Quite regularly we look at ourselves. Bathroom mirrors are an integral part of every morning routine, after all, and even if we say we don’t care about appearances we can’t help but catch a glimpse every now and again.
During my youth I was in the Boy Scouts, and on occasion would go on camping trips, sometimes for as long as a week. Over that time I would never once see my reflection, and it would become a very a surreal experience. I could feel the dirt sticking to my sunburned face and knew that I must appear a mess, but I could only imagine to what degree. After coming home I would look in the mirror again and the imagined image was superseded by the real reflection. Some bits of who I was met my expectation, and others did not.
Even without extended periods away from silver-backed glass, each one one of us will invariably have moments where we go from looking at ourselves in the mirror to actually seeing ourselves. All at once the reality of our image comes into stark relief.
An example of this was just a few weeks ago when I noticed more smile-wrinkles around my eyes than there used to be. I’m far from old, and I’m not having a midlife crisis, but it was a moment of realizing that I had changed somewhere, and I was a little concerned that I hadn’t noticed it as it happened.
Each of us wants to change, of course. But we want to be in control of that change, to choose in which ways we are altered and in which we are not. We want to be smarter, more confident, and kinder, but we don’t want to get older, slower, and fatter along the way. When I saw those extra wrinkles around my eyes, it was not just me realizing that my face was changing, but that it was doing so without my permission.
We’re organic beings. We don’t get to selectively isolate parts of us to change while leaving the other’s untouched. You cannot help but ripple the whole tapestry when you start to pull on a thread.
Of course we know and accept that change and decay happens to everyone else, and theoretically we “know” that it must happen to us as well. But each one of us has that singular moment where we accept that change, uncontrollable change, really is our fate.
This was the story of Siddhattha Gotama, a young man born thousands of years ago, in-or-around present-day India. He was a royal prince, and his father took immense precautions to shelter him from the realities of life. Siddhattha later said that the cold facts of aging, sickness, and death did not distill in his heart until the age of 29.
No matter how protected he had been, sooner or later he had to face and accept that these realities did exist. Not so much that they existed generally, but that they existed for him. He perceived that he was just as subject to the wheel of time as all the rest of humanity, and the soberness of that moment led him on a great spiritual journey. A journey that concluded in his becoming the Buddha.
Change Through Reflection)
There is a very interesting element to that story of the Buddha. Notice that this major turning point in his life comes about as a result of reflecting on his life, and coming to accept the unpreventable, ever-changing nature of it. Siddhattha revokes the illusion of control in life…but by doing that then steers himself into a different path than he had been on. It would seem that by admitting his powerlessness, he gained just a bit more power.
This is extremely similar to the story of Socrates, who craved knowledge, and sought out sages to teach it to him. Instead he was disappointed to find that none of them knew anything at all. Then, after a little self-reflection, he realized that the only thing that he, or anyone else, could really know, was the fact that they knew nothing at all. And so by admitting his complete ignorance, he gained a nugget of knowledge.
In both of these historical stories, illusion and imagination are dropped, replaced with something truer, and both times as a result of properly seeing oneself. Many times when we look in the mirror we just see a face, but sometimes we get a glimpse of the actual soul.
Now these “stories” are biographical, they are about real-life people. But they are still stories, and the experiences drawn from them have certainly found their way into works of fiction as well. A pivotal moment of character development comes in a moment of quiet self-reflection in A Christmas Carol. Here the old curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge, sees his boyhood self, and how he was once so full of innocent wonder.
Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, “Poor boy!” and cried again.
“I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it’s too late now.”
“What is the matter?” asked the Spirit.
“Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.”
“I should like to have given him something: that’s all.” Only really that isn’t all. In this moment Ebenezer is finally starting to see himself rightly. He is seeing the man in the mirror as he really is, and there’s a thing or two he’d like to change about him.
And that is the real power of self-reflection, both in real life and in literature. It creates a moment where the individual has the opportunity to choose. Change is inevitable, it falls upon us all, but if we see ourselves rightly, we can choose which way that change will fall.
In my most recent story post, our protagonist had a pivotal moment of self-reflection. He was staring down another toy that had hurt him deeply, and seriously contemplated doing the same in turn. But then he stayed himself, because he realized that he was straying from the toy that he had been made as, and he didn’t want to do that. Sometimes the greatest change brought about by self-reflection is simply to return to where we had been before. On Thursday I will push that idea further, where as a reward for his rediscovery of self, the drummer will be refashioned in a higher form. Then, at last, he will be ready to return to his long-lost dancer.
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.
Last week I concluded a short piece with a bittersweet moment. In it the hero sacrificed his life, but not even to defeat the villain. In fact, the villain was left even more empowered than ever before. The hero did, however, manage to free a soul that had been enslaved to the villain, and so there was the triumph of something right having been done, though at the cost of the world becoming darker as a direct result.
Usually that isn’t how these sorts of stories end. Usually the heroic sacrifice is supposed to achieve a total victory, not a partial one. Therefore my ending was partially fulfilling, but I hope it was also partially disappointing. The purpose of the story was to offer a challenge to the reader. I want them to have to decide whether the saving of that one soul is therefore a “good enough” ending. How much value do they put in that success? Enough to accept some defeat along with it?
This idea of challenging the viewer with a partially-satisfying/partially-subversive ending is not a new idea. Consider the classic film Spartacus, in which we follow a Gladiator as he raises a ragtag army and uses them to challenge the oppressive rule of Rome.
We have come to expect a story like this to end with triumphant liberation, but that is not what happens here. Ultimately Spartacus and all of his men are killed, and the tyranny of Rome will continue for a long while yet. Even so, there is still the fact that these men died as free men, and Spartacus’s own wife and child escape to a brighter future. Spartacus therefore won some things, if not all. Is that enough?
Is This Still Good?)
Of course, Spartacus and my last story are asking this question with an implied answer. The audience is intended to feel a little taken aback, but then to affirm “yes, accomplishing even a partial victory is a worthy cause.”
These stories remind us that sometimes change is procedural, rather than revolutionary. They help us realize that following one’s morals can come at quite the cost. The reader hesitates because they are unsure if they have the stomach for a somewhat hollow victory, but not because they question that it is the right thing.
These stories, then, do not really provide a moral dilemma. There are stories that do, of course, ones in which the audience is meant to come out on different sides of the question being posed. These sorts of tales still make use of mixed moments, ones where the audience experiences both victory and defeat. The difference in how they employ these is subtle, but significant.
Consider the 2008 film The Dark Knight. In this comic book tale Batman is locked in a battle of wits with his nemesis the Joker, and he finds himself taking more and more extreme measures just to keep up. It then concludes with another one of these mixed endings. The Joker has been defeated, but the woman Batman loved has died, the man he considered a paragon of truth has gone dark, he has violated the privacy of innocent citizens, and he is now lying to them to maintain a facade.
Again, the audience is being asked was it all worth it, but it intends for some of us to say yes, and others to say no. Even among those that say no, Batman went too far, there will be further division about when and where he crossed that particular line.
In many ways the Dark Knight reflects the story beats of the classic Herman Melville novel, Moby Dick. Here again our main character, Captain Ahab, is intent upon defeating his nemesis, the titular whale. Ahab, too, goes to greater and greater lengths, leaving ruin and death in the wake of his monomaniacal campaign against the whale.
The main difference is that Moby Dick does not end with any sort of partial victory, though. The tragic destruction of the Pequod and all its sailors, save one, has no bright side to balance it out. The audience is not split on the question of whether Ahab pursued Moby Dick for too long, only as to where that moment of being “too long” was.
So what makes stories like Moby Dick and The Dark Knight so divisive, while Shade and Spartacus are only ponderous? What line is crossed in one set of stories and not in the others?
Well, the difference is in the characters themselves. In Shade the main character, Gallan, has an incomplete victory in the world around him, but he has a pure victory within. He remains true to his commitments, and his soul remains intact in a shattered world. Spartacus’s internal victory is even more pronounced. He progresses from indifferent and cynical slave to a passionate and inspiring hero.
In each of these stories the audience is meant to conclude that the outcomes are good, because the characters themselves are good at those conclusions.
In The Dark Knight Batman accomplishes his means, but it is clear that he is discontent with the actions he took to do so. He feels he did what he had to, but he is haunted by the corruption of his soul. In Moby Dick, Ahab doesn’t exactly begin as a saint, but he ends up far more guilty than how he started. At the outset he has committed his personal life to chasing down his quarry, but by the end he willingly dooms the lives of his entire crew as well.
One of our greatest fears is the loss of our own souls. We want to make it through life successful and happy, but also to feel that we did not comprise ourselves along the way. Some stories reaffirm our commitment to do what is right, even if it is a partial victory, by showing the soul being preserved or improved. Other stories, however, can make us doubt our convictions by showing us an overzealous soul becoming fractured.
This is a very subtle, but very important lesson for how to steer your audience into self-examination. If the ending of your story isn’t challenging them in the direction that you intended, perhaps it is worth considering whether this principle has gotten crossed. In the meantime, I would like to explore the idea further with my next short story. Last week we had a hero that maintained his soul through a difficult decision, this time I want to do the opposite. I will create a character that does what he feels he has to do, even though it condemns him to do so. Come back on Thursday to see how that turns out.
“I didn’t know you ran with the Kerrie Cabal these days,” Gallan said coolly.
Reish shook his head. “By now you should know that there are no divisions among those that are marked.”
Gallan did know that. All these warring factions were merely a front. Behind their petty squabbles all the Strained had the same single entity pulling their strings. That entity let them go about their little wars to give the illusion of hope. It would comfort people, make them think that no one was too powerful, that they still had a chance to make something of themselves.
“I thought you would be elsewhere, Reish.”
“And I thought you would.” Speaking was hard for Reish, he only had half of a mouth to operate with, the other side was permanently held in a hateful scowl. “Go!” he hissed between gritted teeth. It was clear that the beast-side was trying to end their conversation, and he had to strain to keep speaking.
“I wish I could, but I still have promises to keep.”
“No. I relinquished you of that obligation long ago.”
“But I have not.”
Reish scowled and turned to the side, facing Gallan’s men. He raised two fingers and they were compressed even tighter against the earth, muffled groans of pain warbling through their compressed throats. Gallan wanted to help them. But Reish’s power could not be denied.
“Are you so insistent on seeing me killed, Gallan?”
“It wouldn’t be like that. I’d find another way.”
“Just like how it won’t be that way for these men?” Reish’s right arm snapped into the air and the men were instantly pounded into the dust, compressed so thin that they became a dark powder that blew away in the wind.
Gallan dropped his head and exhaled heavily. “They understood the risks. As do I.”
“Gallan, so many people want you to live,” Reish reached down and withdrew the metal blade from the burly man’s chest. “Is it so important that you die?”
“If that’s what you want…then yes.”
Gallan hadn’t expected that to strike a chord, but a sudden pang crossed the Reish-side of the face, his eye grew moist and he blinked a tear.
“I don’t get what I want, Gallan. It’s not up to me anymore, don’t you see that? I would like to–” The beast-side of the face hardened, and its stony flatness crept over, muzzling Reish.
“Come home?” Gallan suggested.
The Reish-beast pulled its hand back and drove the metal blade forward. Gallan closed his eyes, preparing for impact.
Instead, though, he felt the hooks catching right beneath his shins.
“No!” he cried out as he was wrenched off his feet and sent flying backwards through the air. Years ago Husk had insisted that Gallan leave a vial of blood back at their base. It was bound to his second-shade, and could be manipulated to recall him if there was ever a moment of insurmountable danger.
As Gallan was pulled through the air by unseen strands he saw Husk swinging down towards Reish, guns blazing. He was followed by an entire squad of elite units. It was a suicide mission, and all to give Gallan time to escape.
“Husk, how could you?” Gallan sobbed, but it was too late. “You promised.”
It was a somber day back at camp, and everyone was weighed down with an overwhelming sense of despair. Not only had Gallan and his team failed to retrieve the vaccines, and not only had they lost a dozen of their best men, but news got around that Reish himself had returned, and seemingly for the express purpose of bringing their little enterprise to an end.
No one criticized Gallan, no one claimed him that he had chosen wrong. But then, no one had said that he made the right call either. They didn’t say anything to him at all, not even to ask what they were supposed to do. They could see in his eyes that right now he felt just as lost as the rest of them.
He hated that they could see that weakness. Their entire community was only able to function because of their confidence in him, their hope that he would always find a way. Well what if this time he couldn’t? What if he didn’t find any answers for their fears?
Dask was probably correct that they would still follow out of loyalty…at least for a while. Eventually the doubts would increase, though, and one-by-one they would start vanishing into the night.
No, he would have to give them something more. What exactly, he didn’t know. It seemed like he had already given his all, but that simply wasn’t enough. He would have to find a way to give them more than himself.
Gallan sighed in his boardroom and shook his head. Was that a paradox? He had solved many problems that others had thought were too difficult. But this one wasn’t just difficult. It was truly impossible.
Because, at it’s root, it was based upon another impossible problem.
Fact #1: Reish and he were tethered together. They each shared the same extra shade, three souls divided between two bodies.
Fact #2: Reish had also given his body to the beast. He was a strange amalgamation of three souls in one body. It tore his heart in terrible ways, but it also gave him power unfathomable.
Fact #3: The community depended on Gallan’s powers to survive in an otherwise untenable world. But that power was corrupted, because it came from the same shade that Reish had access to. Reish had taken their gift and polluted it with the beast. Now every time Gallan called upon those powers he indirectly strengthened the beast as well.
And so the blessing of Gallan’s power was actually his curse. Everything he did for his people only propped up the opposition against them. Gallan knew that his people had hoped that the bigger world would just forget about them, that Gallan would lead them far away while everyone else burned themselves to the ground. He had never made them that promise himself, but he had never explained the folly of it to them either.
Because the beast would never let them be, not so long as Gallan remained tied to the same shade as Reish. While it was already far stronger than Gallan, it too was handicapped by this strange union, and it could only be fully unleashed when all of its ties had been severed. Thus it had always only been a matter of time before the beast came to collect, to finally capture the remnants of Reish’s soul, Gallan’s soul, and the third that they shared.
Gallan had always hoped to find some hidden solution before that time of reckoning came, a secret way out of this problem. But in his heart he had always known that these hopes were in vain. He did not have the power to kill the beast, and so the beast would have to kill him instead. It must know that he would never surrender his own soul to it, so it would have to appease itself with Reish and the third’s. And then Gallan wouldn’t be around to defend his people anymore. All of his promises to them would be broken.
Just like his promise to Reish.
Well, no, he technically hadn’t broken that yet, he simply had not fulfilled it. He had never been able to see any way of doing so, and so once again he had sat back, vainly hoping for a solution to an impossible problem.
It had been years ago, when they were both still youthful and full of hope. The darkness of the world had only just begun to cloud their innocence. Reish had been taken by a caravan of slave-traders and seen horrible things that scarred him. When at last he fought his way to freedom he had burned with a desire to fight these wrongs. He came to Gallan and insisted that the clans responsible for this abominable trade be brought to justice.
At first Gallan had agreed with him, and they had gone on several missions together. But bit-by-bit Gallan realized that Reish’s true motives had less to do with justice, and more to do with vengeance. It wasn’t about protecting the innocent, it was only about punishing the guilty. Reish was fueled by a rage, and it frightened Gallan.
Eventually Gallan told Reish that they two of them would have to part. Gallan would continue fighting for the oppressed, but on his own terms.
The two friends had parted amicably, even sorrowfully. Reish had admitted that there was a darkness in his heart and that he was afraid that he might indeed lose himself to it. But still he had to see this through.
Reish had asked Gallan for a promise.
“Yes, anything,” Gallan had said.
“Watch over me, will you? And if I fall too far, bring me back. Promise me that you’ll do whatever is necessary to reclaim the memory of what I once was.”
It was a very open-ended oath, but Gallan had agreed. Evidently Reish today only saw one way that it could still be fulfilled: for Gallan to put him eternally to rest. To kill him for the sake of the man he once was. It was the only way that Gallan could see, too, though he tried to deny it.
At one point it might have been possible to nurture Reish back to wholeness, but there was no way to coax the beast out of him now. It had rightful claim of Reish, for he had bound himself to it by many other terrible oaths. Those promises had to be maintained too, and the beast was due its soul. It would take Reish, it would kill Gallan, it would take the third soul that bound them together.
That third soul was deeply tainted already, and it had become a conduit by which Gallan felt the corrupting fear from the beast constantly. No wonder he was beginning to despair.
“Do you know what you’re going to do?”
Gallan hadn’t even noticed Dask entering the room. He wasn’t startled, though, he was too weighed down for that.
“Yes,” Gallan said softly. “But I do not know what the outcome of it will be. I do not know that at all.”
Dask nodded. “You’re going to try and kill him?”
Gallan laughed, but without mirth. “No. Perhaps that is what I should have done, but the opportunity for that is long since past. Every day my power is waning, and his grows. I couldn’t harm him now if I tried.”
If at all possible, Dask’s face became even more grim. “So…what is there to do then?”
“I am going to go and talk with him.”
“Talk with him?!” Dask said incredulously. “What good is that going to do?”
“I will make him an offer. I could be wrong…but I think he might accept it.”
“What is it?”
“That is my own matter. Just know that regardless of the outcome, I won’t be here to protect you anymore. So I’m putting you in charge, Dask, and you must do all that you can to bring these people to safety.”
“What?! We won’t stand a chance without you.”
Gallan leveled eyes with Dask and looked a dread earnestness into him.
“No, you won’t. So you had better run, Dask. Take everyone and leave. Get as far from this place as quickly as you can.”
Dask was saying words but Gallan didn’t hear them. Probably some form of protest from the look on his face. It didn’t matter. There was no more discussion to be had. Gallan pushed past him and out into the night. Somewhere in his musings he had decided what he had to do.
There yet remained one fact that seemed an anomaly to him, one sliver that remained in the dark. Today he had spoken with Reish, not the beast. Somehow a part of his friend was still locked up inside of there. That suggested something to him.
But what advantage could be made from exploiting that? He wasn’t sure, quite possibly none. Never mind that.
Gallan pushed through a door and exited the barracks. The pitch blackness of night hid the storm that he felt, an invisible wind and rain that swept him in a flurry of fitful gusts.
He didn’t mind it at all. It felt powerful and invigorating and it fueled his resolutions. When all outcomes were uncertain, all that remained was trying to set right the one thing he could. He would do that, and then the world would have to decide for itself what it wanted to be.
Staring up at the sky, Gallan let the water sting his eyes. Then he gave a mighty leap high into the air and disappeared into the black.
In my last post I spoke at some length about the presence of violence in a story, and how it is often used to represent an underlying conflict. In this section I tried to focus directly on that conflict, and my hope is that it runs deep enough to warrant the violence that preceded it. This story is about a bleak and hopeless situation, and it only stands to reason that this darkness would result in war and death.
Of course in an epic with a happy ending, eventually that conflict would be resolved, and naturally the violence would end as well. And at that point, when there is no more conflict or war, the story ends. Because, as I said last week, all the things an author wants to say in their story, is said within the conflict. Teaching morals in a monotony of peace just isn’t effective.
I do realize, of course, that in this post I utilized a great deal of exposition. Gallan’s knot needed was quite complex and tangled, and I chose to communicate it without dialogue or action. This obviously contradicts the famous literary injunction to show, not tell. Essentially all that I did in this post was “telling.”