Character development is a central consideration of every tale. Most stories are not just about what things happened, but about how those events changed a character forever. Consider the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life. This features a main character, George Bailey, who is miserable in life, tied to a sleepy, little town when he really to see the world and build amazing things. This perpetual dissatisfaction is then amplified by some legal trouble, and in a moment of despair he tries to take his own life.
He is interrupted in that attempt, though, when an angel comes to show him how meaningful his “wasted life” really is. The mission of this angel is to help George regain his fervor for life over the course of an extremely eventful night. Given that this transformation is the core of the story, it occurs gradually, one stirring of the heartstrings after another. Bit by bit George is made to see how positive of an influence he has had on one friend after another, and how much darker the world would be if he’d never been a part of it.
Of course, there is a climatic tipping point, the moment which finally pushes him over the edge. It is when George Bailey sees the love of his life as an old maid, and she recoils from him in horror. This is too terrible a sight for him to hold back his heart any longer, and at long last he pleads for his old life to be restored.
This, of course, is very similar to the journey of the old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Here an uncaring and unfeeling man is shown the folly of his ways through his own eventful night. First he is reminded of the joy that he once held but lost, and then he is shown the genuine mirth that still lives in the world today, but which he has shut himself out from.
Just as with George Bailey, these changes gradually stir Ebenezer’s heart. But also like George Bailey, it takes a final a climatic moment to actually push him over the edge. And so Scrooge ultimately comes face-to-face with his own future death, totally alone and unmourned. If the story had begun with this sight it wouldn’t have felt convincing for Ebenezer to be transformed just like that. But because this revelation is the summation of everything that came before we accept it when Scrooge finally recants his old way of life and is born anew.
From these two examples it seems very clear that a character’s transformation needs to be a gradual, procedural event. It would, of course, be unacceptable if the complete transformation were to occur all at once.
A Different Sort of Hero)
Well, what about the transformation of another Christmas mascot: The Grinch? For virtually the entirety of his tale, the Grinch remains a cynical, bitter, mischievous character. He’s annoyed by the noisy celebrations of the kind-hearted Whos, and one year decides to show them how shallow their mirth really is. He disguises himself as Santa Claus and breaks into their homes in the dead of night, stealing all of their Christmas decorations and presents.
After hours of labor he takes the stolen goods back to his home in Mount Crumpit, and waits in anticipation for the Whos to awake. He is sure that once they find all of their Christmas treasures taken they will collapse in tears.
The thing is, though, the Grinch’s philosophy is based upon a false premise. He believes that the Whos’ joyfulness is a sham, nothing more than the enjoyment of “things,” and by taking away those things he will unveil to them just how shallow they really are.
And so it comes as a great shock to the Grinch when the Whos do not cry that Christmas morning. Instead they join hands and sing a happy holiday tune, not one bit fazed by the loss of the things he stole. Their trappings of Christmas were not the cause of their happiness, they were the outward manifestation of it. And so he may have taken away the wrappings, but the gift of joy remains unbreakable in their hearts.
In short: the Grinch was wrong.
Which realization hits him like a ton of bricks, and the impact of this philosophy-shattering incident is best conveyed by having his character do a complete transformation right on the spot. Having him go on a lengthy pilgrimage to get to the bottom of his muddled feelings would not properly communicate the power of the message that he has just received. No, it is far better to change him in a single scene from a scheming cynic to a believing optimist.
And the Grinch is not the only character to have a sudden shift like this. The same thing occurs to Jean Valjean in Les Miserables when he stops viewing himself as an irredeemable convict. It also happens to Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov when she is healed of her spite and able to embrace genuine love once more. All at once these become totally different characters, but that fits due to the sudden, paradigm-shifting experiences that they pass through.
So, in summary, you often want to show a character’s heart changing gradually, especially when the core of the story is how that transformation occurs. There are exceptions, though, such as when you want to show that a character’s preconceived notions of the world are shattered in a single moment, which is best communicated with an immediate reversal in their trajectory.
And, in fact, there are plenty of stories that utilize both forms of transformation. Jean Valjean’s sudden change in Les Miserables is met with the slower transformation of Javert. Grushenka’s sudden reversal in The Brothers Karamazov is matched by the gradual maturing of her beloved Dmitri.
In my latest story, Covalent, I have been trying to accomplish both forms of transformation as well. On the one hand I have been showing Cace steadily coming into his own in the Ether, growing from a young, impotent boy into a powerful warrior. This gradual change was marked in the last section by some subtle changes occurring to his body: a lengthening of the limbs and his mouth being replaced with a grille.
Rolar, on the other hand, has been absolutely worked over by the events that recently transpired! He was brought to death’s door by a warden beast and could only be saved by replacing large parts of his body with those of the same beast that tried to kill him. As a result, I have subjected him to an immediate and dramatic change, one where his body and intellect were made almost entirely unrecognizable.
Both types of change are helping to communicate the same thing to the reader: that the story is moving into new waters. The strange that became familiar is now eclipsed by a new strangeness. We’ll see just what form that unfamiliarity takes when I continue the story on Wednesday!
There is a video game called Shadow of the Colossus, in which the main character has trespassed onto forbidden lands and seeks the aid of a disembodied demon. He presents a young woman who has been sacrificed and pleads for her soul to be returned to her body. He is told that his wish may be granted…but only if he is able to defeat sixteen colossi in battle, each of which is scattered across the land. A very dangerous undertaking to be sure, but one that he will gladly face to save her.
And so he goes out, toppling one giant monstrosity after another. And at the conclusion of each battle he falls unconscious, only to awaken back at the hall where he has laid the young woman’s body on an altar. Each time he awakens the exact same ritual commences: the statue representing the most-recently-dispatched colossus bursts into pieces, the disembodied voice tells him where he must go to face his next quarry, and the boy sets off to fulfill the task. It a scene very reminiscent of Hercules returning to King Mycenae after each of his labors to receive the next piece of his penance.
Over and over the pattern repeats in Shadow of the Colossus. Each chapter is book-ended by this same return to the hall and altar. You become very familiar with this place, and in its repetition it starts to become personally meaningful. The cavernous chamber, the flowing staircase, the never-ending bridge…without even trying to one starts memorize every little detail. This place starts to feel like home.
In a game otherwise filled with danger and tragedy this is a most welcome respite. Each new challenge features new settings, new dangers, new puzzles. They can become quite taxing and fraught with frustration. But that’s alright, because each of them is also set apart from the others by this singular moment of reprieve. Like Hercules, each new task may be a novel and difficult experience, but the hero is able to feel safe and comfortable for a brief while before trekking out once more.
A Shortcut to Pacing)
Even the most exciting of stories needs moments of calm. A story that is only made up of intense action will soon fail to have any impact, it will lose its voice within its own noise. There has to be variety, there has to be escalation and de-escalation.
And returning to a familiar setting is one of the quickest ways to bring the tempo back to a calm state. Soothing background music can help, soft voices can help, warm colors can help…but the best thing of all to calm the audience’s nerves is to put them in walls that are well-known and safe. Like in Shadow of the Colossus, you want them to have a place that just feels like home.
And one medium that is especially able to make a place feel familiar and safe is the television show. By having episodes strewn over a period of years, developers have great opportunity to repeat settings until they are second-nature to us. And when one of those familiar places is reserved for scenes that are always calm and happy, then the viewer starts to feel better just by being there.
And so in Star Trek: The Next Generation a favorite haunt is Ten-Forward, the futuristic bar where characters come to share a drink and a little bit of gossip. Other places on the ship are often subject to laser blasts and torpedoes, but Ten-Forward, by contrast, is usually the setting where characters only come after all the chaos is past. It is a place for quietly reminiscing, for exploring relationships, for casual words.
Episodes of MASH might be fraught with wartime violence, overbearing stress, and the looming specter of death…but regularly the cast will come back together for a friendly game of Poker in Hawkeye’s tent. No matter how chaotic things are elsewhere, the Poker night immediately resets the tone to something calm and safe.
Every episode of the old Mission: Impossible series is fraught with spies, deception, and danger. But each episode also begins in a calm apartment where the team methodically plan out their disguises and test their equipment. It is only a brief segment in each episode, but it always allows the audience to settle into the plot from a familiar setting.
A Shifted Perspective)
However, regularly returning to a familiar scene does not only have to be used to reset the audience’s emotions. Sometimes returning to an old haunt can actually be used to illustrate just how different the characters within it have become. Yes the setting is familiar, but the spirit of it feels entirely new.
Consider the example of Ebenezer Scrooge’s bedroom in A Christmas Carol. Throughout the tale Ebenezer keeps leaving and returning to this place, and each time the room is completely the same as before. And it is that sameness that makes his own personal change stand out in stark relief.
We are first introduced to it when he comes home from a long day of work, sets the many locks on its door, and takes a supper of gruel in the dark. It is a mean and meager place, thrifty to the point of oppressiveness, and it is in perfect harmony with the man that lives in it.
Then the visitations from the spirits begin, and Christmas Past takes Ebenezer down a painful walk of his own memories. We see his life laced with one regret after another, until he refuses to continue the journey any further, and forcibly returns back to his bedroom. He is filled with deep relief to be back home, and suddenly we see the room how he sees it: not meager and dark, but close and safe. In its confinement he feels secure. It is his fort to keep out all the outside world, and all the pain of his past. For the first time, we pity him.
Next comes the visit of Christmas Present, who shows him how much more mirth and love is occurring outside of these walls on Christmas day. Scrooge finally starts to long for more, and the dankness of his hovel is emphasized even more than before.
Finally Christmas Future comes, and of all the places that he could show Ebenezer, he shows him the future version of this very same bedroom. It is the room, after Ebenezer has died.
This is the only time the room actually changes, and we are shocked to find that it is able to become even more bleak than before, with bed curtains stolen and a single sheet laid over a solitary, lonely corpse.
And then, after that moment of absolute darkness, we return to the room once more as it is today, and by contrast it now seems a place of life and hope. In fact the sun is raising, and the windows are thrown open to let that light in. Ebenezer is still alive, and he still has a chance to make this room a place of joy.
A single, solitary room, a room that does cannot speak a single word of dialogue. Yet so much is said in the many different ways we behold it.
I am trying my hand at writing a single location that returns multiple times in The Favored Son. The centrifuge has been visited twice already, and each time under very different contexts. The first time is at the very beginning, when things are still relatively calm and carefree. The youth are quibbling about leadership, but there aren’t any serious stakes at play.
The second visitation takes place after the youth have been attacked and retreated to the centrifuge for safety. Suddenly its annoying complexities become securities. It is a place of safety, a place that feels an essential to survival. Again the students are conflicted about questions of leadership, but there is a desperate urgency to it now.
There is a third visit to the centrifuge yet to come, and this one will occur when the students are in a place of utter defeat. The brokenness of the place’s columns should carry a significance then that was never felt before. The question of leadership will finally be put to rest. It will be a scene of old ideas and hopes being laid to rest as well, while a bleaker dawn arises.
Before we get to that, though, we’ve got to actually have the youth be broken. I’ll be getting into that with my next post on Thursday. As you read that entry, consider how I am setting things up to make the next visit to the centrifuge feel fundamentally different than any time before.
So here we are with a new week and a new series! Today I thought I would talk about a pattern of storytelling that is so ubiquitous it can very easily be overlooked. The pattern goes like this: an author writes a story that takes place in a real-life setting. The world is populated them with life-like characters, and they all have real-life problems to deal with. Then, from that entirely ordinary foundation the world suddenly diverges into the fantastic!
From the Oracle’s prophecies in Oedipus to a simple, magical wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia, to the superpower effects of radiation in Spider-Man, we love to take our plain and mundane world and inject a little magic into it. Think about how this pattern applies to Harry Potter, Stranger Things, The Matrix, Midnight Special, Cloverfield, Men in Black, Field of Dreams, Back to the Future, E.T., A Wrinkle in Time, Escape to Witch Mountain, Flight of the Navigator, The Neverending Story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Five Children and It, War of the Worlds, Dracula, Gulliver’s Travels, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan…I could go on for a while.
What is it about this formula that makes it so popular across all times and cultures of literature? Well, I can think of two elements.
First and foremost I believe that there is a thirst for fantasy and adventure baked into our very bones. Mankind was destined not only to live, but to thrive. We feel hunger and fatigue to ensure that our bodies will survive, but we also have wanderlust and fantasies to ensure that our spirits will, too.
Invention, exploration, creation…these are attributes inseparable from our history. We are where we are today only because of our unique ability to imagine a world different from our own. People conceived of steam power, printing presses, and sailing ships first as fantasies, and then they found ways to bring each of them to life.
But though every invention may have begun as a fantasy, it still had to somehow be grounded in reality, or else it could have never come to be. A great leap has to be launched into from the feet being firmly planted in the now. If you fantasize about the future world only in media res, with no thought for how you get to there from here, then it will never be anything real. To sail around the world you first must obtaining a ship.
How fitting, then, that all of the stories I listed above begin in the present, the familiar, the mundane, and then progress into the unknown. And where once Georges Méliès fantasized about everyday scientists building a rocket to go to the moon, now that that fantasy has become real it has been reimagined as a man being stranded on Mars in The Martian.
And that will ever be the pattern of things. People will never stop exploring, they will never cease to push further. Perhaps early man thought that if he only had a way to grow crops he and his family would be forever content. And then perhaps the medieval man thought all he needed was a way to light the streets at night. And then post-industrial era man simply wished for a way to fly through the sky.
The truth is it isn’t about having the food, the electricity, or the airplane, it is about taking what we have and making something more of it. As I said, it is baked into our bones. The inventors will continue to invent and the researchers continue to research. And as they do, the story-tellers will continue to weave tales of everyday people discovering new worlds.
To Find Truth)
The other reason why we love these stories is because they suggest that there are bigger truths out there than immediately meets the eye. Truths that most people are blind to, but once seen open up entire new worlds of possibilities. Mankind has a natural tendency to believe that there is something greater at play in our lives, whether it be God, Karma, nature, or something we do not even know the name of. Each of us hopes to be reached out to by that higher truth, and be taken from where we are now into a greater world.
So we seek out religion, civic office, or just being a nice person to those around us. We’re hoping to find a purpose, a calling, some great mystery that we were born to unravel. Skeptics may suggest that these are merely delusions of grandeur, but there is no denying that we come by these feelings naturally. They are in us, that is unavoidable, and we feel that there must be a reason for them. The author takes these feelings and paints them into a story.
Those stories tend to follow a fairly consistent pattern. First the main characters needs to be drawn into the fold, they need to pass through some sort of matrix or portal before they can witness the magic that they had previously been blind to. They are initiated into the truth, and then quickly discover their real self and purpose.
This new paradigm is not merely a side-venture for the hero, either. Where at first the magic was tucked away in a small corner where it could hardly be seen at all, eventually it will either overtake the natural world or else absorb the main character into its confines entirely. If the hero ever does go back to “ordinary life,” they will do so only as a permanently changed individual. The truth of that mystic world lives in them now, and will permeate through every moment hereafter.
Those that have felt called to something higher in real life will realize that these sorts of stories are not works of fiction at all. There may not be wizards or aliens or parallel worlds, but the themes behind them are as real as anything.
Perhaps these two reasons for why we tell stories that blend reality and fantasy are really just two sides of the same coin. Perhaps we explore to find truth, and perhaps we only find our true calling in exploration. In any case, these movements run deep within us and I suspect they always will. Never mind what summits we achieve, we will always find roots of the great unknown reaching through the familiar, calling us to follow.
On Thursday I’d like to expand to try my hand at a story that is set in a modern, realistic setting, but which bit-by-bit leads into the fantastic. And in this story I want to particularly focus on the sequential progression into greater and greater fantasy. I don’t want to start to tease the new world and then fully leap straight into it, I want it to bleed into our world more and more. Come on Thursday to see how it turns out.
It’s always interesting to meet an old friend after years apart. Sometimes the person has changed entirely, and it feels like you’re new acquaintances all over again, meeting for the very first time. You’re trying to figure out who this person has transformed into, and perhaps a bit sad that the old friend is gone forever. One of the most common fears we have is the fear of change after all.
But at the same time, the worst fate I could think of is to have a life of never changing or evolving. I wouldn’t want a friend, someone that I care about, to be trapped in some sort of Peter Pan situation of never progressing. I would rather want for each of us to be moving forward to bigger and better things, improving ourselves and making accomplishments that we can be proud of. It’s been said that the day you stop learning is the day you start dying after all.
I remember the first time my family moved. I was about fifteen and I felt deeply divided between excitement for the new possibilities, and sorrow at the loss of all I had known. Having conflicting feelings for the same situation is inherently interesting, and naturally invites creative exploration. No wonder then that the idea of “change” has always been so central to literature.
Stories have long dedicated themselves to examining the phenomenon of change from every possible angle. There are stories where the change is quiet and subtle. Consider the novel Mrs. Dalloway, where Richard decides that he wants to tell his wife that he loves her, though it has been years since he has done so. And then, of course, there are times when the change is quite sudden and dramatic, such as from the very same novel when Septimus decides he will die rather than surrender his private soul.
Most stories are a combination of both subtle and dramatic changes, but obviously the latter grab our attention more. Dramatic changes can be recognized as the momentous occasions which serve as inflection points to the entire narrative, the bends in the river that shape the way it flows.
But we can limit our scope even further. There is a subcategory of changes in literature where one character ceases to be the person that they were, and thus becomes someone else. This sort of total transformation can be found in even the most ancient of fairy tales and religious texts, across all different cultures, and in a great number of stories of today.
It is interesting to note that these sorts of rebirths are very often composed with the exact same symbols and forms as one another. It seems that deep in our psyche we all believe that transformations such as these tend to come with specific trappings. There are four of them in all: an element of a loss, a calling, a mask, and a return.
Loss is inherent in transformation. Subtle changes might allow for a character to remain essentially the same, but transformation demands that something is let go. For every butterfly that emerges from a chrysalis there must come first the loss of a caterpillar. The loss is always something very significant too, something that is often taken against the main character’s wishes
Think of Luke Skywalker, Simba, and Bruce Wayne. Each lose their parent figures at the beginning of their tales. Edmond Dantes loses his freedom after being wrongfully accused. Paul, the Apostle, loses his sight on the road to Damascus.
Growth through pain seems to be one of the universal truths of our world, so it makes sense that it would accompany the transformations we write into our stories. For a character to have space for their new identity, then something about their current identity has to be taken out first. Now there is a hole inside of them, and what follows depends on how that hole is handled.
If the hole remains vacant then the character becomes a hollow shell of who they once were, an old husk that never recovers from their wounds. If it is filled with bitterness then they become a villain, broken and shaped by a cruel world. If it is filled with something noble, then they become the hero. It will only be filled with something noble, though, if that something noble calls out to them.
It is always right when our character hits bottom that something comes along to call them to something higher. This is one of the few times in a story where perfect timing will not be accused of being a coincidence. This isn’t dumb luck, you see, this is fate. The loss only happened because the calling was coming, or else the calling only came because the loss summoned it. Either way readers naturally accept that there is a cause-and-effect relationship here, and so they do not question the convenience of it.
And so Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke to learn the ways of the Force, the ghost of Simba’s Father reminds him of who he once was, Bruce Wayne commits himself to fighting injustice, Edmond is given both an education and a secret by Faria, and Paul hears the voice of the Lord.
The presence of callings in our lives means that our loss is not merely suffering for suffering’s sake. It suggests that our pain might be happening for a reason, that there is a purpose to it all. It takes the pessimism out of the pain and gives us hope for a healing.
As I mentioned above, the character that does not find their calling grows cold and cynical, they come to see the world as a place of random chance and inherent injustice. However there is also the possibility that the calling did come, but it was ignored. The calling will never be to do something easy, it has to require an entirely new way of life after all.
To the character willing to answer the call things will never be the same again. The calling shrouds that sufferer in some new, and now the transformation truly begins.
In real life it is commonly observed that after one has gone through an experience of personal transformation they somehow now “look different.” Exactly what has changed might be hard to pin down: a light in the eyes perhaps, a glow in the face, a subtle altering of the complexion. Some sort of ethereal mask seems to have lowered over their face, a change that is sensed more than seen.
In stories these changes are usually made far more explicit. Luke dons the robes and weapon of a Jedi Knight, Simba grows into an adult with a full mane, Bruce Wayne crafts a cape and cowl, Edmond assumes the title of a Count, and Saul begins to call himself Paul. They all now have a new identity, an image, or a name. It is something that makes their change tangible and quantifiable. Other characters and the audience can see the difference in them and know they are dealing with someone new.
We humans are remarkably capable of perceiving things that are invisible, imaginary, and internal. Even so, we usually seek for ways to bring physical representation to them all. We have our crucifixes, our sobriety chips, our gold medals, our college diplomas, and our wedding rings. None of these add directly to our faith, our strength, our intelligence, or our commitment, but they can be useful as reminders of them. Sometimes people fail to use their greater strength simply because they forget that they even have it. Similarly a hero in story often uses their mask to remind themselves of their new identity, and to steel their fortitude whenever the validity of their calling is challenged.
Finally, the full effect of a transformation can only be fully appreciated after the character is compared to what they were before. This might be as simple as having them come home to their humble beginnings for all their old friends to gape in awe at them, or else it might be to revisit an old temptation that they previously succumbed to. Either way the change is made evident in how the familiar situation now has an unfamiliar outcome.
Luke saves the friends that initially thought so little of him, Simba goes home to face the uncle that drove him away, Bruce brings justice to the man who unjustly killed his parents, Edmond exacts both revenge and mercy upon those who misused him, Paul joins the disciples and suffers the same way he once made them suffer.
It is the return that proves to us that the change is real. Until we are put back into the same scenario we might believe that it is only our surroundings which have been altered, and not our core natures. Returning to the same state, then, is the control which proves the transformation has been internal and not external. We truly are something new.
Thus far in Power Suit Racing I have incorporated the first phases of transformation in Taki’s tale. It began with him losing the love of his life, and with it his entire sense of purpose and identity. He wandered with a hole, unsure of his identity when he heard a voice calling out with an invitation. That invitation was to pursue a new venture, one that non-coincidentally involved donning a suit which altered his appearance.
But as we’ll see in my next post, sometimes when one puts on the garb of the future they find it doesn’t quite fit yet. Thursday’s entry will show the process by which he is able to fill the measure of this new person that he is becoming. And then, a week later, we will see the return where he will be compared to the person he used to be. I’ll see you then.
Doctor Barlow nodded to the attendant standing by the control panel for the “green” room. He stepped up to the metal door’s reinforced glass window and peered in at his patient: poor Lucian Thorpe. The small, nervous man was sitting on the edge of his cot in a daze, his eyes staring absently into thoughts only he could know. There came the loud click of the door’s mechanical lock releasing and Lucian snapped out of his reverie and locked eyes with Doctor Barlow.
“Doctor Barlow!” Lucian exclaimed with nervous relief as the man crossed the threshold into the small room. “I had been hoping to—” his voice trailed off at the sight of the armed guard entering in behind Doctor Barlow and standing at attention against the back wall.
Doctor Barlow followed Lucian’s gaze and gave an understanding laugh. “Oh, don’t worry about him,” he said with a carefree wave of the hand. “You must remember that this is a unique facility, and so it comes with all manner of unique protocols. He’s just here because he has to be, it’s nothing to do with you.”
Lucian nodded, though his eyes lingered a moment longer on the assault rifle that the guard held in his stiff hands.
“Now Lucian, can you tell me if you have been experiencing any other symptoms?”
The shock on Lucian’s face bordered on incredulity.
“I mean aside from the obvious.” For there were obvious symptoms. The yellow coloring of the eyes, the long gray wisps of hair sprouting all along the body, the jumbling of the teeth. Indeed, the extreme nature of these changes were eclipsed only by the rapidity in which they had occurred. When Lucian had been admitted to the facility two weeks ago he had been a full three inches taller and hadn’t even begun to form his tail.
“You mean how I feel?” Lucian sneered, the timidity suddenly melting from his face.
“Like I’m being eaten from the inside out! Does that count as a symptom?!”
Doctor Barlow made a check on the clipboard he clasped before him. The minuteness of it only aggravated Lucian further and he simultaneously snapped his shoulders back and his maw forward in a sudden snarl. Doctor Barlow immediately recoiled and the guard swung his gun up level to Lucian’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Lucian whimpered, his apprehension rushing back as he covered his face and curled back onto the bed. “I’m just so mixed up,” he moaned. “Doctor, please, what’s going on?”
Doctor Barlow sighed and lifted thick glasses from his eyes, then massaged his face with his palm. “This is a complicated business, Lucian. To move things too quickly would only risk further injury. We don’t want to give you temporary relief, Lucian. You understand? We’re here to cure you.”
“Can you?” Fear mingled with skepticism.
Doctor Barlow smiled. “Of course we will. Why do you think you were brought here, Lucian? It was because we never fail at this facility. Already we’ve isolated your strain, duplicated it, and are hitting them with the full barrage of tests and treatments. One of them is going to stick.” Doctor Barlow reached out and firmly shook Lucian’s knee. “Doubt yourself if you must, son, but believe in me.”
Lucian’s eyes did not shine with hope. But he did believe that this was his only chance, and no matter how slim a chance that might be he wasn’t about to jeopardize it. So he simply nodded.
Doctor Barlow accepted the gesture and smiled as he rose to his feet. “I’m on my way to see the team now. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they’re already preparing the cure.”
Lucian started to raise his arms, clearly wanting to him to stay and give more details, but Doctor Barlow pretended not to notice and strode out of the room. The guard backed out after the doctor, then the door shut and the mechanical lock clicked back into place.
“Anything?” Doctor Barlow asked the other two specialists as he rubbed his tired eyes again.
“Of course not,” Doctor Hoeg scoffed. Over the past two weeks they had overseen dozens of tests and then reconvened dozens of times to discuss the complete nothingness that had been turned up by all of that work.
“Well that’s not quite true,” Doctor Gretzel scolded as she thumbed through her folder. “We have a new theory as to why we aren’t able to isolate the strain,” she offered, handing Doctor Barlow a sheet of distribution graphs. “Each of these was taken from the same blood sample at equal intervals of two hours. The extreme changes in the composition suggest that the thing is mutating rapidly. So much so that we can never track the same iteration from one test to the next.”
Hoeg actually laughed aloud at this. “Well that certainly seems like a promising path of inquiry then!”
“That is enough,” Barlow ordered calmly but firmly. “Act like the professional you’re supposed to be.”
“Fine.” Hoeg said shortly. “In my professional opinion we need to stop avoiding the obvious realities. We can’t identify anything about this strain, we can’t even identify if it is bacterial or viral. But what is clear is that what is happening to that boy is going to reach its culmination in a matter of weeks and we’ll be no closer to any answers than we are right now. Can we please have the discussion now of what we do when things take their course?”
Barlow inhaled long and audibly. Then exhaled still more forcefully. “Not yet,” he said evenly. “Not until we know where that course even goes.”
Hoeg shook his head in frustration, clearly wrestling with the thoughts he wanted to voice. The same ideas that all of them had thought but never dared say. “Have you been to see the canine today?” he finally asked. The fact that all of them consciously avoided calling the ‘canine’ by its common name was evidence enough that they were skirting around its myths.
Barlow shook his head. “I’m on my way there next.”
In another wing exactly like the one where Lucian was being held, Doctor Barlow peered through the window of another door into the “pink” room. He made no movement to enter this room, though, he only watched its occupant at a distance. When the canine had first been brought it was a creature of fits and spasms, constantly snapping at unseen afflictions and lunging viciously at anything that came too near. Now, though, the changes to its body had crippled it, subjecting it to a wakeful paralysis of twitches and shivers. The creature was obviously suffering, and even its breathing seemed to be a terrible labor.
Barlow watched it lying there on the floor, its chest rising and falling to unnatural extremes. Each exhale came out in long, guttural sighs, and was then followed by a rush of rasping inhales in quick succession. If things continued as they were, the creature would not be surviving much longer.
ONE WEEK LATER
Doctor Barlow paused a few feet back from the “green” room. Far enough back that he wouldn’t be within view of the window in the door. He glanced nervously to the guard at his side, but he just stared stoically ahead. Doctor Barlow took a deep breath, nodded to the attendant, and then took purposeful strides into Lucian’s quarters. Well, at least the quarters of the thing that had been Lucian anyway. The being that occupied these walls now barely resembled a human at all. Its back was deeply hunched and its limbs were unnaturally long and thin, with hands hanging so low they were nearly scraping along the floor. The lower face had extruded itself forward and the mouth and nose in particular were pulled out to a peak in front. What had at first seemed like an excess of hair was now clearly thick gray fur, and it covered nearly every inch of the body.
Doctor Barlow couldn’t repress a grimace and slight shake of the head. “Lucian?” he asked tentatively. “Can you hear me?”
The creature did not appear to understand, it just kept revolving awkwardly on the same spot in the corner of the room. It refused to meet eyes with Doctor Barlow, but there came a growl from its throat that finally formed into recognizable—though strained—words.
“I hear you,” Lucian croaked.
“Lucian, do you know who I am?”
A series of sniffs and pantings, then finally “Doctor.”
“Very good, Lucian,” Doctor Barlow praised. It wasn’t very good, though. Yesterday Lucian had still remembered his actual name. “You’re doing very well.”
“No more games!” Lucian snarled, his fur starting to bristle as he slowed his pacing to face Doctor Barlow directly..
“Lucian I am taking your case very seriously.”
“Then be serious!” Lucian started to raise himself as tall as possible, coming within a few inches of a regular man’s height.
Barlow sighed. “Obviously you are worried, Lucian, I understand that. But no matter what depths this reaches you must believe me that there is still hope. If you can be changed you one way you can be changed back the other.”
“Stop. Playing. Me!” Lucian took a step forward and the guard raised his rifle an inch.
Barlow removed his glasses, and rubbed his eyes. “What is it you want to hear, Lucian? That I don’t know what’s going to happen. That I don’t know anything anymore? Very well. I don’t.”
Lucian sneered. Then fell back to his pacing. “Did you find it?”
“Oh. Yes, we found it.”
“How has it changed?”
“Changed? I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s just a simple canine. It’s had some blood work done, of course, but nothing else of note.”
Lucian bared his teeth in a long, sinister inhale that puffed him up larger. “Don’t lie to me!” he struggled to voice each word. “Every memory I lose I gain another. But not my memories. Hunting rabbits and drinking from streams and biting flesh… Biting Lucian.”
“Well I don’t think you should dwell on those thoughts, Lucian, that’s clearly just some fever dream, totally understandable.”
With a snap Lucian flung himself at Doctor Barlow, digging at him with his claw-like hands and snapping at his arm with sharp teeth. The guard swung his gun up to fire but the two men were too entwined for a clean shot, so he instead rushed forward and thrust the barrel of the gun into Lucian’s chest, hurling him back to the ground. Lucian landed on all fours, circled round, then leaped up again only to be caught by the butt of the rifle slamming between his eyes and crumpling him to the floor.
“Open the door!” the guard roared, seizing Barlow under the arms and half-supporting-half-dragging him out of the room. Once they cleared the door and it slammed shut Barlow struggled back to his feet and pushed the guard away.
“Sir, I—” the guard began.
“NO!” Doctor Barlow shrieked, his eyes manic. “No!” he threw his clipboard to the floor and continued to stare hatefully at the guard until he shifted his eyes to the ground. Barlow swung his penetrating gaze over to the attendant who also shifted her eyes down. Doctor Barlow gave them each a final scowl, then turned and strode out of the room.
An hour later a somewhat more composed Barlow stood outside of the “pink” room, staring at his other patient within. The canine had not died, in fact it had improved quite remarkably. Once the internal organs had shifted to support the new form it had started to thrive, growing more energetic each day. Enthusiastic even. It still moved about on four paws, but when it reached the walls it placed its hands against them and raised to a standing position. It even spoke with the attendants through the protective screen. English words, about the vocabulary of a three-year-old, but improving each day.
Hoeg and Gretzel stood on either side of Doctor Barlow.
“There’s no denying the eventualities now,” Gretzel mused as they watched the creature give a toddler-like smile as a cookie was deployed through a chute to its tray.
“No,” Barlow agreed. “And there’s no need debating the proper course of action to follow.”
“Of course there’s need!” Hoeg spat. “But evidently you two would rather not face your own consciences.” He shook his head. “Thinking you deserve to play god!”
Before this morning Barlow would likely have ignored the disrespect, but now he turned and puffed out his chest as he stared straight down Hoeg’s bitter eyes. “Do you not understand you little fool? Any action here is to play god. There is no right answer!” He sneered, then turned back to face the creature. “All that remains is the reputation of this facility…and you’re outranked.”
“And outvoted,” Gretzel added.
TWO WEEKS LATER
Lucian was finishing getting dressed in the “pink” room, smiling at Doctors Barlow and Gretzel as they went through his final questionnaire.
“Yes, that’s right,” Lucian answered. “I remember the bite, but nothing after that until I came to a week ago.”
They nodded satisfactorily and made simultaneous checks on their clipboards.
“We know it wasn’t easy for you to stay an extra week with us, but I’m sure you understand it was necessary for us to be thorough?” Barlow asked, pausing a moment to scratch at his arm.
“Oh, of course.”
Barlow grinned. “Well I think I’m satisfied.” He looked sideways to Doctor Gretzel. “How about you?”
“Me too,” she grinned back. “What about you, Lucian? Ready to get out of here?”
He laughed as he rose to his feet. “Definitely!”
“Let’s get you to that family of yours,” Doctor Barlow nodded as the three of them left the room and made their way towards the waiting room. As they went, Doctor Gretzel explained the package they’d be sending him home with and the instructions for self-monitoring his conditions for the next two months. She also assured him that all of his questions would be addressed in the medical brief that was included as well. Doctor Barlow alternated between nodding in agreement and persisting at that itch under his long shirtsleeve.
Meanwhile, over in the “green” room the guard waited behind the half-closed door while the tranquilizer took effect. The large wolf’s bared teeth relaxed their growl, its lids slowly drooped, and finally its head rolled back onto the floor unconscious. The guard entered the room and quickly attached a muzzle to the sleeping dog, then slid it into a metal carrier which he padlocked shut.
It was the one concession they had allowed Doctor Hoeg, something to help ease his conscience. The specimen wasn’t to be dissected for future research, rather it would be flown to the wilds of Canada, somewhere a thousand miles from the nearest human civilization. Somewhere it could be forgotten back to the myths and legends where it properly belonged.
On Monday I spent some time advocating for a kinder and more productive form of critical analysis on an author’s work. My main points in this pattern of feedback was that the reviewer should first identify the accomplishments of what has been written, suggest improvements that could lift the story still higher, and close with a vision of what the story could then become in its most ideal form.
So to start off, in this week’s story I do think I’ve developed a unique and interesting interpretation on a classic myth, that of the werewolf. I also like how this story reaches natural conclusion, but one that ends with questions that could be picked up on later. Is Doctor Barlow being changed now? Is the new Lucian truly the same as before?
Areas that I feel could be enhanced are both general and specific. Generally I feel the work could use a little more breathing room. Taking some more time and space to allow for a richer atmosphere would do a lot for improving the sense of intrigue. Also the characters could use a little more time in the oven as right now they are flatter than I wanted them to be.
To get more specific, one scene that I felt breezed by particularly quickly was the first conversation between Lucian and Doctor Barlow. This is our introduction to the strange situation, and I don’t feel the moment has allowed dread and understanding to slowly creep through the reader like it should. Later when Lucian attacks Doctor Barlow it would also carry more punch if there was more buildup leading to that moment. All of the communication between the doctors could be refactored, too. Quite frankly I knew I wanted conversations and conflict there, so I put in some placeholder text and then there wasn’t time to find something else that had a better fit.
In conclusion, I would say that the foundation is there, but that the story needs iteration, experimentation, and growth. With that sort of time and care then I think this short could become the prologue to a rich and suspenseful novel. This could be the introduction of how the legend of the werewolf was introduced into modern suburbia through an eccentric doctor that got a little too close to his subjects.
Taking that time to analyze my story and focus on its potential has increased both my appreciation for what it is now and my desire to work it into something better. I didn’t feel that I had to hold back in expressing my honest criticisms, but I also didn’t feel insulted by them.
Obviously there is another type of critique which I have not had time to illustrate here: the in-process editing where an author reads over their draft and corrects small errors as they go. Grammatical flubs, inconsistencies, and awkward phrasing are inevitable in a rough draft, and every work is greatly improved by many read-throughs and quick-fixes. That’s a process that deserves a closer examination and I hope to see you on Monday when we’ll do just that. Have a wonderful weekend!