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War stories, fantasy stories, sci-fi and simplistic fable stories, the list trails on like fans behind a famous actor. From books or movies to computer games and music videos, the element of story penetrates a broad array of interests; the public longs for engaging stories and seeks them in any form they can.
Keeping this in mind, please do not be shocked when I state that gruesome war stories and simple fables are, in principle, one in the same. Of course, I dont deny that one form of story may be more preferable for readers. However, we can know that the meaning of story (a written work that shows character and the motivations that spring from it) puts such extremely different stories and genres on the same plane.
In The Things They Carried, Tim OBriens mastery of the concept of character comes through to us clearly. He portrays Lieutenant Jimmy Crosss inner struggles and unpredictable actions in such a way that we can identify with himeven though the lieutenants character comes out under the stress of war, and ours may not. Just like many an average person, Lieutenant Cross adds to his burden, physical and mental, by carrying pictures and letters from his love, Martha. He knows she really doesnt love him, but, from the pressure of war, he turns by default to the comfort of his far away love, countering the harsh reality. The second sentence of the selection of The Things They Carried begins with, They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping (706). This quote shows what the letters meant to Cross, and why he carried them. He and the other men cling to material things in this mannerwhether it be love or dope, tranquilizers or too much ammunition, or even slingshots and comic books.
Doesnt this seem a silly thing for soldiers to do? Maybe. But their reactions to war are certainly realistic. OBrien continues to expand character throughout the piece. In the lieutenants mind, the pressure and even pointlessness of war grows with its morbidity and loss. But it was not a battle, just an endless march without purpose (713). OBrien continues this prose with revealing that the men would often discard things. Purely for comfort they would throw away rations (713). But no matter how they discarded the objects that they needed physically, it was so difficult to shed the emotional weight They carried all the baggage of men who might die (716).
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OBrien uses the desire to escape the pain of war to manifest character even further. The men scorn others who purposely blow off their own fingers or thumbs to escape, but even so, OBrien says, the image played itself out behind their eyes. So easy: squeeze the trigger and blow away a toe. They imagined it (716). The men repeated the phrase there it is, my friend, there it is (716) to come to grips with reality, but they constantly dreamed of escape: of flying like birds, falling and never moving again, or even shooting their own fingers. Lieutenant Cross constantly daydreams of being with Martha, just pretending walking barefoot along the Jersey shore, with Martha (710).
This push-pull contrast between the mens thoughts and their wartime actions is a thoughtful introspection of human character. Similar examples, though they may be in different forms than a war story, are used by William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, among other respected authors. In Shakespeares play Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark is constantly torn between the urge to avenge his father and his reluctance to kill his own uncle, the murderer. Jane Austens exquisitely portrayed character, Emma, claims she will never marry, but is falling in love with her brother-in-law, Mr. Knightly, at the very same time! It is only in the end of the story, when she fears she will lose him, that Emma realizes how she loves him. Just as regular humans always have an unpredictability about them, so should authors story-characters (Elwood 115). Maren Elwood, in Characters Make Your Story, states: When a story is logically motivated, even though your characters do outlandish things, your reader will accept such actions (Elwood 115).
Therefore, when Lieutenant Cross puts leading his platoon above Martha by burning the pictures, it is believable. Of course, the burnings are a surprise, and Im sure many readers wished he wouldnt have done so, but by taking a look at human natures complexities, we can acknowledge it as a possibility. After all the outward releases of inner problems we have seen from these men so far, burning his only connection with home can hardly be an impossible idea to grasp. The lieutenants battle within him, for a long time, had been between his longing for Martha and the knowledge that he must be the leader of his platoonwith the pressure to do it well. He took Ted Lavenders sudden death personally, even blaming it on his own focusing more on Martha than on his duty. This story has interesting character, believable yet not static motivations, intriguing actionsOBrien has done it all.
War is always difficult to deal with, yet can be fascinating to readbut why, we sometimes ask ourselves. Are we turning into cavemen, running around with clubs and spears in our hands? On the contrary! It all goes back to the characters and our desire to see a story through. The aspect of war is a perfect opportunity to display character traits, therefore intriguing readers.
Another form of a character-manifestation tool is the fable. Fables, while unlike war stories in tone, are very much like them in the way they can be used: to show motivations and the consequences that follow them, while pointing at a moral. OBrien may not have pointed at a moral directly, but nevertheless, his views are translated through his writing.
Another example of characterization of people under stress or in conflict is in one of Aesops fables, The North Wind and the Sun. Although the conflict is not as intense as OBriens, this fable uses conflict to set forth a distinct moral: Persuasion is better than force (6). Although he does not use length to go deep into character like OBrien has done, Aesop uses common human traits to create this short drama. Both the North Wind and the Sun want to win their little bet; the North Wind does it harshly by trying to blow off the mans coat. The consequence? He does not succeed. But, as Aesop deems better, the Sun persuades the man gently to remove his coat by spreading his warmth. The consequence, or outcome, of his persuasion, is that the Sun wins when the man removes his coat willingly.
This simple fable is just another form of story, as is Tim OBriens The Things They Carried or other myths. The view of story varies from one genre to another, but the underlying equivalence behind themcharacter and motivationsput them all under the same banner. It is with this analysis that I have come to the conclusion that all stories, whether harsh or kind, fast or slow, intriguing or boring, are all, in principle, really the same. They are a writers portrait of a part of the human personain fact, they portray a bit of ourselves, the readers! What relates war stories and fables is this: when the audience identifies with and wants to hear about the story-characters (Elwood 115).
Aesop. The North Wind and the Sun. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 8th ed. Eds. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. New York: Longman Publishers, 2002. 5-6.
Elwood, Maren. Characters Make Your Story. Boston: The Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.
OBrien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 8th ed. Eds. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. New York: Longman Publishers, 2002. 706-718.