Faith Untested

This story has been haunting me since 2013 and has gone through four revisions. I believe there’s one heck of a story here…somewhere…comments welcome…


Faith Untested

Many years ago Ben grabbed William by an ankle and dangled him outside my third story dorm room window. It was a warm, Spring afternoon that suddenly got hot. Ben, a muscular wrestler, spoke calmly. “Tell me where the Jews are.” Ben’s quiet voice reverberated in my room like a rifle shot.

Some of us gathered to discuss an Ethics class assignment: It’s The Holocaust. You’ve hidden Jews somewhere in your home. The Nazis burst in the door demanding to know where the Jews are. What do you do?

Some confessed they’d cave. Some professed they’d stay resolute and hoped they could endure torture. Much was said between these two points. I was in the resolute-endure-torture camp but secretly knew I’d go with the crowd: “Want the Jews? Well, here they are! All wrapped up and neatly waiting for you in my basement! Aren’t I a good doobie? Getting them all together for you like this?”

My room was at the end of a hall, tucked away in the top floor southeast corner of the dorm. A perfect place for lively discussions.

None of us noticed William, not in the Ethics class, on the other side of the doorway in the hall, standing stiff and attentive, listening, bible in hand. His father was a Bible answer man at a Christian radio station. In an era of long haired hippie freaks, William stood out in his close cut hair, pale skin, a perfectly starched and ironed white shirt with thin black tie that hung on his closet-hanger shoulders and billowed about his once-a-week-fasting frame. Blond and blue-eyed, he took every opportunity to evangelize us. He wasn’t a pain or a nuisance, though. He was more like a gnat.

He cleared his throat and we looked up. “I would tell the truth, tell them where the Jews were, and trust Jesus to perform a miracle and save them.”

“Really.” It wasn’t a question. It just sounded like one.

“I’d have to tell the truth because that’s what God requires of me.”

“You tell the truth, the Jews die. This is what God requires of you? You can’t lie and trust all that forgiveness of sins crap you talk about?”

“My faith tells me God and His Son Jesus Christ will save those Jews.”

“You mean a miracle of some kind? The Nazis go blind? Or just decide, fuck it let’s knock off early and grab some brews? Maybe the Jews disappear? You think God’s going to pull some kind of Jedi mind trick?”

“Please don’t curse.”

Ben, his massive arm eclipsing my small black-and-white TV on my bureau, chuckled at the Jedi remark. Moonless midnight sky black hair and always in need of a shave, he laughed when we described him with “arms as big as legs and legs as big as people.”

Ben lost people in The Holocaust.

He listened patiently, his brow furrowed, his lips silent, his eyes fixed on William and squinting as if William were some bright light on a close horizon. William started insisting that telling the Nazis where the Jews were hiding would be a test of his faith.

Ben quietly opened a window. He put his hands on the window sill, inhaled deeply, upturned William, grabbed him by an ankle and held him outside the window, three stories up.

“You have ten seconds to decide. Tell the truth, sacrifice the Jews and hope for a miracle, or lie, convincingly, and save your life. In ten seconds you’ll fall three stories. You may not die, but you’ll be badly hurt. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be spared in either case. You admit there are Jews in your house and you’ve harbored Jews, you’re an enemy of the state and will be killed as an example to others. You convince me there are no Jews here and I may kill you anyway as a warning to others.”

“Ten…”

We didn’t think Ben would let William drop. He’d never been violent or even angry that we could remember. Even when we went out for pizza, he was the one who stopped arguments and shoving matches with reason and quiet good humor.

Now he relaxed his grip a few times. Whatever blood should have been rushing to William’s head never made it there. He was blanched white and screaming for Ben to stop.

“Nine…”

William never called for Jesus to save him. He begged Ben to bring him in. He screamed at us to help him.

“Eight… Where are the Jews?”

More screams. We could hear people outside on the college quad shouting up at this strange play. Somebody hollered for others to call campus security.

“Seven…Where are the Jews?”

William screamed hysterically now. Hysterically. “PLEASE DEAR GOD SOMEBODY MAKE HIM STOP!” I remember thinking, “Does that count as a call to God or is he just using the adjectival modifier?”

“Six…You are going to drop to the ground unless you tell me where the Jews are. Where are the Jews?”

At this point one of the other fellows in the room said, “Ten dollars Ben can’t hold him the full ten seconds.” Ben wasn’t breathing hard. He looked like he could hold William out the window forever. I said, “What?”

“Five…”

A window in the room next to ours opened up. Somebody shouted “William says he’d let Nazis kill the Jews and hope for a miracle. Ben’s going to drop him unless he changes his mind.” There was a quick response from the crowd, “Let the fucker fall!”, but nobody laughed.

“Four…Where are the Jews?”

William screamed, “I don’t know! There are no Jews!”

“Three…I’m not convinced.” He took his eyes off William, turned his head and looked at us, “Are any of you convinced?”

Somebody said, “Ben, come on. Enough’s enough.”

“Two…Nobody here’s convinced, either. Where are the Jews?”

William is crying now. Screaming and crying, hysterically begging for someone anyone to help him. He’s calling to Jesus Christ and all the saints and not in ways I think they’d recognize as calls for help.

“One. Time’s up. You die.”


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World-Building – Language

There are three basic questions when considering language in world-building:

  • Does language play any role in your world?
  • Does everyone speak the same language, or is there a variety?
  • Do you need to invent any slang or terminology as part of the world-building process?

Here I paraphrase Aristotle’s Poetics, “Avoid neologisms unless introducing some new term/word/phrase is crucial to the plot; use jargon only to move the story along.”

Do you need to invent any slang or terminology as part if the world-building process?
The Augmented Man uses lots of military, biologic, and psychologic jargon, little of which is invented. One first reader asked me “Am I suppose to understand this stuff?” to which I answered, “If that stuff was replaced with something like ‘Oh, and we did lots of biologic and psychologic stuff to them’ would you have accepted Trailer could do what he could do?”
“No. Probably not.”
“More to the point, did you believe Donaldson (the character using most of the jargon) was an authority on what he talked about?”
“Definitely.”

Long story short, I could have reduced the jargon and it would have weakened the story and that brings us back to Aristotle’s Poetics; The jargon is crucial to the plot because it adds credibility to the story.

All cards on the table moment: Some reviewers comment they had to look up some terms. Lots of readers comment on the jargon. So far all of them kept reading despite the jargon. This poses and interesting problem to me:

  1. I could explain the jargon in greater detail so readers don’t have to look things up.
  2. I could use less jargon.
  3. I could include a glossary.

I have issues with each solution (and am open to suggestions).


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World-Building – Moving from Mundane to Fantastic Settings

When asked, “How do characters move from mundane to fantastic settings?” the correct answer is:

  1. The take the 45st L, get off at the first stop, then go left at the bottom of the stairs.
  2. By grounding the unfamiliar in the familiar.

In the Harry Potter Universe, children get to Hogwarts from Platform 9 3/4 at London’s King’s Cross station. Aside from people not noticing a young person with a tram of luggage and a caged owl on top or that youngster and all their belongings suddenly disappearing into a brick pillar, we’re back to the familiar in the unfamiliar mentioned in World-Building – Revealing Settings Through Relatable Characters.

It’s worth noting that Harry Potter’s Platform 9 3/4 is a representation of the starting point for every hero on every hero’s journey regardless of culture or mythology: We enter the fantastic via the mundane. The invitation to the mythic must be accepted or there is no journey and the invitation must be accepted in front of others – Muggles – who can’t accept or refuse to accept it. Usually there’s a mentor/guide/guardian/herald/… someone to help the young adventurer on. Harry Potter’s Mrs. Weasley told him how to “enter”, ie, pass the first challenge.

The message here is that entry into the fantastic is always around us, is everywhere, is waiting for us to become aware. Consider Keith Jarrett’s preface to his album Treasure Island:

The treasure has always been there
It is not hidden
But is only where certain people would look
At all
Thus it remains a secret to the rest
And to solace themselves
They say it’s hidden
Or buried
To still their invading thoughts.

Some are calm and content
Or at peace, in their words

Some are stirred and cloudy
But they are improving their vision

Of the island
Of themselves

I make use of these “we must see the magic for it to exist” concepts myself in my short story The Magic Tassels: A shaman lives in a village and is known for the magic tassels he wears on his wrists. Different villages come and ask what the tassels are for and he asks them, “What do you think?” Everyone tells a magic story about them save three old women who mock him. Later the village is threatened and everyone will die. The villagers come to the shaman for help and his tassels turn into the magic each saw, which saves them.

Except for the three old women. When they ask him to save them he answers, “No, the only magic in my tassels is that which others put there. All the magic I gave others they already had. I merely reminded them of the magic within them. You saw nothing in my tassels, so there’s nothing I can give you. There is no magic in you for me to remind you.”


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World-Building – Revealing Settings Through Relatable Characters

Every time you have an opportunity to show something most people aren’t familiar with, do so to add color to the story provided you can do it in a way the reader understands and can relate to.

Ground the unfamiliar with the familiar

 
You have to ground the unfamiliar with the familiar so that readers can relate to it. Example: A reviewer wrote of The Augmented Man‘s protagonist, Nick Trailer, “His struggles were easy to relate with and, honestly, I found myself hoping to see his happy ending by the end of the novel.” The “reader wanting the hero to succeed” is key to world-building as it demonstrates the reader is emotionally involved with the character individually and the story in general.

A familiar example of grounding the unfamiliar with the familiar comes from the original Alien movie. The opening scenes are of the crew waking from suspended animation. Quite unfamiliar to most people. But the next scene is the crew in the mess complaining about being woken up, how crappy the coffee is, are they going to get extra pay for this extra work, et cetera.

The unfamiliar grounded in the familiar. The crew may have just woken from suspended animation on a deep space ship but they’re just like your friends in the corner bar grumbling about work, they’re your co-workers in the company cafeteria complaining about crappy food, they’re your workmates wondering if the company’s going to pay them for any overtime coming from making an unscheduled stop on their delivery route.

In short, most people accepted the unfamiliar in Alien because whatever happened, it was happening to people they could relate to and understand; the unfamiliar was grounded in the familiar.

The heart of any story is believable characters either succeeding or failing to achieve their goals. There is a general rule about people; what people do rarely changes. How they do things changes. Example: people gossip. One hundred years ago people gossiped by gathering in the general store, the local pub, in the park. Now they gossip on their mobiles, Facebook, Twitter, et cetera. People have gossiped since we climbed down from the trees and stood on our hind legs. How they’ve gossiped has changed over time.


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World-Building – Getting Readers Interested in Your World

[Much of this series is excerpted from a post on Phoebe Darqueling’s blog]

World-building is an interesting and amusing phrase to me. I don’t think it existed as such when I started writing professionally (1970s). Perhaps people understood it without naming it as such. Consider authoring concepts such as atmosphere, character, description, dialogue, narration, pace, plot, POV, scenes, setting, structure, style, tone, viewpoint, … are we whirling them all into the single term, world-building? Okay, so long as we recognize the whole is the sum of its parts and a weakness in any one of them is a weakness in all of them.

World-building is the art of getting readers more interested in your story than they are in their own story.

 
World-building is in all writing, fiction and non-fiction, because (to me) “world-building” is the art of getting your readers to accept the story’s mythos as more real than their daily mythos (meaning the story’s reality is more engaging and actualizing than their daily reality). I’ve read biographies and histories and been caught up in them, lost track of time, forgotten to eat, read until my eyes closed and then dreamt about what I read. Likewise I’ve read fiction that I’ve put down and forgotten to pick up again because I couldn’t care less about what was happening in the story.

I’m told I do lots of world-building in my work and ask, “Can you show me where?” Most can’t because I work to share a story’s reality through the development of the story itself, not in expository lumps (an “expository lump” occurs when the author tells the reader something rather than providing the reader with sufficient information to experience it. World-building case in point, the first paragraph of one of my works-in-progress, Gable Smiled, is:

Valen patted Gable’s muscular neck as they trotted into Lensterville. They’d been ten days out, mostly soldiering Sipio’s vast Northern Plain, and this time of year that meant heat with a capital “H”. Valen could feel his own sweat trickling through the hairs on his chest and back, and every time his Ranger-issue travel cords relaxed around him, his scent rose like steam washing his face.

Consider how much the reader learns in Gable Smiled‘s opening paragraph:


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