kill him? Never. If anything, the few men who had beaten his father were only carrying out the will of the entire village, the surface manifestation of all that lied beneath. He could snuff out every life in this town and never once spill a drop of innocent blood.
For as featureless as a life-taker’s eyes were said to be, Ekal had still seen and understood the shadow that had passed across his son’s face with those latest thoughts. For the first time in his life, Talce saw the same horror in his father’s face that the townspeople had always reserved for him.
“Please,” the old man whimpered, his eyes fluttering with the strain of staying open. “They’ve already taken me. Please don’t let them take my son! Please, no.” Unable to extend his hand any longer Ekal merely laid it flat on his side, the fingers quivering for the feel of his child.
The loving plea swayed Talce for a moment. But the more he felt moved by the love of his father the more his corresponding hate for those that would killed the man swelled within him. All his life he had lacked the self-control and depth of character to shoulder this burden on his own. He did not have the mastery in himself to not use this power. He knew it and his father knew it. It was as much as love for his son as fear for him that made Ekal wish to unburden him. He was not ready for that father to leave him, yet leaving he was.
Hot tears rolled down Talce’s cheeks and splashed on the dying man’s covers. “I really wish that I could,” he strained out through gritted teeth. “I really do.” A strange guttural growl echoed from his throat, the strain of his very soul rending in two.
Taking their lives would just be so easy. So effortless. As easy as blinking his eyes.
Ekal’s eyes had closed, but his lips continued to shudder. “Talce, no” he moaned weakly. “No, Talce. Talce…” His hand groped in the dark, reaching but not finding.
Much as he hated himself for it, Talce could not be with his father like this. He could not bear the look of disappointment in his face and the piteous pleading noises. The brokenness. He turned his back and hardened his heart, striding out of the room, to the main entrance, and out into the street. He was already raising that dark mist, the shade that was his only remaining companion. They wouldn’t have a chance.
A common source of conflict and disappointment in our lives is nothing more than our expectations not being met. On Monday I discussed the rift we see between parents and their children, and I would argue a great deal of that divide comes from just these sorts of expectations not being met. Children begin life holding their parents in the highest regard, and at some point are disappointed to learn that they are not as perfect as at first believed. Parents disappoint themselves with their own failings, and are disappointed when their children choose something other than what they had intended for them.
Also, sometimes closer to the heart than even family love is personal pride, and when this is the case working out problems together is sidelined for championing one’s own desires. These were the sorts of things I wanted to emulate in today’s story. Talce truly does love his father, but he loves him on his own terms, not on his father’s. Further, he is a disappointment to himself, and has come to believe in his villager’s perspective of him, rather than Ekal’s. As such he is does not feel capable of meeting the loftier expectations, and rather assumes the more base role that he knows he can fill.
I’ve wanted to do a scene that could serve as the origin for a villain and I thought this would be an interesting way to do it. It’s an approach for such a character that feels more honest to me. Perhaps I’ll have to integrate Talce into some larger story at some point.
Now, though, I’d like to spend a little bit more time on these ideas of projected expectations, filling roles, and the nature of father and mother figures in literature. To sum it all up, I want to look at what how we are defined by others, and how that is reflected in literature. Come back next week when we’ll see what we find.
Once the fields had been green and lush, covered by tall blades of grass rolling in the wind. Now they were scattered over only by the occasional dry stalks: brown, brittle and crackling under every chilly breeze. These remaining sentinels pointed up to skies that were overcast and perpetually stormy, a curtain of gray broken only by the occasional crack of lightning and thunder.
Across these fields’ shriveled husks there crawled a single warden, an old and weathered grasshopper. Of all the changes that it had experienced, it was this solitude that struck it as the most strange. For though it had been born in a time when the earth was still new, when flowers were in bloom and water was running, it had not witnessed any of this at the first. Instead it had been hatched within the ground, buried among the masses.
There the first life it had known had been dark and churning. The entire universe seemed a rolling, crawling mass. Its brothers and sisters were innumerable, swarming and pressing it, urging it to claw upwards, to chew through pod and earth, to climb until at last it burst out into the air and greeted its first sunrise.
Here at last it had stumbled upon the nature of its reality, to exist suspended between two great infinites. There was that of the never-ending depths beneath, the earth of its birth. There was that of the ongoing expanses above, the sky that it would dissipate into at the other end of life. Between those two extremes it would dwell: crawling, hopping, and flying, ever wavering between the two yet never fully belonging to either.
What it did belong to was the community. Each new day saw another geyser of small white nymphs like itself bubbling out from beneath the earth and crawling up to take their claim of the land. The ocean of greenery seemed endless, yet the appetite of their horde was relentless. They moved as a body from one field to another, ingesting and digesting, eating all that they could in a race to grow. And grow they did, first doubling in size, then tripling, then molting into a new form that could bear still more multiplications.
Perhaps if they had had a mind that could contemplate their nature, they might have considered the effects of eating this perishable food. For if the plant was alive as they had been, and if it could die and be consumed, and if that entity then became a part of their bodies and now defined them, then were they not consigning themselves to the same eventual fate? Perhaps had they found some immortal food that did not die in the eating of it, then they would have lived forever. But it was too late, they had eaten that fruit and now they bore the common curse of all the earth.
And death did, in fact, begin to manifest. Indeed, all that prevented them for overrunning the entire landscape was that now they were large enough to capture the attention of the birds, and the spiders, and the mantises, and all other manner of predatory life. So as they grew in mass, they diminished in numbers, such that an equilibrium was more or less maintained.
They were still legion, but with each following day they were lesser and lesser of a legion. By the time they approached full maturity and began to mate, their only remained enough to replace their initial numbers and thus not make any gains against nature’s balances. Here the grasshoppers found the beginning of their fulfillment, their great purpose to recreate themselves in new forms. Here was how they cheated nature and gained their immortality.
But that victory was momentary, and the world was already signalling a turning of the tides. For even as the grasshoppers planted their eggs in the soil, they were finding that the ground was colder and harder than it had been before. The loose moisture in it was beginning to freeze and the chill of the night seemed to persist longer into each new morning, suggesting soon it would overtake the days entirely in one eternal slumber.
In anticipation of that great sleep one grasshopper after another succumbed to the elements, curled up, and perished. In doing so their last duty to the next generation was being fulfilled: they were leaving a space in the world for their children to fill. Immortality was still the promise, but immortality only through death. Through incarnation.
Some fell when caught out in the cold. Others starved from the sparseness of food remaining. Others were simply too old and frail to support living any longer. Though when born in the spring they had defied numbering, yet they were finite. Numerically and mortally. As they entered late autumn they could be counted as no more than a thousand. A week later they were no more than a hundred. Before another week was spent there remained that only one.
That final grasshopper did not even know that it was the last of its kind, it simply was aware that it no longer encountered any others of its race. Of course every year saw a “last grasshopper,” by the nature of things some creature had to fill that role, and this year it happened to be this one. In some ways that may seem a momentous thing, yet it passed by each year with none to take any note of it. Perhaps that was fitting. Life began in heat and noise, but then tapered out in a long, slow decrescendo. There would be no loud crash to signal the end, only a muting into nothingness.
And yet not quite nothingness. For the seeds were already in the earth, and in time legions would rise again. None of that next generation would know of this, their nearest forebearer. This final grasshopper was a last strand, stretching from its edge of the infinite towards the other until it would break under the strain of that distance. The next year’s generation would not know of that past, yet they would still owe their entire existence to it.
The grasshopper raised its foreleg for another step, but its clawed foot failed to grasp the stalk, and instead it fell to the ground.
I really enjoyed writing out this piece. As I mentioned on Monday, the changing seasons has given me a lot of thoughts about the nature of existence, mortality, beginnings and endings, birth and death. It helped me to process and give closure to those sensations by just being able to find words that gave better definition to those ideas. It serves as an important lesson that we need to pause, take in the world, and then channel it through our imagination to create something new from that experience. I hope each one of us can live our days being inspired by all that richness which surrounds us.
Even as I concluded with this piece, though, it was already bringing up new thoughts and ideas that I still want to explore further. Specifically I want to take some time to linger on the idea of the passing of a torch. This is obviously a classic theme in stories, and there are many takes on the ideas of mentors, tradition, and old flame rekindling in a youthful disciple. Sometimes, though, this rite of passage does not occur so smoothly. On Monday we’ll speak some more about this concept, and I hope to see you then. In the meantime, have an excellent weekend!
One fine Summer day Phillip the Mouse was outside stacking some blocks on the ground. He was so busy trying to build it as high as possible that he didn’t notice when Baxter, the local bully, came over by his side. “Hey, watch out!” Baxter shouted, and then he punched the tower apart with a laugh. All the blocks went flying and one of them hit Phillip right on the nose. Phillip was both surprised and hurt, and before he knew it he was sitting back on the ground crying. Baxter looked a little uncomfortable about that, but he shook his head and said, “Why are you screwing your face up like that? It makes you look all ugly!” Then he stomped away.
Phillip felt very self-conscious and ashamed. He tried to stop crying but it was very hard. He didn’t want to just sit there and look ugly, so he thought of what he could do. Suddenly he had what seemed to be a wonderful idea. Without a word he stood up and rushed into his house. He found some paper and string, markers and glue, and he set to work making a mask. He made a beautiful mouse-face and drew the biggest smile on it that he could. It looked perfect. He tied it on and decided to wear it forever.
Later that day Phillip’s mother came home and gave him a big hug. She smiled at his mask and asked him how his day was.
“It was great!” Phillip tried to say enthusiastically, but there was a little shake in his voice.
“Are you sure?” she asked compassionately. Phillip wasn’t sure why, but there was something about her soft voice that made him feel his sadness growing behind the mask.
“It was okay,” Phillip said, and wet tears were starting to show through the paper of the mask.
“Phillip, can you please take your mask off?” she asked.
Phillip shook his head and stepped back. “It’s a good mask,” he said. “It’s always happy and handsome, it never scrunches up or cries.”
“Phillip,” she said gently. “I like your real face more, I’d always rather see that.”
“Even if it’s ugly and crying?”
“Always,” she said firmly.
Phillip slowly took the mask away and his Mommy saw how sad he really was. She gave him a hug and just held him for a while. Then he told her about what had happened with the blocks and Baxter. That made him cry even more and she held him for all of that, too.
“I’m so sorry that happened to you today, Phillip,” she told him. “Thank you for telling me, that was a very brave thing to do. Phillip…I want you to always remember that you never need to be ashamed of your tears. Your face is the most beautiful thing I know and always will be.”
And with that, Phillip smiled. A real one this time.
Phillip the Mouse and His Grandfather’s Kite
One gray and windy day Phillip was feeling very confused. His parents had told him that his grandfather was very sick, and that he might not get better. Phillip didn’t understand this. Every time Phillip got ill his parents just gave him rest and maybe some medicine and then he felt better soon enough. Why was it different with grandfather? Phillip’s parents said it had to do with being very old, and that grandfather might need to leave them, which was also confusing to Phillip. Phillip didn’t want his grandfather to leave them.
All of this had made Phillip think about a fine kite that he had made with his grandfather just last summer. They had decided to make it on a blustery day like today, but by the time the glue set the wind had died down and they hadn’t been able to fly it. Phillip’s grandfather had said he would come back another time to fly it with Phillip, but that day had never come. And so, Phillip now decided he had to fly it by himself. For some reason that seemed like a good thing to do with this concerning news from his parents.
Phillip went outside with his kite and soon he had it soaring through the air. It really was a very good kite. It caught the wind easily and held its position very straight and strong. Phillip never had problems with it swirling down or crashing into the ground. As Phillip continued to fly it the wind started to become even stronger. Soon he could feel the kite pulling hard against the reel in his hands. He gripped it tightly, and decided he better pull the line in before the wind picked up anymore. Phillips started turning the reel, pulling the line down as a sudden gust of wind came, pulling the line up.
The string broke in two and it tumbled lifelessly to the ground at Phillip’s feet. Phillip stared down at it for a moment, then back up to the kite. He expected the kite to fall as well, but it didn’t. It swayed around for a little bit, and then a wave of the wind carried it up higher and higher towards a cloud. Phillip felt very strange. Sad… but not like he needed to cry. As he watched, the kite slowly faded into the cloud until he couldn’t see it anymore. Phillip kept watching the same spot on the cloud for a while, just thinking and feeling.
As Phillip turned to walk home he still felt sad, but also alright. It wasn’t the happiest thing to lose grandfather’s kite, but at least he knew where it was. Any time a cloud would pass its shadow over him he couldn’t help but wonder if grandfather’s kite was there, watching him from afar. Somehow that made everything okay.
It’s been a wonderful privilege to share these Phillip the Mouse stories. These last two in particular were ones where I wanted to imbue the stories with something special, something that I’m proud of. Even though they were designed for my toddler son, I didn’t want take advantage of his more accepting nature, I wanted to work on them until I could get them right and make them of as high quality as I’m capable. Like I said in my post on Monday, our children, of all people, are the most deserving and needing of our very best.
Also I feel these stories are not just children’s stories. They are stories for everyone. They explore concepts we all deal with and all need to face one way or another. Perhaps my son won’t fully understand all these ideas now, but I hope the seed will be there so he recognizes them when they do come up in life.
This will conclude the Phillip the Mouse series, and next week we’ll be off to somewhere entirely new. Have a good weekend and I’ll see you then.