Journal 1: A Note on Tone
Disclaimer: I’m not an English or literary device expert (yet). I don’t really know if I’m using the word “tone” right in any of the following. I did my best to research and remember before writing this journal entry, but I hope those more knowledgeable than myself (me? I?) can forgive me for my literary sin of potentially misidentifying that which I am talking about. You have been warned.
Spoiler Alert: In this post, I make vague, but essential, references to Part V of Letters from the Waste. It may be wise to read that first before proceeding.
This past Friday, for the first time in over a month, I wrote an entry in the Letters from the Waste serial that extended beyond my four original posts, which I had composed in advance before this website even came to be. As I settled into writing the new installment, I felt thrilled by the prospect of continuing forward in a world that I had taken great enjoyment in conceiving, composing, and editing for the past month. Most of all, I felt that I had gotten a hold on the format of letter-based storytelling; when I first set out, I wanted to write the story as a collection of primary sources both to lend a sense of history to the narrative, placing emphasis on the “eyewitness,” and to challenge myself to write in a new, limited medium. Returning to writing once again, there was an overwhelming sense of newness and potential as to where the story could go. However, as I wrote this latest entry, the story took a darker turn than I might have expected.
As a writer, I believe that it is important to explore both the good and the bad, to balance tones of cynicism, hope, fear, despair, love, and every other facet of the human experience. Especially for a story like Letters from the Waste, a sort of pragmatic fantasy, I wanted to make sure that every aspect of everyday life was considered and that this was a world whose citizens could still be viewed as real people, reacting as any of us might in those given circumstances. Sometimes, there are moments when I question whether or not I successfully achieve that balance. In the last few chapters of Perchance, I have sometimes felt that the story verges on a young adult novel in its more naive moments. In Letters from the Waste, I question whether I go overboard with certain characters talking about how much they miss someone or love someone. In short, I often worry about sounding cheesy. A decent amount of my editing goes towards avoiding that, up to the point that characters and life itself are sometimes cheesy.
The most recent entry of Letters from the Waste, Part V, had me feeling the opposite. After writing parts of it, diving into the actions and motivations of characters like the Puritan, I literally felt physically sick. I experienced a strange mania, where I simultaneously thought that I had succeeded in writing a truly powerful moment for the antagonist but that I had also gone too far in the process. Again, if you have not already read Part V, I recommend that you take a moment to do so in order to get a sense of what I am talking about. It could be that my disgust just comes from having a weak stomach for the violence involved in his actions, although I don’t think that’s it. (I swear I’m not a serial killer either.) It might have been that I just had a bit too much coffee or not enough water, although I don’t think it was either of those things. I felt that, more than any other time in my imagination, I had composed a truly evil character, one who felt justified in his atrocities.
This disturbed me for a number of reasons, but there are two main ones. First, for a long time in my conceptions of narrative storytelling, I have believed that it is important, especially if you want a three-dimensional villain, to have them be sympathetic and almost redeemable. A great example of a successful antagonist that fits this mold is Blade Runner‘s Roy Batty, a subjugated being who must kill to survive. And it seemed to make sense; a tragic villain can increase the reader’s horror and embraces the fact that, in real life, the antagonists that we face are human too. Too many villains, one way or another, are neglected any humanity to anchor them, often leaving us with ridiculous megalomaniacs. Second, I was disturbed by the fact that I could come up with such an antagonist – a concept that I plan to elaborate further on in a later journal entry – and what people would think about such a development. Again, it might be that I’m soft or vain, but I felt suddenly very aware of how readers might misinterpret or become disenchanted by this most recent installment.
Consequently, I briefly considered scrapping the whole thing; I might have toned it down, but at this point, the events felt fixed. If it were to be written, it could not be written in any other way than the despair, terror, and intensity with which it had been originally set out. Like writing in pen, you can either get it right the first time, or you’ll have to start over again from the beginning. The arc for the Puritan was set, and I, as an author, really had much less control over who he was now than you might expect. So, I finally decided outright that I was going to keep the events as they were, uncensored and undiluted.
Then, on Friday night and Saturday morning, after I had completed Part V, certain events confirmed my conviction to keep the darker elements of the chapter intact. The white supremacist “protests” (tantrums, really) in Charlottesville manifested and finalized my understanding of who the Puritan is as an antagonist. To be clear, I wrote the new chapter before the protests in Charlottesville occurred, and the protests themselves did not figure into this installment (although they will likely force me to reflect on how I represent the Order in future installments). Nonetheless, in many ways, I had always intended the Puritan to be an archetype of biased intolerance, a notion that I had especially focused on when writing the newest LFTW entry. Seeing Nazis marching through Virginia with torches and terrorizing the community with violence and hatred, I came to the realization (and yes, I understand that I may be late to this party, but I’ve always tried to be an optimist, to the point that I was sometimes blind to the truth; that being said, I still am an optimist, since optimism and simple observation are not mutually exclusive) that there are some people who are just evil, unequivocally. Moreover, they feel completely justified in their evil. So, while I had thought that a villain needed to be sympathetic and tragic, some people are not, and there are some actions and ideas that can never be justified.
However, in their own twisted minds, these terrorists and racists are justified to themselves. In writing a villain, I made the mistake of confusing universal and subjective justification. Both exist, but both are not equally valid. That was the distinction I needed to make to finally understand what kind of villain the Puritan was and to understand that I had to keep the things that I had written. Villains can be justified to themselves. Villains can sometimes even be likable or have good intentions. That does not change the fact that they believe or do evil things. Complexity does not change the fact that they are evil and that they are capable of doing evil and that their actions must be recorded as such. The Puritan is evil (spoilers?) and it is my responsibility to write him as such, self-righteous mindset and all.
Now, a lot of this might seem like it does not need to be said. A lot of it might seem self-evident. Sometimes, it needs to be repeated and I need to say it to myself. A lot of it might seem to place too much self-importance in stories that are ultimately designed to entertain. That is not my goal either. There is a lot more to be done beyond this single website. But the thing is, as an author, it doesn’t really matter whether a world is fictional or not. As a storyteller and an individual, I am required to seek the truth and represent things as they are. Whether in the Waste, America, or on the island of Perchance, I cannot pick and choose to say everything is alright when it is clearly not. I can neither sugarcoat nor ignore the things that exist. Make no mistake. There is evil in our world. Perhaps the main separation between the real world and the worlds of my stories is this: more often than not, evil is not as obvious as nightmarish monsters or a man with telekinetic powers. Some days, it’s not as obvious as neo-Nazis with torches. It often exists in systems. It exists in injustice, in cruelty, in abuse, in racism, and in any form of discrimination. Wherever there is not kindness, there is evil. And real evils hurt real people, not just the characters on a page, not people who we can ignore, not people whose pain and suffering can be isolated from ourselves. These evils affect all of us. As long as there is evil in our world, as long as there is sorrow in our world, as long as there is fear in our world, you will find those things in my stories.
As long as there is evil in our world, as long as there is sorrow in our world, as long as there is fear in our world, you will find those things in my stories. We have to acknowledge these things if we are going to fight them. We have to communicate them, in both fact and fiction. For now, my stories are the best way I know how to help, or at least understand a little better.
This comes as a sort of warning: the “dark” (which is an overused and ridiculous description anyways) themes and tones of certain chapters of my stories may sometimes make you uncomfortable. Again, in Part VII of Perchance, I debated whether or not to cut parts of it out. Again, it dealt with concepts that I debated sharing. In the end, I decided not to remove any of it, because to do so would muddle the truth. That being said, it is also up to you as a reader to help me understand when I go too far or let me know if I make a mistake in representing something. In certain entries, I will put content warnings.
With that warning, though, comes a promise. I will endeavor to never negatively over-embellish the things that I write. I will never write violence, grief, depression, or any such material for the sake of purely shocking you. If I write something and release it, I do so because I believe in it, both as a storyteller and a person, or have even experienced facets of it myself. And, as the cliche goes, where there is darkness, there can be light. Like life, my stories will attempt to find the balance, but we have to acknowledge both bad and good, despair and hope, evil and kindness, if we are to experience anything real.
We have to set the tone for how we talk about anything: honestly.