The final act of a story is where the hero has been truly converted to their guiding philosophy, and now they will trust in it to overcome the villain’s philosophy. Consider Disney’s animated film The Lion King. Simba has tried to run away because he feels responsible for his father’s death. But though he hides for a time, his royal calling comes back to him. He is convinced that he must take up his rightful place at the head of the pack. Thus he heads out to confront the villain of the story: Scar. At this moment Scar needs to be defeated. He needs to die so that Simba’s arc can reach its full closure.
But now the story comes to a snag: this is a Disney film, one that is targeted towards families and children. The idea of the main character killing anyone, even a cold-blooded murderer, is unacceptable. Simba has to show that he is better than Scar, has to show that he is capable of killing him…but then he needs to stop just short of actually doing it.
So what happens instead? Scar and Simba fight, Simba gains the upper hand, Scar asks if Simba is going to kill him and Simba says no, Simba tells Scar to leave the kingdom instead.
But rather than fade into obscurity, Scar throws some burning embers into Simba’s eyes and lunges at him once more! In self defense Simba kicks Scar off of the rock and down to a pack of hyenas. Unlike Simba, the hyenas do not have any halo to preserve and they are able to kill Scar without any moral scruples. Thus Simba proved his superiority over Scar and he maintained his honor by offering Scar a way out, but then Scar became a victim of his own malice.
And this is hardly a unique concept. Many animated Disney films make use of similar conveniences to get rid of their villain while preserving the hero’s innocence.
Consider Beauty and the Beast. Just like Scar, the villain Gaston tries to kill our hero: the Beast. Just like Simba, the Beast overpowers Gaston, but orders him to leave, rather than deal the killing blow. Just like Scar, Gaston isn’t willing to leave well enough alone. He later sneaks up behind the Beast and literally stabs him the back. The Beast cries in pain and flings his arm back as a natural reflex. The movement dislodges Gaston, causing him to fall all the way to his death. The Beast won in a fair fight, Gaston caused his own demise, and the Beast’s innocence is preserved.
Personally, when I watched these films as a child I wouldn’t have had any concerns about the good guy dealing a fuller measure of justice to the villain, but I guess the Disney executives didn’t want to chance it. Other studios have had to deal with the same issue, though, and some of them have found different solutions to it.
Shooting in the Back)
For example, take a look at the Old Western. The cowboy or lawman has to be able to outgun any bandit along their way and has to show off that expertise many times over. But we can’t exactly turn them into a ruthless murderer, now can we? What we can do, though, is have a lot of lethal self defense! So long as the baddies start the duel, it is okay for the hero to finish it.
And so it is that these films are full of scenes where the hero tries to bring a peaceful resolution to a volatile moment, but then the villain reaches for their gun as soon as the hero’s back is turned. Someone calls out a warning or the hero hears their movement, then spins on the spot and guns down the would-be killer.
This same idea of lethal self defense has been carried into many other films since, and remains one of the most popular ways to both showcase the hero’s prowess while retaining their integrity. And this approach has the added benefit of making the hero’s prowess shine all the brighter! Evidently they are so confident in their abilities that they can give every bandit a head-start and still finish first.
Consider the classic western High Noon. Here the sheriff is made aware that his old rival has been released from jail, and has arrived in town with three of his cronies. Now everyone knows that the four of them are here for the express purpose of killing the sheriff, but he can’t exactly arrest them (or gun them down) until they’ve actually done anything wrong.
So he sneaks up behind them and calls out their names. He won’t shoot them in the back of course, but he watches for them to wheel around and try to shoot him. Once they do, he outdraws them, taking out one of the bandits right off the bat.
There’s also the example of The Magnificent Seven, where Britt is egged into showing his speed with a knife. He throws his blade at a target at the same time as a blowhard shoots at his own. Britt claims to have won the race, but the other man disagrees and suggests they have a duel to prove it. The rowdy man even shoots at Britt’s feet and threatens to kill him right then and there if he doesn’t rise to the occasion. At this point Britt can’t be held accountable for what follows. It’s either his life or the other man’s.
This time there’s no disputation. Britt wins and the other man falls dead. Lethal self defense.
Of course not everything has to be a matter of life or death. In the last chapter of my story I had my protagonists forced into a promise with a villain that they needed to get out of. But I can’t have them just renege on their agreement because that would make them dishonorable. Thus it was the villain that had to break his contract first, freeing the children to let go of their end as well.
But a terrible fear was starting to rise inside of the drummer. What if he couldn’t catch up? What if he couldn’t find her? Did such questions even matter? He had to, he must. For her to be lost was just…just unthinkable.
He hadn’t liked that droopy bear. Not from the moment they had met him. They should have just hurried by him without so much as a “good day.” What had the drummer been thinking speaking to such a toy? He wouldn’t be making any mistakes like that again. From now on it was just him and the dancer, no one else.
“Good evening there, chap,” a sly voice called from the side. It was a jack-in-the-box, popped out to welcome newcomers. “First time at our fun, little wayside?”
“No thank you,” the drummer said sternly, but even as he said it he felt bad for being rude to a toy that might not deserve it. “I’m sorry,” he turned to face the affronted jack. “I’m just in a hurry.”
“Well what are you looking for? Maybe I can help you find it.”
“Did you see a bear run past this way? With a dancer on his shoulder? It wouldn’t have been more than a moment a go.”
“Oh yes, that bear!” the jack-in-the-box nodded enthusiastically, even before the drummer had concluded speaking. “Yes of course I saw him. Friend of yours? He came here, signed in, and went between those two buildings right there. Probably on his way to the motel on the other side.”
The drummer turned to look down the alleyway that the jack-in-the-box was pointing towards. It was a narrow crevice between two of the leaning buildings, completely covered in dark shadows.
“Through there?” the drummer asked fearfully.
“Yes, through it towards the motel.”
“Are you quite sure?”
The jack-in-the-box folded his arms indignantly. “You ask me where to find them, I say that’s the where they went. So don’t go if you don’t believe me, what do I care?”
Something felt wrong to the drummer, but the jack-in-the-box seemed so certain. The drummer couldn’t really afford to pass up such a good lead, especially when he couldn’t even explain to himself why it was he felt so hesitant. So he took a deep breath and charged forward.
“Wait, you have to sign the registry!” the jack-in-the-box called after him, but the drummer didn’t stop. Soon he had passed into the shadow between the buildings.
What few windows lined this alleyway had been smashed in, with bits of broken glass littered about and crunching under the drummer’s feet. The rooms beyond had been stripped of all their furniture, and the wallpapers were heavily stained by dirt and grease. The only light was the occasional prism of orange streaming through the broken windows on the right, beyond which the sun was slowly setting.
As the drummer pushed on through the darkness he became aware of some voices just ahead of him. They were low and muttering, speaking in quick, hurried breaths.
“H-hello?” he called out, and all at once the voices fell silent. “Oh don’t go away,” he pleaded. “I need some help, please.”
“Oh…he needs some help,” one of the voices said silkily. “Why didn’t you say so from the beginning, stranger?”
Out of the shadows a tall, wooden doll emerged. Its original unvarnished surface had been covered all over by a wide array of rainbow colors. Behind it followed two weeble wobble brothers.
“Helping people is our favorite thing to do,” the wooden doll grinned. “The jack-in-the-box sent you?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“He always sends toys here for us to help them.”
“Oh, well actually he sent me here to find someone I’m looking for.”
“Yes, that’s often what we help people with. To find someone. The person you’re looking for is right this way. Follow me.”
“But…you don’t even know who I’m looking for!” That strange discomfort was returning to the drummer and he started to take a few steps back. He thought that maybe he shouldn’t have come this way at all. He wasn’t sure why he felt so wrong, but maybe it didn’t matter if he didn’t know the reasons why. Somehow he knew he just ought to listen to that feeling.
“But I do know,” the doll said. “And I hate to tell you this, but she looked like she had been hurt.”
“Yes, she didn’t look good at all. She needed a lot of help. I think she was calling for you.”
“The dancer was?”
“Yes,” the doll nodded solemnly. “It was her.”
The hesitations left the drummer immediately, replaced with a fresh panic.
“Where is she? Take me to her!”
“Of course, though I think we’re going to need some money to reach her. Might need to bribe a guard or two, you understand me?”
“Yes. Have you got any?”
“I–no. I don’t even know what that is.”
“Oh…so it’s like that. Well no worry. Maybe someone left you some money. Let’s go and see.”
The doll put his arm around the drummer and steered him towards the end of the alley and down another path.
“Well I’m not sure who would have done that,” the drummer was saying, still a bit confused.
“One never knows,” one of the weeble wobbles said from the drummer’s elbow.
“But it wouldn’t hurt to check, of course,” the other said from the opposite side.
“No…I suppose it wouldn’t hurt. But maybe we should go and find her first. We’ve got to get her back, whether with money or not!”
“Of course, of course,” the doll soothed. “Trust me, I know just what to do.”
They had made a few turns down crooked streets and were now approaching a large, iron factory. It was grimy and smelled of soot and didn’t seem like a particularly nice place to be at all. At the front of it was a heavy door, and beside it a receptionist seated behind a glass window.
“Hello there, Orr,” the doll said to the receptionist, who was a piggy bank.
“Duth,” the pig droned lazily.
“I’ve brought you a new worker, he’ll do excellently on your team.”
Orr grunted and leaned forward, squinting appraisingly at the drummer. “Well he’s new, probably has at least six months of hard labor in him, so that’s good. But they didn’t make his arms very big, won’t be able to lift so much.”
“Oh but he is a determined, spirited sort.”
“Yes, I’m sure…”
The drummer didn’t understand just what they were talking about, nor how this was helping him to obtain money, nor indeed how the money was related to finding the dancer. He was just about to say all this when the two concluded their discussion.
“…and three large discs as a standard finder’s fee,” Orr said, sliding three plastic chips over to Duth.
“Is that…money?” the drummer asked.
“Oh, so we can go get to the dancer now?”
“Well…no,” Duth said awkwardly. “We’ll need a bit more. But I’ve got you a job now, see. You’ll be earning money at a rate of…” he glanced over to Orr.
“New workers are compensated at 2 small discs per week. Food and lodging is provided.”
“There you go!” Duth said energetically. “That’s a capital rate for you.”
“But I don’t understand what it’s for.”
“Money gets you anything you want,” one of the weeble wobbles said.
“If you want to convince your girl to come back, money will win her for sure,” the other said.
“Oh, she didn’t leave me. She was taken by another toy, a teddy bear.”
“Yes, yes, the story of us all, brother,” Duth smirked. “But either way, you make enough money and you’ll be able to buy her back from the bear.”
“Actually I had been thinking more of just grabbing her and running.”
“Oho!” Orr laughed. “More a rough-and-tumble sort of guy, huh? Well, if you don’t mind me saying so, you’re a little small for a job like that.”
The drummer paused and looked down at his hands. The pig had a point, the bear had been much larger than he was.
“Yesss,” Orr continued, “you know it’s true. But once again, with some money, you can hire some other toys to help you out with that. I know some who will even make sure the bear never comes back after you, if you catch my drift.”
“I see,” the drummer said slowly. “Well thank you for explaining. I think I’m finally beginning to understand. I’ll do some work, I’ll make some money, I’ll be able to pay to get her back…”
“Exactly,” the doll praised. “And it’s the only way, believe me.”
“Then…I guess I’d better do it. Where is the work?”
“Capital attitude,” Orr snorted approvingly. “Come right this way.”
The doll and the two weeble wobbles slunk into the night while Orr let the drummer in through the door, and led the way through a maze of corridors into the heart of the place. The drummer had never seen a place like this before, and he wasn’t entirely sure that he cared much for it. It was dark, with only the occasional, weak candle to give any light. Worse than that, all the toys that they passed along the way seemed to be in a very dire strait.
It wasn’t just that they were so dirty, chipped, and torn. It wasn’t just that most of their paint had scratched off and they had been scored with deep gouges. It wasn’t just that they were missing eyes and buttons, and some of them entire limbs! More than all that it was just the haunted, vacant expression they all bore. Toys with no soul in them, more machines than living things.
The drummer vaguely wondered why so many gaunt, expressionless workers might have come to this sort of place, but then he pushed the thought from his mind. It didn’t matter. All that mattered now was the work, and the money, and buying the dancer’s freedom. He realized that he still was quite confused about a few matters. How was he to know when he had enough money? Where was he supposed to go to pay other toys to help him get her back? And still he didn’t even know where she was!
He felt a little bit of anger towards all the people that had helped him thus far: the jack-in-the-box, the doll, the pig. Each of them had made clear that they really wanted to help him, but none of them had really seemed to listen to him very much.
Again, never mind that now. Work now. Money now. Ask more questions at the next opportunity.
And so it was that the drummer found himself shuffling with a small army of workers down a massive corridor towards an even more massive furnace. At first all the drummer could see of it was the huge cloud of smoke, yawing ahead of them like the end of the earth. The closer they got to it the more it choked them. Soon the drummer was coughing black onto his white, painted gloves. Still they pressed forward, and now the drummer could make out the flame at the furnace’s base. It was too shrouded in smoke to see any tongues, but there was a definite glow of deep, vibrating orange. Its heat was immense, and the drummer felt a crackling along his fresh paint.
“Team three back to barracks! Team four, your quota is two mountains before relief!” A foreman in his toy car snapped down to them. He was gesturing to two immense piles of coal, each more than ten times the height of the drummer! One-by-one the workers walked up to the first pile, selected a single lump of coal, and marched with it towards the flame. When they got close enough that their faces began to singe they hurled it forward with all of their might, eliciting a shower of sparks which proved that they had made their mark.
If ever they missed their mark then they were handed “the pole” and had to shield their eyes to try and see their stray piece of coal and jab it into the flame. All the while the foreman would shout at them, counting down how long they had before he would throw them in instead!
The drummer had a lot of questions about this process, but it didn’t seem to be the sort of place that would care for questions. So he set to work, following the pattern of all the others. All of his first lumps of coal failed to find the furnace, and he quickly was given a nickname by the foreman: Useless.
That harsh toy shouted at him and shoved him, telling him it would be easier on them all if he would just dive into the flame and rid them of his nuisance. All the while the drummer frantically thrust out with the pole, silently pleading for the shower of sparks that would mean he had managed to right his error. When at last the blessed torrent came he ran with from the spot, only to be clutched by dread anticipation as he came back to the pile of coal, and knew he was about to miss yet another throw.
There was no relief, he found himself in perpetual fear. The terror in front of the flame, the anticipation of failure, the despair of the missed throw, the terror, the anticipation, the despair. Each time round they seemed to come faster, seemed to nip more savagely at one another’s heels. The terror. The anticipation. The despair. He was going to be thrown in, that was all there was to it. He couldn’t keep up at this pace. Terror. Anticipation. Despair. But for as quickly as the cycle repeated, the mountain never grew any smaller! The task would never be done, they would never leave here. He couldn’t keep doing this! He had to collapse, had to give up, had to be thrown into the furnace and get it all over with. Terror! Anticipation! Despair!
The little drummer cried in agony as he thrust his blistering gloves forward. The small lump of coal sailed high into the air and a shower of sparks burst forth.
“Well,” the foreman said in surprise. “You get to live a minute more. Move along, useless!”
And so it was. The drummer shuffled along with the line and made his way back to grab another piece of coal. Heart thumping he threw that one clean into the fire as well. Another minute to live.
Things certainly went from bad to worse for our little hero! It would seem that we’ve gone from a happy fairy tale into an Orwellian nightmare. Along the way we met a few new characters, including a jack-in-the-box, the posing doll, the piggy bank, and the foreman.
I explained on Monday that my purpose was to write each of these characters so that the audience could instantly judge the quality of their character. To accomplish this I made use of a few tricks.
The first was that in the first section of this story I carefully selected the setting where these characters live. This wayside village is clearly a seedy hovel of reprobate amusement, and one assumes that the sort who live here will be just as despicable.
Secondly I chose toys that could symbolize their diabolical natures. The jack-in-the-box is not what he seems at first, the doll is a contortionist, the piggy bank is greedy, the foreman drives things hard.
Then I used descriptive terms and actions to immediately communicate that these characters are wretched. The jack-in-the-box speaks slyly, the doll mutters, the piggy bank droneslazily, the foreman snaps.
Finally, each of these characters are simply much too quick to try and “help” the drummer. Right from the outset this over-eagerness sets our suspicion sky-high. What is frustrating, though, is that the doll does not see what we so clearly do. There is a lot of tension in this piece because of the separation between what he understands and what the audience does.
I would like to examine this idea of characters making choices that the audience already knows are bad. Come back on Monday for that, on then on Thursday we’ll pick things back up with our poor, little drummer. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!
An hour later, down in the nearby valley, Reish stood immobile in the middle of his barracks. An hour ago he had felt the tremor, a signal born down to him by the third shade which he and Gallan both shared. Gallan was coming.
Reish didn’t try to fight it, he didn’t try to hide his location from Gallan at all. Let him come. Let all the reckonings happen here and now. And so he just stood there, silently waiting until there was a knock at the door.
“Let him in,” he ordered tersely.
The door opened and six guards entered with Gallan in their midst. They had taken the precaution of putting him in shackles, which Gallan now reached out to with his shade and systematically disassembled. The bonds dropped unceremoniously to the floor.
“Hey!” one of the guards roared at him.
“Leave it,” Reish sighed. “If he meant you any harm he would have killed you as soon as he’d seen you. Go now.”
“But, sir–” the guards were clearly uncomfortable with the idea of leaving Gallan alone with their leader.
“And if he meant me any harm I would have killed him before he even arrived,” Reish added. “Leaveus.”
The guards didn’t need telling a third time. Reish waited until the door had closed before stepping near to Gallan.
“Well, Gallan. I can sense that you haven’t come here to assassinate me…”
“Even if I tried it wouldn’t work.”
“No. It wouldn’t. So why are you here?”
“To offer you an end to our feud.”
“Hmm, well I hardly believe that you mean to join forces? No, of course not. But I also can’t believe that you’ve come to just lay down and die at my feet.”
Gallan smiled. “I will do exactly that…if you satisfy my demands.”
“Ah, yes, a deal. I should have realized. No doubt you’re worried about that little clan of yours. Alright then, you nobly sacrifice yourself and yes, I will let them go free.”
“Don’t lie to me, creature!” Gallan spat. He spoke directly to the placid beast-side of Reish’s face. “I have long known that you have one purpose, and one purpose only. Total conquest.”
For the first time the beast-side of the face flexed on its own, giving a cold scowl. “Very well, I will give them some time then. I will let them hold onto their hope for a season. And then, last of all, their end will be quick and painless. Is that what you want?”
Gallan shook his head in disgust. “You think I’m so crude as to deal in false hopes for them?”
“No?” the beast taunted. “I thought that was all you did.”
Gallan didn’t dignify that with a response. It was interesting to hear the beast say those words, though, for that same thought had been echoing in his head for some time. Now he knew where it came from, and strangely enough that made him feel more confident in himself.
“But if you haven’t come for them, what did you come for?” the beast demanded.
“I’ve come to trade myself for Reish.”
Reish was startled by that. “That’s not possible!”
“No, it isn’t,” the beast agreed. “You know his sins, I am owed his soul. He’s much too entrenched to ever be let go.”
“He might be… but personally I doubt it. You’ve had him for seven years and still you don’t have full control of his body. Clearly there’s something there that is resisting you.”
“Gallan, don’t do this!” Reish pleaded.
“I still don’t understand,” the beast interjected. “Trade yourself for Reish? So what…I get your body and soul and vacate his? I don’t see how that serves me any better.”
“You don’t get my soul, just my body. It’ll be one of your puppets.”
“And you get the third shade. Entirely.”
That gave both Reish and the beast pause.
“So…” the beast said slowly, weighing the options in his mind. “I get your body and the third shade. The full benefit of a shared shade, encased in a body that is entirely under my control…Meanwhile your soul goes on to the afterlife, and Reish leaves me, soul and body. That is your offer?”
“And Reish has no remaining ties to the third shade, no powers with which to challenge you.”
“While on the other hand, I could continue to string out our war, take over the third shade bit-by-bit, as well as Reish’s body and soul, and then kill you once the third shade will allow it…”
“Take over the third shade almost. Reish’s body and soul almost. Let’s not play games. Both of us know that you will never have the whole of them this way. You will always be fractured. If you could take them all the way you would have done it already. Like I said, there’s something still in Reish that you haven’t been able to take from him. And so long as you don’t have all of him, you won’t have all of the third shade.”
“But if I do things your way, then you die tonight. And then, you must realize, I kill Reish. And then I kill all your little followers.”
“That…is a distinct possibility.”
“Ah,” the beast crowed. “So that’s why you’re willing to do this. After everything you’ve been through you still have a glimmer of hope. Hope that somehow Reish and the others will find a way out of all this.”
“If ever they could, it would only be this way. With all ties having been cut. I don’t know that they will succeed. Frankly, I don’t know how they would. But yes, as you say, I do still hope.”
That was it, all the cards were laid out. If Gallan held back his true motives it would only make the beast skeptical about the deal.
The beast would know that Gallan’s logic was correct. A complete severance was the only way for the people Gallan cared about to ever go free. Yes, that would also unchain the beast, but that couldn’t be helped. The creature would at last be free to exercise its full potential, a being of power such as the world had never seen before. And so any victory for Gallan’s people was only theoretical. In practice their escape would be a virtual impossibility and Gallan’s hopes rested on the smallest possible of margins. The beast would consent.
“Gallan, no!” Reish shrieked. It was a great strain for him to speak, but he continued shaking his head, wresting for that control. “You can’t do this. I don’t want you to save me. It’s too late. I don’t want–”
“Don’t you remember, Reish,” the beast-side sneered. “You don’t ‘get what you want,’ now do you?”
“Gallan, please,” Reish pleaded.
“Well, beast,” Gallan narrowed his eyes. “Is it a deal or not?”
The beast met his gaze. “Do it.”
Gallan closed his eyes and reached out with his shade. He could discern the essence of the whole room around them. Not by its walls and furnishings, but by its atmosphere and spirit. It was dark, oppressive, and bleak. Three souls, two bodies, one demon. He could sense them all. The demon and the third soul were reaching out for him and he received them.
Gallan was flung to the ground with a cry. His body went rigid and then convulsed. The transference did not happen all at once, the darkness hit him in one wave after another. A cold hopelessness crept over him. Inch-by-inch it pried at his soul, seeking to take him over. It gave him visions of all the horrible things it had done, of the people it had broken, of the sins it had made them do. It told him he was a fool, that it would do all these same things to those he now died for.
Gallan’s fists clenched and unclenched rapidly, the nails piercing into his skin. A shuddering cry rose through his chest, but before it could expel another followed right after it. And another and another, as if he needed to vomit, but nothing could get out because the convulsions ran too near one another. Hot tears flowed silently down his temples and into his hair.
Still the darkness pulled at his soul, trying to pry it free of his body. Inch-by-inch. Gallan wanted to give up that ghost, but he couldn’t willfully. It wasn’t its natural time, after all, and so it could only be wrested out involuntarily.
The darkness beat at his heart, and he realized he had to let it in. Though it broke him to do so, he opened himself to it. It felt like a strong ropes running down his throat, splintering off into separate cords of black, that pushed at force through his veins to pervade every cell of his body. Before it had been a cloud around him, but now it was in him. It was him. He felt himself shamed and unworthy. His purity was gone, his nobility was broken. We was overcome by a wave of deep fear, and that led him into pure hatred. All he wanted to do was break and destroy the world so that he could rest in its ashes.
Then came the almighty slash. Now that the darkness was inside him it seemed to grab his soul like a claw and wrenched violently until it began to pry loose from his body. The soul tore and left behind great patches of spirit that shriveled into nothingness. The claw ripped again, and the soul was almost torn free.
Everything was fading around Gallan, the world seemed to be growing cold and distant. It was as if the world was falling away beneath him. He was vaguely aware of a tearing sensation, but it seemed far off, like the shadow of a struggle. Strangle enough there was a peaceful disconnect. In fact he was free now, and drifting to somewhere new.
“Gallan, Gallan,” Reish sobbed. “Why did you do this? Why? It’s already too late for me.”
Reish was huddled on the ground, his form quivering in ceaseless sobs. Gallan had been right, a part of Reish had managed to hold on all through the years. Though the beast took so much of him, a hope had always remained. But it had not been a hope in himself, he had lost that long ago. It was his hope in Gallan. No matter how far Reish sunk, no matter how many people were destroyed, he rested in the confidence that at least Gallan would be out there. It had always comforted him to know that there still stood a champion for the people, a last beacon of good.
But now that beacon was gone. And gone in exchange for him, the most unworthy of them all.
And yet, Reish could not deny that bit-by-bit, inch-by-inch, a freshness was returning to him. For the first time in years he had control of his own body again. That weighing oppression was slipping away, leaving him with a clarity and an innocence that he had long forgotten. It felt so strange to be his own self again. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do with it, yet here it was all the same. It felt like being born anew.
Reish wiped his eyes and looked up from the ground. Gallan was nowhere to be seen. Where he had fallen there now lay a full-beast. It was stark and gaunt, a hideous contortion of spindly limbs projected at strange angles. Its skin was pale and hairless, stretched uncomfortably over long bones. Its maw was flat, but very wide, and between its motionless lips one could see the vise of pointed teeth.
The creature’s chest rose and fell and its eyes turned beneath its lids. It would awake soon, and it would arise with one purpose: to hunt him. Though Reish was still reeling from the cacophony of emotions, he knew he had to flee. Trying to slay the beast as it slept would be to no avail. There was a ghostly aura all about it, the sign of the third shade. Though the creature was unconscious the shade would not be, and it would protect its master well.
So Reish stumbled to his feet, turned from the place, and walked out into the night. He would go and find Gallan’s people, try to reach them before the beast did. He would warn them. Most likely they would just execute him on the spot, they certainly had the right to. Well, then at the very least he could allow them that final service.
Or perhaps they would see more meaning in Gallan’s actions than he did, and they would let him live for Gallan’s sake. If they did that, then he would offer them what pitiful aid he could for as long as he lived. His soul had been repurchased, and his duty was clear. Though he was no Gallan, he would try to stand in that man’s ranks, no matter how hopeless the situation had become.
This is the end of Shade, though clearly not the end of the story for Reish, the beast, and Gallan’s people. But then, we didn’t see the beginnings of their story either, so it felt fitting to leave things in media res as well. Even if this short story has not been the entire story, it still shows a complete arc on its own. There has been a hero, a conflict, and a reclamation.
At the outset for Shade I made clear my intentions for the story: it was to create an unspoken expectation in the reader and then defy it. I attempted to do this by introducing Gallan right from the outset as a heroic character, one that the audience assumes will carry the torch through the entire tale. Reish, meanwhile, I introduced as the reluctant villain, suggesting to the audience that he might sacrifice himself for the greater good and thus reclaim his soul.
That reclamation does happen, but I flip things so that it is Gallan who is sacrificed and Reish who is left to carry the torch. Thus is there both the fulfillment and the subversion of unspoken expectations.
On Monday I mentioned that the previous section of Shade had been heavy on exposition, and that I wanted this one to invoke more feelings from the reader. This section did end up still having a considerable amount of expository dialogue, but at the end we do delve deep into the actual experience of the characters. My intention was that both their hope and their despair would come through and shadow the emotions of the reader.
Of course trying to make the reader feel both hope and despair at the same moment is an interesting paradox. Combining contrasting flavors is something I have spoken about in a previous post, and how an author can use it to arrest a reader’s attention. There is another side to this sort of juxtaposition that is worth examining, though: how a writer can both subvert and satisfy a reader’s expectations at the same time. That, ultimately, was my wish with Shade, to end it on a note of both triumph and defeat. Come back on Monday where I’ll explain this approach in greater detail, and until then have a wonderful weekend!
“…and at least six Strained spaced around the perimeter. That is all.”
Gallan rubbed his forehead. That was quite the defense force…but it was also the right amount that they just might be able to pull it off. That must mean…
“It’s a trap!” Dask spoke up.
“Yes it is,” Gallan sighed. “I’ll bet the Western District doesn’t even need that shipment of vaccines…but they know that we do.”
“How would they know that?” Darret asked.
“It was their virus, they knew what vaccines we needed before we did,” Dask pointed out.
“Yes” Gallan mused. “That’s why they’ve been doing these shipments every week. They’ve been waiting for us to catch on and then try for it.”
“Why do you sound happy about that?” Dask asked.
“Because it means they don’t know when we’re going to hit it. They know that we are, but they don’t know whether it’s coming tomorrow, next week, or a month from now. That gives us something.”
“Seems a very small something to me,” Husk brooded. “Seems to me that we shouldn’t be sticking our necks out at all. The survivors we rescued from the city aren’t providing us any value. We’ve already done them a great service by comforting them…”
“So that’s enough and we let them die?!” Gallan snapped.
“We can’t save everyone, Gallan.”
Gallan shook his head, but his adviser had a point. “I know I make too many promises,” he admitted. “But it’s the only bargaining chip we have. People believe in us to be able to do the things that no one else can, and because of that belief they pitch in and help make the impossible happen. Once we start saying that can’t keep a promise then their belief is gone and all our power crumbles.”
“You make a good argument,” Dask said. “But I think you don’t give the people enough credit. They’re hardy. They’ll keep with us even if we aren’t perfect.”
“Maybe so,” Gallan nodded. “Maybe so. And maybe I really should stop making so many promises. But this one I have made, and so this one we need to see through.” He paused to let the statement sink in. “That is my decision.”
He looked around the room and everyone was nodding.
“Well alright then,” Husk said. “But it’s going to take some doing. The fact that we know that they know does give us a strategic opportunity. We could coordinate another hit somewhere else the day before. Go grab some minor resource or something. They won’t be expecting a second strike so quickly after that. And we’ll have our scouts looking specifically for the trap. Watching for those that are watching.”
“I think we stage it at this narrow pass here,” Dask tapped the map.
“Yes,” Darret nodded. “It’s pretty certain where any hidden forces would be concealed: between these three ridges. So we run through those beforehand and clean them out. But we’ve got to be quiet and quick about it, can’t let them signal that there’s trouble…”
Gallan watched approvingly as each member of his team contributed their various insights, combining their strengths to enact his will. Because they trusted him. Because they were sure that he would be right….
How he hoped that he was.
Eight days later Gallan stood perched on top of a boulder, staring down to the narrow pass below. A heavily armed caravan rumbled through, moving forward at a steady, military crawl. Gallan was flanked by an elite strike steam awaiting his word to begin their assault. Husk was at his side as well.
“It’s far more trucks than the ledger would suggest,” Gallan muttered. “They’ve surely got something brewing in there.”
“But we know that they do. And we have our own surprise for them as well,” Husk clapped Gallan on the shoulder.
“Yes…. Alright, I’ll punch right at the center, stir them up while you lay down suppressive fire. I don’t want to commit to anything more specific until we’ve been able to spring their trap and know what we’re dealing with. You move in the assault teams according to your own judgment.”
“Ring formation,” Gallan said to the strike team. “Give me about fifteen seconds to clear the landing zone. We’ll land on truck four, and make our way directly towards truck seven. Leave me a good opening along the way.”
The armored warriors nodded.
Gallan sucked in a long, lingering breath and exhaled deeply, stoking the fire inside of him. He felt that same, old fear that came before every operation, and he turned it into his fuel. He lunged forward, taking strong, confident strides across the rocks, moving to get centered with truck four down below.
He wasn’t particularly quiet about it, and he heard the shouts from down below as the caravan caught sight of him. His split-shade allowed him to watch them raising their weapons at him, even as he focused his eyes on the uneven terrain that he bounded over. He saw both views, and by them expertly bobbed and weaved around zipping bullets and stray patches of gravel.
Gallan kicked off of a slanted boulder and flipped sideways, hurtling out into open space. For a long second he remained suspended in the air, then plummeted down to the forces below. A couple lucky bullets caught him as he fell, and his split-shade burned brightly around the wounds, healing them almost instantly.
He landed feet-first on top of the truck with tremendous force. The fall would have been fatal if not for his split-shade taking the brunt of that blow.
Split-shade was not the correct term for Gallan. His condition was so rare that there was no appropriate name for it. Perhaps it should be “shared-shade.” The other soul that possessed his body with him had always been there, even before he had ever recognized its presence. It had first come to his attention during moments of duress when he had had to achieve things that seemed impossible. Moments like now.
As soon as Gallan touched the ground three squads of soldiers rushed at him, two to his left and one to his right. Gallan thrust out his left hand, imposing the will of his other shade upon the men there. That was the benefit of a split or shared shade, the “loose” soul could reach out of the body and impose its will upon the shades of those around it.
The two squads of men were pulled downwards by a great force, slamming into the ground with their limbs pinned fast. Gallan spun his head around to the other side where a nearby soldier was fumbling with the gun at his side. Gallan thrust his hand out and touched the man’s arm. His shade flowed through the man’s body, unclasping the gun from its holster, sliding it along the surface of the man’s body, and into Gallan’s palm. Gallan withdrew his hand and started firing rapidly, much too quickly to properly aim the weapon. Even so each bullet found its mark, their paths bending through the air, directed by his will. Within a few seconds every squad member on that side lay motionless.
A sudden pang dropped Gallan to his knees, his brow dripped sweat and his teeth grit together. Back on his left side the two squads were trying to throw off his invisible restraints. Imposing his will on others took great reserves of energy, especially when they fought back. He tried to maintain some level of control over them as he dropped the sidearm and reached for his assault rifle. Hopefully it would have enough bullets in its clip to take care of them all.
Before he could, though, twelve blue blurs slammed into the ground all around him. It was his personal strike team come to give their support. A clatter of gunfire rang out and the enemy squads were no longer a concern.
“That couldn’t have been fifteen seconds already,” Gallan panted.
“You looked like about ready for us to drop in,” the team leader grinned.
The the team rushed into the ring formation Gallan had requested. They stood in a circle around him, facing outwards, with an opening left at one end which he faced.
Gallan gave the order and they all moved forward as a single unit. Each man covered his own zone, firing off controlled bursts at the enemy units popping up to challenge their advance. They were the best trained units in all of Gallan’s little army, and they acted with lethal precision. Wave after wave of enemies took it in turns to try and break their group. Every now and again a stray bullet would catch one of them, but so long as it wasn’t instantly lethal all Gallan had to do was reach out and touch them and they would be healed. This was why he stood in their center.
As they advanced towards truck seven gunfire rained down from above. Husk and his men taking care of threats whatever threats were hidden from the small strike team. All was going smoothly until–
“Strained!” one of Gallan’s team members shouted from the left.
“Spin!” Gallan hissed, and the team shuffled around so that their opening pointed towards the approaching foe.
A “Strained” was not a person who possessed two shades, but rather one whose shade had been nearly severed from their body, almost to the point of death, which allowed it to now “strain” beyond its mortal confines. They weren’t as powerful as Gallan, and there were some definite drawbacks to their power, but they were certainly still a force to be reckoned with.
Gallan sized up the Strained charging at them now. She was bounding over the tops of the trucks like a wild animal, eyes locked directly on him.
“Strained!” another of Gallan’s team members shouted from behind and to the left.
“Strained!” another one called from a bit to the right.
“Try and keep the back one preoccupied,” Gallan told his team. “I’ll be quick with these other two.”
He gave a mighty kick and propelled himself high into the air. He met the first Strained, the woman, in the middle of one of her bounds. He grappled her arms and pivoted through the air, swinging her around, over his head, and throwing her away from his men.
With a snarl she thrust out her arms and reached out with her shade, compressing the air around her to the point that she could clutch at it with her hands. She gripped tightly on that invisible wall, and then flung herself back at Gallan. As she rocketed into him she swung her hand wide, revealing a razor-thin blade tucked along the outside of her arm. It was so thin that Gallan didn’t even feel it as it cleaved clean through his arm, cutting it in two just above the elbow.
Instinctively Gallan reached down with his other hand, grabbed the falling limb, and held it back against his stump. He instantly fused the two back into one with an outburst of shade-energy and his arm was made whole. Well that had hurt.
The woman was spinning on her heel, bringing the blade back around for a second pass, this time angling it for his neck. Gallan was prepared this time and punched out with his fist, compressing the air around it. Her blade hit his invisible shield and burst into a thousand shards. As the metal pieces fell towards the ground Gallan made silent note of them, imprinting in his mind the memory of their structure.
A second split-shade landed next to Gallan and the woman. It was a burly man, with a long beard tied in a braid down to his waist. Well that was good, it had come for him instead of his team. What was less good was that now he brought down a fist the size of a car tire and smashed it over Gallan’s back. Gallan took the blow and fell to his belly. At least he had the presence of mind to angle himself so that he fell onto the shards of the metal blade. Some of them cut into him and he winced in pain, but that subsided as he absorbed them into his body.
“So much for their hero,” the burly man snarled. As he spoke he reached down and pulled Gallan to his feet, then wrapped his arms around him in a crushing embrace. Gallan’s bones held together, but only because of his second-shade’s extra fortification. They would not last much longer, so he grit his teeth, focused his will, and reassembled the metal blade, positioning it so that it projected directly out of his chest.
“Ugh!” was all the burly man managed to say as he was pierced straight through his heart, then he rolled backwards and fell to the earth.
“One down, one to go,” Gallan thought, but before he could round on the woman he felt the tremor. It was like his heart had stopped, held for a moment, and then thudded extra hard.
Even though his back was to truck seven he could already see through his shade that its door was open and its inside was vacated.
He was here.
“Hello Reish,” he said softly as he turned about. The woman was shrinking off to the side, leaving the way clear for the tall, strange creature that approached. It stood on narrow legs, with the knees bent back the wrong way. Its torso was a hulking mass, and its arms were long and thin. The head was a regular man’s on the left side, but flat and featureless on the right. The creature raised its hand and Gallan’s entire strike team was instantly snapped to the ground by invisible bonds. It was the same as Gallan had done to the squads of soldiers, but the binding was far more absolute, none of Gallan’s men could even quiver in fear.
“You shouldn’t have come here old friend,” the left half of the face spoke.
On Monday I shared how an author can create expectations in the reader, even without them realizing it. I decided to illustrate this point by writing a short piece that takes place in the middle of a larger story. This story is full of references to peoples and powers, none of which are properly understood by the reader.
We do not know anything about Gallan and his team, why they are here, and what their ultimate objectives are. We do not know the history between Gallan and Reish. We do not know why there are these “split-shades” and “shared-shades” or even what the full mechanics of these people are.
And yet, for all that lack of foundation, I believe that most readers will not feel lost. This short piece has all the trappings of a generic hero’s journey: right from the beginning we are introduced to a sympathetic central character who seems to be fighting a losing battle. That character is intimately acquainted with another individual, one who is far more powerful and has destructive intentions towards central character. With this the reader is able to get their bearings, identify the hero, the villain, and the conflict between them. It doesn’t matter that they don’t know anything else about the world, they have already put together the “narrative” and they have done it entirely subconsciously.
This, then, allows me a clear opportunity to subvert expectations, which is what I am going to focus on in the second and third sections of this story. It isn’t going to be a twist ending where it turns out that Gallan and his people are really the bad guys, but I do believe it will go to a place that is unexpected, even if foreshadowed.
Before that, though, I want to pause and consider the use of violence in this story, as it hits pretty hard when compared to most of my other tales. I’d like to talk about how an author balances capturing a mood with maintaining their personal tastes, and about the difference between being authentic and being excessive. Come back on Monday to read about that, and then come next Thursday for the second section of Shade.
“A man doesn’t do what he can. He does what he must.”
Those were the last words my father said to me before he left to fight in the great Civil War. He meant them by way of explaining why it was he had to go and leave our little farm and family, to fight for a cause he believed in.
It was the last time he said those words to me, but it was not the first. How he came by them, I do not know. For a man who lived as large as he, I would not be surprised to learn that he came up with them himself. In any case, they were his mantra all his days, a creed that he exemplified many times over.
My father showed the makings of a legend early in life, as early as the age of thirteen when he stood down old Hal Ritcher.
Hal Ritcher was the local drunk, a mean and spiteful man who led a life of profound disappointment and then punished all that were littler than him because of it. He was a particular nuisance to the children, and one day they caught his ire by playing too loudly in a nearby barn while he was trying to sleep off a hangover. He rushed out at them, brandishing a stick and screaming and cussing like the devil himself! He swore he’d see blood for their impertinence, then grabbed hold of the nearest one of them he could, poor, little Belle Sue.
Well my father wasn’t going to stand by to see her lashed, so he stepped forward and shouted at Hal Ritcher. Hal let her go and charged at my father with raised first. My father raised his own and in a flash laid Hal out flat with a single blow to the chin.
Now as I said my father was only thirteen years at the time, but all the children there said his blow rang like a hammer on an anvil! They wouldn’t have believed it possible if they hadn’t witnessed it with their own eyes.
“What did you hit him with?” one asked in awe.
“Just my hand.”
“But I didn’t think you could hit so hard.”
“Well neither did I. But I had to so I guess I just did. That’s how it is as a man, you know.”
“But you’re not a man, James,” Belle Sue frowned.
To which my father tossed the hair out of his eyes and grinned broadly at Hal Ritcher’s horizontal form. “Ain’t I, though?”
Five years later, when my father was eighteen, he attended a social party put on by the local cattle baron. After a great amount of coercion he had finally removed Belle Sue from the rest of the young men and was trying convince her to give him a kiss when a horrible shriek sounded from the fields.
One of the cattle hands had been giving the young children turns riding on his horse, when something spooked the critter and away it rushed with a small boy clinging on its back for dear life.
“Oh he’ll be killed!” a woman shrieked and a few of the ladies fainted straight away. Meanwhile the men bumbled about uselessly, calling for horses and ropes and all manner of things that wouldn’t arrive until it was much too late.
Not my father, though. He bounded out with steely determination, cutting through the property to the corner of the road where the bronco was sure to pass, reaching that junction at just the same moment as the steed. Somehow he leapt above its flashing hooves and threw his arm around its neck. Then he hauled down, running the creature’s head into the dust as he grabbed the poor boy off its back with his other hand.
I can only imagine the amazement that must have been on everyone’s face when my father came walking out of the cloud of dirt, the boy waving happily on his shoulder and the horse following sheepishly after.
“How’d you think to do that?” one of the cattle hands asked.
“I dunno,” my father said modestly. “I guess I just had to is all.”
Even Belle Sue threw up her hands in not-so-disappointed defeat. “Well, James, you’re a hero, now I supposed I’ll have to kiss you.” And she did just that.
That Belle Sue was quite a playful one, and I suppose you might have guessed already that the two of them got married. It was a long time before she relented and she led him on quite the chase, though she never had eyes for anyone else. The story of how they finally came together begins one day when a whole crowd of young men were gathered round her feet.
“When you going to stop playing your games and marry one of us?” they asked her.
“When I feel like it, I suppose,” she shrugged. “Seems you boys aren’t doing much to make me feel inclined that way, though.”
“Yes boys. And so I say until one of you proves your worth.”
“Hmmm…Oh I know! Haven’t any of you noticed that great, big lily growing on top of Heaven’s Peak? Now that’s the sort of flower a girl would love a man for! Honestly I can’t believe one of you hasn’t fetched it for me already, I’d say that I must have it.”
“On Heaven’s Peak?! That’s thirty feet of rock shooting straight up into the sky! Now how do you expect anyone to get up there to pick you a flower?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, I suppose only a man could manage it.”
Well that crowd of boys went away grumbling and she giggled to herself, never expecting anything to come of that conversation. But she hadn’t accounted for my father when he heard tell of what she said. Why he just walked away alone that same afternoon and came back before dark with that flower for her. Then the two of them had a quiet little conversation together in the gazebo, and when they came back they announced their engagement!
All my days growing up I heard her pester him to know how he had scaled that rock, but he never told his secret. He only ever said: “You said you must have it, so I had to get it.”
It was a happy home my siblings and I grew up in, at least for the first years while father was still there. I was only six when he left, as I said, to war. And as you might imagine, he quickly became a bona fide hero there, too. Soon he was made a Second Lieutenant and led a platoon of thirty men.
I met several of those men in the years after, and each told how when he first received his station he sat down with those men and promised that not a one of them would die on his watch. Though it might seem incredible, he delivered on that promise too, though they found themselves in many the tight spot during the war.
He managed that feat partly by his excellent training and marshaling of the men, and partly by taking on the most dangerous roles for himself, such as when they made their retreats and he would linger in the back to give the Johnny Rebs a target of his own hide to shoot at.
It was at one such retreat that they found themselves in a most dire strait. Their commanding officer had required them to dig their ditch with a cliff wall at their backs. When the bugle sounded retreat they knew they were all dead men. Though the wall could be scaled, it would be a slow process, and there was no chance that they would have it cleared before the enemy rushed into their trenches and picked them off like flies.
Well they all looked to my father in despair, but he just grit his teeth and said they all better get climbing then. One of them protested, said it would be better to die fighting than take such grim chances. My father swore again that not a one of them would die that day, except perhaps himself.
“C’mon now, Lieutenant,” one of them protested, “a slim chance is better than none. We’ll all run and see which one or two of us is lucky enough to escape. Not even you can hold back such a tide!”
“Maybe I can’t,” my father replied, “and yet I must.”
He ordered his men to retreat one last time, then stood at the lip of their ditch to welcome the enemy. As his men scrambled up the rock they heard the whooping and hollering of the foxes come for their prey. Though there was all manner of gunfire not a one of my father’s boys took a serious shot. Every now and again one of them would turn to see what went on below, and they saw my father bounding back and forth, cutting down the cowards who dared to aim at the backs of his men.
One man saw how my father took a shot himself, but still he went on. Another witnessed how he was skewered by a bayonet, but still he fought. A third said four men tackled him to the ground, but up he rose from their midst. Not a one of them saw exactly how or when he fell, but he must have at some point, though not until after his men were all safely away from that place.
And that was the last anyone knew of my father. Anyone but me.
While I wish I could say that I followed in his footsteps my whole life long, the truth is that growing up without him was hard. We lost our farm and home, we scrimped and scrounged our way through the rest of my childhood, and somewhere along the way I grew disheartened. I decided I had to find an easier way, a shortcut to happiness.
In short I fell in with some bad men, ones who weaned me off of the straight-and-narrow path that my mother had so painstakingly taught me to follow. At first it was drink, then gambling, then getting into fights in back alleys. I remember the day they brought me along for my first robbery. A part of me wondered how I had ever come to this, another part answered it had been coming for a long while now.
My posse promised it would be a quick holdup. No one was going to get hurt, and there was no chance of running into the law. Both of those statements were lies, for no sooner did our heist begin than it turned sideways. The man we were trying to rob resisted us, and the leader of our group, a fiery, short-tempered man, shot him dead on the spot. My shock didn’t even have a chance to set in before we heard the whole town erupting all around us. We tried to get out of there, but the law swept around on all sides and chased us towards a solitary barn.
I was the first to make the entrance, and as I turned to hold the door open for the rest of my gang I found that not a one of them still stood. Some were already laying dead in the street, the others were quickly getting that way. So I bolted that door shut and lay on the ground, trembling like a leaf.
“Hey you come out of there!” the Sheriff roared. ” And with your hands held high! I’ll give you thirty seconds to get sense and then we’ll unload on you!”
“I’ll fight them off,” I muttered, cocking my six-shooter. “Or I’ll grab a horse and escape. I’ll set fire to this barn and sneak out in the smoke. I’ll never let them take me alive–”
I turned in surprise, though I knew the voice so well that it did not frighten me. Standing at the end of a trough I saw my father, looking exactly the same as the day he rode out to war. He was viewing me with a sort of aching love, as if it hurt him to see me this way.
“Pa…what are you doing here?”
“Son, what are you?”
My face broke and I cried like the six-year-old I was when I lost him. “I’ve lost my way, Pa. I don’t know when or how, but I’m ashamed for you to see me like this.”
“I ain’t ashamed to see you, son. But you have done wrong, and it’s time to turn yourself in.”
“I can’t do it,” I gulped. “Once they brand me a thief and a killer that’s it! Even if they don’t hang me I’ll never escape the shadow of what I already done. I’m all alone now.”
My father nodded understandingly, but his face was firm. “You are alone, so long as you keep on this path you’ve been on. But if you turn son, if you turn right now, I’ll be in it. I promise.”
“…I would if I could. But I can’t.”
“A man doesn’t do what he can. He does what he must.”
Well that was that.
I took a few stabilizing breaths, then stood and took a few more.
“Alright, I’m coming out!” I shouted, throwing my gun out the window where the lawmen could see. I turned to look one last time at my father, and I almost asked how he was even able to be here like this. But then, I already knew his answer to that.
Raising up my hands, I walked out into the sun.
As I stated on Monday, my purpose with this was to create a piece that blended the elements of principle and example. I wanted it to be one part allegory, with archetypes that represented a core idea, and one part realism, with characters who were relatable.
Obviously the character of “the father” was a larger-than-life allegory. He is a flat character, one that is intended to only channel one personality trait: confidence. He always comes through, there’s nothing he can’t accomplish, he always knows exactly what to do and say.
The son, meanwhile, is a little more in-between. It wouldn’t be fair to say that he is entirely lifelike, as we simply do not have enough time with him to get a fully fleshed-out personality from him. Even so, in the short time that we do hear from him, he still shows a wide range emotions, including reverence, bitterness, fear, shame, and redemption.
His comment towards the end about how hard it was for him to live without a father is meant to jolt the reader out of the rose-tinted fairy tale and into a more somber reality. It’s meant to suggest that the idealized story of his father is nothing more than the perspective of a six-year-old boy who still believes his father could do no wrong. A perspective that he has maintained for the man who sired him, but lost for himself.
And that, ultimately, was the crux of my idea in marrying these two different perspectives. By laying them side-by-side and even having them overlap I meant to explore the way our view of the world changes as we age and mature. In some ways I believe our love for fairy tales is nothing more than a nostalgic longing for the simplicity of our childhood minds.
As I wrote this piece I realized I was writing “father” a lot, and reached a point where I thought someone ought to call the man by his name. It was at that point that I decided to add a little quirk to the story, something to give it personality. Do you know what I am referring to? I’ll talk a little bit more about it on Monday, as well as how to add indirect personality to stories and characters in general. I’ll see you then, and in the meantime have a wonderful weekend!
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 isnatural 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.
This last Thursday I suggested that loss is an integral component of most stories. It certainly has been central to each short piece that I’ve written for this current series. The reason for the prevalence of loss in storytelling is quite straightforward. With rare exception, a story is about a journey. The journey, in fact, is the story. And for there to be a journey, then necessarily there must be the character in one place and an objective that they are currently deprived of in another. For if the character and the objective were already in the same place, there would be no journey to obtain it, and consequently no story.
Note that the word “place” here may designate actual physical locations with a distance between the character and their goal. However it may also mean two different emotional states, or spiritual states, or moral states, or any other medium with a distance between two points. Hamlet isn’t removed by physical space from the better state of having avenged his father, but he is lacking in courage and confidence.
And so then comes the question of why is the main character so distant from their goal? To that there is usually one of two answers: either they have never possessed it, and so must obtain it for the first time, or else they had it once and now they have lost it, and so must work to regain it. Certainly there are examples in literature of the first, but I would argue it is the second approach that gets written more commonly. Why? Simply because of the stronger catharsis that exists in a tale of loss and regaining.
If a person in a story begins by possessing something, it generally means that they should have that something. For it to be taken from them then, even if by their own folly, means that things are not right any more. That sense of wrongness provides a natural tension and conflict, and the hope that things will be made right provides a natural hook to draw the reader through to a happy end.
There is also the psychological importance in this notion of loss and recovery. We all have had times when we lost something which meant a great deal to us. Specifically something of a spiritual nature, such as our innocence, our hope, or our beliefs. We feel incomplete to live without those elements, but also are intimidated by the odyssey it would take to reclaim them. And so we choose between living the story (the journey) of our life, or else living forever afterwards as a broken person.
Clearly writing loss into a story means dealing with some weighty themes, then, and it deserves great care. There are a few different ways to approach the subject, let’s take a brief look at a few of them.
Lost by the Hero’s Failure)
One of the most classic uses of loss in a story, is that of the hero possessing some great gift that they are unworthy of. Perhaps they were given it by another, or came by it through pure happenstance. Because they do not respect the significance of their gift they are careless, and by that carelessness they lose it. Often they lose it to the villain, who will use that gift for something evil.
Here the reader understands that they deserved to lose their gift because they were unworthy of it, but still believes that they should become worthy now, and then they should regain the gift. We tend to be very forgiving to the characters of a story, always willing to grant them a second chance.
The connection this type story of story has to the human experience is obvious. All the time we make mistakes, all the time we lose things as the consequences of those mistakes. And even after all that, we hope to have a second chance, an opportunity to do it better the next time.
You see this sort of story in the classic fairy tale Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. Aladdin is a roguish scamp who comes across a jinni of immense power entirely by accident. Though he uses it to acquire the fame, fortune, and wife he desires, he has not done anything to actually earn any of these gifts.
A sorcerer manages to steal away that jinni, and does so because of a lapse of care on Aladdin and his wife’s part. Now the true journey begins. Without being able to rely on his previous source of strength, now Aladdin must make use of all his own determination and cunning to recapture that which had once been his and restore peace back to the land.
I also incorporated the hero’s foolish loss into my short story Phisherman. Here we actually meet our main character after the misplacing of his great gift, that of his own innocence. He is a man incomplete, perverting his great talents, and living far beneath his potential.
He isn’t doing anything to reclaim that which was lost, either. Instead he has tried to fill that hole in his soul with a carefully-constructed facade to hide behind. This story then illustrates that sometimes there is a second loss needed, a loss of pride and false persona. This second loss we do get to see, and it returns him to the place of his original wounding. Now again he has a chance to commit himself to the better journey of reclaiming his soul.
Lost by Circumstance)
Opposite to this first type of story is the one where the main character loses all, but due to no fault of their own. Usually in these stories the main character still only held their great gift by happenstance. They received these things easily, and now they have lost them easily.
When someone has obtained something without effort, we tend to feel they do not truly possess it. They have it, but they do not own it. Thus the journey of the hero to regain what was lost is really the journey of their earning it for the first time. This time what is regained will really be theirs. They understand the worth of the thing for having had to work for it, and they have the power now to ensure it will not be lost again.
This is obviously closely related to the first type of loss-story we examined, and its connection to our human experience is a sister-experience to the former. When something is taken from us by another it represents an injustice, a wounding that we did not deserve. But we only endure the loss because we do not possess the strength to prevent it. And so it is the obtaining of that strength that now becomes the journey. We have to put in the work to find our nerve, our determination, our confidence. Then, at last, we march forward to claim what was rightfully ours. This makes us not only the possessor once more, but now and forever the protector as well.
A wonderful example of a hero that loses everything at no fault of his own can be found in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. This story begins with a happy family brought to sudden ruin with the dual blow of financial ruin and the death of the father. The tranquil peace they had enjoyed is taken away, and it is up to Nicholas Nickleby to win it back. It’s a long and hard road, with many life lessons along the way. Finally, though, the family is restored to the happiness they once had, as well as expanded into something greater. And that felicity having being recaptured, it won’t be taken away again.
In The Sweet Bay Tree I made use of a character that begins as something of a parallel to Nicholas Nickleby. That character is a tree that begins its life in a happy field, surrounded by friends and family. Later it is transported away and forever loses all that it had had before.
Here the similarities diverge, though, because in my story there is no restitution for the tree. There were a few reasons for this, one of which was to give the story a cautionary message. In my story the tree refuses for the longest while to even accept that it has lost anything, and so does nothing to try and correct the matter. The fact is that nothing can be regained until we are first willing to accept that it has been lost. There are those who are far from home and ever will be simply because they refuse to admit it.
This leads to a third archetype for loss in stories, which is that of a loss that is has no regaining. These are our tragedies, the tales that caution us of permanent consequences. Perhaps in an afterlife there can always be hope for a restitution, but here on earth some doors shut forever.
These stories can actually go both ways in regards to whether the hero initially possessed that which was lost or not. In Annie Hall our main man Alvie never really possessed Annie, after all. If anything that’s his “problem” throughout the film. In a relationship you may use words and phrases like “I belong to you,” but in reality it is a tenuous contract that might slip from your fingers whether you want it to or not. And once it is gone, there is little chance of its being regained.
Then, of course, there is the hero who really does possess the gift as his own, and that makes his loss of it all the more tragic. In the Old Testament the Israelites demanded a king, and Saul was chosen to lead them. At the time of his anointing he was given wonderful promises, including one that his line would rule over Israel forever.
Over the years, however, Saul’s pride began to get in his own way, and it led him to claim more than he had a right to. As a result his promises were rescinded, he died violently in battle along with three of his sons, and the kingdom ultimately fell to another. There isn’t any more permanent of a loss than that, and one that tragically never had to be.
My story that incorporated themes of permanent loss was Three Variations on a Theme. Here we have three miniature tales, the first two of which fall under that template of a man losing all due to his own hubris. In each of these the main character would have been fine, they would have had everything that they set out to have, if only they had proceeded with their plan as intended. But they wavered, and they lost all.
The third of these allegories was more along the lines of losing that which you never possessed. Here a starving man trades his body for temporary satisfaction, but this particular story doesn’t suggest a reasonable alternative. It seems more or less that he was fated to fall, that some tragedies may be unavoidable.
Lost Forever…Something New to Follow)
But what about loss in Network Down? I know that of all the entries in this series this last story has been more focused on entertainment than on somber musings, but even a more punchy story can still have its moments of loss. That is the destiny I have in store for Kevyn, but that loss will follow a somewhat different pattern than any of the ones mentioned above.
In some tales the hero loses something, and loses it permanently, but through this loss they find that the way is left open for something new to to take its place. Perhaps that new something is better, perhaps it is worse. But it is something new, and most often it is something that redefines the character entirely.
On Thursday I’ll post the second half of Kevyn’s story, and in it he will permanently trade his current life for another. In his case it is a trade he would normally never consider, but as you have already seen he is in moments of great duress. Ideal or not, it will be a decision that he consciously wills for himself, preferring it to all other forms of loss he could otherwise endure. Come back on Thursday to see how that works for him.
Except for the stone. As everything else vanished from the reality the small portion of cold rock against Reylim’s knees seemed more real than it had ever been before. She felt it physically, of course, but now she felt its very state of being, too, it’s purpose, it’s destiny, it’s rightness. She knew it. She understood it.
Reylim glanced down and saw her inner light glowing. It wasn’t just a bright spot at her core anymore, it was her entire figure, vibrant and shining. She focused on that glimmer, spinning it through her with greater and greater speed, churning it faster with each beat of her heart.
The stone beneath her was fading, losing its reality. She gritted her teeth and beat her heart harder. It hurt, and even seemed to tear her inside a little, but she felt some of her essence spill out into the rock and bring it back towards reality.
She beat her heart into the stone again and again. Cold beads of sweat formed on her brow, her hands were shaking, but she did not dare stop. She felt another heartbeat wanting to come. It was going to be heavy, it was going to hurt, but it needed to be.
A torrent of light pooled from her into the stone, and there the rock began to shift, contorting until a being started to emerge from its midst, a man born of the earth. As he rose to his feet before her, she recognized him from the village below.
“Avaro!” she said in surprise.
He smiled warmly to her. “At your service, lightbringer! I never dreamed I’d get the honor of meeting you.”
“Oh!” she cried as another heartbeat rent her, spilling her essence back into the stone and beginning the process of raising another warrior, this one a woman. These beings were casting their own light, light borrowed from her. With every portion of herself that she gave to the stone their little circle of light was steadily widening.
“I want you to know we’ve never forgotten what you’ve done for us, first star,” the emerging woman said earnestly. As she spoke Avaro’s eyes flitted to the widening circle of illumination around them. Reylim followed his gaze and saw the dark billowings of the shadows slowly coming back into form. The woman was speaking again. “We may struggle to find our ways at times, but…”
“It’s right to struggle,” she said to them, then doubled over as a third heartbeat tore her heart again. Her face landed on the stone and she felt her breath coming out ragged and shallow. She was faint and clammy, her fingers twitching involuntarily. When at last she opened her eyes there was now a third warrior, and all three were waging powerful battle against a number of dark figures that were spilling into their radius of light. The three glowing guardians all bore different uniforms and weapons, all from different periods of time, all representing a different race.
Reylim tore her eyes from them, looking the other way. At the edge of the circle of light she could just make out the stone pillars of the Nexus. As difficult as scaling the mountain had been, this crawl looked more daunting by far. Limbs protesting, heart heaving, she lifted an arm that felt like lead and thumped it on the ground in front of her. She lifted her next arm to meet it, then slid her knees across the rough stone.
She heard a cry behind her and saw Avaro careening from a vicious blow to the chest. She cried, too, as another heavy heartbeat crippled her. The warrior’s chest healed and he rose back to the battle.
Reylim summoned her strength back and began crawling forward again. Even the small heartbeats hurt now, but they were necessary, each brightening the path in front of her, bringing it far enough into reality to support her crawling form. In spite of the pain and effort, yet she couldn’t help but notice each inch of rock and tree bud came into relief from her light. She found herself loving each one of them as her own. Wanting so much for them. Giving so much for them.
Again Reylim felt her whole form shake as an orb of light gushed out of her, streaking from her form to the Nexus looming just ahead. The rock formation flashed to life, dust and dirt blasting from its edges as cords of light wound back and forth between its pillars. Reylim crawled forward another pace.
Another ball of light went to the Nexus, deepening its cords and giving them a distinctive hum. Reylim’s elbows quaked and she dropped to the ground. It took all of her strength simply to turn her head up to the structure, soft tears shining down her cheeks. She clenched her fingers, then shuffled her arms and legs, grinding herself forward on her belly.
Her palms crossed the perimeter of the Nexus. Her elbows. Her shoulders. Inch by inch she moved forward until she was directly under the pillars. Laboriously she rolled onto her back, looking up at the twisting cords of light.
Each of the heartbeats came harder and faster than the last. Her light and her life spilled out, beating into the Nexus and imbuing it with power. Her breath fluttered and her head fell to the side, her nearly lifeless eyes settling on the blurry forms of light and dark fighting in the distance.
“Rage on,” she croaked, then gave her last beat of all. She was already too slumped down to collapse any further. The only perceptible change was the way her eyelids slowly closed and how an expression of peace washed across her face.
Above her the Nexus hummed loudly, churning into full life. It’s light increased a thousandfold in a single moment, washing the entire mountain peak in blinding light. In an instant the warriors, light and dark, were all scorched away as the reality of now was established in their place. No more people, no more villages, no more struggle. Just the memory and the assurance that one day they would be.
With the light of the Nexus having been established, another glow joined it, emanating from the entire world itself. At long last a Glimmer radiated at the core of Nocterra, giving the entire surface the beginnings of definition and clarity.
It’s task fulfilled, the pillars of the Nexus collapsed and its light sunk downwards, settling on the figure at its base. Reylim’s body coursed with exceeding luminescence, the light overpowering her form until she was actually lifted into the air.
Slowly, gently, Relyim raised higher and higher, her robes billowing in shining glory, stirred by a wind that came from within. She continued to rise, eventually lifting so far that she became a single pinprick in the night sky. She settled to a rest there, and so became the first star, the first guide to all that would walk the world beneath. Eventually other heroes would join her in the heavens, but she would always stand supreme in their legends.
Finally, peeking over the horizon from the dark side of the planet, the very first sunrise was now beginning. And with it, the promise of tomorrow.
And with that we have reached the end of Glimmer! I certainly enjoyed doing this one, though it did end up extending out for two sections longer that I had anticipated. There were several defining traits that I wanted to incorporate in this story all at once, one’s that I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Let’s do a brief summary of what each of those were.
First I shared about the significance of sacrifice in a story. I suggested that sacrifice is a sacred principle, and ought to be treated with care by authors. Don’t try and kill off characters just to force sadness on your reader, and don’t pretend you’re going to feature a sacrifice if you don’t have the nerve to follow through.
In Glimmer I opened the topic of sacrifice in the very first scene. Reylim knew from the outset that this was her ultimate destiny, and she was naturally quite unnerved by the prospect. In fact she kept trying to find a way out of her own demise. By the end I tried to suggest that martyrs don’t have to want to die for their cause to still be willing to do so. I think we can spend a lot of time scrutinizing our heroes and wondering if we could ever make the sacrifices that they did, when in actuality they never knew if they could take those steps themselves until already striding over them.
Next I discussed the value of taking the plot of a story, dividing it into multiple arcs, and staggering their beginnings and endings. In this way key themes become reiterated on, separate threads weave towards a satisfying conclusion, and the pace is easier maintained.
With Glimmer there is always the overarching plot of Reylim’s self-discovery and the fulfillment of her quest. Though at times I had segues to introduce new characters, mechanics, and motivations, each of these eventually came back to that central core. Glimmer was introduced and would serve as the companion in her quest. The void was introduced and would serve as the opposition to give her quest meaning. The shadows of the people that might one day live were introduced and served to bring a climax of action at the end of her journey.
And though I could have taken all the sentences dedicated to her anxieties and exhausted them in one single scene at the beginning, I knew it would have greater impact if I instead reiterated those fears at many separate points throughout the tale. And anytime those fears, or the central arc, or the discoveries I mentioned above were starting to grow stale, I had plenty of options to change gears into one of the other categories and keep everything fresh.
During the third week I mentioned the option of creating characters that were not-so-human. These characters could be massive, disembodied forces, things like karma or God. Still their influences would be felt, and they would have desires, and would interact with other characters, but they just wouldn’t ever be seen explicitly.
In Glimmer there are two of these entities, and each of those is manifested indirectly. These two beings are, of course, those of Glimmer and the void. The ball of light that guides Reylim through her journey explains that he is nothing more than a spark off of that main fire, a fire that we never interact with directly. We understand its purposes and attributes to be the same as this guide, but also that it is a distinct and infinitely more powerful being. We understand that that being has thrown off a multitude of sparks igniting planets all across this story’s universe, and we associate it with all that is good and heavenly.
It is the same with the void. We see areas where it is not, more than we see areas where it is. We see beings that are driven by it, but they do not define it itself. We understand it to be an infinite being that stretches through the universe attempting to swallow all existence into perfect nothingness.
The purpose of creating two entities that are never directly spoken to, nor indeed can be spoken to, is that it gives the story’s lore an immense depth. We are witnessing the tips of infinite creatures, and the promise exists that their eternal duel will extend far beyond the confines of this single story. It simultaneously makes Reylim insignificant by virtue of the other infinite wars that must be going on, but also terribly significant for being worthy of these god’s attention in this one place and moment.
In stark contrast to all of this brushing against infinities and the battles of the gods, I then posted about the need for stories to focus deeply on mere individuals. As I explained, no one will care about a massive army if they are not invested in the individuals that make it up. We simply lack the capacity to register groupings past a certain size, and instead need something more individual to anchor our emotions to.
Though Glimmer involved epic beings lurking in the background, at its forefront this was still very much a story about a single individual: Reylim. Even Glimmer and the shadows she fought were only secondary supports to her own very personal and intimate story. This closeness was established by having every inflection of the story immediately followed by an examination of how it affected her. I mention the dark cloud that is waiting for our heroes on top of the mountain, and I immediately focus on how Reylim cries in response to it. I mention how empty and bleak the world is when Nocterra first arrives, and I immediately show how she trembles and whimpers. I then mention how a small light is exuded from her, and I describe her delighted surprise.
Reylim may be a single character in an infinite epic, but this is undoubtedly her story. I even emphasize this in her final moments where her vision fades and the raging battle becomes nothing more than a blur, a backdrop, a mere periphery to her final strains.
Last of all I observed how every author has a particular style for the stories that they write. This is simply a default voice, one that I suggested is based more on personality and experience than conscious intent. Mine, it would seem, happens to deal with themes that are slow, supernatural, and allegorical.
Certainly in Glimmer there were punches of action, but ultimately the climax of the story is a long and heavy final note. The action that does exist comes in at a very specific time to fulfill a very specific purpose, and otherwise I allow the drama to move the plot forward.
This story also dealt entirely in the supernatural. Alien worlds, strange powers, mysterious beings of light and shadow; actually there was very little in the story that was relatable to us and our everyday lives. I suppose there were humans and basic villages and depictions of nature, but all of these operated under different rules and physics than our own.
If there was one thing that the reader could find familiarity in, though, it would have to the be story’s themes. The call to become one’s truest self, the sense of fear at sacrifice, the personal quest against evil; all of these are very human experiences, and herein we find the allegorical nature of the story. By making all of the mundane and tangible things bizarre, it is instead the intangible familiars that shine through most clearly.
It’s been fun working on this story and this series as a whole. It’s certainly time to move on, though, and I look forward to exploring entirely new pastures when we begin a new series next week. Come back Monday to see where we’re headed.
One of the most valuable things about writing regularly is that you start to learn things about yourself you never knew. Perhaps one of the revelations that comes quickest is what aspects of writing you are bad at. Personally I’m bad at character descriptions. And by bad, I mean I just don’t even do it in most cases! I’m worried about dragging down the pace, so I blitz past giving the reader a mental image of any character. I guess I struggle with knowing how to tackle that in stride with the plot, and it’s something I need to get better at.
A little bit after discovering your weaknesses you will also get to know your strengths, a far more pleasant discovery! Obviously this is subjective, but I think I’m pretty good at incorporating messages into my stories. I’m able to have arcs that are “going somewhere.”
After your strengths and weaknesses further revelations will follow. You’ll learn how hard-working of a writer you are (or aren’t), how consistent, how many typos you’re likely to make for every thousand words written. You’ll start noticing the differences in how you write when you are happy and how you write when you are sad. You’ll learn how some of your scenes will be deeply moving to you when in some moods, only to be laughably corny when in another.
But one thing you may not fully realize until you’ve written for a decent while is what your style is. If I had been asked before this blog what my writing style was I really wouldn’t have known how to answer. The last time I wrote stories consistently was in my mid-teenage years, and those were “high fantasy adventures that are liberally inspired by Lord of the Rings.”
Now I still like high fantasy adventures, but I really don’t think I would say that is my particular style any longer. As I’ve paused to reflect on all of the titles that I’ve written for this blog I’ve been noticing some strong new trends emerging, ones that I had been entirely ignorant of while writing. Just this last series of short stories illustrates a lot of those common themes especially clearly. Let’s take a look at them.
First and foremost is allegory. With the Beast and Glimmer are both overflowing with it, and as I look back on all of the short stories I’ve written on this blog almost each has had some from of it at one point or another. I seem to like taking intangible concepts and bringing them to life as a character.
In With the Beast these principles are the various virtues and vices that can live within a man, the regret when the latter destroy the former, and the hope that the former never actually do die. In Glimmer the allegory is based on nothing less than good and evil, themselves! They are manifested in a ball of light, an eternal void, and the various souls that are moved by each. We see how good becomes personified, and how persons become good. We see the difference between active evil and inactive evil, and the dangers of both.
When I reflect on my stories from earlier in life I don’t find any allegories among them. I’ve reflected as to why that might have changed, and one event stands out the most to me as a likely turning point. As I mentioned before, it was my mid-teenage years that I last wrote stories consistently, and that period was brought to a close as I started at college.
While there I didn’t have so much time to write stories, as I began writing essays instead. At first essays were unnatural to me, and it was only after a great deal of practice that I began to really write them properly. With essays I had to learn to see things in terms of a culminating message, a thesis, a point where we say “and thus from all of this we learn…” I was learning to write in allegories and I didn’t even realize it. Now on the other side of college I find myself writing stories again, but ones that have been flavored by the allegorical lessons from college.
I tried to base my story The Heart of Something Wild in a situation that was based on reality…mostly. The specific tribe and location in Africa were works of fiction, of course, but were meant to represent something that could exist. But then, after establishing the familiar I threw something odd into the mix: a large and lethal bat-like creature with rows of finger-like mandibles and a deep sense of empathy. It was utterly bizarre and clearly a work of pure fantasy.
With the Beast also shares a setting and a place that are realistic, even if not contained within any actual history book. Mid-industrial era explorers come to a tropical island to begin a family enterprise. But all the while they are being followed by an invisible phantom, one that has an uncanny knowledge of their future and later in the story will become embodied as a supernatural beast.
Again, when I reflect on my other recent stories I continue to find more mixes of the ordinary with the supernatural. When I consider why that might be I suppose it has to do with being religious. I believe in a reality beyond the physical, and things like God and angels have certainly taken deep roots in my subconscious. By their nature these things are impossible to pin down in full definition. One may come to understand them better, but never perfectly. Thus they churn and gestate in the mind and heart, and the hands naturally express those ponderings through characters and prose. I think for many of us our writing is just a way of thinking-out-loud the things in the soul, and that stream of consciousness is often best expressed through the supernatural.
Writing in the short story format has been hard for me. It’s taken real effort to keep things moving along at a brisk pace, and even then I end up extending some of my stories out to parts 3, or 4, or 5. I’m looking at you, Glimmer.
That’s not to say that I don’t incorporate action into my stories, I certainly do, but usually in a single punch at the end. That was certainly the case for The Heart of Something Wild. I began the story with a promise of a duel, but then spent the entire story slowly building up to that moment. I wanted to raise the tension and stakes with a long burn, and didn’t want to release any of that pressure with mid-story moments of cathartic action. When at last I came to the promised battle it was fueled with all of that built up plot and drama, and I then stoked it further with a few moments of shock and intrigue.
For Glimmer I have followed the same basic pattern, but with a few variations. In the middle I introduced the enemy and included a brief battle. That scene was crafted to only raise tension, though, and not to resolve it. The hero spent the entirety fleeing, just trying to escape a foe she could not handle. I suppose she did have a triumph in the form of successfully escaping, but also anxiety for the future confrontation that is surely waiting in the wings. Then, with just this last section I finally let loose and it has been a much more drawn-out action sequence than in any of my previous stories. For the ending of this story to work, I really felt it needed to break its tension in a long and exhausting sprint to the finish.
There’s obvious reasons for wanting action in a story, but I’ve paused to consider why I specifically like it in the form of a slow burn that bursts out at the end. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that this pattern matches up very well with how I exercise. When I run, for example, I never sprint out a single rush. I don’t speed up and slow down in cycles, but neither do I hold the exact same pace all the way to the finish. What I do is run just slightly beneath my ideal pace, storing a pocket of fuel that I suddenly let loose at the end for a dramatic finish.
So when all the above is considered, just what is my particular style? I guess I would categorize it as some sort of “slow fantasy allegory.” I had no idea that this was my default when I first began this blog, but as I reflect on all of the stories here I find that the vast majority of them all fall under this very narrow genre.
There are, of course, some exceptions. A Minute at a Time stands out as a real outlier. In that story there is no action whatsoever, there are no supernatural elements, and there isn’t really anything that could be called an allegory. It’s just a very straightforward, quiet drama. And actually I really like it a lot.
Because, of course, having a particular style in no way means that you don’t like other options. I don’t know that I’ll ever be any good at writing a pure comedy, but I certainly enjoy well-crafted humor. And while almost none of my stories have featured any romance, I still appreciate when a heroic epic weaves love into its tapestry.
Who knows, maybe one day my particular style actually will stray into those categories. Because if there’s any main takeaway here, it’s that when you pause to consider why you write the way that you do, you’ll probably find that it is merely an extension of who you are today. And who you are as a person naturally evolves, and as it does the way you write will follow.
Certainly I want to branch out and challenge myself, exercising new skills can only improve my work as a whole. But while I do that learning and improving, I know I’ll also enjoy the times when I settle back into my cozy and familiar voice.
And you can bet that when I post the last section of Glimmer on Thursday, it’s going to involve a slow burn punctuated by moments of action, a hefty amount of allegory, and a strong presence of the supernatural. Personally, I’m looking forward to it very much.
Reylim didn’t need telling twice. She put her dagger back in its sheath, turned on the spot, and sprinted back towards the mountain. She was already panting, though not so much from exertion as from the tension of the moment. She knew she rushing into the moment of decision, and she was trying to push down the fresh waves of doubt and fear that were trying to break across her.
Instead she focused on the path ahead, watching as Glimmer’s light revealed the ever-increasing incline of the mountain. The grade was getting steep enough that she had to rein in her pace and lean further forwards. Then, suddenly, there came into relief a massive cliff face only a hundred paces ahead of her. She squinted through the darkness and saw that this mountain was truly nothing like what she had seen on her homeworld. It seemed to be comprised of a series of sheer walls, each stacked on top of the other with narrow ledges to mark where one ended and the next began. The whole thing ascended at an incredible rate, piercing high into the sky.
“I don’t know that I can scale this, Glimmer,” Reylim said, a slight panic to her voice.
And yet you must.
She glanced behind her and saw that Bolil and his band were already gaining on her. She may have had a headstart on them, but they were bounding forward with superhuman speed and would surely catch her before long. She steeled her brow and looked back to the cliff face, scanning its surface for every crevice and hold. She plotted out an approach in her mind, then turned up her pace, building up momentum as the dark stone expanded to fill her vision.
Reylim exhaled sharply and then leapt up towards the first ledge. She sailed higher than anticipated, catching the rock lip on her stomach. She was winded, but didn’t dare to pause, instead rolling all the rest of the way onto its surface. After that she scrambled up a particularly pockmarked portion of the next rock face, hand- and footholds coming easily so that she reached the next ledge and mounted it in a flash. She bounded to the back of this ledge and ducked inside a wide fissure in the rock face that stood there. She placed her hands and feet on each side of the fissure, then began scaling up it like a spider.
This crevice ran upwards nearly the full length of its rock face, which then capped off and sloped inwards to form the next ledge. As she climbed, Reylim glanced downwards and watched as Bolil and the other void-possessed shadows spilled onto the ledge directly beneath her. Bolil continued to lead them as they streamed into the fissure and followed her up its shaft.
Reylim glanced upwards. She was nearing the point where the fissure tapered down into a crack, one that was much too narrow to admit her. She would have to get out onto the face of the rock, which was sure to be a difficult maneuver. Looking downwards she saw Bolil hurtling upwards, pummeling his hands and feet at the rock and propelling himself upwards in a series of bursts. He would be crashing into her in mere moments.
“Um…” Reylim said anxiously, but suddenly an idea flashed in her mind. Without time to evaluate it she simply trusted her instincts and pulled her hands and feet from the wall. She slipped into a fall and Bolil seemed to rush up to her at twice the speed now. She saw his eyes grow wide as she collided with him, the two of them momentarily frozen in space as their opposite momentums cancelled one another out.
Reylim’s eyes were narrow and focused, and she used the split second to reach into the folds of Bolil’s clothing, grip the handle of the sword she knew he kept there, and pulled it free. Then she drove her feet back into either side of the fissure, careening wildly and spinning her arms to try and preserve balance. Meanwhile Bolil was knocked loose into a freefall, and he tumbled downwards, smashing into his compatriots and dislodging them as he went.
Reylim didn’t pause to watch the cascading fall, though she heard the sickening thuds down below as she continued her scale up the crevice. She held Bolil’s sword between her teeth, carrying it with her all the way to the top. Here she drew the blade out and thrust it upwards into the narrowing crack above, twisting it so that it locked in place. She wrapped both hands tightly around the hilt, giving a tug to be sure it would hold her weight.
“Glimmer, I think I’ll need some help,” she panted.
Of course, what can I do?
“Just invigorate me. The same as you did when I was fighting Bolil in the village.”
Glimmer sunk into her chest, and she felt her heartbeats grow deeper and stronger, pure energy flowing through her veins. Her arms and legs stopped shaking so much from fatigue and she took a deep, calming breath.
Reylim let go of the rock with her feet, swung her whole body backwards, and then kicked powerfully forwards. As she did so she also hauled in with her arms and flexed her entire core. The result was that she swung swiftly like a pendulum: out of the crevice, then up through air, and finally landing on the sloped rock above. She slapped her open palms down on the ground, gripping it to be sure she wouldn’t slide forward and down.
She was face-down looking at a sheer drop to the narrow ledges below. She could just make out all of the void-possessed bodies broken and scattered across the rock there. As she watched a darkness seemed to leak out from those bodies like black water. It pooled, spread, and quickly consumed them entirely. Shuddering Reylim began crawling backwards, moving up the slope until it eased out enough for her to get onto her feet and turn around.
You did well, Reylim, I am proud. I’m afraid we must keep moving, though, there is little time remaining.
Reylim looked to Glimmer as it emerged from the billowing folds of her robes. She noticed it was even further diminished, more dull than she had ever seen it before. She frowned in concern as she obediently continued her ascent, now scrambling over a series of boulders.
“You are hurt,” she observed. “I’ve never seen you so faded.”
Yes, Glimmer’s message came heavily. It is not just the strain, though. Our presence is bringing the shadows of the future into clearer and clearer focus. Their reality is straining against the shroud, overrunning our own. As you have seen.
“And that’s bad?” Reylim reached the top of the last boulder and now began climbing hand-over-hand up a narrow crack in the next rock face.
Here it is. The reality that is spilling out in this place happens to be one that is very dark. In the future the void will come to hold great sway here, and masses of men will overrun the land, almost all of them deeply shadowed. It drains me.
“This seems to be a particularly conflicted place,” Reylim observed, remembering the story Glimmer had told her of the villagers down below.
Yes, well, it is the Nexus.
“Glimmer,” Reylim said thoughtfully, “what will happen to this world? Do you know which side will win out in the end? Whether the void will just take it back over in time, or if it will eventually find its peace?”
Child, that is what we are deciding right now. If you and I fulfill our purpose then, in time, this world will find its way. You can be certain of that.
Reylim’s eyes grew misty. She could feel a fear lifting that she hadn’t recognized before. In this moment everything was calm enough that she could feel a flush of success rising within her. “Well we’re not seeing anyone else coming to attack us. Perhaps we’ve won already?”
I wish that was the case. But they know what we’re here for, and they’ll be pooling their strength just ahead of us.
Reylim rolled up onto the next ledge. She was breathing very hard now, and she felt her every movement coming slower and with less finesse. She looked upwards to see how far she had left to go, and to her surprise found that she could already see the summit of the mountain. For as sharply as it was rising it did not actually extend as far as she had feared. There remained one more craggy cliff face, and then a gentle slope that curved back beyond where Reylim could see. She was here. Taking a deep, steadying breath, Reylim began moving up the handholds of that cliff face, keeping her face turned up to that final destination. As she watched a wreath of darkness began to extend around that final ledge, spilling over its lip, seeming to reach out for her.
An incredible mass of dark entities was waiting on that surface above.
Reylim felt the panic she had been trying to ignore returning. She realized that she had subconsciously chosen to believe that the sentinel and Glimmer had been mistaken, that somehow she would be able to succeed without it costing her life. Seeing the mass awaiting to destroy her, though, she couldn’t ignore their prophecies any longer. She hadn’t grown as selfless as this moment called for and she wasn’t going to be able to see this through.
Reylim’s fingers began trembling, her legs began to shake. She was going to fall all the way back down to the ledge below. She was going to bounce off of that and down the next cliff face, all the way to the foot of the mountain. She had come all this way and was going to fail even before seeing the Nexus.
Her heart burned and she saw Glimmer’s glow emanating from her chest.
I know you don’t want this, Reylim. You can’t want this. But I promise you that it will be alright. I promise you. It will be alright.
Reylim bowed her head and fresh torrents of tears washed her cheeks. Her whole body shook with sobbing.
It is very hard.
Reylim raised one arm and gripped the next handhold.
I am so sorry.
She lifted a knee and stepped up.
I don’t want to die either.
She was too heartbroken to process that. She simply kept climbing. The ledge was growing very near now. A thought flitted by that she should have a strategy, a plan for what she was about to face up there. But the tears were still silently flowing and this moment seemed to stretch as eternity, filling all her capacity.
The clifftop was only five feet away. Why was it so quiet up there? Four. It seemed so surreal to be at this moment. Three. It wasn’t how she had envisioned the culmination of her life. Two… One… Reylim crested the ledge, far more smoothly now that she was being strengthened by Glimmer.
The mass hit her instantly, a swarming wall of black figures, their pitch darkness overflowing such that the details of the individuals beneath couldn’t be made out at all. Glimmer flashed a blinding brightness, and Reylim felt herself lifted in the air as the figures were propelled out in every direction. She rolled, landing on her feet in their midst. She ignored the dagger at her waist, instead sprinting forward. Ahead she could see a stone outcropping with two vertical pillars on either side. It had to be the Nexus.
Glimmer lowered down to her side, somehow both bright but strained at the same moment. As the dark shadows stumbled back to their feet they met its fury as it streaked back and forth, bursting crippling light across them at every turn. From their folds the phantoms drew out swords and daggers, all bristling with dark energy. They swiped at Glimmer, and Reylim had only just wondered whether they could actually do any harm to it when one of the blades connected. A visible gash seared across the orb of light, luminance trickling from it like blood.
“No!” Reylim screamed, turning away from the Nexus and diving into the horde crowding around Glimmer. As she sailed into them she flung out her foot, kicking one back to the ground. In a flash she drew her dagger and swung it in a wide arc, clipping through several of them at once. They hardly noticed, instead reaching out their dark arms for her now.
“Go, Glimmer, go!” She cried. “You need to get to the Nexus, not me!”
We both do. Glimmer’s usual calm communication now seemed so weak and faint, yet still strained with incredible urgency. Glimmer started floating away, heading in the direction of the Nexus.
One of the dark figures leapt for Reylim, she side-stepped it, but plunged her dagger into its center. She rolled with the torque, flipped round to the other side, then drew the blade out and turned to run after Glimmer.
She had barely gone three paces before another of the enemies barreled into her from the side. The dagger clattered to the stone, and the two of them tumbled to the ground. She turned the momentum into a roll, moving away from the thing’s grasp and bounding back to her feet. Another foe leapt at her but she ducked. It reached out as it overshot her and gripped her wrist, pulling her down to the ground again. She slammed into the stone, but ignored the pain, instead swinging her foot up to kick the creature’s grip loose. At the same moment a kick from another shadow-form caught her side, lifting her briefly into the air and then dropping her back to the ground.
She couldn’t react before two more forms landed on her back. Another gripped her wrist. Others continued spilling onto her, drowning her in their darkness. Between them she could barely make out Glimmer, having sensed her plight and now streaking back to her.
“No, Glimmer, no!” she pleaded. “It’s okay, I’m ready. You just go on!”
But Glimmer wasn’t listening. It barreled into the masses, billowing explosions of light at every turn. Before it had seemed to be pacing itself, expending its energy in a controlled measure. Now Reylim got the distinct sense that Glimmer was furious, a ball of burning rage. After each scorch of light it reduced down to barely a candle’s worth of illumination, but somehow still summoned enough essence for another burst.
The dark forms pressing Reylim down writhed wildly, trying to fling themselves from the light. At each flash the area around Glimmer loss all contrast, melting into the same fervent, white heat. Any portion of a shadowy figure that was caught in that brightness did not return after the illumination faded back down, resulting in severed limbs and bodies tumbling bloodlessly to the ground.
Though the dark forms leapt away as Glimmer flashed, they leapt back as it summoned power for its next blast, driving at it with their dark blades. Glimmer wound through their weapons with great dexterity, bobbing and spinning in a deadly dance. Yet their numbers, though dwindling, could not be denied and every now and again they clipped and chipped away another piece from the orb.
Reylim struggled against the few remaining enemies that had stayed to restrain her. She twisted with mad energy, contorting her body like a living pendulum into their dumb forms, knocking them loose one-at-a-time until at last she stood free.
“Glimmer!” she called bounding over to its continuing battle. It was not far to go, yet she could already tell it was too late. Glimmer’s movement was slow, sluggish, with only the occasional jerks of movement to throw its assailants off. One large shadow lifted a great axe, lifting it high into the air and swinging down with extraordinary force. The blade caught Glimmer full at the core, cleaving it cleanly in two.
Reylim dropped to her knees, skidding the final inches to Glimmer with hands outstretched to catch its falling halves in her hands.
“Oh Glimmer,” she cried softly, feeling its last embers melt into her palms, bleeding its heart into her own. The light was fading and all was turning black. The encroaching emptiness made the dark phantoms lose their definition, and they stopped moving after being absorbed into the pitchness. Everything became dark, just as it had been when she first arrived at the planet. Simple nothingness.
On Monday I spoke of the importance of few characters instead of many when it comes to making a story resonate with a reader. While a major point of Glimmer is that the world of Nocterra needs to be illuminated, more important is that Reylim needs to become the hero. Most of us cannot relate to the sensation of a world crisis, but her hesitation and fear can be recognized within us all. The idea of having a chance to do something powerfully good, but only at great personal cost, is something we both desire and dread in the same moment.
Though the struggle between those two emotions at first blush appears small enough to exist within a single individual, the reality is that these are two great infinites locked in eternal warfare through the medium of our souls. Mankind is the agent of the eternities and the quest for a single heart extends to time immemorial both in past and in future.
What does all this mean for the pragmatic writer though? Treat your individual characters with respect. Don’t just give them a personality and an arc, give them a soul. Make that soul worth something, make the reader care for what happens to it. Do this and you can make a fictional character an immortal person.
It was my intention to wrap up Glimmer with today’s post, but the tale needed to be drawn out a bit longer. Therefore I’m afraid you’ll need to wait one more week for the end of this story. Before that, though, I’ll take some time on Monday to examine the common themes that I’ve incorporated into all three of my short stories during this current series.
These themes are actually ones I didn’t consciously intend for them to share at the outset, but they occurred naturally. As I’ve reflected on them I’ve come to realize that they represent a particular style that I seem to fall into by default. Every writer has these default themes, and there’s a lot to be learned from discovering your own. Come back on Monday to see what I’ve been able to glean of it, and until then have a wonderful weekend!