One decade ago I served a mission for my church, and there were a lot of rules that we missionaries were expected to abide by. Our days were regimented out on a very specific schedule, we were to follow a rigid dress code, we avoided all forms of entertainment media, and we were expected to uphold a very careful image.
Some missionaries took the rules to heart. They sincerely tried their best every day to follow them to the letter. Other missionaries, considered them to be suggestions, and were known for being perpetual rule breakers.
What I found very interesting was that the strict missionaries and the lax ones would butt heads over protocol, but both sides still got along with one another as friends. Even if missionaries disagreed, even the lax ones could respect the sincerely strict, and the strict ones could respect the sincerely lax.
But there was a third class of missionaries, and these ones rubbed everyone the wrong way: the two-faced missionary.
There were a few missionaries that would put on pious airs whenever they were around our mission president, and then cut loose whenever they were in private. No one was able to respect them, because they were too slippery to really know who you were dealing with.
After observing this pattern, I have come to see that it is true everywhere. We can have disagreements with others, yet still respect them so long as they are sincere. But insincerity, or two-facedness? No one is comfortable with that.
The Slimy Villain)
Consider Tony Wendice from the classic Hitchcock film Dial M for Murder. The movie opens with him plotting to murder his wife, Margot Wendice, and blackmailing an accomplice into carrying out the deed for him. His watertight plan runs into trouble when his crony, Charles Swann, bungles the task, and ends up being killed by Margot in self defense.
Not willing to be defeated, Tony wrangles things so that he can instead frame his wife for murder, making it appear that Charles had been blackmailing Margot, and she had killed him in cold blood. This is, of course, a sticky operation, and Tony must deflect every suspicion of his own involvement. He goes to to great lengths to appear as noble to the inspectors as he can.
This has an interesting effect, because we, the audience, know that he is lying through his teeth with every word. And so the more positive he makes himself look to the other characters in the story, the more shameless and depraved he becomes to the audience. When he finally does get his just desserts, it is a very satisfying payoff for the viewer.
The Insincere Peddler)
Getting the audience to hate the villain by casting him as insincere makes sense. Interestingly, though, it is also possible to begin with a character that is slippery, and then transform them into the hero instead. Indeed, a common protagonist is that of the insincere peddler. This is a character who goes to great lengths to convince others of something that they, themselves, do not believe in. Their character arc thus begins as slippery snake-oil salesmen, but they can evolve into genuine believers by the end.
Consider, for example, Professor Emelius Browne in the Walt Disney classic Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The man is a sham, who copies spells and incantations from old books, then sells them to any sap who is dumb enough to believe in such nonsense. He is in for a surprise, then, when one of his students, Miss Price, turns up on his doorstep and demonstrates that the spells work perfectly well for her and always have.
Through a series of adventures Browne begins to care for Miss Price, and also for the orphaned children under her care. He feels the pull towards family, but he resists it. Just as how he has dodged his nation’s war, he also runs away from this responsibility, ever remaining the shill.
But then, of course, fate intervenes and Miss Price and the children are captured by Nazi soldiers. Browne desperately wants to come to their rescue, but doing so is going to take a little bit of magic on his part. For the first time, he has to start believing in something.
He manages to pull it off, and it becomes the turning point for his character. By the end of the film he has supported Miss Price in her battle with the invading forces, pledged to be a father to the orphaned children, and joined the army to do his civic duty in the war. We didn’t care for him at the outset of the story, but he really does win us over by the end.
The Disbelieving Missionary)
Another fine example of a character who does not practice what he preaches can be found in the film I Can Only Imagine. This is the story of the real-life band Mercy Me, and specifically of its lead-singer Bart Millard.
Bart is desperate for success in the spiritual music scene, and is undoubtedly a very talented musician. But what he gets told over and over again is that he comes across as fake and insincere in his message. He talks about grace and healing, but is himself brimming with resentment and hurt. The last thing he wants to do is reconnect with his abusive father who wounded him, but it makes every song about forgiveness ring hollow.
After he has had his hopes and dreams crushed a few times he finally goes back to the skeletons in his closet, finds closure for past wrongs, and ultimately feels the very grace he’s been trying to sell to others. At long last his songs ring true.
These positive examples begin with the insincere and jaded, and end with the genuine and believing. There is a great cathartic satisfaction in that transformation, and the greater the dislike at the beginning, the greater the enjoyment in learning how to love these characters by the end.
Now in my own story we have a particularly two-faced character in Julian. The man continually attests to his own virtue, but shamelessly claws for every advantage that he can. This is interesting, because he is not the pirate in this story.
Bartholomew, on the other hand, is a ruthless cutthroat, but he has the decency to admit as much. He isn’t a worthy character, but we respect him for at least seeing his own flaws clearly. We may not approve of him, but it is easier to like him.
Captain Molley, of course, is the truly virtuous character. He has his principles and he holds to them sincerely. He isn’t a particularly warm character, but again we can respect him because of his being so true to himself.
I want to take these characters, their convictions, and do some interesting things with them in the second half of the story. Julian is not going to have an arc of redemption, this isn’t the right sort of story for that, but I do want to make him pitiable. I want to let my audiences remain disdainful of his slippery nature, but also feel bad for his plight.
For Bartholomew, I want to reveal a more slippery side than we have perceived thus far. Indeed, I want the audience to realize that he is no more sincere than Julian, he’s only better at hiding his second face.
And for Captain Molley, I want to put a few chinks in his armor. It won’t be that he is a two-faced liar, though, just a man under considerable strain, who feels his grip on himself breaking.
“Ungrateful beasts!” Jeret snarled as he swung his arms, sending the little attackers buzzing for safety. “I’m sorry it’s not a perfect world, but I gave you everything that I could. I tried over and over!” He picked up a rock and threw it at the nearing cloud. The Seclings easily swerved to avoid it, but it gave them pause. They hovered in the air, waiting for more numbers.
Jeret took the opportunity to reach down to his waist, where a self-made belt held the cylinder. He waved it, throwing haze all about him in the air.
“A dome,” he said. “Transparent, but thick and strong.” A vague bubble start to form all around him. “It’s made of glass, and has minute holes to let air in, but they are all much to small for any creature to pass through.”
The dome popped into existence just as the Seclings rushed forward in their attack. They bounced harmlessly off the glass-like surface, entirely unable to penetrate its protection. Jeret stared at them darkly.
“But why?” he asked them. “I’m not a Firling, I’m not an Impli. I did make them, but you don’t know that, so why would you attack me?”
Even as he said it he knew the answer was not based on reason or logic. It was just in their nature. He might as well ask why he had picked fights with strangers back home on Amoria.
Jeret shook his head, trying to dismiss the thoughts. That was then, but this was now. And now he had every justification for the destruction that he was about to cause. Waiting for these species to destroy each other naturally was no longer an option. Who knew what sort of trouble they might get up to if they were left alive together? Things would have to be expedited.
What would he use? A flood? A fire? Bolts of lightning? Drop a mountain on them? A cloud of poison? Creation was miserable and hard, destruction was just so much easier.
Jeret grabbed the cylinder, readying it for use. He would dig a tunnel out of here first, get beyond the gardens and up on a tower. There he would be out of reach, but could still see everything. And then he’d kill these miserable convicts.
Jeret’s hands started to shake, it felt like the world was somehow spinning beneath him. He fell onto his side, head cradled in his arms. Maybe…maybe he did know why he got into so many fights back home. And maybe he knew why the Seclings behaved this way as well. They had been hit so many times, that now they were in a perpetual fear of where the next strike was going to come from. No creature could be trusted, and it was better to destroy than be destroyed. Something about Jeret had always been afraid, and he had always fought. Fought against his neighbors, against the community, and even against himself.
“My poor little children,” he wept. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make you better. I tried. I wanted you to have a chance. If someone else had made you, you might have been happy. It’s not your fault.”
Jeret lifted his head, and touched his hand to the dome, pressing it against the point where the Seclings clustered most densely. They were still trying to break through to him.
“I’m sorry that I made you… when I was always just going to kill you in the end. Hopeless. It was hopeless. You were always doomed. And now I’m going to kill you, and whatever I make to do it, then it’s going to kill me, too.”
The words came out without a thought, and even as he spoke them he was surprised at their sound. But somehow he knew they were true. Everything he tried to do here, it escalated. Every violence always came back round in the end. He didn’t know how, but if he destroyed his creations, he would destroy himself, too.
But maybe that was the right thing to do.
For the first time Jeret felt that he deserved to be here on this forsaken piece of rock. He really was unfit for society, wasn’t he? Given utmost power, and all he could do with it was destroy.
Jeret looked down to the cylinder. He would die violently, that much was certain. But did he have to die fighting anymore? Maybe there was still a chance for peace inside at the end.
His hands worked quickly, as if afraid that if he paused to think about it he would lose his nerve. He raised the cylinder and traced some haze against the dome.
“A very hot rock, cupped against the glass. A piece of burning metal, held in a steel cradle, melting through the dome.”
The Seclings started to lift off of the dome surface as it became too hot to bear. Even Jeret could feel the heat growing from where he sat.
“And the glass is melting, opening a wide hole to the outside.”
A glob of molten glass dripped down to the ground. No sooner had it cleared than the swarm of Seclings funneled in, making straight for Jeret. He closed his eyes, accepting the end. He felt their insect-feet perching on him, felt the small shift in their bodies as they lifted their stingers high, felt the sharp pinpricks score up and down his body.
The toxin flowed into him and he felt numb all over, as if fat cotton was being pumped through his veins instead of blood. His thoughts went fuzzy, and he was vaguely aware of falling backwards, though he did not feel the impact of his head against the ground.
The sounds all about him were fuzzy, too. The buzzing of wings sounded distant and echoing, not unlike the sound of the surf crashing on a beach. Even his thoughts were slowing down. It was as if he watched the ideas and sensations flow by like a river, and the water was receding until he could see each thought individually and clearly. And then he didn’t see the stream at all, he was alone on the shore of nothing. He was only aware of his awareness. And then that awareness lapsed, and came back, and lapsed again. And then he had only a vague notion of himself. And then the vague notion was gone, and it was just himself. And then…
And then, inexplicably, there was something. Not nothing, as he had expected, but an actual something.
Slowly awareness was coming back. Jeret couldn’t move, couldn’t open his eyes, but his mind was moving again. Slowly sensation was coming back as well, and his body felt…normal. There wasn’t any toxin in him. Or if there was, then it wasn’t toxin any more.
Jeret blinked and he was laying on his back, looking up at his garden. There was a pleasant buzz of Secling passing overhead. He sat up and a wave of them took off from his body. As they passed by his eyes he noticed that their stingers were falling from their abdomens. Somehow he knew it was because they didn’t need them anymore. Because all of their toxin had dried up.
There was a sudden rustle at Jeret’s side, and he looked down to see three Firlings wrestling on the ground. It was play. They were not trying to harm one another. They were not trying to hunt the Seclings flying all about.
They had changed. Even though they had been fully defined before, somehow they had changed.
And then came the strangest sensation of them all. A rumbling directly beneath Jeret, and the whir of machinery. Jeret squinted at the garden paradise around him, and had the distinct sensation that something was hiding behind it. Not only behind the garden, but behind the entire asteroid that was his home. Behind his entire consciousness, as if it was only a screen, and another world was underneath.
“And he’s coming out of simulation now.”
The garden wavered. Something was behind. If Jeret could just see beyond what his eyes told him he saw…he could almost discern it now. He felt his body regaining its sensations again. And not the pretend sensations this time, the real ones.
All at once Jeret opened his eyes and the garden was gone. He was in a dark room, with a ring of dull, orange lights around the perimeter which were slowly turning brighter. He was laid back on a half-reclined chair, facing a man pressing buttons on a control panel. Every now and then the man glanced up, to see how well Jeret was coming out of his hallucination.
There was a sudden stripe of white light across the still-mostly-dark room, a door had just opened off to the side. Jeret turned, and against the blinding brightness he could see the silhouette of a rotund man, balding on top, but with a tangle of stray hairs bursting from the sides.
“Mister Jeret!” the man boomed jovially. “How are you feeling?”
Jeret’s brow furrowed in confusion. He had seen these men before, but his mind was still trying to remember where. Oh that’s right, it was the men who had administered the sedative immediately before his exile, the last people he had seen on Amoria. What was so confusing, though, was that his mind seemed to be of two ideas whether the time on the asteroid was real…or only a dream. Perhaps he had never left this room?
“Looks like you’re still coming to,” the man concluded when Jeret did not answer. The perimeter lights were now bright enough that Jeret could see the two men clearly enough to make out their details. Somehow, the more he saw them, the more his mind was pulled towards reality.
“I was…dreaming?” Jeret suggested.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“There was no asteroid?”
The man smiled.
“A–a simulation. And you put the cylinder there on purpose?”
“Jeret, I’d love to stay and chat, but really I’m just here to ask you one thing. Do you think you are ready to rejoin society now?”
“What? But I’ve been exiled?”
“Yes, yes. So you were told. But that was when you insisted on being a threat to everyone around you. So let me ask you again, are you a threat anymore?”
“No I–I rather think I don’t want to hurt anyone at all anymore.”
“That’s what our records show as well. Congratulations, man, you’ve been rehabilitated.”
The man extended his hand. Jeret winced slightly as he pushed himself off of the chair and to his feet. His muscles were still tingling from lack of use. He felt awkward taking his first, fumbling steps, but the man in the doorway smiled patiently and waited. Slowly feeling returned, and Jeret reached out and took the man’s hand.
“Let’s get you back home now.”
And together the two of them walked out of the room.
So here we are at the end of our story. I mentioned on Monday that this story had two possible endings. The first option–the tragic and violent end–was more in line with Jeret’s initial trajectory. He came as an unrepentant and bitter man, and the natural culmination of that character would be an act of self-destruction.
But then he would not have developed as a character, which was something I very much wanted for him to do. And so I wrote about him learning to care for other life, and to take responsibility for his actions. By exploring the power of creation, he slowly lost his need for destruction.
Hopefully this transformation was communicated effectively enough that the new ending felt earned. It would not have made sense for him to have had that conclusion from the outset at the story, but I think he deserved it by the end. Similarly, had he still received the somber ending after his transformation, I think it would have felt off.
As I stated earlier, my intention with this series was to wrestle with all sides of responsibility and duty, particularly related to the guiding of wayward children. Jeret was himself a wayward child, completely devoid of any sense of responsibility. His family cast him out (seemingly at least), but gave him an opportunity to be a father in his exile. As we just discussed, the weight of that power had a redemptive effect on him. Yes, power can corrupt, but I also sincerely believe that it can refine us as well. None of us can improve if we cannot choose, and none can choose where they do not have at least some power.
In either case, I feel I have had my fill of these themes, at least for a while. Come back on Monday when we’ll go somewhere new!
On Thursday I shared the middle chapter of my latest story. In it, our main character has discovered an object that will create for him anything that he imagines. He decides to entertain himself by creating two small creatures to fight to the death. This occurs, but rather than being fun, he finds himself horrified by its stark realism. It is all the more terrible because of his responsibility for the act. In this world, he has invented its first violence.
I wanted this moment to hit every reader as unquestionably wrong, but I also want them to see it as a mistake, not a sign that Jeret is the embodiment of pure evil. I try to bring about this perspective by immediately showing Jeret’s reaction of horror at what he has done. Perhaps he should have known better, but he did not. That doesn’t let him off the hook entirely, but it does shift him from the malicious category into the foolish and unthinking.
The fact, also, that he did not perform the violence himself, is an important factor. Consider a similar case in A Christmas Carol. Here Ebenezer Scrooge turns down a request to donate to the poor, suggesting that these people should go to the poorhouses. He is rebuffed by the statement that many would rather die than go to those miserable grindhouses. His response?
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
It is a truly terrible thing to say, and Scrooge later regrets these words. But at the same time, it isn’t as though Scrooge performs an actual act of violence in the story. He never so much as slaps another individual, he only thinks and says hard things. In fact, the story makes firm the fact that Scrooge really doesn’t know what he’s talking about in this moment. He says, in reference to how deplorable the situations in the poorhouses are “Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.” By which he means he has not verified the conditions of these facilities.
And so Scrooge is guilty of not taking an active interest in his fellow man, and much like Jeret he later sees the reality of his ignorant words and comes to regret them. A Christmas Carol never tries to suggest that what Scrooge does isn’t wrong, indeed the whole crux of the story is that what he does is wrong, but it carefully walks a line to make sure it isn’t irredeemably so.
On the flip side, consider the characters Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan from the stage play and Hitchcock film Rope. The story opens with them murdering a fellow student, and then holding a social for mutual friends. Throughout the party, the story takes some steps to explain the boys reasoning for their crime, and also to show them in a multi-dimensional, relatable light.
But in the end, no audience member is going to get over the fact that these two have done unspeakable wrong, nor indeed does the story ever expect you to condone their actions. It isn’t trying to make murderers more palatable to us, it is trying to caution us that men can reason their way into being unreasonable monsters.
Thus far we’ve talked about how to help keep a character from doing something that is irredeemably wrong, but another consideration is what actions are unquestionably wrong. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge simply wouldn’t have the same emotional impact if we didn’t dislike him from the outset.
We can have a character that is a thief and a liar, but still beloved by the audience, such as Captain Jack Sparrow and Starlord. Though they perform behavior that we pretty universally consider wrong, we give them a pass for some reason.
We can also have a character that says they have done something wrong, but which the audience doesn’t condemn them for. Think of Tony at the end of West Side Story. He is given some misinformation that his beloved Maria has died. This makes him reckless, and ultimately leads to his being mortally wounded, just as he sees that Maria is actually alive. As he fades in her arms he sadly confesses that he “didn’t believe hard enough.”
In a story about how loss of faith in humanity literally kills us, Tony’s crime is enough to warrant death. But obviously we, as the audience, don’t hold his momentary weakness against him. He might be flawed, but we don’t consider his actions as morally wrong.
The thing in common with Jack Sparrow, Starlord, and Tony is that they are never seen harming the innocent. Indeed, this seems to be a very important line in establishing the morality of a character. And so if you want the audience to think of your character as bad, the surest way is to have them hurt another. Ebenezer Scrooge is wrong because he is carelessly consigning others to suffering, he is redeemable because that cruelty is kept within careful bounds.
I believe that virtually every reader will agree that my main character, Jeret, did something wrong in creating two creatures to fight to the death. In the end, a being suffered at his whim, and that is bad. The fact that it was an artificial being of his own making does not let him off the hook. Indeed it makes him even more culpable.
When I first wrote this segment, I actually played around with it to make sure it would hit as impactfully as I could manage. One of his two creations was going to die, and I found that it was sadder to have it be the first one. There was something special about it being the first, about having heard it built piece-by-piece, and discovering the little quirks in its nature. It made that first creation more interesting, and therefore more valuable to the reader. It was good, and thus it was very wrong to destroy it.
But at the same time, I believe Jeret can be redeemed. Because while he did wrong, he was ignorant of the extent of it, and he has shown true and immediate remorse directly afterwards. We’ll see where that remorse takes him in the next chapter, coming this Thursday. See you there!
They say you can’t go home again. In my case that is most definitely true because, you see, the new owners blew it up!
True story. One Sunday they left for church, and while they were gone a gas line started leaking. The garage filled up with the gas until finally the vapor came in contact with some faulty wiring that ignited it…. And that was that.
There have been several times that I have wanted to retrace the steps of my childhood, and at least this one avenue for doing so is forever closed to me. Though, now that I think about it, even the parts of my childhood that didn’t burn down still feel just as cut off. I could walk the old, familiar streets of my youth, but I will not be the same boy that tread them once before. That experience is lost to memory alone.
Memory, nostalgia, the past. There is a sort of sad sweetness that accompanies us when we consider these words. We enjoy the ruminations at first, but inevitably they lead us to our losses. There are things we had back then which we will never have again: old friendships, innocence, an unbridled sense of wonder.
Even worse is the realization of the things we didn’t have, and now have lost the last opportunity for: apologies left unsaid, causes left unchampioned, joys left unclaimed.
Loss. And regret.
These are ponderous things to think about, and it comes as no surprise that many stories have sought to tackle this reality of human life. How Green Was My Valley is one achingly somber example. In this film and book we start with the main character Huw, who is living as a young boy in an idyllic Welsh village. His family are close, loving, and happy.
From there the threads are slowly unraveled. Though there are one or two greater tragedies, so much of the falling apart feels like the quiet, but persistent, erosion of time. In a word, life happens, and eventually the boy, now grown to a young man, cannot find the beautiful childhood home in the walls that surround him today. Though he has stayed ever-faithful, those moments have left of their own accord. He realizes the vanity of trying to hold onto that which cannot be held, and finally he, too, departs.
Much of that story rings true, and yet we often struggle with this sense of permanent loss. It seems that it is a core part of our nature to believe in reclamation. To believe that yes, something might be lost, but also that it can be restored, or at least replaced.
Some might say that this is merely idle dreaming, a lie that we tell ourselves to try and cope with our loss. But on the other hand, there is no shortage of prodigal sons that attest to a once-stained soul being made as clean as the day they were born.
Perhaps circumstances and moments are lost forever, but hearts and souls are not. The impermanence of the world can be real, and yet not discredit the enduring nature of heaven. Perhaps our great confusion arises simply from conflating these two places as one.
That is certainly the case in the Disney animated feature Hercules. Throughout this film, Hercules is forever hoping to return to his home with the gods. He left them long ago, and simply wishes to restore things back as they were. He attempts to achieve this by the accrual of worldly talent and fame.
In the end end, none of these efforts succeed. No matter of finite accomplishments will be able to add up to the infinite reward that he seeks. He has mistakenly assumed that the path back home depends on physical prowess. Fortunately, fate intervenes, and Hercules finds himself facing a situation where he can save another, but only at the loss of his own life. It is then, by surrendering himself to impermanence of the world, by subjecting himself to change, and decay, and death, that finally he overcomes them and becomes immortal.
There is a very spiritual message at the heart of this, one reflected in many world religions. Instead of feeling bad about the childhood home burning down, I can accept that those moments were lost to me already. And maybe if I stop worrying about the losses and the regrets I formed in that place, I’ll be able to rediscover the infinite, childlike soul. Like Hercules, I can go home, but only if I am looking for it within.
The Endless Pursuit)
And then begins the most difficult journey of all. For voyages into the soul do not come with well-placed markers and paved roads. It is rugged territory, and fraught with dangers.
That is not all. It is a long quest, too, the longest that there is. Because you see, chasing the infinite, childlike soul is like chasing a mirage. With each step you draw nearer…but then it slips farther on. Always. Hercules was able to walk it to the end, but he was a god. For we mere mortals it is unattainable.
So in this journey we stumble over a world forever in flux, hoping that when the last of that changeable terrain slips out from beneath our feet that we find ourselves treading water in the infinite.
There exist stories that explore this dynamic, too. Roverandom is a charming tale about a dog that just wants to find the wizard who turned him into a toy, and ask him to please change him back into a real dog. That’s it. And then the entire rest of the story is how that wizard keeps slipping further and further away. Roverandom finds himself on the moon, in a seaside cove, and deep beneath the sea, until one starts to believe that this journey will continue forever.
It is this sort of ever-slipping pursuit that I have tried to imbue in my story The Toymaker. Here a drummer chases after his first friend, a delicate dancer. But though he makes a valiant effort, he never seems to draw any nearer to her. Last week he was about to perform a daring raid on a high-security building, all in the hopes of finding more information on her whereabouts. As you might expect, all that he will really find is just another breadcrumb to follow.
But his journey is not in vain. With each effort he is growing as an individual. He is coming to recognize right from wrong, and friend from fiend. He is learning his own strengths, and using them to take a stand for what is right. Perhaps when he has finally plumbed the fullest depths of his soul, he will at last have the power to locate his missing friend.
This last Thursday I posted the first third of a short story that starred a pretty deplorable character. Jake was either born without ethical restraints, or else he managed to sand them away over time. Also, he happens to be a jerk. Particularly vicious was the scene where he sees a stranger and proceeds to scathingly critique him as one of the lowest dregs of humanity.
And yet, I actually intended for that scene to ultimately make the audience feel more sympathetic to Jake. In time, as more of his character is revealed, it will become evident that that vicious mockery is more inwardly directed than outwards. Jake still has problems, and is still the story’s villain, but he is more of a victim of his actions than anyone else.
As I wrote the segment where Jake mocks a stranger I allowed myself to be crueler because of my knowledge that it was self-reflective for him. However I also knew that the reader wouldn’t have this information, and so might misread the moment. And that was intended.
It’s almost unavoidable at the beginning of a story for readers to make first impressions and take all that they are shown at face value. One of my favorite things is when an author is aware of these two facts, and structure their story so that it will support the readers’ in their initial perceptions upon a first reading, and then challenge them upon a second.
I could, of course, have opened the story by establishing how much Jake loathes himself, but then the audience would have been sympathetic to him from the outset. That would have limited their ability to despise him, so instead I let him introduce himself as he believes himself to be: creepy, unrepentant, and cruel. When at the end of my post he started applying these sorts of labels to himself, the readers only heard him echoing their own thoughts for him. Perhaps as they come to see how miserable he is they might feel bad for having made those initial judgments.
Or maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll feel he is only receiving his just desserts. Either way, the reader will be making a choice, thus be more actively engaged in the story, and thus be more affected by it.
A Christmas Carol)
In writing my story this way I’m actually paying homage to one of my most favorite tales of all time: A Christmas Carol. When we are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge we are not told first about his unhappy childhood, about how he was banished from his home by an unfeeling father. We don’t hear about his immense poverty and his drive to become something more. We don’t know the tragedy of how that misguided ambition ultimately lost him the love of his life.
No, we do not hear about those things until later, so that there can be nothing in the way of our reviling this bitter and cold man. All we know at the outset is that he is cruel, deservedly despised, and we very easily dismiss him.
But then, as these sadder elements of his life are unfolded, we find ourselves grieving for the lost child still within him and we are deeply relieved when his soul eventually finds its reclamation. From the first impressions we are able understand why the world is so disbelieving of his dramatic transformation, but by the end of our journey we are believing of it ourselves.
The fact is, if Charles Dickens had laid out the story to capture our sympathy for Scrooge first, then his reclamation would not have tasted nearly so sweet. To despise a character, and then pity him, and then joy for him is a far more moving arc than any other arrangement of those same sensations.
Another favorite example of this is from the film Citizen Kane. Charles Foster Kane is not a very pleasant person. He happens to be rich, powerful, and a genius, but also pompous, self-righteous, and manipulative. He possesses a constant hunger for more, and by his obsessive and overbearing nature he manages to sour his every relationship until all that remain in his household are the servants.
We’ve seen how he demands control of every situation. He tries to force love and friendship from those that would have given it willingly. He wants to own happiness, to buy it. He lavishes the woman he loves with gifts until she feels smothered and ends the relationship. It is almost pitiable, except for the fact that he is wholly responsible for his own suffering.
Then he dies with a single word on his lips: “Rosebud,” which is revealed to be the name of a sled he played with as a young boy at his parent’s home. There he was happy, and it was a simple and authentic happiness. Tragically that moment of bliss was taken from him suddenly, and he has never since found it again. Just like that we understand his enigma.
We realize that he has been made afraid of all good things being taken away. He wants to be in control so that he won’t be hurt again. And, ironically, it has been his avid pursuing that has lead to his constant losing, a vicious and never-ending cycle of loss and clutching.
In all of these cases the understanding that dawns on the reader is not meant to excuse the main character’s flaws. What they have done is still just as wrong, but now at least we see the motivations that led them to do those wrong things. Actions can be both wrong and understandable, after all. and the beginning of prejudice is when we forget that there is a humanity behind the mistakes people make.
I think we can all agree that the world needs more stories like these. I’m not going to get political on this forum, but it is clear that intolerance for opposing ideals is a depressing epidemic of our lives. It’s not wrong to want this world to be better, but society will never be improved via argument or insult. If someone doesn’t agree with your particular point-of-view then there is an understandable, even if misguided, reason for that. People don’t need to be forced into becoming better, they only need a sympathetic voice that truly hears, understands, and validates their concerns. When nurtured in this way people will naturally recognize their own faults and rise to their best.
When it comes to writing, though, this sort of sympathy for a negative character can be difficult to pull off. It’s difficult to do in real life, so of course it would be tricky in the written word, too. I don’t mind admitting that I’m nervous about tackling the subject with Jake. At the very least I do understand the template to follow: first introduce the character as they are perceived, then reveal them as they actually are.
“Are you alright?” the spindly Clockmaker asked as he lowered his slight frame to be level with Kael’s dejected eyes in a single fluid motion .
“I—feel wrong,” Kael said stiffly.
“Oh? How so?”
“I don’t know. How would I know? I’m not very accustomed to feeling anything at all, actually.”
“Well what caused the wrong feeling then?”
“She did. Everything was so orderly until she turned something in me. I had my purpose and I fulfilled it, yet now it seems so hollow.”
“Your purpose? As determined by whom?”
“The parasite, of course.”
“Well perhaps he doesn’t give you very good purposes if they dissatisfy you so.”
“Is there any other to give purposes?”
The Clockmaker smiled knowingly. “It would certainly seem so, given that you have these muddled feelings right now. Tell me, what purpose do you think ‘she’ wanted for you?”
“Hmm—” Kael mused in reflection. “I suppose she didn’t want me to be alone.”
“Oh, so she cared for you?”
“Yes, that’s why I got her heart.”
“Well that’s something good.”
“No, it’s not,” Kael shook his head vigorously. “She cared for me, but she shouldn’t have.”
“Oh? Why not?”
Kael paused, not because he didn’t have an answer but because he found it difficult to voice. “She only cared for me because she was deceived. I enjoyed feeling her care for me, but I didn’t earn it, so it just seems—”
“Hollow? I see… No wonder your divided feelings then. Tell me, how would you change things if you could?”
“I would like to have earned her heart,” Kael affirmed
“Could you yet?”
Kael’s head raised a little at the notion, but his eyes remained perplexed. “I don’t see how.”
“But if there were a way, the idea would at least interest you?”
“Yes,” Kael said, and a small laugh broke across his voicebox which surprised him. “I really do think I would like that. Then I could fulfill both of my purposes!”
The Clockmaker winced a little. “I don’t know about that, it sounds to me like they are opposed to one another.”
Kael froze. “But then—a part of me would always be incomplete.”
“I suppose so, as long as you hold both, but perhaps ones day you can choose just one side to give yourself to.”
“Choose,” Kael repeated slowly, the word harmonizing strangely in his voice.
“Oh yes, choice, you have the capacity for it now. That’s really what she gave you after all.”
It is my spawn, another parasite with its own identity.
“But we have spawned many parasites already,” Kael reminded the voice.
No, we have merely promulgated myself. Each of them is merely a division of me, all an iteration of my one, singular being. This is a different individual and is its own distinct entity. Both of us remain united in purpose though.
“Is that better?”
Yes. Indeed, I would like to spawn many more but having only one heart limits me to local creation on a small scale. Were we to have another I could spawn without limit and that would be better still.
“You want another heart?” Kael asked cautiously, a strange misgiving creeping across him.
The voice hesitated, seeming to sense his apprehension. You have already done your part in this Kael, we will craft a new husk for this other parasite and it will prove itself with the task I give it.
“Yes, but—” Kael’s uneasiness continued to discomfort him.
I have not forgotten our agreement, Kael. Your purpose will be maintained, to delight Ayla, and you will not be asked to deceive her.
“But this other husk will be?”
That is the concern of the other husk, not of you. You will not be an agent of any harm to her, you will be permitted to continue to care and be cared for within the parameers I have set. Surely you see that I am being accommodating of your dual nature and fulfilling both purposes?
Something doubtful still lingered in Kael, but it was far easier to accept the logic of what the voice had said, and so he allowed himself to be soothed.
“How do you want the husk to be composed?”
“Ayla?” Kael approached the wall terminal and awaited expectantly.
The nest of cables began to shuffle and slide over one another in their familiar retreat as Ayla’s form emerged at their center, bearing that same blank expression she always held while her memory drum finished loading. Recollection finally washed over her face and she smiled at Kael’s return.
“I was just thinking about you, Kael,” she exclaimed happily “and now you’ve come!”
Kael laughed at her enthusiasm. “You make it sound so special.”
“Oh but it is,” she said in earnestness. “Don’t you realize the joy of when a pleasant dream becomes a reality right before your eyes?”
His circuits hummed busily and cheerfully. “I think I know what you mean,” he concluded with a slight bounce.
“Oh Kael,” she sighed wistfully, “you’ll understand so much more when we’re able to get your own heart vessel.”
Kael was uncomfortable for a moment. The parasite had expressly forbidden him to disclose that he already possessed the heart vessel she sought for, and so he always remained silent in these moments. By not speaking he did not have to deceive her, yet of late he had come to wonder if he did not already do so regardless.
“Ayla, what was it you were thinking about us?” he asked, stepping forward and taking her slender fingers in his own, the way she had taught him to do.
She smiled and looked modestly to the ground, then back up to match his eyes with her own. “A little of the past, but mostly of the future.”
“Is the future you see so different from now?”
“In some ways, but in others it is just the natural continuation of now,” she stroked his arm softly.
“You’re being very vague today!” he teased, but rather than elicit a smile from her she frowned lightly and looked downwards. “I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I didn’t mean to offend—”
She shook her head. “No, it’s not that…” she brought her eyes back up and they seemed to be searching his own. “What is it that you want of the future, Kael?”
“Want?” he echoed the word and fell into a deep thoughtfulness. “I don’t want you to go away in the future,” he finally decided and there was a fear to his voice.
“Go away?” she asked in surprise. “What do you mean? I’m not going anywhere!”
“Well I don’t want you to. I want you to just be with me.”
“I could be with you,” she whispered.
“You would…choose to?”
“Yes,” she said breathlessly. “I want to.”
He stared into her for a few long moments. “I want to choose that, too.”
“Why don’t you?”
“Perhaps…when I have a heart,” he felt a twinge at the implied deception. “When I fully have a heart.”
His eyes widened. How had she known?
“You have my heart, Kael,” she explained. “I’m giving it to you.”
“But—how will you live?”
“You could give me yours,” she said as he touched his chest, “when you have it.”
Kael’s heart thumped within him as he understood. “Yes, I would,” he nodded. “I will. When I have it.”
She smiled, then began to slowly walk backwards towards her wall, her eyes locked firmly on him. “Don’t be long,” she pleaded. “I love you, Kael.”
“Ayla?” he asked softly. She was trying to hide her feelings, but at moments her head would involuntarily bow in somber contemplation, only to snap back up a moment later with a false smile.
“Sorry, it’s just been a strange day for me, Kael.”
He nodded and grimaced as if he somehow understood. He couldn’t spend time being sympathetic, though, this was already going to be difficult enough. “Do you have it then, Ayla?”
She paused. “It’s been a long while since you’ve asked for it, Kael. I thought you might not want it anymore.”
“I know. I stopped worrying about it for a time…but now I need it again.”
“Still just so that we can animate the workers?” her eyes narrowed suspiciously.
He winced at the glare. “No, that is not all.”
She paused, waiting for him to continue, but as the seconds slipped by it became evident he had nothing more to say.
“Why aren’t you telling me things?” she asked bluntly with a tremble of emotion.
“They are my choices to make, my actions to do.” He knew it was vague, but if he tried to explain things to her she could never agree. She would try to find another way, she would choose to preserve the parasite for his own sake. After all, she had already made that choice before.
“If you want it, Kael, I will give it to you.”
“I want it.”
She was crestfallen and her face showed it, yet she extended her hand and the individual pieces traveled down the magnetic tracks in her arm to snap in place as determined by the schema. Kael saw the corrupter assemble into the device’s core, seemingly innocuous, yet he recalled it perfectly. He smiled grimly as the device completed in her palm and he reached out to take it.
“I hope you find what you want” she said as the weight of the device lifted from her fingers.
He paused, again lingering on the idea of telling her everything. But if he didn’t move forward now he would never see this through, so instead he merely nodded and turned his back. Then he walked stiffly away as she broke down behind him.
I know what you aredoing the voice hissed. Surely you realize this.
“You know what I intend, but not how I am doing it,” he affirmed calmly as he rounded a corner and entered the Morgatorium. “My memory banks are my own.” He reached the deep green valves and started lifting levers, the entire floor escalating up along the spindly tower at its center. There was no need to do this within sight of Ayla.
Neither is my mind yours.
“Do you have your own secrets, parasite?” an unmistakable taunt in his voice.
A loud clang rattled behind him and he spun just in time to see a strange automaton as it sprung from its perch on a giant boiler, bounded off the floor, barreled into his chest, and threw him to the ground with a crack. He tried to hold onto Ayla’s contraption, but his grip broke and it clattered off to the side. He looked to see where it went, then his attacker stood upright to pace around his fallen form and he turned back to process the thing. It was large and bulky, pure black and with a matte surface that rendered it invisible when it passed through shadows. Its plating was made of thick, round cast iron surfaces clearly intended for bludgeoning. Its head was a low dome set directly on broad shoulders, devoid of any features.
I had hoped that things would have been different, Kael, but it was always evident that your dual nature was going to be a risk. No matter, I’ll simply have to take your heart vessel out and place it in a vat with no higher functions. Same for Cee when he obtains his.
Kael had been trying to stand, but his entire outer lattice was broken in pieces and the shards of it were jamming into his motors. His hand fumbled for a switch on his side, and the lattice unclasped from him. Most of his internal joints were still working and with a shake and a spring he nimbly returned to his feet, faster but less protected.
You should submit to this peacefully, it would be better that way. The dark automaton halted and turned, then leapt forward with great force and bore down on him again. With the agility provided by his lighter weight Kael timed the brute’s approach and vaulted himself over its shoulders in a single, fluid motion and, as his first foot connected with the ground, he pivoted on it to swing his other leg into those of the juggernaut, tumbling it to the ground. The force of the kick wasn’t nearly enough to damage the thing, but its fall was broken by its left shoulder, and the joint cracked loudly.
“I never built this for you,” Kael regarded the mass with a frown as it awkwardly lifted itself back up, its left arm splintered and hanging uselessly at its side.
The others did. It is called Ligo.
“But the other parasites aren’t self-actuating.”
Which you only know because that was what I told you.
“Oh, you are a suspicious one, aren’t you?”
Evidently with good reason.
Ligo charged again, its right arm extended to pull Kael into a fatal crush. Kael knew better than to try vaulting it a second time, so instead he waited until the last instant and then dodged over to its left side where the limp arm couldn’t reach for him. As Ligo cleared past him he dashed back to the floor where Ayla’s device lay and switched it on as he tapped on his chest panel. It didn’t open. Looking down he saw that the panel had been dented in their fight and was now jammed. Prying his fingers at the seam on the panel he tried to pry the metal apart, but no matter how hard he strained it refused to budge.
In his moment of distraction he had forgotten about Ligo, and he received the full frame-shattering impact. This time the brute didn’t fling him to the ground, it cupped its thick fingers around his neck and swung him repeatedly into a nearby wall, breaking off circuits and joints with grim efficiency. In desperation Kael’s hand scrambled into one of the cracks in Ligo’s damaged arm. There he found the release lever and pulled it, the arm falling to the ground and exposing the inner circuitry behind the chestplate. Just stop the voice snarled as the monster flung Kael down to the floor before he could reach into the cavity to do any more damage.
Kael started to lift up, but Ligo brought its knee down on his neck, pinning him back to the ground. Kael swung his hand back up towards the hole in its side, but his movement was weak and it easily caught his hand in its own. Ligo’s fingers closed around Kael’s fist and began to pull on it with increasing force, stretching and straining the arm until finally the whole thing snapped cleanly off. Kael’s other arm was trapped under the weight of the brute, and so he lay there helpless as the thing turned its attention to punching its way through his chestplate. The plate dented, then buckled, then finally smashed apart. A spray of energy from his broken pipes burst out, and as it cleared the glow of his pulsating heart vessel lay exposed. An insect parasite was embedded deep into it with a web of tentacles growing from its thorax and all throughout the heart.
It was never your heart anyway. The insect inside of him hissed.
The automaton reached in and gingerly placed its fingers around the vessel, all the noise and clatter subsiding for a moment of silence as it calmed itself to pull the organ out gently. Or rather, not quite a moment of silence. In the greater quiet Ligo became aware of a strange, low hum, and as it turned its hand over it saw Ayla’s activated device flashing in its palm, having been tucked in there by Kael when it had earlier caught his fist. Of its own accord the device flew out of Ligo’s hand and onto the exposed parasite as if pulled there by a magnet.
“It was never yours, either.”
The corrupter in the device activated and an electric blue power wave coursed through the parasite. Its mouth detached from the heart and gave a small death-cry as its arms and pincers shriveled and fell away, its tentacles blackening and dying within the heart. In that same moment a similar death-cry resonated from within the chest of the dark brute and it and Kael both collapsed lifeless to the ground. Throughout the island all of the parasite’s duplicates perished from the loss of their central host and their automata fell lifeless to the ground.
At last the Morgatorium reached its pinnacle perched atop the great tower, high above in the sky. Here the sound dropped off to nothing but the faint whistle of high wind, and slowly the reddish clouds wafted into the room, hiding the scene in billows of crimson.
On Monday I discussed the importance of a hero being defined by the villain, and in this story my intention was to create a hero that was composed of two halves, one of which was the villain itself. Thus as Kael strives to overcome the villain and become all the things that it is not, he is literally overcoming those same failings in himself. The confidence and surety he exhibits in the final section is meant to illustrate his growth from the nervousness and confusion he holds at the beginning, and it all hinges upon an influence of good driving him to the point of decision. This is not at all a unique template for the literary hero, of course, and as you may have assumed this is the topic I will pursue next week. Have a good weekend and I’ll see you then.