I never had a dog growing up. I always wanted one, but the answer was always no. I tried telling my dad that he wouldn’t have to worry about feeding or cleaning up after it, I would be entirely responsible for all of that stuff. He knew, better than I, that that was not the way these sorts of things go.
Now I have a home and family of my own, and we have a cat. What I did not understand as a child was that because I am a provider in my home, and chose to bring the cat into it, I am therefore obligated to him. Even if my own son was old enough to do all of the cat’s chores, I would still feel emotionally responsible.
I am also obligated to the fish that we have. I am obligated to the woman I asked to be my wife, to the son we are raising, and to the baby daughter that we are expecting this winter.
Each one of these responsibilities came about by some sort of creative or additive act. I made, purchased, or requested all of these connections and added them to my life on-by-one. And because I chose to add these to my life, I have a duty to them.
Having that sense of duty matters to me. There are some traditions of “masculinity” that I do not hold with, but one that I think is good is the idea that a real man takes care of his own. A man chooses his responsibilities, and then he commits himself to them. He does not take on dependents lightly, he does so with full intent to provide.
A mature, responsible adult therefore holds to the things that matter and lets go of the things that get in the way. So much of adulthood is simply learning how to divide between these two, and one that manages this balancing act will lead a fulfilling and blameless life…but also one that doesn’t make for a good story!
Narratives are about tension and drama. Compelling stories have points where the decision between right and wrong is not so straightforward, situations where there are pros and cons to each side and compromises have to be made.
One of my favorite animated films is Wreck-It Ralph, in which the main character rejects his role as a video game villain and goes in quest of a hero’s reward. Along the way he befriends a young girl who is an outcast in her own game. Her dream is to live as a racer, and he helps her to build a car that can compete in an upcoming race.
And then, at that critical point, he is made aware of a terrible conundrum. This young girl has a glitch, and if she performs in the race and players see her glitching, the game might be unplugged and she will die.
Through their adventures Ralph has come to feel responsible for this young girl. Part of that responsibility is to her happiness. To that end, he has built her this racecar. But also he is responsible for her safety, and right now her happiness seems to be putting that safety in jeopardy. He tries to reason with her, to tell her that she shouldn’t race. She rejects that notion. So what does he do? He breaks her car into pieces. He is both the good guy protecting her and the bad guy crushing her dreams.
That is great drama and excellent storytelling! Not only that, it authentically captures the real-life difficulty of making the right choice “in the moment.” When we reflect on our choices, hindsight often makes very clear to us which were right and which were wrong. When making those choices in the moment, though, things seemed much less black-and-white.
Making Up For Mistakes)
This means that sometimes we will make a choice that seemed right in the moment, but later we learned was not. One of the most difficult things we have to do in life is admit we were wrong, work backwards, and make an opposite choice to undo our mistake. Because that is something else we are responsible for: what decisions we have already made.
Ralph faced this exact same conundrum. He came to realize that he had been fed some misinformation, and that leads him to make amends with the little girl he broke the heart of.
Victor Frankenstein was another character who had to face responsibility for his actions. In his novel he creates a new life, and is therefore responsible for the individual he has made. But he finds that the creation is hideous, and full of violent intent. The creature tries to coerce him into providing a mate, but Frankenstein refuses, unwilling to be responsible for the propagation of this monstrous species.
Ultimately Frankenstein seeks to destroy his creation, so that he may at last have rest from his responsibilities. Instead he dies in the effort, and so his rest is discontented. He is filled with the disappointment of having failed his duty. That is the last great tragedy of his life.
Last weeks’ story was based around this same idea of a father trying to bring a premature closure to his responsibilities. I also ended it in a place of grim dissatisfaction, because it wouldn’t feel right to have an easy fix to an inherently complex problem.
The Responsibility of Power)
The last type of responsibility I wish to examine is that of a character who comes into unexpected power. There are several stories that ask what would happen if a person suddenly gained tremendous strength or influence, and in the moment had to decide what responsibilities were inherent in that? Aladdin uncovers a powerful genie, but has to learn to use it wisely, rather than just satisfy his selfish desires. Edmond Dantès finds great riches, and is empowered to ruin the men who wronged him. To do so, though, will break his responsibilities of love and fidelity to the woman that he loved. Is he to live out his vengeance and lose his soul, or remain true to his core and swallow a defeat?
I would like to craft a story that further examines these themes of responsibility, and particularly that of the responsibility inherent in great power. At first the main character will be unaware of his tremendous capabilities, during which time he will bind himself to only the common sort of responsibilities: loyalty and protection for another. Come on Thursday to see the forging of those bonds, and then later in the story we will examine how those ties are affected when he discovers his greater nature!
“I am surprised that anyone would come to look for me in my little abode, I’m a man of little consequence.” The old hermit bumbled through his cupboards, looking for a second cup to pour some tea into. It was not an easy task, for he was not in the habit of keeping company in his humble home.
“That’s not true,” the wanderer smiled lightly. He pulled the heavy gloves off of his hands, and then fumbled with the strap around his chest, loosening it so that he could sit more comfortably. “Every man has his circle of influence.”
The hermit paused to look up at the water leaking down from above. The dried longleaf that thatched his roof had been sliding apart for years, leaving whole patches open to the starry sky.
“Well my circle leaks,” he said. “What does that tell you about my influence?”
“That you don’t mind the rain,” the wanderer’s grin widened.
“Oh so smart,” the hermit muttered under his breath. “Got an answer for everything.” Finally he produced two chipped, wooden mugs and a pot. He placed them on the small table, in the center of the one-room hut. He poured the tea and offered the drink to the wanderer who took it with thanks. It was very weak tea, essentially hot water with only the faintest traces of anything else. Indeed the strongest flavor was what seeped into it from the wood of the cup. The wanderer did not seem to mind.
“At least you have a home,” the wanderer said after a few moment’s silence. “I did once…perhaps one day I will again. But for now I remain a wanderer.”
“But there must be something that you wander for?”
“Yes,” the warrior nodded. “I do have a purpose.”
“Well I don’t have that. I would happily trade you home for purpose if my old bones were up to it.”
“Once you must have had one.”
“That’s private,” the hermit said sourly.
“No,” the wanderer said, still smiling in spite of his host’s prickliness. “No man’s purpose is a secret, because all men’s purpose is the same.”
“To their children,” the hermit had a tear in his eye.
“The very same.”
“Do you have children then, wanderer?”
“Of a sort…once. Do you?”
“I did. Once. Why do you say ‘of a sort.'”
“Well I had a people, and they were my children.”
“I provided for their needs, I gave them instruction, I protected them from evil. And though it pained me to do so, I have journeyed away from them when necessary…. To do for them what is necessary. Was I not a father, then?”
“I suppose. Though why are you not still?”
“I lead them no longer. Another does. But why are you not still a father? Surely the duty of a father extends past all things, even beyond the grave?”
“The grave, yes. But no, not all things–” the hermit looked down into his cup, anxious to escape the question. “You mentioned duty. And of a truth, you named many. But you never did mention how you…disciplined them.”
“Ah yes, the last duty, the one every father hopes to avoid. We all wish that by doing the others so well, we will have no need for that last. Is it not so?”
The hermit nodded gravely.
“Well, there was punishment from time to time in our little community. I gave to them their laws, after all, so I had to enforce them. Never was I cruel, though. Our punishments were chosen together. Five lashes for stealing bread, a night in the stocks for disorderly behavior, we all agreed that these were fair.”
The wanderer took a sip, then continued.
“It seemed enough. It encouraged them to choose their better natures. All were committed to the prosperity of one another, and it was only the occasional stray moment that needed to be curtailed…” the way the wanderer’s voice trailed off was telling.
“And yet something changed. Something. A monster, a demon, a–a something took their hearts and corrupted them. For the first time we had men who would cheat one another for their own advancement. Women who would falsely accuse one another to take their place. And still it got worse.”
The wanderer’s hands were shaking now. He set down the cup for fear of dropping it.
“I wouldn’t have believed it possible,” he continued, “but they even began to hurt one another for the pure pleasure of it. They had nothing to gain by it at all, they just wanted to see the other bleed.”
The wanderer paused again, and for a minute the hermit did not press him. But at last he couldn’t hold his peace.
“You said it was…something that turned them?”
“It was a man. The scourge of all these lands now. Surely even you have heard of him…”
“Azdenik,” the hermit did not speak the name so much as mouth it. “I know of the man.”
“And yet not a man. There is a dark magic in him, I have never seen one so able to seduce the innocent. Even I was enchanted with him when first he arrived in our village. And such promises he offers. You know of them?”
“Not promises,” the hermit shook his head darkly. “Exchanges. Little pieces of the soul you must give him…but he does not tell you that.”
“No, he does not. When at first he offered his little trinkets to us, his little charms and totems, we thought he was making a joke. How could his little idols make our fields double in yield, our clothes shine with greater luster, or our luck run more sweetly? How could such a clever, charismatic man expect us to believe such fantasies?”
“And yet my people took them. They winked at his stories in public, but in the dead of night they came to his door and crept back to their homes with his wares. I knew it was happening. Everyone did. Even then it gave me great unease. But I could not explain why, and so I felt I had no right to intervene.”
“And your people began prospering?”
“Yes. I told myself it was just a coincidence. That this man came and then my peoples’ crops began yielding more and more each week, who could believe the two were connected? But the crops were only increasing in the homes of the most naive and gullible, the very same ones I knew would have taken Azdenik’s offer. Eventually more and more of my people started seeing increases in their farms, and so I knew that even the more practical were beginning to be swayed. If he had stayed much longer, everyone would have had one of his totems.”
“But he didn’t stay?”
“No, that was his greatest trick of all. You see if everyone had gotten one of the totems there would have been on a level playing field. By leaving early he put a rift in our town. Now those that prospered had an unfair advantage. They started spending more lavishly, and all the shopkeepers raised prices so that they could share in the wealth, too. Of course that left all the farmers who didn’t have a totem out in the cold. Suddenly they were paupers, and not because of a lack of industry. Those people started to grow bitter. Bitter feelings became bitter thoughts. Bitter thoughts turned into bitter words. Bitter words incited bitter actions.”
“What did you do?”
“We had our laws still, and I enforced them. But they were no longer of any effect. Discipline only works when it awakens a man’s innate desire to do good, and it doesn’t accomplish anything to put a scornful man in the stocks.”
The hermit nodded, as though he understood something of this. “And then it’s easy to come down harder and harder on them. If they won’t awaken to remorse, perhaps they will to fear…”
“Aye. And then you aren’t their loving, guiding father anymore. You’re their vengeful taskmaster and they hate you for it.”
“Yes, you are not their father anymore,” the hermit nodded sadly. “The duties of the father can extend through the grave. But through hell?”
“Surely there must be something a father can do for a child even then,” the wanderer fought down his despair. “Do you not think so?”
“I don’t know what.”
“There must be. I know that there must be!”
“If you say so.”
A few moments of dark silence passed between the two, then the wanderer continued with his sorry tale.
“I only saw how complete my failure was when Azdenik returned. I could see in his eyes that he knew what had happened in his absence. He had counted on it. We were but a husk of the charming village when first he visited. He offered the survivors to join his band, to drink more fully from the power of his totems and follow him in conquest.
“I begged my people not to go. Reasoned with them, pleaded with them. Threatened them! But Azdenik was their father now, not me. They left me, every single one of them left me. Gone to break the innocence of other lands, gone to kill and plunder, gone and made me a wanderer without a home.”
“Terrible,” the hermit shook his head. “just terrible. Although…you said you had a purpose in your wandering?”
“Yes, to do my last duty to my children.”
The wanderer’s voice grew dark and very cold. He reached out and took another long, slow sip from his tea. “My children lost their innocence,” he whispered, “and I quest to reclaim it.”
“You–still think to save them?”
“All are innocent at birth. And all are innocent in the grave.”
“Oh,” the hermit groaned, and shook his head at the heaviness of that pronouncement. “Why have you come here, grim man?”
“I raised one army after another, eight times!” the wanderer stood upright and clenched his fists. “Each one I spent against Azdenik and his people–my people–and each time I alone crawled away from the bloody defeat. Now I know of a certainty that there is no breaking Azdenik so long as he holds those cursed totems!”
“Why have you come?” the hermit wept, holding his shaking head in his hands. “Why have you come?”
“To do what you would not, weak man!” the wanderer spat.
The wanderer turned rabid. He grabbed the hermit by the front of his frock, and pulled him up to his feet.
“Tell me what I need to know!” he snarled through clenched teeth. “Azdenik must have a weakness!”
“I don’t know, I don’t know…”
“No lies!” He threw the hermit against the wall, and the old man crumpled into a sobbing heap on the floor. The wanderer leaped on him, turned him over, and struck him across the face. “Tell me!”
“I c-can’t. I don’t know. It’s not right…”
“It is the only right that is left!”
“Why do you trouble me? Why should I know these things?”
“No man knows another like a father knows his child!”
“Ihave no child!” the hermit wailed. “Azdenik isn’t my son! My son was Geoffrey Braithwaite!”
“Yes. Good, good,” the wanderer’s eyes glinted and he panted like a predator closing in on his prey. “And you know how to kill Geoffrey Braithwaite.”
“Yes youdo!” He struck him again, then leaned in hungrily. “You do not wish to, but you do know what his weakness is. He must have one, and you know it. You can tell me how to kill him, and you know that when I do the monster he became will die as well. Don’t do it for me, old man, do it for your son. Do your last duty to him…. Let me give Geoffrey rest.”
Streams of tears ran down the hermit’s face. His mouth stood agape in silent wailing. “I never knew it would go so far,” he sobbed. “I should have smothered him when I could.”
“I will. I’ll do it for you. Tell me how. You know!”
“Alright…I’ll tell you.”
As I said on Monday, my entire intention with this story was to show a character that does what he has to, even though he feels condemned by that action. It’s not like this was ever going to end in a positive place!
At the start of this story the hermit seems innocent enough. He is polite, has basically good desires, and a few of his comments suggest that he has a strong sense of duty. This seems well and fine, but as we press towards the end we realize that there came in his life a moment of conflict between his good desires and his duty. He wished for the well-being of his wayward son (a good desire), and because of it denied an obligation to destroy him (his sense of duty). This crossing of the lines is even hinted at with a subtle line of dialogue: “it is the only right that is left.”
In the end he is persuaded, or perhaps we should say forced, to finally choose duty over child. Now let me make abundantly clear, this is not a resolution that I intend for the audience to be wholly on board with. My expectation is that the audience will be taken aback, and then call into question the logic with which the story concludes.
As I suggested on Monday, a story like this is intended to divide readers. Some of them might finally conclude that the hermit should never have relented, and some will say that he should. Some may say that he already failed long ago just by letting his son go astray. Some may say that that couldn’t have been helped.
Whatever conclusion a reader settles on, they will understand their own selves better for having made that determination. That is the entire point of a story like this: to dissatisfy the audience into a self-affirming decision.
This story does not end with an answer, only with a question. Namely, to what extent is a man responsible for what he has created? This has long been a query of literature, extending back as far as Frankenstein’s monster and even Oedipus. Come back next week when we’ll look more closely at this idea of a character’s responsibility. I’ll see you there on Monday.
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.
An hour later, down in the nearby valley, Reish stood immobile in the middle of his barracks. An hour ago he had felt the tremor, a signal born down to him by the third shade which he and Gallan both shared. Gallan was coming.
Reish didn’t try to fight it, he didn’t try to hide his location from Gallan at all. Let him come. Let all the reckonings happen here and now. And so he just stood there, silently waiting until there was a knock at the door.
“Let him in,” he ordered tersely.
The door opened and six guards entered with Gallan in their midst. They had taken the precaution of putting him in shackles, which Gallan now reached out to with his shade and systematically disassembled. The bonds dropped unceremoniously to the floor.
“Hey!” one of the guards roared at him.
“Leave it,” Reish sighed. “If he meant you any harm he would have killed you as soon as he’d seen you. Go now.”
“But, sir–” the guards were clearly uncomfortable with the idea of leaving Gallan alone with their leader.
“And if he meant me any harm I would have killed him before he even arrived,” Reish added. “Leaveus.”
The guards didn’t need telling a third time. Reish waited until the door had closed before stepping near to Gallan.
“Well, Gallan. I can sense that you haven’t come here to assassinate me…”
“Even if I tried it wouldn’t work.”
“No. It wouldn’t. So why are you here?”
“To offer you an end to our feud.”
“Hmm, well I hardly believe that you mean to join forces? No, of course not. But I also can’t believe that you’ve come to just lay down and die at my feet.”
Gallan smiled. “I will do exactly that…if you satisfy my demands.”
“Ah, yes, a deal. I should have realized. No doubt you’re worried about that little clan of yours. Alright then, you nobly sacrifice yourself and yes, I will let them go free.”
“Don’t lie to me, creature!” Gallan spat. He spoke directly to the placid beast-side of Reish’s face. “I have long known that you have one purpose, and one purpose only. Total conquest.”
For the first time the beast-side of the face flexed on its own, giving a cold scowl. “Very well, I will give them some time then. I will let them hold onto their hope for a season. And then, last of all, their end will be quick and painless. Is that what you want?”
Gallan shook his head in disgust. “You think I’m so crude as to deal in false hopes for them?”
“No?” the beast taunted. “I thought that was all you did.”
Gallan didn’t dignify that with a response. It was interesting to hear the beast say those words, though, for that same thought had been echoing in his head for some time. Now he knew where it came from, and strangely enough that made him feel more confident in himself.
“But if you haven’t come for them, what did you come for?” the beast demanded.
“I’ve come to trade myself for Reish.”
Reish was startled by that. “That’s not possible!”
“No, it isn’t,” the beast agreed. “You know his sins, I am owed his soul. He’s much too entrenched to ever be let go.”
“He might be… but personally I doubt it. You’ve had him for seven years and still you don’t have full control of his body. Clearly there’s something there that is resisting you.”
“Gallan, don’t do this!” Reish pleaded.
“I still don’t understand,” the beast interjected. “Trade yourself for Reish? So what…I get your body and soul and vacate his? I don’t see how that serves me any better.”
“You don’t get my soul, just my body. It’ll be one of your puppets.”
“And you get the third shade. Entirely.”
That gave both Reish and the beast pause.
“So…” the beast said slowly, weighing the options in his mind. “I get your body and the third shade. The full benefit of a shared shade, encased in a body that is entirely under my control…Meanwhile your soul goes on to the afterlife, and Reish leaves me, soul and body. That is your offer?”
“And Reish has no remaining ties to the third shade, no powers with which to challenge you.”
“While on the other hand, I could continue to string out our war, take over the third shade bit-by-bit, as well as Reish’s body and soul, and then kill you once the third shade will allow it…”
“Take over the third shade almost. Reish’s body and soul almost. Let’s not play games. Both of us know that you will never have the whole of them this way. You will always be fractured. If you could take them all the way you would have done it already. Like I said, there’s something still in Reish that you haven’t been able to take from him. And so long as you don’t have all of him, you won’t have all of the third shade.”
“But if I do things your way, then you die tonight. And then, you must realize, I kill Reish. And then I kill all your little followers.”
“That…is a distinct possibility.”
“Ah,” the beast crowed. “So that’s why you’re willing to do this. After everything you’ve been through you still have a glimmer of hope. Hope that somehow Reish and the others will find a way out of all this.”
“If ever they could, it would only be this way. With all ties having been cut. I don’t know that they will succeed. Frankly, I don’t know how they would. But yes, as you say, I do still hope.”
That was it, all the cards were laid out. If Gallan held back his true motives it would only make the beast skeptical about the deal.
The beast would know that Gallan’s logic was correct. A complete severance was the only way for the people Gallan cared about to ever go free. Yes, that would also unchain the beast, but that couldn’t be helped. The creature would at last be free to exercise its full potential, a being of power such as the world had never seen before. And so any victory for Gallan’s people was only theoretical. In practice their escape would be a virtual impossibility and Gallan’s hopes rested on the smallest possible of margins. The beast would consent.
“Gallan, no!” Reish shrieked. It was a great strain for him to speak, but he continued shaking his head, wresting for that control. “You can’t do this. I don’t want you to save me. It’s too late. I don’t want–”
“Don’t you remember, Reish,” the beast-side sneered. “You don’t ‘get what you want,’ now do you?”
“Gallan, please,” Reish pleaded.
“Well, beast,” Gallan narrowed his eyes. “Is it a deal or not?”
The beast met his gaze. “Do it.”
Gallan closed his eyes and reached out with his shade. He could discern the essence of the whole room around them. Not by its walls and furnishings, but by its atmosphere and spirit. It was dark, oppressive, and bleak. Three souls, two bodies, one demon. He could sense them all. The demon and the third soul were reaching out for him and he received them.
Gallan was flung to the ground with a cry. His body went rigid and then convulsed. The transference did not happen all at once, the darkness hit him in one wave after another. A cold hopelessness crept over him. Inch-by-inch it pried at his soul, seeking to take him over. It gave him visions of all the horrible things it had done, of the people it had broken, of the sins it had made them do. It told him he was a fool, that it would do all these same things to those he now died for.
Gallan’s fists clenched and unclenched rapidly, the nails piercing into his skin. A shuddering cry rose through his chest, but before it could expel another followed right after it. And another and another, as if he needed to vomit, but nothing could get out because the convulsions ran too near one another. Hot tears flowed silently down his temples and into his hair.
Still the darkness pulled at his soul, trying to pry it free of his body. Inch-by-inch. Gallan wanted to give up that ghost, but he couldn’t willfully. It wasn’t its natural time, after all, and so it could only be wrested out involuntarily.
The darkness beat at his heart, and he realized he had to let it in. Though it broke him to do so, he opened himself to it. It felt like a strong ropes running down his throat, splintering off into separate cords of black, that pushed at force through his veins to pervade every cell of his body. Before it had been a cloud around him, but now it was in him. It was him. He felt himself shamed and unworthy. His purity was gone, his nobility was broken. We was overcome by a wave of deep fear, and that led him into pure hatred. All he wanted to do was break and destroy the world so that he could rest in its ashes.
Then came the almighty slash. Now that the darkness was inside him it seemed to grab his soul like a claw and wrenched violently until it began to pry loose from his body. The soul tore and left behind great patches of spirit that shriveled into nothingness. The claw ripped again, and the soul was almost torn free.
Everything was fading around Gallan, the world seemed to be growing cold and distant. It was as if the world was falling away beneath him. He was vaguely aware of a tearing sensation, but it seemed far off, like the shadow of a struggle. Strangle enough there was a peaceful disconnect. In fact he was free now, and drifting to somewhere new.
“Gallan, Gallan,” Reish sobbed. “Why did you do this? Why? It’s already too late for me.”
Reish was huddled on the ground, his form quivering in ceaseless sobs. Gallan had been right, a part of Reish had managed to hold on all through the years. Though the beast took so much of him, a hope had always remained. But it had not been a hope in himself, he had lost that long ago. It was his hope in Gallan. No matter how far Reish sunk, no matter how many people were destroyed, he rested in the confidence that at least Gallan would be out there. It had always comforted him to know that there still stood a champion for the people, a last beacon of good.
But now that beacon was gone. And gone in exchange for him, the most unworthy of them all.
And yet, Reish could not deny that bit-by-bit, inch-by-inch, a freshness was returning to him. For the first time in years he had control of his own body again. That weighing oppression was slipping away, leaving him with a clarity and an innocence that he had long forgotten. It felt so strange to be his own self again. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do with it, yet here it was all the same. It felt like being born anew.
Reish wiped his eyes and looked up from the ground. Gallan was nowhere to be seen. Where he had fallen there now lay a full-beast. It was stark and gaunt, a hideous contortion of spindly limbs projected at strange angles. Its skin was pale and hairless, stretched uncomfortably over long bones. Its maw was flat, but very wide, and between its motionless lips one could see the vise of pointed teeth.
The creature’s chest rose and fell and its eyes turned beneath its lids. It would awake soon, and it would arise with one purpose: to hunt him. Though Reish was still reeling from the cacophony of emotions, he knew he had to flee. Trying to slay the beast as it slept would be to no avail. There was a ghostly aura all about it, the sign of the third shade. Though the creature was unconscious the shade would not be, and it would protect its master well.
So Reish stumbled to his feet, turned from the place, and walked out into the night. He would go and find Gallan’s people, try to reach them before the beast did. He would warn them. Most likely they would just execute him on the spot, they certainly had the right to. Well, then at the very least he could allow them that final service.
Or perhaps they would see more meaning in Gallan’s actions than he did, and they would let him live for Gallan’s sake. If they did that, then he would offer them what pitiful aid he could for as long as he lived. His soul had been repurchased, and his duty was clear. Though he was no Gallan, he would try to stand in that man’s ranks, no matter how hopeless the situation had become.
This is the end of Shade, though clearly not the end of the story for Reish, the beast, and Gallan’s people. But then, we didn’t see the beginnings of their story either, so it felt fitting to leave things in media res as well. Even if this short story has not been the entire story, it still shows a complete arc on its own. There has been a hero, a conflict, and a reclamation.
At the outset for Shade I made clear my intentions for the story: it was to create an unspoken expectation in the reader and then defy it. I attempted to do this by introducing Gallan right from the outset as a heroic character, one that the audience assumes will carry the torch through the entire tale. Reish, meanwhile, I introduced as the reluctant villain, suggesting to the audience that he might sacrifice himself for the greater good and thus reclaim his soul.
That reclamation does happen, but I flip things so that it is Gallan who is sacrificed and Reish who is left to carry the torch. Thus is there both the fulfillment and the subversion of unspoken expectations.
On Monday I mentioned that the previous section of Shade had been heavy on exposition, and that I wanted this one to invoke more feelings from the reader. This section did end up still having a considerable amount of expository dialogue, but at the end we do delve deep into the actual experience of the characters. My intention was that both their hope and their despair would come through and shadow the emotions of the reader.
Of course trying to make the reader feel both hope and despair at the same moment is an interesting paradox. Combining contrasting flavors is something I have spoken about in a previous post, and how an author can use it to arrest a reader’s attention. There is another side to this sort of juxtaposition that is worth examining, though: how a writer can both subvert and satisfy a reader’s expectations at the same time. That, ultimately, was my wish with Shade, to end it on a note of both triumph and defeat. Come back on Monday where I’ll explain this approach in greater detail, and until then have a wonderful weekend!
It is interesting that we so often use phrases like “let me tell you a story.” Once upon a time people did exactly this, but today we try for something different. Today most writers want to “evoke” a story instead.
It wasn’t always this way. When we look at fairy tales, Greek tragedies, and myths of old, we find very little evoking. These stories were told straight ahead: this is what happened first, and then this, and then this, and so on until the end. We get only a little explanation of what characters are thinking or feeling, and when we do it is a very stale statement like “he was scared.”
The audience that hears these stories understand all that occurs, they have been told the events plainly, but they usually do not feel very much from the story. This defines the difference between telling and evoking.
Evoking became more prominent as the craft of story-writing evolved. Somewhere along the way authors learned to use their prose to elicit intense emotions from their audience. Consider this brief passage from the first paragraph of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House:
Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.
Dickens might have “told” his reader that it was dark and dreary, but instead he used flowery descriptions to better make the reader “feel” the bleakness directly. Generally we consider this “feeling” approach to be better, although there are pros and cons to both it and straight-ahead telling.
By just telling you something I can use a minimum of words to communicate a great deal. In a single sentence I can convey a broader scene. By evoking something I generally have to be a good deal more wordy. In fact it is very easy for me to go overboard and become too long-winded! But while my sentences might not be as broad, they will run deeper. Many authors will therefore combine the two, giving the general lay of the land in a few expository sentences, and then focusing on specific details with carefully chosen adjective and adverbs.
Active vs Inactive)
Another difference between telling and evoking is whether the audience is actively experiencing an event, or only hearing about it secondhand. Exposition is where someone tells you what happened. Plot is where you see it unfold directly.
Almost the whole of my last story post was exposition. The main character was at a critical juncture, the pivotal moment where he had to commit to his single, greatest deed. Now because I decided to write this short piece as if it were in the middle of a larger narrative, this main character was making his decision based off of facts that the reader had never seen. I therefore had to explain these things, and that was how the exposition came to be.
One might feel that the obvious solution would be to not try telling stories in the middle, if the reader had been experiencing all of these accounts as they happened then they wouldn’t need to be told about them secondhand later. This is true, although even a story that seems to begin in the beginning will still have some of its hooks in the past. Every story is in media res, with past events that will have to be summarized to some degree.
Another consideration is that even if the reader had experienced all of these moments, they might still need a quick recap to explain how each moment is weighing in my main character’s penultimate decision. They would need to be able to follow his train of thought to understand his behavior, otherwise his choices would appear to be random.
So once again, active plot is ideal for putting the reader in the experience and giving them information firsthand. But there is still a place for exposition when it comes to briefly going over broader details, and also to point out the significance of previous events when linked together.
So Do You Show Or Tell?)
All of which is to say that both showing and telling have their place. Of the two, telling is easier, and as such we tend to fall into it by default. This is why novice writers have to be coached to step out of that comfort zone and embrace more evocative methods. It is still perfectly valid to tell someone that they need to “show more” in their story and “tell less.”
But when we say to “tell less,” we do not mean “do not tell at all.” Not all passages should be evoked. Sometimes an event just needs to happen, and without fanfare. In those situations a writer needs to be practiced enough to tell the events succinctly and clearly and then move on to the showing.
Personally I found real value in writing the second section of Shade. It was a good exercise for me to see how to approach exposition when it is necessary, and I am decently pleased with the results of it.
The next section will be much more evocative, though. It will be the conclusion of Shade, and I absolutely want the reader to feel that ending, not just hear about it. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out, I’ll see you then!
“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.”
This last Thursday I shared the first part of a story, in which a small band attacked a military caravan. This assault resulted in a few moments of violence, including people being shot, an arm being severed, and a man being stabbed in the chest.
Now I did not dwell on any bloody or gory details, but I am aware that the mind can readily supply them to the imaginative reader. On the other hand, the more conservative mind will be able to envision these details as happening “off-screen,” and thus be spared any gruesome visuals.
I personally prefer this approach to violence in a story. I am one of those “conservative readers” that simply does not care for strong depictions of harm. Therefore I am quite appreciative when a writer doesn’t try to force unwelcome images in my mind.
And yet I do still write stories that feature violence. I have published quite a few pieces here that include monsters and killing. Terrible things have happened in my stories, though I have tried to not describe them in explicit detail. Is that hypocritical? Does it really make sense to avoid violent descriptions for actions that are inherently violent? And just why do I feel the need to include any scenes of violence in my stories at all?
Why Include Violence)
We might expand that question to why do so many stories feel the need in include violence? There’s no denying that the mainstream media is saturated with all manners of death and destruction, and it has been so for quite some time. Are we a sadistic race of psychopaths that require violence simply to be entertained?
I think not. Certainly scenes of action give us a boost of adrenaline, which can become an addictive experience. Certainly there are those that crave violence for its own sake, and certainly we have shameful examples of how this has been exploited in our past. We may feel far removed from ancient Rome, but let us not forget it was our own race that made sport of gladiators killing one another. We should be very conscious of these unhealthy trends, and we should take great care for what behavior our stories promote.
All that being said, these are not the reasons why I either write or consume media that contain mild depictions of violence. Nor do I believe these are the reasons why most authors and audience-members do. The real reason is actually much more basic.
We have violence in our stories because conflict is a central theme to them. Almost always we have characters, we have an opposition, and therefore heat and friction between them. Violence is simply one of the most straightforward ways of depicting that conflict, in fact one might argue that it is the only way.
I have written several stories which might appear to be devoid of any violence. Consider The Storm, Harold and Caroline, and most recently Hello, World. In these stories no one gets shot, no one dies, no one so much as slaps another.
But if you think about it, even these stories do feature a sort of violence. They include people that make one another feel angry or sad, which is an emotional violence. They have characters that wish ill on one another, which could be considered a mental violence. They even speak criticisms and threats to one another, which is certainly a form of verbal violence. The only line that they all stay behind is that there is no physical violence in them.
Levels of Conflict)
This would seem to suggest that violence is inherent in conflict, though it may not always be physical. And there are degrees of violence, which seem to directly correlate with the level of conflict in the story. A tale with deeper conflict most often has stronger depictions of violence.
Thus the question of to what extent a story should show violence is simply a matter of to what degree the conflict warrant it. One of my stories, A Minute at a Time, is about a father who is trying to care for his sick child. There is friction between them and each is frustrated and exhausted, but also they still love each other. They have a conflict of opinions, but it is very tame and the story features absolutely no physical violence.
Glimmer, on the other hand, was an epic between the forces of good and evil. The protagonist holds to a worthy cause, even as the opposition escalates to a frightful degree in front of her. The tension and inherent conflict is extremely high, thus it only felt fitting for it to conclude with a violent fight to the death.
Maintaining Proper Focus)
Does this mean that any level of violence might be appropriate for a story, just so long as the underlying conflict is strong enough? Any answer here can only be subjective, but my personal opinion is no.
I personally believe that there comes a point where violence exceeds any level of communicable conflict. A scene that is horrifically gruesome no longer seems to be connecting to any narrative arc, it has just become a spectacle unto itself. One has to wonder what are the moral implications of a scene that chooses violence as both its means and ends.
Aside from any ethical question, there is also a functional aspect to it, too. A story that elevates any spectacle too far will undermine whatever greater meaning it was meant to convey. When the audience walks out of the theater, does the director want them to be discussing the jokes, the CGI, the violence, or the sex? Or do they want them to be discussing its message?
It’s a very fine line to walk, a balancing act that takes great care. Especially given what we have already said about how violence is very closely coupled with conflict. In all of my stories I want the focus to be on the conflict, because I have found that it is only in the conflict that anything a story is going to say will be said.
So how do I find that balance? How do I include the appropriate level of violence so as to communicate the underlying conflict, but also not go so overboard as to smother that conflict’s message?
My approach with Shade has simply been to be quite clinical about it all. I state that the violence happened, but I do not delve into the details. I leave it up to the reader’s mind to then choose the appropriate visualization to match the themes that they are sensing in the story. It’s certainly not the only possible approach, but I hope that it is serving the story well.
In my next post I will share the second section of the story, in which the physical violence will take a back seat as we spell out all the layers of conflict and tension. My hope is that those details will ring true because of how I setup for it with the first part of the tale. In either case, come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.