The final act of a story is where the hero has been truly converted to their guiding philosophy, and now they will trust in it to overcome the villain’s philosophy. Consider Disney’s animated film The Lion King. Simba has tried to run away because he feels responsible for his father’s death. But though he hides for a time, his royal calling comes back to him. He is convinced that he must take up his rightful place at the head of the pack. Thus he heads out to confront the villain of the story: Scar. At this moment Scar needs to be defeated. He needs to die so that Simba’s arc can reach its full closure.
But now the story comes to a snag: this is a Disney film, one that is targeted towards families and children. The idea of the main character killing anyone, even a cold-blooded murderer, is unacceptable. Simba has to show that he is better than Scar, has to show that he is capable of killing him…but then he needs to stop just short of actually doing it.
So what happens instead? Scar and Simba fight, Simba gains the upper hand, Scar asks if Simba is going to kill him and Simba says no, Simba tells Scar to leave the kingdom instead.
But rather than fade into obscurity, Scar throws some burning embers into Simba’s eyes and lunges at him once more! In self defense Simba kicks Scar off of the rock and down to a pack of hyenas. Unlike Simba, the hyenas do not have any halo to preserve and they are able to kill Scar without any moral scruples. Thus Simba proved his superiority over Scar and he maintained his honor by offering Scar a way out, but then Scar became a victim of his own malice.
And this is hardly a unique concept. Many animated Disney films make use of similar conveniences to get rid of their villain while preserving the hero’s innocence.
Consider Beauty and the Beast. Just like Scar, the villain Gaston tries to kill our hero: the Beast. Just like Simba, the Beast overpowers Gaston, but orders him to leave, rather than deal the killing blow. Just like Scar, Gaston isn’t willing to leave well enough alone. He later sneaks up behind the Beast and literally stabs him the back. The Beast cries in pain and flings his arm back as a natural reflex. The movement dislodges Gaston, causing him to fall all the way to his death. The Beast won in a fair fight, Gaston caused his own demise, and the Beast’s innocence is preserved.
Personally, when I watched these films as a child I wouldn’t have had any concerns about the good guy dealing a fuller measure of justice to the villain, but I guess the Disney executives didn’t want to chance it. Other studios have had to deal with the same issue, though, and some of them have found different solutions to it.
Shooting in the Back)
For example, take a look at the Old Western. The cowboy or lawman has to be able to outgun any bandit along their way and has to show off that expertise many times over. But we can’t exactly turn them into a ruthless murderer, now can we? What we can do, though, is have a lot of lethal self defense! So long as the baddies start the duel, it is okay for the hero to finish it.
And so it is that these films are full of scenes where the hero tries to bring a peaceful resolution to a volatile moment, but then the villain reaches for their gun as soon as the hero’s back is turned. Someone calls out a warning or the hero hears their movement, then spins on the spot and guns down the would-be killer.
This same idea of lethal self defense has been carried into many other films since, and remains one of the most popular ways to both showcase the hero’s prowess while retaining their integrity. And this approach has the added benefit of making the hero’s prowess shine all the brighter! Evidently they are so confident in their abilities that they can give every bandit a head-start and still finish first.
Consider the classic western High Noon. Here the sheriff is made aware that his old rival has been released from jail, and has arrived in town with three of his cronies. Now everyone knows that the four of them are here for the express purpose of killing the sheriff, but he can’t exactly arrest them (or gun them down) until they’ve actually done anything wrong.
So he sneaks up behind them and calls out their names. He won’t shoot them in the back of course, but he watches for them to wheel around and try to shoot him. Once they do, he outdraws them, taking out one of the bandits right off the bat.
There’s also the example of The Magnificent Seven, where Britt is egged into showing his speed with a knife. He throws his blade at a target at the same time as a blowhard shoots at his own. Britt claims to have won the race, but the other man disagrees and suggests they have a duel to prove it. The rowdy man even shoots at Britt’s feet and threatens to kill him right then and there if he doesn’t rise to the occasion. At this point Britt can’t be held accountable for what follows. It’s either his life or the other man’s.
This time there’s no disputation. Britt wins and the other man falls dead. Lethal self defense.
Of course not everything has to be a matter of life or death. In the last chapter of my story I had my protagonists forced into a promise with a villain that they needed to get out of. But I can’t have them just renege on their agreement because that would make them dishonorable. Thus it was the villain that had to break his contract first, freeing the children to let go of their end as well.
Most stories have a villain, which is a character who embodies the opposition to the protagonist. The protagonist must overcome this opposition, which means the villain must be destroyed, in most stories violently so. As such, the villain needs to be painted in a very negative light. So negative that the audience won’t have any qualms about them meeting an untimely end.
And such a common problem has a very common solution: make the villain do something so reprehensible that everyone will deem them unfit to live. The most obvious choice is to have them kill someone else early on, an innocent bystander who doesn’t deserve to die and who therefore must be avenged. Perhaps the bystander makes a small mistake and incurs the villain’s disproportionate wrath, or maybe the villain just kills them for the fun of it. Once that happens no more arguments have to be made. The audience hates the villain and will cheer their downfall!
Well…unless the audience feels absolutely nothing at all because this is the six-hundredth time they’ve seen this sort of scene play out. Every year there comes a deluge of films, television series, and novels that overuse this formula until it has lost any meaning whatsoever. Each of these scenes come and go like all the rest and we just can’t feel anything about them anymore.
Let’s Make a Good Guy)
Of course things are hardly any better in the hero department. Want to make the main character likable? How about we see them do an act of charity to someone pitiable? Perhaps share a loaf of bread with a beggar, or cheer up a crying child, or help an animal that is hurt. There, now the audience knows that our protagonist’s heart is true and they love them for it!
Well…unless the audience feels absolutely nothing at all. It just gets so hard for us to assign any feelings to a hero like this because they feel exactly like what they are: a contrived formula, not an actual person.
But what’s interesting is that each of these clichés usually have their root in a story that was actually impactful once upon a time. Take the example of the hero helping an animal that is hurt. Perhaps the earliest instance of this is in the tale of Androcles, where a runaway slave takes refuge in the den of a fearsome lion! The lion is in no condition to chase Androcles, though, it is suffering from a large thorn stuck in its paw! Androcles takes the thorn out and the lion is intelligent enough to feel immense gratitude for it. The two become fast friends, which friendship eventually leads them to a life of freedom.
Once upon a time that was a moving tale. But it’s been stolen from so many times that it becomes formulaic and incapable of eliciting emotion. Ironically, by the time someone first hears the story of Androcles today they will likely have heard so many other rip-offs that they won’t be able to appreciate the weight this original used to carry.
Shortcuts in Communication)
The main culprit in all this derivative work is good, old human efficiency. We are a species that ever endeavor to optimize and simplify. And while this is an excellent practice in many cases, it neuters the emotions behind any humanizing experience.
Consider the example of how we strive to communicate ourselves in more and more succinct terms. I must say, I find it very amusing how older generations will decry the vowel-missing lingo of modern text messaging, utterly failing to realize that this is only the natural progression of a trend that they themselves pushed forward. Far before the advent of cellphones prior generations were already greatly abbreviating our style of communication. First formalities were dropped, then grammatically complete sentences, and now vowels. Is that really so surprising?
Obviously increased efficiency is desirable in many walks of life and even in communication it has its uses. Knowing the right combination of gesture and tone can allow us to convey a complex meaning in a fraction of a second. But It can be taken too far and render the whole experience redundant.
Brian Christian makes note of this fact in his book The Most Human Human. Here he points out that we now have entire conversations that are nothing but short clichés in which no actual substance is ever communicated.
“Hey, good morning.”
“Good morning. How are you?”
“Doing well. And you and your family?”
“All doing well, thanks for asking.”
“Nice weather, today, isn’t?”
“Yes it is. Oh, you know what, I’m afraid I’ve got to run!”
“Oh, me too. We should catch up later.”
“Definitely. Well, see ya!”
There is literally nothing communicated in exchanges such as these. The entire give and take is performed on pure autopilot. Half the time we’ve already got our default response loaded in before we even hear the what the other person says to the last robotic statement we made.
Stories Should Say Something)
And I’ve read and watched entire stories that were exactly the same way. A synopsis of these tales could very accurately be given as “it begins, the usual stuff happens, and then it ends about how’d you expect.”
To be fair, I get it. Originality is hard. I myself feel the temptation to take a trusty cliché rather than invent a new way to express what I want in a story. I ran into this exact problem during the last section of The Favored Son. Here I wanted to show that a leader was really a tyrant, and I kept slipping into the tired, old routine of him losing his temper at some innocent peasant and brutalizing them.
Fortunately I fought down that temptation. I stuck with it until I felt I had something a little more original to say. This more original scene was also far more complex. In it I introduce a group of slaves who are dragging a massive stone behind the tyrant, for a reason that is never explained. It is clear that they are a broken people, though, paying a penance of some sort. Then the members of a resistance ride onto the scene and urge a few of the slaves to escape with them! One of them does, to which the other slaves seem quite distressed. The reason for this is made clear when the royal guards chase off the resistance riders and the tyrant makes the remaining slaves atone for their missing fellow by slaying one of them.
The final outcome of this scene was the same as the cliché: the tyrant kills an innocent waif. But the path to this was far more intricate and involved. One gets a sense of political struggles, of victims being manipulated by competing powers. It is different, it is original, it took effort, and it is therefore far more likely to make an impression.
I will endeavor to keep fighting down the pull towards cliché, and instead imbue my stories with something more thoughtful. Come back on Thursday when I post the next section of my story and pay special attention to how I incorporate original ideas instead of settling for something more trite.
On Thursday I shared the middle chapter of my latest story. In it, our main character has discovered an object that will create for him anything that he imagines. He decides to entertain himself by creating two small creatures to fight to the death. This occurs, but rather than being fun, he finds himself horrified by its stark realism. It is all the more terrible because of his responsibility for the act. In this world, he has invented its first violence.
I wanted this moment to hit every reader as unquestionably wrong, but I also want them to see it as a mistake, not a sign that Jeret is the embodiment of pure evil. I try to bring about this perspective by immediately showing Jeret’s reaction of horror at what he has done. Perhaps he should have known better, but he did not. That doesn’t let him off the hook entirely, but it does shift him from the malicious category into the foolish and unthinking.
The fact, also, that he did not perform the violence himself, is an important factor. Consider a similar case in A Christmas Carol. Here Ebenezer Scrooge turns down a request to donate to the poor, suggesting that these people should go to the poorhouses. He is rebuffed by the statement that many would rather die than go to those miserable grindhouses. His response?
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
It is a truly terrible thing to say, and Scrooge later regrets these words. But at the same time, it isn’t as though Scrooge performs an actual act of violence in the story. He never so much as slaps another individual, he only thinks and says hard things. In fact, the story makes firm the fact that Scrooge really doesn’t know what he’s talking about in this moment. He says, in reference to how deplorable the situations in the poorhouses are “Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.” By which he means he has not verified the conditions of these facilities.
And so Scrooge is guilty of not taking an active interest in his fellow man, and much like Jeret he later sees the reality of his ignorant words and comes to regret them. A Christmas Carol never tries to suggest that what Scrooge does isn’t wrong, indeed the whole crux of the story is that what he does is wrong, but it carefully walks a line to make sure it isn’t irredeemably so.
On the flip side, consider the characters Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan from the stage play and Hitchcock film Rope. The story opens with them murdering a fellow student, and then holding a social for mutual friends. Throughout the party, the story takes some steps to explain the boys reasoning for their crime, and also to show them in a multi-dimensional, relatable light.
But in the end, no audience member is going to get over the fact that these two have done unspeakable wrong, nor indeed does the story ever expect you to condone their actions. It isn’t trying to make murderers more palatable to us, it is trying to caution us that men can reason their way into being unreasonable monsters.
Thus far we’ve talked about how to help keep a character from doing something that is irredeemably wrong, but another consideration is what actions are unquestionably wrong. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge simply wouldn’t have the same emotional impact if we didn’t dislike him from the outset.
We can have a character that is a thief and a liar, but still beloved by the audience, such as Captain Jack Sparrow and Starlord. Though they perform behavior that we pretty universally consider wrong, we give them a pass for some reason.
We can also have a character that says they have done something wrong, but which the audience doesn’t condemn them for. Think of Tony at the end of West Side Story. He is given some misinformation that his beloved Maria has died. This makes him reckless, and ultimately leads to his being mortally wounded, just as he sees that Maria is actually alive. As he fades in her arms he sadly confesses that he “didn’t believe hard enough.”
In a story about how loss of faith in humanity literally kills us, Tony’s crime is enough to warrant death. But obviously we, as the audience, don’t hold his momentary weakness against him. He might be flawed, but we don’t consider his actions as morally wrong.
The thing in common with Jack Sparrow, Starlord, and Tony is that they are never seen harming the innocent. Indeed, this seems to be a very important line in establishing the morality of a character. And so if you want the audience to think of your character as bad, the surest way is to have them hurt another. Ebenezer Scrooge is wrong because he is carelessly consigning others to suffering, he is redeemable because that cruelty is kept within careful bounds.
I believe that virtually every reader will agree that my main character, Jeret, did something wrong in creating two creatures to fight to the death. In the end, a being suffered at his whim, and that is bad. The fact that it was an artificial being of his own making does not let him off the hook. Indeed it makes him even more culpable.
When I first wrote this segment, I actually played around with it to make sure it would hit as impactfully as I could manage. One of his two creations was going to die, and I found that it was sadder to have it be the first one. There was something special about it being the first, about having heard it built piece-by-piece, and discovering the little quirks in its nature. It made that first creation more interesting, and therefore more valuable to the reader. It was good, and thus it was very wrong to destroy it.
But at the same time, I believe Jeret can be redeemed. Because while he did wrong, he was ignorant of the extent of it, and he has shown true and immediate remorse directly afterwards. We’ll see where that remorse takes him in the next chapter, coming this Thursday. See you there!
But a terrible fear was starting to rise inside of the drummer. What if he couldn’t catch up? What if he couldn’t find her? Did such questions even matter? He had to, he must. For her to be lost was just…just unthinkable.
He hadn’t liked that droopy bear. Not from the moment they had met him. They should have just hurried by him without so much as a “good day.” What had the drummer been thinking speaking to such a toy? He wouldn’t be making any mistakes like that again. From now on it was just him and the dancer, no one else.
“Good evening there, chap,” a sly voice called from the side. It was a jack-in-the-box, popped out to welcome newcomers. “First time at our fun, little wayside?”
“No thank you,” the drummer said sternly, but even as he said it he felt bad for being rude to a toy that might not deserve it. “I’m sorry,” he turned to face the affronted jack. “I’m just in a hurry.”
“Well what are you looking for? Maybe I can help you find it.”
“Did you see a bear run past this way? With a dancer on his shoulder? It wouldn’t have been more than a moment a go.”
“Oh yes, that bear!” the jack-in-the-box nodded enthusiastically, even before the drummer had concluded speaking. “Yes of course I saw him. Friend of yours? He came here, signed in, and went between those two buildings right there. Probably on his way to the motel on the other side.”
The drummer turned to look down the alleyway that the jack-in-the-box was pointing towards. It was a narrow crevice between two of the leaning buildings, completely covered in dark shadows.
“Through there?” the drummer asked fearfully.
“Yes, through it towards the motel.”
“Are you quite sure?”
The jack-in-the-box folded his arms indignantly. “You ask me where to find them, I say that’s the where they went. So don’t go if you don’t believe me, what do I care?”
Something felt wrong to the drummer, but the jack-in-the-box seemed so certain. The drummer couldn’t really afford to pass up such a good lead, especially when he couldn’t even explain to himself why it was he felt so hesitant. So he took a deep breath and charged forward.
“Wait, you have to sign the registry!” the jack-in-the-box called after him, but the drummer didn’t stop. Soon he had passed into the shadow between the buildings.
What few windows lined this alleyway had been smashed in, with bits of broken glass littered about and crunching under the drummer’s feet. The rooms beyond had been stripped of all their furniture, and the wallpapers were heavily stained by dirt and grease. The only light was the occasional prism of orange streaming through the broken windows on the right, beyond which the sun was slowly setting.
As the drummer pushed on through the darkness he became aware of some voices just ahead of him. They were low and muttering, speaking in quick, hurried breaths.
“H-hello?” he called out, and all at once the voices fell silent. “Oh don’t go away,” he pleaded. “I need some help, please.”
“Oh…he needs some help,” one of the voices said silkily. “Why didn’t you say so from the beginning, stranger?”
Out of the shadows a tall, wooden doll emerged. Its original unvarnished surface had been covered all over by a wide array of rainbow colors. Behind it followed two weeble wobble brothers.
“Helping people is our favorite thing to do,” the wooden doll grinned. “The jack-in-the-box sent you?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“He always sends toys here for us to help them.”
“Oh, well actually he sent me here to find someone I’m looking for.”
“Yes, that’s often what we help people with. To find someone. The person you’re looking for is right this way. Follow me.”
“But…you don’t even know who I’m looking for!” That strange discomfort was returning to the drummer and he started to take a few steps back. He thought that maybe he shouldn’t have come this way at all. He wasn’t sure why he felt so wrong, but maybe it didn’t matter if he didn’t know the reasons why. Somehow he knew he just ought to listen to that feeling.
“But I do know,” the doll said. “And I hate to tell you this, but she looked like she had been hurt.”
“Yes, she didn’t look good at all. She needed a lot of help. I think she was calling for you.”
“The dancer was?”
“Yes,” the doll nodded solemnly. “It was her.”
The hesitations left the drummer immediately, replaced with a fresh panic.
“Where is she? Take me to her!”
“Of course, though I think we’re going to need some money to reach her. Might need to bribe a guard or two, you understand me?”
“Yes. Have you got any?”
“I–no. I don’t even know what that is.”
“Oh…so it’s like that. Well no worry. Maybe someone left you some money. Let’s go and see.”
The doll put his arm around the drummer and steered him towards the end of the alley and down another path.
“Well I’m not sure who would have done that,” the drummer was saying, still a bit confused.
“One never knows,” one of the weeble wobbles said from the drummer’s elbow.
“But it wouldn’t hurt to check, of course,” the other said from the opposite side.
“No…I suppose it wouldn’t hurt. But maybe we should go and find her first. We’ve got to get her back, whether with money or not!”
“Of course, of course,” the doll soothed. “Trust me, I know just what to do.”
They had made a few turns down crooked streets and were now approaching a large, iron factory. It was grimy and smelled of soot and didn’t seem like a particularly nice place to be at all. At the front of it was a heavy door, and beside it a receptionist seated behind a glass window.
“Hello there, Orr,” the doll said to the receptionist, who was a piggy bank.
“Duth,” the pig droned lazily.
“I’ve brought you a new worker, he’ll do excellently on your team.”
Orr grunted and leaned forward, squinting appraisingly at the drummer. “Well he’s new, probably has at least six months of hard labor in him, so that’s good. But they didn’t make his arms very big, won’t be able to lift so much.”
“Oh but he is a determined, spirited sort.”
“Yes, I’m sure…”
The drummer didn’t understand just what they were talking about, nor how this was helping him to obtain money, nor indeed how the money was related to finding the dancer. He was just about to say all this when the two concluded their discussion.
“…and three large discs as a standard finder’s fee,” Orr said, sliding three plastic chips over to Duth.
“Is that…money?” the drummer asked.
“Oh, so we can go get to the dancer now?”
“Well…no,” Duth said awkwardly. “We’ll need a bit more. But I’ve got you a job now, see. You’ll be earning money at a rate of…” he glanced over to Orr.
“New workers are compensated at 2 small discs per week. Food and lodging is provided.”
“There you go!” Duth said energetically. “That’s a capital rate for you.”
“But I don’t understand what it’s for.”
“Money gets you anything you want,” one of the weeble wobbles said.
“If you want to convince your girl to come back, money will win her for sure,” the other said.
“Oh, she didn’t leave me. She was taken by another toy, a teddy bear.”
“Yes, yes, the story of us all, brother,” Duth smirked. “But either way, you make enough money and you’ll be able to buy her back from the bear.”
“Actually I had been thinking more of just grabbing her and running.”
“Oho!” Orr laughed. “More a rough-and-tumble sort of guy, huh? Well, if you don’t mind me saying so, you’re a little small for a job like that.”
The drummer paused and looked down at his hands. The pig had a point, the bear had been much larger than he was.
“Yesss,” Orr continued, “you know it’s true. But once again, with some money, you can hire some other toys to help you out with that. I know some who will even make sure the bear never comes back after you, if you catch my drift.”
“I see,” the drummer said slowly. “Well thank you for explaining. I think I’m finally beginning to understand. I’ll do some work, I’ll make some money, I’ll be able to pay to get her back…”
“Exactly,” the doll praised. “And it’s the only way, believe me.”
“Then…I guess I’d better do it. Where is the work?”
“Capital attitude,” Orr snorted approvingly. “Come right this way.”
The doll and the two weeble wobbles slunk into the night while Orr let the drummer in through the door, and led the way through a maze of corridors into the heart of the place. The drummer had never seen a place like this before, and he wasn’t entirely sure that he cared much for it. It was dark, with only the occasional, weak candle to give any light. Worse than that, all the toys that they passed along the way seemed to be in a very dire strait.
It wasn’t just that they were so dirty, chipped, and torn. It wasn’t just that most of their paint had scratched off and they had been scored with deep gouges. It wasn’t just that they were missing eyes and buttons, and some of them entire limbs! More than all that it was just the haunted, vacant expression they all bore. Toys with no soul in them, more machines than living things.
The drummer vaguely wondered why so many gaunt, expressionless workers might have come to this sort of place, but then he pushed the thought from his mind. It didn’t matter. All that mattered now was the work, and the money, and buying the dancer’s freedom. He realized that he still was quite confused about a few matters. How was he to know when he had enough money? Where was he supposed to go to pay other toys to help him get her back? And still he didn’t even know where she was!
He felt a little bit of anger towards all the people that had helped him thus far: the jack-in-the-box, the doll, the pig. Each of them had made clear that they really wanted to help him, but none of them had really seemed to listen to him very much.
Again, never mind that now. Work now. Money now. Ask more questions at the next opportunity.
And so it was that the drummer found himself shuffling with a small army of workers down a massive corridor towards an even more massive furnace. At first all the drummer could see of it was the huge cloud of smoke, yawing ahead of them like the end of the earth. The closer they got to it the more it choked them. Soon the drummer was coughing black onto his white, painted gloves. Still they pressed forward, and now the drummer could make out the flame at the furnace’s base. It was too shrouded in smoke to see any tongues, but there was a definite glow of deep, vibrating orange. Its heat was immense, and the drummer felt a crackling along his fresh paint.
“Team three back to barracks! Team four, your quota is two mountains before relief!” A foreman in his toy car snapped down to them. He was gesturing to two immense piles of coal, each more than ten times the height of the drummer! One-by-one the workers walked up to the first pile, selected a single lump of coal, and marched with it towards the flame. When they got close enough that their faces began to singe they hurled it forward with all of their might, eliciting a shower of sparks which proved that they had made their mark.
If ever they missed their mark then they were handed “the pole” and had to shield their eyes to try and see their stray piece of coal and jab it into the flame. All the while the foreman would shout at them, counting down how long they had before he would throw them in instead!
The drummer had a lot of questions about this process, but it didn’t seem to be the sort of place that would care for questions. So he set to work, following the pattern of all the others. All of his first lumps of coal failed to find the furnace, and he quickly was given a nickname by the foreman: Useless.
That harsh toy shouted at him and shoved him, telling him it would be easier on them all if he would just dive into the flame and rid them of his nuisance. All the while the drummer frantically thrust out with the pole, silently pleading for the shower of sparks that would mean he had managed to right his error. When at last the blessed torrent came he ran with from the spot, only to be clutched by dread anticipation as he came back to the pile of coal, and knew he was about to miss yet another throw.
There was no relief, he found himself in perpetual fear. The terror in front of the flame, the anticipation of failure, the despair of the missed throw, the terror, the anticipation, the despair. Each time round they seemed to come faster, seemed to nip more savagely at one another’s heels. The terror. The anticipation. The despair. He was going to be thrown in, that was all there was to it. He couldn’t keep up at this pace. Terror. Anticipation. Despair. But for as quickly as the cycle repeated, the mountain never grew any smaller! The task would never be done, they would never leave here. He couldn’t keep doing this! He had to collapse, had to give up, had to be thrown into the furnace and get it all over with. Terror! Anticipation! Despair!
The little drummer cried in agony as he thrust his blistering gloves forward. The small lump of coal sailed high into the air and a shower of sparks burst forth.
“Well,” the foreman said in surprise. “You get to live a minute more. Move along, useless!”
And so it was. The drummer shuffled along with the line and made his way back to grab another piece of coal. Heart thumping he threw that one clean into the fire as well. Another minute to live.
Things certainly went from bad to worse for our little hero! It would seem that we’ve gone from a happy fairy tale into an Orwellian nightmare. Along the way we met a few new characters, including a jack-in-the-box, the posing doll, the piggy bank, and the foreman.
I explained on Monday that my purpose was to write each of these characters so that the audience could instantly judge the quality of their character. To accomplish this I made use of a few tricks.
The first was that in the first section of this story I carefully selected the setting where these characters live. This wayside village is clearly a seedy hovel of reprobate amusement, and one assumes that the sort who live here will be just as despicable.
Secondly I chose toys that could symbolize their diabolical natures. The jack-in-the-box is not what he seems at first, the doll is a contortionist, the piggy bank is greedy, the foreman drives things hard.
Then I used descriptive terms and actions to immediately communicate that these characters are wretched. The jack-in-the-box speaks slyly, the doll mutters, the piggy bank droneslazily, the foreman snaps.
Finally, each of these characters are simply much too quick to try and “help” the drummer. Right from the outset this over-eagerness sets our suspicion sky-high. What is frustrating, though, is that the doll does not see what we so clearly do. There is a lot of tension in this piece because of the separation between what he understands and what the audience does.
I would like to examine this idea of characters making choices that the audience already knows are bad. Come back on Monday for that, on then on Thursday we’ll pick things back up with our poor, little drummer. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!
The trucks were upon them now. The winged discs stopped shooting from the back of the first, the engines sputtered out, and the doors opened. Out stepped eight men, all dressed in jeans and dark-grey jackets. They were uniforms, and each of their shoulders bore the name “Clecir.” Two of the men were carrying large briefcases, and four of them had sidearms on their hips. They didn’t draw their weapons, though, instead all eight slowly walked towards the two brothers, fanning out to keep them contained.
“Hello, boys,” one of them said. He had curly, white hair and dark sunglasses on. He grinned broadly. “My name’s Maxwell. Please don’t be alarmed, we’re not here to cause any trouble. Just to take back what is rightfully ours.”
“Yours?” Gavin asked. Curtis frowned at him.
“Yes, the beacons.”
It took the boys a moment to realize that “beacons” must be the men’s term for the strange materials.
“You’re the ones who left the box of them out?” Curtis asked, anxious to take over the conversation before Gavin could try to argue about ownership.
“That’s right. A careless mistake.”
Curtis nodded. “Well they’re in that storage shed over there.”
Now it was Gavin who frowned at Curtis. To him it seemed like a betrayal. But really the mass of “beacons” still hanging off the sides of their shed had already given that information away. It was just about appearing accommodating.
Maxwell smiled, then nodded to the two men carrying the briefcases. They broke ranks and made their way to the shed. One of them came back a moment later and tossed one of the rods to Maxwell. Maxwell caught it and peered closely at the grooves on the rod’s side. He smiled.
“Batch 18, confirmed.”
The two men filed back into the shed, opened their briefcases, and began filling them with the brothers’ work.
“How long ago was Batch 18?” Maxwell said to no one in particular. “Twelve years now?” He turned back to the brothers. “Did you two work them this whole time? You said you found them in a cardboard box?”
Gavin’s frown deepened. “You didn’t misplace them at all! You planted them.”
Curtis elbowed his brother, but Maxwell seemed pleased by the insight.
“How perceptive of you,” he smiled. “And an excellent choice of words, we call it ‘seeding’ ourselves. I’m sure you’ve found that the secrets of the beacons are extensive. Infinitely so. Some of us even think responsively so.” Maxwell’s voice grew low, reverential. “Whichever way you push it, it discloses new truths. And so it is all the better to find curious minds that think differently from our own. We let them work uninterrupted, and sometimes they come up with the most novel inventions.”
The two men returned. They had selected the most complex examples of the brothers’ work and held them up for Maxwell to see. He looked them over one-by-one.
“I see. Crude clothing applications…but you’d run into trouble once you tried to make a full body-suit of course,” he chuckled. “You’d lose the wearer inside!”
Maxwell paused to look closer at the tunic, his brow furrowing. “Still…the fact that you’re using linked pieces instead of plates…how did you get them so small?”
“Perhaps this one sir?” One of the men held forward a piece fashioned by Gavin. It was the one where he had discovered how to create increasingly larger or smaller components.
Maxwell frowned in concentration as he turned it over until understanding set in. “But of course,” he gasped. “We’ve been blind all these years!” He turned it over more quickly now. Hungrily. “And it’s dual-ended! You can scale up or down with it! And I’d guess that this node-centric approach amplifies the resultant power!” His fingers clenched against the piece and a shudder passed through his body. A moment later he relaxed, and gently returned the piece to the briefcase. “Keep that one, get the bin ready for the rest.”
“Why take it all away?” Gavin asked before Curtis could stop him. “We’ve put so much of ourselves into it!”
Maxwell turned to Gavin and took off his sunglasses, looking him eye-to-eye. “It’s too risky to leave any developers operating outside of the organization, this stuff is just too powerful. Not to worry, though. We aren’t merely seeding new beacons, we’re seeding talent. The two of you have definitely proven yourselves ingenious and persistent….”
“You’re–you’re offering us a job?” Curtis cocked his head.
“So much more than a job,” Maxwell extended his hand. “I want you to be a partner to the future.”
The two brothers paused and looked to one another. Unspoken meaning passing between their eyes. They looked back to Maxwell.
“With all due respect,” Curtis said slowly, “we don’t like your style.”
Maxwell forced a smile. “Our way is necessary, but we know that it doesn’t appeal to all. Still boys, I like you. So just make sure you stay out of our way, and we won’t need to discuss the matter any further. You’ll do that won’t you?”
The two men with briefcases had finished hauling the rest of the brothers’ work outside. They had even brought all of their notebooks, clay, and graph paper, as well as all the winged discs that had slammed into the side of the storage shed. Another two men lifted a large “tube” out of the bed of one of the trucks. It was far cruder than Gavin’s solution for making larger structures. This tube had been fashioned by simply taking hundreds of the normal-sized discs and angling them to form pointy rings. Those rings were staggered so that they could slide over one another like some sort of giant telescope. The tube was capped at both of its ends.
Without a word the men opened a hatch on the side of the tube, put all of the brothers’ things inside, then closed the hatch and pushed the ends together. The overlapping flaps slid across each other, compressing down like an accordion until the two caps clanged against one another.
Gavin gasped as understanding set in. They had made the space inside too small to hold all of their things. With an open tube that had always meant the things would just spill out. In a capped one like this, it must mean that the items were obliterated into nothingness. Just like that, all their work was destroyed.
“You boys sure you don’t want to reconsider my offer?” Maxwell asked. “There are no second chances.”
Curtis shook his head.
“Suit yourselves.” He turned to the rest of the men and nodded, then they all filed back into the trucks and drove away.
Gavin and Curtis walked in silence back to their shed and stepped inside. They already knew what they would see…nothing. The men had been thorough. All that remained were two empty chairs and desks, the power generator, the lights and the fans.
“So that’s it,” Gavin said flatly.
“Yeah,” Curtis said, walking over to the power generator. He unplugged it and waited a few seconds for it to wind down. “Or at least it would be if they weren’t so stupid.”
He ran his fingers along the generator’s cord until he found a bump in the sheath. He felt out a slit in the rubber and peeled it back, revealing a microscopic tube that they had wrapped around the electric cable.
“I forgot about that!” Gavin said, clapping his hands to his head. “From when we were trying to get an electrical charge inside of a tube. We never took it out?”
Curtis shook his head. “Sounds like they aren’t accustomed to their ‘beacons’ being so small. They didn’t even think to check.” He unclasped the tiny tube and pulled it off the cord. “Of course those winged discs of theirs were able to hone in on us once…it’s a safe bet that they’ll realize they missed something sooner or later.”
The two brothers looks at one another, silently weighing their options.
“I say we don’t give it back,” Gavin finally said. “I say we run with it and start building again. Prepare for their return.”
Curtis grinned from ear to ear. “I was hoping you’d say that! Let’s go. I’ve got a lot of new ideas.”
The two brothers slapped each on the back and hurried over to their parked pickup truck. Curtis hopped into the driver’s seat and started the ignition while Gavin went around to the passenger side. He had just stepped up onto the running board when he froze.
“Uh-oh,” he said, and Curtis looked up to where Gavin was staring.
The two black trucks had turned around and were making their way back up towards the brothers and their storage shed.
“They figured it out already,” Gavin said.
“Yeah…do you still want to run?”
Gavin grit his teeth, then swung into his seat and pulled the door closed.
Curtis pressed the pedal to the floor and spun the truck out in a wide arc. They turned 180 degrees and moved off the road, pounding across the rough desert ground, kicking up a tall plume of dust as they fled from their pursuers.
As I said on Monday, the ending of Instructions Not Included is only an ending of its first act. This would signify the moment of transition where the story enters its central conflict. The brothers would continue an ongoing battle with this strange corporation, the tension escalating until the point of climax. The brother’s triumph would depend on them resolving the philosophical differences that have been introduced in the first act.
In the end, I like where this story is headed. I think it could be a fun adventure story targeted towards older children and teenagers. I would like to complete it, but I’m already committed to one novel, with many other concrete ideas for other ones after that. For a while I struggled with how many story ideas I had. I didn’t want to accept that there simply wasn’t enough time to make every novel that I wanted to.
It was a tough pill to swallow, but in the end I was able to accept the truth of the matter: my productivity will never keep up with my imagination. I’d like to talk a little more about the realistic limitations of an author’s productivity, how to accept those shortcomings, and how to choose which stories one should write. Come back on Monday where we will discuss these topics. Until then, have an excellent weekend!
On Thursday I wrote a story from the point of view of a plant, one that was being eaten by an animal. As one might expect, that animal was viewed in a very dim light. It was a destroyer, a killer, and therefore inherently evil. At the very end a part of that plant became autonomous and had a fantasy of growing bigger, more powerful, and then exacting vengeance on that animal.
But of course, had I written the story from the point of view of the animal, then it would have seen itself as doing no wrong. It ate some food, just as every creature does. It adhered to its basic nature. We people do just the same thing, so it would seem we shouldn’t be taking sides in nature.
And yet we do. Certain animals and substance are considered inherently evil by us because they are known to do us harm. Snakes, bears, and poisons are bad. Bunnies, kittens, and vanilla are good. But from a more removed point of view, is there really anything more evil in a bear that eats people than in a kitten that eats mice?
It is our nature, and seemingly the nature of all creatures, to hate those that can cause it harm, and to love those that can benefit it. We can’t be blamed for having this instinct embedded in our DNA, it is essential to our basic survival. It is perfectly understandable for a person to say that they just don’t like large spiders.
But humans don’t stop at labeling animals and substances as evil, though. Some people are determined to be bad as well. As before, these tend to be people that by their very nature mean us harm. Whenever two nations are engaged in war, we always see both sides labeling one another as evil. This is understandable, even if misguided. The other nation is seen as a threat, capable of destroying you, so your self-preservation instincts kick in and you see them as subhuman.
But we don’t stop here either. Those that threaten us on an emotional or spiritual level are quickly labeled as well. If we hold something sacred or true, then it is genuinely painful for us to hear others disparage that thing. Why would that atheist say I’m wrong for believing in God? Or why would that Christian tell me that I’m a sinner? It can only be because they are evil.
Obviously somewhere along this spectrum we’ve crossed a line. Probably several lines, in fact. It is true that some things and people are bad for us and are worth avoiding, but that does not necessarily make them evil. The bear that wants to eat us is trying to preserve its own interests by doing something bad for us. Our boss that wants us to work through the weekend is trying to preserve her own interests by doing something bad for us. But these facts alone do not make them evil. And though we might be able to logically appreciate the invalidity of demonizing those we dislike, it is still a very difficult thing to stop doing.
Villains are Evil)
For this reason characters in a story are often portrayed as either “all-good” or “all-evil” as well. If a hero has flaws, they are minor and easily excused. If a villain has virtues, they are warped and twisted into something unnatural. It is unheard of for a story to finish by the hero convincing the villain of the error of his ways, and certainly not by coming to appreciate the villain’s point of view. The villain is fundamentally evil, after all, so rational reason would never be able to work on them.
Well, almost this is unheard of in a story.
Undertale was a game released in 2015 that on the surface might have appeared like any other RPG (role playing game). The world is quirky and humorous, but there are some definitely evil rogues that the player has to go and violently destroy. And if the player chooses to, they are allowed to play the game in exactly this way.
But there is also a “pacifist” version of the game where instead of destroying all those evil villains, you can instead befriend them, listen to their point of view, and finally help them to let go of their anger. They cease trying to destroy you, are no longer a threat, and thus are no longer perceived as evil.
When approached in this way the player wins by destroying the barriers between them and their enemies, rather than the persons themselves. One might assume that such a peaceful resolution might lack a necessary catharsis and make for a hollow ending, but actually the game was lauded by critics and consumers alike. But this isn’t to say that Undertale denies the existence of evil.
Is There Any Evil?)
While it is true that our society applies the label of evil too quickly, that doesn’t mean that evil doesn’t exist. Children see things in black-and-white, young adults start to see things as shades of gray, and then at full maturity one sees a dual nature: both black and white in the same being. Each of us have parts that are truly good and other parts that are truly evil.
In Undertale the villains are doing things that are truly evil, they knowingly hurt others for personal gain. But so do all of us, and still we know that there yet remains a goodness inside. The player is able to communicate to those parts of them that are good, and by so doing can bring an end to the evil behavior.
The reason that the classic story A Christmas Carol works is because Ebenezer Scrooge is truly a bad man, but one who also has a goodness inside. In the story’s opening pages we find it has been a long, long time since Scrooge has listened to that goodness, so long that he himself has forgotten that the part still exists. Over the course of the tale we travel back to witness the moments before he became a bitter old curmudgeon, a time where he was still divided between two natures. In that past Scrooge suffered a defeat to his worse nature, and then, like so many of us, assumed that the good part was dead and gone forever. This Christmas tale thankfully offers a more hopeful perspective in the end.
Evil Without, Evil Within)
Did you notice that we shifted from talking about evil in others to talking about evil within the self? As I said before, each of us have parts that are truly good and others that are truly evil. At different times, one or the other side will hold the reins of our behavior. So long as it is the more evil part that drives us, we will never be able to awaken the good in anyone else.
When the evil part of us that interacts with the evil parts of those around us, then we are in a state of war. When the evil part of one interacts with the good parts of others, then we are in a state of abuse. The only path to peace is for our good parts to find their way past the evil to touch the good in others.
In Les Miserables we meet a convict name Jean Valjean, and a prostitute named Fantine. Each of them is deeply ashamed of the things that they have done, each tends to view themselves as evil. However the two of them do not meet while both are at their lowest points. Indeed, if they did their interaction would most certainly have been destructive to each. Thankfully, Jean Valjean has the good part inside of him awakened and is redefined by it before he meets Fantine. In that moment he sidesteps the bitter-for-losing-her-employment part of her, he sees past the self-hatred-for-being-a-prostitute part of her, and instead he reaches the mother part at her core. In Fantine’s last moments she becomes good again by having had her goodness touched by the goodness of another. Jean Valjean is only able to do this because he once had his own goodness touched by another as well.
Hope in the End)
Undertale, A Christmas Carol, and Les Miserables all give a message of hope for humanity. Each of them allows that evil is real and that it is the enemy to our nature, but each of them also suggests that evil can be overcome. We must overcome the evil in ourselves, though, before we can help others to do the same.
With my next short story I would like to explore this idea of seeing the good in an individual that is initially despised. I will introduce a character whose behavior is good in his own eyes, but bad in another’s. At first each character will consider their own perspective as being the source of truth, but by the end we’ll see if we can get them seeing more broadly. Come back on Thursday to see how that turns out.
Motivation is the parent of action. All that we do in life we do because of our desire. Even the most basic of things, such as movement, would never occur unless we first hoped to obtain something by it.
Stories are much the same. Unless the characters want something, they never will do anything. If ever you’ve hit a lull in the action of your story, it’s probably because none of the characters have anything that they want at that particular moment. Often this is because they just achieved some milestone, and so for a brief moment they are content right where they are. It sounds like a nice place for them, but it is terrible for you as the author.
Unless, of course, you are at the natural termination of desire that signals the end of a story. “And they lived happily ever after” essentially means “and they have everything that they want, so they just kind of stay this way forever after and don’t do anything else of interest, so we’ll just stop talking about them now.”
This “storybook-ending” is one area where stories diverge from real life. In real life there usually isn’t such a total complacency where we forever cease to want any more. No matter how accomplished we have become, no matter how grateful we are for what we have obtained, there yet remains the compulsion to go further. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either, as it is this endless chase that drives us to ever improve and grow nearer to our most ideal self.
The reason why the storybook has an ending, then, is because the character has actually obtained that “most ideal self” which eludes us in the real world. Now that they are the full measure of the person they are supposed to be, there is no more need for motivation.
Ends Justified by the Means)
This would seem to suggest that it isn’t always so important what the exact motivation is, just that there is a motivation, and that it drives the character towards their ideal form. The only prerequisite, of course, is that the motivation is something that is “good,” something that is based on truthful precepts. Assuming that, the actual details of the motivation are superfluous.
Is the hero trying to bring peace to the land? Restore the balance of justice? Champion the cause of freedom? Then that’s all we really need to know. And so Piglet seeks to find a birthday present for his friend Eeyore, Prince Charming quests to rescue Sleeping Beauty, Shane resolves to stop the cruel cattle baron, and Thanos endeavors to bring balance to the universe.
Well, wait…hang on now. We seem to have stumbled upon a villain with that last one, haven’t we? Here we have a character whose motivation seems worthy enough, and that same motivation is indeed driving him to action, but it’s just that those actions happen to involve things like mass genocide. This is an example of a story in which the villain actually means to accomplish something moral, but to do so is willing to use methods that are immoral.
This represents one of the two main archetypes of villains in stories. The other, of course, is when the villain is just the embodiment of pure evil. Those villains do evil simply for the sake of being bad, whereas this one does evil with good intentions. Each of these two archetypes have their own place, each better suited to certain types of stories, but for the sake of this blog post let’s focus on the one whose evil actions bely their good intentions.
The imbalance inherent in these characters is by no means a work of fiction. Indeed they represent a moral dilemma that lies at the very root of our modern philosophies, namely the question of whether the ends can always justify the means. Consider the argument made by Socrates, as reported in Book V of Plato’s Republic. This discourse has long been a contentious topic for how it promotes an “ideal state,” one that is established only by first trampling down the most basic of human freedoms. It claims that the slaughter of infants, the dictating of when and with whom procreation can occur, and the separation of children from their parents could all be used to erect a more perfect world.
The natural response to such claims is repulsion. And it is important to note that it isnatural to respond that way. It means that it goes against our very intuition to excuse any evil, even in the name of the greater good. Our inner nature recognizes that there is a paradox in this, much akin to trying to reach higher numbers by subtraction, or in traveling to a destination by ever moving away from it. At our cores we seem to understand that evil consequences will undermine all good intentions.
But while I say that all these principles are basic and intuitive, yet there are examples throughout all history of those that still thought they could achieve a better state of man through actions of mass evil. Names that come readily to mind: Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, characters that chill us as some of the most destructive individuals the world has ever known. Is it any wonder, then, that this fear bleeds through to our creative works of fiction, and the villains we put into them?
Destructive and Constructive Cycles)
So what then is the difference between the hero and the villain? It is simply this: the hero is motivated by good, that motivation leads to good actions, and the consequences of those actions are in harmony with the initial motivations. The consequences bolster the original intent, and the whole course is one of mutual assurance and progression. Consider the tortoise who is determined to stay the course, no matter how far behind his competitor he appears to be. His resolve informs his actions, his actions ensure his success, and his success confirms the validity of his resolve.
The villain, meanwhile, can also be motivated by good desires, but then selects actions that are evil, the consequences of which will actively undermine the initial motivations. They are set up for failure, even before the hero shows up on the scene. It is their own hand that stands strongest against them. Consider the Foolish Emperor who wishes to be loved and revered by his people, but whose pursuit of that ideal results in him parading naked through the streets. Even before the young boy calls out the truth of the matter, by his own hand he has already been disrobed before all of his subjects.
Personally I think that many stories have been written without the author consciously intending to make philosophical statements on human nature. And yet so many of them do, and have done so over the millennia, and are so consistent in their implied moral.
When the same conclusions so consistently arise in the subconscious, it is only natural to assume that these stories are indicative of a truth that resides in us all. We find in stories the answers to many of the most basic questions of mankind. In this particular instance we see that they answer the query “how should I live my life?”
As an answer stories acknowledge that a man must have desires, ones that necessarily lead to action. But then stories caution that man must realize that his actions have consequences, either for good or evil, and it is therefore wise for a man to deliberately choose the actions whose consequences are in harmony with the initial desires. Then a man does not undo his own self, he discovers his own self. That is how a man should live.
On Thursday I shared a story where two characters were driven against one another by strong motivation. We did not know where their motivations originated from, but we could tell that they were powerful and very destructive. By that alone we could tell that they were villainous, and subject to eternal frustration.
In my next story I’d like to look at motivation again, this time coupled with its consequences. In it we will meet a character that is deeply motivated, but one that is driven by that motivation to actions that are brash, and probably not the most self-improving. By the end of the story, though, we’ll see how he is able to shift his desires and results into greater harmony with one another. Come back on Thursday to see the first portion of that tale.
This last Thursday I posted the first third of a short story that starred a pretty deplorable character. Jake was either born without ethical restraints, or else he managed to sand them away over time. Also, he happens to be a jerk. Particularly vicious was the scene where he sees a stranger and proceeds to scathingly critique him as one of the lowest dregs of humanity.
And yet, I actually intended for that scene to ultimately make the audience feel more sympathetic to Jake. In time, as more of his character is revealed, it will become evident that that vicious mockery is more inwardly directed than outwards. Jake still has problems, and is still the story’s villain, but he is more of a victim of his actions than anyone else.
As I wrote the segment where Jake mocks a stranger I allowed myself to be crueler because of my knowledge that it was self-reflective for him. However I also knew that the reader wouldn’t have this information, and so might misread the moment. And that was intended.
It’s almost unavoidable at the beginning of a story for readers to make first impressions and take all that they are shown at face value. One of my favorite things is when an author is aware of these two facts, and structure their story so that it will support the readers’ in their initial perceptions upon a first reading, and then challenge them upon a second.
I could, of course, have opened the story by establishing how much Jake loathes himself, but then the audience would have been sympathetic to him from the outset. That would have limited their ability to despise him, so instead I let him introduce himself as he believes himself to be: creepy, unrepentant, and cruel. When at the end of my post he started applying these sorts of labels to himself, the readers only heard him echoing their own thoughts for him. Perhaps as they come to see how miserable he is they might feel bad for having made those initial judgments.
Or maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll feel he is only receiving his just desserts. Either way, the reader will be making a choice, thus be more actively engaged in the story, and thus be more affected by it.
A Christmas Carol)
In writing my story this way I’m actually paying homage to one of my most favorite tales of all time: A Christmas Carol. When we are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge we are not told first about his unhappy childhood, about how he was banished from his home by an unfeeling father. We don’t hear about his immense poverty and his drive to become something more. We don’t know the tragedy of how that misguided ambition ultimately lost him the love of his life.
No, we do not hear about those things until later, so that there can be nothing in the way of our reviling this bitter and cold man. All we know at the outset is that he is cruel, deservedly despised, and we very easily dismiss him.
But then, as these sadder elements of his life are unfolded, we find ourselves grieving for the lost child still within him and we are deeply relieved when his soul eventually finds its reclamation. From the first impressions we are able understand why the world is so disbelieving of his dramatic transformation, but by the end of our journey we are believing of it ourselves.
The fact is, if Charles Dickens had laid out the story to capture our sympathy for Scrooge first, then his reclamation would not have tasted nearly so sweet. To despise a character, and then pity him, and then joy for him is a far more moving arc than any other arrangement of those same sensations.
Another favorite example of this is from the film Citizen Kane. Charles Foster Kane is not a very pleasant person. He happens to be rich, powerful, and a genius, but also pompous, self-righteous, and manipulative. He possesses a constant hunger for more, and by his obsessive and overbearing nature he manages to sour his every relationship until all that remain in his household are the servants.
We’ve seen how he demands control of every situation. He tries to force love and friendship from those that would have given it willingly. He wants to own happiness, to buy it. He lavishes the woman he loves with gifts until she feels smothered and ends the relationship. It is almost pitiable, except for the fact that he is wholly responsible for his own suffering.
Then he dies with a single word on his lips: “Rosebud,” which is revealed to be the name of a sled he played with as a young boy at his parent’s home. There he was happy, and it was a simple and authentic happiness. Tragically that moment of bliss was taken from him suddenly, and he has never since found it again. Just like that we understand his enigma.
We realize that he has been made afraid of all good things being taken away. He wants to be in control so that he won’t be hurt again. And, ironically, it has been his avid pursuing that has lead to his constant losing, a vicious and never-ending cycle of loss and clutching.
In all of these cases the understanding that dawns on the reader is not meant to excuse the main character’s flaws. What they have done is still just as wrong, but now at least we see the motivations that led them to do those wrong things. Actions can be both wrong and understandable, after all. and the beginning of prejudice is when we forget that there is a humanity behind the mistakes people make.
I think we can all agree that the world needs more stories like these. I’m not going to get political on this forum, but it is clear that intolerance for opposing ideals is a depressing epidemic of our lives. It’s not wrong to want this world to be better, but society will never be improved via argument or insult. If someone doesn’t agree with your particular point-of-view then there is an understandable, even if misguided, reason for that. People don’t need to be forced into becoming better, they only need a sympathetic voice that truly hears, understands, and validates their concerns. When nurtured in this way people will naturally recognize their own faults and rise to their best.
When it comes to writing, though, this sort of sympathy for a negative character can be difficult to pull off. It’s difficult to do in real life, so of course it would be tricky in the written word, too. I don’t mind admitting that I’m nervous about tackling the subject with Jake. At the very least I do understand the template to follow: first introduce the character as they are perceived, then reveal them as they actually are.
Hey there, you can call me Jake. That’s what I tell people my name is.
Speaking of people, have you ever noticed that they all like to have collections? Poor people collect stamps and coins, rich ones collect houses and cars. Lots of people collect problems. I knew one lady who had a new terminal disease to complain about every week.
Thing is I think everyone collects something or other. We want to find that something where we can say “This. This is what defines me. I could never have too much of this. The more I accumulate of this the more complete I will be.” That makes it so easy, to be made right just by hoarding things.
As for me, I collect people. Now, to be clear, I don’t mean that in a creepy way. Well not as creepy as you’re thinking, anyway. I don’t harvest organs or have a stack of bodies in my cellar or anything like that. I take people’s digital lives. I hack them and uncover all of their public secrets. No, that wasn’t a typo.
Frankly I am amazed at how easy it still is to take the deepest, darkest secrets of people. Even with all the cautionary tales and available resources in cyber-security, people insist on surrendering their lives to their devices. They use those devices to track their calories, to schedule their day, to make their investments, to socialize and communicate. And then they go and connect that device to public networks with virtually no security measures whatsoever. Our digital age is the thief and I’m just the enterprising soul that reaps the field.
Take someone’s name for example. They think its their own, and they think no one knows it unless they tell it to you. But here’s something to try: go somewhere with free WiFi, like a coffee shop or a library. Malls like I’m at now are great, too. Really it’s just a question of what demographic you want to sift through. Now open up your laptop, go to the network settings, and you can see a list of all the devices that you are sharing your connection with. And what are the names on those devices? Invariably you’re going to find a lot of titles like these:
I Am Sam
Alright, excellent. Now look at the people around you. It’ really not hard to start matching device names to users. They’ve already told you their personality, what type of brand they’re using, and age (leet speech is younger).
There. See that big meathead doing hunt-and-peck on his laptop keyboard? That, my friends, would be Brian. And that millenial girl with blue hair and an iPhone case encrusted with fake diamonds. Tia.
“Hey Tia, how’s it going?”
She looks up, her smile curious, wondering what old friend is calling to her. It quickly shifts to confusion, she’s running through her high school yearbook in her head, trying to place my face. Nothing comes up and she starts to look upset, offended even. “Um…do I even know you?”
I took something that she thinks she never gave to me. Her name. And it shocks her, she feels violated. I like seeing people with that angry, stupid, self-righteous look. In this moment I have owned her better than she has owned herself. I know her name, I know what she’s thinking, I know what she’s going to do after this: Google “What to do if someone’s stalking me?” and then she’ll change all the locks on her doors.
All I said was five innocent words.
She doesn’t need to worry, though, I’m already done with her. She’s useful for a cathartic moment of shock and awe, but I have no interest in diving deeper into her not-so-private digital life. I’ve already seen enough duck-face-selfies to last me a lifetime. I smile then walk away, continuing to mill around for a more interesting subject.
Tia is shouting “Hey! Hey you! Get back here.” She won’t follow, though, her overconfident voice only betrays how scared she actually is. I stroll past the phone vendors and the tech store. I pause briefly at the maternity clothing shops but decide I don’t feel like fishing for an expectant mother today. Though that can be interesting…
The food court. Talk about your buffets! One contained place and you get a conglomerate of all the types. Jocks and nerds, pretty girls and not-so pretty girls, grandparents and teenagers. Just take your pick. I’m about to go find a table when my head snaps to the side, my eyes glint, and a broad smile splits my face. That, my friends, is a forty-pound bass if I ever saw one.
Or maybe I should say a two-hundred-and-eighty pound bass. He’s extremely overweight and throwing his empty KFC bag in the trash. Dangling from his left hand are the shopping bags he accumulated before this particular pit stop: Under Armour and Garmin. He’s a walking contradiction.
On the one hand he knows his life is pathetic. He’s miserable at who he is and realizing he’s slipping down a hole he won’t ever be able to climb out of. But then on the other hand he’s been deluded by tacky slogans and mass media telling him that “there isn’t anything he can’t do” and he “just has to believe in himself.” They remind him how special he truly is and then promise him happiness if he just buys their brand.
So what does he do? He swipes his card and pays his dues, and the pain is soothed enough that he can hurt himself some more. He’ll go home, eat a tub of ice cream, and say “it’s okay, I bought a new pedometer today so I’m still making progress.” Pathetic, and all so emblematic of all society.
I follow him as he saunters around, watching his watching. He seems to take particular note of the guitar store, no doubt reminiscing on a childhood dream that never came true. He sighs and shuffles away, checks his watch, pauses to think, and finally glides over to a bench in between the main walkways. He sits down and fumbles in his backpack, pulling out a laptop. He’s got some time to kill.
I can’t go sit down next to him right away, that would just look weird. I’ve been careful to hang back enough that he hasn’t seen me yet, and I peel off to the side as I plan my approach. There’s another bench right next to his own. Maybe a little too close. People aren’t usually in the habit of sitting down right next to a stranger, I don’t want this to come off as weird.
I’ve had the thought, of course, that I probably overthink all these details but that’s just part of the fun. It’s all a facet of the performance, you see.
Now where was I? Oh right.
I whip out my phone and begin my approach. I walk in his direction, along the path right in front of him so that he’ll be able to see my act. I’m staring intently at the phone screen, pretending to be reading an engrossing text. I furrow my brow, as if I’ve just read something upsetting right when I become parallel with him. The concern still on my face I stop walking and instead shuffle over to the nearest seat, which not-so-coincidentally happens to be the one right next to my target.
I reach for my own sleek notebook, powering it on to complete the story. I got a text, it upset me, and I have to go online to address whatever it was about. I allow myself a sideways glance at the man. He hasn’t taken notice of me at all. Oh well, the performance was wonderful anyhow.
So long as I’m eyeing him I start taking in more details, looking for some topic of conversation. His shirt says Good Charlotte. I’ve heard the name, but none of their songs come readily to mind. I sit there next to him, reading up about the group and preparing to initiate our conversation.
He sits there next to me entirely oblivious.
A surreptitious reach into my bag, a flick of the switch on to turn on the signal jammer there, a few seconds wait. In no time at all he’s trying to reset his WiFi connections, sighing in exasperation when that doesn’t work. He’s pulled out of his reverie and starting to glance around him. I do the same, making eye contact and mirroring his expression of frustration.
“Hey, are you having trouble connecting here?” I ask before he can.
“Yeah, it’s not finding the WiFi at all.”
I shake my head. “Sucks, man…” I make as though I’m just noticing his shirt for the first time. “Hey, nice!” I gesture to it.
He glances down to see what I mean and breaks into a smile. “Oh yeah! You like ’em?”
“Just started listening to them actually,” I say quickly, the last thing I need is for him to start an in-depth discussion about them. “But I sure like what I heard. Anthem, I Just Wanna Live…” I repeat the first song names that Google brought up for the band and he starts nodding.
“Sure, sure. Those are definitely good ones, but you’re just scratching the surface.”
There it is. The connection. I do a lot to make myself look friendly. Approachable. Nice. Trustworthy.
“Well at least I get to try out my new toy I guess,” I grin, pulling a black box and cable out of my bag. I can tell he wasn’t ready to stop talking about his favorite band, and that’s good. Keep him wanting more.
“What’s that?” he asks curiously as I plug the device into the side of my laptop.
“One of those LTE mobile hotspots. It’s supposed to get me my own internet line anywhere. Once I get it fired up you’re welcome to hop on if you want…”
The hook is dangling and he pauses.
“Naw, it’s cool. I can just use my phone’s data.”
I nod. “Yeah, sure. Let me know if you change your mind.”
With that there’s nothing left but to wait. The jammer will keep his phone from connecting, too. Maybe he’ll come back around, maybe he won’t. This is only going to work if he makes the next approach himself. That’s a secret it took me too long to figure out. People have to be the one’s to initiate their own hacking.
While he vainly waves his phone in the air to find a signal I open up some fake webpages on my screen. They’re just imitation websites running locally from my machine since I’m not actually connected to the internet either.
He’s putting his phone away and we’ve come to the moment of truth. It would be easy for him to just get up and walk away…unless he wants to stay here. Because he wants a moment of feeling like I’m his friend.
“Hey, uh…” he begins bashfully. “Was your hotspot able to connect?”
“Yeah, it’s working great!”
“Sweet. Uh, is it still cool if I hop on?”
“‘Course, man!” I grin broadly. “It’s ‘WiFist of Fury.’ That’s w-i-f-i-s-t. Password is ’roundhouse kick to the head,’ all lowercase and one word.” This is another of my secrets. I give them my password, I don’t ask them for theirs.
“Nice,” he smiles back, then opens his laptop back up. As he does so I slide my hand back into the bag, and switch the jammer off. A moment later a notification in the corner of my screen lights up.
New Device Connected.
Got you I think.
The device name is PetesDragonComputer. Well pleased to meet you, Pete. He starts browsing the web, happy as can be while I reach back through our tether and start browsing his own computer.
First things first, I install a key-logger so I can start tracking everything he types. If he happens to log into his email while we’re connected I’ll get his credentials and then I can have a field day with his data. Even if he doesn’t, there’s plenty I can do now.
I open up his file structure and start browsing. The “Documents” directories are obvious, I set those copying over to my machine immediately. But then I start checking for anything else that looks out-of-the-ordinary. A “P90X Workout Program” folder? Yes, please.
As the files copy over I see a few of them are pictures. Glancing sideways to ensure Pete isn’t watching I open a couple of them.
Day_1.jpg, it’s an image of Pete from the side, his shirt off, his beer-keg-gut hanging loose for all to see.
I scroll down to the last entry and open it.
Day_60.jpg, it’s an image of Pete from the side, his shirt off, the exact same beer-keg-gut hanging out. Literally all that’s changed is the color of his shorts.
I snigger, and quickly Alt-Tab away in case Pete looks over towards my screen.
Nothing else obvious stands out, so I start searching his directories for some favorite keywords. In order I look for:
I didn’t always search for that last one, but after stumbling across such a file on one computer I’ve always hoped to find another. Any matches get copied over to my hard drive. After any matches from those get copied over to my hard-drive I’ll get started on more photos and videos. Those can be juicy, but they also take time to transfer and you never know how long you have before your fish decides to swim away.
And so I sit there, literally downloading the life of this man who is sitting right next to me. I’ll just keep taking so long as he keeps giving. I don’t delve into his secrets just yet, as soon as he leaves I’ll head back to my apartment, order a pizza, connect my laptop to the tv, turn off all the lights, and start getting to know Pete. If the keylogger managed to lift any passwords I’ll get to know him even better. I’ll come to know him better than most of his closest families and friends. I will consume him, and he will become just another part of my collection.
So no, I’m not some sort of “ethical hacker,” and I’m not the lovable rogue with a heart of gold. I don’t question whether what I’m doing is wrong or not. It is. But be that as it may, try and tell me you aren’t a little intrigued yourself…
So there we have it, as promised on Monday this story is in a very different style than my usual fare. It has a different setting and the voice from what I usually write, but more dramatic a shift is just the experience I am trying to evoke in the reader. Whereas most of my stories are meant to provoke introspection and pondering, this one had far less lofty goals. To put it bluntly I expect the reader to feel fairly slimy, tainted just by being associated with someone as unnerving as Jake.
Writing this definitely stretched me, both in form and function. On the one hand I had to adjust to writing shorter sentences, chattier dialogue, and snappier pacing. Even further, though, I had to access some different corners of the mind. Where titles like Glimmer feature characters that are so earnest and sincere, this one required tapping into being cynical and manipulative. I certainly have those shadows in me, but I usually don’t write from them.
That’s not to suggest that our main character is one-dimensional, though. While right now he’s only shown you a single slice of him, as an author it is important for me to keep in mind all the details that make him a more real person and be true to them. That’s a concept I’ll be exploring more in my next post, come back on Monday to read about that. Then, on Thursday, we’ll get some new developments in Jake’s story with the second section of Phisherman. I’ll see you there.
Almost every story includes some sort of antagonist character, a villain who stands in contrast to all that the hero seeks to accomplish, and the entire crux of the story is to discover which of their competing resolves will win out in the end. Not that that outcome is actually in question most of the time, our culture loves a happy ending, and so with rare exception each story will conclude with good triumphing over evil. In fact, I cannot conceive of a more common and ancient archetype in all of literature than that of the eternal struggle between right and wrong. In another post we will discuss more about why we humans have this obsession for fundamental conflict, but for the time being let’s just accept that we do, and then both the need for and purpose of villains becomes immediately obvious. For how else can that strife between good and evil be represented unless there is some embodiment of that good and of that evil? And how better to embody these than in some living characters with whom the metaphorical battle can now be acted out literally? Thus our varied villains each wear one of the many faces of evil, giving us insight into another small slice of that metaphysical concept, and helping us all to better understand our universal enemy. Having established the purpose of villains, now we can consider what it is that makes one well crafted or poorly designed.
Villains need to be essential. By this I mean that the actions and characteristics of the villain in your story, ought to be the only way your villain could be. Think of the last story you read and ask if it would have worked had the author had left everything else just as it was, but then replaced the villain with some different evil character. If so, then that story just featured a generic villain who was unessential to the greater arc of the plot.
One of my all-time favorite stories, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, features a non-essential villain, and is admittedly weaker because of it. I am referring to the slave-catchers that are in pursuit of Eliza, Tom Loker and Marks. They each have their own characterizations, Marks is small and slimy while Loker is large and rough, and each brings their unique talents to their sinister work. Eventually Loker is wounded in a chase and then abandoned by his comrades. Rather than being left to die by his quarry, he is cared for by the Quakers, and in the process comes to experience a change of heart. It’s a nice story, but it really could have happened that way if Loker had been any other sort of vile character. He might have been small and slimy like Marks, for example, and his arc could have remained just as plausible. As a result, Loker is ultimately entirely forgettable and I actually had to Google his name just to remember what it was. So how exactly do you make your villain essential? Well, that brings us to our next point.
Your villain should define your hero. Going back to the first paragraph of this post, your villain is meant to be an incarnation of evil, but not just evil generally, evil of a specific type. They are meant to represent or be defined by specific vices, one that stand in contrast to the hero’s specific virtues. In general, though, those virtues that define a literary hero are most often only obtained by them towards the end of their stories, they do not possess them at the start. When we think of the good half of Ebenezer Scrooge we see him as a kindhearted and generous man, but he does not exist in this form until the end of his eventful night. Nicholas Nickleby is always a good person, but he is not the mighty protector of lost souls until strife and experience grow him into that role. Jim Hawkins is an unassuming boy when he leaves for Treasure Island, but by the end he has grown into a resourceful and determined young man.
These arcs and character growths each occur as a result of that main character’s conflict with the villain, the protagonist only becomes a hero by the opposition they face. Most often the villain begins the story by holding the balance of power, after all, and so can only be overcome by one that is diametrically opposed to them. Thus the hero learns love because he needs it to counter the villain’s hate, kindness to counter the villains cruelty, tranquility to counter rage, leadership to counter manipulation, courage to counter control. This is what is meant by a hero being defined by the villain that they grow to surpass.
It turns out Uncle Tom’s Cabin also has another villain that actually is essential to its story, one that defines the hero through his characteristics. Simon Legree is superstitious and fearful, and he manifests this by being unbearably cruel and savage, trying to force a sense of control on a world he doesn’t trust. By his viciousness he breaks one slave after another, but try as he might, he can’t seem to break Uncle Tom. As Simon presses down harder and harder on Tom, Tom is driven more and more towards faithfulness and courage, the exactly opposite characteristics of Simon. Though the power seems to be in Simon’s hand, he remains flighty and nervous while Tom is grounded and steady all the way through to the end. Not only is Tom a contrast to Simon, he becomes that contrast through him.
Finally, villains should also be interesting. Now I know that sounds stupidly obvious, yet we see this simple concept eluding most literary villains. One of the ways I most commonly observe this is in how a villain is introduced. So many authors, probably anxious not to slow the pace in actual character exposition, try to use as few sentences as possible to drive home the point that this character is a really bad person. The introduction to the main villain will therefore involve them doing some callous evil, such as killing in cold blood, which will establish them as irredeemable and deserving of the justice that will soon follow.
“My Lord, what should we do with this village of totally innocent bystanders?”
“Dispose of them, I suppose.” Maniacal laughter follows.
Oh my! Well this certainly is a very bad person here, isn’t it? Aside from the fact that this is so routine a trope that it has lost all impact, it is also a sign of lazy writing. What are you going to do in the sequel when you need to raise the stakes with a deeper force of evil?
“My Lord, what should we do with these two villages of totally innocent bystanders?”
That might sound facetious of me, but I’m actually trying to draw attention to the current pattern of evil-escalation in these more lazy stories. Instead of evil growing deeper, it simply grows broader. I rarely like to give specific negative examples in these blogs, so I’ll just say take a look at most comic book series, either in print or film. They tend to begin with threats to individuals, then progress to threats to cities, then threats to the whole world, and finally threats to the entire universe…what’s next, threats to a multiverse? Oh wait…
No, if you want to make a real impact, your villains can’t just be evil, they need to be uniquely evil. Readers will respond to a single ingenious act of evil on a small scale than to a generic act of evil on a universal scale. Consider the story of William Tell.
William Tell is described as a famous crossbowman who stood in defiance of the local ruler Albrecht Gessler. Gessler decided to make an example of him by arresting William and his son and ordering their execution. Then, struck by a sinister stroke of cruel genius, Gessler made an offer to William that he would spare their lives if William would demonstrate his prowess with the bow by shooting an apple off of his own son’s head at considerable distance. The obvious dilemma is that now William’s only possibility of saving his son’s life is to risk slaying him with his own hands. As a father myself, the cruelty of this hope mingled with horror is just as chilling now as it was five centuries ago, never mind that only two lives are at stake here.
A story is only as strong as its weakest of components, and a villain is one of the most critical of those pieces. When a villain is done well, it does not only produce a memorable character, it also elevates the entire story along with it. This next Thursday I will try to present the other side of the coin with the hero’s perspective from the Revelate series. As I do so I will give particular attention to ensuring that that hero is defined by the opposition he faces. I’ll see you then.