The Universal Truth

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

No, not that kind of universal truth. I’m pretty sure the above statement isn’t even true. Mrs. Bennett thought it was, but most of what she says is nonsense anyway, so we shouldn’t use her words as life advice. Today I’m here to talk about a different kind of universal truth. I apologize in advance if I ramble a bit, or if I use the same word four times in the same sentence. NaNoWriMo just started, and my thoughts are everywhere right now.

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I first learned about the Universal Truth from a wonderful lady named Kay Strom. (Her books are excellent, by the way.) According to her, a Universal Truth is like a theme, but it is way more specific. Stories, as you probably know, usually have a theme, that is, a recurring topic the book keeps touching on. It answers the question “What is this book about?”

Universal Truths are usually specific statements or messages about the theme. For example, let’s choose a common theme and look at how it’s presented in different books. I’m going to choose the theme of redemption, because that’s my favorite one. Right off the top of my head, two series (what is the plural of “series?”) with this theme are: Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, and The Mission League by Jill Williamson. (I have not finished The Mission League series yet, so NO SPOILERS PLEASE!) Literary critics could analyze these two series and find a plethora of different themes present, but redemption is definitely present in both, so that’s the one I am going to use.

In Harry Potter, a recurring message we see over and over again is this: “Redemption usually requires a selfless act of love.” You know, when Lily did that thing to save Harry, and then later Harry did that thing to save other people. We also get a beautiful contrast between Harry and Voldemort – so similar, yet so different.

In The Mission League (or at least in the first book), we see a totally different statement: “God will keep pursuing you, no matter how long you try to run from him.” Like, throughout the entire first book, Spencer wanted nothing to do with God, but God kept showing up everywhere around him, and eventually Spencer couldn’t ignore it anymore. We also get an interesting contrast here with the villain, but I’m not gonna spoil it for anybody. Plus, who knows how it turns out in the rest of the series.

Both of these series have the same theme, but what they’re saying about them is different. And that is what makes a Universal Truth, my friend.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what Universal Truth I’m presenting in my story. It was hard at first, because I’m a pantser who doesn’t know squat about the story before I start writing it. As it turned out, I couldn’t pin down my Universal Truth until I had experienced its trueness firsthand. Oh, it was definitely present in the story – I just couldn’t see it yet.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

-1 John 4:18a

That’s it. A simple statement, not even a full verse. It’s a Bible verse that I’ve known since childhood. Of course I’ve always believed it’s true. But up until recently, I hadn’t actually seen it applied to a real-life situation.

The thing about Universal Truths, to me at least, is that a story wouldn’t be worth anything without one. In the tens of thousands of words that make up my book-in-progress, 146 of them make up a paragraph towards the end. And this one paragraph is where the Universal Truth is revealed. Without this one paragraph, none of the other words matter. Without the Universal Truth, the story is nothing, the characters struggled in vain, and I wasted an entire year of my life writing an empty story.

Even though all stories have a climax, where the tension has never been so high, and everything finally comes together, the Universal Truth is like a climax of its own. Even if it’s woven all throughout the story, there is always a place where the reader stops and says, “Oh. This is what I’ve been reading about. This is what the author wanted to say to me.”

Kay Strom says that Universal Truths should always point to God. They should go beyond the story itself as they transfer the author’s passion to the reader. And really, isn’t that the reason authors write at all? Because they are passionate about something, and they want the world to see it too?

Is there a Universal Truth in your story? How is NaNoWriMo going (if you’re doing it)?

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The Difference between Salvation and Redemption

I’ve been doing a lot of character development lately. It’s my new favorite aspect of writing. I’ve been reading a lot about the different Myers-Briggs types (and yes, each of my twelve main characters is a different type), delving into backstories, and figuring out their inner motivations.

My latest endeavor is to answer this question: What is it that drives them? What are they seeking, and hoping to find? These questions are closely connected to their inner motivations. Of course, all of them are driven by something different. No one is quite desiring the exact same thing, although they share the same external goal for the story. They all have different histories, and different character arcs. Every single one of them has a unique internal longing.

That being said, of course some of them will be similar. For example, and this is the main point of this post, two of my characters are seeking almost the same thing. I’ll call them Character A and Character B, for the sake of character-author confidentiality. For some odd reason, most of my characters have a habit of having intricate, secretive backgrounds which somehow always end up playing vital roles in future stories that haven’t been written yet. So, for the sake of a spoiler-free post, I will tell you their stories but not who they are. Get to the point, you say. What do these two characters want?

One of them is seeking salvation, while the other is seeking redemption. I had to stop and think about this after I wrote it. Don’t the two words mean the same thing? More often than not, they are used synonymously, especially when referring to the Christian faith. But no… they are not really synonyms. The root of the word “salvation” is “save,” and the root of “redemption” is “redeem.” Redeeming someone is very different from saving someone. Saving someone implies protecting them. From danger, perhaps. From death, even. Saving implies rescuing. But nothing more.

Redeeming someone, on the other hand, is more than just rescuing someone. Redemption involves a price. If you redeem something, you are buying it back. If you redeem something, it is yours. But it always comes at a price.

It’s easy to see why the two words are used synonymously when referring to Christ. Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, gave us both salvation and redemption. He saved us from death – by taking sin upon himself – and serving the punishment for that sin: death. And because he paid that price for us, he redeemed us from sin. He bought us back to be his own. And now, if we believe in him, we not only are saved from death, but we belong to him. We are his children.

In the cases of Character A and Character B, one of them is seeking redemption, but the other is seeking salvation. This too is easy to see. Character A grew up in a dysfunctional family. As a child and teen he was abused – both physically and emotionally – by his parents. He was bullied by other children. He was wronged in a lot of ways, and this traumatic past has shaped the rest of his life. He doesn’t trust anyone but himself, not even God. In fact, he wonders if God exists at all. He wants salvation.

Character B, on the other hand, is haunted by a past she no longer wants any part of. She’s made mistakes; she’s been lured in by sin’s enticing temptations. Her sin hurt the people in the world she loved most, not to mention herself. She’s mad at God and feels she doesn’t belong anywhere, not even in the shelter of God’s love. She wants redemption.

So there you have the difference between redemption and salvation. Salvation is a rescue; redemption is a purchase. Character development is definitely one of the harder things about writing, but it’s also one of the most fun and rewarding aspects too.

My favorite resources for developing a character’s backstory or motivations are the Emotional Wound Thesaurus and the Character Motivation Thesaurus (both are from Writers Helping Writers. I’m very excited because The Emotional Wound Thesaurus is going to be released sometime this October!!) Even if you don’t need them as writing resources, check them out anyway. They’re awesome.

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Plot happens when many characters’ journeys cross paths.

A character’s journey, for me, quickly becoming more important than the plot of the story. It makes sense… the characters are the ones interacting with the plot. A lot of the time, the characters are the ones creating the plot in the first place. What would Pride and Prejudice be if Darcy wasn’t so proud in the beginning and therefore had no character arc? Or think about how the numerous plots of Downton Abbey would be different if none of the characters had distinct backgrounds, motivations, and personalities. No story would be the same without these elements. Characters are one of the primary driving sources behind any story.

I’m curious to know… have you done any interesting character development? And do you have any favorite books with well-developed characters?

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Fear (and an exciting book announcement)

I must admit, I was a little scared to post this. Fear is almost always a part of the writing process. What-ifs are a very common form of writing-related fear: “What if I fail?” “What if no one likes it?” “What if I don’t meet my deadline?”

I’ve asked myself all of these questions before. I’m afraid of failure. I’m afraid I won’t ever finish this beautiful story I love. I’m afraid that when I finally do finish it, no one will like it. I’m afraid of letting myself down, but I am also afraid of letting everyone else down. I’m afraid they will compare me to so many better authors, like I compare myself to my favorite authors. I’m afraid I won’t meet my goal before my self-imposed deadline (especially during NaNoWriMo).

There are three main reasons why I am writing this post: 1) to (hopefully) give myself motivation to actually finish editing my book,  2) to attempt to push past some of my fears of rejection, and 3) because I am so very excited to finally and (in)formally announce this book. I wish I could say it is getting published, but I’m not quite there yet. I hope to publish it one day. That’s my goal, anyway. So now I’m going to tell you about it.

I’m secretly afraid no one will like it.

But here we go.

*deep breath*

The Title: Twelve

The Plot (I apologize, for I have not had much practice writing synopses): 

For years, Roland has been searching for the rest of the Artifacts. He already has one of them, ever since a strange old man gave it to him and told him to seek out the rest. But someone – Pravus is what he calls himself – is out to settle a personal grudge with Roland, and claim all the Artifacts for himself.

One night, while being pursued, Roland stumbles across a woman who has been attacked, only to discover that she shares his goals. They escape their pursuers together and then set out to locate the rest of the Artifacts.

As it turns out, there are in fact twelve Artifacts, each belonging to a separate person. Once they are together, the twelve set out on a quest that is as ancient as Time itself. All they have to guide them is one riddle, and the knowledge that Pravus will stop at nothing to find them. But every step they take seems to take them closer to Pravus. No one can be trusted, because Pravus is obviously getting his information from somewhere… and it very well could be one of them.

The Characters (I will not introduce all twelve; only my favorites):

I would share some pictures from my Pinterest boards (because each character has their own separate board), but I’m not sure how legal that is. I would have to download all the images from it that I wanted to use, and sometimes I just get really paranoid about copyright laws. Instead, I’ll give you the links to each character’s board. The things I’ve pinned will hopefully help you get an idea of the character’s personality. Please forgive any minor spoilers, but there won’t be any major ones.

Roland (main character):  Roland is… honestly, hard to describe. He’s a very complex character, as two sides of him are constantly dueling one another. He refuses to explain this to anyone else. Although he is the “leader” of the quest, he does not possess many leadership skills. Or social skills, really. Aside from these flaws, he is very adventurous. Here is a link to Roland’s Pinterest board.

Shea: Originally I had aimed to base Shea off of Sherlock Holmes. Somehow, in the writing process, this didn’t happen, and instead she is now somewhat based off of myself. She is quiet and observant, and always has something on her mind. She keeps many of her thoughts to herself, but likes to figure things out – solving riddles, translating unknown languages… you get the picture. Here is a link to Shea’s Pinterest board.

Kirk: Kirk is definitely one of my favorite characters I have ever written. He is an ESTP, which is about as opposite from me as you can get. (I’m not sure if it’s exactly opposite, but almost.) He is openly rebellious, sarcastic, and conceited. None of the other characters like him, but he serves as the comic relief for the reader. Here is a link to Kirk’s Pinterest board.

George: The last character I am going to share is George. I love him almost as much as I love Kirk. George is there to make sure everyone behaves themselves, and to ensure that logic is always being considered. He and Kirk are foils of each other. (If you don’t know what a foil is, it’s a character who possesses opposite traits of another character, in order to highlight the other character’s traits.) George is calm and diplomatic, and serves as a secondary leader next to Roland. Here is a link to George’s Pinterest board.

And finally, some excerpts:

(I made fancy graphics for these!)

“Fine,” he said, much more softly this time. “I suppose if your little secret is more important to yo

How about a memorable quote? I’ve always thought of this one as the “inspiring Gandalf quote” of my book. It doesn’t sound nearly as awesome out of the context of the story, though, so just keep that in mind.

Courage,

And here is the last excerpt I will share today:

another exerpt

 

Confession: I actually edited this one a bit before I posted it. And please excuse that run-on sentence at the end.

That’s it for today, folks! I hope you enjoyed everything I shared. Please note that anything I said is subject to change, because I am still in the revision process.

Are you working on a book or a story you would like to share? What do you do to combat writing-related fears?

Evil: Villains and How They’re Presented

Hi guys! Whose life is super busy right now? Mine is. That’s why I haven’t been able to post anything for… yikes, a long time. ANYWAY, I finally have this month’s Monthly Theme planned out. This month’s them is Evil, and I’ll tell you why.

Next month is Easter. So, next month I’m going to do the theme of redemption. But in order to understand it, you have to see what we’re being redeemed from. Thus, this month I’ll be looking at evil. Plus, I’ve wanted to write a post on villains for a while. So here we go.

There are so many villains out there… Lord Voldemort, Darth Vader, Prince Humperdinck, Professor Moriarty, Inspector Javert, the White Witch, Agent Smith, Loki… (apparently lots of them have titles in front of their names… except for Loki.) There are also some stories with multiple villains. Like, I don’t know… maybe something like LORD OF THE RINGS?! You’ve got Sauron, Sméagol, Saruman, Gríma Wormtongue, the Orcs, the Uruk-hai, the Witch King of Angmar, plus the rest of the Nazgûl, and if you want to consider the entire history of Middle-earth, you’ve also got Morgoth, (confession: I have never read The Silmarillion, so when I read it, I will give you the list of all the villains), not to mention Balrogs, giant spiders, fickle wood-elves, goblins, unfriendly residents of Laketown, Azog and Bolg, and last but not least, Smaug. (Come on, you should know by now that I can never pass up an opportunity to mention Benedict Cumberbatch.)

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aw look, it’s cute little smaug

I don’t know why, but I’ve always liked writing villains. Let me define what I mean when I say “villain,” because I have very specific criteria that all my villains have to meet…

  1. They have to be male. I don’t know why, but I just can’t see myself writing a female villain. I have nothing whatsoever against female villains, and lots of my favorite stories have female villains. It’s just that I don’t like writing them.
  2. They have to be evil. There are all different types of villains out there, and different ones work for different genres. For some stories, the villain may not be evil at all, like Biff from Back to the Future. In other stories, the villain may be the personification of evil itself… like Voldemort. For me, I always have to have the Voldemort type in my stories.
  3. I’ve always read that the villain should have a backstory that defines who he is, and that he should have some sort of motivation to oppose the hero or whatever he’s trying to do. In other words, he shouldn’t just be evil for no reason at all. Maybe you know that he wants to take over the universe but you don’t know why. (I’m guilty.) And… this is always a problem I have. I NEVER know why my villain is the way he is. But, a couple weeks ago, I figured out his entire backstory and now I’m SUPER excited about it!! No, I will not be giving you any spoilers.

Anyway, I’ve always liked writing my very specific villains. But there is more to evil than villains, just as there is more to good than heroes. The villain and the hero are mere representations of very real things in this world. I once wrote an essay for school on the nature of good and evil. It’t too long to recount here, but in it, I emphasized that the entire world has fallen short of perfection. We are all sinners; therefore, we are all evil. All sin is evil in God’s eyes. All of us have given into temptation; all of us have chosen to follow another god besides the Creator of life; all of us have chosen sin over righteousness; all of us have been born into this sin nature; and all of us will die like this. Everyone in this world is a sinner; therefore everyone is destined for eternal punishment. There is no hope for us. Evil rules our lives and there is no escape from its bondage. We are, and always will be, slaves.

Unless a Savior comes to redeem us.

Unless our Creator himself comes to pay for our salvation.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There should be a sort of desperation when we realize how evil we truly are. When we realize that this evil has been holding us captive ever since Adam and Eve sinned long ago in the Garden of Eden.

star-wars-1204193_640I think villains are meant to portray this. Bad guys are there to provide conflict for the story, yes, but there is also something more. What happens if the villain wins? Hmm? Think of your favorite story. Now ask yourself, what would have happened if the villain had won?

I don’t know, it depends on the story. Sauron would have ruled Middle-earth and everyone would have been his slaves. Voldemort probably would have killed everyone and taken over the wizarding world. If Biff had gotten his way, Marty’s life – and the entire space-time continuum – would have been ruined forever. If Prince Humperdinck had won, Westley would be dead and Buttercup would have been doomed to a horrible life of misery. And if the White Witch had won… never mind. Don’t even get me started on Narnia. There is sooooo much symbolism in the story, I don’t even know where to begin. Needless to say, all of Narnia would have perished in fire and water, borrowing her own words.

Do you see that? That’s desperation. Most people classify the things listed above as “stakes.” In any good story (and this applies to most genres), there are high stakes. The hero has to win. It is this fact that forces the hero to fight against the evil. We instinctively know that evil is not natural, that it was never meant to be. And when it threatens to become the highest power, we know we have to fight it until there is nothing left in us to fight with.

Villains are people who represent the very real presence of evil in our world. They are a sort of twisted reality – they are a nature contrary to what was meant to be in the beginning of time.

That’s all I have for now. I don’t know if this post will end up having more parts to it or not, but rest assured that I do have a couple of things planned for the month of April, and they are very compelling issues, so I will be forced to write them. I’ll probably have a ten-part series next month, knowing me, but I guess we’ll have to see.

Do you have a favorite villain? Why do you like them specifically? What would have happened if they had won?

An Analysis of a Story

Today I’m going to talk about what makes a good story. No, I’m not going to discuss the roles of the protagonist/antagonist; I’m not going to talk about a good plot, setting the stakes, introducing conflict, or what makes a compelling character arc; I’m not going to talk about how to create a truly magical fantasy world. All of these things are valuable to a story and are worth knowing, but today I’m going to talk about something called… well, I don’t actually know what it’s called.

What makes a story stick with a reader?

(Don’t get this confused with what makes a reader stick with a story. Today we’re flipping that and looking at it the other way around.)

What is it about some stories that stick with us forever, while other stories we forget about within a week, even though it was wonderfully written and kept our attention? What common element can be found in all timeless stories, stories that will never be forgotten, ever?

Like The Lord of the Rings. It’s one of my personal favorites, and I think it is definitely classified as a timeless story. In fact, this example works out perfectly, because Sam Gamgee (who is the best character in the entire saga and no you may not argue with me) actually tells us about, in his opinion, what makes the best stories:

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something…. That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”

He said this to Frodo in The Two Towers, and he is completely right on every point he made. And he stumbled across that element that should be in all stories if you want them to stick with the reader forever.

Readers want to see characters who fight until the end, even though it looks bleak and impossible. Even though evil will win for sure. Readers want to see characters fight for what they believe anyway. They want to see characters hold on to what little good is left. And of course, good wins in the end. Because these characters fought, even though they had lots of chances to turn back and give up, even if tragedy struck or the darkness ruled, the characters fought and they won.

Readers want to see the timeless truths that are written on their hearts. Everyone, regardless of their religion or worldview, knows instinctively about the constant battle between good and evil. Everyone, whether or not they have ever heard the good news of the Gospel, has an internal longing for redemption. Redemption from anything that holds them captive. And all the best stories illustrate this.

We are a fallen race. We know we are lost. We long to be redeemed. And because of this universal need that drives us, the great stories stay in our minds. If a story depicts an epic display of selfless love, or a dramatic rescue, it will affect us. If we are Christians, the story will especially resonate with us because we know about the saving grace of God. If we are not Christians, the story will leave us thinking about greater things, things that are beyond us, wonderful things we cannot even begin to imagine. And it will still resonate with us because we know that there must be some truth in it somewhere.

And we know that achieving redemption is never easy. There is always a struggle, always a fight. Usually there is a sacrifice. The Harry Potter series is another wonderful example. Regardless of whether or not it was intended, there are countless redemptive messages within that series. The darkness keeps pressing in, evil is overtaking everything, and yet there is a glimmer of hope. There is still the promise of redemption. And the characters had lots of chances to give up. But they never did. They kept fighting until the end, despite tragedy, death, and the general feeling of hopelessness. And they won.

See, all the good stories have that element! A fall from grace and perfection, the long fight against evil, and finally one savior who redeems them all and defeats the evil. This is the Gospel. Sometimes at the end of the story we even get a little glimpse of the end of the end – where everything will be made right again. In The Return of the King, in the very last chapter, we see this. Frodo sails away to the Grey Havens, which is a place where there is no evil and no pain. That part always makes me cry because it’s just so good.

Whether we realize it or not, the Gospel is written on the hearts of humanity. We know the struggle between good and evil is real, and we know we need a savior. Sadly, many of us do not have a personal relationship with the one true Savior: Jesus Christ. And yet, these stories still resonate with us. And maybe, one of them will strike a chord within us and leave us wanting more – and maybe we’ll be led to the Savior.

If you take any great story – any story that has stuck with you from the first time you’ve read it – and you analyze it, I guarantee you will find a story of redemption.

I’ve shared my favorite stories with you, but what are some of yours? Which stories have stuck with you? What was it about them that drew you in so much? I’d love to hear from you!