Concept: Schisms and Conflict

broken-chain

Conflict is the mother of story. Without conflict, a story is either pointless – and therefore boring – or simply has not yet reached the point where conflict has been introduced.

But sometimes conflict comes from a source that is, shall we say, less than comfortable. Without getting into too much detail about my real life in meatspace, what I’m talking about today are schisms; when two or more people are very close, but something happens and they part.

And before you start making your premature deductions, dear reader, no, I’m not talking about breakups between lovers. I’m actually heading more in the direction of schisms within a family.

It is a continuing fascination of mine to think back on the American Revolution. Historical events might lead one to believe that such a conflict was unavoidable – and if it was, well, that’s up to the historians to debate. Actually I find American history to be one of the most boring topics encountered in my so-called education (followed closely by math. Those courses were like horse tranquilizers to me at 7:00 in the morning).  No, it’s not the history itself that I’m interested in, rather, a small detail that may or may not be overlooked: how families were divided during this period.

I recall a story – I remember not whether it was a novel, a short, or just some excerpt read out to us kids – in which a family of colonial days got wind of the coming conflict, which had already rumbled along the coastal cities by the time the story began. The father of the family was fiercely loyal to the English royalty, while his son(s) held sympathies for the revolutionaries. While most families will produce children that challenge the views of their parents (especially in the modern era), this story served to illustrate a time period during which such divisions were more intense than anything many of us ever really know.

I think the story ended with the boy(s), who were of age to join the fight, took up arms to help battle for independence while the father joined the British forces. Both sides believed themselves to be fighting for the right thing – the younger believed the king to be a tyrant who had no right to control colonies an ocean away, while the elder felt a strong sense of gratitude for the crown (probably for having allowed the colonies and their way of life to grow in the first place). This is a common trait in wars, when both sides think themselves on the side of righteousness. Nothing new there, and no doubt families were divided over more conflicts than just the American Revolution.

I think that story ended with the father being killed and of course with the revolutionaries being victorious. Whether or not one of his sons pulled the trigger I can’t recall. Most of those years are a blur to me.

Anyway, when I see stories like these, with intense personal schisms mixed in with political turmoil, I can’t help but see the potential. Well-written stories will portray the view of both sides of a conflict, at least when the idea is to instill a strong sense of nobody being right (or everybody being wrong) in their opinion or reason for fighting. The Game of Thrones series, which I cite far more often than I would like to admit, is a perfect example of this. The Lord of the Rings, and to a lesser extent The Chronicles of Narnia, in fact do the direct opposite – but that is, of course, because these are very different authors with very different agendas and audiences. That’s all well and good.

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So how can we use this?

Personally, I have two story elements in the works that I’d like to share with you, dear readers. For one, it does serve as therapeutic to share some of these thoughts. For another, few things motivate me more to keep writing than talking about my writing – vain as that might sound. And I’m usually intensely self-conscious of sounding vain.

Intense appears to be the word of the day.

Anyway, here are two story elements that take place in my mainline novel project that directly relate to the theme we just discussed.

Story Element 1 – A Historical Event

Without too much backstory, I hate the conventional use of contemporary elves, refusing to utilize the word in my own writing because I simply do not favor the imagery and flavor it conveys in mainstream fantasy. What this means is that if I’m going to use an elf-like creature – and I certainly do – it has to be unique, or at least unique enough to be distinguishable from all the blond-haired knife-ears that fill out the pages and screens of media that I … don’t consume.

Dark elves are a theme visited time and time again, and not to say my own take on the “dark elf” is wholly original, the race I call czaths can most easily be described as “a hardened people with draconic blood in their veins.” They come from a volcanic land and their temperament, lifestyle, and appearance reflects this.

At any rate, the czaths have an event in their history that I simply call The Bastard War, a time when, much like the aforementioned story about the American Revolution, there is a powerful division among loyalists to the sovereign leader (who happens to be a dragon), and the younger, upstart rebels who seek to disrupt the tyrannical status quo. During last year’s NaNoWriMo event, I managed to churn out about 70% of a stand-alone novel that mostly details the events that precede the Bastard War. One can safely assume there are a few family schisms in said story.

This idea (as vague as it might appear in this blog post) just sort of emerged from my psyche, no doubt as a result of various elements (fictional or otherwise) I’ve come to experience over my life. Like a lot of my writing, I did not sit down and think “Okay. This story is going to be an allegory of the American Revolution but in a fantasy setting and the characters being a mix of drow and flamekin.”

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Story Element 2 – A Brotherly Conflict

For those who do not know, I made quite the leap and changed my surroundings not very long ago. For those of you who do not know even more, my family includes myself and two brothers, a family that has, long before my big move, become quite divided (more physically than idealistically).

But even that’s changing. The longer I stay abroad, the less in common I am finding I have with most of my family. This is a peculiar realization, as it tastes of both bitter distress and sweet liberation.

Regardless, long before any of this happened, I came across a strange thought, a latent fear of mine, also connected to the aforementioned theme. What if I were ever to be at odds with my family? Or more specifically, the man I call my older brother? At seven years my senior, I undoubtedly fall into what I call the “Little Brother Complex,” (just as much as I have the “Middle Child Complex.” If you are either, you know what I mean.) I possess a subconscious desire for the approval of my sibling like anyone would seek the approval of a parent. Approval is a powerful gift, one the likes of which I have, if I may dip into the personal arena, received only from a few select individuals. One or two of those, luckily, were family, from time to time.

Regardless, moving where I did and for the reasons I did has caused unforeseen conflict. And as I said, long before any of stuff-I-purposefully-keep-vague began happening, but it is surprisingly akin to a powerful theme I am writing about between two important characters of my mainline novel. In it, we witness a relationship between two brotherly characters who become divided – a schism having been formed along the fault lines of ideals, intent, and eventually actions. In other words, we have two people who once loved each other who are now at war.

So. As a writer. How can I use this?

Granted, the lens of fantasy (and writing in general) allows for the freedom to embellish certain aspects of such a conflict. Perhaps I’m going through something of a difficult time with my family in meatspace, and while my writing may reflect some of the feelings, the events written do not necessarily mean there is a lack of love, or an existence of violence, which may or may not appear in my fiction.

No, it is – as are all things in this carnival we call life – quite complicated. One wonders whether a favorite book of mine – The Brother’s War, by Jeff Grubb – was written by a man who had experienced great conflict with sibling(s)?

Conflicts like this make for the most engaging and powerfully felt of stories. If you can, write your stories – fiction or otherwise – based on real people and real relationships. The difference is most palpable to the reader, in my experience.

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How about something quite different from not only the subject matter of this post, but also from the type of music I usually share? This little piece comes from the soundtrack of L.A. Noire, a game I wholly believe to be quite underrated, and its music is some pretty high quality stuff. Judging from the titular use of noire, a body might be able to guess the type of music to be found in such a setting, and as such I would sooner suspect that it’s a very specific type of taste. You know, the appreciation of really old music kind of taste, heh.

Enjoy!

Review: The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

The first half of this review will talk briefly about the concept behind the short story, and the second half will focus more on the 2013 film.

I first came across the Secret Life of Walter Mitty in its original, short story form. Back in my last (and I do mean last) corporate job, Where They Thought I Worked (emphasis past tense), I consumed podcasts and audiobooks regularly.

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Pardon the repetition. Those of you who’ve been with me for awhile likely know this already.

At any rate, among those stories consumed was the titular character’s secret life, and the story itself is delightful, albeit capped off with a less-than-happy ending. Written by James Thurber, a renowned short story writer who – much to the chagrin of everyone, I’m sure – I knew nothing about until having come across this short, which is considered to be his most famous story. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was first published in the New Yorker in 1939, and has since been adapted into two films – one in 1947, starring Danny Kaye and the other in 2013 with Ben Stiller in the titular role.

Both movies are very different from the original story, but that comes as no surprise. They don’t call it an adaptation for nothing, and besides, while the general premise is retained, I rather like the 2013 film more than the short story. Perhaps this is in part to the Hollywood-ized insertions of familiar tropes – such as a love interest, the loyal sidekick, a cast of completely new, original characters, and of course modern dialog and environment. It’s been reshaped to fit modern storytelling a bit more.

Is it just me, or is Ben Stiller pulling a classic Sean Connery and getting better with age?

Is it just me, or is Ben Stiller pulling a classic Sean Connery and getting better with age?

And in spite of these differences, I still thoroughly enjoyed the short story – having heard it as a Selected Short on the American National Public Radio (NPR) while sitting in my depressing cubicle a year ago. After hearing the story, a few months later I learned about the movie coming out, but did not get to see it until fairly recently.

In fact it was aboard my plane from Newark, NJ to Hong Kong, China in July of 2014 that I saw this movie, and by the gods, it felt so apropos to my own life that the other movies I watched during that nineteen-hour flight simply paled in comparison.

At least as far as emotional impact is concerned.

I recently watched it a second time, having long since gotten hold of the movie’s soundtrack and (rest assured) listened to it thoroughly. Much like A Tale Of Two Sisters and a variety of other movies I’ve seen only a few times but listened to dozens of times, the soundtrack serves to emphasize certain plot elements – sometimes even paint a new picture of the story’s events as I hear parts of music that I did not pick up while watching.

There must be a term for this. The concept of isolating music (or other sounds) from its media source, resulting in discovering new sections of tracks that were either drowned out by character dialog or sound effects, or simply cut out of the movie altogether.

Ninjas chosen for this because of ninjas.

Ninjas chosen for this because of ninjas.

Anyway.

I loved the movie, even more than I loved the short story. This is not only a result of its modernization through the rather well-executed direction and acting of Ben Stiller, but the underlying message. The premise of “a man who daydreams because his life involves nothing particularly mentionable nor noteworthy,” and taking it to another level, left a strong impression with me.

Let me tell you why.

[I suppose this is the part where I mention

moderate Spoiler Alert. I’ll be talking as though

you’ve seen it already.]

First, let’s go over some of the undertones. A strong aspect of this plot is that Walter Mitty’s company – Life Magazine – is being downsized and converted to an online operation, something that is a very real concern for anyone paying attention to the economy (you know, in real life). Our Villain in this story is a comically bearded individual representing the modern changes happening to the American economy. Young, business-minded individuals in suits who arrive on the scene to change things; out with the old, in with the new. “Beard-Guy” is a humorous stereotype of the new age of Millennials.

To make an omelet, one must first crack an egg. And of course in this case (as with many real-world cases), the egg-shell is usually former employees as more and more companies are converted to online operations, which means they’re increasingly automated and in need of a smaller staff.

Few people think of what happens to the discarded ‘shells’ after frying their eggs.

Meanwhile, we have Walter Mitty (who is single in this film, which is noticeable difference from the source material, where he was married to a nagging woman), meets the Love Interest, a fellow employee at Life named Cheryl Melhoff. Bits and pieces of each character are revealed throughout the movie, and the more we learn, the more the characters interact, the more they seem to be a good match for each other in the eyes of the audience.

This movie is not a Rom-Com, but it has some threads in common. I’m not sure exactly how to classify this story; one would sooner be inclined to label it Adventure. At any rate, in an effort to complete his last task for Life – developing the Slide No. 25, the chosen cover-photo by Sean Connelly, Life Magazine’s most experienced (only?) freelance photographer. However, the slide is apparently missing, so Walter sets out to recover it by tracking down Sean himself – this takes him on an adventure from New York to Iceland, then Greenland, back to New York, and eventually to bloody ungoverned Afghanistan and the Himalayas.

Throughout the film, we learn that Walter is a hard worker; a good man who had set aside any real personal aspirations for simply working his ass off to keep his family (sister and mother) out of poverty.

It is difficult to dislike such a character, and at first I remember thinking that it was some sort of messiah-ism, or an expertly crafted “How can we make this character easily likable by everyone?” ploy, but in fact it’s integral to the plot. A few spoken sessions of exposition reveal this, but we as an audience also piece it together ourselves in small ways.

A deceptively powerful scene depicts Walter balancing his checkbook – this is extremely revealing of his character, and it made me realize that almost never have I actually seen characters do this in movies. More often they just go places and do things, and the film never takes into account the financial costs of their adventure.

Not to mention Walter, in his younger years, aspired to backpacking throughout Europe, among other things, and this opportunity – some thirty or forty years later – for traveling the world is nothing short of an adventure of a lifetime.

That is the major theme that struck me. The emphasis on travel.

Few stories out there will actually maintain a message of

“Travel is bad. You shouldn’t actually go anywhere.”

But few stories play on that theme as powerfully, or execute it as well, as this movie. Much like in Gravity with Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan, it isn’t necessarily about the events (or bad science…) that happen around the character, but how the events affect and change the character. During the Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, we witness Mitty’s growth.

That is what really makes a story.

Now, I obviously linger on this point for personal reasons. Choosing to travel – let alone the place itself I ended up deciding to hang my proverbial hat – remains one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life. Watching this movie while aboard a plane toward my destination felt like a complete affirmation of my choices.

And, like Walter Mitty, I am quite the daydreamer. I zone out a lot. This is Another Head Full Of Fantasy, after all. I still do from time to time, but, by the muses, it is not for want of adventure, that’s for sure. Also like Walter Mitty, I’ve changed, and grown.

Frequent readers of this blog would recognize my usual soapbox-styled rant on the emphasis of experience, so I won’t get into that so much. Suffice to say, simply (and not for the last time), that travel is good. It’s healthy. Not nearly enough Americans do (almost none of my friends back in my hometown did), and I thoroughly believe America’s isolation will leave a lasting impact in a less-than-positive way.

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So we have ourselves a movie that not-so-subtly brings some awareness to our changing, increasingly digital world; that not-so-subtly underlines the benefits of traveling to other countries; and not-so-subtly brings us a well-written story that – while it includes some strong “only in the movies” coincidences – it all ties together quite nicely and satisfactorily.

I give this movie 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Go bloody see it.

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Today’s track is from the movie, taking place right after the opening scenes. Composed by Theodore Shapiro, a composer the likes of whom did not know before, but am pleased to credit where credit’s due. The soundtrack is fitting – as most soundtracks tend to be – and it brings me joy to not only listen this piece, but share it with you folks.

Happy writing!