After realizing I’d bungled the motivations of the main character of Walking the Darkmaker’s Way and was desperately struggling to save the story, I had a breakthrough. But not until suffering through the terror I might have wasted the past two-plus years.
A sense that something was off had bothered at me for months, but only when I was forced to write preparatory notes for my workshop readers did the nature of the problem revealed itself, first gradually, then suddenly.
I.e. nagging feelings matter.
They are telling you something.
And forcing yourself to explain what the feelings are—clearly—to another human is the best way to get to the heart of what’s wrong. My floundering through explanations showed me how I’d been lying to myself. Revealed the callouses I’d built up to withstand the friction between what I’d intended to write and what I was putting down on the page.
In this case, I’d mixed up two similar ideas for what drives the hero of Walking the Darkmaker’s Way.
So, I am sharing this journey to shine a spotlight on how easy it is to fool oneself into thinking you can ignore that feeling something’s off. That you’re just suffering a bout of self-doubt that will go away if you merely push through it. Sometimes, you’re just plain wrong and need to fix something. The sooner, the better.
I’ve adapted the below tale from what I recently sent members of my workshop, slimmed down for context and clarity. I hope you find it entertaining and edifying, perhaps familiar, and most of all, helpful for when you must accept that something is wrong and needs correcting. Regardless of the amount of time and effort that has to be tossed out.
So now, from
from The Department of Finally Figuring it Out
A tale of realizations:
At the start of Walking the Darkmaker’s Way, the hero, Menno, is mid-identity crisis. For his whole adult life, he has excelled in the Order of the Way. Often, this requires Menno to shift identities, a skill he learned as a child and has honed over the years. Using the Order, a secretive group devoted to collecting knowledge, he has found a comfortable solution to his biggest problem in life: that people will always betray him and only knowledge remains true.
Within the Order, Menno has operated alone, supported by a group, free to collect knowledge and try to keep four promises he’s made:
- to never kill
- to punish the person who betrayed Tessa, his adolescent flame
- to recover the Huecuatl —a memory collector(see below†) —of the boy Waanes
- to find his grandfather’s stolen Huecuatl† and bring those memories back to the family.
So far, he’s been able to keep only one of these promises—to never kill.
Now, the Order has put him on a mission that will require him to kill an Apostate of the Order. Before we move on, a quick explanation of this Huecuatl thing (plus a glimpse at the world of Walking the Darkmaker’s Way, as a tease.)
†The Huecuatl, a Field Guide
A Huecuatl (HOO-we-coo-atl) is an encased crystal that works as a memory catcher and keeper. When a person dies, all their memories are released from the body. The crystal at the heart of the person’s Huecuatl grabs all these memories, preventing them from wandering off, prey to beings that feed on rootless memories.
After a person’s memories are collected by their Huecuatl, it is “tapped” into other family members’ Huecuatls, passing along the accumulated memories of the family. It’s loosely analogous to Jung’s inherited unconscious and a portable afterlife. (Fun, no?)
A broken Huecuatl releases all the memories held inside, leaving them to wander the lands. Huecuatls do go missing—such as those of Menno’s Grandfather and Waanes. Whether broken or lost means all those memories go missing from the family’s cumulative afterlife.
Misbelief and the Third Rail
If you aren’t familiar with misbelief as applied to character motivation, the use comes from the book Story Genius. There, a misbelief is a wrong belief of the world the protagonist comes to accept and clings to, and which must be overcome (in Drama) or not (in Tragedy). This struggle generates the “third rail,” the emotional core of the story. This third rail separates the stories that resonate with readers from those offering mere strings of things that happen, as exciting as they might be.
Planned vs. Written
Recall I had planned Menno’s Misbeleif to be “people will always betray him, and only knowledge remains true.”
Yet, the story walked along a different third rail in the writing to one questioning what is it to be a person. From this mismatch rose the feeling of something being wrong.
As a child traveling to the Pangot Market dressed up as a “Rot Eater” like his father, Menno wondered aloud how his Huecuatl will know which version of himself is true, which false. His father assures him the Huecuatl will know what to keep and what to discard. His father has always dressed up as a “Rot Eater” and been the same at home, so Menno has trusted his father’s assurance as true.
Essentially, Menno‘s curiosity is asking Thales of Miletus’s primary question†† but applied to identity. Thales had asked: Is there something after all that remains the same no matter what form it takes, or is each thing unique and of itself?†† Reframed for Menno in Walking the Darkmaker’s Way—is there a self that always remains the same no matter his assumed identity, or is he a completely new person each time he changes?
In other words, Is the child the same person as the adult? Is the lover on the weekend the same as the thief in the night or as the good father during the day?
Menno illustrates two versions of the same answer to this question — his eyes and the Mark of the Order. The symbolism of these, I have only recently realized.
One, his eyes—he was born with intense blue eyes like firebrands. Tessa’s brother identifies Menno by his eyes. Other problems happen because of this indelible sign of Menno the son of Terverg, the boy from the Darkmaker’s Way, and now a Wanderer of the Way.
Two, the mark of the Order. He carved this mark h into his own flesh, and it, too, is indelible, though, like a tattoo, it can be covered over. Still, it will be there for the rest of his life, marking him as an Ord. This identity Menno actively chose is the choice made that cannot be unmade.
Now, the Order has pitted Menno’s chosen identity as Ord against Menno of the Darkmaker’s way, his intense, blue-eyed self. Set the man who must kill against the man who has promised to never kill. Put who Meeno chose to be vs. who he was born and grew up as. Now Menno must discover which is true and which is false. Which memories will his Huecuatl save when he dies?
YES! SCORE! This all sounds very exciting. I WANT to know who he is in the end, too. (Hear the sounds of me patting myself on my back?)
(Do you now hear the sad, falling Wah, Wah, wah of choosing the wrong door on “the Price is Right”?)—This DOESN’T FIT HIS MISBELEIF: “People will always betray him; only knowledge is true.”
Now that I had written an explanation for my readers, I couldn’t avoid seeing this problem. The one that has been nagging at me for some time.
Lies and Self-Deceptions
Until this moment, I’d always been able to make a tweak here or an adjustment there behind the scenes. Pounding a square peg into a round hole. Always just good enough for me to ignore the shavings of misgivings left behind. After all, I repeated to myself; the wording of the misbelief is still a work in progress… And if I squinted hard enough, the idea of being many people is kind of similar to betrayal, and facts not changing is sort of like the truth.
Nope. And I can’t keep lying to myself if I want anyone else to give a hoot in hell about this story I’m telling. Half-assed don’t cut it when you’re asking folks for their time and money.
A Return to the Foundations
Going back through the original Story Genius notes for Walking the Darkmaker’s Way, I saw there were two different ideas. Developing in parallel.
While true, people often betray, and facts tend to remain constant, making this a fine candidate for a misbelief. It’s also something Menno could easily believe and later come to discover as false.
But this has never been HIS struggle.
Sitting alongside this idea sat the misbelief I had been writing, marked off in a bullet point—that Menno believed it’s possible for him to become utterly new & completely clean of his past. To cleave himself completely from everything he had ever been.
Over time, Menno must face the fact that no matter who he chooses to become, it will always and necessarily depend on who he has been. Menno made those promises because of who he had been when he made them. He only chose the Order because of who he had been at 15.
Menno can ignore his memories, but they will persist. The promises will always be there, kept or not. And his Huecuatl will always keep them all and forever.
The Scenes Leading to the Climax
The scenes leading to the climax have always had Menno, in his conflicted state, being forced to return to the city of his birth. Thinking he has escaped who he had been, Menno must walk the Darkmaker’s Way, traveling through the same streets and lanes he’d stridden in his childhood. The boy, now grown, has the same promises to keep, and memories still haunt the lanes and staircases. And only if Menno can come to accept the boy who had escaped into the Order years before now walks these same streets can he be free to become Menno the Avenger.
Menno’s misbelief as written, as my guide, now matches his journey, and together, they ask how can these people be the same person? What is it to be A person? A single self through all these changes, searching for his own answer to Thales’ question. ††
Now, the rumbling sense something isn’t right with the story I’m telling has quieted. I do have a lot of work ahead on the twenty-odd chapters already written. A least I now know the time won’t be wasted, and the reader will enjoy reading Menno’s journey that much more.
Don’t Waste Time
Yours or your readers (or whatever your jam). In the end, don’t be afraid to stop and take the time to explain clearly, to someone else what you’re trying to do. If you can’t explain what you’re doing, it’s time for major change. If you can but find something wrong, you can fix it.
I was lucky in only entangling two ideas. One idea I thought I was trying to write. The other was the idea I was actually writing. The true one. Seeing this, I could stop struggling to make them line up. Fortunately, they’re similar enough that the story can be fixed without too much work. If it couldn’t have been mended, well, at least I could have stopped wasting time on it. Sad as it would have been to lose Menno and all the people he is.
Expect more of Walking the Darkmaker’s Way soon.
††Thales and His Question
††Considered the first scientific question, Thales asked if there were a substratum that always remained the same no matter the form it took in the mid-6th Century BCE. Aristotle asserted it was essence. Thales proposed it was water. Democritus famously suggested it was particles so small they cannot be split, which he called atoms, using the Greek compound word: a= not, tom=split. Not bad for going on 2,700 years ago.