We Have Forgotten Our Symbolic Language

There was a time when fairy tales and myths were ways of talking about the world which were rife with mystery and symbolism. These stories served as ways to present human realities in sharp, simple and easy to remember ways. While lacking in nuance by today’s standards this symbolic language is part of what made these traditional stories easy to pass down. The people who told them were typically not literate and, even if they could read or write, generally wouldn’t have the resources to make something durable enough to stand the test of time. The average home was a very flimsy place back in the day, and something as flimsy as paper was unlikely to survive the seasons, much less the years.

So stories larger than life, stories of brave knights and princesses, dark forests and lurking predators, monsters and ghosts were spun to stand out from the day to day humdrum of life. But most all people knew that the protagonists were stand-ins for the higher callings in their lives, the dark places represented hard times or unfamiliar circumstances and the ghouls and dragons the worse parts of human nature that had to be confronted and overcome, whether from sources without or from within their own heart. This symbolic language was beautiful, effective and most of all memorable.

We’ve forgotten how it is used.

Part of this is because of the immediacy of our culture. Twitter hot takes and reddit memes have overtaken the discussion to the point where the first aspect of anything that catches the attention is what is commented on. You would think memes could fill the role of introductory symbology for our culture but so much of meme culture is rooted in irony and sarcasm that it tends to undermine the nature of symbolism – commentors are too busy trying to put their own spin on the meme to consider the original intention of whatever they’re riffing on. Symbology requires a level of shared perception between author and audience which meme culture actively avoids. Which brings us to the second issue, namely the very postmodern culture we live in.

Postmodernists are hung up on power games and oppressing people; they’re always looking for it. Almost all literary criticism in our era is rooted in postmodernism, so the people who used to keep and teach our cultural symbolism, the elders and wise women, now spend all their time dissecting it to see how it’s bad. An ogre who robs and kills travelers is no longer a symbol of human greed, it’s a racist caricature of Jews, or black people, or whatever.

This is something that’s been nagging at me for a while, but I always chalked it up to postmodernism. But the decay of meaningful symbology was really thrown in stark contrast for me by the reaction to a little work of Japanese fiction called Goblin Slayer. For those wondering, the story focuses on a man who kills goblins. Who would have guessed?

There have been two camps of people who have reacted to Goblin Slayer: people who think the show is morally reprehensible or at least posing as it for shock value and people who think it’s just a dark, gritty action fantasy tale not afraid to face harsh realities.

The primary two reasons given when people say Goblin Slayer is horrible are:

  1. The first episode contains a not very explicit but not very ambiguous rape.
  2. The attitude of the title character, particularly in his extermination of child goblins, endorses genocide.

The usual responses to these objections  given by those who just think Goblin Slayer is a dark adventure are:

  1. Rape is an evil thing that happens, and using it to establish the evil of your villains is just as valid as using murder or torture, both things goblins also do in the first episode.
  2. Goblins are presented more as a lethal pest that happens to have arms, legs and a head like a human, rather than as sentient beings. The Goblin Slayer is an exterminator who deals with the pests, not a genocidal maniac.

Both of these reactions completely miss the point.

They are not serious criticisms of the story, for two reasons. The first is that they are based on a woefully incomplete understanding of Goblin Slayer. These are not criticisms, these are hot takes, sarcastic, ironic statements made to grab attention on Twitter, not engage with the work as it stands. One episode of a thirteen episode run is not much to base an opinion on but it is plenty to grandstand on like an ignoramus. For starters, if these self-styled critics were interested in offering an informed opinion without waiting for the rest of the series to broadcast, Goblin Slayer has plenty of source material that they could have drawn on and the source books are “light novels”, the Japanese equivalent to novellas, that can be read in a few hours each. But this wasn’t about criticism or analysis, this was about finding something to be outraged about. But outrage is the devil’s cocaine, it feels good but blinds all senses, leaving the outraged to be swept along by the crowd with no real sense of what’s happening. It’s the exact opposite of the attitude a critic needs.

Worse, this easy outrage at any little thing you can call rape or racism dulls the senses. Like the cocaine addict, the outrage addict wears down their receptiveness to these issues and wearies their mind, until real outrages pass right by them without comment. But that’s not what we’re driving at today, so we’ll leave it at that. The real point is this:

Goblins are not stand ins for real world races, nor are their crimes perpetrated on the audience. In Goblin Slayer the goblins are symbolic of human evils. The narrative goes out of its way to make this point. We are told in the first chapter of the source material that a saying goes that every time a new group of adventurers is formed so is a band of goblins. A folk tale is mentioned that a goblin is formed every time someone makes a mistake. Elsewhere the Goblin Slayer himself mentions that his sister told him when you resent someone you become a goblin. The Slayer’s cunning and ruthless way of fighting is twice compared to the behavior of goblins, a fact he himself acknowledges in a speech early in the first book where he compares his own obsessive destruction to that of a goblin’s. “He who fight’s monsters should take care lest he become one” is an overused trope but fortunately not one that really applies to Goblin Slayer.

You see, Goblin Slayer is a story in the vein of the old fairytales (a very gruesome and violent group of fiction itself, I might add). The Slayer himself is an embodiment of the battle between good and evil in human hearts. He comes from a very, very dark place. It’s what drives him to exterminate the evils of goblins so thoroughly. As the only villains of the tale, goblins in Goblin Slayer fill many roles but all of them are as representations of human vice. Gluttony and greed in the form of their rapacious theft and cannibalism, lust in their abductions and rapes, cruelty and wrath in their rampant violence.

We know that the victims of evil are, sadly, the most likely to perpetuate that evil. Bullied children are more likely to become bullies as they grow, victims of domestic violence more likely to abuse, sexual assault victims more likely to rape. This truth is dark, but doesn’t leave one without hope. If acknowledged, one can be on guard. Like the reforming alcoholic who avoids any drinking situation, these victims can grab hold of their situation if only they know what to be on watch for.

While many adventurers move on past goblins and view them simply as pests, the Goblin Slayer has suffered horribly from them and so he is more on guard against them than any other. He does not allow even a scrap of potential for them to reclaim their power in his life, so he exterminates them even down to the children. He is dark and troubled, teetering on the edge of monstrousness himself at times, but in time he is blessed with people who can see how damaged he is and who will not reject him outright, and what began as a perpetual battle against the darkness the goblins cast him into begins to relent, and the support of people who care gives him the chance to begin building a life that is more than just battling his own demons.

No, Goblin Slayer is not great literature. But it is a sincere story about looking the human capacity for evil in the face and accepting that it has to be fought in all its incarnations, great and small. The way it goes about this will doubtless be off-putting to some. It’s not exactly pleasant to watch. But the point is, it is a story told in a language that was commonplace in our culture not fifty years ago but that we have somehow forgotten how to use in the time since. That’s clear from the incredibly off-base reaction to it. That’s quite sad, a whole portion of our cultural heritage lost in just a few generations. It may take far longer to recover from the loss.


Marvel Netflix Doesn’t Understand Heroism

For some reason people love Marvel’s Netflix offerings. I don’t understand why. About 40% of these offerings is people trying to convince the hero of the story not to be the hero of the story. What happened to the days when being a superhero was all about people with extraordinary gifts who tried to use them to help others when they had the chance? Why does it always have to be a boring slog of self-reflection and self-recrimination? Why can’t Iron Fist just put the suit on, punch some Triads and make New York more safe? For cryin’ out loud, stop making your superheroes boring, self-centered naval gazers. This is not what we signed up to see.

OK, maybe some did but not me.

Sorry, that opening paragraph should have had a rant warning. But I really don’t understand what the primary appeal of these shows is supposed to be. Let’s roll back a bit. Let’s look at these shows, very, very briefly. Daredevil is about a blind lawyer who can fight like ten men and his personal vendetta with the head of organized crime in New York. Luke Cage is about a wrongly convicted felon trying to keep his head down while doing right by the people of Harlem. Jessica Jones is about a woman and her abuse – of alcohol, friends and lovers, and their abuse of her in turn. Iron Fist is about the world’s greatest martial artist feeling guilty.

All four have protagonists that seem to act for selfish reasons, prioritizing how they feel or what they’re mad at over simple, meaningful steps to help others. Of these four, Luke Cage had the most likeable protagonist who, even though he was kind of milk toast, still managed to be funny, charming and powerful as needed. Sadly, even Luke succumbed to the self-recriminations as he tried to make a living and eventually went off the deep end because apparently getting a little money made him go nuts. Iron Fist was getting close to pulling out of the rut, pairing its most interesting, relatable and best written character, Ward Meechum, with lead Danny Rand on a globetrotting adventure as a set up for its next season. Alas, after a season of playing pattycake with murderers and thugs then giving up his powers to his girlfriend for reasons the story tells us about but never shows, Iron Fist‘s audience ran out of patience and dropped it and the show has been canceled. Not without cause, mind you, although I did find it a little disappointing. I liked Ward.

Look, there is a place for deep dives into the psyche of a character, for unpacking what makes people tick and what the price of hard decisions might be. But that’s not the appeal of hero stories. Hero stories generally break down into two categories – aspirational and relatable. Aspirational heroes are people we’d like to be like. They are the Superman or Batman of hero tales, people whose qualities we know no one can ever really have but we’d still like to strive for. Relatable heroes are the Spiderman of heroic stories, people with all the trials we have but who are more on the road to the aspirational goal than we are, just a few steps ahead. Both categories make us feel a little better about what we do to make the world a better place. And they usually make us feel better about the world, too.

After all, if there are so many people putting stock in these heroes, maybe if we all take a step in towards those ideals the world will be a brighter place. These Netflix “heroes” don’t make the world a better place. They just exhaust themselves trying to fulfill their selfish emotional needs.

Many people rate the Marvel Netflix shows far above the, admittedly somewhat cheesy, DC CW shows like Arrow or The Flash. But let’s be real. The Arrow and the Flash go out, do good things for other people, and pull those around them towards doing the same. The extent to which the do it is silly, of course, and others have comment on it plenty. But the point is that they are superheroes. Everything they do has an impact that would be silly to expect in the real world. That doesn’t stop Flash from being an aspirational hero or Arrow from being a relatable one. As heroic shows they’re doing far, far better than the grimy, self-satisfied heroes Marvel Netflix offers.

I tried. I really did. Iron Fist wasn’t a great place to start. But for better or worse, it’s also where I’m ending. I’m done with Marvel Netflix. I just don’t know what people saw in it. Whatever it was, it wasn’t the kind of heroism I was looking for.

Writing Men: All Might

Welcome to the latest round of nerdy author musings. If you’re new to this aspect of my writing, it’s customary for me to make at least a few posts a year rambling about what I think of writing and musing on what I’ve studied about the art in the last year or two. This helps me get my thoughts on how to write well in order, in preparation for upcoming projects, and hopefully holds your interest for at least a minute or two.

It’s been a loooooong time since I’ve done a breakdown of a well written male character, including a breakdown of all the ways writing a man is done well in fiction. If you want a refresher of all I’m talking about you can get it by following these handy links:




Codes of Conduct 

Waffle Brain

Breaking Stuff

Giving Up



Mentoring Pt. 2

Semper Fi


Also, if you want to see the three previous male characters I’ve analyzed you can find them here:


Daniel Ocean

Dipper Pines

Charlie Brown


Today I want to talk about All Might, the Superman analog from Kohei Hirokoshi’s My Hero Academia. All Might is an interesting case study, not only because he has a deeper character history than any other male character we’ve analyzed, but because he’s a male character from a completely different culture, yet he still carries many of the significant hallmarks of male thought and action that we’ve identified so far. This lends credence to the theory that these are, indeed, universals to the human experience, and thus things that we must wrap our heads around in order to write well realized male characters. With that in mind, let’s get down to it!


All Might has one simple goal that serves as the foundation for his life. Namely, to become “The Symbol of Peace.” The function of this symbol is to set the minds of normal people at ease, in day to day life, knowing there is a powerful barrier between themselves and danger, and in crisis, knowing that when they see him then they know things will be okay. In short, All Might wants people who face danger to think of him and be at ease, in the hopes it will make the difficulties of life a little easier. It’s a simple yet noble goal for a simple but noble man.


In pursuit of his goal All Might lives by a few simple maxims. One is Always Smile, a thought passed down to him by his mentor as a way to put people in danger at ease. It’s one of the few useful pieces of advice he has for his own pupil, Deku.

While never explicitly stated, All Might lives by the principle of humility as well. This is evident in many ways, from the extreme deference he shows to practically everyone he meets to the ease with which he works with other public servants like the police and civil authorities, in spite of the fact that he is far more powerful and popular than they are. It’s even evident in the way he introduces himself. All Might’s catch phrase, “I am here!” uses a very diminutive form of the pronoun “I”. Without getting too far into the weeds, All Might uses the most simplistic form of the personal pronoun, even though many people with his fame and status would typically use more self-aggrandizing forms of speech. Even the Japanese title of the manga uses a more assertive form of the personal pronoun. And it’s not like All Might isn’t flashy. Most likely he uses this form of “I” as a way to show that, in spite of how dangerous he could be, as a hero he is at the service of the general public.

The third axiom of All Might is in the name of his quirk (or superpower), “One for All.” Part of what I jokingly refer to as the Musketeer’s Paradox (All Might’s archenemy wields a power known as “All for One”) this quirk is the foundation of All Might’s identity. Not his superhero identity, but who he is. Because at some point in the past the man named Toshinori Yagi disappeared entirely in the superhero persona of All Might. Everything he had was devoted to the cause, to the point that we never learn much of anything about him that doesn’t tie back to the superhero part of his life.


This is a harder aspect to track in All Might’s life. Given his total devotion to his job, one might expect that he’d given up on all aspects of his life that didn’t tie back to his one purpose as the Symbol of Peace, and in many respects I’d say that analysis is correct. The catch is, before the start of the story of My Hero Academia, All Might suffers a grievous, near fatal wound that leaves him a shattered husk of who he was, only able to tap into his true potential for a few hours a day.

Unwilling to have his work as Symbol of Peace undone by showing the world that he can no longer serve as a pillar of society, All Might is forced to hide his weakness from the world at large. While MHA generally eschews the notion of “secret identities” so common in superhero stories in the west, this is a very close analog to it, as All Might leads a double life as a towering, musclebound titan in public and an emaciated, coughing skeletal figure in private.

Eventually All Might’s weakness is exposed to the public and this aspect of his character is gone. We might see it again in the future but, for the moment, All Might’s monomania in pursuit of the Symbol of Peace has prevented his forming too many mental compartments.


All Might and competition are interesting because… well, he doesn’t really have any. Yes, Endeavor is there and yes, Endeavor does want to beat All Might and take the spot of top hero. But the fact is, All Might is the best. No one else even comes close. That might cost All Might a few points except for the fact that this reality transforms All Might into something else – he becomes the gold standard.

Every hero or aspiring hero in the world – or at least Japan – measures themselves against All Might. Are they strong enough? Showing enough good will? Taking enough care in how they fight? Investigate? Patrol? Even the villains set their agenda by All Might. His impact on the world around him is staggering.

And it’s not like All Might isn’t measuring himself against anything. In many ways the standards of a mentor who has passed on can be even more daunting, as you can never really know how you’ll measure up to it…


It’s tempting to say All Might gave up a lot to get where he was. Giving in to that temptation would be wrong.

Real talk. Toshinori Yagi never wanted to be anything but All Might. He forged all his friendships through his efforts to be the Symbol of Peace, he took to his powers like a fish to water, he never really pulled his head out of the game long enough to get distracted by anything else. All Might never cared very much for the things he gave up to reach the top of his game so it’s hard to call passing over them a sacrifice.

The real sacrifice comes when All Might has to face the reality that he can’t keep being All Might. You see, the secret of One for All is that it is a superpower that can be passed from one person to another. Six people wielded it before All Might. When his injuries leave him with an ever shrinking window of time with which to perform his duties as Symbol of Peace it become apparent he must find an eighth person to pass his power on to.

The catch to this is, once One for All is in the hands of another All Might’s own power will begin to wane and eventually vanish.

It would be understandable for someone to spend their whole life straining to reach the peak to cling to it for as long as possible. After all, All Might earned his place there. He did far more than anyone else in the superhero business to uphold law and order, the public adored him as a hero and trusted him more than any other. But in the end All Might knew that the existence of a Symbol of Peace was more important than him being the Symbol of Peace. So he passed his power on to Deku. At least he would have a little while longer to stand in the gap as the final embers of One for All kept him strong for a little while.

Except he quickly faced the same quandary again. A few months after passing his power to Deku, All Might would face his archrival one last time, as part of a rescue operation gone badly wrong. Again, after all he’d done with the full force of his power, one could forgive All Might for holding back, clinging to the few scraps of time he had left to stand as the Top Hero and fill the role of Symbol of Peace he’d so painstakingly crafted for himself. Deku was nowhere near ready to take over, after all, and he’d do so much better with a mentor who still had the power to keep up with him as he learned the ropes.

But All Might had lived too long as the Symbol of Peace to let it lapse. All for One was too dangerous to leave at large, and besides he had casually threatened the peace of the citizenry. If left alone he would do far more damage to peace than an undertrained Deku.

So for the second time, All Might took what little time he had left in his dream job and sacrificed it so the peace of others could be upheld. Anyone would have understood if he hadn’t. Dream jobs don’t show up every day. But he chose to retire sooner than he wanted so that others could have a future. That kind of tradeoff is at the heart of heroic sacrifice.


All Might is a naturally gregarious and jovial person so he’s not typically alone. Furthermore, many of the reasons a story might show him alone don’t apply to him – he’s not the protagonist of this story and we don’t often see him working through the kinds of problems well served by solitude. But none the less we do get glimpses of him alone from time to time, usually when contemplating what to do about the League of Villains and the Catch 22 that leads them. Usually All Might’s solitude is an indication of what’s important to him – he withdraws when facing something that effects him on an emotional level so as to preserve the integrity of the Symbol of Peace. It won’t do for the public to see him upset, after all.


While it might seem surprising to say about a boy scout superhero like All Might, the truth is he doesn’t have many real friends. But the handful he does have – Gran Torino and Detective Tsukakichi for example – command a great deal of respect and loyalty from All Might and offer the same in return. All Might’s own mentor, Nana Shimura, also commands great loyalty from All Might. Even after death All Might honors her memory in his philosophy of heroism and determination to somehow save her grandson Shiragaki from the clutches of evil. It’s not a theme of his story but it is there, never the less.


The whole point of All Might in this story is to serve as a mentor, both for Deku and his friends. His career as the Symbol of Peace was legendary but ultimately it had to end. In many ways All Might’s superpower, One for All, is the literal embodiment of what he must do: Take the power of the Symbol of Peace he created and pass it down to others. However, while Deku is the literal embodiment of that process practically every aspiring superhero in the business looks up to All Might as a source of inspiration.

We see that most strongly in Deku’s frenemy Bakugo, another young man who has looked up to All Might all his life and wants to be an equal to his childhood hero. Where Deku admires All Might’s ability to save all the people who fall within his reach Bakugo admires the way All Might never loses to evil. This dichotomy is reflected in their personalities and the way they act under pressure. Neither one fully understands All Might, each grasping at only part of what made him the Symbol of Peace. If All Might can somehow knock these two into shape he can take the first step to solving the Musketeer’s Paradox.

The fatal flaw in All Might was always the fact that any villain that could defeat him would shatter his Symbol of Peace – a goal that All for One would eventually achieve, if in a roundabout way. One for All is still only one man, after all. And All for One’s horrifically exploitative personality may have tainted his power’s potential but his ability to unite people behind him gave him a depth and breadth of options that All Might’s solo career never afforded him.

But as a mentor All Might has a second chance. He can unite an entire generation of heroes all for the one goal of being the Symbol of Peace for a new age. And, in turn, with that one Symbol reflected in all who take up the banner against evil, the promise of Peace will not fall just because one man does. It turns out that, in retiring, All Might may just have found a way to make a better Symbol of Peace than he ever could have as a working hero.

All Might is a pretty simple character. And that’s fitting, as he is aimed at a younger audience first and foremost, and he’s very comfortable in his genre prescribed role. But he’s written with such zest and passion that one can’t help but be charmed. What’s more, he’s a fantastic example of how uniquely male themes can hold up a character’s story line without coming off as a stereotype or failing to resonate with a wide audience. An achievement worth studying for sure.

Schrodinger’s Book: Afterwords

I’m often asked whether I outline my stories or not and, when I say I do, I’m often asked if I find it restrictive. I’ve never understood this question as an outline is just a general picture of how your story is paced and what needs to be in it. It’s not like there isn’t room for improvisation and improvement as you go along. Case in point: Schrodinger’s Book was outlined with an epilogue. You may have gathered that those plans have been scrapped.

The truth is, after writing the last chapter anything I tried to write for the epilogue felt deeply anticlimactic. It’s important not to overstay your welcome so I’ve just cut that part of the story. My characters have finished their arcs and Aubrey’s last words turned out to be much more satisfying that I expected them to be – at least to me. So I’m not going to beleaguer you with anything further, at least not for this visit to Schrodinger’s world.

If you’ve been reading this story since chapter one, you probably know that this story intimidated me, in part because I wasn’t sure how I would keep my enthusiasm for the project up as I poked at issues that concerned me in a setting I’ve never been terribly fond of. It turns out that the characters are what would motivate me. With the exception of Priss, the poor girl who was just around to be a foil for the two protagonists, I knew where I wanted each of the core five to end up and each chapter I wrote brought me a little closer to those important milestones.

I wanted to see Sean accept a moment of temporary pain just to live up to the principles he’d espoused. I wanted to see Lang grapple with the idea of being in command and what the consequences of neglecting that were. I wanted Aubrey to find the confines of her world and see past them to the potential of the future. And while I didn’t want Dex to die, he was too much of a boundary pusher not to wind up there in the end, especially in a world where UNIGOV ruled supreme. Getting to those goals pushed me to keep writing, pushed me to make every step there as interesting as possible so those moments of payoff would be worth it. I hope you’ve found them just as fun as I have.

Which brings me to the biggest thing I’d like to say. And that is:

Thank you. 

If you’ve been reading this blog for years, thank you for sticking with me. I know I can be a bit of a boring pedant sometimes and you really deserve more thanks than I find the time for just for sticking with me. If you’re new and you just joined in the last year or so, thank you for giving me a chance. I hope you’ll stick around now that the story that dragged you in is over. Regardless, after doing this for five or six years, I know how important an audience is, and how hard it is to keep. You folks are a treasure.

So what now?

Well, for starters, there will be no fiction for a while. Two months at least, possible not until the start of the new year. We’ll see.

This is in part because to give me time to pull my head out of the last story and prep it for the next and in part because I only really have enough time to write one post a week right now and I want to dabble in some nonfiction essays on the topic of writing covering subjects that have caught my attention. I know, I know, nothing more boring than a writer writing about writing, right? But I think it’s interesting and I hope you will to so I pray you’ll indulge me.

During this time I’ll be doing two other things behind the scenes as well. One is prepping a new project. This project isn’t directly connected to Schrodinger’s Book in any way, but I hope my readers new and old will find it just as interesting. The other is researching and prepping the manuscript for Schrodinger’s Book for translation into an e-book format. So if you’ve ever wanted to foist this story off onto unsuspecting friends and relatives you will soon have a chance to do so! More details on both of these projects will come in the future.

For now, I hope you will indulge one last request of mine, for now. I’d like to do a reader Q&A as one of my essay posts. I know I’ve not been the most audience participation focused blogger in my tenure but I am grateful for your readership and I’d like to answer any questions you may have so I’m testing the waters by asking for any questions you have about Schrodinger’s Book, the story, the writing process, the characters and world building, you name it. Go ahead and leave them in the comments for this post and if I get enough for a decent post in a by the 11th of October I’ll answer them in a post on the 18th. If I don’t I’ll be sure to leave answers to any questions I do get down in the comments. Once more, thanks for reading!

– Nate