A Tale of Two Tales

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Quick Summary)

During September and October I published a story which was titled The Favored Son. It was not the same as the story I am currently writing now, though, which is titled The Favored Son: Alternate.

Both of these stories began in a very similar manner. Both featured a group of students in an order, which eventually was overrun by an invasion. Both of them featured a battle of wills between the different students as each tried to champion their own way forward.

But as I mentioned at the time, my first take on this story strayed a great deal from my original vision. About halfway through it evolved into an entirely different beast from what I had pictured in my head.

If you have been reading the second version you can certainly see that the style and plot have many drastic differences from the first. So now let me answer whether this second attempt has hewed more closely to my original idea or not.

It has. Like a lot. This new incarnation is very much in the vein of my original concept. Yes, a few things have changed as I’ve gone along, but not any more than is to be expected whenever a vague concept is written into a hard reality. So if you have read the first version of The Favored Son, now you should be able to understand why I felt there were several ideas being left on the table!

Is it Better This Way?)

Now that I have both the free-flowing-exploration-into-the-unknown version and the more stick-to-the-plan version, the natural question is which am I happier with the result of. The answer to that is a bit mixed.

On one hand, they really are just very different tales that do different things well. There are things that I appreciate about both and I wouldn’t want to be without either. On the other hand, I can’t help but appreciate that this newer attempt was more successful at capturing my intended vision. Yes, the other one took me into fresh material that I value, but I feel more competent as a writer with the second attempt because it was a better execution of being what I wanted it to be.

Technically speaking, I would also say that my second attempt is more complex. There are more characters, more relationships, more arcs, and I am pleased with how they are all being given full expression.

Imaginatively speaking, though, I would say the first version had the more exciting ideas.

Obviously I mean this in terms of having a more involved magic system and a more surprising world to explore, but also in having more dramatic ideas, such as the order’s ritualistic self-destruction and characters being literally taken over by despair. There was a lot of creativity crammed into that tale.

But given all that bursting creativity is it any wonder that the plot went off track?

Lost in the Details)

I really do think it was all this deluge of ideas that caused me to lose the thread of my plot in the first version of The Favored Son. I came up with one imaginative idea after another. I included them without a second thought, and in the process of exploring their implications I realized that I had built a foundation that the original story wouldn’t fit on anymore.

It has to be appreciated that this is a package deal. How can you fully explore a new concept unless you are willing to surrender some control for where things are going to go with it? There is a trade-off in writing between discovering something new and meeting your original expectation.

On the one hand, by focusing on plot and character first and foremost in my second version of The Favored Son I had a more solid foundation, a better story at its core. And having that foundation I could now dress it up with all manner of rich world-building that I please. I could take all of the more magical elements of the first version and easily apply them throughout.

But on the other hand…how would I even know about those magical elements if I hadn’t allowed myself to get lost first?

Clearly there is a benefit to both approaches. I’m actually very glad that I decided to write both versions, if only to have discovered this fact. You can have freedom in your writing or you can have structure. Or, if you allow for each separately, then you can combine them together and have both. You can make an excursion into the unknown and discover all manner of raw, creative material, and then you can set down at the desk and compile it into a deliberate, crafted plot.

If it weren’t for the fact that I have already spent months on these stories and am ready for a change of scenery, I would consider now writing a third version of The Favored Son, one that marries the two previous attempts in the way I have described. I may still try it at some later date.

Here’s what I will do for now, though. I am about to write the climax of my second version, and I will try to inject into it some of the magic from my first attempt. Keep your eye out for that on Thursday!

The One, True Story

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To Kill a Watchman)

Less than one year before her death, Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman was published to considerable controversy. First and foremost was the concern that Lee, in her old age, might have been manipulated into publishing the novel. And even if this was untrue, the novel itself ruffled many of its readers.

Because it was not actually a new novel, as had been suggested, it was actually a first draft version of Lee’s only other published novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. And, as it goes with first drafts, this version was a far less polished experience, in dire need of editing.

There was one bright side, though, and it was that this first draft version provided a fascinating insight to just how different that beloved classic might have been. Because Go Set a Watchman is not merely an unrefined version of To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a drastically different beast altogether. Central characters, including the all-important Atticus Finch, are changed from one telling to the next. In To Kill a Mockingbird he was shown to be an honest man trying to do his best in a dishonest world. But in the first draft (Go Set a Watchman) we are disillusioned by his portrayal as fundamentally racist. And all these changes add up, creating a story with very different themes than were in its final iteration.

Evidently Harper Lee had more than one idea for how to tell her story and more than one message that she wished to convey. It is easy to assume that a large, literary novel would encompass the entirety of an author’s opinion on a matter, but clearly this is not always the case.

Creator’s Intent)

In fact, famous directors like George Lucas and Ridley Scott have proved that their original work did not encompass their entire vision, by revisiting their prior films and altering them. “Director’s Cuts” and “Re-Releases” have become particularly popular of late, though they have their roots far back in cinema, such as when Alfred Hitchcock recreated his film The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Cecil B. DeMille redid his Ten Commandments.

In many of these cases, Directors have stated that they were simply unable to capture their vision as originally intended, either because of studio interference or because of outdated technology. Sometimes these changes are appreciated by audiences, but other times they are reviled.

Other times Directors have simply been of two minds as to which version of a story they should use. Thus there were two endings filmed, edited, and scored for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. These endings are not simply different takes on the same idea, either, each one dramatically shifts the outcomes for its characters. Both fit well with the rest of the film, though, and there is a case to be made for each. But of course, the film had to only have a single, official version in its theatrical release, and so the creators settled on just one ending, regulating the other to the Special Features section of the DVD.

Pacing Back and Forth)

What if a story didn’t have to have just “one official version” though? What if it could be an idea that the author goes over multiple times, from all sorts of different angles? And what if each iteration was just as valid as all of the others?

The Beginner’s Guide is a collection of short games, each of which represents the main character’s way of processing his feelings in life. Thus they are games that are less about being fun, and more about dwelling on a specific state of mind.

At another point there is a group of games that belong together in a series. It begins with the player in a prison, one that is filled with nice, living room furniture and a window. That’s all there is to it, and then the next experience loads. This one brings the player to the same room, but suddenly the walls and ceiling start receding, creating a massive room, one that is filled to the brim with layers upon layers of this same IKEA-style furniture. Next things are inverted, and the walls of your prison are covered in wallpaper that looks like the sky you had previously been seeing outside. Next the player is in the prison room upside down, with the furniture up on the ceiling. And then, in the last one, the player enters a telephone booth and speaks with their past self, who is still stuck in the prison. They encourage the past self that they’ll get out of there one day, and then the sequence ends.

Thus it is a collection of experiences, all around the same idea, but each with its own beginning and ending. Together they allow the creator to come at the same problem from every possible direction, and to give voice to all of the muddled, interwoven elements of what it feels like to be trapped. There is an honesty to this, as in real life our experiences are often much too complex to be expressed in just one way.

Endless Wells)

Which might seem like a very unique way to tell a story, but actually it’s not. How many times did Arthur Conan Doyle get to revisit the great detective theme? He got to explore his one detective in as many different situations as he could imagine, sometimes creating cases that hewed very closely to one another, but presenting a slightly different possibility in each.

Or Isaac Asimov crafting one tale after another about science fiction and advanced technology and robots? Stories where he can explore one possible version of the future, and then in his next piece explore yet another.

What about Mozart writing symphony after symphony, concert after concert, more than 600 pieces in less than thirty-five years, and still finding new expression in them clear through to the end?

No, it is not unusual at all for a creator to revisit the same well over and over, and still find something new to say each time.

There are reasons why marketing campaigns only ever want there to be one, clear version of a product. But from a purely creative standpoint, there’s no reason why your one piece of work has to be the final and total measure of all you have to say on the matter.

Given the freedom of the blog-structure, I’ve realized that I have a unique opportunity with my latest story The Favored Son. I have had two different versions of the story in my head, and I could potentially publish them both.

I haven’t yet decided if I will go that route or not. I want to finish my current version as it is, and only then decide if there are still important things left unsaid. Perhaps I’ll be able to get enough of the old version to come through in the new iteration that any further work would feel redundant. Perhaps I won’t want to write an entire second version, but rather just publish a critical scene or two from what it would have been. Or perhaps I will, in fact, give it the full treatment as soon as I’m done with the first. The point is there are no restrictions. I have my ideas, and I, like any other creator, have the privilege to develop them at my pleasure. Come back on Thursday to see where I go with that in my next section of The Favored Son.

The Changed Dog

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“Billy’s really sick, isn’t he?” Tommy’s eyes were wide and shining with unshed tears.

“Yes, you know he’s sick,” James said. “We’ve been talking about that for more than a week now, haven’t we?”

“But I mean really sick. Like…he might not get better,” Tommy barely whispered the last words.

James squirmed uncomfortably, the common dilemma of a father who doesn’t want to be forthcoming.

“Everything will be fine,” he finally promised. “Whatever happens…everything will be just fine.”

Tommy looked far from convinced, but there was something in his father’s tone that let him know the matter was concluded. And so they completed their night-time ritual and he was left to fall asleep. His mind was racing, though, and it was nearly an hour before his dreams finally took him.

Strange dreams they were, too, where he was running through a field, searching for his missing dog. He kept on thinking he saw it’s steel-gray flank before him, but upon nearing it always found something else. “Billy!” he called. “Billy!” But no one answered.

Downstairs in the house, James gave their Siberian Husky a long, hard stare. The dog was laying flat on its belly, jaw resting on the carpet, but eyes open and lazily regarding their master. There was a deep wistfulness in those eyes, and it seemed to understand where James’s thoughts were. It was the father who broke the gaze first. He turned his back to the pet and went to the phone on the wall.

As he hung up at the end of his call Susan stepped into the room.

“Did you tell Tommy? Before he went to bed?”

“No.”

“He’s going to be crushed.”

“He doesn’t need to know.”

*

The next morning Tommy came down the stairs and found the dog kennel empty.

“Billy?… Billy!” he called. “Billy!” He rushed from room to room, calling the dog’s name, but found nothing.

“Billy!”

He ran out the front door, frantically looking up and down the street. Had the dog wandered off, sick and confused? Had his parents taken it without telling him?

“BILLY!” he shouted, his bare feet pattering down the sidewalk. He called the dog’s name, but he knew in his heart that there wouldn’t be any answer. Slowly he came to a stop, and felt the tears forming in his eyes.

“Thomas?”

The boy spun around and saw his mother coming out from working in the backyard.

“Mom! Where’s Billy?!”

“Get over here, you’re still in your pajamas! Your father took Billy to the vet this morning.”

“To put him down?” hot tears splashed down Tommy’s cheeks.

“No. I don’t–your father said it’ll be alright. He said you wait and see when he comes home.”

“How? Billy’s too old for the vet to do anything for him.”

“You’ll just have to wait and see, but come indoors.”

That evening James came home…alone. As soon as he opened the door to the house he found himself face-to-face with his son, accusation etched over the boy’s eyes.

“You’ve killed him!” Tommy declared.

“What? Who?”

“You took Billy to be put down!” Tommy teetered on the edge of losing all composure.

“No,” James said firmly. “They’re seeing to him now. I thought he’d be ready to bring back this afternoon but he’s not. He’ll be back tomorrow.”

Tommy squinted suspiciously at his father, but there wasn’t anything concrete to justify his doubts, so he merely trudged away, shaking his head.

Susan looked up from peeling carrots after the boy had left.

“Don’t you think he’s old enough to know the truth?” she asked. “Putting it off for today is only going to make things worse when we do have to tell him.”

“Actually, it’s all been arranged. I’ve been in contact with a kennel in Springdale. ‘Billy’ will be vaccinated and ready for his new home tonight.”

Susan did not match his smug smile.

“I don’t know, dear,” she said slowly. “I honestly feel like that’s just going to be worse.”

“Well you never had any pets growing up, you don’t know what it’s like. Trust me, will you?”

The next morning was the weekend, so both James and Susan were waiting for Tommy as he came down the stairs and saw Billy back in his kennel.

“What?!” he said in awe.

The dog stood tall and alert, his fur coat full and shiny like it hadn’t been in months.

“I told you to count on your old man!” James crowed.

“But–how?” Tommy asked. “He was just old, I thought. What can a vet do for just being old? I was afraid he–“

“Well that’s just the problem!” James interjected. “Dogs can smell fear, can’t they? Old Billy could feel how afraid you were, and that was just a whole other stress for him to deal with. Had him worried sick. I think spending some time away from all our fretting was the best medicine he could get! But what are you waiting for, boy? Come say hello to your old buddy!”

The dog craned its head up to look at its master, regarding him with curious eyes. It heard a movement ahead and saw the small boy drawing near with hand outstretched. Instantly a growl resonated in its throat.

“Billy?” Tommy asked and the dog barked loudly.

Tommy frowned and side-stepped to the shelf of doggie treats and toys.

“Look boy, a biscuit!” he held the treat aloft, then lobbed it over. It feel between the dog’s paws, and it glanced down, then locked eyes with Tommy again.

Tommy picked a clicker off the shelf and clicked it two times.

Nothing.

He clicked it two times once more.

Nothing.

“What’s happened, dad? He doesn’t remember me or anything!”

“Well…” James’s eyes roved as he sought to explain. “Can you blame him? He’s been through so much lately, hasn’t he? Not to mentioned being out of practice for the past few weeks. So yeah, maybe he’s a bit muddled and confused, but he’s still our boy, isn’t he?”

“I suppose.”

“Just give him some time. He’s got to get used to being well again, but everything will be right as rain soon, you’ll see.”

James happened to catch the look of concern in his wife’s face.

“You’ll see,” he repeated.

But over the rest of the morning there was no denying that Billy simply did not like Tommy. Did not like him one bit. The boy couldn’t come near without the dog starting to growl and bare his teeth.

Later that day Susan had the dog lay on its side and she petted it soothingly, while Tommy offered the dog a treat. The dog only snarled until Tommy placed the treat on the ground and backed away, then it lapped the biscuit up. But as soon as the snack was down the dog went back to fixing the boy once more with an imperious glare.

“But he was my friend!” Tommy wailed. “How come he isn’t my friend anymore? I want my Billy back, not this bully!”

“Let’s try and find something the three of us can do together,” Susan suggested. “Something distracting. Billy always loved going for his walks, didn’t he?”

“Do you think he still would? He seems to hate everything that he used to love before.”

But Billy did enjoy the walk. He even let Tommy walk alongside him without any growls, as he was too distracted by all the new scents and sounds to be mean.

“Can I have the leash, Mom?”

“Better not.”

“Can I take him for his walk by myself tomorrow?”

“No, you’re too little.”

“But you always let me before. You said Billy could keep me safe.”

“Well…I think Billy still has to do some more getting used to you.”

James was present later that afternoon when Tommy tried to offer a treat to the dog again. Billy barked and Tommy dropped the treat in fright.

“No, Thomas,” James scolded as Billy lapped the treat up. “You’re teaching him that he can bully you and still get rewarded for it. We have to be tougher with him. If he doesn’t behave, he doesn’t get a treat. Grab another of those treats and let’s try this again.”

James crouched down by Billy, his arm across the dog’s back.

“Now bring that treat forward, and don’t act scared. He’ll never respect you if you act scared around him.”

“But he used to respect me.”

“Never mind what he used to do. This is how he is now. Bring the treat.”

Tommy started to extend the biscuit, and as expected Billy’s lips drew back over his lips and he started to growl. In a flash James had struck it across the nose, eliciting a small yelp.

“Don’t hit him!” Tommy cried.

“I know how to raise a dog. Now offer him the treat again.”

Another growl, another slap, another yelp.

“Again.”

This time James clamped his hand around Billy’s snout, forcing the dog to swallow his growl. The dog strained to leave, but James held him firmly in place, held him until the dog stopped straining.

“Good. Now pet him.”

“But he’ll–“

“He’ll do nothing. I have him under control. Pet him around his collar and leave the treat at his feet.”

Tommy did so, then took a step back so that his father could release the dog.

“Not too far,” James instructed. “He still has to understand he only gets his treat when he lets you be near.”

Then he released the dog. Billy whimpered at James, eyes downcast and ashamed.

“You brought it on yourself,” James said sternly. “Now take your treat.”

Billy sniffed idly at the biscuit, and gave it a little lick.

“You see, Thomas? That’s how it’s going to be. We’ll have him in his place in no time.”

“But I don’t want him ‘in his place.’ This is mean. He never had to be put ‘in his place’ before, he was just a good dog already.”

“You don’t approve? Then I guess I’d better take him back to the kennel now,” and having said so, James made to grab the leash off the rack.

“What?!” Tommy exclaimed. “You’re going to get rid of him?”

“Why not? You don’t want him anymore.”

“I didn’t mean that! Please daddy, no! I’ll make him respect me, I promise.”

“Doesn’t it sound too mean, though?”

“No, it’s fine! I’ll do it. I promise!”

“Hmm…well I guess I’ll wait on it for now then. Why don’t you go play?”

Tommy scampered off, and James turned around to meet his wife’s frown.

“What? That was actual progress!”

*

The next morning Tommy came downstairs early, before either of his parents had awoken. Billy was still asleep as well, and hadn’t fully roused before Tommy already had the leash hooked up to his collar.

“Come on, ” Tommy said officiously, “we’re going for our walk.”

Billy gave a little snarl, but was still too groggy to do anything more.

“None of that! You’re going to respect me now, boy.”

A dangling treat and a tug on the leash and Billy reluctantly rose to his feet and plodded with the boy down the stairs. Once the two of them were outside the cool morning air woke the dog up fully, and it started walking along at a brisk pace.

“Attaboy!” Tommy said brightly. “I don’t know how you’ve forgotten so much, but you and I are best friends. And you’re gonna remember it.”

They came to a street corner and Billy made to turn.

“No Billy, you know we’re not allowed down there. Daddy and Mommy don’t want us anywhere near the rail yard.” He tugged the leash to guide Billy back, but the dog whipped back with a snap of its teeth.

“Billy, no!” Tommy said firmly. “I don’t want to be tough on you…but I will be until you agree to be friends with me again.”

A deep growl started to reverberate in Billy’s throat. Tommy thought about letting go of the leash, but he knew he just had to be tough. Knew he just had to push on until he finally got through to his beloved friend. He lifted his hand and slapped the dog across the nose.

And that was that.

*

James and Susan came down from their bedroom less than hour later.

“Tommy? Are you down here? Tommy?”

They saw the empty kennel, saw the leash missing on the rack. They each fixed the other with the same look of horror, bolted out the front door, and streaked down different roads.

“Tommy!” they called. “Tommy!” But no one answered.

“TOMMY!” they shouted, their bare feet thundering down the sidewalk. They called their son’s name, but they knew in their hearts that there wouldn’t be any answer.

On Monday I spoke about stories that repeat the same messages, or even the exact same lines, in order to reinforce or evolve a central idea. The very end of this story, of course, ended with the two parents searching for the boy that they would not find, and I used the exact same phrasing as when I wrote about Tommy looking for the dog that he also would never find.

And my hope is that this symmetry will hammer home the main theme of my story: searching for that which is lost, searching for that which cannot be found. Even after “Billy” has been restored back to Tommy, Tommy is still searching for his old friend. There is a dog before him that answers to the same name as before, but it is just a facade, the relationship is still missing. Sadly, Tommy is too young and naive to understand that the old relationship cannot be regained, for the beloved dog he is looking for is already dead.

But it isn’t just the true Billy that has been lost, Tommy has been lost as well. And Tommy was lost even before he took the dog out that fateful morning. By the loss of his pet, and by being the victim of deceit, his innocence has been taken from him. His parents, particularly his father, had already arranged his demise. By trying to protect him, they doomed him.

Which, of course, was written with a specific message to convey. This story is a statement that not being allowed to mourn the wound only creates a greater wounding. Hiding pain only makes it become worse, just as telling lies only increases the sin. The immoral comfort of today only ensures retribution for tomorrow.

I tried to prepare readers for that take-away, by first making it clear that the father’s approach to the whole situation–buying a new dog to replace the second–was wrong. By knowing his behavior was wrong, they could start asking themselves why. But how did I tell the audience that the father’s behavior was wrong? By making him do unpleasant things, such as be condescending to his wife and pompous to his son. In this way I signaled to the readers what their feelings towards him and his philosophies should be, even before the outcome of them was seen.

Is that manipulative? Maybe…but I think that question requires a deeper analysis than we have time for here. Let’s come back on Monday and reflect on this common pattern in story-telling and whether it is fair for a writer to employ it or not. I’ll see you then.

First You Were There, Now You Are Here

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

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

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

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

That is, of course, until he is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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