A Mind of its Own

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Do you write a story to express yourself, or does a story express itself through your writing? Many the creative soul has spoken of being moved to make things in a particular way, following the inspiration of external sources, inventing something that they did not fully understand when they began the work. Sometimes they still didn’t understand it after it was done. This creates a sense of creations that exist apart from their creator.

Michelangelo famously declared that he did not create anything in his sculptures, he only removed the excess stone until the already-existing figure was exposed for everyone to see. Thus, in a sense, even before Michelangelo did his work, the sculpture was already in there, still totally real, even if momentarily hidden.

Many authors also speak of their stories having “wants” like that of an actual person. You might start the scene where the the hero overcomes his flaws and comes to the rescue, but when you try to put together the words they just feel forced and ill-fitting. You come to realize that redemption doesn’t fit the character as written, it isn’t the arc that he wants to follow. He wants to take you somewhere else.

 

At Odds With Your Character)

This might present a problem, though, because where your character does want to go might not be very useful for the work as a whole. Perhaps it gives them a truer expression, but as a side-effect leaves your story without any cathartic resolution.

So what do you do? Force them back into the bottle? Make them go through that redemptive arc, even though it feels hollow? Try to add seeds of remorse for them in earlier scenes, knowing full well that they might feel awkwardly tacked on? I don’t know about you, but I believe I’ve read and watched many stories that did exactly this. Characters are developed in interesting ways, with very real personalities and interesting needs. And then, suddenly, all of that gets cast aside as the “story” robs them of their development, so that it can tack on a totally cliché ending.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen stories that indulge in their characters long past my point of caring. If a character is very strong, then it might be well worth following them wherever they might go, but honestly, most story characters are only serviceable to a point. I have dropped off of many television series when they seemed to forget their initial premise and instead became the “main character variety hour.”

 

A Question of Time)

One of the most common causes I have seen for mangling the desires of a story or the desires of a character is when the work is being shoehorned into a scope that does not fit it. For example, truly interesting characters take time to fully develop. When they are part of a film that is mandated to run for two hours and no more, then all too often character development gets cut short and leaves too many things unsaid.

On the other hand, an ensemble of one-dimensional characters is excellent for developing a tight, focused narrative that delivers on a single idea, and then bows out before it can overstay its welcome. But when this platform is dragged out in a long-running television series, the original focus has to become blurred into many pointless subplots, uninteresting character dives, and drama for pure drama’s sake.

 

A Sharp Focus)

So how do I approach this matter in my own stories? Well it depends on the format.

For example, I am working on a novel that I want to be a particular length (80,000 to 120,000 words), deliver a single moral at its end, feature only a select few themes on the side, and close out without any loose threads whatsoever.

Given how tight and focused I want this work to be, I didn’t write a single word of my first draft until I had my characters and settings hammered out thoroughly. Early drafts saw a cast of dozens, which I realized meant either I would bloat my story out much further than intended, or else I would have to cut off some threads prematurely. Instead I scrapped that setup and brought it down to a total of four characters.

Some of those characters were too shallow in their original design, and I realized they wouldn’t remain interesting for the duration of the tale. Others were too complex, which meant they might become more interesting than the final, central message, which was intended to be greater than any single individual. Thus I redistributed character qualities, taking complexity from the ones that were too sharply defined, and giving them to the ones that were softer.

And only after I had all of my characters fully established, and in harmony with the scope or the overall tale, did I start to actually write my first draft. Undoubtedly some possible diversions were lost in managing them so closely, but that’s alright. I didn’t want diversions. I want this story to be what I want it to be, and I will do my more freeform experimentation elsewhere.

 

Meandering)

Specifically, I will do it here. One of the main points of this blog has always been to invent characters and situations that are as imaginative and complicated as I please, and then turn them loose to see what comes of it. Sometimes the well runs dry very quickly, and I don’t try to artificially extend things. Sometimes it keeps going on, week after week, because the story refuses to be wrapped up quickly. That’s fine, too.

As it turns out, my most recent story falls firmly into that last camp. When I first conceived of Raise the Black Sun, I figured it would run for about 4,000 words, maybe 6,000. It has now passed 10,000, and still going strong. The reason for this is because I come into each of these short stories with only a loose outline, and then let the work roam freely between each checkpoint.

And yes, sometimes they roam outside of their boundaries, in which case I change the plot to accommodate where they want to go instead. It is incredibly indulgent, and that’s entirely the point. Being able to cut loose like this once in a while has led me to some very promising discoveries, and I will always want this outlet in some form or another.

Admittedly, this does run the risk of alienating readers with its indulgence, and while I hope people aren’t bored with how long some of these stories have run, I do acknowledge that that is entirely a possibility. Let’s just say that there’s a reason why I make this stuff available to you free of charge and without any advertisements!

(Actually, if you subscribe to my blog, please let me know if there are advertisements at the bottom of the emails that come whenever I make a new post. There shouldn’t be, but I haven’t been able to verify whether that is the case.)

Anyway, if you are not sick yet of my ambling through Raise the Black Sun, feel free to come see what new forays await us on Thursday! And if you are sick of Raise the Black Sun, don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll have it wrapped up in another post or two.

Three at the most.

Possibly four?

A Proper Motivation

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Our Driving Force)

Motivation is the parent of action. All that we do in life we do because of our desire. Even the most basic of things, such as movement, would never occur unless we first hoped to obtain something by it.

Stories are much the same. Unless the characters want something, they never will do anything. If ever you’ve hit a lull in the action of your story, it’s probably because none of the characters have anything that they want at that particular moment. Often this is because they just achieved some milestone, and so for a brief moment they are content right where they are. It sounds like a nice place for them, but it is terrible for you as the author.

Unless, of course, you are at the natural termination of desire that signals the end of a story. “And they lived happily ever after” essentially means “and they have everything that they want, so they just kind of stay this way forever after and don’t do anything else of interest, so we’ll just stop talking about them now.”

This “storybook-ending” is one area where stories diverge from real life. In real life there usually isn’t such a total complacency where we forever cease to want any more. No matter how accomplished we have become, no matter how grateful we are for what we have obtained, there yet remains the compulsion to go further. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either, as it is this endless chase that drives us to ever improve and grow nearer to our most ideal self.

The reason why the storybook has an ending, then, is because the character has actually obtained that “most ideal self” which eludes us in the real world. Now that they are the full measure of the person they are supposed to be, there is no more need for motivation.

 

Ends Justified by the Means)

This would seem to suggest that it isn’t always so important what the exact motivation is, just that there is a motivation, and that it drives the character towards their ideal form. The only prerequisite, of course, is that the motivation is something that is “good,” something that is based on truthful precepts. Assuming that, the actual details of the motivation are superfluous.

Is the hero trying to bring peace to the land? Restore the balance of justice? Champion the cause of freedom? Then that’s all we really need to know. And so Piglet seeks to find a birthday present for his friend Eeyore, Prince Charming quests to rescue Sleeping Beauty, Shane resolves to stop the cruel cattle baron, and Thanos endeavors to bring balance to the universe.

Well, wait…hang on now. We seem to have stumbled upon a villain with that last one, haven’t we? Here we have a character whose motivation seems worthy enough, and that same motivation is indeed driving him to action, but it’s just that those actions happen to involve things like mass genocide. This is an example of a story in which the villain actually means to accomplish something moral, but to do so is willing to use methods that are immoral.

This represents one of the two main archetypes of villains in stories. The other, of course, is when the villain is just the embodiment of pure evil. Those villains do evil simply for the sake of being bad, whereas this one does evil with good intentions. Each of these two archetypes have their own place, each better suited to certain types of stories, but for the sake of this blog post let’s focus on the one whose evil actions bely their good intentions.

The imbalance inherent in these characters is by no means a work of fiction. Indeed they represent a moral dilemma that lies at the very root of our modern philosophies, namely the question of whether the ends can always justify the means. Consider the argument made by Socrates, as reported in Book V of Plato’s Republic. This discourse has long been a contentious topic for how it promotes an “ideal state,” one that is established only by first trampling down the most basic of human freedoms. It claims that the slaughter of infants, the dictating of when and with whom procreation can occur, and the separation of children from their parents could all be used to erect a more perfect world.

The natural response to such claims is repulsion. And it is important to note that it is natural to respond that way. It means that it goes against our very intuition to excuse any evil, even in the name of the greater good. Our inner nature recognizes that there is a paradox in this, much akin to trying to reach higher numbers by subtraction, or in traveling to a destination by ever moving away from it. At our cores we seem to understand that evil consequences will undermine all good intentions.

But while I say that all these principles are basic and intuitive, yet there are examples throughout all history of those that still thought they could achieve a better state of man through actions of mass evil. Names that come readily to mind: Hitler, Stalin, and Mao,  characters that chill us as some of the most destructive individuals the world has ever known. Is it any wonder, then, that this fear bleeds through to our creative works of fiction, and the villains we put into them?

 

Destructive and Constructive Cycles)

So what then is the difference between the hero and the villain? It is simply this: the hero is motivated by good, that motivation leads to good actions, and the consequences of those actions are in harmony with the initial motivations. The consequences bolster the original intent, and the whole course is one of mutual assurance and progression. Consider the tortoise who is determined to stay the course, no matter how far behind his competitor he appears to be. His resolve informs his actions, his actions ensure his success, and his success confirms the validity of his resolve.

The villain, meanwhile, can also be motivated by good desires, but then selects actions that are evil, the consequences of which will actively undermine the initial motivations. They are set up for failure, even before the hero shows up on the scene. It is their own hand that stands strongest against them. Consider the Foolish Emperor who wishes to be loved and revered by his people, but whose pursuit of that ideal results in him parading naked through the streets. Even before the young boy calls out the truth of the matter, by his own hand he has already been disrobed before all of his subjects.

Personally I think that many stories have been written without the author consciously intending to make philosophical statements on human nature. And yet so many of them do, and have done so over the millennia, and are so consistent in their implied moral.

When the same conclusions so consistently arise in the subconscious, it is only natural to assume that these stories are indicative of a truth that resides in us all. We find in stories the answers to many of the most basic questions of mankind. In this particular instance we see that they answer the query “how should I live my life?”

As an answer stories acknowledge that a man must have desires, ones that necessarily lead to action. But then stories caution that man must realize that his actions have consequences, either for good or evil, and it is therefore wise for a man to deliberately choose the actions whose consequences are in harmony with the initial desires. Then a man does not undo his own self, he discovers his own self. That is how a man should live.

 

On Thursday I shared a story where two characters were driven against one another by strong motivation. We did not know where their motivations originated from, but we could tell that they were powerful and very destructive. By that alone we could tell that they were villainous, and subject to eternal frustration.

In my next story I’d like to look at motivation again, this time coupled with its consequences. In it we will meet a character that is deeply motivated, but one that is driven by that motivation to actions that are brash, and probably not the most self-improving. By the end of the story, though, we’ll see how he is able to shift his desires and results into greater harmony with one another. Come back on Thursday to see the first portion of that tale.

Core Needs

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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.