Rebirth

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It’s always interesting to meet an old friend after years apart. Sometimes the person has changed entirely, and it feels like you’re new acquaintances all over again, meeting for the very first time. You’re trying to figure out who this person has transformed into, and perhaps a bit sad that the old friend is gone forever. One of the most common fears we have is the fear of change after all.

But at the same time, the worst fate I could think of is to have a life of never changing or evolving. I wouldn’t want a friend, someone that I care about, to be trapped in some sort of Peter Pan situation of never progressing. I would rather want for each of us to be moving forward to bigger and better things, improving ourselves  and making accomplishments that we can be proud of. It’s been said that the day you stop learning is the day you start dying after all.

I remember the first time my family moved. I was about fifteen and I felt deeply divided between excitement for the new possibilities, and sorrow at the loss of all I had known. Having conflicting feelings for the same situation is inherently interesting, and naturally invites creative exploration. No wonder then that the idea of “change” has always been so central to literature.

Stories have long dedicated themselves to examining the phenomenon of change from every possible angle. There are stories where the change is quiet and subtle. Consider the novel Mrs. Dalloway, where Richard decides that he wants to tell his wife that he loves her, though it has been years since he has done so. And then, of course, there are times when the change is quite sudden and dramatic, such as from the very same novel when Septimus decides he will die rather than surrender his private soul.

Most stories are a combination of both subtle and dramatic changes, but obviously the latter grab our attention more. Dramatic changes can be recognized as the momentous occasions which serve as inflection points to the entire narrative, the bends in the river that shape the way it flows.

But we can limit our scope even further. There is a subcategory of changes in literature where one character ceases to be the person that they were, and thus becomes someone else. This sort of total transformation can be found in even the most ancient of fairy tales and religious texts, across all different cultures, and in a great number of stories of today.

It is interesting to note that these sorts of rebirths are very often composed with the exact same symbols and forms as one another. It seems that deep in our psyche we all believe that transformations such as these tend to come with specific trappings. There are four of them in all: an element of a loss, a calling, a mask, and a return.

 

The Loss)

Loss is inherent in transformation. Subtle changes might allow for a character to remain essentially the same, but transformation demands that something is let go. For every butterfly that emerges from a chrysalis there must come first the loss of a caterpillar. The loss is always something very significant too, something that is often taken against the main character’s wishes

Think of Luke Skywalker, Simba, and Bruce Wayne. Each lose their parent figures at the beginning of their tales. Edmond Dantes loses his freedom after being wrongfully accused. Paul, the Apostle, loses his sight on the road to Damascus.

Growth through pain seems to be one of the universal truths of our world, so it makes sense that it would accompany the transformations we write into our stories. For a character to have space for their new identity, then something about their current identity has to be taken out first. Now there is a hole inside of them, and what follows depends on how that hole is handled.

If the hole remains vacant then the character becomes a hollow shell of who they once were, an old husk that never recovers from their wounds. If it is filled with bitterness then they become a villain, broken and shaped by a cruel world. If it is filled with something noble, then they become the hero. It will only be filled with something noble, though, if that something noble calls out to them.

 

The Calling)

It is always right when our character hits bottom that something comes along to call them to something higher. This is one of the few times in a story where perfect timing will not be accused of being a coincidence. This isn’t dumb luck, you see, this is fate. The loss only happened because the calling was coming, or else the calling only came because the loss summoned it. Either way readers naturally accept that there is a cause-and-effect relationship here, and so they do not question the convenience of it.

And so Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke to learn the ways of the Force, the ghost of Simba’s Father reminds him of who he once was, Bruce Wayne commits himself to fighting injustice, Edmond is given both an education and a secret by Faria, and Paul hears the voice of the Lord.

The presence of callings in our lives means that our loss is not merely suffering for suffering’s sake. It suggests that our pain might be happening for a reason, that there is a purpose to it all. It takes the pessimism out of the pain and gives us hope for a healing.

As I mentioned above, the character that does not find their calling grows cold and cynical, they come to see the world as a place of random chance and inherent injustice. However there is also the possibility that the calling did come, but it was ignored. The calling will never be to do something easy, it has to require an entirely new way of life after all.

To the character willing to answer the call things will never be the same again. The calling shrouds that sufferer in some new, and now the transformation truly begins.

 

The Mask)

In real life it is commonly observed that after one has gone through an experience of personal transformation they somehow now “look different.” Exactly what has changed might be hard to pin down: a light in the eyes perhaps, a glow in the face, a subtle altering of the complexion. Some sort of ethereal mask seems to have lowered over their face, a change that is sensed more than seen.

In stories these changes are usually made far more explicit. Luke dons the robes and weapon of a Jedi Knight, Simba grows into an adult with a full mane, Bruce Wayne crafts a cape and cowl, Edmond assumes the title of a Count, and Saul begins to call himself Paul. They all now have a new identity, an image, or a name. It is something that makes their change tangible and quantifiable. Other characters and the audience can see the difference in them and know they are dealing with someone new.

We humans are remarkably capable of perceiving things that are invisible, imaginary, and internal. Even so, we usually seek for ways to bring physical representation to them all. We have our crucifixes, our sobriety chips, our gold medals, our college diplomas, and our wedding rings. None of these add directly to our faith, our strength, our intelligence, or our commitment, but they can be useful as reminders of them. Sometimes people fail to use their greater strength simply because they forget that they even have it. Similarly a hero in story often uses their mask to remind themselves of their new identity, and to steel their fortitude whenever the validity of their calling is challenged.

 

The Return)

Finally, the full effect of a transformation can only be fully appreciated after the character is compared to what they were before. This might be as simple as having them come home to their humble beginnings for all their old friends to gape in awe at them, or else it might be to revisit an old temptation that they previously succumbed to. Either way the change is made evident in how the familiar situation now has an unfamiliar outcome.

Luke saves the friends that initially thought so little of him, Simba goes home to face the uncle that drove him away, Bruce brings justice to the man who unjustly killed his parents, Edmond exacts both revenge and mercy upon those who misused him, Paul joins the disciples and suffers the same way he once made them suffer.

It is the return that proves to us that the change is real. Until we are put back into the same scenario we might believe that it is only our surroundings which have been altered, and not our core natures. Returning to the same state, then, is the control which proves the transformation has been internal and not external. We truly are something new.

 

Thus far in Power Suit Racing I have incorporated the first phases of transformation in Taki’s tale. It began with him losing the love of his life, and with it his entire sense of purpose and identity. He wandered with a hole, unsure of his identity when he heard a voice calling out with an invitation. That invitation was to pursue a new venture, one that non-coincidentally involved donning a suit which altered his appearance.

But as we’ll see in my next post, sometimes when one puts on the garb of the future they find it doesn’t quite fit yet. Thursday’s entry will show the process by which he is able to fill the measure of this new person that he is becoming. And then, a week later, we will see the return where he will be compared to the person he used to be. I’ll see you then.

Now You See Me

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I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena of human behavior at work this last little while. We’ve been hiring a lot of new employees and there seems to be a pattern where you only meet the new hire’s mask on their first day, and then the actual person a few weeks later.

This is a common social pattern, of course. When we find ourselves in an unfamiliar environment we feel endangered. Perhaps not physically endangered, but socially endangered. We wish to protect ourselves by wearing a persona that we expect to be better received. For some that persona is more loud and confident than they really feel, for others it is more quiet and reserved. I fall into that latter category. When I start a new job or move to a new residence I hardly speak at all, then, after a few weeks I start to come out of my shell, crack jokes, and share about the things that really interest me.

It’s always interesting when meeting someone for the first time to wonder who they really are, and to look forward to eventually figuring that out. You might say you should never judge a book by its cover…. Pretty smooth segue, don’t you think 😉

In literature there are all manner of first impressions and later revelations. From the very first pages the reader is making first impressions of the story and themes as a whole, and also of the individual characters as they meet each one. But sometimes these first impressions don’t bear out through the rest of the story, and that can be both a good or a bad thing. Let’s look at both aspects.

 

The Story)

In a prior post I spoke of how a good opening can establish the tone of the narrative and also introduce the main arc that will carry the tale. But there is another aspect of a story’s opening that authors have to deal with, that of providing a hook, something that will convince the reader to forge past the first chapter all the way to the end. Opening your story with a mystery or a problem that is intriguing is how you convince the reader that your book is going to be worth their time.

The danger here, though, is that it is very easy to promise more than your story can deliver, as it is far easier to write a compelling beginning than a satisfying ending. Sadly there are many stories where strong characters, an interesting world, and a creative mechanic quickly establish an intriguing premise, but then just meander aimlessly to a weak conclusion. In this instance the story’s first chapter truly is a facade, one that looks impressive and suggests extravagant interiors, but behind is only enough lattice to make the story marketable.

I consider it poor taste to give specific examples of poorly crafted work, but I’m sure you can readily recall many such examples of this shortcoming on your own. Fortunately there are more positive examples we can consider, and one of my favorites is the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

By and large Doyle is a master of capturing intrigue at the outset of his tales and then delivering satisfaction by their close. His general template often involves a hook where Holmes is presented a baffling case, a recount of  the detective’s investigation, and finally gives a clever solution that neatly answers all that had seemed impossible.

Even more impressive is that Doyle realized his formula had become expected, and so he began to alter the pattern to surprise the reader with an even better ending than anticipated. The Adventure of the Yellow Face is my favorite example of this.

 

The Characters)

And then of course there are the individual characters of the story. In most cases a story’s characters are fully understood at all times. They may have arcs and changes, but at each moment they are telling you who they honestly are at that point. The heroes really are good, and the villains really are bad, and if a villain is going to transform into someone good or a hero into someone bad, all of these changes will be signaled well in advance. Thus nothing about them really catches us by surprise.

But although most characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, there are those that refuse to show you all of their cards until later in the game. These sudden reveals can come with powerful shifts in tone and perspective, and will certainly capture the audience’s attention.

Take special note, though: even if the author may not be foreshadowing this change and it comes as a surprise, still it must not feel random. If a character simply flips their entire personality at the drop of a hat then it just becomes ludicrous.

One of the central mysteries in the biopic Capote is whether Perry Smith is the murderous terror that the press has made him out to be. All throughout the film Perry maintains that he is more innocent than has been portrayed, and speaks in such a refined and sensitive manner that we have our misgivings to his guilt. And so this continues, right up to the point that he bluntly details how he carried out every one of the monstrous acts of which he has been accused.

The reason the scene lands so well is because as shocking as the revelation is, we still fully accept this new perspective of Perry. Perhaps the label of a raging monster did not fit with the quiet demeanor he portrayed, but that of a quiet monster does. We are able to accept this more encompassing perspective of sweetness laced with menace.

In the first section of The Heart of Something Wild I introduced three main characters and established their basic identities. In the second entry I intend to have a moment of transition where some of these roles will change, and the characters’ deeper natures will suddenly be revealed.

At the same time, though, I will need to ensure that the ending of the story remains satisfying, too. I cannot simply shake reader’s expectations loose to the point that they lose their capacity to care about the outcomes. I think it will be challenging to pull off, and I’m excited to give it a try. Come back on Thursday to see what I am able to make of it!

Phillip the Mouse: His Mask and Grandfather’s Kite

Phillip the Mouse and His Mask

One fine Summer day Phillip the Mouse was outside stacking some blocks on the ground. He was so busy trying to build it as high as possible that he didn’t notice when Baxter, the local bully, came over by his side. “Hey, watch out!” Baxter shouted, and then he punched the tower apart with a laugh. All the blocks went flying and one of them hit Phillip right on the nose. Phillip was both surprised and hurt, and before he knew it he was sitting back on the ground crying. Baxter looked a little uncomfortable about that, but he shook his head and said, “Why are you screwing your face up like that? It makes you look all ugly!” Then he stomped away.

Phillip felt very self-conscious and ashamed. He tried to stop crying but it was very hard. He didn’t want to just sit there and look ugly, so he thought of what he could do. Suddenly he had what seemed to be a wonderful idea. Without a word he stood up and rushed into his house. He found some paper and string, markers and glue, and he set to work making a mask. He made a beautiful mouse-face and drew the biggest smile on it that he could. It looked perfect. He tied it on and decided to wear it forever.

Later that day Phillip’s mother came home and gave him a big hug. She smiled at his mask and asked him how his day was.

“It was great!” Phillip tried to say enthusiastically, but there was a little shake in his voice.

“Are you sure?” she asked compassionately. Phillip wasn’t sure why, but there was something about her soft voice that made him feel his sadness growing behind the mask.

“It was okay,” Phillip said, and wet tears were starting to show through the paper of the mask.

“Phillip, can you please take your mask off?” she asked.

Phillip shook his head and stepped back. “It’s a good mask,” he said. “It’s always happy and handsome, it never scrunches up or cries.”

“Phillip,” she said gently. “I like your real face more, I’d always rather see that.”

“Even if it’s ugly and crying?”

“Always,” she said firmly.

Phillip slowly took the mask away and his Mommy saw how sad he really was. She gave him a hug and just held him for a while. Then he told her about what had happened with the blocks and Baxter. That made him cry even more and she held him for all of that, too.

“I’m so sorry that happened to you today, Phillip,” she told him. “Thank you for telling me, that was a very brave thing to do. Phillip…I want you to always remember that you never need to be ashamed of your tears. Your face is the most beautiful thing I know and always will be.”

And with that, Phillip smiled. A real one this time.

Phillip the Mouse and His Grandfather’s Kite

One gray and windy day Phillip was feeling confused. His parents had told him that his grandfather was very sick, and that he might not get better. Phillip didn’t understand this. Every time Phillip got ill his parents just gave him rest and maybe some medicine and then he felt better soon enough. Why was it different with grandfather? Phillip’s parents said it had to do with being very old, and that grandfather might need to leave them, which was also confusing to Phillip. Phillip didn’t want his grandfather to leave them.

All of this had made Phillip think about a fine kite that he had made with his grandfather just last summer. They had decided to make it on a blustery day like today, but by the time the glue set the wind had died down and they hadn’t been able to fly it. Phillip’s grandfather had said he would come back another time to fly it with Phillip, but that day had never come. And so, Phillip now decided he had to fly it by himself. For some reason that seemed like a good thing to do with this concerning news from his parents.

Phillip went outside with his kite and soon he had it soaring through the air. It really was a very good kite. It caught the wind easily and held its position very straight and strong. Phillip never had problems with it swirling down or crashing into the ground. As Phillip continued to fly it the wind started to become even stronger. Soon he could feel the kite pulling hard against the reel in his hands. He gripped it tightly, and decided he better pull the line in before the wind picked up anymore. Phillips started turning the reel, pulling the line down as a sudden gust of wind came, pulling the line up.

SNAP!

The string broke in two and it tumbled lifelessly to the ground at Phillip’s feet. Phillip stared down at it for a moment, then back up to the kite. He expected the kite to fall as well, but it didn’t. It swayed around for a little bit, and then a wave of the wind carried it up higher and higher towards a cloud. Phillip felt very strange. Sad… but not like he needed to cry. As he watched, the kite slowly faded into the cloud until he couldn’t see it anymore. Phillip kept watching the same spot on the cloud for a while, just thinking and feeling.

As Phillip turned to walk home he still felt sad, but also alright. It wasn’t the happiest thing to lose grandfather’s kite, but at least he knew where it was. Any time a cloud would pass its shadow over him he couldn’t help but wonder if grandfather’s kite was there, watching him from afar. Somehow that made everything okay.

***

It’s been a wonderful privilege to share these Phillip the Mouse stories. These last two in particular were ones where I wanted to imbue the stories with something special, something that I’m proud of. Even though they were designed for my toddler son, I didn’t want take advantage of his more accepting nature, I wanted to work on them until I could get them right and make them of as high quality as I’m capable. Like I said in my post on Monday, our children, of all people, are the most deserving and needing of our very best.

Also I feel these stories are not just children’s stories. They are stories for everyone. They explore concepts we all deal with and all need to face one way or another. Perhaps my son won’t fully understand all these ideas now, but I hope the seed will be there so he recognizes them when they do come up in life.

This will conclude the Phillip the Mouse series, and next week we’ll be off to somewhere entirely new. Have a good weekend and I’ll see you then.