The Peace That Is Up To You


mall-at-christmas-699243-mMuch of the time, when we talk about peace, we’re referring to the absence of conflict. Most of us don’t relish conflict in our lives. Oh, we love it in the novels we read, the movies we watch, and in our favorite TV programs. When it comes to stories, conflict makes them tense and puts us on the edge of our seats.

Some people might even like conflict in an intellectual way, so they encourage debate and get involved in controversial Internet discussions.

But few of us like conflict with our family or friends or boss or co-workers. We don’t have that fictitious expectation that the conflict will work its way out for the good and the protagonist (ME) will reach a new state of happy equilibrium. In real conflict, we get thrust into uncertainty. What if this problem is so great it leads to divorce? What if my son defies me? What if my friend pulls away? What if I get fired? What if my co-worker takes his complaint over my head? What if . . .

Conflict is so uncomfortable, some people just wish it away. If we wait long enough, the thinking goes, emotions will simmer down and we won’t have to confront these ugly conflict issues because the other party won’t care so much. Honestly, that tactic can work. Except there’s an unspoken list of grievances that gets started. At some point, that list gets so long, the person keeping it simply has had enough and out comes every fragment of unresolved conflict that’s been added from the start.

The explosions of temper can be hard to handle. One party may have no clue where this sudden and seemingly unreasoned flare up has come from, and the other, armed to the teeth, lets loose with every vindictive accusation imaginable. It’s not a pretty scene and one that will be much harder to dig out of than the original conflict.

But we don’t like conflict. So are we destined to face either huge blow-ups from time to time or a steady diet of smaller conflicts we have to resolve?

Certainly some conflicts are inevitable. You can’t both have the last piece of pie. You can’t both drive. You can’t both pick the movie you’re going to see. These are small things, but they illustrate the point that some conflict will come our way and must be resolved.

In the resolution we have some guidance from Scripture. 1 Thessalonians 5:13b says, “live in peace with one another.” But clearly this is not an admonition to avoid conflict because the next verse goes on to say, “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men.”

Hebrews adds another layer to these commands: “Pursue peace with all men . . . See to it that . . . no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble and by it many be defiled” (12:14-15).

The command nature of these passages suggests this peace is dependent upon what we do. We can live in peace or not. We can pursue peace or not. In Romans Paul gives instruction how we’re to do this:

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:9-21, emphases added)

So much wisdom there. In a nutshell, we aren’t going to achieve peace in every circumstance because it isn’t entirely up to us, but we should take care of what we can take care of.

We can be devoted not to ourselves but others, give preference to the other guy, hang in there when it’s hard, share what we have with people in need, speak kindly to those harassing us, empathize with people whether they’re in good circumstances or hard ones, keep from being proud, realize we aren’t all that, refuse to pay back those who hurt us, defeat bad behavior with good.

Peace at Christmas seems to be a tad harder than at any other time. We have more to do, for one thing, but we may also have more people in our lives than usual. We have the annoying aunt spending the week with us or the guy from the mail room we usually avoid who we end up sitting next to at the office party. We have the kids’ Christmas program to go to and all that shopping in the overly crowded malls.

Even looking for a parking place can send peace flying from our minds. Preference to others? No way! That was my parking place. I saw it first and I’ve been circling this lot for the last ten minutes!

Here’s the key. Imagine we’re servants (think Downton Abbey and the downstairs servants). We are at the beck and call of the upstairs people we serve. We eat and sleep according to their schedules. We go to them when they ring, no matter what they might be interrupting. Our focus is simply on their needs, not ours.

That, I believe, is the way of peace this passage sets out—so far as it depends on us.

Published in: on December 11, 2014 at 5:58 pm  Comments (1)  
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What Makes Fantasy Work, The Continuation Continued


One of the elements that good fantasy needs happens to be part of world building, and it’s one of the genre’s tropes. Fantasy needs magic. I’m using the term loosely. A good number of Christian fantasies don’t have traditional magic. But they do have something mysterious or “other.”

In George Bryan Polivka’s Trophy Chase Trilogy, for example, the only “magical” element was the firefish, and that was enough. It was both mysterious and other—not of this world.

I personally like more magic, not less. I wanted Gandolf to overcome the Balrog and the Hobbits to escape the Black Riders. I wanted the Ents to stir up the trees and the Elves to shield the Hobbits from the Orcs. I wanted the White Tree to provide Gondor with protection and Boromir’s horn to bring the help he needed. I wanted to warn Pippin not to look into the palantir.

The more magic, the more intrigue. Anything can happen, and the reader is left equally to wonder and to worry because the best stories give magic to both sides.

Intrigue leads to the next point. Fantasy that works also has a plot that works. Rule one for a good plot is, Create conflict.

Like other fiction, fantasy is best when the character faces an external conflict and an internal conflict. Ideally the two battles will coalesce at the climax. That’s what J. R. R. Tolkien did so well in The Return of the King. Frodo wasn’t only fighting against Orcs and Sauron and Shelob. He was also fighting against becoming another Gollum.

Shockingly, the latter is the fight he lost. Which brings up another element that makes fantasy work—surprise. I think one of the reasons so much epic fantasy gets criticized is because of a lack of surprise. Readers and reviewers will say a story is “derivative” (the kiss of death to a fantasy) though you never hear that accusation made of romance or even of mystery. I have to believe that what the “derivative” accusers are actually saying is that the story tipped its hand and didn’t hold any surprise.

One of the things that kept me reading furiously through the last three Harry Potter books was the unpredictability. Was Snape good or evil? Would Harry be able to leave the Dursleys and go to live with Sirius Black? Would he win the Triwizard Tournament? Who was trying to kill him during the competiton? Why was he seeing such vivid visions of Voldemort? How would Harry find the horcruxes? And on and on.

Questions create intrigue, twists create surprise, and delay creates suspense. All of these elements, along with conflict, make a fantasy plot work.

There’s still more, I think, so I’ll tackle those last elements another time.

Writing – What’s after the First Five Pages, Part 2


So what keeps the reader reading beyond those early pages?

I mentioned engaging characters—ones that are interesting, well-drawn—but the truth is, good characters aren’t enough by themselves. These well-drawn characters must also do something interesting and believable.

In my adventures through Christian fiction (what I’ve mostly read since becoming a full time writer hoping to publish with a Christian publishing house), I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun—even funny—and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

And yet, at times, something has been missing, something so integral that I can easily close the book and not finish reading because I just don’t care.

Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to root for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

That being said, I believe there is still more. In order for a reader to truly care, there needs to be the legitimate possibility of failure. Frodo was such a hero, such a tragic hero, in part because his ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. Then his spirit gave out.

Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end? I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin (or was it Merry) looked into the crystal and fell gravely ill. King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

In summary, readers need to know what the character is trying to achieve so they can root for him. And winning can’t come easily or quickly. There needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t be the kind of winning the reader was hoping for. With an engaging character trying to achieve the near impossible in the face of the real potential for failure, readers are bound to be scrambling for the book during every free moment.

Published in: on September 16, 2008 at 4:49 pm  Comments (2)  
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