Why Stories Matter

People have been telling stories for as long as people have been people. They tell them and retell them times and again, presidents and kings and schoolchildren and factory workers. There’s something fundamental to being a person in the love of stories.

I don’t know what that something is, I’m just an art student. But I do know something about why stories matter to me.

Stories are home. Star Wars is the same wherever you go, and you can see Scorpius from California or Georgia. You can carry the stories you love most with you when life takes you away from familiar places.

Stories are friends. You get to know the characters as well as they know themselves, and so following their story feels like spending time with them. Some might have experiences like yours, but with dragons. Maybe it seems wimpy to need stories and characters as friends instead of flesh-and-blood people, but at some point everyone struggles with feeling a connection to the human beings surrounding them.

Stories are safe. Horrible, awful things can happen in them, but if it gets too much you can close the book or turn off the screen, and they have a set beginning and end. Life isn’t nearly that kind.

Stories are constants. Well, they are and they aren’t. Every version of Cinderella is slightly different, and the differences change what the story means. But there’s still a shoe, or a cyborg foot, left on the stairs, and a prince at a royal ball. Change is inevitable, except for from vending machines, but stories make familiar patterns no matter how much they are told.

Stories are exciting. Though life is too. It has octopuses in it, and colors and trains and quantum physics. There’s magic everywhere, if you know how to look for it. Trouble is, in the day-to-day drudge of normal life, it’s easy to forget that. Stories help bring back a sense of wonder.


The Scorpion in the Sky

This is an old story. A brash hunter. An infuriated deity. And a monster.
What the crime was and which deity was infuriated, depends on who’s telling the story.

The hunter, Orion, stays the same, though. As does the monster–Scorpius.

Supposedly, their final battle was so destructive that the gods feared putting them both in the Underworld, where they might keep fighting. Instead, they were placed in the sky, as constellations, on opposite sides of the heavenly sphere. You will never see Orion and Scorpio in the sky at the same time. That was deliberate, so they cannot fight anymore.
Watching Scorpius’s heart flicker as he rises in the evenings, I wonder about him. Was he created just to kill Orion? Did he start out as one of the many monsters wandering about Greek myths? How did Artemis (or Apollo, or Gaea) get him to cooperate? Did he have some specific grudge against Orion to begin with?

This is an old story. It’s been told and retold thousands of times, the details altered or faded or lost to living memory. If Scorpius was ever anything other than the weapon that killed Orion, we have no way of knowing. He got the short end of the narrative–no characterization, no motivations, just a capacity for violence and a target. Like the Winter Soldier, sans tragic backstory.

Writing protip: figure out what drives your villains. You don’t have to reference it specifically, you don’t have to make it a sympathetic drive, but figuring out why a bad guy acts as they do is the first step towards believable characterization.

Scorpius doesn’t have that, right now. But, myths don’t have a copyright. We can fill in the details ourselves, if we think to.

Say the deity was Artemis, and that Orion’s crime was more than boasting. Say she turned to an old friend for aid-perhaps she had slain a greater monster than Scorpius, saving his life. He would have gladly hunted Orion, to right a wrong and repay a debt.

Or say it was Apollo, envious of Orion’s rising star (pun completely intended) and his friendship with Artemis, who turned up in his lair and took Scorpius’s mate or hatchlings hostage. He would have fought fiercely then, if it was in hopes of saving a loved one.

Or Gaea, Earth Mother, seeking to protect her creatures from the mighty hunter, went to Scorpius for help. As one of her creatures, he gave it.

Or say Scorpius was a monster, and did what monsters do, and it was only because someone whispered a suggestion to him, or claimed Orion had insulted him, that he became so focused on the hunter.

All or none of these backgrounds may be applied to the myths, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

This is an old story. We can’t know what its original tellers intended for it, or for Scorpius, to mean. We can only know what it means for us, now.

Strength and weakness

During Stan Lee’s time writing the Avengers comics, Thor shared a body with a Doctor Donald Blake. Nothing out of the ordinary, in a universe that featured super soldiers, radioactive superpowers, a creepy-eyed guy who showed up to watch big events, and of course magical space Vikings, but looking back over those comics that detail catches my eye. See, without Mjolnir, Thor would revert back to Donald Blake, and so whenever something separated him from his hammer during a fight he panicked. He didn’t want his teammates to find out that, when he wasn’t being Thor, he was a small man who used a cane and looked utterly un-godlike.

Angst like that was common in the Avengers at the time–Iron Man didn’t want the team to find out about his heart condition, for instance. But the characters evolved, and Thor and Donald Blake parted ways, so it wouldn’t be relevant if the hammer and title of Thor were not currently being carried by Jane Foster–as of the last time I caught up with the series, anyway. It’s been a few months.

When Jane holds Mjolnir, as far as anyone cares, she’s Thor. Maybe not the same Thor as the other superheroes have worked with in years past, and definitely not the Thor that Odin wants, but she has the same powers and does the same work to protect people, so there isn’t much to be concerned with. The biggest difference seems to be that Iron Man tried to flirt with her. She’s physically imposing, wears almost practical armor, and looks really really cool, like every good superhero-deity should.

Separate her from the hammer, though, and not only is dear Jane a small, frail, human, she is also dying of cancer. And the transformation between Thor and her own body is just making her more sick.

I have mixed feelings about the incorporation of cancer into Jane’s story. On the one hand, cancer is real and it’s not going away soon, and reflecting that in the stories we tell is only reasonable. Stories may contain fantastic, unbelievable elements, especially superhero stories, but they also have aspects of the things their storytellers see in real life.

On the other hand, cancer is real and it keeps interfering in far too many of the lives of people I care about, and I’d like it to stay out of my fiction if possible. Along with tarantula hawks, most forms of paperwork, and broken guitar strings. But if this were a dissertation on the representation of cancer in fiction, I wouldn’t be starting with the Thor comics.

Despite my misgivings, showing the dual nature of Jane’s strengths and weaknesses in such an overt way in these comics is effective in raising the questions it’s meant to, I think. What are your strengths? It asks readers. How do your strengths make the impact of your weaknesses more dangerous, in a twist of cruel irony? In the case of Jane Foster, the questions refer to literal strength, but it can also be applied to other types of strength–strength of courage or or endurance or integrity or character as a whole, and weakness of the same.

Tony Stark’s strength and weakness stem from the same place: he is highly intelligent, and unfortunately, he knows it. Percy Jackson’s strength is his loyalty to his loved ones, but it also puts him in danger all the time. Luke Skywalker’s strength is in his love, but his love for and faith in his father nearly gets him killed. Actually, I think he inherited that strength-weakness from Anakin to begin with.

But the weaknesses can come from a place completely different from the strengths. Kaladin Stormblessed’s strength is in his magic and his protective nature, but the betrayals and failures of his past threaten to take away both. Frodo’s strength is his endurance, which is tested and broken by the One Ring.

Of course, most characters and all people have more than one strength or weakness. Reading stories like these Thor comics encourage me to try to identify all, which is looking to be a lifetime’s work. Hopefully, it will be worthwhile.

The Snow Queen

Watching winter through a window, it is easy to see a certain majesty to the scene. Snow drifts through the air, shining brightly under the street lamps. Clouds hunch above. Breath turns to mist. Jack Frost paints ice on car windows. It’s a time for stories and stillness, and dropping ice down the back of your brother’s coat.

One of the stories my family reads most winters is the Hans Christian Anderson tale “The Snow Queen.” You likely know the story–a boy is stolen away by the queen of winter, and his best friend takes a long journey to get him back. The story has existed for more than a century and a half, and in all that time no one has been able to explain the Snow Queen’s motivations to my satisfaction. That’s never stopped me from loving her tale.

When I was eleven, I wrote a story about the Snow Queen while I was supposed to be cleaning my room. In it, snowflakes were faeries who served the Snow Queen. They fell to earth to watch the children and collect their wishes.

My tendency to write stories while I’m supposed to be doing something else has not changed in the slightest, but the stories themselves have evolved, and so has my attitude about the Snow Queen.

The ideas she represents-the power and majesty of winter, and the danger–are still wonderful, but my personal idea of her has an element of petty trickery that wasn’t there before.

Snow falls, and mounds onto car windows that were scraped clean yesterday. Ice forms in thin, nearly invisible layers positioned just so in order to make people slip. Snow plows scrape the ice to the side of the road, and the mound of grimy snow that forms stays there far longer than is fair–even after the rest of the ice has melted, and it is spring. The snow on sidewalks turns to icy sludge that will take the slightest weakness in your boots as a chance to soak your socks. If we anthropomorphize winter so that the Snow Queen is responsible for all of its pretty elements, surely we can picture her as being responsible for these.

Or maybe I’m just missing summer.

Valjean and Javert

Occasionally in fiction, we meet two characters who seem fated to fight. Not because one is good and the other evil; in fact, each considers themselves to be good. They are doing the best they can to live according to whatever their moral code is, and it is rare for anyone to ask more of a person than that.

It’s when there are differences in their moral codes, worldviews, or philosophies that problems between the characters arise. The differences don’t even have to be all that big.

Take Valjean and Javert from the musical Les Miserables (Someday I might read the book, but not today). Both are devout Christians. Yet they spend the entirety of their time on stage together butting heads. Why? They ascribe to the same basic beliefs, even come from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds.

The difference is in their understandings of one element of Christian theology: justice and mercy.

Justice requires that when a law is broken, a consequence follows. It cares little for circumstances or regrets, only that the lawbreaker is punished. This is Javert’s lens for understanding the world, the reason he became a lawman.

Mercy takes circumstances and regrets into account, giving the lawbreaker a chance to do better. In the New Testament, Jesus used mercy frequently when dealing with those who the law had labeled sinners. Valjean sees mercy as being the more important of the two.

Both are essential to Christian doctrine, but which is emphasized more depends on which branch of Christianity is talking.

According to Javert’s understanding, Valjean is a lawbreaker and so must be punished. According to Valjean’s understanding, the law has already taken too much from him for him to build a decent life unless he-you guessed it–breaks more laws, and so he is justified in evading the law. Is either entirely right? Who knows, but since Valjean is the hero we tend to consider him to be more correct than his counterpart.

Their roles get reversed near the end of the show, but not their individual beliefs–Valjean becomes the law enforcer of the fledgling rebellion, and Javert the condemned. Justice and the rebellion’s law both say that Javert must die. After all, he has been interfering (unjustly, to the perspective of the rebellion) in Valjean’s life for years.

Valjean, however, still believes in mercy, and so he lets Javert go. Javert was not expecting this. In fact, he sings a dramatic song about how unexpected this was according to his worldview, and how now he thinks perhaps the criminal Valjean is a better man than him.

(I should point out here that suicide, such as Javert commits at the end of aforementioned dramatic song, is not a healthy way to react to your entire worldview being upended. Get a haircut. Change your major. Don’t die, please.)

That ends the two of them fighting,  but Valjean has learned that his past breaking of the law, however necessary for survival it was, is going to catch up to him, because that is what justice does. He worries it will affect his daughter’s marriage, so he leaves. And then he dies too, because this is a really sad musical.

These two characters butting heads over the ancient argument of justice or mercy is only a part of a musical full of characters and intersecting plot lines, but it is the part that stands out most vividly to me. In a better world, Valjean and Javert might have been friends, but  in the world of this story,  each represents what the other hates most.

Not all opposing characters will clash so dramatically over such small differences in beliefs, but we writers can still use such circumstances  to add interest to our stories. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Newt clashes with every other character because his way of seeing his creatures and the way others see them are so incompatible. In Ender’s Game,  Peter and Valentine clash because their priorities are so different, though they work together anyways, and the humans and aliens are fighting because  neither species thinks the others’ way of expressing sentience is real.

And, of course, we see real people fighting over tiny or not-so-tiny differences in worldview or circumstances all the time. Hopefully, we can get such arguments properly represented in our own stories.

The Young Wizards

Story time.

When my little brother and I were kids, we were part of the library’s summer reading program every year. At the end of the program, if we’d done all the eating hours we were supposed to, the library would give us a book. There were all kinds of books on the shelf to choose from: Lord of the Rings, picture books, Percy Jackson, I even grabbed the Odyssey one summer during high school.

One summer, not long after we had moved into the area,  my brother got the the bookshelf before me, and naturally grabbed the biggest thing on the shelf. The librarians all cooed at the sight of such a little kid with such a big book. I’ve seen bigger books since then, but at the time it looked huge: the spine was maybe three inches wide, and the inside was all print. No pictures. It was called The Young Wizards.

I don’t think my brother has ever actually read it, or at least not all the way through. I did, several times.

That book held the first five books in the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane, and at the time I thought that was all there was. It was enough. The gist of the story is that some kids, twelve or thirteen years old when they first start, find books on wizardry, and befriend one another over the shared interest. The books work, and they get pulled along on  various adventures to slow down entropy.

Adventure is a sort of tame word for it. Their first “adventure,” for instance, gets them pulled into a nightmare parallel-universe Manhattan where the cars are predators and the fire hydrants eat pigeons, created by a being known as the Lone Power, the one who created death.

Cheerful, right?

After books like  Fablehaven and The  Dark is Rising, this was one of my favorite books. The kids’ wizardry is all done through words,  and  one of the recurring themes of the series is how powerful words are to shape the universe. For a writer-to-be like myself, this was great.

The series was also one of the first things to spark my interest in Irish mythology and folklore, since  one of the kids gets sent to Ireland by her parents and  spends some time fighting off monsters straight from the myths. And there’s a scene with a cat going up a chimney that’s exactly like one of the folktales.

The reason I’m thinking about this right now is that I found out there are more books in the series than just the five books in that volume my brother had. Naturally, I have to reread everything. You know, when I’m not doing homework and other responsible adult things. I’ve already started.

It’s reminding me of the reasons I love storytelling so much, and why I’m trying to make telling stories my life’s occupation. There were plenty of frightening things in those books, but I never really got scared. I  was too busy feeling wonder at how a world so real could be conjured up with print on a page, and how the kids fighting the war against the corruption of good felt like something that had always been happening.

I was too young to have the story properly change my life, but it certainly had a hand in shaping it.

Michael Vey: Fall of Hades review

Story time. I actually met Richard Paul Evans, author of this and other amazing books, this past spring at an education summit he spoke at. His talk was all about what he wishes he’d known in middle school, but I’m  in college and found it relevant and inspiring.

Why was I, the arts major, at an education summit? My grandparents were running it.

But that’s another story. Let’s talk about the story I’m reviewing.

  If the best books are the ones that have you desperate for someone to rage with about the ending, this probably outranks even that most infuriating of cliffhanger books, Mark of Athena.

They both have Greek deities’ names in the title. Funny coincidence.

But it isn’t just the cliffhanger that makes this book memorable. Without a story of substance and characters worth caring for, a cliffhanger is just a cheap trick. This one was the real deal, especially regarding the characters. Mr. Evans has a particular gift for  creating diverse, relatable characters.

And then putting them through the worst a twisted imagination can throw at them, because why not?

All the characters, even many of the supposedly bad guys, were relateable in their own ways. We may not have agreed with them, but we understood why they did what they did and it didn’t feel like it was just for the plot.  It’s difficult to do that with a cast that large. And then to have the main ones all have their own arcs too? Pretty good.

I loved it. Loved the characters, at least, which lead to loving the story. I may have been sorely tempted to throw the book at a wall at the incredibly awesome but ambiguous end, but I loved it.

I’ll probably talk more about what exactly was awesome about the end, along with speculations about the last book, after more people have had time to read it.

Today’s drawing: Not an inktober piece, but there was this kid asleep at the library while I was studying and I just couldn’t resist a quick sketch.