The City We Became: Refreshing Fantasy for a Modern Era

N.K. Jemison pushes boundaries, and it’s exactly what the genre of fantasy needs. The City We Became, released in 2020, is a herald of a new wave of storytelling. Authors like Jemison reject the tropes that have mired fantasy for so long. In a genre that should be without limitations, too many writers impose the limitations of our society on their imagined one. Not so for Jemison; she is a writer whose imagination could never be limited.

The city of New York has become sentient, and its avatar takes the form of a young, Black, queer, homeless man. His point-of-view voice is one of soaring lyricism and rugged language. Reading his perspective feels like listening to a slam poem in a crowded bar. But the avatar of NYC is contested by a nameless Enemy. She attacks New York City with what can only be described as weaponized bigotry; she mobilizes the toxic and oppressive elements of NYC to her cause. 

NYC’s avatar, injured and weakened, splits into the five boroughs. Each is given a personality to reflect the identity of the borough. Manhattan is a cutthroat business man who can’t remember his history, Bronx is an old, tough-as-nails artist, Brooklyn is a rapper-turned-councilwoman, Queens is a mathematician with an endless extended family, and Staten Island is a girl trapped in a broken family. 

Jemison uses each of the boroughs to explore a distinct issue affecting New York. The Enemy comes to them in different ways, threatening different things they hold dear. The bureaucracy takes Brooklyn’s historic house. Cops try to imprison the avatar of Manhattan for the crime of being dark skinned. White nationalists threaten Bronx’s art museum. Wherever the Enemy goes, she leaves white tendrils in her wake, that cling to structures and people. They’re an eerie representation of the way toxic ideologies can take hold of someone’s mind without them noticing. 

What makes this story a pleasure to read is how vivid the characters are. Their personalities are distinct, garish, and instantly likeable. They are perfect representations of their boroughs, their quirks and their endearing flaws. I fell in love with each of them the moment I met them. Even Staten Island, depicted as ignorant and prejudiced, I couldn’t help but sympathize with. I understood how such a vile ideology could take hold in her mind, and I felt her pain as she tried to break free from it. 

Not only that, but the characters and the themes of the story mesh perfectly. Each character carries with them a piece of a larger message. Jemison never preaches, she never says things outright. Yet reading this book, I felt radicalized to a larger cause. I felt like I wanted to fight the Enemy, to take hold of her roots and tendrils and rip them out as best I could. 

Many character driven, thematically driven stories suffer from an uninteresting premise. The opposite could not be more the case in The City We Became. The plot is an intricate, suspense filled tangle. The characters are always a step behind the Enemy, and they are never given the room to breathe. Their nameless antagonist presses down on them with all the relentless force of the societal institutions she represents. 

I hope The City We Became becomes a benchmark for fantasy in this new decade. This story is a gold standard of radical ideas, meaningful representation, and genre-defying innovation. It is book one of a trilogy that Jemison is in the process of writing, and I am so excited for the next installment.

Words Are Meaningless

Okay, okay, so maybe the title is an exaggeration. After all, I am conveying these ideas to you through words. So they can’t be totally meaningless. But this is still a fun thought experiment, and one that might be able to help you in your own writing. 

In order to think about the phrase, “Words Are Meaningless”, we need to define “meaning”. This is a word that philosophers have been arguing about for centuries. Just like any twenty-year-old writer with no experience, I like to think myself a brilliant philosopher, and I have the perfect answer. 

Haha, no, only joking. I have no idea. But a good working definition might sound something like: “giving real-world consequence to an abstract idea.” Words are abstract ideas; what they mean, what real-world thing they concern, is what allows them to be useful tools. 

With that very rough definition in mind, I’d like to consider a classic example of words being meaningless. In many creative writing classes or workshops, the teacher will talk about word choice. And often, they will show two phrases. 

“Cottage in the woods.”

“Cabin in the forest.”

These two phrases mean the same thing. Yet the connotation, the image they bring to mind, is completely different. Cottages are associated with cute homes and white lace, woods are associated with airy sunlight and gentle greens. On the other hand, cabins are dark and falling apart, forests are tangled and overgrown. 

In this example, the dictionary definition of the words is useless when compared to the connotation of the words. Yet connotation is an undefined, societal thing. It requires an individual to have experienced these words before. Somebody who doesn’t read a lot of horror novels or someone who speaks a different language would think these sentences mean the same thing. 

Extrapolating from this, I think it can be argued that all words only have meaning in so far as they relate to personal experience. The word “blizzard” might conjure up images of horrible suffering to someone from Florida. But for me, born and bred in New England, it’s just a Tuesday. The meaning of the word “blizzard” depends on the individual’s understanding. The meaning of every word depends on the individual’s understanding. 

This can be a useful tool in your own writing. To give a personal example, the other day I found myself needing to describe a character moving really fast. I tried a bunch of words. Ran. Sprinted. Dashed. None of them gave the visceral image of raw speed that I was trying to conjure. 

Then I tried the word “wicked”. Not as in, wicked cool, but wicked as in to absorb or drain away fluid, like the wick of a candle. The word “wicked” does not, by any stretch, mean to move very fast. But I enjoyed the way the sentence sounded. 

“He wicked forwards.”

To me, at least, the word wicked sounds like it moves fast. It comes fast out of the tongue, it has a hard consonant sound but it also sounds like a rush of wind. Yet it doesn’t mean “fast” in the slightest. 

It’s okay to use the wrong word. I think it adds edge and character, it adds your own specific personality and experience to a sentence. It contributes to a strong, powerful voice. And it’s okay if definition doesn’t match meaning. Because, after all, words are meaningless. 

They only mean something to you.

Finisterre

I see her again just outside of Pamplona. She walks on the shoulder of the road. Her stride meanders, wobbly and goofy looking, the toes of her boots scratching the back of her calves leaving dusty streaks. She’s maybe a hundred yards in front of me. 

Besides us, the road is empty and straight forwards and backwards. It is raised, stone bricked, lined with wheat fields. It looks like a tear stain down a dirty patchwork cheek. The grasses are parched in the sun. 

There is only one tree. The road is so flat I can see it a mile before I reach it. Its branches curve in a thick, low hanging dome and the shadow of it stretches out across the trail. 

She reaches the tree first, tosses her pack down beneath it, lies back against its trunk. I make it a few minutes behind her. 

“Hi,” I say. “Mind if I join you?”

She smiles at me. “Please, it’s the only shade for miles.”

I sit down next to her. Sitting feels like a luxury these days. I’ve walked ten miles already today, and a full eighteen the day before that. 

“It’s Sam, right?” she asks. “We met yesterday at the albergue in Pamplona.”

“I remember,” I say. “Ally?”

“Yup!” Her voice has the false cheer people use when trying to start conversations but honestly I don’t mind, it’s been a little while since I’ve talked to anyone. She reaches out and touches her toes. “Where are you from, Sam?”

“The states,” I say, “Upstate New York, near Buffalo. You?”

She doesn’t answer right away. I look over at her. She has brown hair and pink synthetic shorts that go down to her knees. She flexes her feet in circles. She looks like she’s my age; a well worn thirty. 

“You know,” she says, and her voice changes, I can’t quite place the difference, the cheer is gone but so is the falsehood, “fuck small talk.”

I laugh, half nervous, half genuinely amused. 

“Alright,” I say. “What should we talk about?”

“What’s the worst crime you’ve ever committed?”

“That’s not small talk, I’ll give you that.”

“Come on,” she says. “Let’s hear it.”

“I’ve done an axe murder,” I say. 

“No way,” she says. “That’s what I was going to say. What are the odds of two axe murderers meeting?”

“Higher than expected, I guess.”

“Well, that was certainly more interesting than small talk.”

I take a long drink from my water bottle, then pour some on my hand to splash my face. “Do you start lots of conversations this way?”

“No, first time.”

“Same for me.”

Ally stands, raises her arms over her head. She tugs at her ponytail and brushes bits of tree bark from it. “Well, Sam, I’m going to keep walking.”

“It was a pleasure to meet a fellow criminal,” I say. 

I watch her form dwindle into the distance, it turns into a wavy black outline on the edge of the road. 

Little things happen on the Camino de Santiago. It’s a long trail, six hundred miles, the whole of northern Spain, and I had expected it to feel long as well. I had expected a sense of grandiosity, of walking through a thousand years of history. But all I have are these little things. These little things, and Ally. 

I see a dog with an injured paw on the side of the road. I look around me, maybe for help, maybe out of guilt, although I don’t know why I feel guilty, I didn’t hurt the dog after all. 

The dog mewls. I reach to touch it and it draws back. I reach again, softer, holding out my hand for it to sniff. It lets me pet it. I bundle it up in my arms and carry it like a child against my shoulder. 

A few miles down the road I reach a small stone building with a stained glass window that has a picture of Jesus embracing Mary Magdalene. The plaque on the side of the building says it is un hospital de peregrinos. I don’t speak Spanish but I translate that alright. The plaque says the Romans built it, that nuns have maintained it for centuries. That Santiago himself stopped here when he first made this pilgrimage. 

I leave the dogs with the nuns, we don’t have a language in common but both of us understand the language of pain that the dog can’t stop speaking with. I watch as they bandage his paw and decide that the dog is in safe hands. 

My pack lies against the side of the building where I left it. It’s grey with dust and doesn’t fit me right, and I’ve stuffed half a baguette in the pocket where I’m supposed to keep my water bottles. I hitch it on my back — two weeks ago I had bruises on my shoulders and hips but now I hardly feel its weight. 

That evening I stay in a youth hostel. Fifty bunk beds fill a small room. Each is filled with a pilgrim, their packs, and their boots. The scent of us all together is outrageous. I wear ear plugs to block the snoring. 

Unable to sleep, I take out my journal and I try to write a story. It goes, well, predictably, I guess is the favorable way to put it. Other more unfavorable descriptions might be, ‘miserably’ or ‘frustratingly’. I write a little bit about the stained glass painting. I make it a love story between Jesus and Magdalene. I can’t really get in the characters’ head. My wife used to say I was pretty good at writing, but she was my wife, it was practically in the marriage contract that she had to say I was pretty good at writing. I haven’t written anything worth reading in a few years now. 

I see her again in the rain. She stands under the overhang of a garage roof, her jacket pulled above her head. She’s laughing to herself, jumping out into the downpour and then back into safety. The cobblestones of the road are slick and shiny. Rainwater gleams in the cracks. 

“Sam the axe murderer!” she calls to me, waving, jumping. She beckons me over. I hurry through the rain. My shoes are soaked, I squelch with every step. I huddle under the cover of the garage and rub my arms. 

“Nice day out.” She has to shout over the sound of the rain. 

“Marvelous,” I say. I wipe the water from my face and splutter. 

“Share my jacket,” she says. She grabs my arm and brings me next to her, holds the jacket over our heads. 

“Thanks.”

One of the little things happens. The garage door groans open. A small old woman with wild hair and slippers and knobby legs stands inside holding the remote control for the door. Inside the garage are bins filled with umbrellas. Dozens and dozens of them. Muttering in Spanish, rapid and unintelligible, the old woman hands each of us an umbrella, when at first we don’t accept she grabs our hands and forces them around the wooden grip. The garage door closes. 

Ally and I look at each other, at our umbrellas, and laugh. 

“No way,” Ally says. “That definitely didn’t just happen.”

“I need a little surreality in my life sometimes,” I say. “Is that a real word? Surreality?”

“No clue. Want to get lunch?” she asks, cracking open her umbrella. 

“Sure,” I say. 

The cafe is small and rain pours down the windows. We sit in a corner. A buzz of conversation in a half dozen languages floats around us, we have to talk loud to hear each other. I have a muffin, she has a coffee. 

Ally asks, “Why are you walking the Camino?”

“I don’t know,” I say. I bite my muffin to waste time before Ally will press me to answer the question. 

Ally presses me to answer the question. “No, seriously.”

I wonder that though I’ve only known her for all of ten minutes I already knew what she would say. I wonder what that means. I wonder if this is alright, I wonder, I wonder…

“Sam,” Ally says, chuckling around her coffee. “Don’t leave me for the clouds.”

“Sorry,” I say. 

“You’re dodging my question.”

I glance at her, a bit irritated, I want to say, maybe it’s personal. But the air between us has a certain eggshell quality that I don’t want to crack. So I take a risk, and I decide for honesty, and I say, “I’m walking because my wife left me.”

Ally looks at me, looks down, looks back at me. 

“Are you going to say, I’m sorry, or something?” I say. Maybe that was rude to say. 

“I was thinking about it.”

“And?”

“Back home I would have said I’m sorry. But I wouldn’t have meant it.”

“How about here?”

“I’m sorry, and I do mean it.”  She meets my eyes. I can tell that she does. I don’t know how I can tell, but I can. 

“Thank you,” I say, and I mean it too. 

“Why the Camino?” she asks. 

“I needed to focus.” I set down my muffin. Her coffee grows cold. We’re just looking at each other. “I was drowning in all of this… all of this guilt, I felt like I had failed, and it was just a loop, it fed itself, quicksand. I needed to reset myself.”

“Are you still drowning?” she asks. 

  “Should we start walking?” I say. 

In the distance are the galician mountains, a watery green against low hanging clouds. We walk alongside a river. The rain has stopped and has left an afterimage of mist behind it. The water hangs limp in the air, like time has stopped. The sound of boots against gravel has been my constant companion for the last month, but now I have another companion, the sound of someone else’s voice. 

“How about you?” I ask. “Why are you walking the Camino?”

“I needed something to change.”

“From what?”

“I was married, too,” she says. 

“Was?”

She grins, kicks a stone, watches it dribble off the path and plunk into the river. “He wanted two kids and a picket fence, he wanted me to have some corporate job and have corporate friends.”

“How did you end up here?”

She shrugs. “A whole bunch of plastic people to fill a plastic life, you know? Couldn’t take it anymore. So I left.”

“How has the Camino been so far?”

“Oh, you know.”

“Have things changed?”

“Still feels like plastic. Still feels like I’m faking a midlife crisis just for the attention.” She walks for a few strides in silence, then looks over at me. “Well, you’re not plastic, at least.”

That evening I cross out my story about stained glass love and I write about Ally who is walking the Camino to hide from the FBI as they chase her for axe murder. In my story I describe Ally as sprite. Like that soda, not like the faeries. I say she’s bubbly and maybe a bit abrasive, but sweet. It’s a dumb metaphor but I kind of like it. 

I meet a man named John Frogley. Canadian, age seventy, surprisingly fit. We spend an afternoon walking together. He asks me what I do and I say I’m a writer. He asks me if I know how to diagram sentences. I say I don’t. He says, what kind of writer are you? He and I have lunch on the side of a hill, the bushes are scraggly but determined. He takes a stick and writes a sentence in the dirt. Spades is a fun game to play. Then he shows me how to diagram it. It looks like a stick bug, different limbs scattered in random lines. 

I see her again in a small town outside Burgos. It’s been a couple of days since we last saw each other. Evening falls in orange streaks. Street lamps add electric stars to the sky. We find each other in a side street, each of us looking for dinner. 

“Sam,” she says, waving one of her walking sticks. “How have you been?”

“What happened to ‘fuck small talk,’” I say, grinning, 

She swats my legs with the walking stick. “Alright, wiseass. I was just being nice.”

“I’ve been well.”

“Want to get dinner with me?”

“Sure.”

We find a place that sells pilgrim meals, three courses of ham and pasta and salad for ten euros. 

“You know what I love about Spain?” Ally says. 

“What?”

She holds up her salad. “They use bacon bits as salad dressing.”

“And the wine came with the meal,” I say, raising a glass in a toast. 

We sit on the edge of a narrow street. Pilgrims and passersby bustle about us. It feels like we’re a rock in a waterfall of people. The streetlights give gentle illumination. Ally’s face is half in shadow. 

“What do you do, Sam?”

“Like as a job?”

“Or anything.”

“I’m a writer.”

A smile cracks across her face. She leans forward, hair spilling over her shoulder. “A writer! Are you any good?”

“No.”

“How come?”

“What do you mean, how come, that’s like asking why someone isn’t good at baseball or math or-”

She raises an eyebrow. “I think you have an answer that you don’t want to say.”

Then she waits for me to say it. I take a bite of my salad. I swallow slowly, hesitant, afraid to say the truth but the words just spill from me, if only writing was as easy as talking to Ally, “Have you ever wondered how far you could go if you trusted yourself completely?” 

“That’s not an answer.”

“I’m building to it. This is the preamble.” We’re both smiling. 

“Yes, I have wondered,” she says, voice soft.

“Like, if you bet on yourself with everything you had. If you said to yourself, I’m the greatest there ever was, watch me do this. How far could you go? Is the confidence the only thing you’re missing?”

She watches me, I can see her thinking about what I’ve said, like my words actually mattered. “I think I could go pretty far,” she says. Her voice is almost a whisper. 

“Me too,” I say. “But I don’t.”

“And that’s why you’re bad at writing?” 

“Yeah.” 

The street has emptied of people. We sit in a puddle of yellow light from the streetlamp above our heads. The food forgotten on the table between us. 

Ally and I walk together the next day. In the afternoon I sit by a fountain while Ally buys bread from a baker across the courtyard. I write little details about her in my notebook. She can speak Spanish, a bit brokenly but with a pretty good accent. The baker seems to like her. He’s a heavy man with a red nose and sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His laugh carries across the courtyard. It disturbs the pigeons that had been clucking about my legs. 

I write about how she can have a conversation with anyone. I imagine it’s a bit of a game for her, a challenge, to see how much of a person’s story she can extract from them. But then I cross that out, because it’s not a game. I think she actually wants to know. 

“Tell me about your wife,” Ally says. The road is straight again before us. A perfect perspective shot, I can see it narrowing and dwindling to the smallest point. The kind of thing a child would draw in art class, with a blue sky and three improbably puffy clouds hanging above. 

“Her name was Laura,” I say. “Met in grad school. She was a science teacher.”

“No, I mean really tell me about her.” She jostles my shoulder as we walk. 

“She would sometimes tutor kids. She was so patient with them. But hard, too. They didn’t get any excuses. She knew they could learn the material, they just needed to focus.”

“Why did she leave?”

I glance at her. “You’re very inquisitive.”

She actually looks embarrassed. “You’re right, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be prying.”

“She left because I didn’t bet on myself.”

Ally waits for me to continue. She already knows that I take a few seconds to form my sentences before I speak and she knows that I am silent not because I have nothing to say but because I have too much. Or maybe she doesn’t know that, and she is just being patient out of kindness. 

“She wanted me to get published, to go places, to all the author things I was supposed to do, she wanted me to finish a project and get an editor, and I was just… afraid, I guess. She trusted herself all the way, and I couldn’t do that for myself. She had all these ambitions of her own, she was going to open her own school, and she wanted me to match her stride for stride.”

We stop for a water break. Ally sets down her pack and looks at me. “But you can bet on yourself,” she says. 

“I’ve got different plans for my life,” I say. 

“You’re a good writer,” she says. 

“You’ve never read my writing.”

“I don’t need to. I just know.”

I cross my arms. “I don’t want to hear about how I could be so much further ahead. I’m happy where I am.”

“Are you?”

“Yes!”

“Then why are you walking the Camino?” 

I take a breath, I don’t have an answer. It’s irrational but I lash out back, I don’t know why I’m so angry, I wish I could take the words back, I say, “Why are you? What’s your plan now that you’ve left your old life behind?”

“I don’t know!” her voice is raised. “But I’m going somewhere, I have things I want to do and be. I’m going to reach for them.”

“I wish you luck,” I say, the anger has left my body, leaving nothing but emptiness and a vague jealousy. 

“You don’t need to. You can come with me.”

“What if I’m not worth betting on?” I must sound like a petulant child. I don’t care. My foot taps hard in the dust. “What if I go all in, think I’ve got aces, and all I have is a two and a seven?”

“Every hand is worth betting on.”

“You’d be a terrible poker player,” I say. 

“Maybe so.” She shrugs, tosses her hands up. “But at least I’m playing the game.”

“Well, I fold, then.”

Silence falls between us, sudden and abrupt. I notice the world around me again. We’ve been standing still for a few minutes, the trail ignored. Slowly, we close our water bottles and pick up our packs. “We should keep walking,” Ally says. 

“Yeah,” I say. 

We make small talk for the rest of the afternoon. 

I see a man leading a donkey across a bridge. The highway streams hot and metallic beneath us. The poor donkey is terrified. It can’t see the stairs that lead down off the bridge, it thinks it’s going to fall. The man is patient, he takes a piece of bread from his pack and gives it to the donkey. Happily chewing its food without a care in the world, it clambers down the stairs. 

Ally and I drift apart on the trail. It happens. We stay at different albergues, we have different paces. We don’t know each other well enough to make plans together. We don’t know each other at all. I didn’t notice how quiet the trail was until I didn’t have her voice to fill the silence. Now the emptiness thunders in my ear. Each night I fill my notebook with scratched out words. I worry that I won’t see her again.

But I do. 

I see her again in the courtyard outside the Santiago cathedral. She stands with her hands on her hips looking up at the spires. I raise my hand to call to her, then I draw back afraid, then she notices me and waves. “Sam the axe murderer!” she says, jumping up and down. I’m glad most of the people in the courtyard don’t speak English. 

“Thought I might not see you again,” I say. The tension between us is slight, but it is there. I think we both know to avoid talking about anything real. Something between us has broken, maybe a certain sense of innocence that can’t be found again. So we just banter. 

“The trail is small,” Ally says. 

“Enjoying the view?” I ask, looking at the cathedral. 

“Eh. The construction gets in the way.” Up the sides of the cathedral are wooden scaffolds dotted with yellow-helmeted men repairing the stone. 

“Yeah. Kind of disappointing.”

“Are you going to Finisterre?” she asks. 

“I think I will.”

“Did you know it translates to the end of the world?”

“I did, yes.”

“Spooky.”

“I’ll try not to fall off,” I say. 

“You’re a funny guy,” Ally says. “I’m going to go inside that building and watch the monks tell me things in Latin.”

“Have fun.”

“Will do. I’ll see you at the end of the world, then.”

“It’s a date.” I say the words before I have a chance to think about them. 

She looks at me, an uncertain smile. “It’s a date.”

There are goats as the sun sets at the end of the world. I sit as far down as I can on the rocks. All around me pilgrims come to the edge of the sea and finish their walk. They leave mementos. A walking pole or a hat or their shoes or a note. A few of them cry, or laugh, or hug their family. I watch the goats, and the sun. It drips slowly towards the water. Sea spray from the waves a few yards beneath me mists my face. 

“Hey,” Ally says, gentle. She takes off her pack and sits next to me. 

“Hey,” I say. 

We watch the sun for a while. We don’t say a word. It leaves a streak in the water as it sinks. A white mar on the perfect grey of the ocean. 

“So this is the end of the trail,” she says, finally. 

“I guess so.”

We talk for a little, or maybe an hour, maybe we talk for the rest of time, we talk about everything we can think of and more and when we’ve given mention to even the smallest thing in the universe she says, “I liked getting to know you.”

“Me, too.”

“Sam, my husband called me,” she says. “He asked if I would come back. If I would reconsider.”

“What did you say?”

“I said yes.”

“Why?” 

“I don’t know, Sam.” Her voice is tired. “He’s a good man. I love him. He’s smart, I suppose.”

“And the plastic?”

“I thought the trip would change me,” Ally says. 

“Me too.”

“But it didn’t. I’m still who I was.”

“Me too.”

Ally stands. “The view is pretty.”

“Sure.”

“Goodbye, Sam.”

She stands, takes her backpack, climbs back up the rocks. I want to shout to her, I want to say, Ally, I think I like you, I think I’m in love, I might not be able to bet on myself but I think I can bet on you. 

The words catch in my mouth, my throat strangles around them, my lips are like the bars of the prison cell for my thoughts. 

“Ally, wait,” I shout. 

But she’s gone. 

5 Easy Steps to Make a Character Arc

Character arcs are the bread and butter of storytelling. Many people argue that there is no such thing as “plot”, there is just a character undergoing change as they interact with their surroundings. I often find it helpful to think of a story as just a series of choices made by a flawed character. So it stands to reason that a character arc is oftentimes the backbone that a story is built on. 

While character arcs can have infinite complexity, they all share a few key building blocks. Not all of these are necessary, but most good stories will use one or two of them. As always, find your originality in the ways you break away from these building blocks, yet at the same time, they are still important tools. 

Just to preface, I am currently in the process of outlining a story, and I reached the stage where I plan character arcs. After spending a few minutes looking at the white page and drawing a blank, I decided to review everything I’ve learned about character arcs, and assemble that information into a tidy little guide. So as you read, bear in mind, this article is from the same perspective as all of you; an avid student of the most difficult craft. I am not an expert, but I am a learner, and perhaps you will find this article more helpful because of it. 

  1. Built In Potential

Before you do anything, you must first make sure that your character has the potential for change. This can take many forms. Maybe something is missing from their life, that they need to get. Maybe they have a flaw of personality they need to overcome. Maybe they have a perfect life, but the potential to fall into depravity. It can be literally anything. But from the very beginning, a character must be designed to change. 

As a rather archetypal example, consider Achilles from The Iliad. He goes from a paragon of heroism to a creature possessed by his own rage. His character arc is of a man becoming an animal. But this regression didn’t come out of nowhere. The potential was always inside of him, represented by his ferocious and legendary anger. Without his anger to drive him into inhuman depth, his character arc doesn’t make sense. His character is structured to change. 

  1. External and Internal Change

Character arcs are built on change. But even a character with the potential to change won’t realize that potential if nothing happens. If the Trojan War never happened, Achilles would never have changed. It was only because of the war, because the man he loved died, that his character arc began. 

This change comes from two places, external and internal. External change often takes the form of the “inciting incident”. Something happens to the character. Their life is wrenched from the status quo. It is important, though, for external change to continue to happen to a character. Don’t let them form a new status quo. Keep challenging them with new circumstances. 

Internal change is often a result of the character thinking about or processing the events of external change. This is where the real meat and potatoes of character growth happens. A character’s thought process is a window into both their mind and into the themes of a story. Scenes of a character grappling, wrestling, with their own emotions can be some of the most powerful moments in your story. Milk those scenes. 

It is important to give these two things roughly equal weight in a story. Too much external change, and your story will feel plot-driven and empty. Too much internal change, and your story will feel slow-paced and uninteresting. Find the happy balance that works best for the story you want to tell. 

  1. Character Through Decisions

Now that you have a character with the potential for change as well as the impetus for it, you need a way to convey that change. My recommendation is to do this by showing your character making decisions. 

Decisions are an oft-misrepresented concept. In Story by Robert McKee, he explains how the choice between “good” and “evil” isn’t actually a choice. Good is just so blatantly obvious. A character like Superman does not make a decision to save the innocent or not, he just does

Rather, a real decision has to be between two equal options. When Superman is asked to choose between saving an innocent or stopping a villain, that is when his true character is revealed. And when he still chooses the innocent, the story has successfully shown what he truly prioritizes. 

Equal options make for more interesting choices because they have stakes and consequences. Choosing one option means abandoning the other option. And when both options are equal, it means both the character and the reader feel a sense of loss that only one can be chosen. Don’t be afraid to let those consequences be real.

The consequences of the choices a character makes should increase over the course of the story. Something that many stories do well is have a character choose wrong when it matters most. Have them experience the greatest possible consequence. Putting your character through the thing that would make them suffer the most, as a result of their own decision, is one of the most powerful tools in storytelling.  

I find it helpful to have characters make these decisions periodically throughout a story. In many ways, I structure a story entirely around these moments of intense decision making. I also try to make the decisions thematically resonant, they relate to each other. This way, I can show how a character changes by the different choices they make when confronted with similar problems. 

  1. Conscious and Subconscious Goals

When a character makes a decision, they do so in pursuit of an objective. A character should have a goal, a motivation, something that they wish to accomplish. A small thing, such as winning an argument, or a larger thing, such as finding love. Whatever it is, a character is always working towards something. This is why they’re in a position that forces them to make a decision in the first place. 

I find it helpful for a character to have two goals. A conscious one, and a subconscious one. The conscious goal is a concrete thing. Something, someone, that they can physically touch. In Finding Nemo, Marlin wants to find Nemo. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo wants to destroy the ring. These conscious goals are stated out loud, explicitly, and involve specific and concrete solutions. 

In pursuit of a conscious goal, a character will naturally, but accidentally, accomplish their subconscious goal. Unlike the conscious goal, the subconscious goal is never stated out loud. It is intangible, often involving a character’s true nature. 

In Finding Nemo, as a side product of finding Nemo, Marlin becomes confident and capable. This is something he has always wanted to be, but never been able to. In Lord of the Rings, as a side product of destroying the ring, Frodo becomes a worldly, experienced adventurer. This is something he has always wanted to be, but never been able to.

The subconscious goal was well established by the narrative, but the characters would never have said to themselves that was the reason they went on the adventure. Both the characters and the story used the conscious goal as an excuse to allow the character to achieve their subconscious goal. 

  1. Relationship Tugging

Finally, it is important to remember that no character goes through change alone. Each character is surrounded by a web of other characters that influence the decisions they make and the arc they travel. 

I like to think of different characters as playing a game of tug-of-war with the protagonist in the center. The protagonist gets tugged back and forth by the people they are in a relationship with, until eventually they are pulled too far to one side. 

Star Wars is a story that does this excellently. Luke Skywalker’s character arc is of a peasant boy with no skills becoming the savior of the galaxy. As a part of that process, he is tugged in different directions by Darth Vader and Princess Leia. Vader wants him to become a dark lord, and Leia wants him to become a Jedi hero. 

Luke is tugged back and forth between these two sides. As with the part about decision making, these two sides are presented as equal in his mind. Sometimes he feels the tug of the dark side stronger, sometimes he feels the tug of the light side. The climax of the story is when he is tugged all the way to the light side. 

Importantly, you’ll notice that Vader is a character who is also undergoing this ‘relationship tugging’. Luke is tugging him in one direction, and Emperor Palpatine in another. To make the world of your story feel truly rich, and your characters feel truly dynamic, it is useful to create a web of interconnected interactions like this. 

In Conclusion

As with all writing advice, you’ll only drag yourself down by trying to follow it exactly. I can think of a dozen amazing stories that use none of these building blocks, yet have spectacular characters. I compiled this list as a way to inspire myself, for my own process. If it helps inspire you, I couldn’t be happier. But there are uncountable places to draw inspiration, and every writer’s process is unique.

6 Ways To Immediately Improve Your Dialogue

Dialogue is one of the trickiest things to get right. But, when done well, it can carry an entire book on its back. Dialogue that flows, that sounds like the characters, that means something. A reader is willing to read almost anything so long as the dialogue is good. 

Here are six ways to immediately improve your dialogue. 

1) Tags

Dialogue tags (such as ‘he said’ or ‘she said’) can make or break dialogue. One of the most common pieces of misinformation is that you should avoid using ‘he said’ or ‘she said.’ People often say that you should find the word to better match the tone of voice, such as shouted, yelled, called, whispered, etc. This is, in almost every scenario, wrong. 

‘He said’ and ‘She said’ are invisible to the reader’s eyes. They make dialogue flow without a hitch. But if the reader’s eyes get caught on every wild dialogue tag, it makes the dialogue feel clunky. Not only that, but it feels like the author is imposing their own will on the reader’s imagination. A reader can infer  a character’s tone of voice by the words that they use. When the author hammers them over the head with dialogue tags, it feels unprofessional. It feels like the dialogue lacks subtlety. 

Something to especially avoid is a dialogue tag combined with an adverb. “Yelled crazily,” or “muttered inaudibly.” This exacerbates the lack of subtlety by an order of magnitude. More than anything else, readers enjoy figuring things out on their own. They enjoy piecing together clues. If you make everything on your page blatant, the reader will lose interest. 

Now, this isn’t a universal rule. Sometimes words like yelled or shouted or whispered are useful. But they are only useful if used sparingly. Stick to ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ whenever you can. 

2) Intersperse with Action

Instead of using dialogue tags, you can use action. For example:

“Hey, Frank.” Sarah stood up from her chair and shook Frank’s hand. “Come in.”

This serves a number of purposes at once. First, it sets the scene, and describes the characters. Second, it gets rid of clunky dialogue tags. Finally, it grounds the dialogue in the things that are actually happening in the world. It’s not just two talking heads. 

3) Vibrant Voices

What makes dialogue most interesting to read is if the character has a distinctive voice. Think of your favorite characters. If you heard a line of their dialogue — even if there were no tags to distinguish it — you would recognize them immediately. 

This ties in with character building itself. A good character has a personality that leaps off the page. They have mannerisms, ticks, habits. They have a way in which they perceive the world that is unique to them. They have thoughts and opinions. They have humor, or lack thereof. All of these things should come across through dialogue. 

A good exercise to encourage this is to remove the dialogue tags from a scene of dialogue you have written. Can you still differentiate which character is speaking? If you can’t, it means you aren’t using their dialogue to properly express their personality. 

4) Dialogue Serves Multiple Purposes

Good dialogue is always doing multiple things at once. If you ever have a character say something, and the only thing they mean is exactly what they have said, you should take that line of dialogue out. 

There is a long list of things that dialogue can accomplish at the same time. I’ll mention a few of them here, but this list is by no means comprehensive. It is entirely up to you what your dialogue accomplishes, but it should always be accomplishing a lot of it. 

Dialogue should reveal character. It should progress the plot. It should inform things about the world. It should inform things about character dynamics. It should be filled with conflict. It should convey meaning about the themes of the story. It should be doing all of these things and more, and it should be doing them at the same time. 

5) Dialogue Should Be Subtle

If a character is sad, they will never say to another character, “I am sad.” No person ever says exactly what they are thinking. Dialogue is not a brain-to-mouth pipeline. Dialogue is filtered first by the character’s sense of self-consciousness and second by the author’s sense of subtlety. 

For example, Earnest Hemmingway has a short story called “Hills Like White Elephants”. In this story, a man and a woman are discussing an abortion, all the emotional weight abortions carry with them. However, the word abortion is never said. In fact, the characters don’t appear to be talking about an abortion at all. Yet the reader can piece together what they mean by subtle clues that Hemmingway provides. 

Characters dance around issues. They never mention the elephant in the room. They never explicitly state the things they are thinking about. But they allow these things to enter their dialogue, to color the words they use and the way they talk. 

The reader will find no greater pleasure than solving the mystery of what is actually on your character’s mind, but they will be disappointed if the character comes out and says it. 

6) Dialogue Should Have Conflict

The most boring thing to read in a story is small talk. If a character walks into a room and there is a half page of, hi’s and how-are-you’s and the-weather-is-nice’s, the reader will put down the book. 

Now, characters can have small talk. But that small talk should always be edged with conflict. Something the characters want, something they are prevented from having. Conversations should read like a game of chess. Characters advance their movements, lay traps, pursue objectives, and defend from enemy assault. 

Now, conflict does not have to be an argument. For example, two characters in secret love with each other are in constant conflict. Every word exchanged is part of a game to get the other character to reveal their love. 

If you ever have a scene of dialogue without conflict, you should either do two things. Add conflict (hidden conflict, outright conflict, even just a subtle sense of tension in the air) or remove the scene. 

In Summary

This is by no means a comprehensive list of everything that goes into dialogue. But if I had to pick a couple of takeaway points, it would be subtlety and purpose. Good dialogue always serves a direct and immediate purpose to the story. But it should also serve this purpose in subtle ways. Good dialogue does not announce its intentions, but should always make them clear. It is a tricky balance to strike — one that I have certainly not mastered myself — but it is an important one to be aware of, and to strive towards. 

Gideon the Ninth: The Best Fantasy Book of 2019

Lesbian sci-fi space necromancers in an Agatha Christie style murder mystery. That’s the premise of Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. And, honestly, if you’re not already sold, I don’t think we can be friends. 

In all seriousness, though, this is one of the best fantasy books to come out in the last few years. It represents a certain cutting edge of fantasy, fantasy that pushes boundaries, includes marginalized voices, resists tropes, and is, in general, really freaking sick. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants something lively and full of personality.

The plot of the story (no major spoilers) follows Harrowhark, a necromancer princess who lives in the coldest reaches of the solar system, and her sword-slinging cavalier, Gideon. They hate each other and have since birth, but unfortunate circumstances force them to work together. They travel to the home of the immortal emperor, where they must compete with eight other pairs of necromancer and cavalier for the privilege of becoming one of the emperor’s lyctors. What ensues is a tension filled, nail biting mystery as the necromancers and cavaliers engage in a battle royale to solve the clues that the emperor left behind. Solving each of the clues requires coordination between necromancer and cavalier, something Gideon and Harrow have nothing of. 

The book does three things exceedingly well. The first is character. Gideon and Harrow are some of the most fun and likeable protagonists I have ever read. Gideon is consistently badass, sarcastic, blockheaded, and endearing. As the narrator of the story, her voice practically screams from the page. She has such an iconic way of telling stories. Harrow is a perfect foil. Cool, collected, blisteringly intelligent, and often cruel. The dynamic between them is at times humorous, at times frustrating, and at times it’s the most heartwarming thing in the world. In short, I think it’s brilliant. 

The story also has this fantastic intricacy of plot. With a cast of nearly twenty named characters, it might seem intimidating. But each one is so unbelievably memorable that you won’t forget a name. And the ways in which they interact are precise, believable, and complex. The ever changing dynamics of the characters and the mystery of the mansion and of who the emperor is and what it will take to become his lyctor make for some tremendously engaging reading. I was up until four in the morning finishing this book, and I guarantee you will too. 

Finally, the magic of the story is wonderful. Necromancy is a hard magic system. It is bound by rules and requires knowledge and training in order to use. At the same time, though, it’s rules are never explained outright to the reader. We have to piece together the definitions of terms like thanergy or thalergy, we have to learn what occeus matter is. And the discovery process is amazingly fun. It never feels frustrating. No, it always feels like we’re solving a mystery right alongside the characters. Gideon, the narrator, knows as much about necromancy as the reader. Her biting cynicism about the intricacies of necromancy as she swings a massive, ten pound broadsword around with wanton abandon never ceases to crack me up. 

Long story short, I think this is an amazing book. Harrow the Ninth, the sequel, is wildly different but just as pleasing to read. I highly recommend this book for people who like stylized writing, complex character dynamics, and a fascinating and original magic system. 

The Weight of the Seagull

Jake leaves the house and goes down to the rocks next to the sea and takes a cigarette from his pocket but the lighter won’t light because of the wind, even though he shields it with his hand and shakes it. He puts the cigarette and the lighter away. Scratches his head. 

The rocks are wet as the edge of the ocean swallows itself and throws it all back up, the waves are like a tongue flicking the rocks and spraying spit everywhere. Jake brushes the sea spray from his forehead. His suit is wet. He wonders if the rental company will make him pay extra for the laundry and the dead fish salt smell. 

One of his relatives finds him — Samantha’s aunt, maybe? He never got his in-laws straight, Samantha had a lot of them, biggy happy family that was, cousins and little brats, his family had been small, only child, when they came out to Deer Isle each year it was just Mom Pop and him, that was fine, that was how he liked it, got to run around all day on the rocks. i

Fuck. The relative is saying something. He thinks she’s an aunt. Maybe her name was Laura or something. “Jake? Jake? Are you alright?”

“What?”

“Are you alright?”

“My lighter isn’t catching.”

“Do you want to come inside?”

“Sure, yeah.”

“Everybody’s worried about you.”

He shrugs. “I’m fine.”

“Come inside.”

He comes inside. The wind pushes against the windows and the house, it’s old, real old, been in his family since forever, more or less, it protests the wind with a noisy yowl. Somebody hands Jake a little sandwich the kind with the umbrella toothpick in the white bread with no crust and too much mayonnaise and then a hand pats his shoulder. 

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

Jake nods along with the litany. They had the service yesterday, it was nice, Jake said some words that he wrote down on a piece of paper, he wrote them while the minister read from the bible, had to borrow a pen from the person sitting next to him. 

They all thought it would be a good idea to come to Deer Isle one last time. Jake’s selling the house. Last hurrah sort of deal.

Celebration of life, they called it. The funeral, that is. They made sure not to call it a funeral, Sam had been specific about that. Jake swallows his sandwich and rubs the mayonnaise off of the stubble on his upper lip. Forgot a razor. That was stupid. Sam says he looks like shit with a beard. 

He’s on the couch with Laura and half cousin and third nephew. Third nephew is telling a funny story about Sam when she was in college. Jake’s heard it before. He wonders if he should be doing the same thing. Thinking about her, that is. He’s not, not really. 

One time he walked the Long Trail in Vermont. Whole of Vermont. Three hundred miles. When he finished he realized that after that whole month of walking he just remembered only little snippets of it. When he tried to wrap his head around how fucking large Vermont was and had walked across the whole thing, he couldn’t do it. Couldn’t hold the image all together. So he didn’t, he let the sense of how long he had walked just shatter apart, and left himself with only the snippets and not a sense of having done anything all that important. 

Samantha’s life is a bit like that, he thinks. He hasn’t even cried.

The house on Deer Isle has a large backyard with all the right things to keep a group of people entertained in it. A grill and a badminton net and a patio and all that stuff that Samantha bought. Jake presumes the relatives all have drinks in the backyard and talk about Samantha, he only presumes because he’s not there. He’s watching the sea. 

It’s almost night. The wind has died down a bit. Waves aren’t as fierce, and the tide’s low. Kelp clings to the rocks like hair. It’s slimy beneath his fingers. Jake’s lighter finally works. He smokes a bit. 

Best part about Deer’s Island is the stars. He tilts his neck a bit to see them and sucks down a lungful of rat poison and night air and happy chemicals. There’s Orion’s Belt. There’s the Big Dipper. There’s the North Star. He doesn’t know any more constellations. 

There’s a noise on the rocks. He looks away from the sky. Below him twenty feet, is a boy. 

The boy leaps from rock to rock. His feet are bare and they cling to the slippery kelp like they’re made of fucking superglue, or something. He’s wearing a swimsuit with a cartoon animal on it, Jake thinks he watched that show when he was young. The moonlight — moon’s on the horizon, waxing gibbous or something, bright enough to reflect on the water — touches the edges of the boys bare shoulders and limns them with soft white shine. 

A wave rears back, pushes against the rock, and cascades into the air. The shower rains down around the boy and his laughter is like a handful of rattling sea glass. He lifts his hands to either side of him and splutters with droplets in his mouth. 

The boy turns and sees Jake. Jake freezes. He feels like he shouldn’t be here. No, wait, real life kind of returns to him, the boy shouldn’t be here, no one else lives on the island.

The boys waves. 

Jake waves back. 

The boy climbs up the rocks and sits next to Jake. “Hi.”

“How’d you get here?”

The boy’s legs dangle off the edge of the rock and he kicks them. Sometimes the ocean spray gets daring and reaches an impish hand to tickle the underside of the boy’s feet before withdrawing quickly. 

“Can I tell you a story?”

“What?”

“Mom tells me stories when I’m sad.”

“I’m not sad.”

“Oh.”

“You can tell me a story.”

“Can I?”

Jake shrugs like, sure, I won’t stop you.

“Okay. Here’s the story. Yesterday on the rocks over there there were two seagulls. One of them had a piece of bread in its mouth and was walking around like she was the happiest seagull there ever was. And the other seagull didn’t have any bread. So he squawked, ducked his head, looked all pitiful. Finally the other seagull gave him a little piece of bread, and flew away.”

Jake chuckles. “That’s the story?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know if that was a very good story.”

“What do you know about stories?”

“What happened next?”

“He dropped the bread on accident.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Yeah.”

“How’d you know it was a girl seagull?”

The boy smiles. “I don’t know. But it made the story better.”

Jake looks sideways at him. “Yeah?”

“I have to go. Bye mister.”

“Wait, are you going to be okay on the rocks? It’s slippery.”

The boy is already gone. He scampers down the side of the rocks and leaves Jake’s view. Jake stands up abruptly and runs after him. He keeps himself low, one hand hovering just above the rocks in case he slips. The wind snags in his hair and blows it in his eyes. He runs until he reaches the edge of the rocks, on little promontory overlooking the ocean, but he can’t see the boy anywhere. 

He tosses the cigarette into the waves and goes inside. 

“Who are you going to sell the house to?” someone asks. It’s the next morning. 

Jake looks over at the person. “Who are you?”

They fade away into the background. 

“I’m sorry for your loss.” Someone else touches his shoulder. 

That night Jake comes to the rocks again. He tells himself that the boy won’t be there again. He’s just out for a smoke. Getting away from the stuffy relatives. He tells himself all of this. But when the boy is there again playing on the rocks, Jake waves to him, calls out to him. 

The boy looks up. “Hello, mister!” He scampers over to Jake. 

“Hey, kid,” Jake says. “Pretty night.”

The boy turns to face the ocean and leans out over the edge of the rocky drop off. He lifts one hand to his forehead, like a lookout. The wind is sharp. The boy has moonlight in his eyes. “Sure is,” the boy says. 

“What did you do today?”

“I swam, and I played in the water, and I collected mussels and–” 

“Sounds like a good day.”

“Pretty good.”

“Who is taking care of you?”

“Can I tell you a story?”

“Another one?”

“It’s a sad one.”

“Okay.”

They stand next to each other and watch the tide come in. 

“I don’t have anyone to play with,” the boy says. 

They’re silent for a little. 

“Is that the story?” Jake asks. 

“Yeah.”

Jake sits down. He turns his head to the side. 

“Why are you crying?” the boy asks. 

“I don’t know,” Jake says. “It was a sad story.”

“I guess.”

“I don’t, either.”

“What?”

“Have anyone to play with.”

On the third night, the last night, the next day all the relatives will leave and Jake will sell the house, on the third night Jake comes down to the ocean. The boy is there again. Jake is about to call out to the boy when he stops himself, afraid, and draws closer. 

The boy stands in the ocean. The moon pools in the dips between waves. The boy reaches down and dips his finger in the moonlight. He turns, moves his hand like the flow of a condor’s wing, and to his finger the silver thread of moonlight clings, a sweet note from the throat of woman who doesn’t care that she doesn’t know how to sing, the image lingers in Jake’s eye, the boy brings his finger back to the water where he dips it beneath the surface, lifts it into the air, the water follows his hands in ribbons, a sapling fountain with the moonlight dancing woven all between. 

Water twists about the boy, holds him up, the boy’s laugh, there again. The boy rises up to the sky and the constellations converge about him, the sky folds inwards and down, like it was reaching a hand to match the boy’s, the two of them straining, spinning, each turn of their hands the first stroke in a painting, their desperate reaches on the verge of twinning, boy and sky becoming one.

But the boy merely tickles the sky and the stars shiver at his touch, he falls back down a thousand feet into the water where he stretches his arms to either side and turns round and round, as the boy churns the water Jake feels it churn inside him as well. 

For a moment all limitation holds suspended, unreal, Jake leans forward and now it is his turn to reach out a hand as the boy performs a miracle in the waves, it feels as though he is there, standing aside the boy, the water and the sky lapping at his heel, he moves his arm and the world wheels, but he’s not there, not really, he’s just watching, but what does it matter if he’s there or not if it feels like he is? 

And so Jake holds out his hand and he can see Vermont he can hold Samantha and and and

A wisp of green energy curls from his palm. A single blade of grass. It stretches up and at its tip it buds and flowers. A splash of water trickles up alongside it and plops down in rainbow droplets. Fire crinkles up the grass stalk and twines with the water in a looping spiral and dirt bubbles beneath the grass, little granules of rocks. The grass grows thicker, becomes a rose, the petals are tongues of fire, the stalk is an iridescent stream.

The rose grows in upon itself and then flares out into indistinct racing lines of light and shadow. The lines hide in each other’s shadows and curl about in playful darts. The waving lines bleed together in a tapestry and the tapestry spreads wings.

A seagull hops in his palm on one foot. It looks at him and tilts its head with curiosity and he tilts his as well just as curious. He brings the bird close to his face and it chirps and flutters. He lifts his hand up to the fading light and the bird raises away on whispered wings.

How Bad Are Adverbs, Really?

Don’t use adverbs. Don’t use adverbs. I have heard this advice from a hundred sources a hundred times. It seems to be the one thing that style guides and literary critics can all agree on. Adverbs bad. But how useful is this advice? Is there a way that, actually, adverbs good? 

An adverb often serves to add specificity to an action. They also can convey emotion, add punch to a sentence, heighten tension and explain setting. They are an all purpose grammar tool. So why the hate?

In my own experience, whenever someone has suggested that I remove an adverb from my writing it is because I am using that adverb as a crutch. What I mean by this is that I am using the adverb to convey the information by expressly telling the reader. In reality, I should be conveying this information through other means. More specific language and detailed descriptions can often serve to convey the same information as an adverb in a more artful way. 

Everyone knows the classic example of how the sentence “he sprinted” is better than the sentence, “he ran quickly.” Why use lot words when few words do trick? Sprinted is a better phrase than ran quickly. But there are more complex examples. 

“The sun shone brilliantly across the grasses gently swaying in the wind.” A fairly stock description of a field. The problem with the adverbs here is not that they are bad sentences, but that they are always used to convey this image. Adverbs are bread and butter of cliche descriptions. A better sentence might read, “The grass dipped and wove in the breeze, each kernel of wheat reflecting the morning sun.” By forcing myself to avoid adverbs, I had to invent a more original way to describe the scene. 

Adverbs are also exceedingly dangerous when they are used as dialogue tags. From personal experience I know that nothing I have written has ticked a creative writing teacher off more than, “shouted loudly.” Oftentimes, an adverb modifying a tag is simply a sign of ameature writing. Even if the phrase is fairly solid, such as “said softly” which is a personal favorite of mine, it still comes off as ameature. I’ve found that using adverbs in this way is best done sparingly; often it can have good effects, but that effect is negated by frequent use. 

But I also believe that adverbs can be useful, if used well. Sometimes adverbs fit well with a more flowery style of writing, writing that relishes long sentences and complex structure. Sometimes an adverb is just exactly what’s needed to describe something as well. To use an example of a sentence I wrote recently: “she sits down heavily in a chair.” I can’t find a perfect verb to encapsulate that sense of sitting down with an angry harumph, but “heavily” does the job pretty well, and it doesn’t get in the way. 

Adverbs are a danger. When I go back to edit my work, they are something I look for, because I know I have a penchant to rely on them. Replacing adverbs with stronger, more direct language is usually the right call. But the only rule in writing is that there are no rules. If you feel the call of the adverb, don’t just sprint for it. Run quickly.

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Trail’s End

The car skips and bounces down the road. Gravel kicks up in streaks of dust behind the wheels. I look out the window and lean my head against the glass. 

“Well?” Amy asks. She’s driving. I’m in the backseat, stretched out, my legs pressing against one window and my head against the other. I look at my toes. Each of the nails is bruised. The one on my big toe is cracked in two different places. I wiggle them. I’m sure they stink, but I can’t smell it anymore and Amy is nice enough not to complain. 

“Well?” Amy repeats. She glances at me through the rear-view mirror, smiling. Waiting. Wanting something from me. 

“Well what?” I ask. 

“How was it?”

“Good.”

She laughs. “That’s not all you’re going to say, is it?”

“It was hard, too.” I smile back. “Sorry, It’s just…” my voice trails off. 

“Well, what was your favorite state, at least.”

“New Hampshire.”

“How come?”

“Had the prettiest mountains.”

“Did it help?”

“Did what help?”

“The trip.”

I turn my head and watch the forest slide past outside the window. The road we’re on stretches nearly parallel to the trail. It’s odd, because in the last half hour we’ve travelled what took me three days to walk. It doesn’t feel like just travelling, it feels like the car is erasing the trail, eating it up, turning it into a green blur barely perceived through a window. 

“No,” I say. “It didn’t help.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” Amy asks. Her face is a mask of sympathy, tinted dark by the shade of the mirror. 

“No,” I say. “Just thinking.”

“You can sleep if you want. We can talk later.”

“Okay. Yeah.”

I lean back and close my eyes but I don’t sleep. I think about this picture I saw of a man at the end of the Appalachian Trail. He’s on Mt. Katahdin, on his knees, and he’s gripping the summit marker with both hands, pressing his head against the wood. Sobbing. The picture doesn’t move but I can see his shoulders heaving.

I thought it would be like that when I got to the top, to the end. But it wasn’t. I don’t know.  I looked at the view, which was nice, but I had seen better, and then I walked down to the parking lot and waited for Amy to come get me, drive me home. I thought it would mean something. 

Home is back in Connecticut for us, which means the drive is nearly ten hours. We take a pit stop at a convenience store outside of Portland. It’s dark now. We’re the only car in the parking lot. Neon signs say proudly that the gas is only $2.95, the light from inside the store is almost painful to look at compared to the rich dark of the clouded sky. The car’s headlights sweep across the asphalt and Amy cuts the motor. 

I get out of the car and stretch. The lights of Portland turn the sky orange in the distance. Even if there weren’t clouds, there wouldn’t be any stars. 

“I’ll get gas,” Amy says. 

“I’m gonna piss,” I say. 

My boots don’t fit linoleum tiles. They’re so scuffed around the edges that they look almost fuzzy. What used to be grey and blue has turned almost black with caked mud. The tiles are sharp and edged. They have the usual crumbs and dust and scratches, the store owner in the corner is busy sweeping the residue under the counter. 

“Hey,” I say. “Got a bathroom?”

He points. 

The inside of the bathroom is covered with funny quotes about alcohol. I’ve had one beer too many, but I can’t tell if it was the eleventh, or the twelfth. Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer. I chuckle at a good one about Winston Churchill. 

I’m so used to pissing on trees that I nearly forget to flush. It’s funny. I thought I might change. I thought I was supposed to change. But I didn’t mean change as in, I forget to flush. I meant change, as in, I cried when I held the sign on Mt. Katahdin. 

At the counter I toss a bag of Cheez-Its to the store owner, who scans them and tosses them back and then I toss him some coins, a game of catch. He looks me up and down. 

“Hiker?” he asks. 

“What gave it away?”

“The beard,” he says. I scratch at it thoughtfully. I haven’t shaved in six months. 

“That’s true.”

“Let me guess,” the store owner says. “Baxter State Park?”

“For a little,” I say. “I was a through hiker.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks.”

“My son was a through hiker.” He gives me the receipt. “See any bears?”

“A few,” I say. “When I was in the White Mountains, I saw one trying to reach for my bear bag. I hadn’t hung it in the trees properly and it was too close to one of the trunks, and this bear had climbed all the way up it and was reaching its paw for the bag. As I watched, the branch it was on broke. Real awkward thing, too. Paws flailing everywhere. It stood up and looked around like it was embarrassed, scratched its ear, and walked away as if nothing had happened.”

The store owner laughs. “I’ll tell my son.”

“I had a son, too,” I say. 

“How old is he?”

“Would have turned fifteen in a month.”

When I get back to the car, Amy is sitting in the driver’s seat. The lights are off, so the only thing illuminating her face is pink neon, her expression bathed and washed and bleached. I get into the back seat. She doesn’t start the car, we just look at each other through the rear view mirror. 

“Did you get gas?” I ask. 

“I want to know why,” Amy says. 

“Are you crying?” I ask. 

“You were gone for six months.”

I don’t say anything. 

“You were gone for six months and you just left me.”

“Can we talk about this when we get home?”

It’s a silent car ride back. 

We sleep in the same bed. It’s the first time I’ve slept next to someone since I began the hike. She sleeps facing away from me. Morning light already fills the room with grey fuzz. I look at my hand, eyes open. Every part of me is aware of my wife, the weight of her in the bed, the warmth of her in the room, the sound of her breath and the smell of what she washed her hair with. All of the sensations are too much, I can’t handle the proximity, the constant reminder of another consciousness unable to sleep because the same grief is in both our hearts, I don’t want to feel her emotions as well as mine, so I get out of bed and I go for a walk down the street, in the same jacket I wore while hiking, barefoot, the concrete leeches warmth from my soles. 

In the morning I have the same breakfast that I had on the trail. Oatmeal, brown sugar, powdered milk. I eat it at the kitchen counter, hunched over the food, too bleary eyed to focus on much of anything.

Amy sits down across from me, wearing pajamas, her hair erratic. 

“Where’d you go this morning?”

“Just for a walk.” I pick up my bowl of oatmeal and wash it in the sink. The flakes stick to the side of the bowl and it takes a couple passes with the sponge to clean it out. 

“I thought you’d have had enough walking.” She smiles, it’s a joke, but it really doesn’t feel like it. 

“Me too.”

“I want you to tell me about it. Tell me a story.”

The bowl is clean by now but I keep scrubbing at it. 

“You didn’t call,” Amy says. 

“I texted.”

“Once a week, to let me know you were safe, like we agreed.”

“Did you want me to call?”

“Of course.”

“You could have, you know. I would have answered.”

“Look at me,” she says. 

I put the bowl down. I look at her. She reaches out and takes my hands which hang limp at my sides and holds them between us. Her thumb plays over the dirt on the back of my hand — a half hour long shower couldn’t scrub it clean — plays over the ridge of tendons and muscle I didn’t used to have. 

“I missed you,” she says. “I needed you.”

“I needed to do something,” I say. 

“I know you did.”

“You said it was fine. I asked and I asked and I asked if it was alright for me to go and you said you would be fine.”

“I didn’t want to control you.”

“I just… I needed my life to change.”

“Haven’t our lives changed enough?” Her voice chokes mid-sentence. 

“I got up each morning and I sat on the bus to go to work and all around me, everybody was living their lives, moving, you know, and there I was, pretending nothing was different, moving along with them, pretending like nothing had happened, and I couldn’t do that.”

“And on the trail? Did you stop needing to pretend when you were on the trail?”

I look away. 

“Look at me,” she says. 

“I kept pretending,” I say. 

“And for us?” she says. “Are we going to keep pretending, too? That nothing is different, that you didn’t abandon me, that our son didn’t–”

“Stop.”

“That our son didn’t die?”

“We could keep pretending.”

“I don’t want to. I want to walk with you. I want to feel everything I need to feel, and then I want it to be done, just done, however long it takes for the grief to go away. I want you to be there with me. ”

“I need to call work,” I say. “To tell them I’m back. See if I still have a job.”

“Okay,” Amy says. She turns away from me. “Okay.” 

I reach out a hand to touch her shaking back but I don’t, my fingers hover and then I draw them away. 

At the top of Mt. Katahdin I stand in front of the sign that the hiker from the photo held. I turn from the sign, look out at the view. Clouds curl about themselves in little wisps. Slopes and rocks and trees and cliffs and ridges all around in a jumble. 

I try to wrap my head around just how large the trail is. How large it is and I walked the whole thing, all two thousand two hundred miles of it. I can’t do it. I can’t hold the image all together. I can grab hold to a scrap here, a fragment there, but it is like a cup that has shattered. The shards of ceramic lie scattered in my mind. I pick up a shard and the rain patters against the walls of my tent, yet I am warm inside, wrapped in a sleeping bag, my headlamp reflects off the pages of my book. I pick up a shard and Amy and I are eating lunch while watching tv, I steal a potato chip from her plate and she steals half my sandwich and I steal her glass of milk and she steals a kiss.  I pick up a shard and it is my son’s fifth birthday, I hold him up on my shoulders and run like a donkey around the yard while he smears his face with pink cake. Every time I pick up a shard I am forced to put down the one I was holding, no matter how many shards I grab I can never make the cup whole again, I can never contain the entirety of my son in the breadth of my imagination. 

So I don’t try. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender is Storytelling Perfection

It is rare for a show to grip me so fully as Avatar: The Last Airbender, by Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. I rewatched it last week. I went through the entire sixty episode show in five days. I practically breathed Avatar, I was so invested. 

Avatar tells the story of the titular Avatar, a twelve year old boy named Aang. The Avatar is a being that can control the four elements, water, earth, fire, and air. The Avatar is supposed to serve as a mediator of peace between the four nations of the world, each themed after one of the elements. But Aang runs away from his duties, and with his powers raging out of control, traps himself in an iceberg. 

In his absence, the Fire Nation declared war on the world. A hundred years pass, and two water tribe members, Katara and Sokka, find Aang and break him free from the iceberg. They tell him what has happened, and together they set out on a quest to teach Aang how to control the four elements and defeat the fire nation. All the while, they are chased by the troubled and conflicted Fire Nation prince, Prince Zuko. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender is the only story I have ever experienced that I would call objectively perfect. There are many stories that I find subjectively perfect, that is, stories that I find emotionally resonant for specific and personal reasons. Some of these stories I even enjoy more than Avatar. But Avatar is different. Avatar is a perfect story. 

First, the characters. Not only is each character an absolute joy to watch on screen, each has a level of complexity and depth that I’ve never seen matched. These characters are so well constructed that you can use them as a template for storytelling. They are textbook examples of what makes a character interesting. 

For example, let’s take Prince Zuko. His character arc (I won’t spoil it) is one of the most beautiful, slow-burn, artful evolutions of a character I have ever witnessed. It is meticulously constructed — with side characters like Uncle Iroh and Princess Azula tugging Zuko in different directions, leaving him torn apart. Those two characters represent possibilities for Zuko’s future. Each is compelling. The audience understands why Zuko would choose one or the other (even though we’re screaming at the screen for him to choose Iroh). His personality reflects his anguish, the choices he makes show his confliction. 

An average, imperfect story would allow Zuko to be the only interesting character, and leave Iroh and Azula as static, representative side characters. But Avatar is different. Avatar makes sure that Iroh and Azula — though they serve as narrative foils for Zuko — are each complex and dynamic in their own right. Iroh struggles with his legacy as a fascist military leader, he grieves for his son, and for his surrogate son. Azula is crushed by the weight of responsibility and the desire to succeed, and she turns from a calculated and precise person to an uncontrolled maniac. 

The true beauty of this show is that Zuko has two narrative foils who pull him in different directions. Yet his two foils are complex characters. They have narrative foils pulling them in different directions. And the people pulling them are complex characters, and so on ad infinitum, until the show’s cast is wrapped up together in an astonishing web of deep, emotional relationships. 

Second, the world building. Avatar has exemplary world building. Each aspect of the world ties into the plot and the characters, and visa versa, all of it wrapped up in harmony. The ability to control the elements, “bending”, directly ties to the identities of the four nations, to the landscape itself, to the characters. The creators of the show were deliberate in thinking through the consequences for each choice they made. If a society consists of people who can move mountains, what do their cities look like? If a society consists of people who can fly, what do their cities look like? All of these questions are answered with gorgeous precision. 

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention just how simply fun the show is to watch. Team Avatar — the ragtag collection of protagonists — are ridiculously charming. I watched the most mundane filler episodes with such a broad smile on my face, happy to just watch these hooligans go about their business. 

The animation helps make the show fun to watch. The fight scenes are fluid. The artists took no shortcuts. The action — especially The Last Agni-Kai (if you know you know) — is often stunning. Bending is tied to martial arts. When characters use their magic, you can feel the motion as though you were moving yourself. Earthbending feels strict, solid, abrupt, and unmoving. Waterbending is wavy and dynamic. The animation sells this effect terrifically. 

There are many stories I enjoy more than Avatar. But each of those stories is flawed in a way that I would hesitate to give an unqualified recommendation. If I tell a friend about those stories, I would say, “I love this show. But I have to warn you…”

I don’t have to give a warning when recommending Avatar. Watch this show. Watch it again if you already have.