The Universal Human Story

Believe it or not there is a story which you can tell about characters in any time period, of any social stand, in any place in the world, about people in just about any stage of life. This might sound like a bit of a stretch but believe me, it’s true. I know it’s true because it has been done. I don’t say this in the way Joseph Campbell talks about the Hero with a Thousand Faces. I’m talking about an actual story, with a prescribed set of events, that authors have read and then deliberately copied and adapted to narratives of their own. 

This story is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. 

There was a time where no TV show was complete until it had a Christmas Carol episode. Everything from The Flintstones to The Jetsons to The Muppets has tackled this basic narrative at least once. Something about Dickens’ basic narrative has such a broad appeal and universal applicability that English speaking culture developed a fascination with trying to retell the narrative that lasted all the way up to the end of the 20th century. What are the lessons we can draw from this? 

Well, first that simple motivations are the best. Ebenezer Scrooge was not driven by any kind of deep trauma or some kind of overly complex theory of society. He suffered abuse as a child, yes, but nothing outside the normal human experience. He had good friends, a sense of morality and goals beyond securing his own position. Unfortunately he gets distracted by very simple, understandable human motivations: a desire to increase his own wealth and standing. Stubborn pride. A desire to avoid falling back into a previous state that was terrible for him. 

These are very easy motivations to understand. Everyone has felt them at some point in their lives and, even if the exact situations Scrooge experiences haven’t happened to you, you can probably translate the basic sense of Scrooges experience to your own life. Some kind of disappointment from your family, friends you grow distant from and goals you get overly fascinated by. It’s very easy to start down the path to Scrooge, that’s part of what makes him a great character. 

The themes of A Christmas Carol are equally universal. Loneliness and obsession are things everyone have suffered and redemption from the shackles they put on us is something we’ve all fought against to some extent. It’s very tempting to lapse into some analysis of class dynamics or recovery from trauma when looking at Scrooge’s story. However these things are too specific, too bound in one time period or lifetime to allow the creation of a universal story. Dickens could and did write about themes of social status (it’s very prevalent in his work, actually) and traumatic events but comparing his work that touches on those issues to A Christmas Carol it really doesn’t look like that was what he was going for. He was examining the potential human cost for much more mundane, immediate decisions based in human nature, not class or trauma. 

The format of the story also allowed Dickens to explore these very human themes and motives to their very utmost. Scrooge doesn’t just explore his past, he sees where his actions ultimately lead him if he will not change. He will die alone and get buried, unmourned. Seeing these results through the eyes of a ghostly vision, brought by ghosts who have proven trustworthy in every aspect of life they’ve revealed to Scrooge before, removes some of the subjectivity from the situation.  

That’s not always a good thing to do in fiction but in A Christmas Carol the whole point is to show us an 18th century intervention where a person is slapped out of their obsessions to see where they stand in reality. The motif of supernatural visitations accomplishes that. And it doesn’t remove all of the ambiguity from the situation. Even now, it’s hard to say for sure that Scrooge actually saw ghosts and not a dream brought on by guilty conscience. Or undercooked potato. Whatever the source of the visions, the truth of the situation is found through the outcomes. Scrooge does turn his life around and it is better for him. 

It’s these simple themes and motivations, explored to the fullest extent, that makes Scrooge’s story so powerful and easy to apply to other characters regardless of time, place or society. Granted, a certain part of the enduring appeal of Dickens’ landmark story is his masterful prose. Neither can his piercing insight into human nature pass on to another author who is trying to transmute A Christmas Carol into a new form. The genius of Dickens was in large part in his execution of his stories. 

But he also knew how to tap into the universals of the human experience and nowhere do we see that more clearly than in A Christmas Carol. That is what has made Scrooge’s story so enduring, to the point we are still talking about it almost two hundred years later. There are not many stories this broad, this applicable and this compelling. Nor are universal stories the only good kinds of stories that exist. But when an author tells a story that everyone wants to retell in their own way they’ve tapped into something profound. And that’s something every author should try to understand, for their own edification if nothing else. 

Mary’s Wedding – Simple Excellence

I recently had the opportunity to go and take in a little theater. The name of the show was Mary’s Wedding by Stephen Massicotte and I went in with very few expectations. I’d never heard of the play and the description didn’t tell me much beyond it being set around World War I and the two actors portrayed a young couple in love. It didn’t exactly inspire confidence. I had confidence in the group producing the show, all for One Productions doesn’t go for saccharine stories after all, but I sat down in the theater with some reservations. 

I needn’t have worried. 

Before we break down the story itself let me say a few words of praise for the production itself. First, the cast of Jessica Munsie (Mary, Flowers) and Cooper Beer (Charlie) did fantastic work. Their performances were sincere, emotive and engaging. They studied horseback riding to add authenticity to some of their scenes and it showed. They had great chemistry with each other and the audience. The set was also perfect, built in two layers and full of props used in surprising and interesting ways. From the use of wheeled railings as doors and horses to the upper level’s many duties as hills, bridges and the deck of a ship, the minimalist set did everything it needed to and more without ever straining belief. 

Many people say seeing how a trick is done makes one appreciate it less. Mary’s Wedding is the kind of show that convinces me that the opposite is true. I caught a dozen little flourishes, like the causal setting of a hat on a platform as an actor walks around behind the stage, that speak to the practice, dedication and proficiency both actors developed while preparing for the show. It made me enjoy the performance more and not less. Well done, one and all. 

Now for the story itself. Mary’s Wedding focuses on the titular Mary as she dreams on the eve of her wedding. We are introduced to this dream by one of its chief figures: her sweetheart, Charlie. He tells us we are seeing a dream, and as it is a dream we must understand it follows its own logic and its own sense of time. It’s a great opening soliloquy, drawing from concepts we often see in Shakespeare and intended to lull the audience into the theater of the mind. Many plays do this, in one way or another, because the sets and costumes may be great but we know, deep down, they’re not real and the illusion of the stage is not as powerful as, say, that of the movie screen. 

A good storyteller knows how to weave the spell that creates this illusion of reality for audience and sometimes that’s as simple as asking them to step into the narrative with us. It’s a bold approach, and Massicotte deserves props for taking it. I know it worked for me. 

From this simple introduction a clap of thunder snaps us into the narrative itself – Charlie, seeking shelter from a thunderstorm and Mary calling out to him. This ominous opening gives way to Mary and Charlie’s first meeting, as they both hide from the rain in a barn. Mary is recently arrived in Canada from England, Charlie is a longtime resident of the area so they’ve never had opportunity to meet before. Mary helps Charlie overcome his fear of the thunder by coaxing him to recite poetry. Charlie only knows The Charge of the Light Brigade so that is what he quotes. 

This is when I realized this story didn’t have a happy ending. 

The dire stanzas of Tennyson’s poem weave throughout the play, a simple foreshadowing for a simple man. Charlie is like the cavaliers Tennyson describes – fixated on his duties and carrying them out. He knows things could end badly for him, but he presses forward regardless. This is contrasted with the poem Mary cites as something she has no wish to live out: The Lady of Shalott.

Subtlety, thy name is Stephen. 

All joking aside, these simple allusions give Mary’s Wedding a chance to weave these grandiose and romantic notions of duty and heartbreak into a very simple romance story. Mary and Charlie are from different worlds and different social standings but they fall in love. We see their relationship as it struggles to survive awkward meetings in the town streets, flubbed meetings with families and ultimately Charlie’s decision to join up and fight in the Great War in 1914. Interspersed with stories of the growing romance are stories of Charlie’s time in Europe, told to Mary through letters he sends home from the front. 

Both aspects are told in a blunt and straightforward way. This is not a Hollywood romance or war movie. Much of the pretense of such stories are stripped away, with Massicotte focusing on very realistic dialog and motivations for his characters. Charlie’s letters home sound very much like those I’ve read in compilations of first-hand accounts from any number of wars from the present day back to the American Civil War. Mary and Charlie’s relationship is free of flowery promises or generic statements of affection. 

Many stories could be fairly criticized for trying to characterize their protagonists using well know works of literature. But, while Massicotte is doing that in his script, he is also doing something a little more complicated than that. He is showing his characters use these poems to try and express themselves to each other. The Charge of the Light Brigade grapples with many philosophical questions that people think about but rarely try to articulate to each other. When forced to explain the horns of a dilemma like that which Tennyson describes, the average person will fail to put their thoughts into their own words. So, they turn to the poets. 

It is this, I think, that makes Mary’s Wedding work. It shows us simple, everyday people as they put their hand to every tool at their disposal to connect with each other and share their struggles. It’s an impressive achievement. 

The portrayal of Flowers, Charlie’s commanding officer during his time in Europe, is another fascinating device. Flowers is portrayed by the same actress who plays Mary. When Flowers and Charlie first meet Charlie is on the troop ship headed to Europe, smoking while watching the ocean at night. Flowers finds him and asks what he’s thinking about, to which Charlie admits he’s thinking about a girl back home. Flowers warns him not to do that, or soon enough he’ll be seeing her everywhere – which, of course, he already is. The close friendship the two develop is illuminating and powerful, and Jessica Munsie’s portrayal of Flowers was so excellent that I never confused her with Mary in my mind. It provides us a look at another side of Charlie, one we need to really appreciate before the story concludes or the conclusion will not be as powerful as it should be. 

Ultimately, Charlie never comes home. 

Charlie only lives in the dream, now, and soon enough Mary must wake up and continue on with her life. Her wedding day is coming. There is still a good life ahead of her, even with all the grief and regret that came from her parting with Charlie. That is the promise at the end of Mary’s Wedding. It’s a bittersweet ending, but the only ending their story could possibly have had. The thunder we heard at the beginning of the story is quiet now, and the rains have left poppies in their wake. And just like Mary, we must wake from the dream on that stage and leave Mary, Charlie and Flowers behind. 

As nearly as I can tell, while many of the events in Mary’s Wedding actually happened, Charlie and Mary were not real. Their story was a dream we shared for a moment. But we can carry that simple dream with us in our waking lives, a reminder that the peace we have was bought at great sacrifice. A reminder that after loss we can still carry on. Those simple messages are a powerful gift, and one I am grateful to have.  

Brandon Sanderson Solved the Attention Economy

For those unfamiliar with the lingo, saying a situation is “solved” usually means someone has found the best way to approach it.

By the same token, the Attention Economy is a way of looking at marketing that revolves more around whether you can get your product in front of people’s eyes than convincing them that your product is worth spending money on. The Attention Economy acknowledges that the plethora of things vying for attention in the smart phone driven social media obsessed modern era are the biggest hurdle to selling something, not value for money. In all fairness, this theory may be reaching its end. The prosperous era of the late 1990s to early 2010s gave rise to the Attention Economy and that prosperity was really squandered over the last decade or so. Without that level of prosperity that kind of marketing won’t be as relevant. 

But the Attention Economy was and, for the moment, still is a thing. Brandon Sanderson recently provided a master class in taking full advantage of it. Sanderson has spent years cultivating a highly invested audience. He has a decent social media presence, two weekly podcasts and recently started a YouTube channel where he publishes weekly writing updates. My own use of the platform for similar updates was inspired by this in no small part. A year or so ago he ran a ten year anniversary Kickstarter to crowdfund a highly collectable, leatherbound edition of one of his most popular novels. 

All of these things have built a large number of eyes on Sanderson’s work and a large number of ways for him to communicate with that audience. Put this on top of his already remarkable popularity in the science fiction and fantasy community and Sanderson was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the attention economy. Then, at the beginning of this month, Sanderson took to YouTube to make a confession to his audience. It’s so masterfully executed that I’ll include it for your enjoyment: 

Okay, if you didn’t watch it for whatever reason the basics are like this: Sanderson begins by telling his audience he’s not been entirely honest with them. He found the lockdown and travel restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic disrupted his travel and promotion schedules and left him with a great deal of free time on his hands and he had to cope with it as best he could. 

So he wrote five new novels to share with his family. After some thought, he decided four of them were already in a form he could also share them with his audience so he announced that his company was starting a Kickstarter to fund their publication outside the normal publishing house system. This Kickstarter has already raised some $33,000,000. 

First things first – well done, Brandon Sanderson. A masterful use of existing platform and an incredibly successful outcome for a very skilled and deserving author. 

Second, this is a very interesting case study in the attention economy. For at least a week, no one in a field even remotely related to science fiction could talk about anything else. People I follow who had never commented on Sanderson before were suddenly picking through his campaign looking for insights. Everyone from comic book geeks to hardboiled noir authors were talking about a man who writes 1,000 page epics well outside of their wheelhouse. It was a total social media whiteout. 

It was like trying to discuss something other than Elden Ring in video game circles during the same period. You just couldn’t get a word in sideways. 

Almost as quickly as it came, it faded. It gets mentioned in passing as a great example of how to get stories to your audience in new and inventive ways but the buzz is nowhere nearly as intense. What a wild ride. But this wasn’t something that just came and went – over 100,000 people have bought a year’s worth of stories from an author they love and Brandon Sanderson has shattered crowdfunding records. He did it by using a wide platform and a clever video to draw in an invested audience to the profit of all involved. It’s a method well worth studying. It was a lot of work to set up but, with all the funding now in hand, Sanderson doesn’t have to constantly travel and promote his latest books. Instead he can save travel time and focus on writing even more stories which he can then bring back to his audience in the same way. I really do feel this is an innovation in how to connect with audiences while still producing creative work. 

A long running trickle of information through various routes followed by one large offensive designed to play out over a couple of years has positioned Sanderson well to continue his work far into the future. It’s a good model and one well worth studying for all of us who want to share our creative work. I know I’ll be thinking about it for a long time to come. 

The Propaganda War – Fiction as Opportunism

As a preface – it’s not my intention to take any specific side on the Ukranian conflict in this essay. I have very strong and distinct opinions on the situation and I don’t think sharing them on the Internet is useful so don’t worry, you won’t be getting them here. However I do like to study current events and try to derive lessons for fiction writers from those events. There is a lot of fiction surrounding the war in Ukraine right now which makes it a rich source of insight for the astute observer. 

The first lesson comes from the fascinating idea that a conflict in Ukraine was either allowed or provoked because propagandists needed a distraction from increasing questions about COVID vaccinations and regulations. I find this fascinating because it illuminates the first misconception nonwriters have about fiction – that the foundation of storytelling is a brilliant idea. It isn’t. Writers have inspiration everywhere. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t have a list of stories to write twice or three times as long as what they’ve actually written. 

If propagandists want to distract from something, they don’t have to invent something to hype up, they just have to look around a bit and find something shiny. By the same token, a writer doesn’t have to find a brilliant ideas to create a good story. Ideas are in abundance all around us. 

Our second lesson from the Ukraine is about perspective, and is inspired by the tale of the Ghost of Kiev. For those unfamiliar with this urban legend, they tell of a Ukrainian pilot so skilled and so dominant that he shot down five or more Russian pilots over the skies of Kiev in the first day of combat. The victories of this legendary pilot were trumpeted by the government of Ukraine and many news outlets. And they were almost certainly just that: legends. 

Some pilots do become aces (fighter pilots with five or more confirmed kills) in a single encounter but they’re quite rare and usually in very chaotic, target rich environments. It’s not impossible for such a thing to happen but the skies over Ukraine haven’t offered good places for it at any point of the war. What’s far more likely is that the Ghost of Kiev was a pilot who shot down one or two Russians and was observed by multiple people, who’s accounts were taken as separate stories rather than multiple accounts of the same event. This is pretty common in wartime situations and rarely ever gets sorted out later. 

The lesson – differing perspectives can turn the same story into different stories. First, keep in mind that your audience is going to read a far different story than what your wrote. That’s just part of the game, kid, don’t let it get to you. Instead, enjoy their perspectives and the stories they read and learn what lessons you can from it. You can’t craft a story people will love if you don’t love how they listen to that story. Second, your perspective on a story is going to be very different from anyone else’s. Don’t worry too much if your idea isn’t original or if you think it’s been done before, originality isn’t as important as skill and craftsmanship, and if it’s really a story told from your perspective it will be different enough to stand on its own. Third, remember that your characters see the world from different perspectives, too. Don’t let their take on the story become homogenized but rather give them all their own ways of looking at things, to the point where they could almost be talking about different stories. That will keep your narrative feeling authentic. 

Finally, remember propaganda is targeted at an audience. Some people will eat up propaganda, some will listen along with it but question some of what they hear and some will reject it outright, regardless of how much of it is true and how much is spin. Generally the two extremes are the smallest parts of the audience reached but it’s those already predisposed to believe it that propaganda really targets. They’re the ones that share it and really buy into it. You should target your audience the same way. 

Tell stories for your very dedicated audience, the people who love what you do and share it, rather than the questioning masses or your harsh critics. Unfair critics will never be won over, they’re predisposition to hate you comes from them and not you. The moderately interested group tends to be won over by the enthusiasm of your diehard fans, you can’t gain their interest by catering to them. If you try, you’re more likely to offer a watered down product that doesn’t get your point across and doesn’t do what they want well enough to hold their interest. Accept their partial buy in and hope they’ll dig deeper with time. 

And there you have it. Three lessons writers can learn from propaganda, with no political grandstanding thrown in. Great stuff! Now go buy beans and rice, the nuclear winter is coming and it’s gonna be a cold one. At least the diaries you write by candlelight will be fun and interesting reading when alien archaeologists find your skeleton hundreds of years from now!