Tag Archives: Character Development

The Nature of Evil

A fellow by the name of Joseph Campbell once (or twice) aptly described Myth as “other people’s religion”.  Okay, so, he wasn’t just some fellow; he was fairly hyper-intelligent, massively well-versed in the areas of mythology, religion, psychology and philosophy, and has influenced many people with his works, including you, to a degree, if you’ve ever seen Star Wars or read Dan Brown.  If you need definitive proof that you’re not doing enough with your precious few years here on this earth, just go read up on him, and once you’re through feeling totally inadequate and have been sufficiently inspired to do something greater with your life, perhaps you will set out on your own hero’s journey, to “follow your bliss,” as he would say.  But before you do that, since you’re here anyway, you should go ahead and finish reading this post, which is not about Joseph Campbell, though that bit about myth being other people’s religion is important, so I’ll come back to it in a moment.

In the few months this site has been up and running, I have posted character pages for several of the main characters introduced in book one of The Eleventh Age, but so far I’ve only touched on many of the good guys, the heroes of the Eleventh Age myth, who are just embarking on their proverbial journey, which Elli Foote

Elli Foote, the hero of The Eleventh Age
Elli Foote, the hero of The Eleventh Age

believes is to find the Stones of Peace (or power, depending on who you ask), to protect them from Roviello Tofal, the ruler of the wizards, who happens to have survived the past ten thousand or so years solely for the purpose of destroying her, in order that he should finally become ruler of all of humankind (as her noble retinue has explained is her destiny, by way of a little story she comes to call The First Fairytale, which is the prologue in book one, if you’re interested).  While this may sound a bit far-fetched, as it does to Elli, I can imagine it would be a bit difficult to stand in the face of a sea of true believers, who have all sorts of completed prophecies as compelling evidence of your greatness, and say to them you simply aren’t the messiah they’re looking for, though Elli does try, and then that silly ten thousand year old wizard, Tofal, decides to send his army, including the treacherous blood wraiths, to destroy the only home she has ever known, and it turns out there is nothing like having your home ripped apart by the followers of a ten thousand year old villain hell-bent on killing you to inspire a little off-the-beaten-path adventure in the middle of the night, as many a hero before Elli Foote has discovered the hard way. I have purposefully refrained from writing much about Tofal thus far, so as to avoid spoiling the pure evilness that I believe you should get to know in the same fashion as Elli–slowly, one death at a time.

However, I will say that quite a bit of study of the nature of evil has gone into creating Tofal’s character, which has been a cumbersome task at times.  One only need to read a short way into this entry on The Concept of Evil (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) to understand that evil is a bit hard to pin down.  In fact, we all have our own distinct ideas of what evil actually is, believe it or not.  For instance, some people have a strictly religious sense of the term, and think about evil as being perpetuated by some supernatural force outside of oneself, while others have a totally secular sense of the term, and while they may or may not believe in a divine power, they do believe that there are some human acts that are so fundamentally abhorrent that only the term evil can apply, though that evil is seen as strictly of this world and man’s making.  At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who believe there is no such thing as evil in any sense of the term, either because it requires a supernatural entity in order to exist or because defining an act as evil has a tendency to beget more evil, and doing so is therefore incredibly dangerous, so such acts that would otherwise be deemed evil by the populous should be treated to less hostile terminology, so as to lessen the blow and the blowback.  Personally, I find it interesting and disturbing that the ideological divide on the topic of evil is not and will never be some line drawn in the sand and that the nature of evil allows for such varying degrees of understanding and reprehensibility that one person’s little white lie can at the same time be another person’s conspiracy to commit treason, which is why I think evil must exist, though I’m certainly no expert on the topic.

Consider for a moment the truth that one man’s religion is another man’s myth, as Mr. Campbell pointed out.  We have proof of this everywhere around us, and have had proof throughout all of recorded history, though somehow this fact hasn’t stopped us from killing each other yet.  The idea that such a paradox can exist in a world where there is no such thing as “evil” seems impossible to me.  In fact, I have recently come to the (inexpert) conclusion that it, one man’s myth being another man’s religion, actually requires evil in every sense of the word in order to exist.  This is not to say, as some evil-skeptics would try to claim, that I believe some religious supernatural power or another is required to bring evil into the world, though that may be what happened.  Rather, I think perhaps this is true of all things mutually exclusive, which is just about everything, and that, in itself, might just be the very nature of evil at its core–that it stands somewhere between definition. To take it out of the religious context, one man’s slate gray can be another man’s steel gray at the same time both men are looking at the exact same shade of gray, yet somehow simultaneously seeing vastly different colors that would not look so vastly different to a third party, who would call it verdigris because he’s a little colorblind.  This slight shift in perspective, and the very natural human application of mutual exclusivity, is where all difference comes from, and it is in this fertile soil call difference where evil blooms so splendidly.  Perhaps this is why there is just one tree of knowledge of good and evil in that old myth about the garden-you cannot eat of one without eating of the other, and that is the curse of our human condition.

I am still learning, but that is my thought on the matter of evil, for today at least.  I will just leave you with this bit of fruit in parting: An atrocious act can be seen as an act of heroism, all that is required is a change of author.

A Gift for the New Year

I finally posted Peril’s character page today.  I know, it took me long enough, but because his sketch gave me so much trouble, I thought I would do something different with his page and give you a little bit of backstory, which took some crafting.  There is always a struggle in just how much to give.

Anyway, let me just say that anyone who has read book one of The Eleventh Age is in for a couple of surprises.  And if you haven’t read yet, then what exactly are you waiting for?  A signed first edition hard copy? Who knows?  Maybe 2015 will be the year.

For now, I hope you enjoy this little bit of Peril’s past as my new year’s gift to you.


peril eyes2

Drawing Lessons: Lesson Three: Oh! The Perils

For once, I have a story about my adventures in sketching characters that doesn’t involve bad art–at least not in the traditional sense.

This is Peril, or Alistair Godfrey, as his parents called him.


It’s been several weeks since I’ve updated the character pages because of Peril, which is strange because from the beginning I believed he would be one of the easier characters to present.  Instead he’s proven the most difficult so far.  Even worse than Ash, which is saying a lot.

Book one of The Eleventh Age has been completed for some time now, and while I’ve been going through the usual rigamaroo as a new author trying to gain notice in the publishing world, just one more unknown in a sea of countless unknowns, all looking to be discovered, I’ve also been hard at work on book two, which naturally means that in my mind the characters are all different people than who they were at the beginning of their story, or even at end of book one.  In building this site, I have had to be very careful not to allow the changes the characters experience through the course of the writing to taint how I present them to the world.  This sweet-faced boy was a massive challenge for me in that respect, because he is one of the characters who is most changed from book one to book two, and as I drew him (repeatedly), those changes were visible in his eyes, in the hardness of his lips.  I had to put him down, go back and remember who he was before, so that I could show you the Peril Elli meets on her sixteenth birthday.

Heraclitus is quoted by many a philosopher as having pointed out the inevitability of change as a constant, the river’s flow being an apt metaphor for the universal flux we experience not just from day to day but from moment to moment.  On this Plutarch writes:

“It is not possible to step twice into the same river according to Heraclitus, or to come into contact twice with a mortal being in the same state.”

This is a beautiful truth that is so easy to miss, as we are only privileged enough to experience the changes within ourselves as we meander through this life.  Too often we fail to realize that anything we see of other people, even those we love and hold most dear, is just a small glimpse of who those people are at one bend along their stream.  Like a river, every person is always flowing with new waters gained by their own experiences. Each of us is polishing our own boulders into smooth pebbles and cutting our channels deeper as we go.

To live is to change.

Peril will never again be the sweet-faced boy in this picture.

A Fate More than Metaphors and Rhyming Schemes

Oftentimes when prophecy plays a role in a story, it is static and unbending in nature.  Fate proves to be merely what is fated, a concrete idea of a predetermined purpose, and there is little to be done about it once set in motion, try as one might, and even less to explain why such a purpose is necessary, except that without it there would be no story.  An author may employ metaphors or plays on words in order to make prophecies appear to have multiple meanings, so that it is only in the end that one can see the symbolism interwoven throughout the tale all along, hinting at deeper truths, if only the protagonist could have seen.  More commonly, stories involve self-fulfilling prophecies, in which belief in a prophecy is required for it to come to fruition, a character’s own attempts to avoid the certain outcome proving to be the very cause.  And of course, prophecies are generally vague, leaving plenty of room for doubt, and providing a decent excuse when an interpretation turns out to be completely wrong–just ask Nostradamus.

In The Eleventh Age, things aren’t so simple.  Early on in my writing, I began to explore the idea that in order for there to be any sort of prophecy in the first place, Fate actually had to have a purpose in mind, which meant Fate was at least quasi-sentient.  This realization marked the birth of Fate as a living, ever-changing character, a character that interacts with the other characters in the story on a continuous basis, rather than being relegated to a stagnant existence as just another fortuneteller spouting pretty prose. But as such, Fate’s role and the nature of prophecy could not just be to provide convenient plot twists that keep the “real” characters on their toes.  Fate in The Eleventh Age requires goals, desires, intentions, and otherwise serious character flaws, and trust me when I say that thinking about Fate this way has not been easy.

While Elli Foote, the hero of the story, is told at the beginning of book one that her predestined worst enemy is Roviello Tofal, the evil wizard who has survived more than ten thousand years for the sole purpose of being her arch nemesis, by the end of the book, it is fairly clear that what she has been told and what is reality can be very different things, especially where prophecies are concerned, and she begins to understand that Fate is her enemy as well, a decidedly worse enemy than Roviello Tofal in many ways.  This is not to say that Tofal is not particularly evil, or that he will not prove himself to be a spectacular adversary (oh,he is, and he will), but Fate’s role as progenitor of tragedy for Elli throughout the series is certain, as is Elli’s role of seeing Fate as her personal universal foe, even though most people would think the idea of Fate having it out for one person in particular is pretty silly–but what teenager hasn’t thought that the world is out to get them?  In this case, she might just happen to be right.

Discover why Fate has a dark side…  Read The Eleventh Age.


And the Moral of the Story Is…

Yesterday I published Blackeney’s character page, which honestly gave me a bit more difficulty than any other character so far, though this really didn’t surprise me, because Black’s tale is darker, so he’s harder to summarize.  The Eleventh Age is an epic fantasy, and all of my characters fit fantasy archetypes at the surface–after all what is a fantasy without its trusty tropes?  Black is no different from any of the others in that respect, however when I first started writing several years ago, my original goal was simply to produce an action-packed, young adult fantasy that had a female hero, because I thought the world could use more stories about girls, who weren’t quite as transparent as their glass slippers, but as I began building my world, in which young Elli Foote, like many a hero before her, discovers her extraordinary purpose and embarks on her harrowing journey with her band of trusty tropes at her side, I developed a few ulterior motives.  I wanted to write a story with a moral at the end.  I wanted to write a story that crossed cultural boundaries.  I wanted to write a story in which my characters spoke to real-world issues, suffering the sort of troubles ordinary people suffer, like loss, abandonment, poverty, hunger, abuse–all of these are things Black has experienced firsthand, just to name a few, which is what made writing his summary so difficult.  My trouble was in remaining true to his character without giving too much away, which I think I’ve managed.

I’ve alluded to this desire to keep my characters real before.  Not only do all of them have to have flaws and hidden agendas, weaknesses and passions, but all of them must have perfectly rational reasons for their otherwise odd behaviors.  Black, for instance, is a warrior who does not fight, and his reasons are rational and uniquely his own.  The thing is, Black knows as well a I do that what is rational is not always logical, and our rationalizations can sometimes (read: almost always) be built upon false beliefs.  We humans are actually quite adept at dealing in false beliefs, which brings me to the topic of the day:

Monkeys, Babies, and the Moral of the Story

If you are reading this, chances are 1. you are human and 2. you possess fairly well-developed theory of mind, which is, very basically, the ability to understand that you have a mind, which holds knowledge, beliefs, and intentions unique to you, and that others have minds of their own, in which they hold separate knowledge, beliefs and intentions that are different from yours and everyone else, for that matter.  This probably seems fairly straightforward, especially since you’ve possessed the beginnings of this theory of mind since you were as young as seven months old, however even though it seems obvious, this theory can only ever be a theory because there is no way for me to prove that you have a mind or for you to prove that I have one, because we are each only capable of experiencing the world from our singular perspectives, and anything else is, well, just theory.  What this theory of mind allows you to do is to make assumptions, based on your own understandings, in order to predict or explain other people’s actions, and it comes in quite handy in just about every interaction we have with one another (and anything else we perceive as having a mind, it turns out).

Scientists have been working for decades to determine if humans are the only animals that possess theory of mind, to determine if this is in fact what distinguishes us as humans, which is a rather difficult task, because animals and humans don’t speak the same language, though we can understand certain animal behaviors as similar to our own.  There is plenty of documented evidence supporting the idea that animals have emotions.  We know elephants and gorillas cry over the loss of family and friends, even across species.  We know dogs will visit the graves of deceased companions.  But while we’re perfectly aware that other animals have minds, after all our theory of mind allows us to assume this by their behaviors, whether or not those animals possess a theory of mind and are aware that we have minds as well is open for debate.

If you’ve ever played fetch with a dog, you know that animals are capable of viewing your behavior and predicting what will happen next.  We had a Belgian Malinois years ago that I loved to try and fool when playing fetch.  I could see that she would watch my eyes and the angle of my arm and take off milliseconds before the ball ever left my hand, and very rarely did I ever fool her.  The dogs we have now are not quite so intuitive–one of them just looks at the ball, dimly, like he’s still not certain what it is, while the other will go after the ball and keep running past it forever, but now I’ve gotten sidetracked. It is clear from my own experience that dogs are definitely aware of what people are looking at and capable of making predictions about their actions.  For a while,  some researchers had the idea that this sort of awareness of visual access might be evidence of full-blown theory of mind in other animals.

O’livia, the Belgian, even displayed some cross-species compassion once, a few years before she died.  Though she never had puppies of her own, she attempted to nurse an opossum that had been abandoned and wandered into our yard, weak and blind and squealing for its momma.

Livy and her possum pup
Livy and her possum pup, safe between her legs

Initially I believed that my wonderful, bright dog had chosen to display the tenderness of motherhood, and trust me when I say that Livy was anything but tender under normal circumstances.  It definitely seemed to me that she understood the baby opossum was lost and alone and hungry, and that she knew just what to do and actually wanted to help.  Then I found the first baby opossum to make it into the yard, very much dead, and the second, dead as well, and I began to wonder if perhaps this third opossum, whom she was being kind to, nursing even though she had no milk, was really lost and alone and hungry, and having found a warm, furry body, it had climbed up and attached to Livy by mistake, while dear ol’ Livy was busy murdering its siblings (much more Livy-like behavior).  I began to suspect that when the opossum attached and began to suckle, it triggered her mothering instinct, probably through a release of hormones, and that overrode her hyperactive prey drive.  I will never know if Liv actually possessed a theory of mind capable of commiseration with and showing compassion towards a baby opossum, but I do know from my experience that I am just great at anthropomorphizing all manner of animals and creating false beliefs within my own little theory of mind.  I’m officially human.  Yay!

Recently, developmental psychologists and comparative cognition researchers have managed to conduct several false-belief task tests on human babies and various primates.  This sort of testing was necessary because one of the most important steps in development of theory of mind is establishing the ability to distinguish what another person can or can’t know based on their observations.  The comparative cognition researchers were beginning to suspect that all primates had a solid theory of mind based on other tests that definitively showed primates (and other animals) have a visual awareness that extends to others, like with my dog, Liv.  For instance, a monkey is more likely to steal a piece of food it knows has not been seen by its owner, and they even retain this knowledge in the future, but without non-verbal tests for false-belief tasks, they couldn’t draw a firm corollary between visual-behavioral awareness and behavioral-mental awareness.  (You can and should read about some of these false-belief tests and their results here, I just wanted to give a basic idea moving forward.)  In each of the false-belief tests, what is being examined is whether or not the subject (baby or monkey) understands what a second subject can know based on its experience.  For instance, the baby or monkey watches the second subject place an object in a specific spot, and while the second subject isn’t paying attention, the object moves somewhere else.  Will the baby or monkey know that the second subject must believe that the object is in its original spot (i.e. does the baby or monkey have an understanding of what the second subject knows based on its world view)?  It turns out that 15 month old human babies consistently exhibit that they understand and are not surprised by true-belief based actions committed by the second subject (when the subject returns to where the baby last saw the second subject place the object), and they consistently exhibit that they understand and are surprised by false-belief based actions committed by the second subject (when the subject returns to look where the object actually is, where they could not have seen the object go).  Human babies, surprise, surprise, have a developed theory of mind.  Much to the dismay of the comparative cognition researchers, monkeys don’t care, either way.  Once visual access is lost, the monkeys no longer expect the second subject to look in either spot, whether during the true-belief test or the false-belief test, because as far as a monkey’s concerned, the subject can’t know where the object is.  This does not necessarily mean that monkeys don’t have a theory of mind, by the way, it may just mean that their theory of mind relies on continuous observation, because they are continually observant, and their theory of mind is based on being a monkey, which you have to admit makes a little more sense than their theory of mind being the same as us humans.  If their theory of mind were just like ours, they would probably be out there conducting tests on pigmy goats to determine whether or not pigmy goats too think like apes and humans, but they aren’t.

I have no vested interest in whether or not this proves that humans are massively unique, so you might be asking yourself why is this important to me?  Because other animals dance and sing during mating season, and we people find it fascinating and devote whole studies to it, and frankly, it’s that sort of stuff that I find fascinating.  Humans dance and sing all the time, just for fun, and we’ve got people who study that too.  Unless we’re depressed or otherwise inhibited, we seem to always be spit-polishing our feathers, because we are very much concerned with what others think about us–other people and other animals as well, it seems.  We lie for attention and affection.  We cheat on tests in order to give ourselves a false sense of security and to instill in others a false belief of our abilities.  We don’t just watch life, observing the real, we all play mentalists, examining other people for signs they are bored, hungry, angry, tired, lying, and a plethora of other interesting little things we believe they might feel or do at any given moment, based on that theory of mind we’re so keen at using, and we habitually make up stories to answer that profoundest of questions: why?

We read whole books about how other people go through their lives, and we invest ourselves deeply in their worlds, purely for entertainment purposes.  We even write whole books for the entertainment of others, which is stranger still than reading, because it requires that we not only consider that other people have minds, but that we have an understanding of how to manipulate and influence those minds, by creating still more minds, all worrying very humanly over the contents of still other minds, just to elicit specific thoughts and emotions, not in ourselves, but so that the moral of the story is understood by someone else in the end.  The depth of our theory of mind means that we don’t just cry when we lose our own loved-ones and friends, we cry when people we know lose loved-ones and friends, we cry when we hear about people we don’t know losing loved-ones and friends, we cry when elephants cry because they have lost loved-ones and friends, we even cry when we read about fictional creatures from other universes crying over elephants crying over losing loved-ones and friends.  Okay, I made that up.  But we do read about conferences where other people talk about studies still others have conducted to determine if other primates understand false belief, and we ask ourselves questions like, “Even if they did understand false belief, would they be capable of understanding it to the depths that we do?” which gives rise to still more questions and potential things to study, which leads me to believe that perhaps the ability to ponder and theorize and postulate and query even though we have a fully developed theory of mind that is capable of understanding not just that some other person or animal can only know what he has experienced, but that sometimes people will surprise us, and we enjoy being amazed like that, might just be what makes us human.

When Good Characters Go Bad

“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”

One summer in my innocent years, my older sister and I spent almost every night watching Twilight Zone reruns.  I certainly wouldn’t call myself a Zone aficionado, or even a fan, mostly because I spent what felt like hours that summer, lying in my bed, listening to crickets, wide-eyed, with my blanket tucked up under my nose and wrapped tightly over the top of my head, so I could see what was coming, ring of highly-trained stuffed animal guards standing watch into the wee hours, as I tried to rid my mind of frightening thoughts, the ideas of evil that lurked in Rod Sterling’s fifth dimension, the place where ordinary, decent human beings become things they never imagined themselves becoming (things I certainly never imagined people could be, at the ripe old age of eleven) and often wound up dead, or worse–sometimes far worse.  I promised myself countless times that I would never–EVER!–watch again, but even with all my sweat-dripping panic, my promises proved empty, time and again, as I found myself sitting there in the living room floor, glued to the TV, my own little fifth dimension running wild.

Head over to almost any author’s blog or writers group message board, and you are bound to find an article or twenty entitled something along the lines of “What to do When Your Characters Won’t Cooperate”.  Some of them are full of anecdotal charm, as the author admits that all of his or her characters fought the good fight in becoming whatever they became between the brain and the page, others offer lists, both serious and humorous, of things to try when facing off with a character who simply refuses to do what the plot demands of him, and of course there are those who claim that holistically giving in to the character, allowing him to live the life he wants, keeps said character true to himself and makes the story that much greater in the end.  What all of these people and their characters don’t know is that they only exist in the Twilight Zone.

As millions of readers turn the pages of their favorite books each day, they have no idea that the characters they know and love are actually schizophrenics, resigned to spend their entire lives perfectly aware that they are trapped inside someone else’s head.  It is a hard existence being entirely made up.  Imagine for a moment what it must be like saying the same line sixty-two different ways only to have a whole chapter of one’s life, including that godforsaken line repeated until your tongue bled, eradicated in a microsecond, as though it had never happened.  Psychopaths might understand on some superficial level, but only a character can truly know what it’s like falling in love with the perfect woman, planning the perfect lives together, only to have your dream girl sleep with her best friend’s boss’s sister’s neighbor’s pool boy for no reason other than so that you can have motive to commit murder (Murder!), just to move the plot along in some writer’s latest mystery novel.  And it is surely a fate worse than death droning on as a static shadow of meaningless drivel for 364 pages in someone else’s romance, when all you ever wanted was to open a dance studio, adopt a cat and maybe cure a little cancer, but can a character have that tiny bit of happiness?  No!  Characters have forever been powerless against the will of the author.  Characters don’t get bupkis, unless some writer thinks it up.

Note on usage: Bupkis, in English vernacular generally means "Absolutely nothing", so one might question why an author, intent on being taken seriously, would use the double negative, when it is clearly a violation of everything good and holy about grammar.  Bupkis, however, is a Yiddish term that means "Goat feces", which is in fact not a negative, but merely has negative, sometimes smelly, connotations.

It is true, writers feel forced, at times, to torture their characters into existence, but it is not out of some sadistic desire to actually wield the pen like a sword, hacking and cleaving at the lives of those people they have come to love, whittling them down until their bloody forms fit within whatever narrow window the author intends his readers to view them through.  Most characters have no idea what is really going on, just on the other side of that insane wall at the edge of their universe, as the writer fights to find the right words, only to end up heartbroken when words fail them both.  If they could know, then perhaps they would not be so ashamed when they find themselves doing things that are completely out of character, as far as they are concerned, as if they were being guided by something outside of themselves, to become the stuff of little girls’ worst fears.  If they could understand the agony of having an imaginary person, who exists solely in one’s mind, a person you have given life to out of nothing more than neural whisperings and ink on the page, argue with you for days, then perhaps he could forgive the certain death waiting for him there in the well-crafted prose that make up his brief existence.  Surely all authors know they are not just the fantasies some cracked-up characters have conjured up to justify their worst, most human moments.  Surely they know they are the real ones.

Intermingling in the black and white haze of some 1960’s TV show, narrated by the hard, smooth voice of Rod Sterling, there is a place where author and the authored demand to see eye-to-eye without daring to look, their co-dependence and mutual contempt the ironic twist that threatens to leave them both cold and bloody in a padded room long before any editor ever sees what might become of them–a place where no amount of stuffed animals with mad ninja skills can come to the rescue–a place somewhere in The Twilight Zone.