Glimmer: Part Four

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three

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.

Part Five

*

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!

Glimmer: Part One

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“Nocterra is extinguished. No light of any sort can be detected there, and so the world has been plunged into perfect dark. Without contrast there is no perspective. There is no conflict and there is no becoming. It is known that life was prepared to exist, but without any driving forces it has been left in a form of perfect stasis.

“There is something else, too. Something deep and dark and hidden, an entity of nothingness that cannot be defined because it blends in perfectly with all the rest of the nothingness that surrounds it. It is what fuels the void there.”

The sentinel paused, and Reylim nodded to signify that she understood. In all honesty, she did not fully understand, but she grasped the main points at least. The land was dark. The people were frozen. It was the fault of that dark entity.

“You will be sent there to reignite the planet and allow the divine struggle to wage there. The light that you provide to it will serve as a catalyst towards virtue, whilst that dark entity will remain to pull towards vice. Evil will propagate, and so heroes will, of necessity, arise. You shall be the first hero, and the mold from which every other will follow. In time, they will be able to wrest the good out of the darkness, and secure their own peace and prosperity.”

Reylim nodded solemnly.

“And you will die.”

Reylim started at that, an involuntary shudder that encompassed her entire body. The sentinel must have noticed, but did not seem surprised or disturbed. Perhaps it was because her eyes held firm, even if now shining slightly, and she nodded solemnly once more.

“How am I meant to proceed?” she queried.

“The sanctity of your quest must be preserved,” the sentinel cautioned. “For it to mean anything, it truly must be your own. But, do not fear that you shall find your way. When you arrive you will know what to do.”

Reylim stared, the wetness in her eyes growing.

“What is it?” the sentinel asked.

“Might I fail?”

For the first time the sentinel dropped his severe tone and became the compassionate mentor Reylim knew. He bent down to lift her chin and stroked his other hand through her hair.

“For the sanctity of your quest, there must be an opposition. And if there is opposition there must be a risk of defeat…. But… you are ready.”

She smiled and blinked, the tears making marks down her cheeks.

“And you will not be alone.”

She furrowed her brow at that but the sentinel did not say any more. Instead he rose and began unbuckling his staff from his side.

“Reylim, daughter of the highest order,” he said impressively, twirling the white rod up and around before catching it firmly in his palms, “with your permission I will send you to the planet Nocterra, that you may bring fire and hope to all that live there.”

Reylim assumed a warrior’s stance and wiped the tears from her face. “I am ready.” She heard herself say the statement, and felt it ring encouragement into her.

“May your Glimmer guide you.”

The ball at the end of the sentinel’s staff glowed brighter and brighter, illuminating Reylim, and even overpowering her image. Her round face, still youthful and freckled lost its dimensions and became a white sheet. The raven tresses that curled under her chin glowed to the point of transparency, and all the loose folds of her ceremonial robes disintegrated into the scorch.

To Reylim, though, it appeared that it was the entire room that was bleeding into the white, every form and figure being consumed until all was pure brightness. Then, slowly, all began to fade in unison, passing through every shade of gray and finally to perfect black. She felt cold stone beneath her bare feet and a stagnant chill in the air. She was somewhere else.

Reylim shivered, unnerved by the stark transformation and unsure of what to do in such pitch emptiness. She brought her hands to her eyes but could not see them. She tossed her head around but could not even make out varying shades of black, only a complete and perfect void. Her lip was trembling and a faint whimper emerged from her lips. It was her first exhale into that strange world and it came out of her throat as a slightly glowing mist. She gasped in delighted surprise, and as her heartbeat quickened she noticed a soft illuminance about her core.

“My Glimmer!” she exclaimed. Though she had felt its stirrings within her at many times this was the first time she had ever been able to perceive it naturally. Perhaps it was faint, but it was hers, and she delighted to see that it was there. Slowly the light was spreading through her veins, each part of her becoming vaguely luminescent. Crouching down to the ground and placing her hand on the surface she was able to just make out the black stone that lay there, smooth and flat and slightly marbled.

In little grooves of the rock she could barely make out some tiny plants pressing out into the air. Her light was not enough to make out their proper color, but she could see that each had three round leaves that swayed ever so slightly whenever her light grew nearer.

So caught up was she with her little discoveries that at first she did not notice the pale gray light inching across the ground towards her until it crept across her outstretched fingers. Snapping her head upwards she tried to make out its source, but could not. The horizon was simply a dull gray in one direction, perfect black everywhere else. As surprised as she was by this development she was more so to find that her own luminescence was now pooling to the edge of her that faced that gray horizon, as if straining to meet it.

“May your Glimmer guide you?” she echoed. “I didn’t realize he was being so literal!”

She began making her way towards the source of light, but found the going very awkward. The sheet of rock she moved across was at times laid over by another slate of stone, a few inches higher than the previous. The first few of this transitions she tripped painfully over, before learning to feel the space in front of her before committing to the next step. It was hardly better than being completely blind, and her progress was incredibly slow.

At some points there were large gouges in the rock, too, depressions that dropped as her whole height and stretched twice as wide across. These she became even more wary of, dropping to all fours and feeling her way down into their recesses and then back up their other side.

With time, though, the going became easier. Slowly, but steadily, the illumination was increasing, by which she knew that she could not be too far from the source of the light. Before long the glow was bright enough to cast shadows. Very long shadows they were, too, strange and stretched forms that tangled together behind her. By this she knew that the source  of light must not be very high above the ground.

Between the clumps of light and shadow she gained a patchwork understanding of the terrain she traveled. It was a very long and flat stretch of land, extending far in every direction. And it was dry. She could see no source of water, and unsurprisingly no signs of animal life. The flora was almost nonexistent as well, only those tiny saplings that snaked out wherever the rock was cracked.

Most important, though, was the light, and soon she became aware of a single orb ahead, a concentrated ball that had to be the source. She was surprised to find that she could look at it directly. Indeed its core barely appeared any brighter than the splash of light laying across her feet. The light had a grayish-blue tint, and it was not perfectly uniform. Even from her distance she could make out little dark marks speckled around its surface, like little craters on a moon.

Of a sudden she realized that her perception of depth had been off, and what she had assumed to be a gigantic ball far in the distance was actually a very small sphere close ahead of her. All at once she was standing underneath it, close enough that she could reach up to touch it if she wanted.

It did not make sense that something so small and dim could have illuminated so great a stretch of land. And yet here it was, small enough to fit in the palm of her hand and gentle enough that she could stare directly at it.

Reylim slowly began to pace around it, taking it in from every angle and contemplating what to do next. Slowly, cautiously, she extended a hand out towards it, and as she did so a low hum emanated from the orb and the portion of it closest to her hand intensified in brightness. She drew her hand back again and it returned to normal.

She blinked a few times, then extended her hand out again, watching the sphere respond to her proximity once more. This time she also became aware that her own inner light was pooling up into her outstretched arm like a fluid, almost bursting out to meet the sphere.

Reylim paused, licked her lips contemplatively, then pressed her hand all the way to meet the orb. A crackling sensation rippled along her arm and small droplets of pure water began to shimmer along her skin. Then they ran down her arm like streams of pure liquid energy. Her own light had a yellowish tint, but it began to blend with the blue from the sphere, combining into a white that encompassed them both.

Reylim.

She was not startled, perhaps because she did not actually hear a voice. She only felt the words.

“Yes?” she responded.

I am glad you found me.

“Me too!” she almost laughed from relief. “It was quite dark here at first and I had started to think it would always be like that. They told me no light could be detected down here.”

It always would have been if you had not come. I had none to shine to.

“Oh…” she said, not really understanding. “And…what are you?”

You do not recognize me? Even though I am already a part of you?

Reylim paused to consider that. “Are you…one of the Glimmers?… My Glimmer?”

There is only one. ‘Your Glimmer,’ as you call it, and all others are reflections of the one.

Reylim’s heart pounded rapidly, and she began to shake. “You are the Glimmer?” she gasped. Of course everyone’s personal Glimmer was the mark of divinity, but this then was the divinity itself!

What you see now is, again, only a reflection. My entity is not constrained to a single place or time on your level. Though a sphere of light may appear here on Nocterra, and another on your own home-world, and still another within yourself, yet all are the same entity.

“Oh…” Reylim said slowly. “That is very different from what I was taught.”

You have been enlightened.

“I suppose I–hey!” she suddenly laughed as she noticed a pun in its declaration, then paused as she wondered if laughing was disrespectful.

I am glad you enjoyed that. Though she still did not hear an actual voice, she felt a warmth and even a mirth with the message.

She smiled, feeling the weight of formality relaxing from her. She allowed herself to pause just to let all of this information to sink in, contemplating what it meant. Glimmer did not try to interrupt her, and she felt certain it did not mind being patient.

“So…” she eventually spoke back up. “You said there was none other here for you to shine to? I was told there were people here, though. You can’t shine to them?”

No, the thought came heavily, I am not within them and thus cannot empower them. At least not now. But with your help that could be changed and I would very much like to shine to all that are here.

“That’s what I have come here for,” she exclaimed excitedly.

It is why you were sent, but is it why you came?

“What do you mean?”

Are you ready, Reylim?

She paused, the sentinel’s claim that she would die on this journey flashing painfully in her mind. Of course Glimmer would already know all of the hesitations in her heart.

“I–don’t know. I’m sorry.”

It is not wrong for you to be afraid.

“I am ready to have a quest, and I am ready to fight to help this land. But I do not know how far I am ready to follow that…” she felt both ashamed to admit it, but also relieved by the honesty.

Reylim, that is your quest and fight. To see how far your heart can go. It is good for you to be unsure, so that your journey may begin. But before we do anything else, I need to you to understand. You are not broken by being afraid. You are all right inside.

A bubble of pride swelled within her and tears moistened her eyes. “Then I am ready to begin.”

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

*

As I mentioned on Monday, sacrifice is a very powerful element to incorporate in a story. It is something that should not be played with lightly, and I specifically endeavored in this section of the story to give it the gravity it deserved. I think a good way to do that is with a character that does not want to be a sacrifice, that immediately makes their plight all the more pitiful.

One thing that I did intentionally was to spread Reylim’s hesitation to be a sacrifice across a two different moments in the story. In my experience if you want to stress a point, it is more impactful if you repeat it at a few different moments than to spend a long time on it only once. By this way you also create a layering effect, one where you introduce a concept, and then stagger its arc with others that are occurring beneath it.

That idea of layering plots, and particularly of staggering them, is one I’m going to delve into with my next post on Monday. I’ll also point out how I have been using this mechanic for each of  the stories this series: With the Beast, The Heart of Something Wild, and Glimmer. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!

Main Character Exit, Stage Right

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One of the most common metrics people use when deciding the quality of a story is how it makes them feel. A story that makes one feel more is considered better than a story that makes one feel less. Interestingly, we even appreciate the stories that make us feel deeply negative emotions. A tale that ends in tragedy instantly seems to have an air of greater maturity and significance about it.

Obviously the most efficient way to bring great sadness to a story is through the death of a main character. This can give your readers quite the shock as well, because stories often reflect life the way we feel it is “supposed to be.” The two lovers come together, evil is defeated, and peace reigns supreme. So when a wrench gets thrown into this happy formula and a main character leaves their artificial world prematurely, we feel pretty shaken up.

When dealing with such powerful elements, though, authors need to exercise the utmost of care. Any craftsman can tell you that a very powerful tool can accomplish very powerful things, but only when it is used in the right way.

In my opinion our core emotions, such as fear, love, joy, and grief are powerful, sacred things. Because of their power it is easy for us to get addicted to them, and we may start looking for artificial ways to produce them. Authors should not be so profane as to take advantage of such readers.

Authors should instead take great care that they do not activate these core emotions without meaningful intent. It is fine for a story to evoke powerful feelings if it has a worthy point to communicate in the process, otherwise the story is disrespecting the sanctity of these feelings, likely to make a quick buck.

 

Meaningful Character Death)

Therefore it is important that if a character is to die that it feels appropriate. A big frustration of mine is when a tale shoehorns in a character death simply to try and give itself an importance that has not been earned.

The 1950 film Cheaper by the Dozen features the antics of a family with twelve children. That family is quirky, to say the least, and much of the drama is based around their simultaneous love and embarrassment of one another. It’s a charming film, sprinkled with little provincial wisdoms throughout. “No person with inner dignity is ever embarrassed.” And then, at the end, the father suddenly dies.

Nothing in the film has been leading to this moment and nothing significant is obtained by it. Really it just feels like the story didn’t know how to end and figured a gut-punch was as good an option as any. Rather than landing with the intended gravity it instead just gives the film a disjointed experience.

An important writing rule you should live by is to never pen a plot point for the sole purpose of eliciting a specific emotion. You should never kill a character only to make the reader sad. When a character dies it should happen because it is fitting, because it is right for their arc, because it brings a satisfying closure to the whole.

Of course, for every rule there is also an exception. Consider the most classic sad story of them all: Romeo and Juliet. This story doubles the ante on most tragic endings by closing with the death of not just one, but two main characters! When we look for the narrative meaning to their deaths, though, we come up short. Their deaths seem senseless, the result of a mistake, and devoid of any point. And that, ironically, is the point. These deaths should not have happened, and that is the great tragedy of the story. When hatred kills love there is no closure or satisfaction to be found. Thus we are sad, but we are sad meaningfully.

 

Sacrifice)

If there is any plot device that can elicit a more powerful reaction than a tragic death, it must be the death that is also a sacrifice for some greater good. Sacrifice affects us on a level so deep that it seems to be sacred. We are moved by it, even if we do not fully understand why.

Once again, though, with such potent power there also comes a great risk of horrible misuse. The absolute worst way to employ sacrifice is to dilute it with overuse and cheap manipulation. Consider the stories that repeatedly pretend they are going to sacrifice a character so that the audience feels sad, only to flip the script at the last moment so that now the audience feels relieved at the character’s survival. It’s tawdry and manipulative.

Sadly, there are many stories that do exactly this. You need not look any further than comic book plots or old cowboy serials to find a deluge of this trick. The hero “dies” for their cause and everyone feels very, very sad. Then, suddenly, the hero comes back, and they were never dead at all. They were too tough to die, or too wily, or maybe just too lucky. As I said in my last post, this gimmick is one of my greatest pet peeves in stories. You might be forgiven for trying this once or twice, but stories ceaselessly repeat this stunt in a way that insults the intelligence of their audience.

This isn’t to say that a doomed character cannot be saved in a way that doesn’t feel cheap. A week ago I mentioned the Disney animated film Hercules for its portrayal of a hero fighting an uphill battle. This also happens to be a story where the main character intends to sacrifice himself but is saved by divine intervention, all while still respecting its audience’s intelligence.

You see Hercules only survives because he is sacrificing himself. His great dream is to be reinstated as a god, but is told that he cannot until he achieves the status of a “true hero.” Unsure of what that means, he continues along his way and ultimately comes to love a woman who dies and is taken to the underworld. He makes a deal with Hades to exchange his life for hers, fully intending to carry through with the bargain. It is that act of sacrifice, one which carries on right to the moment that the fates cut his thread of life, that defines him as a true hero. He becomes a god in the very moment of his demise and survives his own death. Not because he is tough, or wily, or lucky, but because he was willing to give his all for what is right.

Perhaps one of the greatest tales of sacrifice though is the one story I’ve mentioned more than any other on this blog. In A Tale of Two Cities Sydney Carton is hardly the character one would expect to be a martyr, he is a drunk and a cynic, a man of great potential that has squandered it all in purchase of misery and regret.

In the last chapters, though, he sees his chance to trade his life for that of the man he envies most, the man he feels he could have been. By carrying through with this sacrifice and bearing that man’s death it as though he has also earned his life. He becomes calm, confident, and content, and wishes for no more. In return for paying the ultimate price he reclaims not one, but two lives that day.

 

That idea of reclamation is truly at the heart of sacrifice, and stories can provide a duality of emotions by it. If a martyr wins the hearts of others through their own death then there can be triumph through defeat, and happiness in the same moment as sadness. That makes for a very fascinating narrative experience, and I’m going to try and capture it with my next short story. This Thursday I will post the first part of that story. That first portion will not include the actual act of sacrifice, but it will introduce us to the character that has been consigned to die for the greater good.

I’ll see you then.