Average Everygirl

Dangerous Artifacts and the Characters Who Love Them

Average has a gift for neutralizing dangerous artifacts.
When it comes to dangerous artifacts in a fictional setting, every writer faces at least two dilemmas:

  1. Why does everyone want this thing?
  2. Why is the main character the most appropriate to deal with it?

(I mean, you can ignore those two issues, but then you end up with a confirmed MacGuffin and a contrived plot. If that’s your cup o’ tea, more power to you.)

Issue #1: The Cause for Desire

The obsession with dangerous artifacts usually boils down to one word: power. “Dangerous artifacts” are dangerous because they grant or disrupt power and thereby throw off the balance of the universe. Consider:

  • The One Ring (LOTR)
  • The Elder Wand (HP)
  • The Amulet of Samarkand (Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy)
  • The Orb of Aldur (Eddings’s Belgariad)
  • The Godstone (Carson’s Fire and Thorns)
  • Every dragon egg and enchanted sword across the fantasy spectrum

Each is a singular item that amplifies its user into a new class of abilities. Hence, the bad guys want the power, and the good guys (generally) want to keep it hidden. Or, either side might want to destroy it, depending on how its powers affect them.

And then there’s that one poor sap who stumbles across it unwittingly.

Issue #2: “Why Me?”

When a dangerous artifact lies at the center of a crisis, the story inevitably needs someone to deal with it.

Enter the Chosen One.

I’ve encountered a lot of critique lately about how books—and fantasy epics in particular—keep focusing on this motif of a Chosen One. The snarkier critics point to it almost with a sneer.

“Oh, look! Another story about a Chosen One! How original!”

While I agree that the motif can be too heavy-handed, stories by their very nature must center on unique individuals. Protagonists have to measure up to their conflicts, or else they’d get eliminated in the first three chapters. And then what was the point?

(Or you can take away the conflict, but then we’re left wandering the hills with Wordsworth. Again, what’s the point?)

In a sense, every protagonist is a Chosen One, because the author chooses to tell their story.

So, answer #1 to the question of “Why this protagonist?” is simply “Because it had to be someone.”

A pretty crummy answer by itself. Which is why there must be something more.

That Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi

Some characters merit their Chosen One status because they are literally chosen by God, prophecy, or the villain himself to rise up against the conflict:

  • Princess Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza (chosen by God)
  • Taran of Caer Dallben (chosen by prophecy)
  • Harry Potter (chosen by prophecy and/or Voldemort)

Others merit it because of their heritage, lineage, or inborn talent:

  • Frodo Baggins (mild-mannered hobbit = less susceptible to the Ring)
  • Arthur Pendragon (son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine, daughter of a Welsh king)
  • Nathanial/John Mandrake (natural-born magician with all the advantages therein)

In some rare cases, the protagonist appears to assume their role by happenstance, but beware that condition. “Chance” almost always ties into fate.

Accept it. Embrace it. Enjoy it.

A Final Observation on Dangerous Artifacts

While jewelry and weapons receive favored status, the truly innovative artifacts fall outside these categories. For example, Lloyd Alexander’s black cauldron grants its owner the means to an immortal army and his oracular pig allows glimpses into the future. They’re both brilliant artifacts, because no one expects anything so grand from cookware and livestock.

(And yes, h/t to the Mabinogion for that innovation. Source material matters, my friends.)

Verisimilitude: A Most Essential Plot Element

Average and Nerdly discuss the newest plot element
NOTE: In case anyone’s forgotten my generic characters’ names, “Totally” refers to “Totally Everyguy,” Average’s male counterpart. (I add this note because my own mother said, “Wait, who?” Hahaha. I’m sure he would do wonders with this latest plot element.)

The Science of a Good Plot Element

So, it’s been at least 15 years since I studied any of the natural sciences. I had CP Chem in high school and a semester of Physical Science in college that included a chemistry unit. I don’t remember a ton about them (because that was half a lifetime ago, y’know), but one thing that did impress me was the solid truth of the periodic table.

Like, “These are the elements, and because of how atoms work, these elements are set in stone.”

(We’re not getting into isotopes or any of that complicated stuff, m’kay?)

The result is that any time I come across a fictional work where characters utter something akin to “This is a non-earth element,” my BS detector pings off the chart.

Because, as far as I understand, the periodic table has defined every possible element in existence, with the exception of a handful of man-made elements appended at the end. And all of those are extremely unstable and thus unlikely to exist anywhere outside the laboratory in which they are (briefly) created.

Am I wrong? Maybe I’m wrong. If so, my apologies. (And please leave an explanation for why I’m wrong in the comments. References much appreciated.)

It’s Not “Just a Story”

The realms of fiction exist to take us beyond the natural world. Even so, they have to follow natural laws or else they destroy verisimilitude.

Verisimilitude: The semblance of truth. The term indicates the degree to which a work creates the appearance of the truth. (Harmon & Holman, A Handbook to Literature, p. 538)

This oh-so-useful term doesn’t apply only to realistic fiction. For me, it’s a defining feature that separates good writing from bad across the spectrum of literature. This “semblance of truth” allows us to slip into the story, to feel alongside the characters, to agonize over plot twists and rejoice at happily ever afters.

When it breaks, we jolt out of that fictional world, and we’re generally none too happy about it. (This ties back to the unspoken Author-Audience Contract. We want a story to fool us, but without verisimilitude, it can’t.)

Verisimilitude is a tricky beast. It allows the same person to accept Tolkien’s mithril wholesale while they give the squinty side-eye to Doc Brown’s flux capacitor. In the Star Wars franchise, it simultaneously invokes the adoration of millions and the scorn of physics teachers everywhere.

(Or maybe it was only my physics teacher. My class once got a lecture on the properties of outer space thanks to someone mentioning Star Wars.)

It is, in short, subjective according to an individual’s understanding of Truth.

Fantasy at an Advantage

When it comes to verisimilitude, the fantasy genre holds a distinct advantage: the reader comes to the story with their sense of realism already disengaged.

No one fact-checks J.K. Rowling on the existence of magic. Nor do they chide C. S. Lewis on the implausibility of an inter-dimentional portal at the back of a wardrobe. A plot element need not be anchored in reality to resonate truth. It need only resonate truth within its fictional domain.

Because fantasy storylines exist outside of the normal, explainable world, many patterns of truth fall instead to characters, relationships, and personal growth.

But this doesn’t let a fantasy writer off the hook when it comes to rules. If Harry Potter suddenly created a portal to another dimension by playing a song on a flute, for example, the reader would likely object. (The HP universe requires wands for working magic, and Harry’s more of a jock than a musician. Not that he couldn’t be both, but he isn’t.)

Those who write fantasy engage in a boatload of world-building for this very reason. If they skip this step and change rules to accommodate their plot, they’ll undermine the story’s verisimilitude.

And this goes double for the author who writes in a “real world” setting. If that’s your bread and butter, beware the errant plot element.

Ultimately, you see, all fiction is fantasy. Some is simply more upfront about it.

***

Citation: Harmon, William and Holman, C. Hugh. A Handbook to Literature, 8th Ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Plot Devices and Other Narrative Thickeners

Average Everygirl #94

We’ve all been there. One minute you’re minding your own business, and the next, a dangerous and coveted plot device tumbles into your hands. And then it’s off to Mt. Doom or Alderaan or the Marshes of Morva to figure out just what to do with the blasted thing.

Much to your chagrin.

The Inherent Joys of Plot Devices

But everyone loves plot devices, and for good reason. Without them, literature would consist entirely of people remarking on their surroundings while they aimlessly wander the countryside.

Also known as the Collected Works of William Wordsworth.

(Sorry, not sorry.)

Plot devices come in many shapes and sizes. They trigger the story arc and drive it forward. The best of them hold the key to solving everything. They are the bread and butter of every writer worth his snuff.

(Yes, I’m giving you the side-eye, Wordsworth. You know what you did.)

But, of course, not all plot devices are created equal.

The Dreaded MacGuffin

Although Alfred Hitchcock gets credit for the term (spelled “MacGuffin” or “McGuffin,” depending on your preference), the concept of the MacGuffin existed before he put that term to use. It refers to an object that everybody in the story wants but that has no special attribute beyond that.

Classic examples abound.

  • The Golden Fleece? MacGuffin
  • Helen of Troy? MacGuffin
  • The Holy Grail? MacGuffin

All of these items have the same draw for those who seek them: “There’s this thing, see? And everyone’s after it, but we’re going to get it.”

*cue prematurely triumphant laughter*

MacGuffins typically cause more trouble than they’re worth, and they have no real benefits beyond some vague blessing or prestige that comes with ownership. Thus their narrative value lies only in how well they can drive an interesting plot.

(I’d give first place in this category to Helen of Troy, but the Apple of Discord is the instigating MacGuffin there. I mean, really? “Look, I need that piece of gold produce. Everyone knows that imitation-fruit trophies are the highest authority in determining one’s worth and value.”)

As with any trope, the application governs its merit. “MacGuffin” is more of a fun term than a derogatory one. Some MacGuffins are superfluous, but others are downright essential.

The Cellini Venus in How to Steal a Million (1966), for example, does nothing and is literally worth nothing, but it makes for a superbly entertaining plot.

Heist and mystery story lines frequently rely on MacGuffins to spur their heroes. You don’t expect a box of jewels or a priceless Van Gogh to have properties beyond “expensive” and “coveted.”

Quests and epics, on the other hand, can wade into forbidden territory. Long story short, if you introduce an artifact into your fantasy adventure, it better do something more than look pretty.

Further MacGuffin Reading

For more examples of MacGuffins, TvTropes.org provides an extensive list, including dozens of trope variations. Do you have a favorite? Leave it in the comments!

Finding the Easy Way Out

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Anticlimactic plot twist? Guilty as charged!

The Author-Audience Contract

An unwritten contract exists between every author and their audience. The author promises to take the audience somewhere new—to greater knowledge or fantastic lands—and the audience promises to go along for the ride. The lion’s share of the work lies on the author’s side. If they fail to engage with cunning word-craft, the audience has every right to abandon ship or—worse—to remain on board and snark through the whole trip.

Which can be grossly entertaining, I’ll be the first to admit. (MST3K, anyone? Coming soon to a Netflix near you!)

Generally, though, it’s never the author’s goal to inspire rampant mockery. The author-audience relationship is meant to be cooperative: author provides story, audience is entertained. One of these days I’m going to write a whole series of posts on the linguistic principle of cooperation. For now, suffice it to say that this cooperative relationship involves a delicate balancing act on the author’s part.

The savvy reader looks at every book as a puzzle to decipher. The savvy author looks at every reader as a customer to entertain. And that is where plot twists come into play.

The Garden Path

Plot twists, plainly defined, are the punchline to a joke you didn’t know you were being told. Sometimes the joke isn’t at all funny. Sometimes it’s horrific or heart-wrenching. The punchline catches you off-guard and sends you reeling. That moment of enlightenment, of surprise and delight or despair is the ambrosia sought after by author and audience alike.

We sometimes refer to authors adept at plot twists as “leading [their audience] down the garden path.” The audience, in large part, signs up for this deception too, and if they don’t receive it, they can feel cheated in the end.

Which leads us to our worst offender…

Deus ex Machina

Literally “God from the Machine,” this infamous plot device is the cheapest ploy on the block. It refers to a convention in Ancient Greek plays where the characters would become so entangled in their dire and twisted circumstances that their only way out was through divine intervention in the form of a god lowered onto the stage via crane.

Modern versions don’t typically involve deities or pulley systems. They might lean on happenstance or good fortune that drops out of the blue to save the day. Sometimes they are simply a conflict too easily resolved: a villain that isn’t as bad as they seem, a “catastrophe” with minimal impact, or the ever-popular “it was all a dream” cop-out.

These and their ilk are the literary equivalents of expecting a decadent truffle and biting into a stale marshmallow instead.

But sometimes, from the author’s perspective, deus ex machina is oh-so-tempting. Especially in that first draft stage when you get to the point where you just want to set the whole manuscript on fire and walk away.

*cough*

It’s hard work to embroil one’s characters in turmoil and ruin. It’s harder work to get them believably back out again. For the sake of the author-audience relationship, though, plotting is always time well spent.

***

PS – Happy Birthday to Average Everygirl. Today marks a year from her Average debut, and what a long way she’s come.

 

Honing In on What Matters Most

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Last week, in the midst of procrastinating a fair number of tasks, I read a book. It was a decent story, sound in writing mechanics, pretty good dialogue, interesting plot points, and so forth, but there was one major problem: its pacing was

so

very

slow.

I wanted to like this book, I really did, but I kid you not, it took eight pages—eight—for the protagonist to wake up, get dressed, and go down to the kitchen for breakfast.

Eight pages.

There was backstory aplenty and introspection galore, and even a little eavesdropping on other characters Doing Things, but the end result was a narrative that dragged like a legless dog on a leash.

Which was tragic because, again, the writing was sound. This was a skilled author.

I’m not passing judgement. I’ve been there before, so deep in my character’s life that I included every minute detail and motivation and thought. To some extent, it’s part of my drafting process, to reassure myself that I know my character, that I know my plot, and that I know what’s happening at any given moment.

But the reader doesn’t need to know 90% of it and may well get annoyed at the surplus of information. We live in an age of instant gratification. No one wants to wade through eight pages of prose just to transport a main character from their bedroom to the breakfast table. Those details might make it into the first draft, but that doesn’t mean they should stay for the final one.

The Value of a Crisis Mindset

I’ve heard publication dates referred to as “book birthdays,” but I prefer to view them as another life event entirely: they are manuscript death-days. The book, once published, exits the creative process. Sure, you can make minor changes or corrections here and there, and the modern indie industry actually allows for full-blown plot overhauls and rewrites, but going forward, any drastic changes will disrupt the trust relationship between author and reader. The goal in publishing has to be a polished end-product.

The publication deadline, then, presents a crisis—an end-of-the-world scenario, if you will.

And, as with real-life crises, it gives the author cause to hone in on what is truly essential.

The drafting process, hard work as it is, has a carefree angle to it. You can create a whole cast of characters, endless gratuitous scenes, and witty dialogue that runs on for pages and pages. Eventually, through this drafting stage, everything gets cobbled together into one flowing narrative, and you type “The End” with a final flourish on the last page.

But that’s actually only the beginning. With a first draft complete, the looming crisis of publication engages. You enter the editing stage.

Some authors edit as they go along. (I do, certainly.) They get to the end of a draft and feel as though their project is complete. (Again, guilty as charged.) There is a fundamental difference between the drafting and the editing stages of writing, though:

Drafting is for the author’s benefit; editing is for the reader’s.

Pretty much any project that does not consider its audience’s needs separate from its creator’s intentions will fall short of its full potential. The purpose of the editing stage is to refine that raw material produced in the drafting stage.

This is a time to strip away all the extra descriptions, break up with the unnecessary characters, ditch the irrelevant scenes, and train a narrative’s focus upon the fundamental themes of the story. It’s a time to honor the reader by considering their expectations and ensuring that the story delivers on any promises it made.

The crisis mindset allows an author to sit down with their manuscript, acknowledge that the two will soon part ways, and to reinforce the story’s most important principles before sending that little bundle of joy out into the world to get shredded to pieces by the rabid readers that await.

(Only kidding, readers. You are mostly wonderful.)

While there’s no possible way to please 100% of an audience—and I’m not saying anyone should try—the end goal, simply, is to present the most polished story that an author can for where they are in their writing journey.

As difficult, tedious, and headache-inducing as the editing process can be, it’s nothing to bemoan. Editing is where the true craft of writing begins.

It is, in short, essential. Carefully attended, it allows an author to meet that crisis of publication with confidence and bid farewell to their lovely manuscript with no regrets.

 

A Minor Hiccup in a Hedge

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Nestled among the marked (or “dispreferred”) behaviors of discourse we find a lovely little linguistic feature known as “hedging.”

Hedging is the default refuge of anyone who doesn’t want to be held 100% accountable for what they say. The speaker tempers their words to lessen the impact of their speech, thereby creating a verbal trap door through which they can escape should the need arise.

It’s the linguistic equivalent of tiptoeing and a useful hallmark of lawyers, politicians, bloggers, and anyone else who might worry about getting caught in a lie by their own soundbites.

Shifty behavior isn’t the only factor that lends towards hedging. Politeness plays a strong part as well. You don’t want to speak in bald absolutes? There’s a hedge for that.

Modal Hedges

Modals provide a ready means of hedging. Compare the solid, reliable sense inherent in can, will, shall, and must with the weaselly, conditional sense of may, might, could, should, and would. You can almost hear the retractions formulating in a speaker’s mind:

“I told you I might help, not that I will.”

As modals, by their definition, indicate a speaker’s mood toward the statement they utter, use of the conditional models is a dead giveaway for a hedge. The speaker may follow through, but then again, they might not.

Verbal Hedges

Verbal hedges come in at least two varieties. The first is the pull-your-punch linking verbs that people like to substitute for the solid “to be”:

  • to seem; “She seems nice.” (I don’t know if she actually is, but she seems that way right now, so don’t hold me accountable if she turns out to be a massive jerk.)
  • to appear; “It appears we have an agreement.” (We have one, but I don’t want to trample on your sensibilities by declaring is so boldly, in case you’re having second thoughts.)
  • to look; “He looks angry.” (Every visual cue for anger is there, but there’s a slight chance he has one of those angry faces, so I won’t definitively label him as being angry just yet.)

The second type is a shell verb that dilutes the main verb of a sentence to allow for exceptions to the statement. For example,

  • tend to; “I tend to shriek when I’m scared.”
  • try to; “I try to obey traffic laws.”

Such hedges can be useful, but remember: the longer the verb phrase of a sentence, the weaker its effect. In strong, efficient writing, verbal hedges get the boot.

Adverbial and Adjectival Hedges

Adverbial and adjectival hedges are, as their name implies, adverbs, adjectives, or adverbial phrases that qualify another lexical part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or preposition).

Some of these hedges reflect “smallness” in their literal meaning, the better to minimize the rhetorical impact of the word or message they modify:

  • a little; “I may be a little late.” (“I won’t be there on time, but it’s nothing to get upset about.”)
  • a bit; “Your voice is a bit loud.” (“Tone it down, Brunhilda.”)
  • slight; “We’ve run into a slight snag.” (“Something’s gone wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong.”)
  • at least; “I called your name at least five times.” (“I lost count after five, but there were more than that. Or I’m exaggerating to make you feel bad.”)

Others reflect “variety”:

  • kind of; “I’m kind of happy.” (“I’m happy, but saying it outright is too much.”)
  • sort of; “You’re sort of a jerk.” (“You’re totally a jerk. Mend your ways.”)

The “frequency” adverbs often and sometimes serve to temper their absolute counterparts, always and never.

My personal favorite with adverbial hedges is when they pile up on each other, à la kinda sorta (“I kinda sorta like you, Jimmy.” *blushblushblush*) or when they directly contradict the adverb they’re modifying.

Kind of really, my love, I’m looking at you. “I’m kind of really annoyed right now” actually means “I’m really, really annoyed right now, but I’m tempering one of those reallys with a kind of because I’m showing restraint, but if you don’t take the cue I might end up wringing your neck.”

Yes, in a strange twist of language, kind of really is a hedge that augments and diminishes at the same time, people.

(Which is why I love it so.)

When it comes to narrative writing, adverbial and adjectival hedges are mostly superfluous (YSWIDT, haha?) and can be edited out. A slight snag is a snag. A minor hiccup is a hiccup. And if you’re a little late, you’re late. Period. No qualifying necessary.

Except when you kind of really need to, I mean. And then it’s pretty much okay.

The Most Potent of Good-luck Charms

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Once upon a time, fictional dogs didn’t stand a snowball’s chance of surviving to the end of the story. Old YellerBristle Face, and Where the Red Fern Grows taught generations of children to weep in trauma.

Then, presumably, those children grew up and took over the entertainment industry. The canine body count had reached critical mass and the pendulum swung the opposite direction.

Particularly where disaster movies were concerned.

The ’90s boasted a series of apocalyptic films, many of them coming in thematic pairs, and most if not all of them hosting a common plot thread:

  • Volcano (1997): The dog lives.
  • Dante’s Peak (1997): The dog lives.
  • Armageddon (1998): The dog lives.

Yes, humans are dropping like flies and all mayhem abounds, but those furry, rambunctious pets somehow manage to avoid any serious injury.

Independence Day (1996) features the now-infamous scene of the family dog leaping into a concrete shelter mere seconds before a raging wall of fire sweeps past. The feel-good moment belies its context. Millions of people have just been incinerated off screen, but the audience is supposed to cheer for a dog.

(There’s also the physics-defying politeness of the flames not to flood that sheltered nook and barbecue its occupants. So kind of the inferno to magically pass by, as though fire traveling forcefully on air currents wouldn’t press into every opening it encounters.)

But, I’ll admit, the first time I saw the film, I did cheer. No one wants a fictional dog to die. (Unless it’s Cujo, I mean.)

One of the more egregious example of The Dog that Lives trope appears in the 1996 disaster flick Daylight. A group of people seek to escape a collapsed traffic tunnel beneath a river, their path immersed in darkness and slowly rising waters. The dog, which belongs to the token elderly couple of the ensemble, doesn’t make it through one of the chambers. Grandma is despondent. She can’t go on. She gives up and dies.

And the freaking dog shows up again, like, five minutes later, to make a final escape.

Hooray! Fido’s alive!

Granted, the owner who loved him so much is floating lifeless in the darkened depths below, but that’s not important. And all those people who croaked in the initial disaster and along the way, well, they’re just faceless casualties. And yeah, his appearance caused the protagonist to (stupidly) jump back into the waters to save him and subsequently get trapped again and have to find another way out.

But it was totes worth it, m’kay?

For the record, I love animals. Dogs are among the purest, most loving creatures on the earth.

But when push comes to shove in a disaster story line, they take second tier on my list of priorities. When creators bend over backwards to let the dog live while simultaneously slaughtering human characters by the dozens, I’m out.

***

PS – For a comical take on the Ill-Fated Dog trope, try No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman.

The Principle of Expendable Virtue

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We’ve all seen it: two people of casual acquaintance thrown into a story line that involves instant death bearing down upon them. And suddenly, in the midst of calamity, voila! A lurrrve subplot is born!

Sure, they might grapple with a token moral dilemma—”Should we? Should we not?”—but inevitably, the qualms recede as the end draws nigh. Principles aren’t that important, you guys.

This phenomenon of expendable virtue can crop up in pretty much any impending-death scenario, but the cataclysmic doomsday genre allows it to flourish. It encourages its characters to participate in an angst-filled battle against regret and to arrive upon its “seize the day” solution.

Which is ironic, because impromptu hook-ups are more often a cause of regret rather than a means of avoiding it. But I digress.

I have issues with this subplot for several reasons, three of which I’ll here discuss.

1. It illustrates selfishness.

I get the whole “unfulfilled love” vein of regrets, but intimacy born of impulse is the opposite of love. It’s a self-serving act, and too often it comes with an “anyone will do” undertone. Person A solicits Person B to satisfy their own desires. “But Person A has always secretly loved Person B,” you might contend.

Yeah, sorry. It still rings hollow. It would hold a lot more weight for me if Person A only wanted to spend time with Person B and wasn’t angling for some action, but that’s rarely the case.

2. Characters in this subplot can come across as predatory.

This is particularly true when one of the parties involved is at all reluctant. One partner pressuring the other for intimacy creates an unequal power balance, and using impending doom as a means of coercion is a special brand of vile.

That’s something captors do to hostages. It’s what abusers do to their victims. It’s a mind game. “You don’t want to have these consequences, do you? You should obey me.”

Yuck.

3. It’s fundamentally godless.

This one is probably fine for readers with atheist or agnostic leanings. I don’t fit in that category, but I get the logic. If death is certain and there’s nothing beyond, why not engage in behavior that might otherwise be reckless or ill-advised?

Except that there’s a whole list of behaviors we should never engage in under any circumstances: arson, murder, rape, molestation, animal cruelty, and so forth. And no, I’m not drawing a parallel between consensual sex and criminal activity, but when the argument boils down to, “Let’s do this because there will be no consequences,” the line between right and wrong no longer exists. Why shouldn’t a character go on a murder spree if there won’t be any consequences?

(Incidentally, that could be a fascinating subplot for a doomsday story, and a heck of a lot more original than the Desperate Awkward Love trope.)

The moral dilemma variation to this subplot only enhances the scenario’s inherent godlessness: in the face of impending destruction, characters cast aside life-long beliefs and embrace the philosophy of “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”—a philosophy that only works if there’s no final reckoning in the Great Beyond.

Frankly, abandonment of faith and principles is the last thing I want to see in any character’s closing hours. That’s depressing, even more so than an Imminent Fiery Death.

I’d much rather see kindness, hope, encouragement, people being decent to one another, reconnecting with family, mending fences. A million potential regrets would loom over someone’s head in a doomsday scenario, but love—true, lasting love for family and dearest friends—dominates that list.

Our culture is obsessed with romance, though, and spur-of-the-moment intimacy marks the apex of that ideal. So, we get hackneyed subplots about gangly teens trying to fulfill their warped sense of love, validation, and lost adulthood instead.

Yay.

*gags*

Principles are not meant to be disposable. They’re supposed to remain constant regardless of external circumstances. The whole “You don’t want to die a virgin, do you?” line of persuasion should lead to one obvious answer: “Why not? That’s the way I lived.”

But there’s no drama in that, only dignity—which is one of the most underrated virtues of all.

 

Traits of the Truly Worthy

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Doomsday catalysts come in many flavors: asteroids, volcanoes, earthquakes, alien invasions, global warming, global thermonuclear war, and so forth. These cataclysmic events project such an epic scale of destruction that they threaten the existence of all life on earth.

If they legitimately occur, that is.

The asteroid holds a special place in this genre. Referred to in some circles as the Sweet Meteor O’Death (or SMOD, colloquially), it reigns as the ultimate doomsday trigger because A) there’s precedent (sorry, dinosaurs!), B) its advent is beyond human control (thanks, physics!), and C) it leaves enough time between discovery and impact to layer drama thicker than the icing on Sandra Lee’s infamous Christmas cake (oh, the sugary suspense!).

This plot device lends well to a division of story lines: one each for the government character, the scientist, and the Ordinary Joe at minimum. And when it’s introduced, you can pretty much bet there will be a Noah’s Ark involved, because governments habitually sink tons of money into prepping for doomsday survival.

The Noah’s Ark can be a space ship or an underground bunker. Regardless of its form, it boasts three major features:

  1. Safety and survival from the extinction-level destruction
  2. A scarcity of space when compared with the population as a whole
  3. A scarcity of resources to last through the full duration of the calamity

Which brings to another type of division within this genre: the Elites vs. the Non-elites.

Whenever a Noah’s Ark comes into play, characters get weighed on a scale of worthiness to enter. The government types—usually the President of the United States or some other high-ranking super-elite official—have rubber-stamped access to the Ark. The scientist types are the best in their field (of course), and thus get a pass to the Ark but possibly struggle with the ethical dilemma of whether to retreat to safety or to continue fighting against the planet’s impending doom because they’re so very noble.

And the Ordinary Joes? They’re toast. But they will have an angst-filled, poignant struggle, oozing with pathos to drive home to the audience the desperation of their circumstances. And sometimes they even win against the cataclysmic force that threatens their demise (though not without sacrifice, natch).

Non-elite though the Ordinary Joes may be on the social scale, on the narrative one, they are gold.

From a literary standpoint, this second division of Elites vs. Non-elites is more important than the first. The protagonist of every story is, by default, a Narrative Elite. Their perspective is more important to tell than the millions of people around them, than the scores that they interact with throughout the story’s progress. They are special, even if they are only “ordinary”—and often because they are only “ordinary.”

While their also-ordinary peers picket the entrance to the Noah’s Ark or present faces of miserable martyrdom, the Ordinary Joes pull up their bootstraps and face their calamities head on. They act with full intent to triumph or to die trying. They present an ideal that invokes the reader’s admiration and empathy.

Thus, the Ordinary Joe is perhaps the most important character in a doomsday story. We, the ordinary audience, are each the hero of our own life. The Ordinary Joe provides an avatar, a window for where we might aim to fall if such a cataclysm ever should occur.

They are, in short, not ordinary at all.

(But they’re still not elite enough to pass into safety uncontested. Haha.)

Elevated by Experience

AverageEverygirl087

If you’re anything like me, you do a lot of things in life “for the experience.”

“Hey, yeah, let’s try that roller coaster where you hang suspended with your feet dangling out over nothing.”

“Wheat grass? Sure, give me a shot of that.”

“Ice skating? Why not?”

(For the record, I’ve never been ice skating. I do know my limits.)

The world is full of so many sights and sounds and smells that “for the experience” opens up a playground of learning. We travel “for the experience.” We take internships “for the experience.” Experience broadens our understanding and refines our ability to empathize.

One place this line doesn’t work, however, is in any activity that involves competition. Sure, someone may go into it thinking, “I’m excited to see what this is like,” with absolutely no expectation of winning—or of even placing—but in the aftermath, they’re not allowed to talk about that.

The instant they lose, “for the experience” becomes a semi-pathetic excuse.

Person A: “Oh, I joined that tournament for the experience of it. It was great.”

Person B: “Yeah, sure you did, buddy.”

Person A: “No, really. I knew I didn’t have a chance at winning. I didn’t even check the leaderboard.”

Person B: “Uh-huh. You know, it’s okay that you lost. The winners were all really good.”

Person A: “I know it’s okay, and I wasn’t trying to win. I just wanted to have some fun.”

Person B: “Right. Okay.”

Somehow, the more Person A insists, the less truthful they sound. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” as Shakespeare penned.

Certain patterns of speech fall under what pragmatists term “marked” or “dispreferred” behaviors. Repetition is one of these, along with hesitations, hedges, false starts, and wordiness. Such dispreferred behaviors run counter to the listener’s conversational expectations and thereby signal the listener to question the speaker’s truthfulness.

Truth, you see, is generally straightforward and non-excuse-making.

Generally.

Thus, when the listener already has cause to question a line of speech—as in the case where someone claims disinterest for winning a competition in which they participated when the very purpose of competition is to compete—then repetition of the information only augments that skepticism all the more.

So where does that leave those of us who really do engage in such activities “for the experience”?

One method is to acknowledge the failure outright in the aftermath. This disarms the assumption that the speaker is making excuses for their weakness:

“Yeah, I failed spectacularly, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you know?”

or

“I had no business being among all those greats. I was so lucky just to be on the same playing field.”

or

“On the one hand, it sucks that I didn’t stand a chance, but on the other, I learned a ton.”

Humility goes a long way toward establishing bona fide communication. Paradoxically, we save face by undercutting ourselves from the start rather than allowing someone else to do it for us. In contrast, downplaying failure, even when it was genuinely expected, comes across as prideful: the speaker frames themselves as above competition, above the plebeian masses who strive to succeed in that venue.

They invite skepticism, in other words.

Human communication abounds with these built-in nuances. We instinctively sift and evaluate the information we receive from others. We filter the information we send. Like a dance, the steps are pre-determined, and anything out of line may well tromp on toes.

Also like a dance, all the study in the world won’t perfect the art. You have to get out on the floor and practice and fail and practice again.

You know. For the experience.

Because sometimes that’s not just the best way to learn; it’s the only way.