I'm a speculative fiction writer who lives in the West Island of Montreal. My first story, “The Pilgrim’s Yoke,” appeared in Bards and Sages Quarterly in 2018, while his forthcoming story, “The Goddess In Him,” will appear in September 2020 with NewMyths.com. He works as a freelance editor and leads courses at the Thomas More Institute. My Master’s thesis on modern fantasy, “Fantasy as a Peripheral Modernism: Uneven Development in Charles de Lint’s Urban Fantasy” is free to read online. I'm is presently working on an archaeological thriller with a weird fiction twist inspired by Jorge Luis Borges. Follow me on Twitter @matthewrettino.
You’ve written your story. However, when you hand out your story to first readers (or beta readers), you receive feedback saying that certain events seemed manipulated by the author.
Maybe your antagonist went easy on your protagonist for some inexplicable reason, resulting in them overcoming the antagonist faster than expected. Maybe your antihero had a spontaneous change of heart the possibility of which had not been foreshadowed at all.
Whatever the case, your characters just didn’t behave like themselves; it felt like someone else was pulling the strings.
We writers need a technique to test the integrity of our causal chains after we’ve finished our first draft. After all, we write what excites us, or what we “feel” should happen next. But when the writing is so raw, the causal link between events is not always there.
Haven’t started your draft yet? No problem. A slight variation on the same technique can help you in the outlining stage, if you’re the kind of writer who finds outlines useful. I go into it in “How to Build Your Causal Chain.”
It took me so long to realize I needed a causal chain in my fiction. Specifically, it took me a long time to know I should pay attention to cause-effect relationships when revising.
The causal chain is the series of cause and effect relationships that structure your narrative from beginning to end. It’s omnipresent in the fiction you probably read, and that means it’s almost invisible when done well.
“The strongest plots are created by cause/effect chains. This makes the story feel more like a row of dominoes falling over, unstoppable and inevitable, rather than a series of random occurrences arranged for the convenience of the author.”
When not done well, a poor causal chain results in events that seem manipulated by the author. The problem for me in 2016 was that I had no idea I was doing it.
There really is a dearth of writing advice on the causal chain. For example, though Plot by James Scott Bell from the Writer’s Digest’s Write Great Fiction series discusses the importance of the lead character and the “chords” of fiction (setup, action, reaction, and deepening), there is almost no mention of the importance of tying your plot together into a series of causally connected events.
Pre-Odyssey, Plot was my go-to book for learning about how to write effective plots. But I never learned the most basic facts about plot until I was told directly that causal chains were something almost all dramatically compelling stories must have.
Maybe for some writers, the causal chain comes naturally in the organic process of writing. But for me, and I suspect for many others, it’s an under-examined aspect of writing fiction.
When I learned about causal chain, it came as a revelation, as if I’d been let in on a secret code underlying the realism (yes, even in the fantastic modes I prefer to read!) and compulsive readability of my favourite stories.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’d like to be disproven that almost nothing has been written about the causal chain.
Comment on this post if you find any books that do discuss causal chain, and I’ll collect the links in this post. Thanks!
Joseph Halden explores the evil psyche of an evolutionary scientist in “G,” included in the speculative fiction anthology E is for Evil. The following interview was conducted over Google Docs.
Joseph Halden is a wizard in search of magic, an astronaut in need of space, and a hopeless enthusiast of frivolity. He’s shot things with giant lasers, worn an astronaut costume for over 100 days to try and get into space, and made his own soap. A graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, he writes science fiction and fantasy in the Canadian prairies. His story, “G,” is included in E is for Evil, the fifth volume in Rhonda Parrish’s Alphabet Anthologies series.
In “G,” two scientists experiment with the accelerated evolution of a strain of krillids in a time conservatory, subjecting them to repeated irradiation in order to hasten their development. This naturally raises the question of whether scientists should play God by accelerating this process. Can inflicting harm on scientific subjects ever be justified? Why do human beings have such a cruel streak? Joseph Halden’s story explores these questions and more.
Matthew Rettino is a speculative fiction writer and freelance editor based in Montreal, QC. He manages Archaeologies of the Weird.
MR: Each story in E is for Evil is titled after a different letter of the alphabet. How did you find working with Rhonda Parrish’s prompt? Did the story or the letter come first? What’s it been like to write for this series?
JH: I’ve really enjoyed the process of creating stories for Rhonda’s anthologies. The way it works is that she gives you a letter, as well as her overall vision for the anthology. Once I’m given a letter, I usually go through a list of all the interesting things I can think of tying the letter to that particular theme. Because of the way the anthologies are written, with their reveal of the word at the end of the story, I try to make the word I choose something unexpected.
There were obvious choices that came to mind at first, such as “G is for Ghoul” or “G is for Ghost,” but I wanted to shine a light into places that weren’t so clearly good or evil. I had the idea bubbling in my head about an evolution accelerator beforehand, and once I tied that notion into playing God and the potential for evil, everything fell into place.
I absolutely love working with Rhonda. She maintains a great balance of professionalism and fun, while adhering to her commitments and making her expectations really clear. It takes a lot of the uncertainty out of the whole process, and it’s really just refreshing to work with somebody you know you can rely on. It lets me focus on crafting the story rather than administrative aspects of the process.
MR: In your story, Professor Victoria Manassa is a scientist who feels betrayed by God for not being allowed into space. She channels her frustration by inflicting harm on the krillids, based on the belief it will make them hardy enough to survive in space themselves. While she is cruel, her motives make her deeds believable. As an author, what was it like trying to empathize with such a cruel person? Is she evil, as the title of the anthology suggests?
JH: One of my favourite shows is Breaking Bad. Something it made me think about was how a person can go from good to evil by making a series of choices and compromises that consistently move in one direction. I really liked this idea, and thought it was probably the most realistic way to depict evil, and kind of used it as a guide.
I also used “G” as an opportunity for some self-examination, because I created Victoria partly from my own desires to go into space and associated disappointments. That made it a lot easier to empathize with her ambitions and goals, but I diverged from her thoughts as far as how to respond constructively to these disappointments (as well as her distorted religious beliefs). It’s always interesting for me to try and come up with legitimate reasons why people might do terrible things. To me that is a recipe for situation that will leave the reader thinking long after a story’s done, which is the kind of story I most like to read.
As I progressed in writing the story, it was hard not to fall into the trap of making Victoria a caricature, a cartoon cut-out of a villain. I think the temptation to fall into that trap might have been an instinctive need to distance myself from a person capable of such cruelty. I didn’t want to think of such a person as a real human, and especially as someone I could relate to. However, that was ultimately what I was trying to get at: the potential for evil exists in everybody.
While this realization is uncomfortable, I had to sit with it as I wrote the story as much as I wanted readers to sit with it when they read it. Ultimately, there is a trajectory, where Victoria becomes what most people would agree upon as evil. My hope is that her starting motivations were human enough that it caused readers to reflect upon the ways their own distorted beliefs might lead them down dark roads.
MR: You and I both attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and one of the novellas we read for the workshop was the novelette “Sandkings” by George R.R. Martin, about an owner of monstrous pets who abuses them and who gets abused by them in turn. I couldn’t help but read “G” as a gloss on “Sandkings,” since it explores similar themes of evolution and cruelty. Of course, your story goes in a different direction. Were you inspired by “Sandkings”? If so, how? What did you decide to do differently?
“Sandkings” was a definite inspiration for the story. The horror George R.R. Martin created and sustained by writing such a cruel and sadistic tyrant stuck with me long after I read the story. The whole setup was such a beautiful way to highlight and exaggerate the effects our decisions can have on the world. Usually, there are checks and balances, limits to how much cruelty a single person can exert. With the setup of “Sandkings,” however, a person’s true nature can come forth in a(n) (almost) limitless way. The consequences have to scale up to match the increasing horror of the main character’s actions and psyche, which allows for some really unique explorations of character and morality.
In “Sandkings,” the protagonist was pretty evil from the outset. I remember reading it and wanting him to suffer early into the story. The horror he receives is really well-earned, and it made it satisfying to sit through on a long, scary ride.
What I wanted to do differently, however, was to try and take somebody on the trajectory from relatable motivations all the way to monstrous extremes. I also wanted to have a general framework around the whole situation, even outside of the characters, that people might find excusable. I think examining those instances of evil is one of the most important things we can do is writers, to ensure that we don’t fall into the same traps as our characters.
To be honest I’m not sure if my ideas for the evolution accelerator came from “Sandkings” or not. I hope other people will think I did something new and interesting with the premise.
MR: As Manassa subjects the krillids to torture, they eventually develop sentience and an advanced civilization. It’s Darwinism in action. But could such advanced evolution be possible without cruelty? In your opinion, is compassion or cruelty the better educator?
JH: That’s a really tough question. I don’t know if I have a clear answer. I know people who have suffered great tragedies and ended up developing greater compassion, but I also know people who get ruined by acts of cruelty and almost never make their way out.
I think the research for parenting styles can give us an indication of the effects of compassion versus cruelty as a teacher. The parenting research shows that a mixture of compassion and accountability yields the most balanced adults. In our modern age, that would tend to lead toward higher survivability and therefore procreation.
I think there are two key points, though: (1) our modern times are arguably different than evolutionary history, and (2) the struggles are not faced alone. The latter point is the more important idea for me.
Studies show the parents of well-rounded children have firm rules and expectations, but are also responsive and understanding. So there’s no needless cruelty, but there’s not endless compassion, either. We’re still talking about parenting, though, which is a bit different from natural selection.
In evolutionary history, I suspect features that weren’t essential for survival were weeded out. So a harsher environment would lead to a wider variety of traits that would make a creature more capable of thriving on the grand stage of the universe. I don’t think, however, that such a long term benefit justifies the moral choice of inflicting such pain upon creatures. While it is good to be able to deal with life’s challenges, I don’t think we should choose to inflict them upon anyone. The research I mentioned above shows that there are other ways of instilling grit and life-skills in people than the crucible.
As to the other part of your question, no, I don’t think advanced evolution is capable without a reason for evolution to take place. I think anthropologists have theorized that complex social interactions led to the development of larger brains, and these complex social interactions were in turn a way for human tribes to be larger to pass down knowledge of survival more readily. Ultimately it all came down to adaptability, and I don’t think the heavy resources to develop such advanced brains would have been allocated without a really high need for them.
However, the label of cruelty gets a bit tricky. If someone believes there is a superior intelligence willingly inflicting this on everyone, then it is indeed cruelty. I choose to instead see it as random consequences of the structure of our universe rather than anything specifically chosen. Because seeing tragedy as a God’s choice to toughen us up is kind of a bleak outlook for me personally, and I’d like to believe that a benevolent creator could think of better ways to help us grow.
Representation matters. It’s a movement, it’s the #ownvoices hashtag, and it’s been pushing institutions like the book publishing industry and Hollywood to find more diverse creators and to cast more diverse characters and actors in the stories we love.
Much has already been said on the matter, but I’d like to add my two cents by highlighting how changes in representation have transformed genres in the past and have the power to transform them now.
Oddly enough, it is in European romance where this observation of historical change can be observed. This could be seen as ironic. After all, fantasy is a stereotypically eurocentric genre, where the tropes of European romance stand for the very antithesis of diversity in the genre.
However, the story of medieval romance’s history of development is a tale of the transformative power of representation. Why? Because genres evolve to reflect changes in societies.
As a Master’s student, I read Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, a book that adopts a historical approach towards reading the unconscious political messages embedded in literature. A famous line from Jameson’s book is the mantra, “Always historicize.”
The Political Unconscious, a theoretically complex text, contains a great insight into why fantasy and adventure fiction is burdened with the baggage of morally stultifying good versus evil binaries, in which otherness is equated with evil.
In our present climate of xenophobia, writing against the tendency of society to demonize those whom it considers other is a moral choice. For more of my thoughts on this subject, read the first post in this series.
For now, suffice it to say that fantasy’s history of colour-coded good-versus-evil binaries owes itself largely to its medieval taproot texts. But how did medieval romance itself evolve?
In his “Magical Narratives” chapter, Jameson goes into detail about how medieval romance evolved from the older form of the chanson de geste. While romance is the predecessor of fantasy fiction and adventure stories, the chanson de geste, or “song of great deeds,” is the predecessor of romance.
Chanson de geste is a literary genre in which knights and their battlefield kill scores were set to verse. The genre’s morality was absolutely black and white, with Christians labelled as “us” and Muslims as “them.” There is none of the subtle complexity of “good” and “evil” that there is in Tolkien’s nuanced juxtapositions of Gollum as an aspect of Frodo, and Shelob as an aspect Galadriel.
In chanson de geste, you’re either on the side of the Christians, or you’re already dead.
In other words, this old, somewhat quaint genre of medieval literature is closely connected with one of the worst, most violence xenophobic attacks in recent years. That should give us all pause.
The battles scenes in chanson de geste are bloodbaths fought against impossible odds. In fact, they’re reminiscent of Zack Snyder/Frank Miller’s 300, a comic book and movie appropriated by the alt-right. What’s important to remember here is not only that modern Nazis look towards these medieval texts for inspiration but also that they contain an ideological structure that colonizes our mentality and insinuates itself into the genres we consume.
The good and evil binary is so prevalent within our culture that it is almost impossible to think beyond it. However, we have to think beyond it to dismantle the harmful ideological structures that lie in the stories we love.
The Case of the Unmasked Black Knight
I once read a chanson de geste, “The Song of Roland,” in my first year of college.
From memory, I remember it is far more concerned with whether Roland’s sword cleaved this or that “Saracen” in twain than it is in parsing out the morality of a genocide. Morality here is absolute, a binary choice between good and evil, which corresponds respectively to Christianity and Islam with no room allowed for coexistence.
The chanson de geste is so absurd, this black-and-white morality even determines physics; the sheer righteousness of Archbishop Turpin keeps him alive and fighting vigorously despite his many arrow wounds. It would be funny in a Monty Python and the Holy Grail Black Knight sketch kind of way, if the over-the-top violence were not so repetitive and, frankly, dull.
Thankfully, a shift occurred when chivalric romances like the tales of King Arthur evolved from the chanson de geste. In fact, a remarkable thing occurred: the “bad” characters (Muslim knights, anonymous Christian knights in black armour) became more human.
This can be explained because the social class of knights, who were chivalric romance’s main audience, had consolidated itself across Europe. Europe was no longer a paranoid society where you couldn’t trust your neighbour. If you were a noble, your neighbour was just another wealthy noble, perhaps bound to the same king. You shared more in common with him than any differences you might have, even if you found yourselves on opposite sides of the battlefield.
What happened next, Fredric Jameson describes best. There arose
“what can only be called a contradiction between the older positional notion of good and evil, perpetuated by the chanson de geste, and this emergent class solidarity. Romance in its original strong form may then be understood as an imaginary “solution” to this real contradiction, a symbolic answer to the perplexing question of how my enemy can be thought of as being evil (that is, as other than myself and marked by some absolute difference), when what is responsible for his being so characterized is quite simply the identity of his own conduct with mine, the which—points of honor, challenges, tests of strength—he reflects as in a mirror image.
[…] This moment, in which the antagonist ceases to be a villain, distinguishes the romance narrative from those of chanson de geste“
(Jameson, Unconscious, 118-9).
At this moment in medieval history, class solidarity was signaled by a change in literary production: knights were no longer locked in absolute good versus evil combats. The villain is unmasked after he yields, and on the other side of that mask is revealed not a demon’s face but that of another knight, a member of the hero’s community.
The solidarity of the feudal nobility resulted in a rise of communal consciousness. According to Jameson, this solidarity is what triggered the rise of medieval romance, which later evolved into the modern novel.
Without this solidarity, there would have been no willingness to be empathetic and humanize the enemy and thus no drive towards psychological complexity. Without that willingness to empathize, we would not have the realism we so value in our storytelling today.
Now, I’m not saying medieval romance became less Islamophobic. It is true that Muslim knights in European romance would frequently convert to Christianity after being defeated by the hero, thus eliminating their difference. What I am saying, however, is that group solidarity determines who gets seen as an “us” in the stories we tell.
In the case of the medieval romance, Muslim knights could now be included within the same social class as Christian knights–though peasants were excluded. While it became more inclusive in some ways, in other ways it maintained exclusions.
Everyone wants to see themselves in stories. This doesn’t mean that everyone has always been given the chance to be a hero, however. Yet, when we include different kinds of people in our community, the literature our society produces must change to reflect its new audience.
This principle, according to Jameson, is a major part of what happened to bring about the rise of European romance. It’s also how a widening middle-class audience influenced the development of the novel. People wanted to read about everyday life in a way that more closely reflected their own. This is known as humanity’s need for mimesis, the capacity of literature to reflect one’s own reality.
If the history of literary genres show us one thing, then I guess it’s that literature is highly narcissistic.
Beat the Drums of Peace
The modern age is globalized and this brings people from all corners of the world closer together. This material change in our historical circumstances is reflected in our literature as it becomes more diverse. As publishers and movie produces make different kinds of people welcome within their creator communities, they foster a sense of shared belonging and solidarity. The “other” becomes an “us.”
Now, Jameson’s argument does not so much say that writing differently will somehow change society. His argument is that material changes and class solidarity serve as the primary impetus of literary change. However, it is not untrue that writing the other can encourage solidarity. Accompanied by changes in media industries, telling stories that resist the dehumanization of others can bring about social change.
When governments beat the drums of war, however, we encounter opposition to this utopian goal: the atavistic battle songs of the chanson de geste. War drums and ethical binaries encourage the idiotic thought that some human beings embody “evil” while others are “good.” This reduces “the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off” (Ursula K. Le Guin, “Afterword,” A Wizard of Earthsea (2012 ed.)).
Under the sound of those drumbeats, our literature stands to lose the complexity of psychological realism, the result of hundreds of years of literary development. The intelligence of our literature stands to be reduced to the moral binaries of chanson de geste.
To beat the drums of peace, as storytellers we must encourage solidarity between members of different classes of society. We need to create selves out of others, integrate those who have been othered into an “us.” We must use our powers of empathy to show that “they” are human beings and no different from you or I. And we must do this at the level of the industry, as well as the level of narrative representation.
If we storytellers can accomplish this and inspire true change in who gets to be represented as an “us” in our books, video games, and movies, then we are on the cusp of radical change in the genres we write about. The stupid binaries of the chanson de geste are not dead literature; they have colonized our minds and infected how we think about our fellow human beings. The good and evil binary reaches out like an atavistic spectre of the past to haunt our present.
Our work as writers is to resist that atavism. We must take a position and continue the work of humanizing the other.
N.B.: As a white male author, I’ve been giving more thought to what characters I depict in fiction in order to confront the default. While I recognize I have an imperfect perspective on the other and am blind to many facts of systemic inequality, this article represents my thoughts on the importance of representing diversity in fiction. I feel it’s time I put in my two cents on this topic. In making reference to Fredric Jameson, this article builds off research conducted for my Master’s thesis. I would like to extend my thanks to Saladin Ahmed and Usman Malik for impetus and additional inspiration.
Writing the other is an inherently political act, especially when the dominant culture wants to turn the other into a “them.”
An “us” is a person of dignity with whom we can empathize and recognize as a human being. An “us” is someone we can relate to and sympathize with, the kind of character we storytellers aspire to write: a fully complex, independent, contradictory human being with flaws, positive traits, and childhood wounds.
When we see psychological realism in a character, we recognize that character as an “us.” An “us” can be a real person. An “us” is someone we aspire to be, someone we could call our friend.
A “them,” on the other hand, is the enemy. “They” live outside the community and do not share “our” values.
A “them” can be a stereotype, an assembly of negative traits that “we” impose on “them.” “They” can also be an outright villains, feared not because they are evil, but considered evil “because [they are] Other, alien, different, strange, unclean, and unfamiliar” (Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 115).
When we encounter a villain in an action movie, western, or adventure story who seems to exist for no other reason than to make trouble, they’re a “them.” They may be mysterious or all too predictable. They can be a preternatural consciousness engaged in a massive global conspiracy, or a roving horde of bloodthirsty raiders.
Either way, “they” are faceless, undeserving of our sympathy or empathy.
Of course, in real life, “they” are a social construct. “They” does not designate evil but an out-group. However, when this group is not considered equal to other human beings, they can unjustly be seen as a sinister force.
Through storytelling, an “us” can be othered and become a “them,” a pariah blamed for society’s ills, an object, a potential target for retaliation and violence. This is the process of dehumanization that can lead to the committing of atrocities.
Media and the Other
What’s important for us storytellers to recognize is that media representation plays a huge part in this process of dehumanization, just as it also plays a role in the humanization of the other.
When a character who is brown or black, or who is a woman, appears as the hero in a popular film like Black Panther or Captain Marvel, they are being included as an “us.”
However, when when precarious economics strike, when nationalism rises to a fascist pitch and wars are declared, the community may blame an entire group for its communal ills. People may start using the pronoun “we” in nationalistic ways, promoting xenophobia and intolerance.
We’re living through that moment now. There are “we”s who are being transformed into “them”s in front of our eyes.
Under this climate, asylum seekers have become represented in the media as others, as criminals—as “them.” The same is happening to Muslims across North America, whether or not they are recent arrivals. Rather than treating them as fully integrated citizens, there is a xenophobic tendency in our culture to deny their right to exist within national borders. And this is as equally true in Canada as it is in the United States.
Even second and third generation immigrants are being asked to justify their existence. How long does a family have to live in a country until they are universally acknowledged to be a part of it?
Bill 21 and Xenophobia in Québec
This perception of immigrants’ separateness from society largely comes from the media and the stories we consume. For example, since Québec history is largely told from a French-Canadian perspective, the contributions of new arrivals in Québec are frequently minimized or excluded from nationalist narratives. This encourages a perception of Québec’s destiny as residing solely with the success of the French-Canadian “experiment” in North America and not with immigrants.
(Of course, the French-Canadians are immigrants as well; the only people who can claim not to be immigrants in North America are Indigenous Peoples).
During the hearings for Bill 21 on the wearing of religious symbols for civil servants in the public sphere, religious Quebecers, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Sikh, were not adequately consulted. One senses they were excluded because they do not represent le peuple, the French-Canadian “core” of society. Some but not all those affected were recently arrived immigrants, but all the same, the decision to exclude certain people from certain jobs in the province–to limit access to our society–had broad support.
This fact should awaken us to the true force xenophobia has in Québec and Canada. The very fact that it could be perceived as “natural” to pass this law in Québec is a sign of how much these ideas have power.
The voices of those most affected were not respected or adequately listened to; the victims the law is now affecting were treated as objects and with ignorance, as potentially sinister and radicalized “they”s who are not part of the Québécois “nous” (“us”).
Telling the Right Stories
Media depictions have real consequences. If Muslims were not depicted in media as preternatural, radicalized terrorists plotting against the West, such a restrictive law as Bill 21 would probably never have passed, since there would be no perception of a threat. Neither would Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. As a group, Muslims have become lightning rods for society’s blame, not only in Québec, of course, but across North America.
The stories we tell can other people, transforming them, in the perception of society, into an evil, collective “them” that is somehow fundamentally different from “us.” However, at the same time, we storytellers have the agency to push back against xenophobic narratives by questioning what kinds of characters we cast in which roles and why.
Think about it. Governments reduce an “us” into a “them” when it wishes to justify a war, when it wishes to justify overriding internationally recognized human rights, when it wishes to use force against members of the human community. The war could be external or internal to the boundaries of the nation state. Either way, our representations can turn the individuals they may be targeting into a mass–or it can do the opposite and show them as who they really are: human beings.
The wrong story can transform people into objects that can be killed, stolen from, or detained. But the right stories can lead to empowerment.
The dehumanizing narratives are all too common. When refugees and immigrants are described by the media as an ungovernable horde, the public’s perception of their individuality and humanity is destroyed, opening the way for the toleration of xenophobic policies.
This has been case with the Syrian refugee crisis and the asylum seekers on the U.S. southern border. In keeping the media away from concentration camps where children are detained in squalid conditions, ICE encourages their perception by the media as a mass. They become objects to manage, instead of emotionally traumatized human beings.
As creatives, we contribute to mass culture with practically every word we publish. We have the ability to resist these processes of dehumanization—or to become complicit in them and thus with the crimes they make possible.
Beat the Drums of Peace
Who gets to be an “us” in the stories we tell? Who gets to be a “them”? These casting decisions are always more than a “creative choice.” In our day and age especially, choosing is a moral act.
In May 2019, Saladin Ahmed, an Arab-American comic book writer and fantasy novelist, posted the following Tweet:
fellow storytellers –remember that war never happens without us being asked to help beat the drums. that pressure’s going to increase soon. all of us need to think ahead about what we are going to do in the face of that…
His message, written in the spectre of a potential U.S. war with Iran, is an urgent call to action.
How we choose to depict Muslim characters in fiction carries consequences, as it does for every group that has ever been labelled “other.” In the stories you tell, are Muslims an “us” or a “them,” if they are even there at all? If you’re writing a story about immigrants or refugees, how do you show them integrating, or refusing to integrate, into their new society? Do you find yourself gravitating towards tropes of the immigrant-as-criminal?
As storytellers we must all reflect on how our depictions may feed into the current climate of xenophobia.
Why? Because dehumanization beats the drums of war. When the U.S. military instructed marines to think of North Vietnamese soldiers as “gooks,” the change in language brought a change in mentality. The marines no longer felt like they were shooting human beings; they were killing gooks, not Vietnamese soldiers.
When we tell stories that implicitly dehumanize groups of people, it’s as if we’re calling them gooks. It’s the act that precedes the pulling of a trigger. It enables that process, but it can also reverse it.
Too often, however, the genres I love—romance and adventure—dehumanize those who are other, portraying them as inherently evil because they are other. In particular, fantasy has a tendency to depict otherness as a sign of evil. As writers, we all have to do better, no matter our genre.
I’ll cover the reason for why adventure stories carry this baggage in part two of my reflection. Next week, I will explain how fantasy’s tendency to other goes all the way back to the moral binaries of the chanson de geste, a medieval literary genre that could be best described as the medieval equivalent of Frank Miller’s 300 meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail–the obscenely bloody Black Knight sketch in particular.
N.B.: As a white male author, I’ve been giving more thought to what characters I depict in fiction in order to confront the default. While I recognize I have an imperfect perspective on the other and am blind to many facts of systemic inequality, this article represents my thoughts on the importance of representing diversity in fiction. I feel it’s time I put in my two cents on this topic. In making reference to Fredric Jameson, this article builds off research conducted for my Master’s thesis. I would like to extend my thanks to Saladin Ahmed and Usman Malik for impetus and additional inspiration.
Hello. I’m Matthew Rettino, a Montreal fantasy writer of eclectic taste.
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I recently attended a screenwriting workshop in which I was told not to listen to screenwriting gurus. The key to writing a good story is not in placing an inciting incident on page 23. Rather, it is in understanding the inherent rule behind storytelling itself, the dialecticaljuxtaposition of opposites.
This is a principle present at every level of storytelling, from the three-act structure to individual scenes, beats, or, in prose fiction, even individual sentences.
The screenwriting charlatans will tell you: put the inciting incident on page 23. But they never ask, “Why?” This is the problem addressed by John Yorke in his excellent book Into the Woods, which discusses the dialectical basis of narrative. My screenwriting workshop instructor recommend it to me, since it offers a much better perspective on storytelling than most screenwriting gurus provide.
Yorke argues that the three-act structure is based on the dialectical juxtaposition of opposites and that the dialectical structure permeates every aspect of art and storytelling.
But what does he mean by dialectical?
In philosophy, dialectics is the process of arriving at the truth through counter argument. The stronger the counter argument, the stronger the argument becomes. It follows the following structure: a thesis is stated (“All swans are white”), an antithesis is presented (“But there are black swans”), and a synthesis resolves the two (“Swans may be both white and black”). At the end of this process, the philosopher arrives closer to the truth.
Yorke’s observation that narrative is fundamentally about observing the world, processing it, and arriving at a conclusion came as a revelation for me. I’d encountered Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and the three-act structure before, but I’d never had it explained to me like this. Few books on the writer’s craft explain the “Why?” behind narrative structure so compellingly.
Which is why I’ve decided to take Yorke one step further. In his book, he focuses on the three-act and five-act plot. However, if you look at prose fiction under a microscope, paragraph by paragraph, the dialectic juxtaposition of opposites reiterates itself fractally, even at the sentence level. This plays a crucial role in keeping readers engaged page by page.
You can write compelling prose by harnessing the power of dialectical opposites. Before I explain how, however, let me first go over how dialectics apply to the three-act structure, since the same principle will apply at the sentence level.
Dialectics in the Three-Act Story Structure
Many stories, from The Godfather to Shakespearean plays such as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth–and even Pixar movies–follow a dialectical three-act structure. Like a dialectical argument, the stories break down into acts consisting of a “thesis,” “antithesis,” and “synthesis.”
A typical three-act story begins with a first act that presents the status quo. The second act challenges the status quo, precipitating a crisis, and the third act reconciles the two states, resolving the conflict. In this way, the structure of a dialectical argument maps onto narrative; an overarching theme is argued, counter argued, and synthesized.
For example, in the first act of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Michael Corleone is a war veteran who wants nothing to do with the mafia. In the second act, he makes the irrevocable decision to participate in the mafia. By the third act, he’s stepped into his father’s shoes as the head of his crime family and has become the devil; his innocence is forever lost.
In the thematic struggle between innocence and power, the dialectical synthesis results in Michael’s spiritual death—a tragedy.
Although some writers use the three-act structure to mark changes in interpersonal conflict or even setting, treating it as a dialectical structure that charts character change can be more useful. After all, taking The Godfather for an example, Michael’s inner journey is one between opposites: from innocence to violence. And the way these opposites resolve is through a dialectical structure.
Pixar movies work in opposites as well: a trash-cleaning robot who finds himself on a cruise ship in space (Wall-E) and a fish from the big ocean who finds himself in a dentist’s fish tank (Finding Nemo). The audience is compelled by these opposites to see how the stories eventually resolve.
It’s a principle that also works on the micro-level of a sentence.
Dialectics on the Sentence Level
Moving from screenwriting to prose fiction, I’ve observed that sentences may also exhibit a dialectical structure. In compelling prose, opposites are often presented within a sentence to create tension between two ideas or images.
Names of emotions might contrast, such as fear and curiosity, or a set of images, such as a rainstorm in the desert. In the reader’s brain, a synthesis occurs, suturing the gap between the disparate images in order to create meaning and flesh out an image that is only presented in fragments. The reader is engaged, because the prose inhabits a contradiction.
It’s relatively easy to learn this technique and apply it to your own prose. As an example, I’ve provided an excerpt from one of my personal favourite novels: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer’s prose style is laced with inherent tension, a simultaneous sense of forward momentum and dread.
In this scene, two characters, the surveyor and the biologist (the first-person narrator), are exploring an underground stairway for traces of a mysterious, possibly extraterrestrial organism.
“Should we go back?” the surveyor would say, or I would say.
And the other would say, “Just around the next corner. Just a little farther, and then we will go back.” It was a test of a fragile trust. It was a test of our curiosity and fascination, which walked side by side with our fear. A test of whether we preferred to be ignorant or unsafe. The feel of our boots as we advanced step by careful step through that viscous discharge, the way in which the stickiness seemed to mire us even as we managed to keep moving, would eventually end in inertia, we knew. If we pushed it too far.
(Jeff VanderMeer, Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy, 39)
Starting from the top, the reader is immediately confronted with the question of why both the surveyor and the biologist could have spoken the dialogue. Why not specify who said what? The reader, even if only on an unconscious level, attempts to resolve this contradiction through synthesis.
As a reader, I formed the opinion that it must reveal more about their situation to know that it doesn’t matter who is talking at any single moment. They’re both reluctantly pushing the other deeper into the thrall of curiosity.
Next, inner emotional conflict is demonstrated by the contrast between fear and curiosity. These contrasting emotions are not precise opposites, but they’re far from identical in a conventional sense. Before the reader vicariously experiences these emotions, they must confront the intellectual problem of how the emotions “fear” and “curiosity” may be related.
Can fear and curiosity be the same emotion? VanderMeer doesn’t simply give the reader the answer. What he does is say that these emotions walk “side by side” (a personification recalling the biologist and the surveyor, who also walk side by side). This way, the reader’s imagination is engaged in imagining what this “fearful curiosity” must feel like.
Andrew Stanton and Bob Peterson, the writers of Finding Nemo, once said: “Good storytelling never gives you four, it gives you two plus two … Never give the audience the answer; give the audience the pieces and compel them to conclude the answer” (qtd. in Yorke 113). To give his readers a taste of the complex emotion he wanted them to experience, VanderMeer gave them fear and curiosity and let them imagine the rest.
The power of VanderMeer’s prose comes, at least in part, from his ability to suggestively juxtapose disparate words and images. The reader must synthesize these in order to create meaning. Providing the reader with the emotions “curiosity” and “fear,” VanderMeer allows the reader to decide for themselves what feelings the biologist is experiencing.
Now, at one level, synthesis is part of the fundamental process of reading and experiencing the world. Readers do it all the time, no matter the quality of the prose. However, when the text presents irreconcilable contradictions, the dialectics of the text become more powerful and the reader engages even more.
Just as the philosopher gets closer to the truth when faced with a stronger counter argument, so do readers become more engaged when words and images are more starkly contrasted.
To return to Annihilation, the ideas of knowledge and danger are juxtaposed again later: “The test of whether we preferred to be ignorant or unsafe.” Here, the word choice is more complex, since the phrasing emphasizes the opposites of the conventional values of knowledge and safety. The biologist may prefer ignorance, which is ironic given her profession as a scientist. It also suggests that, perhaps, the biologist also wishes to be put in danger.
The reader synthesizes these contradictions, which compels them to read on.
Lastly, there’s the image of how the viscous slime sticks to the soles of the biologist’s boots, resisting her desire to step deeper down the stairs to discover the organism. On a linguistic level, “moving” and “inertia” are both opposites. Their appearance within a single sentence creates contradiction, probably in a more powerful way than if they’d been placed in separate sentences.
Opposites charge sentences with dialectical tension. The biologist is both descending the staircase and being resisted. But will her movement or inertia win out in the end?
This tension compels the reader to read on. Oppositions of this sort carry the reader right on through the story.
You could imagine that the sustaining tension emerges from the inner and outer conflicts of the characters. But on a stylistic level, contrasting word choices and structuring sentences as contradictions are crucial ingredients. I would even venture to say dialectical language can sustain reader interest irrespective of the idea of “character and “conflict.”
In conclusion, juxtaposing opposites can imbue inherent tensions into the reading experience, making your pose irresistible to readers. By harnessing the power of dialectics, your story structure will be stronger at a fractal level: both in terms of plot, and in terms of style.
In the words of the great philosopher and literary critic, Gyorgy Lukács, “The essence of art is form; it is to defeat opposition, to conquer opposing forces, to create coherence from every centrifugal force” (qtd. in Yorke 231). Embed that centrifugal force in your sentences and plot, and you can infuse your prose with the storytelling power of Jeff VanderMeer in Annihilation.
It’s been a journey and a process. I may be slowly beginning to recognize names and references to Indian history, but I’m a long way from knowing it as well as European history.
The process of acquiring this knowledge has been challenging. While my stereotypes of European history make the general course of European history easier to remember, I only have a few points of reference for Indian history. For example, I have a stereotypical image of what Venice might have been like in the Renaissance, or Paris in the nineteenth century. But I can’t say the same for ancient Pataliputra or Taxila. The closest I get is Delhi and Agra under the Mughals.
While my unfamiliarity with Indian history has begun to change as my knowledge increases, sometimes I still feel like a clueless tourist, even though I’ve come to recognize names like Chandragupta Maurya and Muhammad of Ghor.
I’m still oblivious to
the unspoken associations between events, the episodes that give colour to dry
historical chronicles. I feel as if I’m missing out on some crucial context. But,
knowing that I’m a visitor to these lands, I try to take it all in stride.
City of the Shrieking Tomb by Patrick Rogers provides a bit of colour—even if those colours are dark, crimson, and rotten. This horror tale takes the reader to a tiny pocket of India that has generally not made it into the history books. Reading it made me feel as if I was seeing something that, as a tourist, I was not meant to see. In fact, it was as if I’d been expressly forbidden from seeing it.
There is a dearth of
information on the internet about the village of Humayunpur in Karnataka, the
setting of this atmospheric horror novel. Google searches for Humayanpur do not
turn it up (at least not that I could find), although there is a Humayunpur in the
Safdarjung Enclave in New Delhi. There is no Wikipedia page for Sultan Humayun
Karabakh either, the tyrant of the village whose tomb at night shrieks with the
cries of the doomed.
However, this lack of knowledge may not be surprising, considering the exceptionally forbidding atmosphere that clouds the village, and the villagers’ suspicion towards outsiders who might spread knowledge of the curse to the outside world.
City of the Shrieking Tomb follows the footsteps of Rick, a clumsy, dense westerner with a camera. He is, in fact, a professional photographer who finds himself stranded one day at a bus depot in Karnataka. Rick feels like the only foreigner in all the city of Gulbarga. Exhausted from the heat, desperate for a bus to Bihar, and wanting nothing more than to watch Hindi-dubbed SpongeBob SquarePants at his air conditioned hotel in Hyderabad, he is frustrated and tired, ready to give up his quest to take pictures of Islamic architecture for a photography book.
There’s a certain
bewildered clumsiness to the photographer that is both endearing and relatable
to anyone who has ever been a tourist. Although I’m only an armchair tourist in
India, I imagine, based on my experiences of travel in other countries, that I
would have shared something of his bewilderment and exhaustion. Being immersed
in a country with a culture and language that is not your own can be a
soon meets Awaz, a doctor who takes pity on him. He tells him he can reach Bihar
if he takes a rickety bus towards his village of Humayunpur. There, the bus breaks
down, and Awaz decides to host the photographer in his own home, to the mild
protests of his wife.
Humayunpur turns out to be a village situated in the midst of an ancient fort. Spectacular Mughal-era tombs and mosques mark the village as a picturesque destination—everything the photographer ever dreamed of. This includes the immense tomb of the sultan, the dome of which is broken in half, a casualty of a tumultuous battle.
That night, Rick first
hears the shrieks coming from the tomb. He slowly realizes—very, very slowly, I
might add—that there is more to Humayunpur than meets the eye. Determined to put
Humayunpur on the map, Rick resists Awaz’s repeated demands not to take any
pictures of the ruins. Little does Rick know that he is walking into a story more
ancient and terrible than he can conceive.
Rick’s stubbornness seems typical of western tourists, or at least typical of certain stereotypes. He is repeatedly described as “dense” by Narcissus, the village historian who never misses an opportunity to tease him about it. As the story develops, Rick’s greed for photographs brings him into conflict with the villagers, who resent his invasive presence. However, this does not stop Rick from wanting to visit the tomb of Sultan Humayun Karabakh himself—a decision that determines his ultimate, grizzly fate.
This novel’s strength
is in how it shines light on a little-known aspect of Indian history: the rebellion
of Yusuf Karabakh against Sultan Humayun Karabakh at the bequest of the Sultan’s
wife. It builds suspense and, although it can be difficult to judge these things,
it seems to me as if the author has had first-hand experience of India.
It was also enjoyable,
for me at least, to watch Rick fumble like an (albeit sympathetic) idiot, right
into the death trap that we expect him to stumble into all along. Horror readers
who read horror for the joy of it will find nothing amiss. I wanted to yell at
Rick to “get outta Dodge,” as Narcissus puts it, even though I knew full well
The novel’s main
weakness is that the characters are rather one-note. Rick is always the
stubborn, foreign photographer; Awaz is the helpful but worried local whose
refrain is “No photos!”; Narcissus dumps information about the historical
backstory of Sultan Humayun and the Black Flower Goddess and keeps reminding
Rick just how “dense” he really is.
It would have been
nice to see these characters adopting different roles in the story and
expressing themselves in different ways. As a result, the story tends to drag
on at times, even though it is quite short at only 120 pages. That being said,
if you are willing to put up with the one-notedness of the characters, you will
be satisfied by the knockout ending.
As you may have guessed, the title is “The Critical Irrealism of Borges’s Aleph.” You may already be familiar with Jorge Luis Borges’s famous short story, “The Aleph.” If you aren’t, do yourself a favour and read it: it’s a phantasmagorical vision told in sophisticated prose and you won’t be disappointed.
Back yet? Good. Now, you might be wondering what critical irrealism is. Fortunately, the answer is quite simple.
Critical irrealism is basically a stance a writer takes towards reality. Instead of assuming that literature can represent reality objectively, as all realist fiction does at least implicitly, the critical irrealist demonstrates the ways reality cannot be trusted. Often, critical irrealists do this through the devices of fantasy, gothic fiction, and surrealism.
I’m fascinated with Borges because he seems to encapsulate the concept of critical irrealism so well. In “The Aleph,” he describes a point in space in which all other points are visible simultaneously. This object, which he calls the Aleph, is a vision into the totality of the worlds in the universe. However, there’s a catch.
While it appears to present a perfect representation of the universe, Borges’s narrator comes to distrust it. He calls it a false Aleph, suggesting the way human beings sometimes deny what they know to be true. I explain the reason for this in my article, which you can read here. For now, suffice it to say that Borges throws doubt on the very ability of language to represent reality, let alone infinity.
The Aleph also reminded me of a similar artefact mentioned in Usman T. Malik’s award-winning novella “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn.” It’s an interesting coincidence, and probably more than a coincidence, because as it turns out, “The Aleph” and “Pauper Prince” are linked by a common legend.
The hero of Malik’s novella travels to Pakistan to unravel some mysteries that lie in his family’s history. On this quest, he comes across an ancient artefact that grants him knowledge of the whole universe, including the realm of the jinn. It is the Cup of Jamshid of Islamic legend, also known as the Cup of Kai Khosru.
It turns out that legends of this famous cup may have partly inspired Borges’s Aleph. In his story, Borges explicitly compares the Aleph to “the sevenfold goblet of Kai Khorsu,” one of the artifices described in a forgotten manuscript written by Sir Richard Francis Burton, the adventurer and translator of the One Thousand and One Nights. One might conclude that stories of this cup, a sort of Islamic Holy Grail, were percolating at the back of Borges’s highly intertextual mind.
However, whereas Borges must maintain a plausible denial of the fantastic, Malik does not fear dipping fully into fantasy. Indeed, Malik presents us with a real Aleph, similar to the one Borges describes: the seven-ringed Cup of Jamshed.
Adventure fiction — defined broadly as any kind of fiction that focuses on the mounting physical challenges characters must face, usually in dangerous, exotic locales — allows the writer little room for characterization. How then is it possible to depict credible characters, especially when so much time is spent on riverboat chases and other stunts?
Given the breakneck pace of the adventure genre, depicting rounded characters can be a challenge. For an adventure hero or heroine to be fully credible, they must be more than competent. They must also be a three-dimensional, believable person.
This is complicated by how adventure fiction’s interest lies in action and suspense rather than characterization. In How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card remarks on how the Indiana Jones movies “spend very little effort on characterization beyond what is necessary to keep the story moving.” It is the same way with the archaeological thrillers of Andy McDermott, James Rollins, and Matthew Reilly, as well as in other adventure genres. The cutthroat pace of adventure makes nuanced characterization more difficult to achieve than in other types of fiction. In fact, some writers barely even seem to try.
Breaks devoted to characterization may spoil an adventure story’s forward momentum. Yet, if adventure fiction writers want to find a way to explore their protagonist’s hidden depths, either the pace must slow in certain places, or characterization must be presented on the fly. This is no mean feat.
Samuel R. Delany, author of the speculative fiction novels Dhalgren and the Return to Nevèrÿon series, addressed this issue back in 1969. “Often,” he writes in About Writing, “in the rush to keep the action going, writers who specialize in what are seen as adventure stories forget to confront their characters (especially the women) with enough objects/emotions/situations or give their characters space enough to react in a way both individual and within the limits of psychological veracity.”
Indeed, credible female characters were — and perhaps still are — even rarer in the genre than credible male characters. Although I plan to examine some of the reasons why this might be, for now, I will only point out that characters both male and female tend to lose their individuality in adventure stories.
One snowboarder buried in an avalanche will try to dig out of the snowdrift in much the same way as another. A character needs to be involved in a wider variety of situations to really emerge as an individual.
True, heroes like MacGyver might improvise impromptu gadgets, or approach problems in a unique way, but all the same: in this genre, many opportunities for individualization often get lost in the shuffle.
One solution to individualize your adventure story protagonist would be to develop a wider variety of situations to test her. But of what nature should these situations be?
Delany has the answer. There are “three types of actions,” he writes, “the purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous” (my bolding). A credible character who performs several instances of each type of action, he states, “will probably seem more real.”
Why is this so? To answer this question, I’d like to draw attention to Delany’s observation that female characters in adventure fiction often only exhibit one type of action. Villainesses are usually all purpose, while heroines remain either exclusively habitual or gratuitous. Sexist stereotypes about cunning stepmothers, homely housewives, and male-fantasy fulfilling lovers spring to mind.
What this goes to show, aside from the sexism of many male authors, is that when a character only performs one type of action, it limits their agency to something less than what is believably human. Often, you end up with a stereotype of one sort or another, or perhaps an unoffensive character who serves as nothing more than a function in a story. If, however, a character performs the full range of purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions, then she becomes an individual rather than a type.
True, a secondary character with a walk-on role is still legitimate. They may be necessary for fulfilling a function. However, if the character is meant to generate sustained reader sympathy and interest — if the reader is meant to believe in the character as a fully individual human being — then the character must be able to perform purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions.
The adventure genre itself has no problems with purposeful or gratuitous actions. Gratuitous adventures such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road are embarked upon for a simple reason: to see what’s out there. Purposeful adventures are often missions, such as the quest to destroy the Ring in The Lord of the Rings. Even Robinson Crusoe acts with the stout purpose of a homo economicus as he transforms his island into a profitable colony.
Mixing purposeful and gratuitous actions can nuance an adventure story, if the story leans too heavily towards one type of action. However, I am hard-pressed to think of any adventure that is fundamentally based upon a habitual action.
Habitual actions seem inimical towards adventure. After all, readers pick up adventure novels to escape from their daily grind, and the genre itself is synonymous with the idea of risk — anything that interrupts the regular, habitual routine. There isn’t much that is habitual in explosions and hungry alligators, after all. At least not for most people.
And yet, habits define our daily lives and are a crucial part of who we are as human beings. This places characters in adventure fiction risk at seeming incomplete as people and as individuals. But this again raises the question: How can you find time in your fast-paced adventure story to demonstrate your character’s daily habits?
Character “quirks,” like smoking cigars or taking swigs from a hip flask, may be one unobtrusive solution. But truly meaningful habitual actions can be difficult to illustrate without breaking the story’s momentum.
To answer this question, it is worth realizing that plenty of habitual actions happen on adventures. On the road, characters must set up their tents, cook their food, and maintain their gear. Many adventure writers skip these boring, everyday travel details in order to “get to the action.” However, they might be missing out on important opportunities for characterization.
For example, Ursula K. Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness devotes considerable space to the mundane details of Renly Ai and Estraven’s trans-glacial sledge trek. She dwells upon their dwindling food supply, their sleeping habits, the way they set up their tent, and so forth. Information as simple as how they lay their sleeping bags down for the night adds compelling insights into their relationship.
By having them perform such habitual actions, Le Guin adds depth to their characterization, individualizing them and rendering them far more credible as people.
Adding details of your character’s habits during such moments may be the key to fleshing out their individuality. But what other opportunities for demonstrating your character’s habits are there in adventure fiction?
Adventure often involves characters attempting to secure the basic needs for survival. Think about food, sleep, money, and society. Chances are that your character has a unique way of acquiring their basic needs.
Indeed, Delany provides a list of questions based on these same points that you can ask yourself when writing characters. These questions are designed to explore what your characters “should be exposed to and allowed to have individual reactions to, to make them appear particularly vivid”:
“Food: How does the character behave when eating with a group? If possible, how does she or he react when supplying food for others?
Sleep: What particularizes his/her going to sleep, his/her waking up?
Money: How does he or she get his/her shelter, food, and how does she or he feel about how she or he gets it?[and]
Society: How does he or she react to somebody who makes substantially more money than he or she does, and how is this different from the way he or she acts to an economic peer (and believe me, it is different, however admirable)?”
While by no means an exhaustive list of possible questions, Delany’s questions can be a prompt for exploring the unique ways your adventure story protagonist engages with the fundamental elements of life: food, sleep, money, and society.
In conclusion, all three types of action that Delany describes— the purposeful, the habitual, and the gratuitous — can be used to flesh out your characters in adventure fiction, even if habitual actions are under-used in the genre. You can thus individualize and nuance your adventure story protagonist without sacrificing suspense and momentum.
Thinking about how your hero or heroine would react towards certain situations that all human beings have experienced before can help you understand what makes your adventure protagonist a distinct, particularized individual.