The Epistolary Character

There is something curious about the art of letter writing. A letter is not quite a tall tale, as its contents are as real as ink can ever get, yet neither is it an essay, for it tells its own sort of story, and not merely another’s. A letter is neither a missive though one might take it for that by the definition in the thesaurus. A missive seeks only to relay a message, which, though a letter does as well, it does so incidental to its prime purpose (or as I see it – feel free to disagree, and I’ll put on my best hat and tie to answer the argument.)

A letter is an accidental autobiography. It is not quite a testimony as one might give in court, and it certainly isn’t a memoir (I’ve long thought that word rank with self-absorption), yet the story is very much your own – but also someone else’s. In the case of the now ubiquitous and somewhat oxymoronic ‘open-letter’ that can be the story of a great many individuals. I stretch my definition here, as I have always believed a letter in its truest nature is always a private affair, meaningful only to those whom it concerns.

A letter is the story not only of its author, but also of its recipient. In how someone conducts themselves in a letter, you see not only the paths of their logic and feelings, but also of their perceptions of their partner. In the lines of a letter you can see a cerebral and calculating mind at once madly in love with the subject of his affections, or a passionate spirit cooled by heartbreak and loneliness, or the supreme disconnection of one so consumed with the craft of his message that he has left out its heart, and quite accidentally put something else in its place.

The heart of a letter is a hard thing to nail down, much like a certain physicist’s cat – yet when it is found, the soul of a thoughtfully written letter is so much more evocative and descriptive of a relationship than any number of adjectives and prose. And while you might put this to use in your own letters (though in this digital age we are rarely given to such extravagances as personalized, emotive communication), my concern with this subject is in fiction.

You have your brilliant band of misfits for your novel, whether it be an adventure through the forests of Moravia or a harrowing journey to the farthest reaches of the galaxy, or just an exceptionally interesting walk to the Circle-K (though this article is written with the longer form and epic scale in mind, you may have opportunity to apply it to the short and mundane as well). You have written out their relationships, you know how the little rascals should behave towards one another, think of one another, treat one another – and yet something doesn’t click. You struggle, as I have, to make the changes in their relationship seem realistic. You find it difficult to engineer the situations which lead to them demonstrating their feelings so that you don’t have to narrate them.

Write a letter between them. Take on the eyes and pen of one of your characters, and compose their thoughts to the other. There are few means more intimate of seeing your story’s world through your character’s eyes – and seeing your other characters. It is as close one can step into a relationship without being in one (or stalking them in the night, which I do not advise.) Even without integrating it into your finished work, this is a useful exercise for character development, particularly when it would seem odd to conduct an interview – while it may be quite easy to interview your average young hero or heroine, brimming with optimism and good-will, it’s quite the challenge to interview a power-hungry, kinslaying baroness without seeing her personality entirely out of its natural environment.

The mechanism of the letter, delivered and undelivered, can be a powerful way to speak your character’s thoughts aloud – but itself can be taken for just another form of thought-narration, if presented merely as the character is writing them. Recall that letters are not the story of the individual alone, but of the relationship between individuals. If you intend to use the epistle within your story, it must be presented through the eyes of its recipient (intended or not! A third party reading a letter meant for another is an ancient plot device as old as intrigue.) If you present a letter as seen by its writer, it is no different than a diary entry – which can be precisely what you intend. Diaries, although not covered here, can fill a similar function when presented as read by another character in the story – advancing and changing a relationship through the revelation of intimate secrets. Interviews can again do the same, though the value there is less in what is said and more in what is not said. Both worthy subjects for a further treatise.

To summarize, the letter is an ancient form, and not merely one reserved for the practical conveyance of information. The Apostles great letters contain not only the explicit wisdom of the Holy Spirit speaking through them, nor merely a historical record of the churches then, but a priceless look at how the leaders of the early church felt towards and cared for the congregations under their care, and how those congregations responded. The letters of leaders both great and terrible speak volumes to their official and their personal relations – Hitler the Fuhrer is very different from Hitler the Starving Artist. In just the same way, your characters will conduct themselves very differently in public and in private, in the spoken word and in the written word, and in that difference you can capture the essence of how that individual views himself and everyone else.

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Why is it that Naps Never Work?

I dunno, I’m not a neurologist. 😐

But I do know that if you lay down for a thirty minute nap, you will always wake up feeling totally unsatisfied and regretful of all your time spent lying face down half-naked with your butt in the air, dreaming of bold and cheesy Dorito warriors doing battle with soulless original flavor Lays chips in an eternal war of salty doom, ending only in obesity and heart failure for all third parties caught in the middle.

Perhaps Colonel Frito and the Rufflenecks will come crashing in on their flaming drop-bags to save the day.

Or we’ll all be eaten alive by Bugs.

D&D: Le Tome of Bread

So, the post previous to this one was quite strange, out of the blue, and possibly surreal (your mileage may vary.) Regardless, I felt that providing context would be at the very least amusing, until such a time as God strikes me again with great spiritual motion to write something else significant.

So, Pierre is an NPC from my most recent Dungeons and Dragons campaign, hosted with a group of new friends from my also new church here in Tampa. They were all new to the game, while I have several years of experience in writing and designing not only my own campaigns, but my own balanced rule-sets to incorporate mechanics I could not find in any amount of rule supplements (nor did I have the inclination to spend money on them). They needed a Dungeon Master, and I thought it would be a fun way to spend a weekend (not knowing I would also get dinner and enough Dr. Pepper to drown in).

So, there they were on a halfling caravan, adventurers from far-off lands various: Erik Withakay, an alcoholic palace guard from the mountain kingdoms of Nowhertall, who put in a two week notice and left to see the plains below the mountain peaks; Elle Many-Daggers, the gnome grad student turned chipper, socially-awkward thief; and Volos, the unwanted scion of King Haddock of the Tritons, on a journey to find meaning in life, and acridly criticize everything along the way. Arriving in the little village of Lapplaken, which was the only habitation across the wide Lapplake swamp, they quickly discovered that this pit-stop was not only going to be extended by the oncoming flood rains making land-bound traveling an impossibility, but this pit-stop was to be in the hodunkest of hodunk towns. The nominally elven sheriff and his deputies probably had a combined alphabet of maybe three vowels and six consonants, and the intellectual level of the majority of the town’s public figures was comparable to a concussed sea slug. Depressed by their rude surroundings, Withakay quickly fell prey to mushroom rum, began quoting some unknown troubadour group called Verdant Day, and passed out over the bar. Elle was able to hold her liquor well enough to be mentally present for a harried young woman looking for the help of altruistic adventurers, and Volos was able to restrain his inner critic long enough to agree to help the single mother find her lost son without laying into her on her poor parenting skills.

Now a lot happened in between; they grilled the Three Bobs for information, and deduced that Short Bob was an idiot, Tall Bob was even more so, and Weird Bob was either the only smart man in the entire village, so stupid he was approaching intelligence from the other side, or just an imbecilic vampire.

There was a gnome archaeologist named Avelldon who was related to their quest, to find a missing boy who was lost in the swamps (which were also filled with ancient and mysterious ruins, because the people of Lapplaken were just full of great ideas when they settled their little village on top of the drowned ruins of an eons old undersea city of the dormant empire of dimension-swimming snake people. Good call Sheriff Rourke).

Avelldon was to be a collector of magical knickknacks and this-or-that’s, who could be pressured or persuaded to help the party by giving them enchanted gear and spell scrolls to help even the odds against their vastly more numerous and more powerful enemies (since they only had level 1 gear and were up against CR 8 monsters). One of these items was a magical talking book who could conjure bread at will, named The Tome of Bread. I thought this would be an amusing way to help the party not worry about the logistics of feeding themselves while still instilling in them the importance of packing sufficient rations for when they graduated to a more hardcore adventure.

So their first meeting with the Tome of Bread was on the trek to Avelldon’s house, after being subtly prompted by the frankly abysmal intellect of the average Lapplaken villager that he was probably their best bet to get any remotely useful intelligence. Upon walking up to the house, they were greeted by what sounded like a boisterous Frenchman shouting, “LE BAGUETTE!” repeatedly.

Moments later, a leather bound book appeared in the window, opened its pages, and with a LE BAGUETTE to ring down the ages, bombarded them with a hail of fresh baked baguettes.

To be continued in Part 2…

 

Strong Characters Aren’t Always Strong

I hear a lot of talk in writers’ circles about ‘showing and not telling’, ‘finding your voice,’ and ‘strong characters.’ While all of these are worthy topics – and really, there’s many more subjects under the writing craft that has devolved into similar platitudes which have need of a concise but clear and tutelary exposition. But here, today, I’m going to write about ‘strong characters’, and the common misunderstandings of that phrase’s meaning.

In my own writing, I’ve received my fair share of compliments and criticisms. Sometimes my ornate, antiquated style is met with praise, and occasionally with exasperation at its turbidity. It has its flaws and its merits. Another, more relevant note I see often is on my ‘strong female character(s),’ or their ‘dark vitality.’

And I have to wonder whether these commentators (who are overwhelmingly female) are complimenting me on presenting a realistic, personable human individual, or because I made a woman character who doesn’t really act much like a woman.

The character in question is Countess Kyreleis von Gottschalk, a wicked, ruthless border lord; among her aliases are the Lady of Snakes, Maiden Tyrant, and Dragon of the North. She is a formidable military mind, a skilled rhetorician, and at heart, a deeply troubled soul. For all of her cynicism and her well-worded wisdom, she is painfully aware of her wickedness, and her spiritual struggle between her inner yearning for righteousness and her natural tendency towards villainy is the focus of my novel, Rest for the Wicked.

Now, why is she strong? Is she strong because she doesn’t take any lip from anyone? Is she strong because she’s proud to the point of sin, and relentless in pursuit of her goals? Is she seen as a strong woman because, at least in the works so far, I have not presented her as thinking about men and relationships?

In short, is she seen as strong because she is heavily masculinized? (which indeed she is) If so, these well-meaning compliments sadden me (though only mildly – great sadness must be reserved for great sorrows). When did aggression, authority and greed become equated with a strong character (literarily speaking)?

Perhaps they consider her strong because she possesses many traits of the archetypical ‘Big Bad Evil Guy’ whose persona dominates modern fantasy and science-fiction. She is charismatic, born into power but clearly proactive in expanding that power. She is irreverent (on the face at least) of divine authority, above common morality, and thoughtful enough to need to justify her depraved actions to herself.

I count myself fortunate to have never known a woman like Kyreleis. The lady in my life is kind, and gentle, funny, God-loving, servant-like, and self-sacrificing. She is humble, honest with herself and with others, calling me out of my sin as I call her out of hers. She is devoted and loyal – not to power, but to the God who saved us both. She has an inner strength far greater than Kyreleis’, who though she commands legions of men and lays waste to swathes of countryside, is wracked by weakness, guilt, an inner-emptiness that cannot be filled by any amount of pleasure, or glory, or intellectual ponderance.

A strong character can be many things, depending on the context – being in flesh, or in ink. Ultimately, in the realm of ink, a strong character is one who is as compelling in her weaknesses as inspiring in her strengths.

Keramidian

A land without rain, a kingdom built where the sea drained away, its capitol sitting upon the docks of a bone-dry port, a palace built from a warehouse of the giants who were struck from the Earth by the might of the Destroyer.

Its farms grow green-gray, basted by glassy dust and watered with the condensate of the Fissures – moisture traps which capture the steam rising from the underground aquifers underneath the Keramidian, boiled by the interminable sun which is interrupted only by the Storm Plagues.

Coming from the east, from deep within the Glasslands, the rainless clouds bring hails of blade-sand and lightning, burning away the brittle land into glass, foot by foot, and mile by mile.

A kingdom which once covered a thousand miles from the Salt Barrens to the Whistling Wall of the Eastern Keramidian has now shriveled to three hundred miles, its borders marked by the Stelae, the copper lightning rods which hold back the Plague of Storms. Yet in spite of the gold and men thrown at these fragile devices of sorcery and science, the Glasslands grow ever wider, and more crops fail every year as the sun strips the life from the waterless soil. In these bleak times of sun, sorrow, and shadow, who shall deliver Keramidia?

Who shall deliver us?

Letter to My Son: Letter II

Dear Beloved Son,

Father’s Day was yesterday, and quite by accident, I happened to write a letter to you on that day. The coincidence amused me as I went to bed a few hours ago, and now I’m awake again, and I have another letter to write to you.

I thought I’d remind you that I love you. I want to admonish you to remember that, even when it seems to you like I don’t. I want to tell you that when you are thinking this, tell me. The case should never be that I don’t love you – I don’t know how it can ever be true. I love you, even now, when I have not yet beheld your face, nor even placed the ring on the finger of your mother.

When it seems as if my face is turned away from you, it is not because my love has dried up. It is because I am an imperfect father, and like my father before me, I’m not always good at showing my love. I know this will be the case even if I do become worthy of being called your father and your mother’s husband.

I want to warn you son, that we all go through rough times. Even now, the woman whom I think will be your mother is in Japan, having just survived an earthquake, with an even worse one waiting to happen. She is now asleep, trusting in the Lord to keep her safe – and her worry is not for her safety, but for social isolation from her missionary team.

Loneliness can kill you son. Even if you’re like me, and you shun human company, preferring to immerse yourself in your own thoughts and musings, the loneliness will gnaw away at the fabric of your being until there’s nothing left but bone. Irregardless of our inclinations, God did not make us to be alone. He made us to have a partner, He made us to assemble before Him, and He made us to be with Him in the garden, until we turned our faces away from Him who loved us.

You will meet people you don’t like. You may end up like me and mostly meet people that, though probably nice as can be, you don’t want to give the time of day to spend with. The thing to remember is not your standards, what you want, your desires, what you need, but what they need. It is those who seem to have it the most together who are often dying on the inside, stricken by loneliness, besieged by sin, suffering under spiritual assault, or languishing in the thirst of their soul in a barren world.

The secret to being content in your friends is not necessarily to find the ones whose interests and hobbies you share, for while those friends may be amusing to distract yourself with, if you have nothing deeper in common you will be ever thirsty for something that you can’t name.

The secret to friendship is to love your friend more than yourself. To give up your time and your affections for another person without demanding likewise in return is to imitate Christ, the Christ to whom I pledge my life, the Christ who laid down His life for we who killed him, the Christ who came to preach forgiveness to sinful Man, knowing that we would ridicule Him for it.

Do not merely treat others as you would treat yourself. Serve others with your heart and soul, and you will find that not only are they happy, your own cup of joy shall overflow, welling up into a spring of eternal life, if you do this in the name of Christ.

You are not alone, my son. For if one part of the body of Christ suffers, so do we all. If one cries, all mourn. If one laughs, all cheer with her, and if one prays, so all shall we join in, being of one Spirit and one Brother and one Father. I have more to say on this, so I’ll write again soon, but know this:

I love you. Your mother loves you. And most importantly,

God loves you. To the stars and planets and seas and animals He spoke and they came into being, but for you, He took clay and molded you in His hands, in His image, and gave you His own breath of life. He did not merely command of you to be – He made you with care and love, before even the foundation of the world.

Love,

Dad

The Life of Weariness

You’re born.

You take your first breath. It’s the hardest thing you’ve done in your life to date, but there will be harder hills still.

You drink from your mother’s breast. In every way she cares for you. Her words slowly sink into your mind with your father’s when he’s home, and gradually, those words shape you – or do you fashion those words around yourself?

You grow up. Now gifted with a voice to name the brilliant spectrum of life which around you winds, it blasts by in an instant, as the autumn leaves before winter’s gales, which in their own turn die down before the chirping growth of spring, which bakes beneath the coming of summer at its own conclusion before once again the ripeness of the months of warmth crackle and age into those same, hoary colors of fall.

Now you’re an adult. Adolescences was a speedbump, a maelstrom of emotions and dramas which, on reflection as one now so matured by the seemingly purely biological processes of pubescence – seem irrelevant. Petty. Insipid. Meaningless.

Or perhaps they are your golden years? A fond time of fun, games, loose clothes and looser morals, to treasure in your heart as time slowly makes his inroads into your chest?

You study. You work. Whether they benefit you or not is entirely in your hands. Perhaps for a while you’re content merely to sustain yourself. It’s possible that a another human of an opposite form decides to cast his or her lot in with you, and you get married, have two and a half children – and now your life belongs to them. Or maybe you don’t. Perhaps you chase your loves as you did in youth, though the game gets surely harder as time crinkles your skin and mars your complexion, and the yearly flu lasts longer and longer each time it visits. It’s unlikely, but perhaps you abstain entirely. For what reason do you do this?

And perhaps on some dark, lonely night, long after those of your hearth and kin have fallen asleep, you sit up in bed, in the gloomy, silent house, and you wonder – why? For what do I work?

To play a little on the weekends? To keep this aging woman in my house? To raise up little ones after me to go through the same toils? To what end does Man labor?

For vanity.

For though you might have striven with great boldness and cunning, with even the noblest of hearts, to build up a palace for your kin and a throne in your place of work, when Sheol calls you into his embrace, to another you must hand your preciously crafted treasures. In time, your treasures will fade and depreciate, till all of your hoard which your children hold in their hands are crumbs of dust as they go out into the broken shell of a world to carve from the dust their daily bread, for who will feed them?

It is vanity.

For if the glory goes not to one who is eternal, the greatest that can be made of it is a footnote in a dust-gathering chronicle. The glories of the warrior-kings echo down the ages, reflecting off the hardened and bored ears of the teenagers subjected to a dully rendered retelling of the greatest struggles of men’s lives. The hardships endured by women and families – through siege, plague, famine, despair – all ring hollow in an age where bread is plenty, and yet the spirit starves for rest.

Ours is the life of weariness. Convenience cannot save the soul.

And so challenged in your heart of hears, what shall you do? Shall you strive to play it safe, extend your years until you can beat the game, and create something great to truly last down the ages? Shall you ignore the murmurs of your starving soul, and let your fleshly heart and all its lusty dukes rule your life while you eke out an existence of blissful subsistence?

Or would you cast all you had into fire, limbs and all to find that which will not only save you the ignominy of a meaningless, unremarkable existence among the seething mass of profane humanity from which all of us come – but secure you a place of joy and glory everlasting at the table of your Judge, Father, and Savior?

The price?

All glory be to Him who saves, for whose glory mercy was shown to the undeserving who would dare to slay his blameless messenger, the image of perfectified Man.

Humility before God. That is the price.

Yet Another Story! – Fish (Рыба)

Another spammy post of stories, this one about a trans-Siberian roadtrip.

And some stumping for my favorite band, Ленинград, with Sergei “Shnur” Shnurov as their frontman with Alisa Vox providing most of the new vocals. The song linked has some 343 listens in my iTunes.

With no further delay, Fish!

Continue reading Yet Another Story! – Fish (Рыба)

Quick Query and Miscellany

Much as I love debating the mechanics of D&D, I am no long-studied wizard in the art of the game– neither am I particularly aged in writing. Eleven years is a long time, but not so long when you still don’t have a driver’s license, still haven’t held even a part-time job, or figured out this mysterious Western tradition called “oral hygiene.”

In the midst of that, I’m contemplating expanding the focus and content of this blog, adding in my random daily sketches (of varying quality, mostly low), droll one-liners, peculiar dreams, and completely out of context happenings from the weekly D&D campaign.

And probably adding more stories. I can’t guarantee any grammatically flawed stories in Russian, but needless to say I was rather startled at the response I received, mostly in that there was a response.