Evil versus Not-Evil

A couple of years ago, for Mythcon, I wrote a paper that discussed tendencies in apocalyptic fantasy fiction (that is, fantasies that deal with ultimate conflicts of cosmic powers). The theme of the conference was “War in Heaven.” In the paper, I looked at the dichotomies that appear in Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga, in Roger Zelazny’s Amber books, and in J. Michael Straczynski’s television series Babylon 5. The point in the paper was the trend to find a pair of opposing forces that could be called something other than “good versus evil” and that seem to have equal power. For some reason “good” leads to too many religious implications that many want to avoid.

For the fall 2013 television season, a new series was launched called Sleepy Hollow. The premise was Icabod Crane, a former British soldier during the Revolutionary War awakens from a magical sleep in our modern world. He had switched sides to fight with the colonials, and had just beheaded a bizarre, seemingly impossible warrior before being cast into the sleep.

head-loss

In the modern era, Crane learns that he is the destined warrior who must prevent the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from gaining power and destroying life as we know it. The Headless Horseman, the supernatural warrior Crane beheaded, is apparently the Figure of Death from the Book of Revelation. Crane learns that in Sleepy Hollow there were (and apparently still are) two covens: an evil one aiding the Four Horsemen and one that opposes the evil circle, trying to preserve the world.

In spite of the fact that the show has built its premise on the Book of Revelation, it otherwise avoids most direct references to Christianity. In one episode, a certain magical sequence takes place in an abandoned (protestant, apparently) church using a huge stone baptistery. Although such properties are usually sold off (hey, it’s real estate!), the story makes the implication that there are no longer believers to sustain the church.

It strikes me as bizarre to build a story premise that relies on a Scriptural mythology but avoids the very heart of that mythology. Surely the conflict of good versus evil is the most dramatic one known to the human race.

Do these storytellers avoid the explicit naming of “Good” in order not to offend believers of various faiths? They might say so, but they have already degraded the effectiveness of Christianity as a combatant in the conflict of the series. In the pilot, we saw a priest (apparently garbed in a formal Roman Catholic cassock) who is, by implication, a member of the local “not evil” coven. A minister practicing magic? Why?

chapel-banner-3

There is a definite choice to avoid explicit Christianity. In one scene in the episode “John Doe,” Abbie goes to a hospital chapel. At the front of the chapel is a banner of religious symbols, but the normal Christian cross is hidden in shadow at the top of the banner.

The show focuses on the horrific nature of the “bad guy” — heads cut off, torturous treatment of living bodies, people following the hostile spirits for unspecified reasons. The supposition apparently is that people choose the “evil” side, that of the destructive Horsemen, in order to have power in whatever new world will follow the destruction of this one in the Apocalypse. It’s all surprisingly vague.

The result is that Sleepy Hollow has an undefined aspect to its central conflict. Crane has to stop the Four Horsemen from gathering their bits and pieces and getting all their power together in order to destroy the world as we know it. Crane and Lt. Abbie Mills are simply declared to be the Two Chosen Witnesses who are charged with preventing the Horsemen in reaching their goal.

Crane-Abby

Are they actually up to this job? What are their qualifications? Crane appears to be a moral and ethical man. The Lieutenant has a more ambiguous past. As a law enforcement officer, we are inclined to define her as “good.” But in the past, she has lied about things she has seen and experienced: her qualifications for this conflict are a bit more dubious.

the-sisters

In particular, Abbie lied about an early experience which resulted in her sister being confined in a mental institution.

How is the audience supposed to invest emotionally in this series? Supposedly, none of us are interested in seeing the world as we know it come to an end, so we would be inclined to root for Crane and his compatriots. But what then is the attraction of the opposing side? Why are the “bad guys” drawn to this power? Without having a stronger emotional hook, the episodic clashes take on more of a horror-of-the-week aspect. Our heroes have no positive goal to work toward, rather only a reactive, preventative one.

Fighting to preserve this world presumes that this one is the best possible option. But that still does not give “our heroes” a truly positive goal to fight toward. They can celebrate that they have defeated this week’s bad guy, but their only goals are preventative. They have been given no key toward a goal that would insure full out victory for them, something other than eliminating the Four Horsemen. They know (now, eight episodes in) that a demon named Moloch is the force driving the Horsemen and the “bad” coven.

SH-Moloch

But they are given no indication that there are equivalent supernatural entities supporting their side that they can access. Apparently, the supernatural realm is almost entirely ruled by evil.

This goes back to the theme of that Mythcon paper I had written. Apocalyptic fantasy usually embodies supernatural forces that are split into two equal sides. The usual non-“religious” choice is to designate the forces as Order versus Chaos, with Order being the preferred (ie, “good”) side. But if the forces are equal, then why is one preferred over the other? Why choose one side like Order over the other? The problem for our human nature is that we do not actually believe that “good” and “evil” are equal.

We do believe in an absolute Good, no matter how it is defined, and thus that things like flat-out murder are wrong. We do choose sides and believe that Evil, although powerful, is not in the final end, greater than Good.

Where that leaves the series, I’m not sure. From a strictly psychological standpoint, our main characters will quickly fall into battle fatigue, because there is apparently no relief available to them. Their resources are inadequate. The show is fortunate in having a very appealing cast to carry this awkwardly designed conflict.

SH-ad-net-spread

They have been renewed for a second season. But the storytellers will need to start deciding what “the end of the world as we know it” will look like, because that is a very vague emotional stake. What it would mean to the individual, other than death (which though not desirable might be an escape from the conflict), is not clear and it needs to be.

But… the show does give us a nicely produced story and the characters satisfy.

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To Be or Not To Be

One of the most over-worked verbs in the English language is … well, “is.” The “to be” forms show up all over the place. We think in terms of present existence.

The problem with this simple, much used verb is that when it gets used in narrative pieces, it tosses the prose into a more passive voice. When we say “X is Y,” it captures a static moment, not one in motion or reeking with passion.

In non-fiction prose, “is” runs rampant. In narrative fiction, the narrative post tense, “was,” sweeps its way into every corner.

Why do writers so easily fall into the use of the “to be” forms?

To be or to bee?

To Be or To Bee?

Part of it comes from the way we think when we want to explain things. To do that we have to hold things in a static state. And that tends to show up in our word selection as we describe things. It is so easy to say “Things are so,” or “It was thus.”

Writers need to be aware that this happens, and accept that it comes naturally to us. The thing we writers should keep in mind is that once we have the first draft down, we can freshen up the words to make them more active.

If we are to make the most of the “to be” verbs, we need to treat them as very valuable, instead of being as common as dirt. We should work to keep the “to be” verbs focused on descriptions of actual identity instead of just “states of being.” By that, I mean the difference between saying “the sun is rising” and “the sun rises” should be something of which we are always aware.

By statements of identity, I mean where you want to declare that one thing really does equal another. There are occasions when such statements are very important, either in a non-fiction piece or a fictive one. But if we have been using “to be” verbs all over the place, who will notice the important occasion?

Mind you, because we do use the “to be” forms naturally, I don’t think any writer should be concerned if they find it scattered throughout the first draft of the work.  But I do feel that after that point, once the time for review and revision arrives, the object should be to remove as many of the unnecessary “to be” uses.

Of course, I could go back through this post itself to take out the unnecessary “to be” uses. But I won’t, because I want to show how easy it is to fall into using them. But in general, take out the static, frozen uses and select more active verbs.

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Evergreen Writing

I went to see Joss Whedon’s film version of Much Ado About Nothing, and enjoyed it a lot. It’s worth seeing, even if you think you would not be into Shakespeare. But I’m not writing this as a review of the movie. Instead, I want to pursue a lone of thought the film inspired.

Even though the play is about five hundred years old, there is something timeless about the story it tells. Love, misunderstandings, fidelity, these matters persist as part of human nature. Whedon set his production of Shakespeare’s play in modern times, and it works. Human nature does not change so much that a transplantation of setting wounds the emotional impact of the story.

The secret to this durability, of course, is that Shakespeare wrote about what is primal to human nature — our relationships.

Setting in time and space may affect our initial perception of a tale. Whedon’s version is set in a modern, urban landscape of wealth and power.

Whedon-Ado-2

Branaugh’s is set in a pseudo-early 1800s, apparently.

Branagh Ado 2

The Joseph Papp stage production in the early 1970s looks Victorian.

Papp Much Ado

And yet the story continues to have a similar impact on the audience.

So, how do writers achieve that sort of effect?

Blake Snyder used to urge writers to keep their stories “primal.” By that he meant that stories should be driven by basic human emotions first and foremost. Emotions are the first thing we bring into a story.

You may have a cool idea for a science fiction story set in some fantastical future. But if the story does not touch out basic emotional responses, the story will be an emotionally cool (as in “chilled”) one.

It is possible to combine “idea” driven stories, filled with intellectual concepts and yet be filled with emotional drives.

gattaca 2

In Gattaca, we get a very “idea” story: a future world structured around manipulation of human genetics. It is so structured thusly that society has become divided between the “designed” upperclass and a disregarded, inferior “naturally conceived” underclass. this story could be cold and remote (it’s very style certainly seems so), but it is in fact driven by human passion. The main character, a product of a natural conception, wants to go into space, which happens to be a profession limited exclusively to the genetically designed. But going into space is something Our Hero wants to do more than anything. So he pushes himself, drives himself, far beyond the limits of what he is “supposed” to be capable of. By contrast the genetically designed characters turn out to be far too accepting of their designed boundaries. As humans, we respond to the drive to reach beyond limits. for generations, we have responded to strivers and dreamers and the call to be “something more.”

Human nature. Basic emotions. Being primal.

As storytellers, if we want our tales to have that durability, that evergreen quality, we need to be sure that the emotions of our stories hit those marks.

Write from your own passions. You are sure to share those passions with others. Ring the bell deeply, ring it true to your own emotions and it will likely hit the same strong, sure note with others, both now and in the future.

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Be a New Element

Ray Bradbury’s insights on being a writer —

Bradbury-spectrum

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Acknowledging Influences

Lately, I’ve been making a leisurely read of Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. In it, he mentions many of the things that influenced him, that fed his imagination. It made me think of how many writers shy away from acknowledging all their influences. Perhaps it springs from a desire to avoid having their critics claiming they are compying the Influencer. Perhaps it is a fear of being unworthy or of having fallen into copying the earlier writer. Such concerns usually come from being insecure about one’s own voice as a writer.

Shakespeare

Shakespeare

I have had no problem acknowledging two major influences on myself: Shakespeare and Tolkien. When I was a child, I had an illustrated storybook of stories from Shakespeare and the stories captured my attention. Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It. The storybook led me to an interest in the plays themselves. Hamlet came to take the top of the list of favorite plays.

The effect of Shakespeare on me lay in the Bard’s ability to make poetry conversational. By the time I was in college, I had come to admire the flow of his wording and his coining of word usage. In ninth grade, I encountered the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and fell under the enchantment of both his storytelling and his command of language. His prose seemed deceptively simple and plain, and yet he managed to conjure very vivid characters and settings.

J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien

These two writers became the models I wanted to emulate. I wanted my own work to strive for that quality. Whether or not it achieves that stature, I probably will not know. But it’s more important to have that desire.

Occasionally, I also mention the poet Keats as an influence on myself. And certainly other writers have contributed to shaping me as a writer — Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance. After my first encounter with his Sherlock Holmes, I was moved to write my first story. The motion and adventure in the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs also fed my imagination.

But in reading Bradbury’s book of essays on writing, I’ve been reminded of something else.

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury

In junior high school, before I read Tolkien, I had a profound encounter with the work of Ray Bradbury. I read his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. I suspect I had read others of his works before that point, but not enough to resonate deeply. But the day I saw the title on the library shelf it spoke to me. Firstly, there was the title, pulled from the lines of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I took it off the shelf.

Inside the covers, an eerie story unfolded in the most lyrical language. It sang to me songs of crisp October nights, filled with flying, crunchy dead leaves and silver moonlight shining on midnight shapes.

I had fallen into Bradbury magic.

And it stayed with me.

However, oddly enough, I did not go out and ravenously consume everything Bradbury. Instead I moved on with my reading, absorbing other writers.

But lately, in considering my own writing, I’ve come to realize the profound effect Bradbury has had on my style. For I too like to wax poetical at times, and it is not just because of Shakespeare and Keats.

One of the things Bradbury talks about in Zen in the Art of Writing is realizing the power of our influences. Just because they exist, that does not mean we are copying them. For we absorb these things into our hearts and souls, and when we breathe them out again, they are transformed by our own experiences and additional influences.

Acknowledging the things that influence us is not about making an evaluation of their objective quality as art. It is simply acknowledging that this thing resonated true and clear to yourself at a key time in the development of the artist or writer that you are becoming. Celebrate those things, no matter how silly or unlikely they may seem to others. It’s not about them: it’s about you and what inspired you.

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