Posts Tagged ‘Agondria’

Doorway Characters

June 13, 2009

We’ve talked about enchanted doorways that take us into fictional realms of wonder. But the simple truth is, the single most powerful thing that pulls us into a story is the characters. Right? If we meet on page one a character we identify with — someone who feels what we’ve felt, someone who may seem “just like us” on some level — that’s a character we want to go along with.

For the term “doorway characters,” I give full credit to our friend Marquee Movies [not his real name] — you know, the guy who feels a responsibility to always leave Bilbo in a relatively safe place? He came up with this excellent term during an impassioned discussion we were having about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was talking about how Willow and Xander were such doorway characters, providing a perfect portal through which we tumble headlong into the story.

At the last Blooming Grove Writers’ Conference, fiction workshop leader and author Jim Bennett said, “Character is always the most important thing, because there are only a few plots, but characters are infinite.” It’s true. Can we not name quite a few stories that are often anthologized for college students to focus upon, stories hailed as treasures of our culture, in which very little happens? But their characters are fascinating people, people we feel right along with.

All in all, for me as a writer, characters are my Achilles heel. I’ve never paid enough attention to people, just as Saruman never paid enough attention to animals. I think it partly comes from being an only child. “Others? Who needs others?! Oh, you mean the audience?” So this posting is 1.) fraudulent, since I’m no one to be talking about characters, and 2.) sneaky, because I’m hoping to learn something from you all that will help me write better.

I don’t know if I’ve ever created a “doorway character” with any main character of a story or book, but I would like to introduce you to one minor character that I’m particularly proud of. She’s from the Agondria story “Seawall,” and she’s a lemnach, not a human.

The lemnachs are little women — about half human height — with blue skin and wings like a bat. They are uncivilized, monstrous, and serve a sorcerous old king named Agetychus. (It’s unclear whether he created them or bound an existing race to his service somehow.)

This particular lemnach is named Gehennabel the Reliable. She’s fierce and steady and eats all manner of disgusting things, and the king knows he can depend on her to get the job done. She has a catastrophe of wiry black hair. Her name comes from “Gehenna,” another name for 1.) Hell, or, according to Webster’s, 2.) “a place or state of misery” — and “-bel,” a feminine sort of ending. Here’s an excerpt:

The lemnach had flown farther than ever she’d flown before in her relatively short, toil-laden life. Following the woman-tiger, she’d gone all the way to where the world ended in a Wall across the sea. Somehow she’d avoided all those flying arrows in the humans’ battle, many of which had been aimed at the lemnach, for both armies knew she was no friend of theirs. Gehennabel had watched from the shadows all that had taken place, and then she’d made the long return journey alone.

She’d learned many things in her travels: that hot sand burned the feet; that too much sun burned the skin, even if one’s skin were dark and blue; that most melons in Shandria were sour; that there was very little to eat on Alcyaea, except the gull-droppings which were savory if a bit salty; that the birds of Vorcyra had interesting tales to tell once they got to know you; that the Sunken Land could be dangerous at night; and that lemnachs were entirely unwelcome in Cheleboth. After all, home was best. But one wouldn’t know if one hadn’t gone.

Now her long mission was accomplished. Well, almost accomplished — there remained only to deliver her report. She had good news and bad news, bad news and good. Fluttering in through the window, she hopped and stumbled, borne by her momentum, and rolled heels-over-head along the stone floor. Ah, home! Gehennabel kissed the dank stone and patted it with her palms.

Which news to tell first, the good or the bad? The bad or the good? Which? She clasped her hands and considered deeply as she hurried along. Other lemnachs saw her and raced off in a flurry of wings to tell the king she’d returned. A few paused to scoop up rocks and hurl them at her to show they’d missed her; Hebbenebah the Still Worse swooped onto her back and gave her shoulder an affectionate bite.

She’d tell the bad news first and get it out of the way. Yes, that was how big, wingless people preferred to do things. Fluffing up the fright of her hair, the lemnach composed her wings and peeked around the doorframe into the thronehall.

King Agetychus hunched on his throne, dwarfed by the seat’s high back. The six lemnachs who had arrived first crowded around him, three on the throne’s arms, two on the back, one between the king’s black boots on the floor, rubbing her face against his knees. All the six looked enviously at Gehennabel. The king stretched out a pale hand and anxiously waggled his claws to beckon her forward. “Come, come!” His voice was a hoarse whisper. As the lemnach slinked into the firelit hall, Agetychus coughed violently into a bunched cloth.

He looked bad, even for a Chalybe; his health had clearly gotten much worse while Gehennabel was away. Even before she’d left, he’d taken to sitting here, usually alone, with only the fire for light; he could no longer abide the activity and noise of his grand upper thronehall, the place of many forges. Sad, for the ringing of hammers had once been the sweetest music to his ears.

“Well?” said the king, leaning forward, his dark-rimmed, reddish eyes wide and staring. He reminded the lemnach of a spider she’d eaten not long ago, an old spider shriveled at the edge of her tattered web, her legs curled up upon themselves and no longer able to move. By eating her, Gehennabel had done her a mercy.

“Dear King,” said the lemnach with heartfelt compassion, “I would eat you if I could.”

How’s that? Do you get a feel for lemnachs? I think it would be fun to write a book from the point of view of a lemnach. Gehennabel needs her own book: Confessions of a Lemnach . . . or something.

Anyway, I can think of no better example of doorway characters than those we see in the movie Jaws. Remember that phenomenon that swept our culture back in 1975, the “Summer of the Shark”? I would argue that Jaws is an extremely rare case in which the movie is better than the book that preceded it (the only other example I can think of offhand is Field of Dreams) — and I’d contend that the difference mostly has to do with the characters — well, that, and the focus of the writing. Peter Benchley has said he wrote the book based on the premise, “What if there were a killer shark that wouldn’t go away? What if it staked out a territory right off the coast of one town and just stayed there?” The movie has that premise, too, but into the mix it adds the screenplay, the directing, the incomparable musical score, the heroic efforts of hundreds of people trapped on Martha’s Vineyard for much longer than they wanted to be or were budgeted for — and of course the immortal, inimitable performances of Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw.

Doorway characters: Scheider as Brody is Everyman. He’s us. Two examples, from very early in the film. He’s just woken up, he’s getting ready for a routine day of work, and the phone rings. The Brody household has two phones on the wall, presumably because he’s the chief of police: one phone is the family’s phone, and one is a “police hotline” (that’s what I’m guessing — I don’t know). He picks up the phone that he thinks is ringing (they’re installed one right above the other); he hears only a dial tone, and he pulls the receiver away from his ear and gives it a “What the heck?” look before hanging it up and picking up the other phone, which is the one that’s ringing. Right there, I think, “I know this guy.” I’ve experienced morning chaos, too.

Later, when Brody realizes there’s been a shark attack and he’s doing his job by closing the beaches immediately, he goes into a store to buy paints, brushes, and signboards to make “Beach Closed” signs. He grabs at a brush or two in a canful of brushes on the shelf, and the can topples over, clattering and spilling brushes. Brody winces and tries to catch it. Again, I know him. He’s me. I’ve been there.

Then Dreyfuss as Hooper: who can forget the scene in which he comes uninvited to the Brody household the evening that Brody is depressed because he knows Alex Kintner is dead because Brody gave in to political pressure and didn’t close the beaches? Hooper comes into the kitchen, sits down at the table facing Brody, who hasn’t touched his supper, and Hooper asks, “How was your day?” (He was there earlier when Brody was slapped in the face by Mrs. Kintner, Alex’s mother.) Both men laugh at the irony of the question, and Brody says, “Swell.” Hooper, a scientist who’s come to town alone because of the shark problem and is staying at the hotel, sees the plate of uneaten food and asks, “Is anyone eating this?” Without really waiting for an answer, he pulls it toward himself and begins devouring it as Mrs. Brody dazedly answers, “No.” Awkwardness, comradery, and a stomach that clamors regardless of the crisis at hand — doorway character. That’s a real person, just like us.

And then Quint, the shark fisherman (Robert Shaw): though we glimpse him earlier, his first close-up entrance in the film is during a town council meeting, when the crowded room is in pandemonium, people all talking and arguing at once. To command attention, Quint slowly, agonizingly rakes his fingernails down a chalkboard, on which he’s drawn a shark eating a human victim. It’s a sound that universally sets human nerves on edge. When he has the full attention of everyone in the room, Quint casually eats something (a cracker? — celery? — the debates have been many and furious) as he delivers his offer of his services to catch and kill the shark. This is a character we simply can’t get enough of.

I don’t know of any other film that brings three such different and equally balanced, developed, delightful characters together and then isolates them in an environment (alone together on a boat with only the open ocean and the shark) in which they can interact. They have become archetypes of the “monster panic” genre: the Knowledge Guy (Hooper), the Experience Guy (Quint), and the vulnerable Everyman (Brody), who kills the monster against all odds and lives to tell the tale.

So we come to the question: Who are the greatest doorway characters you’ve met, in film or in written fiction? Who are they, and what did they do that made you tumble through them, deep into the world of the story? (“What did they do?” is the more important part of the question!)

[News: It’s been a fantastic writing week, by God’s grace — great progress on the new book: 2,300 words Thursday, 2,684 Friday, 1,612 today! Oh, and one more thing, in case anyone missed it: it’s worth going back for a look at the comments on the previous post — I responded to them just before writing this, and I had a pretty good story to tell in response to Chris’s!]

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“When That April. . . .”

April 7, 2009

Here we are again in the month that, according to Chaucer, makes people want to go on pilgrimages! A friend over there in the States was just commenting today on how appropriate it is that, at this time of year when we finally begin to see and feel the sun again, when new life is bursting out all over, that we’re also in Holy Week. We’re about to celebrate again the Resurrection. In the words of the hymn:

“I know that my Redeemer lives.

What comfort this sweet sentence gives!”

Anyway, for me here, it’s been a week of getting organized for the new

My new file cabinet

My new file cabinet

 school year, which gets underway next week. I’d always wanted a file cabinet, and I finally found a store here that specializes in used office furniture. They had file cabinets in all shapes and sizes, and I finally decided on this one.

So I’ve just spent several days sorting things, labeling the hanging folders, and filling it up with stuff that used to be in cardboard boxes and drawers. It now holds:

1. All my important correspondence since 1997, in order and filed by year;

2. My writing projects and some works-in-progress of writer friends;

3. My teaching materials — years and years of handouts and ideas, gleaned from here and there or my own originals — all categorized for easy location now in folders with such labels as “reading homework,” “listening,” “pronunciation,” “grammar,” “games,” etc. This should make class preparation easier.

My apartment in Niigata

My apartment in Niigata

Oh — here’s also a picture of my apartment. That’s my place on the ground floor: my little verandah where I hang out my laundry — my office is right inside there — and my tatami-mat sleeping room on the left, behind the paper shouji window — the one that shows my silhouette to the neighborhood if I’m not careful. The building was sparsely-populated last year, but it’s completely filled up in the last couple weeks. This is the time of year when people move around, when the fiscal year begins.

What’s the universal writerly application of this posting? Am I skirting dangerously close to a “what-I-had-for-breakfast” posting here? Far be it from me! The universal application is: I commend to you spring organization, spring cleaning, and the opening of windows. It’s the time of year to sweep up the dust, clean off the tables, cast out the piles of paper you’ll never ever need again — and begin something new. Go on a pilgrimage! Tell tales with your fellow travelers, and be glad for their company.

Know that your Redeemer lives, and that He shall stand in the latter day upon the Earth; and that though worms destroy these bodies, yet in our flesh we shall see God!

Oh — semi-groink! — Issue #13 of Black Gate came in yesterday’s mail. And I see by the enclosed ad for what’s coming soon that my story “World’s End” is slated to appear sometime during the next four issues. That’s the first Agondria story — not the first one written, but the first in the intended order — and editor John O’Neill also bought my cousin Steve’s illustration for it. Don’t start holding your breath yet: we may be celebrating Easter two or three more times before the story finally appears, because BG comes out on an irregular schedule — Mr. O’Neill gives quality the priority over speed. When issues do come out, they are, for all practical purpose, high-quality books, like big, soft-cover trade paperbacks, slick and glossy and thick. But anyway, that story is coming eventually, and I was thrilled to see my name on a list of what people “won’t want to miss, so don’t let your subscription run out”!

As to the header of this blog: yes, I thought I’d put away the skeletons for awhile — how could I have skeletons up for Easter? — but they’re not gone, they’re just in the closet. What you see there are the first cherry blossoms of this year in Niigata, the photo just taken today. By the weekend, the city will probably be in full bloom!

May your projects and your work and your life bloom, too, to the glory of God!

A Writer’s Life in October

October 25, 2008

Such busy, busy days and nights, and so much happening! It’s been one of the best Octobers I can remember in quite awhile. For the most part, the weather has been gloriously warm and sunny, and I’ve spent as much time outdoors as possible. (The sun is so rare in Niigata that when it comes out, you drop everything and run outside in full absorption mode.)

Seriously, where to begin? First, the Fan Art is beginning to roll on Cricket‘s website, and they’ve got the first three pictures up of “The Star Shard” done by young readers. (www.cricketmagkids.com) I can’t describe the feeling of seeing artwork drawn for a story that entered the world through my mind and fingers. It’s humbling . . . it’s moving . . . it’s awesome . . . it’s — well, indescribable! Actually, it’s the second time I’ve had this rare joy. The first was years ago, when a teacher friend cajoled his students into drawing various villains from Dragonfly. I still treasure those. When kids draw the Harvest Moon heavies, they’re terrifying!

Second, just today, a friend passed along to me a review of Dragonfly written by a friend of hers on LiveJournal. (Ooh, am I allowed to say that on WordPress?) It’s truly uplifting to know that someone somewhere curled up with my old book and spent the day riveted. That’s the wonder of art. That poor book has been wandering around out in the world for close to a decade now — knocked around, remaindered, pulped, offered for sale on Amazon for a penny. . . . But it still connects with readers now and then. It still offers a world to escape into. This reviewer gave it an “A+.” She writes:

“Today was a good day. I spent it in bed under my pink polka-dot blanket reading page after page of Dragonfly until I could read no more and it was finished. /…/ I found it utterly fantastic. /…/ Frederic S. Durbin creates an entire world in only 350 pages [sounds like the paperback], and I would have to say that the world he creates is one of the biggest, most creative worlds I have ever ventured to by way of reading. /…/ Throughout the end chapters of this book I found my eyes welling with tears. I honestly did not know how this book would end up until the very last battle, and even then I had my doubts; but I will leave you to find out which side prevails.

“I think that everyone that enjoys embracing the dark side of life or ever wonders what hides in the shadows of a dark room will enjoy this book because it acknowledges our worst fears. I also think that anyone that enjoys female leads will find entertainment in this novel. Dragonfly is a strong and witty little girl wise beyond her years.”

Soli Deo gloria! And thank you, o thou friend-of-a-friend!

So, I’m about to head to Calgary for this year’s World Fantasy Convention. I’m really excited about that, as you can imagine! I’m scheduled to do a 30-minute reading again this year. Last time, I opted for three shorter selections to fill the half-hour, going for variety. This time, for the sake of experimentation, I’m planning to use the whole time to deliver one unified whole — namely, the Brigit and Phocion section from “Seawall,” the last novelette in Agondria. I chose that one because it’s an encapsulated, standalone tale, and because I think it’s some of the best writing in that book. (It gives me a little chance to act, too! Oh, the drama! “Alas, poor Yorick!”)

At the Convention, I’m also planning to have lunch with my agent on Friday. It will actually be our first face-to-face meeting. He is truly worth his weight in gold and then some — he’s working so hard to get my novel-length version of “The Star Shard” sold to the best possible publishing house. (I’m now thinking of calling that novel The Star Shard. Isn’t that brilliant and innovative? Maybe some fans of the story will notice a connection between the titles!)

While I’m dropping phrases like “my agent” and sounding all like a hoity-toity writer, I’ve got to tell you about a day I spent recently. The theme of this posting is a writer’s life in October, and this day in question, my major activities really sound like I’m living the writing life — like a page from the G.Q. of Writers, if such a magazine existed. Heh, heh — read on:

First (this is all one day, mind you), I made notes on a bundle of my poems from my old chapbook Songs of Summerdark at the request of a colleague at the university. She’s a composer who delights in setting words to music, and she wants to take a whack at some of my poems. So I was going through picking out poems, suggesting instrumentation, and writing notes on what I was trying to capture in the poems and what I thought the instruments and voices should be doing. It will be great fun to see what she comes up with!

Second, I worked on timing my reading for the Convention. The only way to do that is to read it more-or-less aloud from beginning to end and notice how much time elapses. I ended up cutting a bit from the middle.

Third, I put together a promotional package of some things for The Star Shard to deliver to my agent when we meet. I try to keep him supplied with anything and everything that might be useful in selling the book.

Finally, I read and carefully critiqued a novelette for a good friend, which was pure joy, not work.

If that ain’t livin’ the writing life, I don’t know what is! I’m thankful for the chance to be here, to be now, to be doing the things I’m doing. It’s not a matter of course — it’s a matter of grace. I’m thankful for the sunlight this October. I’m thankful for my students . . . for words on paper . . . for imagination and the coming of Hallowe’en . . . for the gift of participation in this incredible, unforeseeable sprawl that is life.

Speaking of Hallowe’en: I’d like to encourage another round of reader participation. Are you all still out there? If so, we can’t let this holiday slip by without a proper celebration — a proper revel in smoky lantern light while shadows caper. Two questions I offer: you can (ideally) answer both — or one. (Answering neither is not an option!)

1. What do you do to celebrate Hallowe’en? If you love the season, what is one thing you do to make it particularly shivery and delightful? Dredge up your dearest All Hallows customs and confess them here! A certain mode of decoration? A way you greet the trick-or-treaters? A book or story you read in October? A traditional jack-o’-lantern face you carve? Anything at all . . . how do you greet the long shadow season?

2. What is your favorite Hallowe’en memory? This is your chance to go into detail on that time you. . . . Or when you made that. . . . Or when. . . . Childhood? The threshold between childhood and adulthood? Later still? What was a particularly memorable Hallowe’en for you?

Okay, I’ll get you started on the memories. One Hallowe’en I’ll never forget was 2005. That was the year my mom unexpectedly passed away on October 18. I flew back to the States to be with Dad and for the funeral and all. On the day of the funeral, the town was breathtakingly gorgeous — trees a miraculous palette of brilliant reds and golds. The procession of cars to the cemetery was the grandest Hallowe’en parade one could hope for — couldn’t have ordered a better day for Mom’s last ride through the town she loved. I saw a whole lot of friends and relatives that I don’t normally see — all very loving and friendly, all gazing into Eternity and aware of the brevity of life, all with an awareness of how much my mom had meant to them. A surreal time, when I’m normally teaching but wasn’t that year.

The town was decked out in Hallowe’en glory: fake tombstones like gray toadstools in yards; chokingly thick webs in trees, covering bushes; scarecrow figures, jack-o’-lanterns, ghoul dummies, witches, oddities, orange lights. . . .

I bought Hallowe’en candy, which yanked a crown off my tooth, and I had to go to the dentist. I bought pumpkins — big, orange pumpkins, so abundant and cheap in Illinois, so rare and expensive in Japan. I carved them, and my dad smiled. He said they looked like a couple, this one male, that one female. I took pictures of them.

I took the jack-o’-lanterns to my aunt’s house, because she has the best location ever for trick-or-treaters — no kidding. She’s right on the main street, in the safest neighborhood in town, where parents trust and everyone is home in well-lighted houses, and kids flock thicker than clouds in August. We set the jack-o’-lanterns on the porch and lit them. We set out my aunt’s Indian mannequins: a man and a woman (though the woman is really a man wearing a wig and a dress — a transvestite Indian). They have feathers and moccasins and fringe, and older kids love them, and middle-kids gaze at them in half-terror, and babies fear them and bawl, but still their moms carry them to the porch to receive their Hallowe’en treats. I am proud of how some kids whisper to each other about my jack-o’-lanterns — “Look at their pumpkins!”

My aunt lets me hand out the candy. We are both still somewhat numb in this world without my mom. My aunt makes popcorn, and we eat it in the brief intervals between visitors. The intervals are brief — we have something like 150 kids the first night and nearly 100 the next. We run out of candy and have to buy more for the second night. My aunt keeps a tally, making a mark on paper for every kid that comes to the door. We laugh in the quiet intervals and talk about how many of the girls seem to be dressed as hookers. There’s vampire hooker, witch hooker, and just plain hooker.

One of the most amazing things is how kids appear out of the night. They materialize from the darkness out by the street. Some cut straight across yards, through the drifts of dry leaves, crunch, crunch, crunch. But some — usually boys — RUN from the curb, a skeleton or a Scream-masked horror swooping toward our porch. Kids stand under the street lights, comparing loot, plotting their courses. Tall witch hats tip and bob as they speak. Many carry little sticks that glow in phosphorescent colors.

I comment on the kids’ costumes (though I avoid saying things like “Oh! A hooker!”). Isn’t it odd how most kids seem oddly disinterested in their costumes? One girl has a knife through her head, with blood trickling down her temples. I say, “Wow. You might want to have that looked at.”

I’m wearing a flannel shirt. For some reason, that sticks in my mind — that shirt, in that surreal October of grief and the Otherworld. Candy, candles, trick-or-treaters. Dragonfly hit the mass market that year; it’s in stores, in Barnes & Noble, in Waldenbooks — for a few brief months. I’m making it as a writer. I sit in a rocking chair opposite the door. I make the decisions about how much candy to put into each bag. My aunt sits off to the side, making her tally marks. She can see the kids through the plateglass window.

Toward the end of the evening, when the visitors trail off, and we’re eating the unpopped kernels that can break your teeth if you’re not careful, my aunt wants to call it quits. But I insist on staying open for business until the end of the time the city allows. I’m so low on candy that I can only put two or three pieces of boring stuff into each bag. But I want to stay as long as I can in my flannel shirt, up and down from my rocking chair, watching the dark, listening for the whisper and giggle of stragglers. A few bigger kids come, kids too old to be trick-or-treating — but, like me, clinging to this night.

This night. Hallowe’en. This year, this 2005, I’m  halfway through writing “The Bone Man.” Mom passed away during the restaurant scene, and I got a phonecall in Japan from the coroner, because no one else in my family could make the international phone number work. “The Bone Man” will go on to receive honors — publication in Fantasy & Science Fiction [Dec. 2007], translation into Russian, anthologization in Year’s Best Horror, honorable mentions from Dozois as a science-fiction tale and from Datlow as a fantasy/horror story. It will be on the ballot for Locus and for the International Horror Guild in their last-ever round of awards. It’s on the ballot against a Steven Millhauser story. A couple people nominate it for a Nebula. Wonder and love and family, sadness, childhood, adulthood . . . Japan, the U.S. . . . life, death, loss, success, crisp air, the imagination. . . . Everything flows together. The world turns toward winter, but on these nights, we’re linked to the earliest times, the beginnings. We are all storytellers, said Paul Darcy Boles, sitting around the cave of the world. “Why don’t you write a Hallowe’en story?” a friend of mine in Japan suggested at the beginning of that October, when I was feeling down and agonizing over what to write. So I started to write “The Bone Man,” just to distract myself. Just to have fun.

Yeah . . . as wonderful as my childhood Hallowe’ens were, I think 2005 was my Hallowe’en, the one single one I’ll never forget.

* * * * * * * * *

Don’t be overwhelmed — mine was long, but short is great, too! What do you do to celebrate Hallowe’en? What are your Hallowe’en memories? Back me up here! Let’s hear from you! Come running from the dark. I’m waiting!