The Case of the Vanishing Character

Do you find it unsettling when people vanish from your life?

“Depends on the person,” you say.

Fair enough.

But in general, when people who formerly played some semi-notable or even regular role in your life leave it, you usually have a sense of why.

I find it interesting that media does not always abide by these rules.

Characters disappear from stories, often without a trace, as if the audience will never notice.

Books seem to do this less, because they work as more of a cohesive whole, and the entire plot can be affected if a significant minor character falls through the cracks. Movie series can get a bit dicey. And TV series… well…

We’ve all heard the complaint about a favorite character getting killed off in a show. But getting killed off at least accounts for the disappearance. Classic examples: Matthew’s death in Downton Abbey, Lord Melbourne’s death in Victoria, Elizabeth’s death in Poldark, and so on. If you’re familiar with any of these, then you’ll know what I mean when I ask the following:

What on earth happened to Charles Blake from Downton Abbey?

Julian Fellowes generally provides a clean break for any exiting characters, but this one could have used some more follow-up. The last we see of Charles, he is going on a six-month trip after helping Mary ditch Tony Gillingham.

What happened to Wilhelmina Coke in Victoria?

Although the final episode of season 2 ends with her getting engaged to Alfred, she never makes a single appearance or receives a single reference throughout the entirety of season 3! Meanwhile, Alfred carries on years later at the palace, chipper and single as ever.

And then there’s the dog in Poldark.

Not that he vanishes, but the fact that he’s still there by the time Geoffrey Charles grows up. That dog has to be at least eighteen years old, considering he entered the show with Demelza in the first episode. Now I’m all for dogs lasting a long time, but you’d think he’d show some age at least by now. My dog certainly does! But, on the other hand, considering his owners haven’t aged in eighteen years, why should he?

Don’t know these shows?

Don’t worry!

The trend of characters inexplicably vanishing goes way back! I have to admit, I didn’t recognize most of these shows, but here’s an interesting article that tallies the invisible corpses from various shows.

The fact that there are a number of such articles identifying lost characters suggests it’s not just the OCD audience members out there who find this unsettling. I think it bothers us because we crave a sense of continuity and a certain degree of predictability, both in media and in real life—which is understandable.

Why, then, do the writers do this? Why do these characters slip through the cracks without an explanation?

At least in the case of film series, each character’s reprisal requires the renewal of a contract, so it can’t be because the writers simply “forgot” to write him/her in. So why don’t they make up an excuse for their absence and weave that into the story somehow?

I don’t really have an answer to this, other than they must not consider the lost character important enough to require an explanation. Or perhaps this leaves the door open for the character to return?

One thing’s for sure, though: it’s a sign of sloppy writing. If a character is given enough screen time to develop a memorable impression on the audience, then that character deserves a coherent exit. Otherwise someone out there is going to notice it– and it’s bound to end up in an article someday! 😉

Identity Crisis: the Point of Re-inquiring

Identity Crises come in many forms.

And with any luck, they lead to positive changes. This one is no exception.

On The Inquisitive Inkpot’s 30th birthday, it has come face-to-face with the reality it can no longer deny: it is something different from what it set out to be. Not because it hasn’t grown or learned, but rather because it has.

When I first started writing this blog, I thought it was going to be strictly about historical fiction.

By the tenth post, however, it began to take its own direction, much like characters coming to life and defying the author’s intentions. Any author can identify with that struggle.

What the past 30 weeks have shown me (no, this blog is not 30 years old) is that it is impossible to limit meaningful discussion to one genre.

Why?

Every writer has to be able to blog or journal about things that will both benefit him/her and whoever else reads it.

(And in case you were wondering, “whoever,” not “whomever” is correct in this case because it is the subject of the last clause. 🙂 ) A blog is most meaningful when the pieces challenge you as the writer, not just your readers. When the topics force you to stop and think multi-directionally, not just linearly. As one of my mentors, the esteemed philosophy professor Dr. James Stephens at Hillsdale College, puts it, “thinking sideways.”

Why should we bother with that?

Because we were born to participate, not just to receive.

Every book, movie, or story you come across contains some sort of message.

Some messages are more encrypted than others, but the point is that any time you sit down and try to decode that message, you begin to engage with its rhetoric. You are looking at the work in front of you and breaking down its parts to analyze their purpose. You assign value to those parts. You form opinions. You are no longer just a passive recipient of the message, but an active participant who is capable of evaluating the message for its truth, persuasiveness, and beauty. And this applies to all stories, not just historical ones.

The beauty that I see in this is that we learn best how to create our own original art when we have studied all the kinds of art out there—not only the kind we want to make. Because the best stories are not contained strictly within their genre. They transcend and reach other audiences who might otherwise dislike that genre. The best stories are capable of teaching every artist something, and for this reason we writers would do well to read and watch things out of our “zone.”

So what’s changing about The Inquisitive Inkpot isn’t the asking of questions. The scope of questions is simply expanding. It’s expanding to include stories in all forms and consider all aspects of the telling. Because it’s not a choice between broadening horizons or deepening the well. The best quests are the ones that do both.

Cancer, Monsters, and Catharsis

Have you ever found yourself emotionally unprepared for a book or movie?

You know, when you finish it and feel like the wind was just knocked out of you—and not in a good way. There’s a number of ways this can happen:

Scenario 1: You’re already feeling miserable and you want a distraction, so you pick up a book or watch a movie you know nothing about… and somehow the experience and the storyline pours salt into the wound, leaving you worse off than before.

Scenario 2: You’re kind of coasting along, feeling “ready for anything,” so you start a book or movie that you know has some heavy stuff… only to find out you’re not as invincible as you thought.

Scenario 3: You know the story has the capacity to depress you, and so you wait until you think you are emotionally stable enough to handle it… but it ends up tugging on heartstrings you didn’t know you had and sending you reeling.

My recent experience of J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls somehow did more than all of these combined.

As the story of a little boy struggling to cope with his mother’s impending death from cancer, A Monster Calls resonated painfully with my own life.

Lewis MacDougall in A Monster Calls, 2016

It depicted, more accurately than I have ever seen before, the critical pieces of slowly losing a parent.

The attempt to persuade yourself the treatments will work.

The attempt to keep functioning.

The underlying anger.

But most poignantly, the secret wish that it would all just end.

 I think I went through about eleven tissues.

The story broke me. But it also healed me.

How does this happen?

It’s a strange tonic.

This is not to say that a story itself can single-handedly provide healing from any major loss. Of course it can’t. But inasmuch as it can emotionally re-break you, it can also re-heal you, if it is told a certain way and if you are ready for it.

A year ago, I could never have watched this movie, because everything was still too fresh. I would have been more sad, more depressed, and more angry than I was before. But now, for some reason, now—I was ready.

How do you know when you’re ready?

How do you know when a sad story will be cathartic instead of more traumatic?

There is a lot of research out there about the grieving process, and the different stages of grief (if you want depressing content, just look there!), but it all varies depending our different personalities, circumstances, beliefs, and other factors. The thing is, we just can’t break it into a formula. So what one person finds therapeutic (though tear-jerking) at one year, another person may need seven years before they can derive anything beneficial. Or maybe never.

At the end of the day, you simply have to know your own emotional state.

Some people are more naturally resilient to moving stories that would break other people’s hearts. Or some people can appreciate sadness in a story without feeling prodded toward depression. But for some of us, there’s a wound that needs to be kept in mind. I’m certainly not suggesting that we avoid anything that might make us cry—sometimes we need to cry. But there’s a difference between tears of release when something resonates with us, and tears of fresh pain when something digs deeper into an existent wound.

So for anyone familiar with the loss of a parent, the hell called cancer, or the battle of denial, first of all, I’m sorry. I’ve been there, and it’s awful beyond words.

But if you are the kind of person who finds any comfort in stories, I highly, highly recommend this film. At some point during your journey of healing, when you are ready. It is much more than a realistic portrayal of terminal illness. It is a beautiful allegory of a much higher Truth, a much higher Being, that anyone experiencing grief is invited to call upon and, in doing so, receive healing.

The Aeronauts: What the Skies Teach us about Humanity

Found: a fine specimen of historical fiction and an epic ride. It’s Director Tom Harper’s latest, The Aeronauts.

Admittedly I was mostly interested in seeing Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones starring opposite one another again (after first seeing their acting chemistry in The Theory of Everything, I couldn’t pass this one by). But within the first few minutes, the inductive plot development, accompanied with character clues through flashbacks, brought together so many different concepts that I’ve spent time on recently, that I simply had to keep watching.

The movie depicts the record-setting gas balloon expedition conducted by James Glaisher in 1862.

Who made the ascent with him, however, is where the story takes a major artistic turn. In the movie, Glaisher (Redmayne) takes his trip with the widow of a former French aeronaut—a sprightly young woman named Amelia Wren (Jones). This is where the story got a bit creative, to say the least.

It turns out that Glaisher was accompanied on this particular mission by another male scientist, Henry Tracy Coxwell. While I suspected that Amelia’s character may have been embellished, I was a bit surprised to learn that she never existed. Instead, she was drawn together by a number of real women in aeronautical science, and named after Amelia Earhart, whose adventures would not come for another 60 years.

Overall, the movie takes you on a riveting (and dizzying) journey above the clouds with these two, as they discover uncharted territory in the sky, each other, and themselves. Facts aside, it made an inspiring statement about going where no other has gone before, and pushing oneself to the highest achievements possible—all while recognizing one’s own limits.

As a work of historical fiction, The Aeronauts actually makes a fascinating statement about “limits.”

In creating Amelia’s character, the writers portray a woman defying the limits imposed on her gender by an otherwise male-dominated field. And yet as Glaisher and Amelia climb higher into the atmosphere, they must both come to terms with their physical and mental fragility against the forces of nature. Well, actually, Amelia somehow stays conscious for almost half an hour after Glaisher faints from oxygen deprivation, so apparently she wasn’t as fragile as he was. But still, she eventually loses consciousness at 36,000 feet.

The warning here echoes of the Icarus myth. It’s all well and good to reach high (and we ought to), but we cannot forget our own weakness and frailty as humans. Not as women or men, but as humans.

Does the movie smack of feminism?

A bit, in my opinion. I generally dislike politically charged movies, but in this case what stood out wasn’t the exultation of women over men, but the shared impediments and ingenuity of both genders.

While I was a bit disappointed to learn that Amelia Wren never existed or set the record alongside James Glaisher, I can appreciate the creative choice to invent her. Placing both a man and a woman in the balloon enabled the film makers to communicate a message about people as a whole:

Our unique gifts and callings ought to be pursued—but we must always remember that no matter how high we soar, we can never change our basic needs as humans.

Character Quizzes and Why We Take them

Raise your hand if you’ve never taken a character quiz from a movie!

The fact is, if you’re in my generation or younger, it’s a safe assumption that you have taken at least several. Okay, yeah, I just dated myself, but I’ve probably already done that in previous posts.

For those of you who precede my generation (millennials), I don’t mean a quiz that measures your knowledge of a character in a story—I mean a quiz that attempts to identify which character you are most like.

Think of it as a personality type quiz—except that the results are confined to the cast of characters in whatever book or movie in question.

As an eager victim of these quizzes (for better or worse), I never cease to find them simultaneously amusing and horrifying.

Ever wondered what Disney hero you would be? Probably. But have you ever wondered what villain you would be?

What about Star Wars?

Marvel?

Lord of the Rings?

Narnia?

Harry Potter?

Ever wondered which Mean Girl you secretly are? (I did once, and then it told me I was Karen…)

The point is, people find these quizzes fascinating—otherwise the internet wouldn’t be oozing with them. But why do we bother with them?

For a good laugh?

To pass the time in the waiting room?

Or are they really just another mind-numbing activity?

Probably.

I mean, you’re not going to figure out who you should marry or what you should do for a living based off a quiz on Buzzfeed. But what these quizzes do give us is a license to do what we already subconsciously do no matter what:

They invite us to interpret the story in terms of ourselves.

The truth is, no matter the genre, the time period, the actors, or any of that, we always look for ourselves in the story. We try to find a character with whom we can identify to at least some degree, in whose welfare we become invested. (See my article on La La Land.) If we never find this character, chances are we find the entire book or movie pretty boring. Sound familiar?

What I’ve just now explained is actually a central concept in rhetorical theory: the concept of identification.

As a rhetorical concept, identification receives a good deal of attention in Kenneth Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives and Walter Fisher’s writings on the narrative paradigm. In sum, Burke argues that the degree to which Person A identifies with Person B affects how much influence that Person B has over Person A. Building on this, Fisher proposed in his narrative paradigm that if an audience identifies with a character in a story, then their emotions and opinions about the story will be shaped by whatever happens to that character.

So in short, any time we see a movie or read a book, we are looking for a character who we think represents us.

Does this mean we’re all narcissistic? Maybe a little. But think about it—how would we ever learn or glean anything meaningful from a story if we never “placed ourselves in the characters’ shoes?”

I think our need to see ourselves in a story is a statement about how we engage, learn, and find enjoyment.

We do this already any time we open a book or put on a movie, without even realizing it. But the popularity of character quizzes is a testament to this.

No matter how silly the questions or ridiculous the results (okay, my Disney villain was Jafar, which is convictingly accurate), we derive some pleasure out of whatever shallow self-examination and comparison the quiz offers. We enjoy walking through the mental paces of the questions, trying to figure out what we would do if placed in the world of the story, and who our friends would be in that world.

And even if we end up being compared to a ditzy snowman (yes, my overall Disney character was Olaf), we can at least laugh and see our quirks in a new, humorous light.

Sequels: when Part II just isn’t a good idea…

When does too much of a good thing become a bad thing?

I mean, let’s be honest: any time you read a great book or finish a great movie, somewhere in the back of your mind you wonder if there will be more –unless, of course, the author is dead (and no, fanfiction does not count).

Why is it we want more? Is it because the story left things open-ended? Is it because it was a cliff-hanger? Or is it simply our voyeuristic curiosity to know what the characters do with the rest of their lives?

Whatever it is, it has led hundreds—nay, thousands—of writers into plotline pandemonium (or frankly, lameness) and character catastrophes (or frankly, contradictions).

With each new installment the writers attempt to perform CPR on a corpse, failing to realize that they are the ones who killed it in the first place.

A good story doesn’t feel dead without a sequel.

It might feel incomplete, but if it has no life on its own, then adding Part II or even Part VIII isn’t going to breathe life into it.

But even worse is undoing the meaning of the first story by undermining its characters in the sequel.

At this point, I tread dangerously near the edge of controversy. I would avoid naming names, but alas, it’s impossible.

Take for instance Andrew Lloyd Weber: the man is a brilliant composer and storyteller through music. But I cannot bring myself to watch The Phantom of the Opera’s sequel, Love Never Dies (even though I sang the title song in my junior recital). Although *some* of the music in the sequel is comparably beautiful to that in the second, as a continuation of the story, it destroys the characters—not to mention, it robs any meaning from the original’s iconic “All I Ask of You.” Where is the beauty in the commitment Christine and Raoul make in Phantom if they throw it all away in Love Never Dies?

The other pitfall of sequels comes from contriving watered-down plots that have no energy left.

Okay, maybe I’m plunging off the edge of controversy now.

But Pirates of the CaribbeanI’ll defend the choice to make the trilogy, but I think everyone can agree that the first was capable as a stand-alone. It had a complete plot arc, a somewhat complete character arc (at least for Will), and a signature swashbuckling finish that left ends just open enough for a sequel or two. But even without the sequel, it would still have been a good film.

The hole they dug themselves into with this one was the introduction of a fourth. Not only did it have an inferior plotline, but the new characters it introduced were one-dimensional tropes pulled off the front-row shelf—even if they have the faces of Penelope Cruz and Sam Claflin. That being said, the fifth was a slight improvement from the fourth, but I don’t think they can ever match the glory of the trilogy. Basically, in making the fourth, the directors opened a can of worms they seem reluctant to close back up again… even if it would be best for the world of cinema.

And then there’s Star Wars… I won’t say much here, because I never saw the prequels and stopped watching after the seventh and Rogue One, so I’m utterly unqualified to give any assessment. But I do know the creation of the latest two trilogies has caused simultaneous enthusiasm and eye-rolling.

It makes me wonder, as do these other cases, what exactly is it that makes a story ripe for a sequel? Aside from those cases where it’s obvious that the story will be a saga (e.g. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.), what components set up a stand-alone for a second installment?

What are some stories out there that could have done fine without a sequel?

Which ones could have used a part II? And which ones absolutely should never have received a follow-up?

Inception and the Impact of Emotional Memory on Personal Identity

Whether or not you buy into the theory that the entirety of the movie Inception takes place as a dream, we can all agree on one thing: the importance of emotional memory in the story.

The first time I saw the film, I struggled simply to keep up with the plot twists—as any normal human probably would. But what I could follow quite lucidly was the development of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Dom Cobb, as the movie inevitably swerved deeper and deeper into the layers of his subconscious. The thing is, for all his cleverness in infiltrating the minds of other people, Cobb remains a fugitive from his own mind—or more specifically, what (appears to be) his memories.

Some critics view the film as a statement regarding cinema itself, while director Christopher Nolan emphasizes its commentary on the nature of reality.

In any case, one undeniable theme the movie tackles is the power of emotionally charged memories in a person’s present.

As the plot of Inception progresses, it becomes clear that Cobb is running from something in his past (or what he believes is the past) while simultaneously trying to carry out his mission of planting an idea in someone else’s mind. Eventually we learn that this dreaded memory is the death of his wife Mal, which he attributes to the “fact” that he suggested to her that the life they created together was in a world of sham. While we never really figure out (at least, I still haven’t) whether Mal actually committed suicide, the part that haunts Cobb throughout the entire movie is the simple idea that he is responsible.

There is a lot to dissect in this movie, what with all the layers of reality and unreality, which I obviously don’t have the space to do here—and also just don’t have the mental elasticity to do!

But what’s fascinating about Inception’s depiction of memories is that the factuality of the memories (i.e. whether they actually ever happened) takes a back to seat the emotional weight associated with them.

Basically, if we have strong enough feelings tied to our perception of an event, that event becomes real to us and we begin to treat its memory as such. And because we derive so much of our identity from our memories, these events (whether real or unreal) feed into our view of ourselves.

We see this fact illustrated all the time in movies and books. Think about it—how many flashback scenes or reflection scenes have you seen where the character’s memories are used to show you something important about who he is? And it’s really only the emotional memories that do this, isn’t it?

That’s part of what Inception is telling us.

The difference is that in most other movies, the memories are actual, and not imagined, whereas Inception blurs the line.

And while this blurring of lines could lead to all sorts of philosophical theories and discussions (postmodernism, subjectivism, and surrealism, to name a few), at the very least it encourages us to consider how much of our personal identity is based off of our emotional impressions of the past—or what our minds have construed as the past.

How has our acceptance or denial of responsibility for past events shaped our personal identity?

And what are the implications if our assessments are actually wrong? Does this mean our identity is built on a lie?

See, I thought that writing this might help make some sense of the movie—which to some degree it has—but now I’m realizing that I really ought to watch it again. Which, if you haven’t seen it, you definitely should. But you better strap yourself in, or you might get lost! Actually, just be prepared to get lost, because I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to. 🙂