I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a short story not just good, but great. Why do some reach out and grab you and others leave you cold? Well, I think I’ve hit on one of those things that compels you to keep reading: conflict leading to metamorphosis.
I began to suspect this was an important thing when Kenneth Jobe, another writer I follow, said that it was strange that his stories that were accepted both had characters in them that didn’t die.
My story ‘Tale of the Revolution’ is in there, and like my other story to be published so far, it’s a bit of an anomaly. Once again, it’s the rare story where no one dies and there are no curse words.
“Both stories where no one died?” I thought. That got me to thinking about an editor who said that he preferred to accept stories in which the protagonist DID NOT die, but was rather changed by what they experienced. Then, something else clicked: I remembered that at the writing workshop I took at RavenCon, Allen Wold said that a story was a tale with a plot, setting and characters in which the characters, the world or both change in some fundamental way.
So, like writers do, I mused a bit more on this. I turned it over and thought about it: Did my stories contain characters that metamorphosed, that changed? Yes, they did. Both of my accepted works featured protagonists that underwent major changes by the end of the story. How and why did this change happen? In every case, it was because of pressure, because of conflict.
In “The Hatchlings,” the narrator, Pharos, must decide whether to witness the horrendous Zakir ritual in the arena from start to finish or to walk out. The tension or conflict is: Will he stay or will he leave? He decides to stay and is forever changed by it.
The Ghul of Yazd
In “The Ghul of Yazd” (to be published by Strangelet Journal in Sept.), Rasul must decide whether to assassinate a child, knowing that failing to do so means he will betray the hashashin brotherhood. In the end, he balks, setting in motion a long series of events and personal transformations…More on that later, once the story goes live…
It made me think of the story I’m working on right now, “B.” This story passes the metamorphosis test as the main character changes profoundly by learning the truth about the world she inhabits and deciding to DO something about it. She is a completely different person from the one she was a mere 4,000 words earlier. That’s no guarantee an editor will like it, but it’s a good start.
So, as you write this week, think about that. How do your characters—acting under pressure and in the midst of conflict—change? It works as a device in literature because, in the end, that’s what life is. Who is the same as they were 10 years ago? Who is the same person that they were this morning? We are constantly changing (or resisting change) in response to pressure. Characters in literature should be no different. After all, as Borges wrote:
The universe, like you, is Proteus.
or in the original Spanish:
el universo es, como tú, Proteo.
PS…Don’t forget to break the rules. I’m toying around right now with a protagonist for a new story who NEVER changes. I can just see him saying, almost spitting out this line of dialogue: “Me? Change? I don’t change. I never change. Let the world change. I remain constant.”
Of course, the delicious thing about this character is that a person with such an attitude immediately creates conflict wherever he goes. He will either force the world to change or have to bend to IT as a result. There you have it: Tension and conflict leading to change. We’ll have to see how the story turns out…That’s a post for another time.