Hurt People Hurt People

It’s not an excuse or a justification.

It’s simply a fact.

As a creator of fiction, one of my jobs is to make a story make sense.

At times I’m sure this is my primary motivation for writing: to have a place where stories make sense. As in, now.

Villains aren’t just evil to make life difficult for the main character; that’s too narrow a purpose. That’s living for someone else, and far too selfless for the best villains as I imagine them.

~ ~ ~

Antagonist is a more broadly applicable word than villain.

Most of us will not encounter a terrifying villain, in the same way that most of us will not change the world in any masses-remembered way.

I’m just talking statistics here. How many people do you remember of the billions that have come before?

It’s a math thing, not a despair thing.

And many, many people face villains the way that many people make a difference in a way known only to few.

How widely something is known does not change the power or significance of what we experience.

Antagonists may be out specifically to hurt us, for reasons of their own, or they may simply be thinking of themselves, pursuing their own goals, and we get run over in the process.

I highly doubt the individual who stole my iPhone last week heard my nutrition talk, took personal offense at my content or my speaking style and decided to take my phone to spite me.

Far more likely is the scenario when s/he saw the cracked thing in its dirty case, unattended, and decided it was worth taking.

Really it had nothing to do with me, personally, but it has seriously disrupted my life, and disappointed me (in no small measure because it was taken at a gathering of Christians).

Yes we’re allowed to be disappointed. That we’re warned doesn’t mean our feelings and reactions are tied.

What we’re left with is how we will respond to the hurt that comes into our lives.

Because if we’ve been hurt, we have hurt other people.

This is really hard to think about when we’ve been hurt really badly.

We see and feel our own hurt, and depending on many things, our own hurt can be big enough that it fills up all our available vision.

We might not see what we are doing to others, and what’s even sadder, we might not care.

The reason I call this even sadder is that this attitude (I’ve been hurt so much I shouldn’t have to be careful.) frequently drives the next iteration of wounding.

The fact is, we’re all hurt. And that ties us to the truth that we have hurt others.  May still be in the process of hurting others.

And ignoring this reality won’t make it go away.

Two responses I see are necessary: awareness and humility.

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Story Beyond the Chase

Feeling chatty today? I’m feeling chatty.

Ruth, over at Booktalk & More, recently started a discussion about the novel heroine Marguerite, where she pointed out our culture’s obsession with the “chase” part of a romance, to the extent that we expect the story to trickle away once the chase is over.

In a sense this blog title is already a misnomer, because movement is required for any story, and chasing is a fun movement before or after the relationship is solidified.

I’ve mentioned before that “the moonlighting curse” isn’t strictly logical, and I appreciate how that (2nd link) article puts the focus clearly on the skill (and guts) of the shows’ writers, rather than what the actors do onscreen (Seriously, EVERYTHING is being done on television now to some critical acclaim, and it’s all about the Story and the way the it’s told).

But I digress.

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Getting Personally Practical

Sometimes I think the reason I continually return to the idea of Storytelling is because I am looking for ways to  tie my story-compulsive brain back to my real life as the dedicated mother of three brilliant, sensitive children who need me to be connected to them.

So, with this in mind, yesterday I engaged my imagination as if my real life were a novel.

That is, I threw back to my earliest memories (sorry-in-advance to the loving adults in my world; this is not a reflection on you) and looked for concrete things that made me feel less, to feel insecure.

This was genuinely not a pity party. I was looking for specific ways I might be missing to affirm and encourage my kids. I think it could be a useful tool for any parent, I just applied it first in my writing, because that’s where it came naturally.

We had just had a tragedy that resulted in Melody *certain* she needed a band-aid, and as I did not share her certainty, I delayed my verdict to finish my task.

As I wrapped up, I had this memory of feeling completely useless.  Unnecessary.

All my life– including now– I have been surrounded by amazingly competent people.  And all my life– including now– I’ve had a painfully accurate awareness of how small my contribution is in ratio to the needs around me.

*Unnecessary* is a terrible thing for any child to feel.

I was on to the next project before I remembered I’d gone soft and decided to get a band-aid.  So, stopping when Melody walked by (and secretly hoping she’d noticed the interruption so I’d get Attentiveness points) I invited her back to the First-Aid basket where we bandaged her wound.

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What is a Real Story?

Because a site like this that takes the word Story as a proper noun really ought to have such an important term defined.

Story is not a cute (or obscene) something someone said.  It is not a physical object.

A story has a beginning, a middle and an end.

Becky is always quoting Donald Miller’s definition at me:

A story is just a person that wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.

Antoinette Botsford, in a workshop here in Fairbanks some years back, offered a memorable formula with the letters P.P.P.O., asserting this (short list of four elements) is the test to distinguish a true story from a mere anecdote.

An anecdote can be entertaining and can be valuable, but a group of words is not a story unless it contains a person, a place, a problem and an outcome.

 The basic story formula I heard James Scott Bell use  is:

Chase a man up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Get him down again

My main problem with this format is that I never could figure out why someone would end up in a tree, just to get rocks thrown at him.  So I’m always looking for motivation or reasons behind the “had to happen for a plot-point” stuff.

Could be why I’m drawn to folktales, to expand or find the why of what is required within that story.

Ultimately, I think a real story is about change.

It may be growth or atrophy, hard or harder, but if the characters are all the same as they were in the beginning, we have not experienced a story, just a storm.

We’re all Reacting to Life

Recently I began to think about the (fiction-writing) imperative that a main character must make things happen.

One of the most consistent criticisms of Linnea, the central character of my Lindorm novel, is that she’s too passive.  “Everything happens to  her,” someone said, “and she’s always having to close the gap and react.

Linnea is my first (grown up) heroine.

When I created her I was telling a story. I wasn’t thinking of forms or expectations (hey, I was just trying to make word count half the time).  She grew out of my image of this wounded girl with too much strength to simply roll over and take it.  She continued to think and walk, and even fight when she could find (or create) the weapons.

I really admired her, because she did what I wanted to be able to do: choose the right way to respond.  I wasn’t thinking about how she was “always reacting” because that’s the way (probably unconsciously) I saw myself and people in general.

And I still do.

Lots of people have repeated the line about how our character is not shaped/displayed so much by what happens to us as by how we respond to what happens to us.

The fantasy of a proactive, powerful protagonist is part of our collective hunger to have more control than we have.

I believe most our life what we do with what we’ve been given: given to us either by powers outside of us, outside our control; or what we’ve given ourselves, in the form of decisions we’ve already made, and are now living out.

For example, being married and having children dramatically restricts the number of choices I have.  Because I’ve made the choice to live honorably.  This is a proactive choice I made. No one coerced me into it.  But it now restricts my “options”.

Every Yes we declare is a hundred silent Nos.   The more we live, the more choices we make, the more we are hemmed in by our own freedoms.

I would argue this is why the Young Adult category is one of the most exciting places to write; not only because your characters have more genuine, clean, and life-shaping choices to make over the course of the tale, but also because those choices are felt by those who read them.

Young people are trying on decisions through their reading, experimenting with how they fit.

Readers who are older, who’ve already experienced the profound familiarity breaking away, of falling in love, of screwing up massively and wondering if there’s redemption, relive the fear and excitement.  This is what good stories are for, and as long as they bring us along for the ride (and we like the ride) I’m less concerned about who started the story.

I care most about how the characters end it.

Girl Stories

I am a female novelizing fairy tales, with the goal of publication.

I have two daughters, ages 7 and 8, who love stories and princesses and “glamor” and dressing up.  They talk about  the man they’ll eventually marry (though they acknowledge they might not know him yet), and the sort of choices they’ll make when they’re mommies (some like mine, some different).

So discussions about “gender inequity” in stories and challenges like the Bechdel test intrigue me, as a woman, a mother of girls, and a storyteller.

But I sometimes wonder how much I actually care, since some of this is choosing where to look, and some of this is having enough hope to look in the first (or second, or third) place.

Now, to start with, I’ll be the last person to argue that there aren’t more male-centered stories.  That’s not my point.  What I think when I look at the list of movies that “don’t pass the test,” (that is, they don’t have two or more named female characters talking with one another about something other than a male), I don’t think, The slimeball writers left out the women!

I ask, Was it a good movie/story anyway?

Maybe I’m a storylover first and a woman second.

Maybe more than seeing surrogates for myself or my daughters in interesting/tragic/life-threatening situations I want to have an emotional journey.

I want to experience things I’ve never felt before, find words or images for something previously ineffable, or relive something that is over but an exciting memory.

So I watch Lord of the Rings, Stranger than Fiction, or a romantic comedy for an echo of that unexpected spark that surprised me when I first realized I loved the man I ended up marrying.

As an adult, I’m not particularly looking for “role models” or ideas for relationships or interaction.  Ms. Bechdel’s test is an interesting piece of trivia, but not relevant to my storylife.

As for my girls I’ve never had the illusion that they will find adequate role models from movies. When poor choices are in front of our eyes we pick them apart, discussing motivations, connecting cause and effect.

Yeah, being the children of a storyteller can be hard sometimes. For the record we actually don’t pick stories apart that much, but when anything seems settle really deep we try to make sure it settles in a healthy context.

So I suppose that has never been a pressure in my mind.

I don’t feel bothered by their attraction to beauty or babies or the ideal of marriage.  It is the life I hope for them: one where they are happily married and raising a family.

Statistically that’s what’s going to happen anyway, so why not prepare and make it something to look forward to?

We are surrounded by hard-working, kind-hearted women who know how to listen and how to speak.  These are the role models I want all three of my children to key off of.

But what about the stories?!

Yeah, I have a collection of those, too. Mostly picture books, because that’s what I’ve spent to most time with in recent years,

They tend to be traditional so they conform to some *tsk*tsk*able norms (daughters suffering for a father’s “sin”?) but I roll with because every story needs an inciting event.  And girls will always be surrounded by people and circumstances stronger than themselves.  I feel it’s more important what they do next.

And, yes, in a significant number of these stories the girl has help.

I’m glad for that: I never want any of my children to assume they have to do enormous tasks in isolation.  I pray they will always be surrounded by healthy, loving people who with share their burdens.

Most of those next time.

My list begins (and some commentary):

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On one level I think it is a very good thing.

How many tragic (powerful, often, but tragic) stories unfold primarily from the foolishness of hubris?  The idea that everything needed is already within.  Including wisdom.

How much grief could be avoided by following good advice?

One of my favorite lines is the one that goes, Sure “experience is the best teacher,” but if you can learn second-hand the tuition is cheaper.

I’ve practically made it my life’s work to learn everything second-hand. At least at first.

That said there are people with the opposite problem.  Those who don’t trust themselves at all.

While at first this might seem the solution to the problem of hubris, it can’t be, because of the simple reality that no one can be as invested in you as you.

G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy posits that humility used to mean doubting one’s self, which at least has the potential to motivate working harder (i.e. to prove or validate one’s self).  More recently, he says, humility has come to be doubting one’s purpose, resulting in not working at all (i.e., freezing up).

He calls it the difference between a spur and a nail in the shoe.

I have wrestled with the latter question a lot.  And felt ineffective; not because I’ve particularly been thwarted, but because I’ve not fully invested and worked.  I hold back, still looking around for the right pool to jump in before I hold my nose.

~ ~ ~

When I have the (sometimes) conflicting spheres of ability, interest and responsibility; all ranged out before me, all under a ticking clock, I end up with something like anxiety.

From my conception of God, I know I am not responsible to make up my own reality, and in my view of his sovereignty, I expect he has equipped and prepared me to do something unique.

C.S. Lewis provides one of my favorite quotes on this:

God makes each soul unique. If He had no use for all these differences I do not see why He should have created more souls than one. Be sure the ins and outs of your individuality are no mystery to Him; and one day they will no longer be a mystery to you.

And it seems that I must regularly remind myself of this.

Because what is important to me hasn’t changed.

What is changing is the distractions and responsibilities that deflect me from what I still believe is important.

Have I said what that is?

That thing that’s been around since before children, I can apply with them and expect to still be important when they’re raising their own families?


It matters because I don’t know of any other (let alone better) way to train the imagination.

And whether you ultimately make decisions from your mind, emotions, or convictions, all of those capacities are informed and trained by imagination.

I have no doubt that to neglect this foundation is dangerous.

A Mouse on Tiptoe

Told to me as a true story.

Once upon a time there was a young married couple (no it wasn’t us) who realized they had a mouse problem.  So they set a trap and caught the mouse, but it was still alive.  They couldn’t decide how to kill it, and eventually settled on drowning it.  So they put the mouse in a bucket of water and went out to dinner, expecting everything to be over when they returned.

When they got home they went to see the little carcass in the bucket, and instead found the mouse was still alive. It balanced on the tip of its longest toe with just enough height for the tip of its pink nose to stay above the glassy water.

After that performance they couldn’t bear to kill it and turned it loose.

I have often thought of that mouse in the last three months, as I’ve been striving to have food ready before we’re hungry.  I’ve seen myself so near drowning I can hardly believe I’ve got even a nostril above water.

What I saw for the first time today was the need for stillness in the midst of the real fear.  Thrashing would have created the final waves to overwhelm the creature’s last chance at air.

My Favorite-Folktale Formula

So I’ve been looking for a shorthand/formula for m-o-n-t-h-s now, and finally sat down and created one out of the tales I constantly return to.  And it works!  Made it very clear which elements do and don’t belong in *this* novel.

I started by analyzing favorite Beauty and the Beast and Iron John variants, then compiled a structure/format that also fit other tales

  • The Ebony Horse
  • East of the Sun, West of the Moon
  • The Lindorm King (of course)
  • The Lady and the Lion
  • “A Flowering Tree” (basically a pre-marital counseling session wrapped in a folktale. I might be able to write this novel in my 50s)

This covers pretty much all the complex tales I am drawn to, showing relationship development (usually in a nutshell), and allowing both the man and the woman to think and affect their “destinies.”

  1. Opening state.  Usually there are some inherent qualities of the MC
    1. Birth; e.g. royalty, other significant parentage (optional)
    2. Attitude; which attitude depends on the needs of the story
  2. Other intrudes
    1. Does M.C. notice?
    2. How does M.C.respond? Acceptance (in this model), but how?
      1. reluctantly?
      2. with fear?
      3. innocence/naivety?
  3. Physical separation from the known
    1. Frequently this includes an emotional connection with a former stranger
    2. If the emotional connection is skipped/missed there are deeper regrets and pain in the next step
  4. Physical separation from the new known
    1. Opportunity for character discovery- self and/or others
    2. Journey to return
      1. Sometimes a series of tasks/helpers to process
      2. often anguish of seeing things changed while gone
  5. The closing FIND, usually with a final twist that is victory beyond mere achievement.

I like how this formula isn’t as complex as Campbell’s Journey of the Hero, and provided me with a structure to look at individual story lines for each major character.

I’ve not much liked how many steps there were to keep up with in the Hero’s journey, and how some authors feel it’s so central/clever that they’ll over-work a story to fit it.

And it always seemed a waste of time to “reject the call.”

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