Bad, but Not Too Bad

On Thursday I shared the middle chapter of my latest story. In it, our main character has discovered an object that will create for him anything that he imagines. He decides to entertain himself by creating two small creatures to fight to the death. This occurs, but rather than being fun, he finds himself horrified by its stark realism. It is all the more terrible because of his responsibility for the act. In this world, he has invented its first violence.

I wanted this moment to hit every reader as unquestionably wrong, but I also want them to see it as a mistake, not a sign that Jeret is the embodiment of pure evil. I try to bring about this perspective by immediately showing Jeret’s reaction of horror at what he has done. Perhaps he should have known better, but he did not. That doesn’t let him off the hook entirely, but it does shift him from the malicious category into the foolish and unthinking.

The fact, also, that he did not perform the violence himself, is an important factor. Consider a similar case in A Christmas Carol. Here Ebenezer Scrooge turns down a request to donate to the poor, suggesting that these people should go to the poorhouses. He is rebuffed by the statement that many would rather die than go to those miserable grindhouses. His response?

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

It is a truly terrible thing to say, and Scrooge later regrets these words. But at the same time, it isn’t as though Scrooge performs an actual act of violence in the story. He never so much as slaps another individual, he only thinks and says hard things. In fact, the story makes firm the fact that Scrooge really doesn’t know what he’s talking about in this moment. He says, in reference to how deplorable the situations in the poorhouses are “Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.” By which he means he has not verified the conditions of these facilities.

And so Scrooge is guilty of not taking an active interest in his fellow man, and much like Jeret he later sees the reality of his ignorant words and comes to regret them. A Christmas Carol never tries to suggest that what Scrooge does isn’t wrong, indeed the whole crux of the story is that what he does is wrong, but it carefully walks a line to make sure it isn’t irredeemably so.

On the flip side, consider the characters Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan from the stage play and Hitchcock film Rope. The story opens with them murdering a fellow student, and then holding a social for mutual friends. Throughout the party, the story takes some steps to explain the boys reasoning for their crime, and also to show them in a multi-dimensional, relatable light.

But in the end, no audience member is going to get over the fact that these two have done unspeakable wrong, nor indeed does the story ever expect you to condone their actions. It isn’t trying to make murderers more palatable to us, it is trying to caution us that men can reason their way into being unreasonable monsters.

Thus far we’ve talked about how to help keep a character from doing something that is irredeemably wrong, but another consideration is what actions are unquestionably wrong. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge simply wouldn’t have the same emotional impact if we didn’t dislike him from the outset.

We can have a character that is a thief and a liar, but still beloved by the audience, such as Captain Jack Sparrow and Starlord. Though they perform behavior that we pretty universally consider wrong, we give them a pass for some reason.

We can also have a character that says they have done something wrong, but which the audience doesn’t condemn them for. Think of Tony at the end of West Side Story. He is given some misinformation that his beloved Maria has died. This makes him reckless, and ultimately leads to his being mortally wounded, just as he sees that Maria is actually alive. As he fades in her arms he sadly confesses that he “didn’t believe hard enough.”

In a story about how loss of faith in humanity literally kills us, Tony’s crime is enough to warrant death. But obviously we, as the audience, don’t hold his momentary weakness against him. He might be flawed, but we don’t consider his actions as morally wrong.

The thing in common with Jack Sparrow, Starlord, and Tony is that they are never seen harming the innocent. Indeed, this seems to be a very important line in establishing the morality of a character. And so if you want the audience to think of your character as bad, the surest way is to have them hurt another. Ebenezer Scrooge is wrong because he is carelessly consigning others to suffering, he is redeemable because that cruelty is kept within careful bounds.

I believe that virtually every reader will agree that my main character, Jeret, did something wrong in creating two creatures to fight to the death. In the end, a being suffered at his whim, and that is bad. The fact that it was an artificial being of his own making does not let him off the hook. Indeed it makes him even more culpable.

When I first wrote this segment, I actually played around with it to make sure it would hit as impactfully as I could manage. One of his two creations was going to die, and I found that it was sadder to have it be the first one. There was something special about it being the first, about having heard it built piece-by-piece, and discovering the little quirks in its nature. It made that first creation more interesting, and therefore more valuable to the reader. It was good, and thus it was very wrong to destroy it.

But at the same time, I believe Jeret can be redeemed. Because while he did wrong, he was ignorant of the extent of it, and he has shown true and immediate remorse directly afterwards. We’ll see where that remorse takes him in the next chapter, coming this Thursday. See you there!

Black and White

silhouette of grass under white sky
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On Thursday I wrote a story from the point of view of a plant, one that was being eaten by an animal. As one might expect, that animal was viewed in a very dim light. It was a destroyer, a killer, and therefore inherently evil. At the very end a part of that plant became autonomous and had a fantasy of growing bigger, more powerful, and then exacting vengeance on that animal.

But of course, had I written the story from the point of view of the animal, then it would have seen itself as doing no wrong. It ate some food, just as every creature does. It adhered to its basic nature. We people do just the same thing, so it would seem we shouldn’t be taking sides in nature.

Evil Things)

And yet we do. Certain animals and substance are considered inherently evil by us because they are known to do us harm. Snakes, bears, and poisons are bad. Bunnies, kittens, and vanilla are good. But from a more removed point of view, is there really anything more evil in a bear that eats people than in a kitten that eats mice?

It is our nature, and seemingly the nature of all creatures, to hate those that can cause it harm, and to love those that can benefit it. We can’t be blamed for having this instinct embedded in our DNA, it is essential to our basic survival. It is perfectly understandable for a person to say that they just don’t like large spiders.

But humans don’t stop at labeling animals and substances as evil, though. Some people are determined to be bad as well. As before, these tend to be people that by their very nature mean us harm. Whenever two nations are engaged in war, we always see both sides labeling one another as evil. This is understandable, even if misguided. The other nation is seen as a threat, capable of destroying you, so your self-preservation instincts kick in and you see them as subhuman.

But we don’t stop here either. Those that threaten us on an emotional or spiritual level are quickly labeled as well. If we hold something sacred or true, then it is genuinely painful for us to hear others disparage that thing. Why would that atheist say I’m wrong for believing in God? Or why would that Christian tell me that I’m a sinner? It can only be because they are evil.

Obviously somewhere along this spectrum we’ve crossed a line. Probably several lines, in fact. It is true that some things and people are bad for us and are worth avoiding, but that does not necessarily make them evil. The bear that wants to eat us is trying to preserve its own interests by doing something bad for us. Our boss that wants us to work through the weekend is trying to preserve her own interests by doing something bad for us. But these facts alone do not make them evil. And though we might be able to logically appreciate the invalidity of demonizing those we dislike, it is still a very difficult thing to stop doing.

Villains are Evil)

For this reason characters in a story are often portrayed as either “all-good” or “all-evil” as well. If a hero has flaws, they are minor and easily excused. If a villain has virtues, they are warped and twisted into something unnatural. It is unheard of for a story to finish by the hero convincing the villain of the error of his ways, and certainly not by coming to appreciate the villain’s point of view. The villain is fundamentally evil, after all, so rational reason would never be able to work on them.

Well, almost this is unheard of in a story.

Undertale was a game released in 2015 that on the surface might have appeared like any other RPG (role playing game). The world is quirky and humorous, but there are some definitely evil rogues that the player has to go and violently destroy. And if the player chooses to, they are allowed to play the game in exactly this way.

But there is also a “pacifist” version of the game where instead of destroying all those evil villains, you can instead befriend them, listen to their point of view, and finally help them to let go of their anger. They cease trying to destroy you, are no longer a threat, and thus are no longer perceived as evil.

When approached in this way the player wins by destroying the barriers between them and their enemies, rather than the persons themselves. One might assume that such a peaceful resolution might lack a necessary catharsis and make for a hollow ending, but actually the game was lauded by critics and consumers alike. But this isn’t to say that Undertale denies the existence of evil.

Is There Any Evil?)

While it is true that our society applies the label of evil too quickly, that doesn’t mean that evil doesn’t exist. Children see things in black-and-white, young adults start to see things as shades of gray, and then at full maturity one sees a dual nature: both black and white in the same being. Each of us have parts that are truly good and other parts that are truly evil.

In Undertale the villains are doing things that are truly evil, they knowingly hurt others for personal gain. But so do all of us, and still we know that there yet remains a goodness inside. The player is able to communicate to those parts of them that are good, and by so doing can bring an end to the evil behavior.

The reason that the classic story A Christmas Carol works is because Ebenezer Scrooge is truly a bad man, but one who also has a goodness inside. In the story’s opening pages we find it has been a long, long time since Scrooge has listened to that goodness, so long that he himself has forgotten that the part still exists. Over the course of the tale we travel back to witness the moments before he became a bitter old curmudgeon, a time where he was still divided between two natures. In that past Scrooge suffered a defeat to his worse nature, and then, like so many of us, assumed that the good part was dead and gone forever. This Christmas tale thankfully offers a more hopeful perspective in the end.

Evil Without, Evil Within)

Did you notice that we shifted from talking about evil in others to talking about evil within the self? As I said before, each of us have parts that are truly good and others that are truly evil. At different times, one or the other side will hold the reins of our behavior. So long as it is the more evil part that drives us, we will never be able to awaken the good in anyone else.

When the evil part of us that interacts with the evil parts of those around us, then we are in a state of war. When the evil part of one interacts with the good parts of others, then we are in a state of abuse. The only path to peace is for our good parts to find their way past the evil to touch the good in others.

In Les Miserables we meet a convict name Jean Valjean, and a prostitute named Fantine. Each of them is deeply ashamed of the things that they have done, each tends to view themselves as evil. However the two of them do not meet while both are at their lowest points. Indeed, if they did their interaction would most certainly have been destructive to each. Thankfully, Jean Valjean has the good part inside of him awakened and is redefined by it before he meets Fantine. In that moment he sidesteps the bitter-for-losing-her-employment part of her, he sees past the self-hatred-for-being-a-prostitute part of her, and instead he reaches the mother part at her core. In Fantine’s last moments she becomes good again by having had her goodness touched by the goodness of another. Jean Valjean is only able to do this because he once had his own goodness touched by another as well.

Hope in the End)

Undertale, A Christmas Carol, and Les Miserables all give a message of hope for humanity. Each of them allows that evil is real and that it is the enemy to our nature, but each of them also suggests that evil can be overcome. We must overcome the evil in ourselves, though, before we can help others to do the same.

With my next short story I would like to explore this idea of seeing the good in an individual that is initially despised. I will introduce a character whose behavior is good in his own eyes, but bad in another’s. At first each character will consider their own perspective as being the source of truth, but by the end we’ll see if we can get them seeing more broadly. Come back on Thursday to see how that turns out.

Glimmer: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

Reylim ran across the barren land once more. She had been invigorated by Glimmer’s words of encouragement, and then a second time by its restorative abilities.

There, that should be much better. Currently Glimmer was situated on top of her lower leg, coursing its light into the gash there and accelerating the closing of the wound.

“It feels much better,” Reylim agreed. “What about you now? You’ve lost so much of your light in helping me.”

It will restore itself. With time.

Reylim nodded. She would have to avoid any more encounters with the void then, something she was more than happy to do. Knowing that it was her own fear and anxiety that summoned the dark forms to consume her was far from reassuring. If anything it only made her fearful and anxious of her fears and anxieties. And certainly she still wasn’t convinced that she had the fortitude to wrest a victory from the infinite sway of the void, but she had at least resolved to follow the path as it lay before her.

And that path was evolving. Where before the landscape had been massive stretches of flat and barren rock, the topology had now become far more tumultuous. Now the land rose and fell in small hills and valleys, with new vegetation in the form of thin-limbed, sprawling bushes. That wasn’t all, either. Once every so often she came across a thin tower of jagged rock that had been thrust high into the air, like a giant’s dagger pierced through the earth and into the sky. Of course that sky still remained a mystery to her. Glimmer’s light was restoring as promised, but she still couldn’t see more than a few hundred yards in any direction.

The first of these strange rocky towers caught Reylim by surprise, there had been nothing like this on her homeworld. She had circled it a few times, trying to understand how and why it had come to be, but at Glimmer’s gentle prodding she had continued onward.

As Glimmer explained, they were nearing the slopes of a great mountain, at the peak of which they were destined to find the Nexus that they sought. This information was further supported by moments of sudden inclines in the land, the skirts of that mountain. Some of these rises were steep enough that Reylim was forced to scrabble up them on all fours.

Just after clearing one of these risings and coming to a momentarily flat portion of the land she found another item of great intrigue before her. What she had at first taken for another strange outcropping of rocks gradually revealed itself to be basic stone huts. As she moved towards them she was able to make out the entrances in their sides, the large firepit in the center of the community, and even paths beaten down by the foot traffic leading to and from them.

“Glimmer…” she said incredulously, “I thought all the living beings here were frozen, unable to accomplish anything.”

That is correct. These are shadows of what will be here one day if these people are ignited. This is not the first one we have passed.

“It isn’t?”

No, you simply were not able to observe them before. You are still acclimating to our lands. Do you see the machine off to the right as well?

Reylim glanced to the side and saw nothing. She was about to say so when out of the blank rockscape she suddenly distinguished a large, strange structure. It was made of some extremely flexible metal, so much so that it was able to contort its shape at will, bringing different parts of itself to join together. Wherever its points touched a small residue of molten steel was left behind, and by one union after another the machine was slowly fabricating some mechanism. Reylim did not fully understand what it was she saw, but she could tell it was very advanced, even beyond anything on her own world. She was also sure that this scene was also from an entirely different time period than the stone huts before her.

And do you see the people?

Reylim turned back to those huts, and as she did so passed she saw that what she had at first taken for lumpy texture on the walls of the hovels were actually people frozen in time. They were humanoid, like her, but with a perfectly bland and gray color, with their lower halves only partially formed and fused into the ground beneath. It made it seem as though they were erupting directly out of the rock itself.

“Can they move? Talk?”

If you keep watching them they might.

Reylim moved up close, peering into their faces. She was particularly taken by the three that were nearest to her, two men and a woman. At first their faces were blank and featureless, utterly indistinguishable, but the longer she watched the more she saw personality etch its way across them.

“This one looks so regretful,” she said thoughtfully. “And this other is longing. Who are they? What would they become if they were awake?”

They would be among the earliest of the civilizations to live in this world. Born and raised together in this little village. These three specifically are the closest of friends through their youths. The two men are Avaro and Tuni, and as they mature both come to love the woman, Elitra. Both of them try to win her heart in their own way.

“Whom does she choose?”

Avaro. Tuni is a more wild and unpredictable man, and Elitra tells him she has to make a choice that she feels safe with. Tuni takes that very hard, and in his impetuous jealousy he contrives to send Avaro away to war.

“There is a war?”

Yes. There is a horde roaming the land and all the neighboring villages are raising a militia to resist it. Their own village is mandated to contribute a dozen men to the fight. The selection is supposed to be random, as the chance for survival is quite low, but Tuni manages to engineer things so that Avaro will be one of the ones selected. Immediately after his friend leaves Tuni is overcome with regret and soon confesses everything to Elitra. She promises to never forgive him, and then, in her grief, she poisons herself.

“Oh!”

She does not die, but she becomes incapable of motion or communication. She remains an invalid for the rest of her life. Then, doubly burdened with guilt, Tuni resolves to care for her. He takes her into his own home and for the rest of their lives he tirelessly nurtures her. He feeds her, he cuts her hair, he even carries her to all the places she had loved the best.

“What of Avaro?”

He finds his true calling as a great warrior. He defends their lands against unimaginable odds and saves their entire people from annihilation on numerous occasions. One time he returns to the village and Tuni confesses his crimes to him. Avaro is upset, of course, though he does forgive him for the wrongs done to him. As he explains, in the war he has found his true purpose, to protect and watch over all the people he loves.

“Butyou said Elitra never recovers?”

Her mind is a haze, drifting between strange dreams and then back to reality. When she is present in the moment she observes all that Tuni does. Though she lacks the capacity to tell him, she does in time forgive him. She feels he has paid the price for whatever wrongs he has done, and she acknowledges that it was her own choice to take the poison.

There was a moment of silence while Reylim took in the tale. She was not accustomed to looking into a person’s face and know their entire life story. As she did, though, she found herself believing that their various destinies suited them.

“I think these people deserve to have their lives, Glimmer. I really would like for them to have the chance to live them.”

I know it has been hard for you to have so much asked, and for people you have not even been able to see. Do know that this world is full with souls just as these. And every single one of them will be following you.

“Following me? I thought you were the spark to ignite them all.”

And I am a Glimmer, but you are a person. Therefore they will always relate to your experience more than mine.

“They will know my story?”

Parts of it will be made known to them. Mostly they will know of it in their hearts without understanding why. They will feel it stir them when they hear the hero’s call and know how to answer it though none has taught them. It will be your song, re-sung in each of them when they discover what they born to be.

Reylim’s eyes were misty and she was looking for adequate words to respond.

“YOU FILTH!”

The screech pierced the air and made Reylim jump in fright. She had become entirely unaccustomed to hearing any other voices, let alone one laced with such hate. She spun around and saw another of the planet’s natives. This one was more defined than the rest. He was a grizzled and thick man, coarse stubble lining his face and ragged clothes hanging from his skin. He was struggling against the last remaining parts of stone that fused him to the ground, and as she watched he managed to wrench one of his feet free from its roots. He alternated between tugging at his other leg and jabbing his finger at her, spit spraying from his mouth as he shouted.

“So you’ve come at last, have you?! You would bring to pass ages of suffering? Of death? Of hurt and abuse?!”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she blustered, her heart still racing from his sudden hostility.

“Didn’t you hear what it–” he jabbed towards Glimmer– “said about that man Avaro? Sent away to a war. To war! Do you see any war on this land today?”

“There is nothing here today.”

“So let there be nothing!” The man had managed to free his other leg, and was attempting to walk towards Reylim. She easily kept him at a distance as his every movement was stiff and slow. “The Glimmer goes on about heroes and legends and ‘becoming who you were born to be.'” He spat dark bile onto the earth. “But how do such things come to be? Forged by cruelty and plague and killing the innocents!”

“What is he talking about?” Reylim turned to Glimmer.

Thous she could not hear it, she felt a heavy sigh from Glimmer. My great purposes are twofold, Reylim. To secure living peace, and to raise heroes among mankind. This man, Bolil will be his name, is speaking to the fact that there can never be any heroes without opposition for them to rise against. There must be conflict for people to ever fight the tide and become their greatest selves.

“And you…you create the conflict?”

“Yes!” Bolil hissed.

No! Glimmer’s message came forcefully. Only the void creates conflict. As we ignite this world it pulls against the light and summons up the worst of mankind. You have seen for yourself how it operates: crippling through doubt and fear. It sows these through war and depravity.

“It does not do these things now.” Bolil protested. “It lets us sleep in perfect peace. You have felt the lull of that sweet emptiness girl, haven’t you?”

“You know the void?” Reylim asked.

The void possesses him. You can see it in the pits of his eyes. Bolil, you do not rest for you do not exist. Not yet. The void promises a dead peace, I provide a living one. Reylim herself has witnessed it on her own world.

“That’s why we are sent out to other worlds?” Reylim suddenly had an epiphany. “There is no opposition on our own by which to become the heroes you want us to be?”

“It doesn’t matter!” Bolil interrupted. His movement had become more natural, and he was now advancing at a strong pace, dark clouds circling around void points within his eyes. “Glimmer, void, perhaps there is peace at either end, but unimaginable suffering in between. Let Glimmer keep the worlds that are fully illuminated and let the void keep those that are dark.”

Reylim had continued backing away until she pressed up against one of the stone huts. She took a single step forward, allowing herself a little space in each direction should Bolil attack. Her hand was on her hip, ready to draw her dagger if needed.

“Peace through nonexistence?” she asked incredulously. “Isn’t even a life of suffering greater than no life at all? Don’t you deserve your chance to be? Don’t all these people?”

“Little girl,” Bolil smiled darkly, “Glimmer told you my name but not what I am.”

He’s a murderer.

In a flash Bolil had drawn a sword out that he had somehow hidden in the folds of his rags. Just as quickly he swept it down at Reylim with an alarming swiftness. She barely managed to get her own weapon out and caught his blade with the notch of her dagger’s hilt. He was a great deal larger than her, and with a lot more force to bring to bear, so she allowed herself to roll backwards, kicking out with her foot to roll him over her and into the wall behind.

Reylim rolled over to her front and then pushed up to her feet, falling back into a defender’s stance. She was shocked to find Bolil already rushing her again, evidently unfazed by the knock he had just received.

She flicked her knife into an overhand grip and swiped out in a wide arc in front of her. It cut across him in a broad swath, but instead of exposing flesh the wound merely revealed torrents of the black void. Bolil’s hand curled around her throat like a vise, his eyes flashing darkness.

“You can fight this little girl, but that will only extend the struggle and the pain.” Bolil’s voice was strange, distorted and almost mechanical. “Do you understand now? The sooner we embrace the emptiness the less suffering there will need to be.”

She gurgled as he lifted her off of the ground, but then noticed a calming warmth wash over her.

You cannot have her, void.

Reylim felt herself burgeoning with power as Glimmer settled over her heart, leaking pure light into her form. She kicked out at Bolil’s chest, thrusting with such force that his grip was easily broken. She flipped backwards through the air, landing cat-like on her hands and feet.

Rather than charge again Bolil let out a long, strange cry. As he did so, dark void spilled out, pooling on the ground around him and lashing out in tentacles, reaching for the bodies of other villagers. As each was touched they started coming to life, wincing and covering their eyes against the light that emanated from Glimmer.

There are countless armies of these shadows ready to be infused with the void. A battle is useless.

“To the Nexus, then?”

Yes. And as quickly as possible. They know exactly why we’re here and where we’re going, every moment will only give them greater opportunity to overrun us!

Part Four
Part Five

***

On Monday I spoke of the characters that are not mere individuals, but manifestations of some deeper unseen entity. In Glimmer my intention was to create such a character in the form of the void. With today’s entry we met an individual that was not the void itself, but was a servant to it, and was infused with its power.

The allegory here is obvious, there are individuals that we call evil, but then there is the question of evil itself. There is a long philosophical debate whether that evil only exist in the hearts of men or if it exists without them. If all men were to let go of their worst parts would evil’s influence cease, or does evil sustain itself whether or not there are those to practice it? Put another way, is the devil a real being, or do we invent him within ourselves? In the world of Glimmer the void is real, but imperceptible until it interacts with more corporeal forms. Everything that is to be understood about the void is by examining the periphery around it rather than the thing itself.

Using a few representations, such as Bolil, to give the reader a hook into something larger and more abstract is a common technique in storytelling. We are incapable of comprehending an entire war, for example, but by following a select few soldiers we get a general sense of the whole. This way of reducing scope to something more personal and intimate can even raise the stakes on the bigger picture, by how it makes us care for the individuals that we can relate to. I’d like to explore that notion in greater detail with my next post on Monday. Then, on the following Thursday, we will have the next segment of Glimmer ready. I’ll see you then.