Meaning in Fiction

In the second section of Akayama DanJay: Blind Faith, Jay is pretty blunt about what he represents in Akayama’s cosmic plan. Then that cosmic plan hits the fan.

In English-classes everywhere, there’s much discussion about what authors meant with a book. Two readers can disagree with each other (and even the author), which effectively means that each reader has their own private edition. Like blind men describing an elephant based only on the portions they can touch, we interpret stories from our own perspectives, and can never really share them.

I want readers to be painfully aware of this when they read Akayama DanJay and this sequel. The books morph from scene to scene, and scenes impact each other in ambiguous ways, so no two readers should agree on what I’m actually saying. I’d like this to encourage readers to pour over and argue about the texts like holy-books even though the stories are explicitly secular, which should, in turn, make readers reinterpret actual holy-books and their own relationship to the universe.

In Akayama DanJay, Dan’s dad argues that all texts, even texts from authoritative sources like science and religion, are empty of inherent meaning, but that that very emptiness unites us in exactly the way science and religion often claim to. Then he jumps out a window and dies. This leads Dan to frustration with Leo, who cites his own supposedly-wealthy-but-actually-absent father when he demands a station above reality, beyond consequences for his actions.

How is the reader meant to interpret this? If Dan’s dad is to be believed, it’s got no inherent meaning, so we should jump out windows to get it over with. But Jay’s understanding of emptiness lets him save mankind from itself. That’s my attempt to turn the lack of a message into a message about coping with the lack of a message. From where I’m standing, the book says “everything is empty, especially this book about people who interpret emptiness in different ways and where those interpretations lead them, wink wink, nudge nudge.” This puts the reader in a hard place, deciding how they react to the emptiness presented, because that emptiness doesn’t go away when they put the book down.

But anyone can interpret Akayama DanJay in any way they choose, and my argument is that ALL those interpretations are all equally empty. So, for maximum pretentiousness, I want this sequel to make readers reinterpret the first book, resulting in a deeper, more detailed outlook. I don’t really care what that outlook is. I just want readers to be unsettled as their point-of-view shifts underneath them. That shifting point-of-view demonstrates the real message, the emptiness of all messages, and therefore the importance of unconditional compassion.

In DanJay Blinks, Jay loses his staring contest with Anihilato. The only difference between this alternate universe and the original universe is a single coin-flip, so both universes seem “valid” or “plausible” in the context of the fiction. In the last book, Jay’s sacrifice worked. In this book, it didn’t. We’re left to ask, “what do we do when our compassion isn’t unconditional enough?”

I couldn’t have written this version of events first. Jay is only allowed to lose in this sequel because readers of the first book have already seen him win. They’ve gotten the message: love is good, yada yada. With the message across, I can knock it down to show it was empty the whole time. If love is really good, the emptiness won’t keep it down for long. When Jay explains his role in the cosmic plan, then bungles it, he’s showing the imagery he represents is empty. Over the course of this sequel he’ll prove that the emptiness only empowers the imagery, corroborating the first book from a fresh perspective.

Likewise, Faith is blinded. In 1678’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian allegory is spelled out with obviously-labeled characters like “Mr. Worldly Wiseman” and “Mr. Legality.” In this secular book which steals and violates religious imagery, I want to provide such obvious labels but twist them around so readers have to argue about what they really mean. What does it mean for the character Faith to be blind?

Well, in the last book, I wouldn’t say Faith had faith. She told Anihilato to “fuck off” and was happy to leave it behind in the desert. Rather, Faith is faith, and other characters have her. Beatrice obviously “has” Faith. Dan “has” Faith sometimes, but sometimes loses her. Dan wants to be with Beatrice, but his only way to her is through Faith. Anihilato tried to “have” faith by grabbing her, but she slips through fingers. Faith doesn’t work like that.

So, in coming chapters, Faith’s blindness will test other characters as much as it tests her. What will it mean to “have” Faith when she can’t see if you’re her friend or a giant worm-monster?

We’ll find out soon enough. Remember, I’m just making it up as I go. Chances are I’ll change every word of these early chapters eventually.

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The Point

In Homer Vs the Human our minotaur protagonist wins a seat in an upcoming tournament by beating Queen Anthrapas’ champion commander, Harvey.

In my last commentary I talked about the “virtue wheel,” a method of charting a story’s characters to make sure they’re varied. If you want your story to have a point, character variety helps communicate that point.

But do stories need points? Or “themes” or “meanings” or whatever?

Nah. I didn’t write the first draft of The Minotaur’s Board-Game with a point in mind; I just liked minotaurs and board-games and writing. People can write stuff for a reason, or for no reason, or without even considering reason.

But, a point can make a story directed and streamlined. A point helps me, as an author, cut unnecessary prose. Since I believe stories should be as short as possible, a tool to help me trim is always welcome. So, the second draft of my story needs a point.

What’s the point of The Minotaur’s Board-Game?

I’m not sure yet. My opinion about the point will change by the end. But I found clues in my virtue wheel, so let’s start there! Three “virtues” which separate the characters in The Minotaur’s Board-Game are

  • Physical Strength
  • Intelligence
  • Political Power

I’d like to use these “virtues” to make a point about leadership and loyalty.

Board-games suddenly have symbolic meaning. The intelligent characters reduce the strong characters into game-pieces to control their physical forms. Meanwhile those intelligent characters are controlled by characters with political power, as if the real world is a board-game controlled by kings and queens. This makes the conflicts between individuals, nations, and races more abstract, distancing characters from the implications of their actions (is it okay to take a griffon from its natural habitat just to use its physical characteristics for a game-piece?). Even without real war, this isn’t exactly a Utopian environment.

The main characters, Homer and Aria, have a flawed relationship. Homer’s a sentient animal-biped who admires and trusts Aria, but she sees him as a pack-animal she can ride to greatness. Homer is stronger than Aria, and maybe smarter in terms of pure table-war talent, but Aria exploits him. Did Homer really want to fight Harvey? Would Homer prefer living in a labyrinth? Aria doesn’t care. She hardly seems to understand him.

The most powerful person we’ve met is Queen Anthrapas. She’s old and frail, but as queen of humanity, Anthrapas is imposingly unquestionable. Is it okay for her to manipulate her subjects to protect humanity from the threat of war? If so, does that mean Aria can justify exploiting Homer because she misses being a royal commander?

The human answer to this question won’t be the same as the elven answer. I want my elves to be weird and original; they’re insect-like, with a height-based social-system, lace wings, and pheromone-based communication. Their queen enforces loyalty and leadership chemically. They even lay eggs!

Homer will play table-war with seafolk next. Whatever’s up with them, you know their society will present a different commentary on leadership.

If you’ve ever read The Once and Future King, Merlin turns a young King Arthur into animals to show him different political ideologies. I recall ants, birds, and fish among others. Similarly, I hope meeting elves, seafolk, and dwarfs will teach Homer and the reader about different possibilities for the relationship between leaders and the people they lead.

To that end, I think each board-game should present a unique challenge related to the society proposing it. Homer must invent solutions reflecting his maturing ideology.

In his first match, Homer overcame dwarven siege weapons by setting skeletons on fire and flinging them with a trebuchet, immediately after Aria told him that using skeletons at all was a faux pas. As an animal, he’s naturally shameless, and in that particular scenario, shamelessness was enough to win.

In Homer’s second match, Harvey shows humanity’s tendency to exploit strength when he replaces his falcons with the griffon. Homer punishes him by understanding the deeper connections between animals. Maybe Aria taught Homer some sympathy for other species.

In Homer’s next match, what will the seafolk teach him? Follow to find out!

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PS. In The Minotaur’s Board-Game, animals impact their environment. Scales the ice-dragon makes its surroundings chilly. Homer the minotaur makes mazes when he’s anxious. Humans seem to live in an infinite field of rolling hills, and it’s not clear whether they live there because it’s like that, or if it’s like that because they live there. Dwarfs eat mountains from under their own feet.

I think that’s another major aspect of the point. When two individuals play table-war, they represent their nation and their race. Whole world-views are in combat, and when land is ceded, it’s assimilated into the opponent’s mode of being. The infinite field of rolling hills represents humanity’s stability. If the elves conquered some hills, I’m sure forests would grow there and soon you could hardly tell it was ever human territory at all. Understanding how we shape our environment is instrumental to understanding ourselves.

Nations/races are almost characters in themselves. They’re like amoebas with political borders as their cell-walls, whose interiors are homogeneous terrain. In this view, Queen Anthrapas isn’t a mastermind playing games with subordinates; she’s subject to the national over-mind. The scattered weapons left from the war against demons are the only true symbols of power, representing violence which can smite civilizations. Before them, an individual’s strength, intelligence, and political power are meaningless.