One of my resolutions for 2020 was to write a very short story for each day of the year! This, I accomplished with the help of Twitter's writing community, and prompts such as #vss365 and #BraveWrite.
Below is the compilation of my efforts, including the original prompts and hashtags.
By Brooksie C. Fontaine & Sara R. McKearney
Few tropes are as ubiquitous as that of the hero. He takes the form of Superman, ethically and non-lethally thwarting Lex Luthor. Of Luke Skywalker, gazing wistfully at twin suns and waiting for his adventure to begin. In pre-Eastwood era films, a white Stetson made the law-abiding hero easily distinguishable from his black-hatted antagonists. He is Harry Potter, Jon Snow, T’Challa, Simba. He is of many incarnations, he is virtually inescapable, and he serves a necessary function: he reminds us of what we can achieve, and that regardless of circumstance, we can choose to be good. We need our heroes, and always will.
But equally vital to the life-blood of any culture is his more nebulous and difficult to define counterpart: the antihero. Whereas the hero is defined, more or less, by his morality and exceptionalism, the antihero doesn’t cleanly meet these criteria. Where the hero tends to be confident and self-assured, the antihero may have justifiable insecurities. While the hero has faith in the goodness of humanity, the antihero knows from experience how vile humans can be. While the hero typically respects and adheres to authority figures and social norms, the antihero may rail against them for any number of reasons. While the hero always embraces good and rejects evil, the antihero may embrace either. And though the hero might always be buff, physically capable, and mentally astute, the antihero may be average or below. The antihero scoffs at the obligation to be perfect, and our culture's demand for martyrdom. And somehow, he is at least as timeless and enduring as his sparklingly heroic peers.
Which begs the question: where did the antihero come from, and why do we need him?
The Birth of the Antihero:
It is worth noting that many of the oldest and most enduring heroes would now be considered antiheroes. The Greek Heracles was driven to madness, murdered his family, and upon recovering had to complete a series of tasks to atone for his actions. Theseus, son of Poseidon and slayer of the Minotaur, straight-up abandoned the woman who helped him do it. And we all know what happened to Oedipus, whose life was so messed up he got a complex named after him.
And this isn’t just limited to Ancient Greece: before he became a god, the Mesoamerican Quetzalcoatl committed suicide after drunkenly sleeping with his sister. The Mesopotamian Gilgamesh – arguably the first hero in literature – began his journey as a slovenly, hedonistic tyrant. Shakespearian heroes were denoted with an equal number of gifts and flaws – the cunning but paranoid Hamlet, the honorable but gullible Othello, the humble but power-hungry MacBeth – which were just as likely to lead to their downfall as to their apotheosis.
There’s probably a definitive cause for our current definition of hero as someone who’s squeaky clean: censorship. With the birth of television and film as we know it, it was, for a time, illegal to depict criminals as protagonists, and law enforcement as antagonists. The perceived morality of mainstream cinema was also strictly monitored, limiting what could be portrayed. Bonnie and Clyde, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Scarface, The Godfather, Goodfellas, and countless other cinematic staples prove that such policies did not endure, but these censorship laws divorced us, culturally, from the moral complexity of our most resonant heroes.
Perhaps because of the nature of the medium, literature arguably has never been as infatuated with moral purity as its early cinematic and T.V. counterparts. From the Byronic male love interests of the Bronte sisters, to “Doctor” Frankenstein (that little college dropout never got a PhD), to Dorian Grey, to Anna Karenina, to Scarlett O’Hara, to Holden Caulfield, literature seems to thrive on morally and emotionally complex individuals and situations. Superman punching a villain and saving Lois Lane is compelling television, but doesn’t make for a particularly thought-provoking read.
It is also worth noting, however, that what we now consider to be universal moral standards were once met with controversy: Superman’s story and real name – Kal El – are distinctly Jewish, in which his doomed parents were forced to send him to an uncertain future in a foreign culture. Captain America punching Nazis now seems like a no-brainer, but at the time it was not a popular opinion, and earned his Jewish creators a great deal of controversy. So in a manner of speaking, some of the most morally upstanding heroes are also antiheroes, in that they defied society’s rules.
This brings us to our concluding point: that anti-heroes can be morally good. The complex and sometimes tragic heroes of old, and today’s antiheroes, are not necessarily immoral, but must often make difficult choices, compromises, and sacrifices. They are flawed, fallible, and can sometimes lead to their own downfall. But sometimes, they triumph, and we can cheer them for it. This is what makes their stories so powerful, so relatable, and so necessary to the fabric of our culture. So without further ado, let’s have a look at some of pop-culture’s most interesting antiheroes, and what makes them so damn compelling.
Note: For the purposes of this essay, we will only be looking at male antiheroes. Because the hero’s journey is traditionally so male-oriented, different standards of subversiveness, morality, and heroism apply to female protagonists, and the antiheroine deserves an article all her own.
Antiheroes show the effects of systematic inequalities.
As demonstrated by: Tommy Shelby from Peaky Blinders.
Why he could be a hero: He’s incredibly charismatic, intelligent, and courageous. He deeply cares for his loved ones, has a strict code of honor, reacts violently to the mistreatment of innocents, and demonstrates surprisingly high levels of empathy.
Why he’s an antihero: He also happens to be a ruthless, incredibly violent crime lord who regularly slashes out his enemies’ eyes.
What he can teach us: From the moment Tommy Shelby makes his entrance, it becomes apparent that Peaky Blinders will not unfold like the archetypical crime drama. Evocative of the outlaw mythos of the Old West, Tommy rides across a smoky, industrialized landscape on the back of a black horse. A rogue element, his presence carries immediate power, causing pedestrians to hurriedly clear a path. You get the sense that he does not conform to this time or era, nor does he abide by the rules of society.
Set in the decades between World War I and II, Peaky Blinders differentiates itself from its peers, not just because of its distinctive, almost Shakespearian style of storytelling, powerful visual style, and use of contemporary music, but also in the manner in which it shows that society provokes the very criminality it attempts to vanquish. Moreover, it dedicates time to demonstrating why this form of criminality is sometimes the only option for success in an unfair system. When the law wants to keep you relegated to the station in which you were born, success almost inevitably means breaking the rules. Tommy is considered one of the most influential characters of the decade because of the manner in which he embodies this phenomenon, and the reason why antiheroes pervade folklore across the decades.
Peaky Blinders engenders a unique level of empathy within its first episodes, in which we are not just immersed in the glamour of the gangster lifestyle, but we are compelled to understand the background that provoked it. Tommy, who grew up impoverished and discriminated against due to his “didicoy” Romany background, volunteered to fight for his country, and went to war as a highly intelligent, empathetic young man. He returned with the knowledge that the country he had served had essentially used him and others like him as canon fodder, with no regard for their lives, well-being, or future. Such veterans were often looked down upon or disregarded by a society eager to forget the war. Having served as a tunneler – regarded to be the worst possible position in a war already beset by unprecedented brutality – Tommy’s constant proximity to death not only destroyed his faith in authority, but also his fear of mortality. This absence of fear and deference, coupled with his incredible intelligence, ambition, ruthlessness, and strategic abilities, makes him a dangerous weapon, now pointed at the very society that constructed him to begin with.
It is also difficult to critique Tommy’s criminality, when we take into account that society would have completely stifled him if he had abided by its rules. As someone of Romany heritage, he was raised in abject poverty, and never would have been admitted into situations of higher social class. Even at his most powerful, we see the disdain some of his political colleagues have at being obligated to treat someone of his background as an equal. In one particularly powerful scene, he begins shoveling horse manure, explaining that, “I’m reminding myself of what I’d be if I wasn’t who I am.” If he hadn’t left behind society’s rules, his brilliant mind would be occupied only with cleaning stables.
However, the necessity of criminality isn’t depicted as positive: it is one of the greatest tragedies of the narrative that society does not naturally reward the most intelligent or gifted, but instead rewards those born into positions of unjust privilege, and those who are willing to break the rules with intelligence and ruthlessness. Each year, the trauma of killing, nearly being killed, and losing loved ones makes Tommy’s PTSD increasingly worse, to the point at which he regularly contemplates suicide. Cillian Murphy has remarked that Tommy gets little enjoyment out of his wealth and power, doing what he does only for his family and “because he can.” Steven Knight cites the philosophy of Francis Bacon as a driving force behind Tommy’s psychology: “Since it’s all so meaningless, we might as well be extraordinary.”
This is further complicated when it becomes apparent that the upper class he’s worked so arduously to join is not only ruthlessly exclusionary, but also more corrupt than he’s ever been. There are no easy answers, no easy to pinpoint sources of societal or personal issues, no easy divisibility of positive and negative. This duality is something embraced by the narrative, and embodied by its protagonist. An intriguingly androgynous figure, Tommy emulated the strength and tenacity of the women in his life, particularly his mother; however, he also internalized her application of violence, even laughing about how she used to beat him with a frying pan. His family is his greatest source of strength and his greatest weakness, often exploited by his enemies who realize they cannot fall back on his fear of mortality. He feels emotions more strongly than the other characters, and ironically must numb himself to the world around him in order to cope with it.
Tommy is not a traditional hero, but the tragedy of Peaky Blinders is that he used to be, as a young man before and during the war, before realizing that all traditional heroism would have gained him and his family would be a life of drudgery and servitude at the heel of the power-bloated ruling class. Criminality is not a self-sustaining lifestyle, but in a world in which the only alternatives seem to be subjugation and corrupt authority, what other options are there?
However, all hope is not lost. Creator Steven Knight has stated that his hope is ultimately to redeem Tommy, so by the show’s end he is “a good man doing good things.” There are already whispers of what this may look like: as an MP, Tommy cares for Birmingham and its citizens far more than any “legitimate” politicians, meeting with them personally to ensure their needs are met; as of last season, he attempted a Sinatra-style assassination of a rising fascist simply because it was the right thing to do. “Goodness” is an option in the world of Peaky Blinders; the only question is what form it will take on a landscape plagued by corruption at every turn.
Regardless of what form his “redemption” might take, it’s negligible that Tommy will ever meet all the criteria of an archetypal hero as we understand it today. He is far more evocative of the heroes of Ancient Greece, of the Old West, of the Golden Age of Piracy, of Feudal Japan – ferocious, magnitudinous figures who move and make the earth turn with them, who navigate the ever-changing landscapes of society and refuse to abide by its rules, simultaneously destructive and life-affirming. And that’s what makes him so damn compelling.
Antiheroes show us we can be the villains.
As demonstrated by: Walter White from Breaking Bad.
Why he could be a hero: He’s a brilliant, underappreciated chemist whose work contributed to the winning of a Nobel Prize. He’s also forging his own path in the face of incredible adversity, and attempting to provide for his family in the event of his death.
Why he’s an antihero: In his pre-meth days, Walt failed to meet the exceptionalism associated with heroes, as a moral but socially passive underachiever living an unremarkable life. At the end of his transformation, he is exceptional at what he does, but has completely lost his moral standards.
What he can teach us: G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Fairy tales do not tell children that the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” Following this analogy, it is equally important that our stories show us we, ourselves, can be the dragon. Or the villain, to be more specific, because being a dragon sounds strangely awesome.
Walter White of Breaking Bad is a paragon of antiheroism for a reason: he subverts almost every traditional aspect of heroism. From the opening shots of Walt careening along in an RV, clad in tighty whities and a gas mask, we recognize that he is neither physically capable, nor competent in the manner we’ve come to expect from our heroes. He is not especially conventionally attractive, nor are women particularly drawn to him. He does not excel at his career or garner respect. As the series progresses, Walt does develop the competence, confidence, courage, and resilience we expect of heroes, but he is no longer the moral protagonist: he is self-motivated, vindictive, and callous. And somehow, he still remains identifiable, which is integral to his efficacy.
But let us return to the beginning of the series, and talk about how, exactly, Walt subverts our expectations from the get-go. Walt is the epitome of an everyman: he’s fifty years old, middle class, passive, and worried about identifiable problems – his health, his bills, his physically disabled son, and his unborn baby. Whereas Tommy Shelby’s angelic looks, courage, and intellect subvert our preconceptions about what a criminal can be, Walt’s initial unremarkability subverts our preconceptions about who can be a criminal. The hook of the series is the idea that a man so chronically average could make and distribute meth.
Just because an audience is hooked by a concept, however, does not mean that they’ll necessarily continue watching. Breaking Bad could have easily veered into ludicrosity, if it weren’t for another important factor: character. Walt is immediately and intensely relatable, and he somehow retains our empathy for the entirety of the series, even at his least forgivable.
When we first meet Walt, his talents are underappreciated, he’s overqualified for his menial jobs, chronically disrespected by everyone around him, underpaid, and trapped in a joyless, passionless life in which the highlight of his day is a halfhearted handjob from his distracted wife. And to top it all off? He has terminal lung cancer. Happy birthday, Walt.
We root for him for the same reason we root for Dumbo, Rudolph, Harry Potter: he’s an underdog. The odds are stacked against him, and we want to see him triumph. Which is why it’s cathartic, for us and for Walt, when he finally finds a profession in which he can excel – even if that profession is the ability to manufacture incredibly high-quality meth. His former student Jesse Pinkman – a character so interesting that there’s a genuine risk he’ll hijack this essay – appreciates his skill, and this early appreciation is what makes his relationship with Jesse feel so much more genuine than Walt’s relationship with his family, even as their dynamic becomes increasingly unhealthy and Walt uses Jesse to bolster his meth business and his ego. This deeply dysfunctional but heartfelt father-son connection is Walt’s tether to humanity as he becomes increasingly inhumane, while also demonstrating his descent from morality. It has been pointed out that one can gauge how far-gone Walt is from his moral ideals by how much Jesse is suffering.
But to return to the initial point, it is imperative that we first empathize with Walt in order to adequately understand his descent. Aside from the fact that almost all characters are more interesting if the audience can or wants to empathize with them, Walt’s relatability makes it easy to understand our own potential for toxic and destructive behaviors. We are the protagonist of our own story, but we aren’t necessarily its hero.
Similarly, we understand how easily we can justify destructive actions, and how quickly reasonable feelings of anger and injustice swerve into self-indulgent vindication and entitlement. Walt claims to be cooking meth to provide for his family, and this may be partially true; but he also denies financial help from his rich friends out of spite, and admits later to his wife Skylar that he primarily did it for himself because he was good at it and “it made (him) feel alive.”
This also forces us to examine our preconceptions, and essentially do Walt’s introspections for him: whereas Peaky Blinders emphasizes the fact that Tommy and his family would never have been able to achieve prosperity by obeying society’s laws, Walt feels jilted out of success he was promised by a meritocratic system that doesn’t currently exist. He has essentially achieved our current understanding of the American dream – a house with a pool, a beautiful wife and family, an honest job – but it left him unable to provide for his wife and children or even pay for his cancer treatment. He’s also unhappy and alienated from his passions and fellow human beings. With this in mind, it’s understandable – if absurd – that the only way he can attain genuine happiness and excel is through becoming a meth cook. In this way, Breaking Bad is both a scathing critique of our current society, and a haunting reminder that there’s not as much standing between ourselves and villainy as we might like to believe.
So are we all slaves to this system of entitlement and resentment, of shattered and unfulfilling dreams? No, because Breaking Bad provides us with an intriguing and vital counterpoint: Jesse Pinkman. Whereas Walt was bolstered with promises that he was gifted and had a bright future ahead of him, Jesse was assured by every authority figure in his life that he would never amount to anything. However, Jesse proves himself skilled at what he’s passionate about: art, carpentry, and of course, cooking meth. Whereas Walt perpetually rationalizes and shirks responsibility, Jesse compulsively takes responsibility, even for things that weren’t his fault. Whereas Walt found it increasingly acceptable to endanger or harm bystanders, Jesse continuously worked to protect innocents – especially children – from getting hurt. Though Jesse suffered immensely throughout the course of the show – and the subsequent movie, El Camino – the creators say that he successfully made it to Alaska and started a carpentry business. Some theorists have supposed that Jesse might be a Jesus allegory – a carpenter who suffers for the sins of others. Regardless of whether this is true, it is interesting, and amusing to imagine Jesus using the word “bitch” so often. Though he didn’t get the instant gratification of immediate success that Walt got, he was able to carve (no pun intended – carpentry, you know) a place for himself in the world.
Jesse isn’t a perfect person, but he reminds us that improving ourselves and creating a better life is an option, even if Walt’s rise to power was more initially thrilling. So take heart: there’s a bit of Heisenberg in all of us, but there’s also a bit of Jesse Pinkman.
Antiheroes emphasize the absurdity of contemporary culture.
As demonstrated by: Marty Byrde from Ozark.
Why he could be a hero: He’s a loving father who ultimately just wants to provide for and ensure the safety of his family. He’s also fiercely intelligent, with excellent negotiative, interpersonal, and strategic skills that allows him to talk his way out of almost any situation without the use of violence.
Why he’s an antihero: He launders money for a ruthless drug cartel, and has no issue dipping his toes into various illegal activities.
Why he’s compelling: Marty is an antihero of the modern era. He has an uncanny ability to talk his way into or out of any situation, and he's a master of using a pre-constructed system of rules and privileges to his benefit.
In the very first episode, he goes from literally selling the American Dream, to avoiding murder at the hands of a ruthless drug cartel by promising to launder money for them in the titular Ozarks. Despite his long history of dabbling in illegality, Marty has no firearms – a questionable choice for someone on the run from violent drug kingpins, but a testament to his ability to rely on his oratory skills and nothing else. He doesn’t hesitate to engage an apparently violent group of rural thieves to request the return of his stolen cash, because he knows he can talk them into giving it back to him. The only time he engages other characters in physical violence, he immediately gets pummeled, because physical altercation has never been his form of currency. Not that he’s subjected to physical violence particularly often, either: Marty is a master of the corporate landscape, which makes him a master of the criminal landscape. He is brilliant at avoiding the consequences of his actions.
It’s easy to like and admire Marty for his cleverness, for being able to escape from apparently impermeable situations with words as his only weapon. He’s got a reassuring, dad-ly sort of charisma that immediately endears the viewer, and offers respite from the seemingly endless threats coming from every direction. He unquestionably loves his family, including his adulterous wife. As such, it’s easy to forget that Marty is being exploited by the same system that exploits all of us: crony capitalism. The polar opposite of meritocratic capitalism – in which success is based on hard work, ingenuity, and, hence the name, merit – crony capitalism benefits only the conglomerates that plague the global landscape like cancerous warts, siphoning money off of workers and natural capital, keeping them indentured with basic necessities and the idle promise of success.
Marty isn’t benefiting from his hard work in the Ozarks. Everything he makes goes right back to the drug cartel who continuously threatens the life of him and his family. He is rewarded for his efforts with a picturesque house, a boat, and the appearance of success, but he is not allowed to keep the fruits of his labor. Marty may be an expert at navigating the corporate and criminal landscape, but it still exploits him. In this manner, Marty embodies both the American business, the American worker, and a sort of inversion of the American dream.
In this same manner, Marty, the other characters, and even the Ozarks themselves embody the modern dissonance between appearance and reality. Marty’s family looks like something you’d respect to see on a Christmas card from your DILF-y, successful coworker, but it’s bubbling with dysfunctionality. His wife is cheating on him with a much-older man, and instead of confronting her about it, he first hired a private investigator and then spent weeks rewatching the footage, paralyzed with options and debating what to do. The problem somewhat solves itself when his wife’s lover is unceremoniously murdered by the cartel, and Wendy and Marty are driven into a sort of matrimonial business partnership motivated by the shared interest of protecting their children, but this also further demonstrates how corporate even their family dealings have become. His children, though precocious, are forced to contend with age-inappropriate levels of responsibility and the trauma of sudden relocation, juxtaposed with a childhood of complete privilege up until this point.
Conversely, the shadow of the Byrde family is arguably the Langmores. Precocious teenagers Ruth and Wyatt can initially be shrugged off as local hillbillies and budding con-artists, but much like the Shelby family of the Peaky Blinders, they prove to be extremely intelligent individuals suffering beneath a society that doesn’t care about their stifled potential. Systemic poverty is a bushfire that spreads from one generation to the next, stoked by the prejudices of authority figures and abusive parental figures who refuse to embrace change out of a misguided sense of class-loyalty.
Almost every other character we meet eventually inverts our expectations of them: from the folksy, salt-of-the-earth farmers who grow poppies for opium and murder more remorselessly than the cartel itself, to the cookie-cutter FBI agent whose behavior becomes increasingly volatile and chaotic, to the heroin-filled Bibles handed out by an unknowing preacher, to the secrets hidden by the lake itself, every detail conveys corruption hidden behind a postcard-pretty picture of tranquility and success.
Marty’s awareness of this illusion, and what lurks behind it, is perhaps the greatest subversion of all. Marty knows that the world of appearance and the world of reality coexist, and he was blessed with a natural talent for navigating within the two. Like Walter White, Marty makes us question our assumptions about who a criminal can be – despite the fact that many successful, attractive, middle-aged family men launder money and juggle criminal activities, it’s still jarring to witness, which tells us something about how image informs our understanding of reality. Socially privileged, white-collar criminals simply have more control over how they’re portrayed than an inner-city gang, or impoverished teenagers. However, unlike Walt, Marty’s criminal activities are not any kind of middle-aged catharsis: they’re a way of life, firmly ingrained in the corporate landscape. They were present long before he arrived on the scene, and he knows it. He just has to navigate them.
Just like our shining, messianic heroes can teach us about truth, justice, and the American way, so too does each antihero have something to teach us: they teach us that society doesn’t reward those who follow its instructions, nor does it often provide an avenue of morality. Even if you live a life devoid of apparent sin, every privilege is paid for by someone else’s sacrifice. But the best antiheroes are not beacons of nihilism – they show us the beauty that can emerge from even the ugliest of situations. Peaky Blinders is, at its core, a love story between Tommy Shelby and the family he crawled out of his grave for, just as Breaking Bad is ultimately a deeply dysfunctional tale of a father figure and son. Ozark, like its predecessors, is about family – the only authenticity in a society that operates on deception, illusion, and corruption. They teach us that even in the worst times and situations, love can compel us, redeem us, bind us closer together. Only then can we face the dragons of life, and feel just a bit more heroic.
I’ve been getting a lot of asks about writing horror lately, and I’d like to take the time to answer all of them! But for now, I wanted to share my top tip for evoking fear in the reader.
Keep in mind, I am not a horror writer by trade, but I utilize it a lot in my stories – particularly those of the magical realism variety – and I am a huge fan of the horror genre. This is what I’ve learned:
Your most important tool is the reader’s imagination.
How many times have you been absorbed in a horror movie, adrenaline pumping and watching, enraptured, through your fingers, only to be smacked back to reality by a goofy monster design or ludicrous backstory?
Some of the best, and most memorable horror fiction and media, on the other hand, understand the power of what they don’t show you.
I’m not the biggest fan of Blair Witch Project – or how it treated its cast – but it earned back over 248 million dollars within its eight days against a $60,000 budget and remains solidified in the minds of countless viewers. It is, undeniably, an effective and memorable piece of media, largely thanks to what they do and don’t show us.
What they show us: local lore, the character’s reactions and escalating fear, an admittedly haunting and ambiguous ending, a shitload of trees.
What they don’t show us: the monster.
Not only do we not see the monster, but we don’t see its motivations, its backstory. We don’t know what it is. We don’t know what it wants. And that’s terrifying, for us and for the characters.
Now, let’s look at a personal favorite of mine: Coraline, both the book and the amazing movie. “But Caff,” you say, “Coraline isn’t a horror movie! It’s a fantasy, adapted from a children’s book!” To which I say, you are wrong. Coraline is the scariest shit I have ever seen in my life. Everyone who wants to write horror should read and watch it.
What makes the Other Mother such a viscerally horrifying threat? Is it the fact that she preys on vulnerable children, and has been doing so for over 150 years? Okay, probably. But: just as important is the fact that that’s the only thing we know about her.
We don’t know where she came from, how she came to be. She’s never weighed down or humanized by a backstory. We only know her threat to Coraline, her power, and what she’s done to children in the past. And that’s scary as fuck.
This is also the reason why masks are such an effective tool in horror. For one thing, it literally puts you in the shoes of the character, who is as blind to the antagonist’s true nature and intentions as you are.
And, just as importantly, it invokes the imagination of the reader. Because what we can imagine – or try to imagine – is almost always scarier than the fact, in fiction or otherwise.
I hope this helps, and happy writing! <3
Learning of the objective correlative is like learning a new word. Once you know what it means, you start to see it everywhere.
I learned of this literary gem during my last grad school residency. As defined by Merriam-Webster, an objective correlative is, “something (such as a situation or chain of events) that symbolizes or objectifies a particular emotion and that may be used in creative writing to evoke a desired emotional response in the reader.”
Most of my writer peeps have probably, unknowingly, used objective correlatives in their own work. I know I have. And if you’ve picked up a book within the past decade, than you’re at least familiar with one or two.
Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples of famous objective correlatives.
"The Raven," by Edgar Allan Poe
Here’s an easy one. The objective correlative, in this case, is Poe’s titular corvid, who represents grief, loss, and hopelessness.
The bird visits the nameless protagonist “once upon a midnight dreary” while he ponders the death of his beloved, “the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.” When his asks his winged visitor if he will see Lenore in the afterlife, the bird merely replies, “Nevermore.” It embodies his sorrow, loss of faith, and fear that they will never be reunited.
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
Can you guess? In this case, the objective correlative is our boy Richard Parker, the oddly named tiger who accompanies Pi on his lone voyage. Richard represents Pi himself, while their journey alone in a lifeboat represents Pi’s spiritual journey.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith
First off, I highly recommend everyone read this book – especially everyone who thinks The Classics™ are reserved to the angsty male protagonists who were shoved in your face during high school. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn does not fuck around: it deals with poverty, classicism, drug addiction, female sexuality and sexual autonomy, and an assload of complex, flawed, strong-as-hell female characters. And it was written in 1943. Do yourself a huge-ass favor, and read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Anyhoodle. The tree in question is the Tree of Heaven, growing outside of Francie Nolan’s window. Though the tree is considered a nuisance, and was chopped down several of times, it continues to grow. The tree represents Francie’s determination to survive, grow, and better herself, in spite of the destitution in which she grew up.
The Great Gastby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Speaking of angsty male protagonists, let’s have a look at one of the angstiest of them all. This is a pretty famous example, so see if you can figure it out.
Give up? It’s the green light. The green light represents Gatsby’s longing for Daisy.
Where'd You go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple
Let’s conclude by moving away from objective correlatives which are, you know, objects. In this case, Bernadette has literally disappeared into her role as a wife and a mother. She has completely lost her sense of identity, which is represented by her physical disappearance.
So, why should you care?
Simple! The objective correlative is a great tool. It conveys emotions in a far more organic and powerful way than simply hitting the reader over the head with them.
Imagine if “The Raven” was just a poem about some dude feeling sad and grieving his dead girlfriend. No ravens to be seen. That would be a total bummer, it would immediately make the title grievously misleading, and no one would probably remember it.
Or if Life of Pi was just a story of a kid trying to survive in a lifeboat, alone, for over 150 pages. That would be just plain bleak, and a lot less exciting, interesting, or memorable.
The tree in Tree Grows in Brooklyn emphasizes Francie’s struggle, and enhances the emotional poignancy of the narrative. The moment when it occurs to us that Francie is the tree, growing upwards in the face of adversity, is far more powerful than having it simply spelled out to us.
In many cases, the objective correlative is the physical conflict that represents the emotional conflict, as in the case of Where’d You Go, Bernadette – without it, there would simply be no book.
So next time you read a book, make sure you have a pen in your hand – I always do – and see if you can spot the objective correlative. As with any literary tool, the more you read about them, the more they can work for you!
I hope this helps, and happy writing!
I’m immortal, and I don’t think about it that much. Not because it isn’t worrisome. Being immortal is inherently worrisome, just like the alternative is worrisome. Existence in general is worrisome.
But I try not to worry about being immortal, because worrying about it is futile. Trying to comprehend the eternity that stretches before me is as unavailing as trying to comprehend what comes after death. After a while, pondering existential questions with no attainable answers stops feeling philosophical and becomes tedious, self-fellating bullshit. You just have to live what’s in front of you.
If it sounds like I’m just figuring that out, it’s because I sort of am. By immortal standards, I’m an infant. Disappointing, I know. I think I’d look fabulous in a toga.
When it started, it was the February fourteenth of 1945. An American plane was hit in the engine by Japanese fire, fell from the slate gray sky like a shooting star. Its blazing red reflection ignited the swell of colorless water. And then it was gone, taking with it all the color in the world.
In that plane was my fellow air force pilot. The love of my life.
I know what you’re thinking: you weren’t alive in ‘45, and you weren’t a man. Well, I’m gonna tell you you’re wrong on both counts. You’ve been a man before. You’ll be one again. It doesn’t matter to me, so long as it’s you.
And let me tell you, sweetheart, you don’t know what love is, ‘till you fall in love in the World War II air force. Every passing touch is cherished, every moment together, a fleeting eternity. It was all very Spartan.
I reminded myself every minute of every day that I could lose you, tried to operate under the assumption that I would. I thought that might lessen the pain of it.
Which, I can cheerfully report, it didn’t. At all.
After you died, the world stayed as cold and colorless as the ocean that swallowed you. The war ended, and I couldn’t bring myself to care. I came home to parades and streamers and cheering crowds, and all I could think was, He’s dead. He’s dead, and I’m alive. How horribly wrong is that?
So I decided to fix it.
I got myself up on a good, tall chair, I put a noose around my neck, and I jumped.
Dangled there for a good, long while, looking around my shitty little hotel room and saying goodbye to my life.
To my father, probably still drinking himself to death and kicking his dog back in Illinois.
To my mother, wherever she was. Hopefully happy, and with a fellow who treated her right. Even though she left me with him.
To the apology note taped to my pillow, addressed to whatever poor maid would find me. The fifty cent tip for her troubles.
To the radio I forgot to turn off, to the Singing Weather Girl giving me a badly rhyming, probably inaccurate forecast for snow.
To the dust in the air, ignited by sunlight. Was that all any of us were?
My list of goodbyes got impressively long before I realized something hinky was going on. Namely, I wasn’t dying.
In a more mentally sound state, I might have wondered how I could still be alive after about twenty minutes without any oxygen. At the time, I was mostly upset. For a suicidal person, not dying is very upsetting.
After I figured out how to get myself down – which was no picnic, I’ll tell you – I got my sidearm, and I ate a bullet. That seemed to do the trick.
Then I woke up the next morning in a pool of my own dried blood, with the hole in the back of my head already scabbed over. You’ve gotta wonder, what did the other hotel guests think about the gunshot? Was that, like, a regular occurance in those parts?
But anyway, that’s how I figured I couldn’t die. I don’t think I’d aged for a while, either. Dug up a picture from about six years back of when I was nineteen, and I looked pretty much the same.
Which reminds me, I brought a little something. You see this fellow? Handsome guy, right? It’s sort of a bad picture, but yeah, that’s me. Back in ‘39. I still dress the same way, too. You always made fun of me for that, didn’t you? Said I should’ve been a 1940s television announcer. You weren’t too far off.
Anyway, without the option of dying, I had no choice but to live. Well. Survive, more like.
I got a job as a paper pusher, which I hated more than life itself. I got an apartment. A house. Houses were easier to get back then. Tried not to get attached to anyone, so I wouldn’t have to watch them get old and die.
I know everyone wants to feel safe. But none of them realize that there is no greater loneliness than being safe from death.
The days went slowly. They’re always the slowest without you. To pass the time, I did a lot of real deep thinking about what it meant to be immortal. Like, could my brain comprehend eternity? Would I go insane? If the universe came to an end, would I live on? What if the earth got hit by a meteor? What if I flew into the sun? Thinking about it let me pretend I had some sort of control over it.
The days went slowly, but the years went fast, and suddenly I woke up and it was 1960. Around that time, I realized I should probably do something with my never-ending life.
There were a couple reasons for that. For one thing, I’d been a working the same job and living in the same house for fifteen years, and I realized someone would probably figure out I wasn’t aging. Report me to the government or something.
Next, people were talking about the Vietnam War, and I got this irrational fear I might be drafted. Even though I was, on record, forty-five, and too old to register for draft. But I didn’t want to take any chances. I can’t think of anything worse than watching countless good men die, equipped with the knowledge that I will survive, and coming home without a scratch on me. I still have nightmares from the first time around.
So, I moved across the country, and I enrolled in college for pre-med. I always wanted to be a doctor, anyway, before – well, everything. It was hard work, especially considering I had a sixth grade education. But I wanted to do it right this time. If I had to exist, I wanted my existence to mean something. Because, really, how many people died while I lived? How many people are dying now? An unwanted gift is still a gift, and it felt wrong to just sit on it with my thumbs up my ass.
Late that May, I walked out of a final exam. The first really warm day of the year. Everywhere I looked there were colors, daffodils and tulips and hyacinths, exploding out of the ground like fireworks. Bees humming like little helicopters. Something was different that day. The world was alive again.
That’s when I saw you. You were this tiny little thing, in a little pink dress, one of those warm weather honeys. Fat little blond curls. You looked like Shirley Temple’s big sister.
You couldn’t have been more different from the big, angry man I fell in love with, but – it was you. I can’t explain it. My soul could see something that my eyes couldn’t, and it recognized you.
You noticed me staring, and you looked at me like I was an old friend. Like you’d seen me before, but couldn’t work figure when or where. Then you rounded the corner of the cafeteria, out of sight.
The wind was knocked out of my lungs by the time I chased you down, even though you weren’t five yards away. My heart was a jackhammer. I could barely manage a hello by the time I caught you.
You tilted your head to the side and your eyebrows scrunched together and you said, Do I know you? It was all so you, I wanted to cry. Your words in a different voice. Your soul behind different eyes. I wanted to hug you, to fall to my knees holding you, to sob and blubber about how much I missed you. You, the only person who had ever truly loved me. You, the love of my life. You. You. You.
Instead, I pulled myself together and said, I’m sorry, I saw you walking and I just had to talk to you. Which wasn’t a lie. And then I asked if you’d like to get coffee some afternoon. And you said, How about this afternoon? And so we did.
That was your second life. Your reincarnation. How do I know? Well, I later found out you’d been born nine months after your plane went down. And you had that little birthmark. Yeah, you know the one. You always have that little birthmark. It’s always in the same place, God bless.
But more than anything, like I said, I just recognized you. It’s as simple as that, and as complicated as that.
You brought me to life again. I’d wake up in the morning grateful to be alive, even with the knowledge that I would be alive a little longer than I found optimal. We moved in together my sophomore year, and you filled my house and my heart with warmth and the smell of roses.
You were, obviously, a woman, which took some getting used to. But it had its benefits. I could pick you up, carry you more easily than before. You were a lot more vocal about your feelings, and you laughed a lot, as girls are generally encouraged to do. It was nice to see that. You never laughed enough before.
And I could hold you, hold your hand, kiss you, anywhere. Take you dancing. No one even spared us a glance, except to smile at us. I could never get over that.
The day of our graduation, we got engaged. We took a few photos of that day. Here, I, uh – yeah. Yeah, that’s you, with the little bow in your hair. My beautiful girl. June of ‘64. Look how happy we were.
I said to you that night, as I kissed my way down your chest, I don’t know if there’s a Heaven, but this must be what it’s like.
Not two weeks later, you died again.
Not falling from the sky in a blaze of glory, but hit by a drunk driver leaving the grocery store.
I don’t even know how I processed that. My mind was a screaming wall of static, incapable of thought. I couldn’t reconcile that this could happen. You were supposed to be safe. This was supposed to be your good life, your long life, your happy life, to make up for the short, shitty, painful life you had before. And here I was, alive, while you were dead. Again.
I got this idea that I might sit in the ocean for a hundred years. That seemed reasonable at the time. I only lasted about a week, ‘cause I kept thinking about eels.
It gave me a bit of time to think, though, and I realized something that should have been sort of obvious: I might find you again. Or rather, you might find me. So I should probably be there waiting for you.
And I did. For another two decades, I waited.
That makes me sound sort of useless, so I’ll clarify that I went to medical school.
Around that point, I started to realize that pain is a non-negotiable part of life, and that trying to avoid it was never the point of living. So I really didn’t have any excuse to avoid making friends.
And anyway, it’s a shitty excuse, not forming connections with people because they’re going to die. That’s like never reading any books because you know they’re going to end.
Even though you weren’t there at the time, I think I owed that to you. Those four years we spent together showed me the joy of finitude. They taught me to stop fearing being happy, just because someday I might not be.
Which brings me to your third life. Can’t really tell you about that one. You see, that time, I found you in the AIDS ward. You’d had a tough life. Tougher even than when you were in the air force, which is really saying something. You were in the final stages, right before the virus took you. I won’t go into the details. I promised you I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t want to.
That was the hardest, seeing you like that. It was hard for me, but, I had to keep reminding myself, it was harder for you. What I was going through was nothing compared to your pain.
I took care of you, and I visited you every day. You were skeptical, not used to people being nice to you just for the hell of it, but some part of you recognized me. Just the way you did before.
It was still you in there. Undeniably you. I could never decide if that relieved the pain or made it worse.
Eventually, a few weeks before the end, I told you. For the first time, I told you. About what I am. About our lives together. I didn’t want you to be afraid to let go.
You didn’t believe me, which was to be expected. Thought I was crazy or making fun of you. So the next day I came back and fired a nail gun into my head. Then you believed me.
The next thing you said to me was, When we find each other again, you can’t tell me I was ever like this. And I tried to argue, but you insisted you wanted to forget. And then you said you wanted me to forget, too.
So I won’t. I won’t tell you about that life. Just know, I loved you then, every bit as much as I love you now. Every bit as much as I’ll always love you. I realize now how ashamed you were, and I wish I’d had the sense to tell you you didn’t have to be. No amount of suffering could ever make you less beautiful to me.
You died, and I got through it because – well, I got through it, because I really didn’t have much choice except to get through it. And I just kept clinging to the belief that I’d find you again, that we’d find each other again. That your next life would be better.
I was getting better at the whole grief thing. The first time I lost you, I plunged into suicidal depression for fifteen years. And that grief was still there. It still is. But though the grief lives in me, I no longer live in grief.
And I knew I’d find you again.
Now, the nineties. The nineties were interesting. For one thing, I got recruited by the I.S.I., or International Society of Immortals. Yes, that’s a thing. Everyone babies me a little, because I’m the only immortal in the I.S.I. who’s younger than three hundred. It’s really sort of patronizing.
But there are some big names: Keanu Reeves, a.k.a. Paul Mounet, a.k.a. Charlemagne. Tommy Wiseau. Weird Al. Lucy Liu. Oscar Isaac. Cher. A whole bunch of others who I’m probably forgetting. Immortality isn’t too rare an affliction.
Some of them went the Twilight Zone route, with a Faustian Bargain or a genie. Some of them are vampires or witches. Others, like me, were just born this way. Either way, it’s nice to know I’m not alone in eternity.
I learned some good tips on faking your death and changing your identity, which I decided it was probably time to do. I mean, I’d been working at the same hospital for about twenty years, with no signs of aging except some fake reading glasses and a touch of gray hair coloring around the temples.
So, I did the reasonable thing: I fell out a tenth story window. It’s weirdly cathartic, falling out a window. I highly recommend it.
The I.S.I. supplied the fake body for my funeral. Got me a fake birth certificate, fake bachelor’s degree, fake social security number. Even some fake family photos. Everything I’d need for my new, fake identity.
I relocated here with that fake new identity to start a real, new life. Started a real Ph.D. in psychology. Found you. The real you.
I don’t know if everyone gets reincarnated, but I believe everyone has a soul. I believe our souls are drawn together, like the ocean towards a full moon. And I believe we’ll always find each other, as surely as the tides.
It’s not an accident that I took you travelling so much, that I bought you so many gifts. Experience has taught me how short life can feel, and how fragile it can be. I wanted to make it great for you. Did I do a good job? I hope I did.
At the very least, you always seemed happy. I know I was happy. This has been the best one yet, and the longest. Ten years together ain’t bad, all things considered. And cancer, believe or not, isn’t the worst way I’ve seen you go.
Is that callous? Yeah, that’s probably callous. I’m sorry. Immortality can make people a bit insensitive, even if we’re really not trying to be. But hopefully you’ll forgive me by the time you’re born again.
Anyway, it’s worth waiting for, even if it never lasts long. You always seem to die so young. But what in life is meant to last long? We’re all dust, set ablaze by the sun. A life of any duration is a miraculous event.
I’m telling you this, my heart, my darling, because I don’t want you to be afraid. I want you to understand that it’s okay to let go.
Go to sleep, my darling. My ocean. I’ll find you when you wake up.
1. Ask yourself these basic questions:
Brainstorm random questions about your characters, their likes, dislikes, et cetera. Here are examples:
Simple character sheets are a great way to fill in the gaps and get to know your character. Though there are quite a few floating around on my favorite blogs, but here are a few examples:
Of course, the only way to truly get to know your character is to write about them. You never know how they’ll develop until you get going, and once you do, they’ll never cease to surprise you. Characters truly do gain lives of their own, so don’t give up and keep writing.
And in the meantime, I hope this helps! <3
You may have heard that titles don’t matter, and that they won’t make or break your career. Whoever told you that is either grievously uninformed or a filthy liar.
A title must do the following:
Like cover art, your title can determine whether or not anyone will actually read your book. Also like cover art, you probably shouldn’t name it like a twelve-year-old with a DeviantArt account.
But how do you check off such an extensive yet vital list of criteria? Well, being the magnanimous individual that I am, I’ll tell you.
Let’s take a short journey through five of my personal favorite approaches:
1. Use metaphor.
Some of the most memorable and iconic titles are derived from metaphor, allegory, and simile. If you have a metaphor that encapsulates your book’s theme or tone, consider using it for your title.
When done correctly, these will also provoke interest from prospective readers, as they will have to read your book to put the metaphor into context.
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
Life of Pi, Yann Martel
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
2. Ask a question.
Is there a fundamental question your book is asking? (There probably should be, but that’s a topic for another day.) If so, consider presenting it to the reader from the get-go.
These questions can be existential or personal, metaphorical or literal. But they should make the reader want to know the answer.
Note that you can get creative about this. A question doesn’t have to be one you ask the reader, but one you provoke the reader to ask themselves. Like, “Did this author really spoil the ending with their title? I’ll have to read and find out!” As you’ll see in the titles below.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Bloom
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray
John Dies at the End, by David Wong
3. Invoke a character’s voice.
Ask yourself how your protagonist or viewpoint character would choose to title their story.
Ask yourself who this person is. Are they an angsty teen? A plucky optimist? Self-conscious? Ironic? Morose? Sassy?
Your viewpoint character should essentially control the tone of your novel, and the title should be reflective of such.
My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters, by Sydney Salter
Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), by Mindy Kaling
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
4. Utilize the setting, or a memorable place, object, or event.
Is there a place, object, or event at the heart of your story? Maybe its a restaurant that is to your ensemble what the Central Perk is to the cast of Friends, a stuffed animal or piece of jewelry that serves as the story’s MacGuffin, a book that holds the secrets to the protagonist’s identity.
Or maybe it just, for one reason or another, perfectly encapsulates the tone and philosophy of your story.
I seem to be partial to this one, because it’s how I chose to name three of my novels: An Optimist’s Guide to the Afterlife (named after a book handed out to the recently deceased), General Tso’s Chicken From Outer Space (named after a Chinese food restaurant in a UFO hotspot town), and Diner at the End of the World (named after a diner frequented by Eldritch Horrors.)
‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams
Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton
Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
5. Introduce the protagonists (but get creative about it.)
In ye olden times, an opulence of great literature popped up that was named after specific characters. Think Anna Karenina, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Don Quixote, The Great Gatsby, and Jane Eyre. You can still do this–lots of authors still do, and it works great if you have a particular cool or quirky name–but in an already saturated market, it’s probably a good idea to put a twist on it.
I’ve observed three ways to go about this. First, you can introduce the main character and major conflict/theme of your story.
Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Emily M. Danforth
Approach number two: introduce the readers to the group of people your story is about.
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis
The Vacationers, by Emma Straus
Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan
And approche trois, name the title of a main character, particularly if it’s memorable and plays a large part in the story.
The Giver, by Lois Lowry
The Obituary Writer, by Ann Hood
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie R. King
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Martian, by Andy Weir
These are just a few of my favorite methods of naming stories! To my followers, I invite you to add more, and to share your own favorite titles.
How to Come Up With the Perfect Title For Your Novel
How to Choose Your Novel’s Title: Let Me Count 5 Ways
7 Tips to Land the Perfect Title For Your Novel
How to Find Good Titles For Your Novel
How to Name Your First Novel
How to Title Your Novel
I hope this helps, and happy writing! <3
About the Author
Brooksie C. Fontaine was accepted into college at fifteen and graduate school at nineteen.