Oedipus is introduced at the outset of his story as a well-meaning king of Thebes. Not all is well in Thebes, though, the city has been cursed with a plague. Oedipus seeks guidance from the Oracle for how to dispel this plague, and she tells him it is a punishment for a imbalance of justice in the city. As she points out, the prior king’s murderer was never found or punished, and so the curse will remain until he is.
Anxious to bring relief to his people, Oedipus vows to track down this killer and bring him to justice. He relentlessly pursues the fiend…which makes things rather awkward when he discovers that he, himself is the perpetrator! Years ago he killed the king in a scuffle, believing the man to be someone else.
The irony does not end here though.
As it turns out, the king Oedipus killed is actually his own father. Why did Oedipus not recognize the man he fought as either his father or the king? Well, because his father tried to have Oedipus killed as an infant, after the Oracle predicted that the son would one day destroy him. Instead, Oedipus was left alone in the wild, until a husband and wife passed by and adopted him.
Thus the father set in motion the vehicle of his own destruction, and Oedipus’s sin of patricide, even if performed ignorantly, condemns the son as well. It is a tragic tale, but also a very balanced one. Characters do wrong things, and retribution finds them in a very poetic manner. It turns out that audiences greatly enjoy stories with this sort of balance. Whether or not they believe in karma for the real world, people tend to like it in their stories.
In my story, It’s Tough to Be a God, the main character has discovered a tool that permits him to create anything that he wishes. He does not appreciate the solemn responsibility that such power requires, though, and in a moment of foolishness, constructs two creatures for the sole pleasure of watching them fight to the death. He regrets that decision, and does not repeat it…but also he has not payed for that sin. As such, I feel the story lacks a cathartic balance, which I intend to correct in the next half of the story.
But balance, karma, and catharsis are not only about punishing characters in a story.
An essential element in most stories is character development, and often a story seeks to prove to the reader that the character is different at the end from how they were at the beginning. An excellent way to show this comparison is to have the character possess a flaw earlier in the story, and by it set in motion the karma that will destroy them at the end. Just as with Oedipus. But then a twist comes, because by the time we reach the end our hero has changed. They are no longer the same person that they were at the beginning, and they no longer possess the flaw that created the karmic demon. So they defeat it instead, freed from the past by having overcome it.
An excellent example of this sort of tale is the Disney animated film Aladdin. In this, the titular character discovers an object of immense power: a genie that will grant him three wishes. Aladdin squanders his first wish in selfish pursuit. He tries to achieve the life that he has always dreamed of. His second wish is burned in a moment of sudden danger. Then Aladdin decides to walk back on a promise he made to the genie, that he would free him with his third and final wish.
As Aladdin explains, if he frees the genie, then he loses his power. All of the façade he has carefully built up will be torn down, and he isn’t willing to lose control over his fate. This unwillingness to surrender control is Aladdin’s fatal flaw. Because of it, he leaves the door open for a new character to take power. Jafar steals the lamp, and like Aladdin, spends his first two wishes reaching for greater and greater power. Aladdin seeks to stop him, but he isn’t just facing a Sorcerer Sultan Jafar, he is facing the undeniable power of his own karmic justice. If this were Oedipus, Aladdin would now be destroyed for having been selfish before.
But then the twist comes. Aladdin knows Jafar’s weakness because it was his own weakness as well: insecurity. He knows that Jafar’s power is propped up only by the genie, and that Jafar’s greatest fear, like his, would be to lose control over that power. And so he appeals to that fear, and taunts Jafar. He points out that so long as the genie gave Jafar his power, he will always be able to take it away. Jafar takes the bait, and wishes to be made into a genie himself, unaware that the power he receives will be counterbalanced by eternal imprisonment. His karma catches up to him.
Aladdin defeats Jafar, but really he is defeating his own former self. And so, his first action upon gaining control of the original genie is to grant him the freedom he had promised. He is no longer required to pay for his crimes, because he isn’t a criminal anymore.
Scales of Justice)
As a reader, we require our stories to give us catharsis and balance. Subconsciously we are weighing the scales, silently waiting for each imbalance to be righted. But while we demand fulfillment, we are not so demanding as to how exactly it is delivered. Sometimes the sinner will pay for his own sins. Sometimes he might repent, and another sinner is tricked into paying for him. Sometimes a sacrificial lamb covers the cost. Just so long as the cost is paid, the story satisfies us.
Quite honestly I’m still trying to figure out how to make the balance work in It’s Tough to Be a God. I can feel that it isn’t there yet, and I will keep mulling it over until I find the right balance. I haven’t quite decided who must pay the price for Jeret’s wrongs in the end.
What I have decided, though, is in which form the karmic demons will arise. In my next post we will see how Jeret, by his own hand, has created the forces that seek to destroy him. Come back on Thursday to meet this specter of justice!
Strat recoiled in horror. How could Cirri have betrayed him like that? Like how he had betrayed her…
He shot his gaze out to the horizon, looking in the direction of the dust cloud. Already he could make out the community reforming upon it. They had found it, they were growing, they would be ready for him. Stratocirrus had left a guard to protect it, but that would have died at the same time as Cirri, when he Strat undid their pact.
Now was the time for decision. If he wanted, he might be able to run and hide. The community would no doubt hunt after him and seek their vengeance, but he might be able to find refuge in some migrating cloud caravan. On the other hand…he could try to challenge them for the resource. They would have the advantage, together they were larger, and they could take a defensive position. But still, it would be close. He might just be able to pull it off.
Strat’s face etched with hateful resolve and he spread himself to catch the wind. His tendrils groped about until one of them found a slipstream and hooked into it, rushing off towards the distant dust cloud and dragging the rest of him along with.
He kept his body stretched out like a javelin, maintaining maximum speed as he raced the distance to the community. They were drawing quite close now. He could already make out their sentries catching sight of him and scrambling to alert the others. If he wanted to perform a standard frontal assault he should start slowing down now. Instead he hurtled onward, rushing on the community before they could get up any defenses.
At the last possible second he spread his body out and stretched it into a mist. With his great velocity he continued streaking forward, piercing through to the heart of the dust cloud. Strat began congealing back together, and as he did so absorbed what dust particles he could into himself. Those particles bonded with stray water vapor in the air, and from that new cloud patches began to accumulate on him, slowly building up his body.
Of course the downside to his daring charge was that he was now smack in the midst of the cloud community as well, and they were descending on him with murderous intent. They had already become engorged in their brief period among the dust, and were large enough to have complete temperature and pressure control. They tightened themselves together, working as a unit to lower the temperature around them, causing mighty ripples of wind angled straight for Strat.
Strat groaned in frustration as the currents whipped his form. He tried to tighten himself, but that made the more powerful gusts cleave entire chunks off of him. If he let himself go limp then he would be more elastic, and would not lose pieces of himself, but then he would be blown away from the dust field.
Thinking quickly Strat clenched tighter and strove for some semblance of temperature control himself. He wasn’t so mighty as the community, but he was able to have some influence on the air around him. He hastily created a simple updraft and then dissipated himself into that wind.
The combined pressure of the community wind and his own updraft spun him up and out in a wide arc, moving him out of their line of fire. As soon as he was clear of them he thrust out his arms, separating half of his essence into a horde of Sub-Nimbos that descended on the front-lines of the community.
A vicious scuffle there commenced. The smaller, individual entities wrestled with one another, trying to overpower the consciousness of their foes. It was a strange battle, one where individual entities might be overpowered and change ranks many times over, an ever-shifting balance of power. Each side understood the basics of front-line tactics, things like giving way in the middle so that the enemy platoons would advance quickly there, then pinching inwards and cutting those platoons off of from the rest of their fellows, where they could be taken over in isolation. That then provided a center of strength that could thrust out at the other side.
And while there were fewer Sub-Nimbos, they had the benefit of sharing a core instinct. Each one’s mind was their own, but each could vaguely sense when their fellow was in distress. It was soon apparent that the battle was evenly matched.
But it was only a distraction. For while it raged on in the front, a portion of Strat and the community remained lurking behind, accumulating more and more mass into themselves. Strat was siphoning in the additional mass as quickly as he could. It resulted in a weaker bonding, and left him with imperfect control over himself, but he ballooned up impressively, far more than the community, who were accumulating at a slower, more controlled rate.
“No more trading,” Strat breathed out to his Subs, then he flung himself over their heads and into the heart of the community.
The Subs shifted their strategy according to their master’s instructions. Instead of trying to overcome the consciousness of their foes they now sought to tear them apart. Casualties would be permanent, the lifeless clumps of severed cloud entities tossed unceremoniously to the side.
Very quickly the community caught on to the change and began to respond in kind. The numbers dwindled quickly on both sides, but more so for the community. Strat’s Sub-parts were willing to fight more recklessly as their demise didn’t really mean anything, given that they were only clones. When each community member was torn to pieces, however, they were gone forever.
Strat wove in and out and around that community, snaking about like a terrible phantom, always in motion. He threw out a crunching fist here, he dispersed a mass of Sub-units there. He took daring gambles, losing much of his mass at one turn and then destroying more of the community at another.
Soon there were no front-lines or behind-lines at all. The two sides were completely entwined, fighting among a soup of friends and foes. Dead corpses were thrown every direction. The number of community members decreased, while the size of the living increased, thus balancing out the balance of the battle. Now they were only a score of souls.
And what of Strat? As his core was cleaved away and replaced with hurriedly siphoned matter he became more and more disjointed. His behavior started to become erratic. Sometimes he would drop entire chunks of himself, sometimes he would shoot out bolts of lightning without intending to, sometimes he would damage himself instead of his foes. He became less and less of a person, and more and more like a wild animal.
The battle shifted accordingly. It was now between the community and this feral beast. They positioned themselves around it and took turns jabbing out at its haunches, cleaving off what corners they could. At first it lashed out reactively to these attacks, but eventually its strikes became truly random. Many were thrust out into useless, empty space, but every now and again one would happen to zero in on a community member. And when it did, those thrusts came with such power and zeal that they could not be denied. The unlucky soul was crushed in an instant.
Two sides went into the war, but only hollow shells would emerge if anything at all.
The only real increase was that of the of dead matter. Everywhere stray puffs of lifeless cloud floated lazily. It got in the way of the battle, dampening blows until it was hastily thrown to the side. Usually to the same side, to a single quadrant of the sky that the battle remain apart from.
As that dead detritus accumulated in one place it began to compress and merge under its own weight. It grew colder and tighter and darker. Every now and again it would twitch when a stray synapse in its dead mass fired at random.
It was already larger than all the surviving community members and Strat combined, and whatever dust was not claimed by those warring sides naturally accumulated on this largest entity. And so its growth became exponential. Dead matter upon dead matter upon dead matter. Higher and higher it rose, becoming a wall extending nearly to the stratosphere. Its face clapped with blanket lightning and its core grew dark as night. Wind began to whip around it, a cold chill bursting out in gusts, and small droplets condensed in the air, hung for a moment, then fell for a final rest on earth.
Even in the heat of their battle the community members could not ignore the chilling bite in the air. As one they turned and witnessed the behemoth raising high, arcing forward, and forming a ceiling above them. Its underside was tumultuous and rumbling, about to burst.
They didn’t even try to run, it wouldn’t have made any difference.
There came a loud crack and then the deluge fell. Millions of raindrops every second, the entire mass giving itself away in a flowing torrent. Each raindrop plunged through the warring clouds like a tiny bullet. Inch-by-inch the entities were blurred and smeared. Though they tried to hold themselves together they could not resist the endless cascade, and eventually all streaked out into a rainfall of their own.
All of the remaining members of the community, all the fractured pieces of Strat, all the corpses, all the idle grains of dust still remaining in the air. All sins were washed away indiscriminately. It took time, the rainfall lasted for hours, but when at last the cleansing was done not a single cloud remained to be seen.
And so the unblocked sun shone brightly on the muddy ground and baked it with its heat. After a little while faint tendrils of steam could be seen lifting off the ground’s surface. Embryonic streams of water vapor lifting into the sky, invisible until some future time when they would condense into clouds.
Perhaps this next time they would manage things better.
I mentioned a couple of posts ago how I wanted to bring a monster into Once Among the Clouds. A monster that was formless and amorphous, and also that was a product of the main characters’ flaws. I was, of course, referencing the massive dead cloud that brings about the literal downfall of both warring parties.
Stories often include some tipping point where the momentum of a main character becomes a force unto itself. Up to this point that character might have changed his or her mind and turned from the path. But after this critical point there is no going back, because now gravity has taken hold and the consequences cannot be denied. In a heroic epic this is the point where the protagonist rejects the offer for a last retreat and commits to seeing their adventure to the end, come what may. In a tragedy this is the point where one crosses a line of such depravity that all hope for reclamation is lost.
In Once Among the Clouds I consider that point of hopelessness to be quite early in the story, it is the very moment where Cirri and Strat first decide to take the dust cloud for themselves. The destruction of them all was destined from that single decision.
In my last post I also talked about how even the most original of stories find their roots in the work of others. I personally think that the world and mechanics of Once Among the Clouds are incredibly unique and novel, but as I have just detailed, its characters and themes are as old as anything in literature. Even the ending, where the spent clouds are born anew as water vapor is simply a reinterpretation of the age-old theme of new beginnings. In fact, that metaphor perfectly encapsulates the work of creativity itself: simply giving new skin to old bones.
I’m about ready to close off this current series of stories, but before I do there is one last short piece I want to write. And in that story I want to examine a theme that has been present in all this series: that of the great, undefined something. Instructions Not Included, Cael: Darkness and Light, and now Once Among the Clouds have each featured something large, something unseen, something not understood. This is a common archetype of stories, and I’d like to take a closer look at it. Come back Monday where I’ll do just that, and until then have a wonderful weekend!
Characters are everything in a story. They represent our different ideals and beliefs, they give us an emotional anchor, and they serve as the bridge to immerse us into the world of the story. If a story was devoid of any characters then it really would not qualify as a narrative, it could more accurately be called a bland list of events.
Obviously the most common form of a character is that of a human character, or else an object or animal that has been anthropomorphized to behave like a human. The key qualities of this sort of character are as follows:
They are a distinct entity
They have a personality
They have individual desires
They have the ability to choose
When a character possesses each of these attributes then readers will consider it a person, and assume that it is similar to them. If any of these qualities are missing then it is no longer considered a person, instead it might be seen as an object, or a machine, or an illusion, or a piece of set dressing. Even if the subject in question is depicted as a human, if it never shows any personality or individuality then it will be considered a non-essential “extra.”
This phenomena of fiction is called out in a very meta way during an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, one entitled The Measure of a Man. Here we see the android member of the crew, Data, facing a trial to determine whether he has any “human” rights or not. There are several philosophical arguments presented as to what it means to be alive, but the fact is the audience themselves are already settled on the matter long before the case even begins.
This is because the audience has already seen that Data acts autonomously, driven by his own desires, and in possession of his own distinct personality. Even if Data weren’t humanoid in appearance, the audience would have already accepted him as a person, far more so than the show’s countless “human” extras who are introduced and killed off without ever uttering a single word.
But while every person in a story is a character, not every character is necessarily a person. Specifically I wish to examine the characters that have desire, and even personality, but which never manifest as distinct or embodied beings. These are characters that are never seen, but are felt everywhere throughout a story’s pages.
Often these sorts of characters take the form of some great force in the world, such as nature, karma, or God. Examples of these characters would include the operating-behind-the-scenes aliens in Midnight Special and Escape to Witch Mountain. It is the Force in Star Wars. It is the plague in Oedipus.
One of my favorite examples, though, is from a little-known Iranian film called the Color of Paradise. Here a man is trying to achieve status and comfort in the world, all while shirking his duties to his blind son. No matter how hard he works to improve his station everything falls apart, seemingly as though some intelligent being is actively resisting him. That being is never seen and never named, but the viewer understands it to be the natural karma for the unkindness he has shown to his son. He will never be able to succeed until he has first made things right in the home.
Thus we see that the karma in this story wants something. It has opinions, and it has the ability to interact as an equal with all other characters. It serves the necessary role of bringing balance to a world of unbalanced men.
During my current series of stories it was my intention to incorporate some of these hidden characters in each of my tales. Let’s take a look at how I did so.
The first short piece I posted was the intro to the novel I am currently working on, which is entitled With the Beast. In this intro the reader arrives at an isolated island, here to witness a tragic memory, a memory of deep personal regret. Associated with this memory is a family of four characters, each of which represent different virtues and ideals. By this we understand that this memory is allegorical, a memory that personifies concepts and feelings.
But as each of these concepts are now embodied as persons it is now the readers themselves that become the unseen force. The exact details of what it is they regret are shrouded by the nature of the allegory and instead become reduced to a vague force of will. One way this is represented is by the very island that the story takes place on. Our four adventurers have come to try and develop a promising future, wresting from the land riches and accomplishment. In that way this island is a character that resists and concedes to their efforts, and what exactly it is meant to symbolize is left open to interpretation by the reader.
After With the Beast I posted a story called The Heart of Something Wild. This story features a man who has just inherited rule over his tribe in Africa. He knows that certain members of that tribe will try to challenge his right to rule, and for the sake of preserving peace he intends to let them depose him.
Though he tries to do just that, the main character finds that some force subverts all of his actions and ultimately restores rule back to him. That force, as the title of the story suggests, is the Wild. The story is meant to suggest that above politics and man-made laws there are also measures and balances more eternal. When necessary, those more eternal forces will intervene in our lives to bring about what is right. My greatest fear with this story would be that readers saw the end as a deus ex machina moment where everything just coincidentally seems to turn right for the hero. It wasn’t a coincidence, it was the conscious influence of an immortal nature.
Finally, just this last Thursday I posted the second section of Glimmer. In this segment I introduced the threat to our main character and her mission. This opposition did not take the form of a living, breathing character, though, but rather of an infinite void. This void possess neither emotions nor desires, it simply expands in such a way that undoes all life and existence. This makes it fundamentally an enemy of all living beings, although this short story suggests we bring the void upon ourselves when we hide from bravery and mute our yearnings to live as heroes.
This is therefore a force both grand and universal, but also personal and intimate. It did not make sense to me for any conscious being to have this sort of range, it would have been impossible to keep track of all its infinite perspectives. Also I feel it makes the essence more terrifying if it merely flows onward as an unyielding force of nature, immune to any appeals of pathos.
It’s easy when designing a story to forget about these larger-than-life characters, but successfully incorporating them can add a fascinating dynamic to the whole. The presence of these characters speaks to a common intuition that there are things out there bigger than us. It suggests that for man to chart his course successfully through life, he needs to take into account forces both seen and unseen.
Obviously there are plenty of stories that these sorts of characters might not be a good fit for, but if you’ve been looking for an extra layer of depth in your work this might be just what you needed. Come back on Thursday when we’ll see the continued manifestations of our infinite and impersonal void in part three of Glimmer.