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.

Massive Forces

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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:

  1. They are a distinct entity
  2. They have a personality
  3. They have individual desires
  4. 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.

The Heart of Something Wild: Part Three

red and orange fire
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Khalil’s blood was pounding, his heart was racing, his hands were clenched in fists. Then, in almighty rush the sights and the sounds of the tribe flooded back into focus. Some people were shrieking in fear, gesturing to Urafiki’s strange and twisted figure at Khalil’s feet. Others were sobbing in heartbreak, reaching for Paki’s fallen form. Others, only a few, were shouting in anger, crowding behind Abasi. And between them all Khalil stood alone.

“He cheated!” Abasi spat. “He revoked his right to a companion! And a creature cannot fight in the blood duel!”

“Abasi, you are a fool!” one of the elders chided. “He has just saved your life.”

“That wouldn’t have been necessary if he had not brought that monster into camp!”

“Abasi you have nothing to gain,” one of the women spoke up, “the challenge is over and Paki is dead.”

“But he was not slain by a member of the challenge. It is not honorable!”

Most of the people looked over to the head priest, he was the final word on the law of their tribe. The man was shaking his head gravely, clearly uneasy with his burden.

“It does not…seem honorable,” he finally muttered, then looked earnestly to Khalil.

Khalil understood. The priest knew that this was a gray area, and was hoping that Khalil would resolve the matter for them.

“No,” Khalil agreed. “It was not.”

The tide let loose again.

“Then Abasi is our new chief,” one of the warriors standing off to the side spoke up.

“He was not a challenger,” Paki’s mother chimed in. “Only a companion. Paki was challenger and Paki is chief.”

“He’s dead,” another woman said flatly.

“Then his son inherits the throne.”

There was quite a rumble of dissent at that.

“Perhaps Paki was not honorably defeated, but he didn’t win the challenge either!”

“He had been going to.”

“Evidently not!”

“How are you all forgetting that Khalil saved us from that creature!”

As each side began to shout over one another Khalil noticed various members of the tribe glancing over to him expectantly. They wanted him to speak up, to make a claim, to settle the matter for them. But he knew that wouldn’t work, the rifts were too deep. He would just become another of the contending voices pulling the tribe further apart. Besides, he had already tried to give the tribe a peaceful resolution and nature had intervened, so who was he to say what was right anymore?

So much had gone wrong this night. Khalil should not still be alive. Paki should not have been killed. Urafiki should not have had to die simply for defending its friend. Paki should not have ever betrayed him. So many wrongs: against their tribe, against nature, against friendship.

But above the agony of Khalil’s losses was the matter of his continued presence and how it was driving that rift between the brothers and sisters that he loved. He had tried before to decide for the tribe what was in their best interest, now all he could think to do was to let them to decide on their own. And to do that, he still needed to remove himself from them.

“Hear me!” Khalil finally said and the tumult quickly hushed. “Our law has been broken. I don’t just mean violated…it is broken into pieces. Each of you tries to claim one of those pieces but it will not all fit back together anymore.”

He paused and could see in the people’s faces that they agreed with his summary.

“Therefore all that remains is to build anew,” he continued. “You must find a new law this day and become a new tribe… And as such, I am no longer your chief,” he reached up to his chest and undid the clasp there, dropping his ceremonial mantle to the floor. Gasps of shock rippled through the crowd.

“I am responsible for everything falling apart. I am sorry.”

Another slight pause.

“I hereby exile myself that you may find your own way to continued peace and unity. May you be guided by wisdom.”

Tears glistened in Khalil’s eyes as he turned away from his people. He could hear their rumbling whispers, but he could not make out the words. He did not try to. Slowly, purposefully, he hobbled away from the fire, past the huts and the crops, beyond the fringe of their clearing, and into the wild that lay beyond.

He was vaguely aware that the arguing in the center of the camp had picked up again, and he found himself praying that they would be able to find their way. Stumbling over the thick foliage in the dark he felt his way still deeper and deeper. On occasion he looked over his shoulder to see if he could still glimpse the bonfire or hear the tribe’s heated debates.

He continued until there was no more sign of his people and he was enclosed entirely in the blackness of the night. Groping in the dark he found a large boulder and lowered himself into a seated position on it.

The darkness of the jungle pressed close against him and now the tears began to flow. Some were for Paki, his lost friend. Some were for the hate he had felt, his desire to kill that very friend for his betrayal. Some were for Urafiki, whose only crime was loyalty and carrying out that which Khalil intended. Some were for his tribe, fractured by the drama of the night. And finally some tears were reserved for himself, alone and broken, a man at odds with his own nature.

He wondered how long he would be able to survive out here on his own. Should he try to find shelter and food? He had great difficulty hunting with his low stamina, but he could try gathering resources. Even so, it would only be a matter of time before he became sick or found by some larger predator, and then he could only help the end would come quickly….

He shook his head, trying to change those thoughts. Instead he found himself wondering what he was supposed to have done differently. Should he have let Paki stand with him and died together as friends? Should he have left Urafiki to die alone on top of the mountain? Even with the tragedy of that night he still felt he had only made the choices that seemed right. At least at the time.

As he sat in the darkness his eyes became sensitive to little pinpricks of light and he found himself captivated by them. First were the patches of starry night sky visible above the canopy of the trees. He stared upwards at the partial signs they made to him, the incomplete guidance they tried to impart. He looked downwards and saw the drifting glow of the fireflies, the random meanderings of life. As he watched their swirling forms he noticed that some of the fireflies were growing larger than the others. Confused, he closed his eyes and shook his head, then looked back at them.

He realized he had mistaken the depth of the points of light and that some of them were actually torches drifting in his general direction. He stood up, his heart racing. Had Abasi argued his way into chiefdom and sent warriors out to dispose of him?

But no. The lights were far too many for that. They only had a score of warriors in their tribe and he could now make out at least fifty torches, all spread out evenly in a fan to find him.

Slowly realization set in. The tribe was following him into exile. Rather than try to salvage the pieces of a broken law they were willfully abandoning their home to follow him into the unknown. Somehow he had earned their trust and now they wanted his help to begin a new legacy. He called out to them.

***

This completes my story The Heart of Something Wild. If you have missed the previous sections of the story you can find the entire work here. Furthermore, it is possible to access all of my previous short stories in their entirety on this page. That page can also be found by selecting Collections from the top menu.

On Monday I spoke about underdog stories, ones where the hero wins not by being the biggest and strongest, but by persevering in what they believe to be right. A common method for this is in their winning the hearts of the masses, who then combine their strength together to overthrow the opposition. This is often the martyr whose sacrifice creates a cause greater than themselves. Ultimately I knew that this was an element I wanted to use in bringing The Heart of Something Wild to its resolution.

Obviously, though, our main character does not actually die the martyr’s death in this tale. Perhaps he intended to, but was frustrated in those designs. That was a creative decision, one where I meant to suggest that he was trying his best, but some higher power intervened to reward him for his selflessness and give him something better. That higher power is left open to interpretation, it could be nature, the spirits of his ancestors, karma, God, or something else.

I would say this example is different from the many unfortunate examples of stories that pretend they are going to feature a heroic sacrifice, and then chicken out at the last moment. This is one of my greatest narrative pet peeves, and I feel strongly enough about it that I’ll be dedicating my entire post on Monday to it. Then, on Thursday I’ll be presenting a new short story. I’ll see you then.