Stretching Our Characters

Last night, as I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was reminded yet again of one simple rule of storytelling: never let your characters get comfortable.

The episode took all of the show’s main characters and put them in situations where we would never imagine them, situations that seem antithetical to who they are. As a result, even though the plot was exceptionally weak, the episode was enjoyable.

This is a lesson I need to take to heart. Sometimes, as I write short stories or novels, or as I read short stories or novels, the authors will allow their characters to sit in their comfort zones. Perhaps a character’s comfort zone is fighting evil, like a James Bond. In that case, giving them more evil to fight doesn’t seem to do anything except let them stay where they’re comfortable. But if James Bond had to, say, let someone else fight evil instead–now he’s being pushed. Now he’s being stretched.

It’s when characters are stretched that I find myself most engaged in a story. Seeing them do what they’re best at is only interesting for so long.

The point being this: I need to remember to always stretch my characters in every way I can think of. I’ve seen a lot of stories suffer from underdeveloped characters due to comfortable scenarios, and I need to be careful to not make that mistake. If they’re comfortable, something’s wrong and the audience will probably lose interest very quickly. I need to heed that idea, and implement it in my own writing.

Realizing Where We’ve Fallen From

I was reading Blaise Pascal recently and I came across this quote:

“We want truth and find only uncertainty in ourselves. We search for happiness and find only wretchedness and death. We are unable not to want truth and happiness, and are incapable of either certainty or happiness. This desire has been left in us as much to punish us as to make us realize where we have fallen from.”

I found this exceptionally powerful, especially as it seems to echo Ecclesiastes 3:11: “Also, He has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” The concept that a desire for truth and happiness is inherent within us is nothing new, but Pascal puts it into beautiful terminology.

Blaise PascalInterestingly enough, a lot of stories seem to be haunted by this desire. The most recent one I blogged about would be my post on “How Eden Haunts Frankenstein.” In that post I argue that Frankenstein tells the story of the fall over, and over, and over again. At the core of Frankenstein is a desire on the part of many of the characters to get back to a place they’ve fallen from.

Pascal takes that idea, of the drive to return to perfection, a step further when he argues that a desire for truth and happiness exists to make us realize that the world once was perfect. Again, that plays out frequently in stories. It’s a theme I’ve been noticing a good bit lately, so expect to see more coming on this point.

In the meantime, I simply wanted to share that quote and comment a little on it. Expect to see some more O’Connor analysis fairly soon and potentially more Pascal–he’s highly quotable.

How Eden Haunts Frankenstein

On the first page of Frankenstein there’s a quote from Paradise Lost that’s omitted, sadly, from some editions. The quote is this:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay,
To mould me man, Did I solicit thee
From Darkness to promote me?

Ignoring this quote is, I think, a mistake. Not only does it set the tone for the story, and not only is the quote echoed throughout the book, but thinking of Frankenstein through the lens of Paradise Lost provides a perspective that emphasizes one very interesting aspect of the story. See, Paradise Lost is, as we all know, the story of, well, paradise being lost. It’s the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from paradise–from Eden.

Frankenstein Book CoverFrankenstein, I want to argue, tells this same story over, and over, and over again. The entire story of Frankenstein is, in one sense, the story of a fall from Eden and the violent, stark aftermath of that fall. I may be, in arguing this, stepping outside the bounds of authorial intent (though I wouldn’t be surprised if Shelley did intend this), but from a Christian perspective, looking through the lens of Milton’s classic, I think these observations aren’t that far out there.

So what are the paradises and falls that occur in Frankenstein?

The first paradise in Frankenstein, I think, isn’t Victor Frankenstein’s. We often forget that the story doesn’t even start with Victor–rather, it starts with “R. Walton” writing letters to his sister, Margaret Walton Saville. As an interesting sidenote, Allen Grove, a professor of English at Alfred University, notes:

“Shelley’s touch is subtle here, but through Walton’s sister, she has inserted herself into the story: Margaret Walton Saville–MWS–Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.”

Regardless, Walton is detailing his exploration of the uncharted Northern seas. He’s taken with the thrill of adventure and discovery as he fulfills his dream of sailing through unknown waters.

In other words, he’s living in the paradise of his dreams. He’s happy and excited regarding what is to come. The only problem is that he’s lonely. He’s living his dream–living in his paradise–and yet he’s lonely. Maybe this is pushing it, but that seems to recall Adam’s own dissatisfaction with Eden–Adam lived in paradise, but he was alone. And that, as God said, was not good.

Walton soon meets a friend in Victor Frankenstein, and Victor begins to tell Walton his story. Here we see the second paradise emerge.

Victor paints the picture of his childhood as idyllic. He’s given free reign to explore and learn, and he immerses himself in reading outdated scientific works. In this we see a subtle set-up of another paradise. Not only is Victor apparently perfectly happy, enjoying life with his friends, but he also is plunging himself into mastering the works of outdated and incorrect scientific theories. He does master these theories and thinks he has gained an immense amount of scientific knowledge.

And then comes his fall. It’s small, brief, but significant. The first fall, I believe, portrayed in Frankenstein occurs when Victor meets his first professor of science at the university. Victor tells him the books and authors he has learned by heart, proud of his achievement. The professor responds like this:

“Every minute,” continued M. Krempe with warmth, “every instant that you have wasted on those books is utterly and entirely lost. You have burdened your memory with exploded systems and useless names. Good God! In what desert land have you lived, where no one was kind enough to inform you that these fancies which you have so greedily imbibed are a thousand years old and as musty as they are ancient? I little expected, in this enlightened and scientific age, to find a disciple of Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus. My dear sir, you must begin your studies entirely anew.”

Victor is devastated. He’s lost the paradise of knowledge he thought he had.

But his fall isn’t to end there. Because, as quickly as he falls from one paradise he enters another. He applies himself to new studies, becoming skilled in modern science. He begins work on the creation of a new life–the creature. This work doesn’t last long, though.

His complete devotion to this project is, in a sense, a paradise. He is fulfilling a childhood dream as well, just like Walton. He is creating life. Visions of his creation worshiping him, honoring him as a god fill his mind. And then he brings the monster to life and is revolted.

He was in a place of, in a sense, perfection. He discerned nothing wrong or harmful with what he was doing–in his mind he was in paradise. Then when he finally completes his project, he sees what the creature really was and his supposed paradise is lost.

Mary ShelleyBut Victor’s fall isn’t complete. That happens when the monster kills his nephew William. Then, it seems, Victor’s innocence, Victor’s perfect childhood, is shattered by grief. It’s only expanded when someone else is blamed for William’s death and executed. Victor has fallen from paradise and finds himself lost in a world where he has unleashed destruction and evil.

But the creature has his own fall.

See, after Victor deserts him, the creature is angry and frustrated, but not murderous. He runs off, taking shelter in the woods until he comes upon a small hut in which lives the De Lacey family.

According to the monster, this family is, though they are poor, in paradise. They love each other, they get along, they care for each other. The monster, too, is in paradise, beginning to fancy these people as his friends. Although he doesn’t let them see him, he watches them all day and night. He chops firewood for them in secret, providing them with food and warmth.

The creature has a vision of coming into the hut and greeting the family, explaining all he has done for them, and becoming close friends with them.

The creature perceives no fault and no flaw. He is in paradise where he thinks he has friends, and he thinks the De Lacey family is also in paradise. And then, in what must be one of the most tragic moments of the book, the creature reveals himself to the family and they drive him off, revolted by his hideous appearance. The family is traumatized and so is the monster. He feels betrayed and alone–he’s run into reality and his paradise is lost.

And so is the family’s. Their trauma tears them apart, forcing them to move out for fear of the creature’s return. The creature watches as they pack up and leave, their perfection shattered by him. As they ride away he sees his innocence fade into the distance. In a moment of rage he burns their hut down, torching the last physical reminder of the paradise he lost.

Paradise LostNear the end of the story Walton also loses his paradise when his crew refuses to go on, forcing him to turn back under threat of mutiny.

Frankenstein is, it appears, the story of fall after fall. First Victor, then the creature, then the De Lacey family, and then Walton. In the rest of the story, after the fall of the creature, both Victor and the creature spend their time longing for what they’ve lost. The creature longs for the comfort of friends that he found in the De Lacey family. Victor longs for the return to the idyllic world of his youth through the destruction of the creature that destroyed it.

There’s a lot going in, thematically speaking, in Frankenstein. I personally wouldn’t dare to make the claim that the loss of Eden and the longing for its return is the main theme, but I think there’s enough evidence to support the conclusion that it is a theme.

Because even after all the characters have fallen from paradise they’re still haunted by Eden. Eden won’t let them go.

None of them search in the right way for this paradise, but all of them search. In some sense, it seems the story of Frankenstein is a retelling of the fall, and humanity’s subsequent striving to regain Eden. In some sense, it seems Frankenstein tells the story of us all, and that story is the story of longing for a land we lost.

Tolkien was right. All stories are about the fall. And they’re about the fall because our whole being is soaked in a visceral sense of exile from Eden. We long to return to that place.

Eden haunts us, and Eden haunts our stories.

On One-Star Amazon Reviews Of Classics

Whenever I need a good laugh, if I don’t have a funny book close at hand, I tend to go take a look at one-star reviews of classics on Amazon. And boy, are they funny. The most humorous are the dogmatic ones that apparently have discovered the true quality of any given classic, contrary to the majority of thought on the subject. But whenever I look at these I’m always left slightly sad, at the same time as being amused. The attitude taken by many reviewers, and sadly, on occasion, myself, is that the quality of a book is up to the reviewer.

On One-Star Amazon Reviews of ClassicsThey are the ultimate arbiters of all that is good in the world of fiction. They are the ones who have the experience and taste to discern the good from the bad. It makes me wonder why we don’t accept that, in all likelihood, classics probably have something that makes them worth reading.

I think it might be appropriate, here, to point out several of the most enjoyable examples of this dogmatism.

The Old Man and the Sea Amazon Reviews:

“I will admit that Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has some compelling thoughts, but the only way I could accurately describe this book is “SnoozeFest 1952” or “That Awkward Moment When you are Holding a Book to Make it Appear Like you are Awake.” After reading this novel, I finally understand Pulitzer Prize criteria: not falling asleep during the most boring novel read within a certain year.”

“The only exciting thing in the whole book was when the sharks appeared. I cared so little for all the characters especially the old man I hoped they were going to eat the old man. But nope they ate his stupid marlin instead. When the reader is hoping for the “hero” to die your book sucks.”

“The book has no point except that humans keep fighting no matter what. The old man is catching a fish for about 80 of the 127 pages. It’s a very bad book that shouldn’t have ever been published.”

Beowulf Amazon Reviews:

“We spend the entire early years of education helping children love reading. They get to high school and we undo all the good with books like this.”

“Yes I suppose some would argue that this novel carries much culture and tradition with it, but give me a break! Jazz up the translation a bit and use language that REAL people can understand!!!!! Or don’t waste your time!!!! Unless you suffer from an extreme case of insomnia, suicidal depression, or sheer boredom, don’t come anywhere near this book!”

My Favorites are these, reviews of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories:

“An endless parade of moronic, seemingly sub-human characters. Four hours of torture, then I tossed it.”

“I read a couple of the short stories and found them to be a bit disturbing. Not at all what I expected. I do not need to have a “happy ever after” ending to stories but I read as an escape into anothter world. [sic] I did not enjoy visiting the world through Flannery O’Connor’s eyes. Sorry.”

There’s just a small sampling (and if you want more, this post provides a very nice collection of negative reviews of Fahrenheit 451) here, but enough to give you the picture. I find them amusing, but as I’ve already mentioned, also extremely sad. So again I ask, why do people refuse to accept that a classic may contain something that they just haven’t seen?

I should pause here, and point out that I am by no means completely excused from this fault. I have to remind myself constantly that the value and quality of a classic is not up to me. These types of posts are a way I remind myself, and hopefully get the thought out there.

I’ve written about this before, on why you should give a book a chance, but I want to elaborate on that. See, what I wrote about there had more to do with the approach one takes to a book, rather than what happens after one has finished that book. While I still do hold to what I wrote there–that it’s important to approach a story humbly–I want to say something else regarding our thinking about classics after we’ve read them.

And to write about this, I need the help of W.H. Auden.

Auden divided books up into five categories that my English teacher introduced me to, and I find incredibly helpful. Auden suggested that when we review books we divide them up into five categories: good books we don’t like, good books we like, books we neither like nor dislike, bad books we like, and bad books we don’t like.

The reason I’ve found this scale to be a helpful way to view books is because it allows for several things. First, it allows the reader to recognize that a book is good, but they simply did not enjoy it. This takes the humble approach to literature, and extends it to when we are reflecting on literature. Instead of judging our own personal tastes as the ultimate arbiter of everything good, it ensures that we view classics in what is probably a better light.

Sure, no one is demanding that you love every book ever considered a classic. I’m not a huge fan of Pride and Prejudice, and probably wouldn’t willingly choose to read it again. But that doesn’t mean that Pride and Prejudice isn’t a classic, or that it’s “less good,” if you will, than other classics.

All it means is that I don’t care for it.

The second thing Auden’s scale allows for is us to like bad stories. Sometimes, while we recognize that a book isn’t necessarily quality literature, we still enjoy it. And in and of itself, I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that. But instead of having to defend everything we like as a quality book, Auden’s scale allows us to say, “you know what, I know what I’m reading isn’t good, but it is enjoyable.”

W.H. AudenAnd perhaps this is what the one-star reviewers are missing. Because what Auden does, fundamentally, is separate the objective quality of a book with someone’s subjective experience of that book. Our experience of a book doesn’t determine it’s quality, and neither does the quality of a book necessarily determine our experience (though it often does). Ultimately, what Auden’s scale seems to do is allow a better conversation occur surrounding any given book. Instead of a battle over the quality of a classic, it might be more beneficial to have a discussion about a certain person’s taste, or why they didn’t enjoy the book.

And perhaps, along the way, someone will discover that they actually did really enjoy a classic. That’s happened to me several times, where I walked into a class either disliking or apathetic about a classic we had just read, and after the class, after discussing the book and what it means, I saw what the book had to offer and truly began to enjoy it.

But note, the book did not become a good book when I started to enjoy it. Classics don’t need my affirmation. Maybe that’s what it boils down to, then. Classics stand by themselves, it is our enjoyment of them that can change. So, to all the one-star Amazon reviewers, I’d like to request that next time you sit down to write a scathing review of a classic that contradicts the majority of thought on said subject, and provides fodder for posts like these, do one thing.

Take a step back. And give the book a chance.

A Guarantee Of Mystery

In the greatest fiction, the writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense, and I see no way for it to do this unless his moral judgment is part of the very act of seeing, and he is free to use it. I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe. It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery. –Flannery O’Connor

Here’s a Helpful InfoGraphic on the Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey can be confusing at first glance. I always appreciate resources that help to simplify it, often by bringing up examples. I saw this info graphic recently, and thought it was a quite helpful explanation of the various characters that appear in the Hero’s Journey. Hopefully you’ll find it to be the same.

Characters in the Hero's Journey

You Know, You Really Should Outsource Your Dark Lord Killing

I have a pet peeve when it comes to storytelling. Actually, I have several, but I’d like to talk about one in particular, and that’s the one I call the “Chosen One” motivation.

Now I should be entirely clear, because many stories use the “Chosen One” as a plot point; my problem is not with the plot point, but with the motivation. Just to explain, here’s a breakdown of what the Chosen One plot point is.

The Chosen One plot point boils down to simply this: a character, for some reason or another, is (as the name implies) the “Chosen One.” He is the only one who can or will defeat the Dark Lord/fulfill the prophecy/save the planet/lead the rebellion/[insert other heroic action here].

Usually this is accompanied by a prophecy of some kind that foretold his or her coming and ultimate triumph. Again, my problem is not with the plot point itself, per se. Many good stories use this to great effect. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are two that jump immediately to mind.

Outsource Your Dark Lord Killing

My pet peeve is what I call the “Chosen One” motivation. The Chosen One motivation is something entirely different. If you look at those last two examples I listed of stories that have “Chosen Ones” there’s at least one thing they have in common. In both Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter the Chosen Ones have exterior character motivations for taking on the Dark Lord. They don’t take on the Dark Lord because they’re the Chosen Ones, they take him or her on because there is something driving them to do it.

Maybe it’s because they chose to get involved themselves, out of a sense of responsibility. Maybe it’s because they have a personal vendetta against the Dark Lord, as in Harry Potter and Star Wars.

But none of these characters take on evil because they are the Chosen One.

This is where my pet peeve comes in. Many stories use the fact that their main characters are the Chosen Ones as motivation for them to take on the Dark Lord. The logic goes something like this: they are the Chosen Ones, so they are now taking on the Dark Lord.

Frankly, this to me seems plain lazy. Instead of ensuring that there’s a real reason the main character is doing what he’s doing, they simply use the fact that he is the main character as the motivation.

These situations lead me to ask this question of the main character: why not just outsource your Dark Lord killing? I mean, it’s going to cost you a lot to take him on yourself, so why not just hire someone else to do it? This motivation rips me out of the story, and my interest wanes quickly.

I find myself falling prey to this on occasion, and so this post is for my benefit as well. I need to ensure that I’m giving my characters real motivation, and that’s oftentimes incredibly difficult. At the end of the day, though, it’s worth it, because if I do it well, then the main characters can’t outsource their problems. And once there’s a problem they have to solve themselves–well, then, we have a story.