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.