Black and White

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

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

Evil Things)

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

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

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

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

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

Villains are Evil)

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

Well, almost this is unheard of in a story.

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

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

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

Is There Any Evil?)

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

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

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

Evil Without, Evil Within)

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

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

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

Hope in the End)

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

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

The Storm: Part Two

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Part One

“Alright, I’m ready to go now,” Harry’s voice broke from the radio.

“I’ll pull forward until the line gets tight,” Oscar explained. “Then you throw your engine on and you give whatever you’ve got just to keep us level, understand? I’ll do the pulling and I’ll warn you for every turn, you just make sure you stay right behind me and maintain the tension.”

“Of course Oscar. And Oscar…thank you, I really didn’t think anyone was going to come for me.”

“Don’t mention it.” It wasn’t a polite deference. It was an order, and Oscar surprised himself at how much of a growl it came out with. He shook his head and pushed the throttle control forward. His engine churned back to life and his trawler lurched forward once more.

Oscar eased back a little, not wanting to hit tension on the rope too hard. A few yards more and he felt his vessel shudder from stem to stern and his beam groaned ominously. He didn’t hear anything break though, and a quick glance backwards showed the line running out straight and true to Harry’s boat.

“Alright,” Oscar called into the mic. “I’m going to bear a little starboard here. You keep going straight at first and let the rope just pull you into line.”

“I know, Oscar. I know.”

If you know so much then why are you the only one out here with a crippled engine? Oscar thought bitterly. Sure, bad luck hit them all, but it seemed to hit Harry a suspicious amount more than any of the other sailors.

Oscar turned the wheel and turned himself twenty degrees. This put him at a slant to the waves, and now they were beating like Poseidon’s drum against his hull, drenching his deck with their foaming spray. The air around him had gone from that deep gray to murky black, like he had submerged himself in an ink bottle. He had to squint to make out the faintest edges of the Broken Horn’s outline, soon he would have nothing to go by but his instruments. If they could only make it around the cape then they would be able to see the lighthouse and could flow up to it with the waves at their backs. But that prospect of getting around the Horn was enough to make Oscar grit his teeth in apprehension.

What had he been thinking? Was it so important to prove that he was not the sort to let another man be lost to the sea?

A reverberating whine sounded from behind and Oscar glanced over his shoulder to see Harry’s boat sliding starboard, pulling the rope down at an angle.

“I said stay straight!” he shouted into the mic.

“I’m trying!” Harry’s panicked voice shrieked back. “It’s just my motor can’t keep up! It’s too much!” Oscar bit his wrinkled lip and spun the wheel back to port. They could try a shallower angle into the waves.

15? He glanced back but the rope was still moving the wrong way, scraping across the corner of his deck.

10? Now the rope held almost steady, wavering back and forth.

8. And at last the rope moved back to center.

“I’ve got it!” Harry’s voice called in relief. But Oscar wasn’t relieved. At this shallower angle it would take more than twice as long to get across the cape, pushing deeper out into the heart of the sea and giving the storm that much longer to bring its full wrath upon them.

Oscar looked ahead into that ink. He barely saw each of the waves before they broke across him and his small vessel. Each one raised high above his cabin, tipping his boat skywards, then breaking across in a fury and leaving him in a sheer drop down the trough on the other side.

These were tense moments, ones where a sailor would grip his wheel tighter than he knew. Oscar’s eyes stared out, unblinking, each wave rolling into him a miniature trauma.

“I can’t do this,” he muttered in a voice that was barely audible. “I don’t have it in me anymore.”

“You don’t have a choice anymore,” he said back to himself.

A spasm crossed his face.

“I’m sorry James.”

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“Isn’t it? I let him go with Harry. I wasn’t there for him.”

Oscar had his wheel cranked as hard to port as possible, but was still losing ground. The waves were pushing him sideways, trying to get him broadside where they could swallow him all at once. His boat was sluggish in responding, likely due to the weight of water beginning to collect in its hold.

Oscar spat in frustration. Sometimes you had to tease the ocean into thinking it had won, sometimes you had to play along to catch it by surprise. And so as he crested the next wave he threw his wheel to the right. His boat swung easily, tipping to starboard as the water in its hold rushed to fill that side. His boat pitched down the sloping back of the wave and he swung the wheel back to port. With the aid of gravity and the momentum of the water rushing over to that side he found the extra push he needed to pull back into line.

“Oscar…” Harry’s voice was halting and unsure. “We’re far enough out. You could get around the cape if you turned now…if you weren’t towing me that is.”

“Well I am towing you Harry.”

“Oscar I knew it would be you who came for me. I just knew it would be. The sea knows I’ve done wrong by you…and it’s brought you here to make things right.”

“Harry, I’m not interested in talking. At all.”

“I lied to you Oscar.”

The next wave stretched up twice as big as any previous. They were definitely into the heart of the sea’s vast depths. Oscar let go of the mic, fastening both hands to the wheel and bracing for impact.

Harry continued. “James…did not forget to tie down a safety line when that storm caught us all those years ago. We both secured them as soon as we knew we were in trouble. Then we dashed around the boat trying to tie everything else down. I went up to the stern and he went aft. The boat just kept keeling side-to-side, each time seemed for sure it would be the one that threw us in the drink.”

A mighty crack sounded as one of the lines on Oscar’s boat snapped. He wasn’t sure which one it was, he didn’t check to see. Still Harry went on.

“Each wave swamped us, took our feet out from under and half drowned us. I was praying and cursing with what breath I had left. Made my way back to the mainmast and still kept throwing knots off and on at every turn.”

The next wave pushed hard against Oscar’s boat. He broke through its crest, but his boat rolled into the air on its starboard edge. Oscar flung his arms to the side, trying to maintain balance as the boat sought to right itself. The towing rope tugged his boat back onto its hull with a thunderous crash.

Each of Harry’s words tore violently from the inside out. Yet the man continued. “Then the next wave washed over us, the biggest one yet. It was a froth. I couldn’t see. It seemed like an eternity but finally it washed away. I was facing towards the rear of the boat and…and I saw nothing. Just nothing. James… wasn’t there.”

A tide of water swept into the cabin and Oscar slipped to his knees. He still gripped the wheel, and unseeing tried to hold his way through the wave.

“I undid his safety line, Oscar. I–I don’t know how, but I did. Somehow in all my blundering I pulled it up with the other knots… I–I killed him!” Harry’s voice was shuddering heavily and his words gasped out between heavy sobs. “And ever since then I let you believe you lost your son because of his own mistake…” Harry’s voice was finally lost entirely in the screeching of the wind, a phantom screaming over all the sea.

Oscar’s eyes flowed steady streams. His mouth was open but silent, his whole body heaving empty air. He gripped the wheel tightest of all now, holding onto it for dear life.

When Harry’s voice came back it was stiller, muted by stony shock. “I undid the wrong lifeline that day Oscar. And fifteen years later I’m still waiting for someone to undo it for me because I’m too much a coward to do it myself… So why don’t you let me go now?”

Oscar’s heart beat inside him again. Beat like it would tear him right in two. His eyes were pointed towards the waves but he did not see them. They pounded over his boat and he did nothing. They pushed him, turned him, slow degree by slow degree they pointed him back to shore.

A faint light tore the night and shone right in Oscar’s eye.

“Sam,” he croaked. He lifted his left hand back to the wheel. He was surprised to realize it had been floating over the control to release the beam’s rope. How had it gotten there? Oscar adjusted his feet, planted himself firmly, and straightened his boat out for its final approach.

Now with the waves and the wind behind them they pounded forward with all the fury of the sea gods. The cape slid by them on the starboard side, just barely a safe distance to squeak by without tearing their hulls on the shoals.

Oscar didn’t touch the mic. Harry’s voice didn’t rise again from it.

Oscar’s boat moved straight past the docks. He didn’t have it in him to try and navigate a proper landing, indeed he had had nerve enough for one task only: the beach. His boat shuddered as it scraped across the turf, then it keeled to its starboard side. Oscar stumbled out of his berth, pitched over the railing and flopped onto the wet sand beneath. Still the wind roared and the rain pelted but he didn’t feel them. It didn’t even register as Harry’s boat crunched across the sand right next to him, almost crushing him with how near it came.

“Oscar!” a voice shouted out, Harry up on his deck. “Oscar, where are you?!”

Harry flung himself over his own railing and onto the sand, almost running straight into Oscar before he finally saw him there.

“Oscar, speak to me man!”

Another voice was calling out from the distance. Sam’s lantern swinging through the dark in their direction.

“Oscar?” Harry said softly, putting his hands under the man’s armpits and raising him to his feet.

“I–I don’t know what to do Harry,” Oscar finally mumbled out. “I just don’t know what happens now.”

A long silence.

“I don’t know either.”

A short silence.

“Oscar, let’s go talk to Sam. He’ll know what to do.”

“Alright, let’s go talk to Sam.”

Harry put Oscar’s arm around his shoulders, then they turned their backs to the sea and hobbled towards the swinging light.

 

This brings us to the conclusion of The Storm, and also to the end of our current series. As I explained a few posts ago, the theme for this series was that of “the chase.” In this story Oscar is chasing after a man missing in a storm, but more so he is chasing for closure and peace, though he himself does not know it.

I mentioned before posting this story that my ambition with it was to provide two chases. One that was linear and which could progress to a state of resolution, and another which was cyclical and never-ending.

At first there only appears to be the one cyclical chase, one of grief and resentment. Oscar is aching for the loss of his son. That ache leads him to despise both Harry and himself for the parts they played in that loss. Though he does not know it, he has been chasing for vengeance, but passively. He has not sought to kill Harry directly, but he harbors hate for him and at times wishes that the man would just meet an untimely end.

Then, in this story, he learns that Harry was even more culpable in his son’s death than he had realized, and is at last given the perfect opportunity to end that man. Rather than desecrate his son’s memory with a murder, though, he determines just to go home.

From my author’s perspective I would say that Oscar had not previously allowed himself to process his grief. Blocking that grief has been an abiding hate, one which has grown a husk over his hurt, like the barnacles clinging to his ship’s prow. He needed to be broken down so that he could get back to the raw and childlike bewilderment that he had buried beneath.

And so now the cycle of grief still remains for him, that chase will never fully end. The chase of hate, though, has at last been brought to its end.

 

But as I explained last week, all this characterization did not even exist in the original concept for The Storm. Oscar’s obstacles and the way he deals with them and what exactly goes on in his soul are all elements that would not have existed in the game that I originally intended this story to be.

Yet it still would have had a central character, that of the player. And my ultimate hope would have been that the experience would have served as a mirror to show the player where they were in their own journey with burdens of grief and hate.

In this way Oscar’s character may have turned out for one player to be someone tender and forgiving, and for another someone harsh and vengeful. Both manifestations of him would be as true as the person behind the controls.

In any case, this brings us to the end of this series. Next week we’ll be off to something entirely new. I look forward to seeing you then!

Just a Little Diametric Opposition

Yin_yang

Lately I’ve discovered a new favorite food condiment. It’s pepper jam. The combination of sweet and spicy, two flavors that usually stand in contrast to one another, is a very arresting experience. Each side of this pairing has to be kept in just the right balance, though, otherwise one side overwhelms the other and ruins the effect.

And just what is that effect? What is it about contrasting tastes that captivates our fascination and pleasure? To answer this I consider the wisdom of our friend Ishmael, in Moby Dick. “To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.”

If ever I eat something sweet, and nothing but sweet, soon enough the sweetness of it will be lost on me and the food becomes disinteresting. But when I eat something with contrast, let’s say a salted caramel, then I am constantly experiencing both the salt and the sweet at the same moment. I cannot become over-saturated with either because the other keeps it fresh and novel. By entertaining two tastes at once I am able to longer appreciate the depths of each.

This same principle holds true for writing as well. If we present our themes and characters to the audience and they are all very similar to one another, the reader will quickly become over-saturated and the work will feel flat. But by allowing multiple contrasting elements to occupy the same page the story will become textured and interesting. Over the last month I’ve been trying to do just that, writing stories that walked two lines at once, and with each story I tried to capture a different facet of contrast in writing.

To begin with I posted The Last Grasshopper, which dealt heavily with themes of birth and death, old and new. However the piece was meant to challenge the idea that these elements are actually the opposites we initially think them to be. These themes were presented against a backdrop of seasons changing continuously from one to another and then back again, suggesting that birth and death are not dichotomous from one another, but may actually be two points along a continuous spectrum. A spectrum that, in fact, cycles back on itself, meaning that neither of these two states is able to exist without the other.

In this way I was trying to echo an idea from one of my favorite stories of all time: L’homme qui Plantait des Arbres (The Man Who Planted Trees). In this tale we meet an old man who has spent his entire life planting seeds in a stark and barren wasteland. Over the course of years and then decades, an entire half century in all, this man sees his life work accumulate in massive and lush forests, an entire transformation of the surrounding climate, and a joy of life restored to the locals who live in that region. The situation at the beginning of the tale and at the end seem to belong to completely opposite worlds, and yet they occupy the same geographic space. The tale suggests that barrenness and lushness exist on the same continuum as one another, in fact they define the continuum, and traversal along it would not be possible without the presence of both. And that traversal is negotiated simply by the amount of steady, continual cultivation we are willing to commit to.

That challenge of continual good effort was examined more closely in my next story. Cursed presented a father and a son who both loved one another, and yet had a terrible rift due to their contrasting priorities. The father was trying to relieve the son of a moral burden, but prematurely, before the son was able to naturally overcome his own failings. The result was necessary conflict. They cannot avoid one another, they are father and son, but they cannot see eye-to-eye and so there is opposition. I meant for this to be a reflection of life experience, where we strive for good, but by necessity live a world with constant opposition to that good. We cannot simply divorce ourselves from all the evil, we just have to try to wrest something good out of an eternal battle.

I find a very similar sort of message in the John Steinbeck novella Of Mice and Men. Here we have men who hope. Though they have been beaten down before in life yet they must still hope because that is human nature. However there is no reason to assume that their hopes will be realized, and in the face of increasing opposition we start to feel that their “hopes” are actually only “wishes,” ones for which there will be no granting. The story ends tragically, a somber end that does not rest in the greener fields that were hoped for. Or does it? It seems the story suggests that the contrast of evil and good may find their roots in the world around us and the world that awaits after death. Perhaps here wishes get crushed, only to be granted afterwards.

That idea of solutions that come outside of the box was something I wanted to explore in my third story. In A Minute at a Time we again meet a father and son at odds with one another. It seems, again, that neither can find relief except for at the expense of the other. But then they relinquish their goals for a moment of honest vulnerability. They commiserate together and realize that at their core all they really need is one another. I meant to suggest that opposites can be resolved, and perhaps that resolution comes at a cost of letting them go.

Of course overcoming opposition at a cost is a very common theme to stories. Perhaps the evil of the world can be defeated, but what sacrifices are you willing to pay to accomplish that feat? The video game Alan Wake provided a meta commentary on this. In that story the titular character finds a dark story manifesting itself into the real world, establishing a plot of wanton destruction. As a writer, he is trying to redirect the arc of that story, a feat that was previously attempted unsuccessfully by a poet, Thomas Zane. As Alan Wake explains, Thomas Zane failed because he tried to rewrite the ending of the story to be bright and cheerful at no cost. As Alan says: “There’s light, and there’s darkness. Cause and effect. There’s guilt and there’s atonement. But the scales always need to balance. Everything has a price. That’s where Zane had gone wrong. There’s a long journey through the night back into the light.” He writes a new ending, one where his objective is obtained, but only at great cost, the loss of himself. The story accepts this offering, and thus ends things on a bittersweet note.

At this point I felt that things had gotten quite heavy. What’s more I didn’t want to leave things feeling like all this war of opposition had to always be so grim and unpleasant. The fact is most of us actively enjoy doing sacrificing for another’s happiness. And we often find that we have guidance and help in our long journeys of self improvement. Gifts from Daniel Bronn…and Jerry was meant to capture that more cheerful side of contrasts. Daniel is happy and kind, Jerry is jaded and reserved. Now in the first half of the story these two sides have been shown as being in opposition to one another. In fact that first half ends with Jerry planning to terminate his own employment to get away from the friction he is feeling.

Next week I’ll be completing that story, and in that second half we will see that like salt and caramel, the Daniel and Jerry can combine for something greater. Daniel, with his wealth and compassion, will provide the means for the charitable contributions. Jerry, with his experience on the rougher side of life, will be able to actually deliver the gifts with a needed dose of empathy and understanding. They’ll still be two very different men at the end, but that won’t be putting them in opposition any more. This is actually a theme I’ve explored before on this blog, in one of my very first stories: Scars and Soothing.

Hopefully this series of stories has been to illustrate the infinite possibilities of mixing and matching the many contrasting flavors of story-telling. Keep your stories interesting by putting them at odds with themselves. Give them tensions by establishing fundamental opposition. Give them nuance by suggesting those contrasts may not actually be so opposed to one another as originally believed.

I’ll see you next Thursday with the end of Gifts From Daniel Bronn…and Jerry. After that we’ll be finished with this bittersweet series, and on to something entirely new. I’m excited to see with you what the new year will bring!