At the end of my last story I teased the fact that I used a character’s name to imbue the story with an extra dose of personality. What I meant by this was that almost no one ever refers to the main character by name. He is known primarily as “my father” and later on as “Pa.”
There are only two times where the character is actually named, and both times it is said by his wife. I thought it was a nice touch to show a sort of reverence for the man. As if all the world is too in awe to call him by name except for the woman he loves. The story never spells out this detail, and I would imagine the wrinkle won’t even be consciously noticed by most readers.
My hope, however, is that the reader’s subconscious will pick up on it, and view the man with greater respect without even knowing why. Whether this attempt of mine actually worked or not is probably impossible to test, but it was a fun way to add more depth to the story nonetheless.
Little quirks like these show up in stories all the time. In the 2011 film Warrior, Paddy Conlon is frequently seen listening to Moby Dick on audio-cassette. It is emblematic of his character’s own personal chase, one to regain the hearts of his sons. Also it draws a parallel between Paddy and the character Captain Ahab, as both have chased their demons too far, perhaps to their own demise. None of these similarities are ever spelled out explicitly, they are just picked up on naturally by the viewer. It makes the Paddy’s character all the more rich and evocative just by lingering in the background.
Each of my tales in this latest series of stories has featured examples of these character wrinkles. I’ve already mentioned the one from Does What He Must, but now let’s take a look at the others.
In I Hated You, Jimmy my distinguishing characteristic was a little different. It was selected primarily for a more functional reason. Throughout that piece our narrator is describing to us events that are now years in past, and ones that he has made his peace with. Or at least it would seem that he has, except for how he becomes lost in the emotions of the moments he is recounting, even going so far as to make a particularly cold comment about the death of a school bully at one point.
My intention here was not to make our narrator a contradicting character, or to suggest that the peace he claims to have found was false. Instead I am merely trying to lend the emotion that fits for that particular moment of the story. I didn’t want my character to talk about the angry years of his youth with a sober, mature voice, it would have felt unnatural. And so I make it instead as if his voice is aging in step with his memories. Perhaps it makes for a narrator that doesn’t quite make sense, but I think it goes down more smoothly anyhow.
For Harold and Caroline I featured two main characters who were about as different as could be. Harold was flustered and sarcastic, Caroline was mousy and uncoordinated. I did, however, want the two of them to share one trait: each of them is holding back the things they want to say.
I believe that my readers got the sense that Harold was constantly biting his tongue. Every sarcasm and sigh of exasperation was but the tip of the iceberg of what he would like to express. Meanwhile Caroline was unwilling to be vulnerable, and so had to squash down all of her problems and frustrations. She is more open with her friends, but not at all with Harold.
My hope then was that each character would have a sense of being more than they appeared. That way it would feel fitting at the end that Harold has a secret charitable side, and that Caroline has a loving and supportive family. In that final scene each character is for the first time really seeing the other.
The Anther-Child was a piece in which we didn’t even meet our main character until halfway through the story. Up to that point he had only been described as part of a group, the Anther-Children as a whole. And even when he is first singled out it is done very impersonally as “one of the males.”
He is not being treated as an individual because his identity has not been individual until this moment. Then he is slowly given more and more focus. Each of the following sentences deals more and more with his experiences, and less and less with the other character’s. Soon all of the other characters depart entirely and he becomes the sole focus of the piece. At this point he expels his old essence and absorbs a new form from the ground around him. He has a new identity, and it perfectly coincides with how at this moment he has finally become the central character of the story.
Once again, the functional details of how the story is written are reflecting the characteristics of the protagonist and indirectly giving him greater depth.
I wanted to do one last story in this series, and it is going to take the idea of adding subtle character wrinkles in a different direction. I want to write a story about a character that is coming apart. I don’t want to add wrinkles to better define him, I want them to fray him and make him more obscure. I am going to try and write a piece from the perspective of a man who is dying, and as he does so gradually loses his grip on memory, reality, and finally his own identity. It sounds like quite the ambitious exercise, and I can’t claim any confidence for how it will turn out, but frankly I’m excited just to try!
The “matter tool” was small and held in the hand like a paintbrush. Its small, flat tip had the curious ability of being able to both deposit and siphon matter with the flick of a switch. Thus, where a traditional artist would etch the mere image of a hill and valley, the “matter tool” was utilized to actually create literal hills and valleys, tunnels and towers, and all manner of strange geometric patterns.
Intriguingly, the ease of use also disvalued the tool. As creation was effortless, many people made rampant and effortless creations. Always the same sorts of things: bridges, tunnels, mazes, pretty geometric patterns, few endeavored to try something outside the box. Of course the true artist learns not only how the medium has been used in the past, but also how it can be used to create that which was never conceived of before.
That brings up a question, though, does the artist actually create or merely discover? There is an idea expressed that the sculpture is already existing in the rock, and it has only to be uncovered. I watched a sculptor working on a large slab of granite, noting that it was nothing more than a cocoon. As the artist created a rough-form I noted he was merely removing the larger parts of the encasing excess. As the finer details were etched onto the face I saw that he was merely pulling the clinging residue off the polished form that was within. All the artist had to do is find it in there. Perhaps we are all of us pristine sculptures burdened by excess yet to be removed.
I looked back to see what had become of the “matter tool”, and now found a new use for it. It was the complement to the sculptor’s work. Taking it in one hand and grabbing a block of stone in the other I began hollowing out the rock’s interior. I twisted and gouged its insides, transforming the block into a mold for the figure of David. It was a sculpture’s negative. When I was done I closed up the bottom of the hollow cavity and set it on a pedestal in an art gallery. All anyone could see was the flat external faces of the rock, unknowing that the art was within. I knew later sculptors would come to dig the form out of it, that is what they know to do. The irony, though, was that since the sculpture was the absence of stone, digging it out would destroy it.
Our Purpose on Earth is to Measure Mountains
Of course, while some people wish to carve the stone, others seek only to measure it. I now stood on the peak of a mountain on a windy, blue day. Beside me were geologists with their surveying instruments, measuring angles to distant peaks and scrawling on notepads a tome of figures. That done, they took the numbers and from them calculated the exact altitudes of the main land features all around them. They too are not creating, only discovering. They do not invent the heights of the landforms, they only discover what the inherent measurements already residing in them are. Their artistic work is the numbers and the data, all which serve as an image representing the original form, just as a sculptor’s figure is an image to represent the original form.
Why do we measure and draw the world? The world already exists, yet we seek to discover and recreate it constantly, seeking for lessons from the natural ways things are. Do we study the ascensions of mountains that we may learn how to raise our own selves to a higher nature? Do we weigh the mass that they bear upwards so that we may learn how to better balance our own burdens?
Of course, if you’re going to measure this world you have to get up high. The taller you get, the more distant your horizons will be. Not only that, but you have to stand clear of clutter. You may be elevated to a peak and have miles of rolling landscape ahead, but if you stand near a wall, though only seven feet high, then all the miles of open plains and the distant mountains behind them are hidden. All you can see is the wall.
There are intangible walls as well. You might be in the clear open, but veiled in the darkness of night. To be visible, every form requires that first it must not be obstructed, and secondly that it must have a medium of light to carry its image to the beholder. Otherwise it may as well not exist at all.
Light, of course, extends forever. However its visible range is quite limited. For what begins as a concentrated streak of illumination quickly spreads apart so finely that it appears to dissipate and loses all definition. What if light were to be more cohesive and physical?
I imagine to myself volumes of light, rectangular prisms that maintain a consistent form, with well-defined faces and edges. It does not fade at any end, but rather holds the same intensity throughout until it comes to an abrupt closure at bounds of one foot by two feet by three feet. Each of these volumes is capped by a thin sheet, which is the source of the light. The sheet is very thin, more so that paper, and is a malleable substance, though sturdy enough that it can hold a shape and not tear. Each one is perfectly translucent.
The volume of light seemed somewhere between a wave and a solid, it was in appearance very soft and hazy, as though millions of minute dust particles were lazily floating within its form. I decided to test the physicality to the beam, and so I turned one of the sheets downwards and let it go. It dropped a short distance and then remained suspended in the air, supported entirely by the light-volume that now rested on the ground. I placed another sheet above the first, turned downwards in the same manner, expecting it to stack. However, because the screen of the first was transparent, the light of the second passed through it, resulting in the first sheet rising until it collided with the second sheet, each of them resting together on a stack of light twice as high as either originally projected. I added a third sheet and the column of light was three times the height now.
For the fourth sheet I did something a little different. I angled it so that its column of light entered my main one at a shallow slope. When I let go it held its place, creating a branch from the trunk. I placed several more extending off of this branch until it grew out five light-volumes out to the side. From this I realized the usual requirements of balancing a fulcrum did not apply to this light sculpture, as the light was entirely weightless. For the next while I continued adding more and more sheets in every imaginable angle and connection. Branches grew off of branches, beams were stuck in upside-down, sheets were folded to form curves in large dome-like arcs. Gradually I had constructed a sprawling web all around me.
At this point I had explored stacking the sheets as thoroughly as I cared to, and now turned my attention to further pursue folding the thin sheets and seeing what became of the light that emanated from it. I grabbed a fresh sheet and curved it up into a concave curve, resulting in a volume of light that resembled a cone. The light did not pass beyond the intersection point that was the tip of the cone, instead it remained bounded within, increasing in intensity where it overlapped.
An interesting property I noted was that where the light was more intense, the surrounding space around it grew more dark. I do not mean it appeared darker as an illusion, but rather it literally grew darker, as if to counteract and balance the light that it neighbored. I decided to invert the darkness and the light, now resulting in a room that was filled with hazy light everywhere, except for at my cone of darkness, that darkness now being more intense at the peak of the cone and the room-light more intense where surrounding that peak.
I changed my dark cone for a sphere, and that sphere grew and became a world. It was a world that was nothing but a hollow, dark void within, but over which lay a thin crust of light and matter. All flora and fauna, all that we perceive the earth to be, all of it was within that thin crust of light. As before, it was apparent that this opposing crust of light was in direct balance with the void beneath, as if all our nature exists only to balance out a core blackhole.
At first the void was perfectly uniform in its distribution of nothingness, but in swirls and eddies it started to intensify in some places and lessen in others. Where the void-sphere deepened in its nothingness, the crust of life grew outwards and burst with life, bulging out thicker and upwards, literal mountains growing before my eyes. Elsewhere the void-sphere lessened in its deep nothingness, and so, too, the crust thinned and faded, until void and crust blended into a neutral gray haze that was neither form nor lack of form. The depths of the void continued shifting and the areas that were intense grew more intense still, eventually all pooling together to a specific point, all the rest of space consumed by the gray monotone.
All my attention was wrapped on that single deepening point of intensity, watching as all of the life and creation became intertwined in one another, such that I lost any ability to distinguish between rock and plant, all blending into one column pressing out into space, a union of both of geology and botany. So tightly were they coupled that all their colors, the greens and blues and reds and browns and yellows, all of them bled together and became a pulsating and glowing white light. The column extended with increasing rapidity and soon became a single beam of infinite light extending through the heavens, a single photon to raze and burn through all the cosmos.
As I said in my post on Monday, sometimes a story can exist outside of a traditional character arc or chronological plotline. Sometimes it can be freeing to start with an image and just run with it wherever it wants to go. To the mind this serves as both active exercise and relaxing meditation all at once, and it promotes both emotional and mental wellness and stability, which is already its own reward. It’s not too often that we get to act as both the inventor and discoverer at the same time, but that is the reality here. What is happening is your subconscious is composing, and your conscious is observing. Your conscious does not know what the subconscious is going to construct, and so it is entirely possible, and likely, for you to end up surprising yourself.
Also, it’s entirely likely that your little stream-of-consciousness journey might bring you to some personal insights that are helpful in your life. The sequence that I wrote above was something I pursued on a whim once, with no specific message or intent in mind. Even so, there are elements that came up in it that I personally find thought-provoking, calming, and useful.
As you might have noticed, the irregular transitions make for a piece that feels a great deal like moving through a dream. Though it is a more grim subject, I do think it is important to explore the alternative, too, the motions and motives of a nightmare. On Monday I will discuss about how to bring meaningful elements of these into your stories and will follow it up with an example on Thursday. Until then, sweet dreams!