Fiction as Theology Part 2: Understanding Yourself

know-yourselfIt’s interesting how little we often understand about ourselves. Everyone believes that they know themselves, know what they believe, know what they feel, know what they need, etc. And yet, when we are put to the test, we often find ourselves incapable of putting our beliefs into words. I see this with students all the time. A student will state a firmly held belief, and I will respond with ‘What do you mean by X?’ The almost inevitable response is ‘Umm… I don’t know,’ or ‘I’ve never thought about that,’ or ‘Well, I think what I mean is…’ followed by an often convoluted and/or contradictory explanation, or perhaps the more defensive and hostile, ‘It’s obvious, any normal person could understand what I mean! Why can’t you? Are you some kind of idiot?’ I’ve heard all of these countless times in response to very simple questions such as ‘what do you mean by good?’ Or ‘what do you mean by duty?’ Or ‘what do you mean by faith?’ The truth is that all of us have significant blind-spots in which we fundamentally don’t understand ourselves. Generally speaking, the more confident we are that we know ourselves very well, the less we actually know of ourselves, and the more likely we are to lash out at anyone who risks exposing that fact.

This piece was done by BurenErdene. More of his work can be found here.
This piece was done by BurenErdene. More of his work can be found here.

As authors, we should avoid that risk. One of the purposes of writing (whether fiction or non-fiction) is to explore our own inner worlds, discover what is there, and determine to change the things that need to be changed. I can easily give you a very personal example. In my own novel, Rise of the Neshelim, one of the issues that I dealt with was the nature of a god. This began as a minor side-notion in the book, something that was meaningful to the main character, but as a matter of idle curiosity. However, in attempting to present his own answer to the question, I realized that I wasn’t actually sure myself. I could give my own specific conception of what I meant by The God, or the triune Christian God. I could explain, as well as possible, the nature of the trinity, the attributes of Yahweh, and the roles of each person of the trinity. However, the main character of the book wasn’t a Christian. In fact, Christians don’t exist as such in his world. Thus, what I meant when I spoke of The God couldn’t be the character’s answer to what a god was, and further, I didn’t actually know how to answer that question myself. I believed in powerful spiritual forces other than Yahweh, in fact scripture speaks of a number of such entities, but simply saying that a god was a powerful spiritual force seemed insufficient. Thus, this question captured my mind, and in capturing my mind it captured the main character’s mind as well, and together we worked our way to a solution. In so doing, this question became more central to the plot of the novel than I had originally intended, but it also enhanced the major aspects of the novel with a deeper degree of meaning and understanding. It also helped me to understand how to answer my own question: what is a god?

This aspect of fiction writing is, I suspect, more important than I am able to express here. In every novel, and especially in every early novel from any particular author, I believe that it is likely that we see them working out in many ways their own understanding of themselves and their beliefs. This is especially true of theological and spiritual beliefs in the writing of fantasy, as gods, magical forces, and spiritual powers are important aspects of any work of fantasy. This does not mean that everything we learn about ourselves should be published. This is what editing is for: if you self-edit you will need to have a keen eye for areas where you have learned about yourself that do or don’t enhance the main story of your work (I suspect that I may have been poor at this myself), and often it will be better to have many other sets of eyes on your work, willing to point out areas where you should excise things that are personally important, but are not important to the story that you are telling.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

Star-Wars-The-Force-Awakens-posterSo, Alayna and I went to see Star Wars this morning. She’s not really a fan of the franchise, but I’ve been giddy like a little kid waiting for the movie to come out, and she was kind enough to come see it with me. I think she actually wound up enjoying it, though I doubt it would make her top ten list. In honor of the new movie, I have a special philosophical challenge for you. I want you to consider the philosophy and psychology behind the Jedi/Sith division. The Jedi represent the ‘light side’ of the force and are known for their compassion, kindness, and focus on justice. The Sith represent the ‘dark side’ of the force and are known for their strength, passion, and desire for perfect order. However, in the movie Revenge of the Sith then Senator and future Emperor Palpatine brings up a good point: the Jedi seem to desire power as much as the Sith do. They have different means of attaining it, but the Jedi and the Sith seem to have the same goal: control over themselves and their environment. Given this, are they really all that different? Do the Jedi really represent everything that is good and just in the universe? Do the Sith really represent everything that is evil and depraved?

As always, write a story of 1000 words that presents and defends your answer to the question.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

107279-fullSo, last night Alayna and I watched the movie Inside Out, which is an excellent addition to the Pixar collection if you haven’t seen it. The movie had me thinking about emotions, and specifically the way the emotions impact our reasoning and moral outlook. One of the things that the movie showed well is that our emotions grow as we grow, and balancing them effectively can be very difficult. There have been various approaches to emotion ranging from some modern ethical outlooks that glorify emotion and set it over against reason, essentially arguing that man’s reason is cold, stilted, and draconian while his emotions bring light and life to an otherwise dark world. Contrast this with an Aristotelian outlook that essentially argues that the emotions are childish obstacles to achieving true fulfillment and satisfaction in life and you will have a fair sense of the range of views in modern moral thought. However, there have been several attempts in the history of moral thought to develop a more balanced understanding of the interplay between emotion and reason, and Thomism presents, in my opinion, one of the best of these. In the thought of Thomas Aquinas emotions are fundamental to life. They do form, in many ways, the core of who we are. The passions express our innate desires and aversions, likes and dislikes, fears, hopes, dreams, and ambitions. However, they are also generally wild, reckless, often at odds with one another, and always vying for control. On one reading Thomistic virtue ethics is simply a method for training the emotions to interact in a balanced and effective way: to get angry when one should and to the degree that one should, and the same with sorrow, desire, disgust, hope, etc. Aquinas pairs the emotions and show how they can stand at odds with one another, anger against fear, joy against sorrow, hope against despair, etc. Then he presents his virtues, each keyed to control one side of these paired emotions. For instance, Fortitude  is the virtue of the irascible part as it stands against depressive emotions, and thus Fortitude is rightly aligned to control fear, sorrow, despair, etc. On the other had, temperance is the virtue of that stands against the opposite side of these emotions with relation to our inner world, and thus keeps anger, hope, etc from overreaching their hand and leading the individual into destruction. Similarly, Justice balances the emotions in the social sphere, and Prudence is the virtue of knowing just how far is far enough in any given situation. So, here is your question for the day: what are the emotions and how do they interact with one another well and/or poorly? Pixar’s Inside Out is an example of one answer to this question that was turned into a two hour movie. So, give it some thought and share your answer with us.

Remember, you should answer this question in the form of a 1000 word story.

Everyone’s an Antihero

Most of us have heard that the hero of a story can reflect or embody the values of the author or the culture. But sometimes we don’t give antiheroes–those ambiguous, mysterious characters who blur the lines between good and evil–enough credit to do the same.

I touched on antiheroes somewhat in my last post, talking about how even “heroes” and “good guys” in fiction can become antiheroes or villains if the writer invents a story or motivation that will change them enough. Today I’d like to talk more about the trend of antiheroes in fiction, and about what it means for us as writers–and as humans. And, as before, I’ll draw largely from one area of pop culture that I know a lot about: comic book superheroes.

PunisherWarZone1It seems like the ’80s and the ’90s were the era of the gritty antihero, in comics as well as perhaps in film and other areas of culture. Gruff, grim, leather-wearin’, gun-totin’ characters like Deadpool, Cable, and Lobo began to emerge. But, more than that, other characters who were previously either heroes or villains began to cross the line. Characters like Catwoman and Venom, villains up to that point, got their own titles where they were ambiguous protagonists. Batman was temporarily replaced by a more savage version of himself, and even Superman grew his hair out and wore black for a while to make him seem more dark and edgy.

But, in some ways, it seems like this trend has never really stopped. Because what got me thinking about antiheroes so much was a recent Marvel Comics event called Axis. In this story, several heroes and villains teamed up to try to stop the Red Skull, Captain America‘s Nazi nemesis. But, because of a magic plot device–er, magic spell–everyone’s personality was (temporarily) inverted on its moral axis. Thus, the good guys present suddenly had the desire to be bad–and the bad guys actually wanted to be good.

14904391768_66a2aeb0f8My reaction to this event was also mixed. Part of me wanted to complain. “Really? More antiheroes?” Maybe I read too much into this, but to me, so much blurring of the lines between good and evil seems like it might perpetuate more moral ambiguity. Call me old-fashioned, but sometimes I miss the days when good guys were good, bad guys were bad, and both held uncompromisingly to their values. With the trend I’ve mentioned of making more and more characters antiheroic, sometimes it seems that those clear lines of good and evil are shifting and fading faster and faster.

My last post mentioned several Marvel heroes who have acted as antiheroes or villains in the recent past. Also, even before Axis, a number of Marvel’s major villains were being portrayed as less “evil” and more “misunderstood,” including Magneto, Doctor Doom, Apocalypse, and Loki. For various complicated plot reasons, the latter two had both been reborn into young, teenage versions of themselves (yeah, I know, comics are weird–just roll with it) who want to do good but who may or may not be destined to return to villainy once more. Then, in Axis, the change got even more extreme. Villains like Sabertooth and Carnage, who previously were violent killers for the fun of it, suddenly valued life and made it their quest to do right. On some level I found it a little hard to believe.

And yet, even when I get a little tired of the antihero craze, I have to admit a few things to myself. The first is that antiheroes show us our own values and that of our culture–just as much as heroes do, if not more so. Like, sure, you’ll root for Captain America for being all good and noble and patriotic. But will you also root for the Punisher for bringing violent vigilante vengeance to the scum of the streets? And, if you do, then what does that say about your  values? How far can a good guy go and still be considered a “good guy”? How bad does a bad guy have to be for us to think they’re truly irredeemable? Antiheroes ask us to think through questions like these.

One interesting thing to note in the Axis event is that the Red Skull (although briefly shown to be affected by the spell) was never really featured as a hero or as having heroic intentions, even temporarily. Personally, I think that also says a lot about our culture. We can believe that most villains, even a psychopath like Carnage, can turn over a new leaf. But not the Red Skull, a Nazi who embodies absolute hatred, racism, and intolerance. Even with a magic spell in place, we can never bring ourselves to root for him as a hero. What this says to me is that such hatred and bigotry are the worst of evils in the eyes of our culture, utterly irredeemable beyond even senseless murder for fun. The levels of moral ambiguity that we will–and won’t–tolerate say a lot about who we are and what we value.

The other thing I’ve had to admit to myself is this: antiheroes are realistic. Even if they sometimes seem overdone and contrived, they do make for much more complex characters, and often more interesting ones, which is how ordinary human beings really are. None of us is completely good and nice and noble all the time. And neither is any of us completely cruel, heartless, and evil. As Nathaniel Hawthorne strove to show us in stories like The Scarlet Letter and “Young Goodman Brown,” we are ambiguous, imperfect beings with a capacity to do either right or wrong. No matter how good we might think we are, we’re all antiheroes too in a very real sense, with conflicting desires, motives, and morals constantly shifting around within us. And maybe that’s why we can so often still relate to and root for those characters who seem to straddle the moral line.

As writers, I’d like to issue you a challenge. Take a hero or a villain you’ve previously written into a story. Now write a short scene, episode, alternate universe, or whatever in which this character’s morality has changed drastically. Your hero is now more villainous, and your villain must be more heroic. What cataclysmic circumstances could have motivated such a shift in behavior? How much influence does morality have on your character’s personality, and what will that personality be like when it’s divorced from the values it had previously held to? What will happen if your hero-turned-villain has a sudden confrontation with your villain-turned-hero?

Happy writing, my fellow antiheroes.

A Quick Guide to Monomania

You may have heard before someone describe the basic formula for writing fiction. It goes something like this: “desire plus obstacle equals conflict.” In other words, when you take a character, give them a motivation or goal to work toward, and then put challenges in their way, then you’ve got the makings of a story.

Of course there are many more elements that go into fiction, but this formula gets pretty close to the core essentials. Overall, plots are (or should be) driven by characters and their desires or goals. This is true in most stories, but it’s even truer whenever a character has monomania.

“Monomania” is a fancy literary term that refers to an extreme, overarching obsession that a character has. “Mono” means one and “mania” is a craze or obsession, meaning that any character with monomania is crazed or obsessed about just one thing, just one goal. These characters will go to extreme lengths and do whatever it takes to reach this goal–or die trying. While perceptions can differ from one author to another, monomania is often portrayed as a negative thing. The idea is that having such an all-consuming obsession is unhealthy and can lead to disastrous consequences for that character or others.

Moby-DickIn classic literature, the term is often used in reference to Herman Melville‘s Moby-Dick. In fact, the book’s narrator frequently and directly refers to Captain Ahab’s unrelenting pursuit of the whale as monomaniacal. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a contemporary of Melville’s, also uses monomania in several of his stories, from Hollingsworth’s well-intentioned but misguided plan for social reform in The Blithedale Romance, to several short stories (“The Birthmark,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and more) featuring obsessed scientists who place their mad experiments above even human life. One of the last papers I wrote in grad school argued that this same monomania also appeared in the lesser-known novel Wieland, where the main character’s twisted religious fervor leads him to commit horrendous acts. In hindsight, I might also be able to argue that one of my favorite novels, The Great Gatsby, reflects monomania in the protagonist’s quest for the woman he loves and perfect life he has always dreamed of (but I’d better not get started on Gatsby now or I could probably go on and on).

Walter WhiteThis theme of unhealthy, unrelenting obsession shows up in pop culture, too. Think of the recent television masterpiece Breaking Bad. Walt’s goal to provide financially for his family is initially a noble one, but over time his obsession and determination in his goal lead him to make a number of moral compromises and horrible choices that end disastrously for both him and the ones he loves.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of Marvel comics and superheroes, and I’ve even seen monomania show up in a number of different ways there. With the cyclical, ongoing nature of comics, writers have to shake things up once in a while to keep the characters interesting. Therefore, even among the main heroes or “good guys,” there have been several instances of a driven, obsessed hero taking a good goal too far and becoming (at least temporarily) a morally ambiguous antihero. For example:

  • Civil_War_7In the Civil War story arc (soon to be a major motion picture), Iron Man seeks peace and order through government registration of superhumans, but he has to turn on his allies and make hard decisions in order to carry out his goal.
  • Cyclops has long fought for equal rights for mutants, but in Avengers vs. X-Men and subsequent stories, he becomes an extremist for this goal, much like his former enemy Magneto.
  • In World War Hulk, the Hulk threatened the entire world in misguided revenge on allies who had exiled him into space.
  • Recently in New Avengers, Mr. Fantastic has been leading a covert team whose mission is to save the Earth–by destroying other alternate Earths that threaten our own existence.
  • Daredevil tried to protect his city with force by taking control of a clan of ninja assassins, but he reaped the consequences in the Shadowland story and crossed a line he never had before.
  • In Superior Spider-Man, Spider-Man‘s body was possessed by Doctor Octopus‘s brain (yeah, I know comics are weird. You just have to roll with it sometimes). The result was an ambiguous antihero who also tried to protect New York, but with extreme brutal force and by any means necessary.

Hopefully now you get the idea of monomania and obsession in fiction, the kind that makes ordinary characters into fascinating and compelling (if sometimes misguided and evil) ones who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.

But what does all this mean for us as writers?

It means that you now have an excellent formula for creating an intriguing story! Yes, it’s true that desire plus obstacle equals conflict. But what happens when you increase that desire a hundredfold to make it a driving, all-consuming obsession? You get a monomaniacal character who, despite any deep character flaws they may have, has an unbreakable will that can drive the story forward past any obstacles that you as the writer throw in their way.

So why don’t you try it out? Create a new character and give them a goal. Have them want nothing else in the world more badly than they want that one goal. Now write a story where things get in the way of that goal and see how your character deals with it. What will they do? How will things turn out? What kind of toll will it take on your character? What will be the cost of their obsessive actions? You may be surprised at the developments that come and at the epic conflicts that result.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

So, life can be hard sometimes. We go through things that we struggle to deal with, and obviously these are all huge… right? You know, terrorist attacks, murder plots, kidnapping, revenge killings… wait… you’ve never been through any of that? Yet you still struggle? You still deal with anxiety over what? Bills, job security, relationship problems, problems of not having a relationship, grades…? Welcome to the human race. I love movies, but in someways televised media has destroyed our sense of perspective. We have trouble understanding what we should need help with and what we shouldn’t; what we are responsible for and what we aren’t. Often we tend to take responsibility for those things that aren’t our responsibility at all (i.e. those things over which we have no control), and refuse to take responsibility for those things that absolutely are our responsibility (i.e. those things that are in our control). Similarly, we tend to think that we shouldn’t need help with those things that we do need help with (i.e. understanding concepts that we don’t yet understand, working through emotional struggles that we aren’t sure how to handle, learning skills that we haven’t fully developed), and yet demand help with those things that we really should be able to do ourselves (i.e. actually working to learn, dealing with our issues instead of denying them or running from them, practicing skills instead of getting others to do things for us).

About sixteen years ago I hit two pedestrians with a car. I think I’ve told this story before, so the short version is this: it was a no-fault accident. There was nothing that anyone realistically could have done to change the situation. Still, the accident left a young man with permanent brain damage. The accident led me to do a lot of thinking about the nature of fault and responsibility. Today I want to give you a question concerning these issues that I tend to think is fairly important: why do we let pride and sloth destroy us?

Let’s be honest: when I take responsibility for something that I can’t control, I’m expressing pride. I am claiming (at least internally) to be more important than I really am (or probably can possibly be). Similarly, when I refuse to seek the help I need, I am expressing pride. I don’t want to be seen as weak, irresponsible, unintelligent, foolish, etc. And I am willing to blame myself for things in which I cannot bear blame and I refuse to seek help that I actually need. Similarly, when I refuse to take responsibility for the things I can control, I am expressing sloth. I am seeking to escape the discomfort, hardship, and pain of actually doing what I need to do. So: why do we do this?

As always, write me a 1000 word story that presents and defends your answer to the question. Also, while I agree that ‘sin’ and ‘sin nature’ are correct answers to this question, I would like something a little more thorough in explanation and application.

WRITE!! Because it’s Good for You

Well, I’ve got a post due today, and honestly I have way too many things on my mind at the moment. I’m not an easy person to get along with sometimes… especially if I’m in charge. I tend to have a… …drill sergeant leadership model. Kind of – “Get down and give me twenty, ya damn maggot!… …Oh, is that too hard for you little miss prissy? Are you weak and tired already?… Then give me another thirty! And smile while you do!” You can ask my students about this. Honestly, even the students that love me and become my facebook friends usually have some story about when I made them cry. At the moment, you could ask my fiancee as well. She’s kind of an amazing person for putting up with me at times. I have the bad habit of setting a pace that I can keep (or even sometimes setting a pace that I can’t keep), and then just expecting everyone else to keep up… and while I can forgive pretty much anything, I don’t have much tolerance for excuses. You can ask the student I had who lost eight family members to various diseases and accidents over the course of an eight week long class… …although, that is an admittedly odd coincidence.

What does this have to do with writing? Everything, actually. You should set high goals for yourself! I will advise this more when it comes to quality than quantity, but even then you should set high goals. Don’t get me wrong, your goals should be ‘realistic.’ I’m not suggesting that you set the goal ‘I’m going to write ten thousand words a day that even Edgar Allan Poe can’t improve on!’ That’s… well, honestly for the vast majority of us that’s just an idiotic goal. However, something like ‘I’m going to write 500 decent words a day, even if I have to work, take care of kids, etc, etc, etc’ is realistic for the vast majority of us. If you’re feeling ambitious you might even set a goal of a thousand or two thousand words a day (this really depends on what kind of writer you are). However, take two lessons from my own mistakes (lessons that I am constantly trying to work on): 1) don’t expect everyone else to be the same. Yes, if you’re writing a novel with someone, then the two of you need to get on the same page. However, in general, encourage excellence, but also let people be people. 2) Let yourself fail. You’re going to fail. It’s just true, you will. I’m not suggesting that you make a habit of it. If you’re failing constantly then you probably either need to set a different goal or try harder. There will be times when both of these are true. However, sometimes you will fail. That’s just life. Be okay with that. I try to remind my students of this constantly. If you are actually doing your best (and the ‘actually’ is incredibly important here) then you should be proud.

If the best you’ve got in you is an F, then be proud of that F and switch careers. Don’t expect to be good at everything, but don’t make excuses for being terrible at something either. Always, ALWAYS! put forth the best effort that you’ve got in you (and remember that sometimes you’re best right now isn’t necessarily you’re best overall – I had a student once whose daughter actually was dying. My student refused to drop the class because, at the time, it was the only coping mechanism that he/she had to deal with his/her situation. However, needless to say, he/she was at best distracted throughout the class – this student’s best efforts during the tragedy of his/her daughter’s death did not reflect his/her best during normal circumstances). At the same time, when the best effort that you have puts forth squat, be willing to own that. Very few of us are good at everything, that doesn’t make the things we’re bad at any less worth doing. In fact, sometimes the things we’re bad at are very much worth doing even though we’re bad at them. However, it does mean that you don’t put forth your best effort, produce squat, and then call it gold because it was the best you could do.

All of this to say: write! Write the best that you can: good, bad, or just plain confusing! However, when you write, don’t expect everyone else to love you’re writing. I learned this lesson the hard way (mostly because I did expect everyone to love my writing, and a lot of people didn’t). Sometimes, you can get better (I certainly have). That’s part of why we’re here. However, sometimes you can’t, even when you try. That’s okay… there are lots of good writers out there who can’t make a living at it. Keep writing, don’t expect people to love what you write. Don’t expect people to want to read it. However, write it anyway – its worth doing. One of the primary benefits of writing is simply that it helps us process things. Putting your ideas down on paper, good or bad, forces you to think them through, at least more than you have already. That’s a good thing.

Sunday Picture Post

Well, I just finished Tim Keller’s Ministries of Mercy and I started Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics and a book of articles on the philosophy of Mecius that was edited by Philip J. Ivanhoe. Both of these books should be interesting, and Keller’s book was good. I’m also rereading (well… relistening to) The Strain in honor of the television show, and I’m planning on listening to The Fall and The Eternal Night as well. All in all, while my days are extremely full right now, they are going fairly well. So, in the midst of all this excitement, I found you all something fun to look at today!

Have you ever heard of a Zombie Walk? They certainly have. There are also some interesting psychology articles on the subject.
Have you ever heard of a Zombie Walk? They certainly have. There are also some interesting psychology articles on the subject.

A One Photo Tale

“A good short story is almost always about a moment of profound realisation. Or a hint of that.  A quiet bomb.”

Recently, I’ve been reading The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40.  About a couple months ago I realized I had a problem: I had a hard time sitting down and just reading a novel – any novel.  I tried classics, modern lit of all genres, YA, but nothing seemed to hold my attention.  Nothing captured me and drew me in to a world of gripping vitality.  Simply put, I couldn’t concentrate on anything long enough to get through more than ten-fifteen pages.  For me this is rare – and troubling.  I inhale books.  I read them in one sitting if I can, 300, 400 pages – no problem if I have a spare weekend.  But it wasn’t happening, and it made me feel disconnected.

Finally, I decided to change tactics.  I went to the short-story section of the local B&N and picked out a couple of options, one being The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40.  And, it worked.  Novels are complicated, drawn-out stories.  They can be intense at parts, drawn out at parts, morbid at parts, thrilling at parts, etc.  But they are created of PARTS.  And, while many of the parts may be wonderful and well-written and captivating, there are still several pieces that fit together, and you usually want or need to have all the pieces to truly grasp and end the novel.

Short stories aren’t quite like that.  I could sit down and read 150 pages of short stories because they came at me in short spurts of plots and emotions.  I didn’t have to hang on to and grasp an entire complicated plot and cast of characters.  Everything kept changing every 15-20 pages.  (Perfect for those with ADD, I might add.)  Still, I was experiencing different lives and places and thought processes.

“A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.” ―Lorrie Moore
“A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.” ―Lorrie Moore

Short stories usually fall into one of two categories, but with a common core.

1) A story that is one piece that could essentially fit into a larger story.  However, the tone and theme of its writing allows it to stand alone, and by standing alone, the story becomes more intense.  This story may not be neatly wrapped up at the end, having frayed edges that dangle here and there.  Questions are left unanswered, enhancing the tone and feelings of the story.  While there may be some closure, essentially the end is left open to different possibilities, as if awaiting a sequel that will never be written.  This type of short story can essentially be likened to a 1 season show or a season finale.   Who is left dead/married/drugged/moved?  But, while you want these answers, you don’t really need them.  The short story packed enough emotion and tension in it for a resolve, just not a concrete denouement.  This type usually focuses on building tension and emotion through specifically chosen language: repetition, intensely figurative and emotional language, often first person accounts with a dialogue tone that matches the characters frame-of-mind.  The story is gained through bits and pieces, but there is not necessarily a big BANG moment of action.  It is also highly psychological in nature, pulling and driving the story more from thought than intense action.  For an example, think “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

2) The second type is one that is more solidly a complete story.  You don’t question what happens next.  You have a complete ending (more or less).  These stories usually focus on the ending of something that can give you a conclusion (as in The Cask of Amontillado), or it can briefly give a full-length but less detailed tale (as in A Rose for Emily).  In the case of “The Cask…” the plot ends in a murder which the entire story had been building up to.  However, the reader was never fully informed of the reasons behind the murder, just that vengeance was required.  In “A Rose…” the reader is told briefly of the life span of Emily, from her father rearing her to her loneliness and her lovers.  However, at the end there is final “Aha” moment when the body of Emily and later Homer were discovered.  In these stories, while aspects of psychology are involved as they drive the action, the focus is on the action.  In these cases, the actions were murder.  I liken this type of short story to a complete series or a series finale.  There is a definite end.

This picture was found here.
This picture was found here.

However, what unites both of these types of short stories is their singular focus and tone.  In all three of the above examples, the tone remains fairly consistent (with a short bursts of intensity here and there to drive the focus) with a singular focus.  In both cases everything led to the end.  The authors basically started as they finished, bringing the story full round.  “A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.” ―Lorrie Moore

Now, compare it to a novel like Gone with the Wind or Jane Eyre.  These books possess many parts, each part carrying a different tone.  In Gone with the Wind, each part of her life (pre-marriage, marriage 1, marriage 2, marriage 3,etc ) carried a different focus and tone.  Even though she was always chasing Ashley, the tone wasn’t always jealousy or rage or ambition.  There were happy moments, scared moments, inspirational and educational moments.  The same can be said of Jane EyreLittle WomenAtlas Shrugged.*  Short stories can be complicated or simple in their themes and philosophies and psycholgies, but whether it is mind-driven or action-driven, there is a single “bomb” that makes the story.

Your quote to think about for next week is this: “For the source of the short story is usually lyrical. And all writers speak from, and speak to, emotions eternally the same in all of us: love, pity, terror do not show favorites or leave any of us out.” 
― Eudora Welty

*Essentially, the closest novels to short stories that I have come across are all written by Dostoevsky, but even most of them are filled with “parts.”

The Pity of Emily Grierson

Last week, I introduced my series on short stories and psychology in writing.  I ended by leaving a link to Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”  Here is a summary mixed with a brief character analysis of Emily Grierson from Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”  While I will admit to not being a big Faulkner fan, I do love this particular story.  Although the analysis is diluted to fit time and length constraints, it does hit on the basics of motive: Why does Emily kill the person she actually loves?  Why does she sleep near rotting remains?  Is she really crazy?

As you read the story and the analysis think of your own characters.  What drives them?  How does the audience know what provokes them to action or passivity?  Are their motives subtle or obvious?

The Pity of Emily Grierson

            As characterized by Faulkner, Emily Grierson alternately evoked pity and annoyance from her contemporaries, for just as Emily’s circumstances changed, so did society’s opinion of her.

Emily Grierson from "A Rose for Emily"
Emily Grierson from “A Rose for Emily”

Born into superior circumstances, Emily was reared on noblesse oblige in an upper-class household.  Conducting herself accordingly, she had the tendency to sit atop a pedestal and hide her personality, her mistakes, and her enduring attributes; as such, many of her peers considered her almost inhuman.  Perhaps she was shy, or perhaps it was the paternal influence dictating her life; despite the origin, people saw her more as competition, as something to strive to best.  Yet she did not help the position, never volunteering to come down off the pedestal which would have drawn people to her; instead she held them back.  They were jealous; they were annoyed; they were curious about this high and mighty enigma, Emily, but not enough to really know her.

Yet there were two people who never held back.  Emily’s father was an old-fashioned gentleman.  When Mr. and Miss Grierson were together (which was almost always), the townspeople believed they resembled a “tableau”.  With Emily, adorned in white in the background, and Mr. Grierson, clothed in black in the foreground, their class in society was unmistakable.  Unfortunately, in Mr. Grierson’s eyes, they were the only worthy two in the town.  No man was good enough for his daughter, and so Emily, abandoned by the town’s men, kept watch and companionship with her father, staying with him till the end.

It is regrettable that only the death of Emily’s father could cause others to see her in a new light.  Pity emerged as the women watched her break:  from denial to hysterics, they observed her clinging to a dead body; the only person with whom she had a connection had left her alone and penniless.  That was when she began to go crazy; that is when people finally felt she was human.

Sick, Emily hid herself from the world and from life.  Containing herself in her house, she left the entire maintenance in the hands of one mute Negro.  The appearance and smell of the house meant nothing to her.  She accomplished the necessary tasks in order to survive, but she never lived.  Yet that did not stop Emily from clinging to her past:  once reared superior, always superior, and that is how she acted.  Whether it was arsenic or taxes, she was Emily Grierson, and she always got her way.  Her attitude was the only thing she had left to connect her to the past, to her father.  She needed her place atop her pedestal because that was the only object in her life bolted to the ground.  Everything else could and would change, but not that altar.

Then one day Homer Barron rode into town.  Full of laughs and curses, he brought life back to Emily.  Seen riding together about town, the townspeople were overjoyed to see that Emily had entered the land of the living again.  Happy and boisterous, the two were always together, just like she used to be with her father.  Emily once again had a person in her life, and for the first time, it was a man her age that she could love and with whom she could grow old, but as circumstances progressed, others became more and more anxious.

Faulkner, in all his artistic glory.  The brain behind Emily's crazy.  I wonder what that says about him.... I guess we will see in a future post. :)
Faulkner, in all his artistic glory. The brain behind Emily’s crazy. I wonder what that says about him…. I guess we will see in a future post. 🙂

Whispering gossip abounded.  Considering her a fallen lady, the townspeople sent for her distant cousins to help her, rather than investing their own reputations.  She was no longer alone, so she no longer needed condolences.  She was a scarlet woman who would live with her own choices.  Labeled “poor Emily” about town, they no longer thought of her as unfortunate, because even when everyone thought she would kill herself, no one offered to stop her; rather they thought she would be better off dead than alive.

Everyone thought she would eventually marry Homer – until he disappeared.  Then once again she was eligible for pity.  She had sunk below their level and was once again left alone.  Now it was safe to be kind, to offer help, to ease their curious minds about the whole affair.  But they did not obtain much information, for once again Emily locked herself in her house.  Alone with the precious memories to which she so desperately clung, Emily blocked all else out of her mind.  No one else mattered except her father and Homer.

Clinging was a major aspect of Emily’s life.  Personally she had so little.  The house and money belonged to her father.  Women avoided her as much as she avoided them.  Her father kept her isolated from all possible suitors, robbing her of the option of marriage and family, so she clung to the only things that were left her.  Whether it was a dead body, distant memories, her upbringing, or engraved, silver mirrors, she hung on with all her might because these were the only things that separated her from the reality that she was a poor, desperate, fallen woman with no hope in life.

It was amazing how this fragile lady could outlast generations.  How she continued to survive without the light of the sun, but she made it.  A few remembered Miss Emily was still alive and occasionally tried to help; others simply forgot her, while to still others, she was just a fleeting thought, a person to be ignored.

If anyone had really know Emily Grierson, it would not have shocked them to find the decayed skeleton of Homer Barron in her bed, to see how she had made a museum of his last night on earth.  It would not have surprised them to see that his last gesture was an embrace or to find a long strand of silver-gray hair (hair that perfectly matched Miss Emily’s) on the pillow beside him.  Unfortunately, no one knew Miss Emily.  They knew the gossip, and a bare minimum of facts, but no one knew who she was inside, and that is the only true fact deserving pity in her whole life.