Tag Archives: Javert

The Art of Miscommunication

A few years ago, at the family cabin, my wife chastised one of the kids for running past a wooden stake, topped with a pink ribbon.

“Get over here. The neighbors put up those stakes because they were tired of people going into their yard.”

This surprised me, as I knew my dad had surveyed the property in an effort to divide the lot. The stakes were commissioned by him, not the neighbor.

“Where’d you hear that?” I asked.

“Your mom.”

My mom hadn’t communicated with my dad about the survey. So my mom, in an effort to understand reality, assigned a narrative that made sense to her, along with a motive. She didn’t know about the stakes, so obviously it came from the neighbors who shared her border. But why would they do such a thing? Because they were sick and tired of her grandkids disturbing the pine needles on their property, obviously.

Had she just called the neighbors, or mentioned it to her husband, the miscommunication could have been avoided, instead the narrative she created was passed around to my wife, then my kids and i’m sure others in my extended family still think the neighbors are a bunch of pricks because of it.

Two parts in the example above, create and build tension.

  1. Using point of view, we can develop a perception of reality unique to our characters. The disparity between these perceptions are where we breed tension, with each character reacting according to their perception to a situation.
  2. Having our characters assign motive to others without understanding their perception of reality.

In Les Miserables, Fantine hates Jean Valjean because he fired her. He hadn’t, that was her perception. She was fired by a female supervisor who’d discovered her illegitimate child. The supervisor brought up the situation to Valjean, omitting some detail, and Valjean invited her to do what she thought best.

Later, after Fantine plummeted into poverty and sin, all for the noble cause of caring for her daughter, she confronts Valjean with anger, matching the hatred he must hold for her. Only, he doesn’t even know who she is and tries to help her as he would anyone in her situation. The tension explodes, becoming another inciting event for Valjean when he understands Fantine’s perception of reality, he’d fired her, his motive, he despised her for her sins. His perception of reality was quite different. Anyone could find redemption. She’d made a mistake and should hardly have to pay for it the rest of her life. In fact, God could use that mistake to bring about a wonderful miracle that was Cosette.

Later in the story of Valjean we find another miscommunication between Javert and Valjean. Javert expects to be shot for spying on the revolutionaries. Valjean volunteers to shoot Javert, not because he wanted to be free of the old prison guard, but because he wanted to save Javert’s life. This blew Javert’s mind and he vowed to continue to hunt Valjean down, which he does later, but when it comes time to arrest Valjean, his perception of reality has changed so drastically, he chooses to not live in his newfound reality and kills himself after letting Valjean go.

As a reader we can bask in the tension created by conflicting perceptions of realities from two or more characters that we’ve come to know through their point of views.

Jace KillanI live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I hold an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can read some of my works by visiting my Wattpad page and learn more at www.jacekillan.com.

Learning from the Masters

les-miserables-jean-valjean-hugh-jackman-candlesticksI’ve converted my den into a writing sanctuary, filled with souvenirs from my vicarious and real lives. On the corners of my desk are two matching silver candlesticks to remind me of the lessons learned from reading Les Miserables.

Hugo, Melville, Tolkien, Twain, and Lewis have all taken me on unforgettable journeys, and it might sound cliché but their writings have had a profound effect on my mortal existence. This post was meant to be about them, but I was invited on a journey last week by another amazing author and I must write about that experience.

David Farland is the author of the Runelords and many other works of fiction. And his books are fantastic, but that isn’t what I’m writing about in this post. Farland pulled back the curtain and gave us a look behind the scenes of becoming a successful author.

When I first started writing, I tried my best to adopt Victor Hugo’s omniscient style of point of view and was surprised when my writing was met with strong criticism for doing so. Farland explained that two centuries ago, many writers would jump around the characters’ minds much like a movie in omniscient POV, but with the developments of film this style of writing no longer worked for the readers. The one thing that books offer above film today is the ability to become intimately involved in the mind of the Point of View character.

Farland’s classes are offered online and in person. I’ve been to similar courses before but was never taught by this level of insight and genius. I have been struggling with several short stories that I started to write but had difficulty finishing because I didn’t know where to take them. I had strong characters and setting but I lacked conflict. I struggled to place my creations into hard situations that might cause them to change.

Jean Valjean is my all-time favorite character. Analyzing it now, I see that what made me fall in love with him, as a protagonist was the pain and suffering he endured. The irrationality and unfairness of receiving a 19 year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread played on the Man vs. Society conflict in the story. (I know it was compounded because he tried to escape several times). And the bread wasn’t even for him, but his starving nieces and nephews, which endeared me to him further. Farland called this “petting the dog.”

In Farland’s class I learned that characters of the story didn’t necessarily need to be people. I used to think Javert was the antagonist of the story but now I see him as the contagonist. The real antagonist is society, selfish and unwilling to help the miserables.

Javert and Valjean were both good and bad. They both believed they knew what was right and for the most part tried to live according to their moral code. Both illustrated the Man vs. Society conflict and in the end it turned out that society was wrong. Valjean refused to bend his moral code and was blessed by providence while Javert struggled to see a world beyond himself and so he took his own life.

LesMisThenardierHugo’s genius is found in how his characters struggle through the conflict they are placed in and how their conflicts play off of the other characters. For instance, most that have only seen the play version of the story do not realize that Eponine is Gavroche’s sister, children of Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier who changed their name when they moved to Paris. One of the most touching parts of the story to me is at the wedding party when the Thenardiers show up to loot the guests, seemingly celebrating in the wake of the barricade where they lost two of their children who saw something greater than themselves and were willing to sacrifice their lives for that cause.

Farland showed us how to develop such a story by brainstorming character conflicts. Not just the protagonist against the antagonist but analyzing how every character would interact with every other character. There may be multiple protagonists or antagonists or contagonists and so on. As I have employed this type of brainstorming, I’ve been able to finish my stories.

I am grateful to the masters of old like Victor Hugo and to the masters of today like David Farland. I’ve added a book to my writing sanctuary, Million Dollar Outlines.

Writing in Color

Black and White Rainbow

My writing started to get good when I learned how to write in color.

As children we are concrete thinkers; we see the world in absolutes, black and white, good and bad, likes and dislikes, right and wrong. As we grow and develop we begin to comprehend abstract thought, such as, just because Jonny does something bad doesn’t necessarily mean he is bad, and just because Sally does something good doesn’t necessarily mean she is good. Abstract thought leads us into a new world of judgment and emotion. As we try to understand our existence and reality, abstract thought helps us wrap our head around those complicated, even contradictory themes life presents.

My early writing portrayed much of this concrete thought. My protagonists were all good, and my antagonists were all bad, right and wrong, loved and hated. I soon discovered that my stories lacked conflict. Oh, there was plenty of opposition between the good guys and the bad guys, but real life conflict isn’t so easily defined and identified. My writing in black and white created predictable plots, boring dialogue, and failed to solicit an emotional response. In short, my writing was forgettable.

As I struggled to understand why, I thought back to all of the stories (written and film) that I remembered from my youth. Stories like “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs and “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury caused my mind to stretch, mainly because there wasn’t a happy ending, a resolution that I could forget. My mind continued to replay the plots, over and over, thinking of alternative actions, alternative endings in search of resolution.

Movies like “Old Yeller” and “Against a Crooked Sky” provoked me the same way. I found myself days, weeks, even months after watching the films, trying to rewrite the plots for better, happier endings. If only the protagonist could go back in time and do it right, then the ending could be different.

A couple of years ago, I attended a workshop where I read a short story I had written.  I was complimented for my fine piece of horror. Shocked at the assertion, I argued that my story couldn’t possibly be considered part of that genre. The instructor smiled and said, “You are definitely a horror writer.”

I decided to read some horror to prove her wrong, and sure enough, I am a horror writer. I enjoy reading it, and love to create it.

As a horror writer, I take the reader to an uncomfortable place. Instead of forgettable, happy-ever-after-type endings, my writing allows me to dwell in the horrific, the sad, the hard, the pain, and the unthinkable. Through that experience, I invite the reader to return to the story in search of a better resolution.

Character development is a crucial part of unforgettable writing for it is their choices that often create the dire circumstances in which we find ourselves. Nathan Barra wrote something to the effect that a good character is someone that you’d like to sit down and have a drink with but you’d also like to punch in the face. Great characters like Javert and Gollum won’t fit into good and bad molds, they do good things for the wrong reasons, and bad things for righteous reasons, and do terrible things for terrible reasons. To err is human. I love experiencing such characters and their choices as they create worlds of desperation, loneliness, bitterness, and fear allowing me as the reader to feel, empathize, pity, and relate, all along searching for resolution whether it comes or not.

For a story to truly be unforgettable, it needs to be written in color.