Is Your Character An Acquaintance Or A Friend?

Is Your Character An Acquaintance Or A Friend?

There are a lot of resources out there for helping develop characters, whether for a novel, short story, RPG (role playing game), or something else entirely. One of the most common resources is the character sheet. For those unfamiliar with this concept, the character sheet is a form filled with questions for you to answer about your character (e.g. age, eye color, height, hobbies, occupation, goals).

However, there are so many templates out there, it’s tough to know which one, if any, you should use. Some have a lot of specific questions, others are more vague, leaving a lot of room for creativity. Many writers don’t use character sheets at all.

As much as I would love to point you to one perfect character sheet, the fact is, there is no such thing. What works for one writer won’t necessarily work for another. I’ve used several different templates and sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn’t. Some worked for one character, but not for others.

I eventually came up with my own template that I find works well for me. I’ll go on to explain how I developed it and you’re welcome to try it out, but I won’t guarantee it will work for you just because it works for me. You may even find the whole concept of character sheets to be pointless for you. If that’s the case, you’re welcome to ignore the rest of this post.

Developing The Template

After all those disappointing trials with other character sheets, I decided to take a step back and figure out exactly what I wanted this tool to accomplish, what purpose I wanted it to serve. Obviously I needed to know physical specifics in order to paint a picture in the reader’s mind, but I needed to know in depth specifics even more. I needed to know what makes them tick. Not just the unique things they do, but why they do them. The longer I thought it through, the more I came to realize that I needed to really get to know the character. And not just as a character, but as a person.

With that conclusion in mind, I began thinking about how I get to know real people, how I go about turning a new acquaintance into a close friend. The most important observation I made is that I get to know people by asking them about their life. I listen to stories from their childhood, I ask them about their dreams and passions and how they came to want those things. I don’t just ask about their hobbies, I join them and learn how they do things differently than others. I discuss their opinions about life and the world around them and how their personal experience affects those opinions.

In short, getting to know someone in real life is a lot more complex than asking them random questions, so if I wanted my characters to feel real, I needed a method just as complex. Three dimensional, so to speak.

Creating The Template

I started with the first steps I take in meeting someone new and translated that into the first section of my original character sheet template. The beginning questions are basic and don’t require long, thought out answers because they are, for the most part, self-explanatory. They’re the sort of things you would learn about someone just by looking at them. (An exception is if you’re writing SFF in which the world itself affects your character’s physical attributes, in which case you’d need more complex answers. But that’s more about world building than character development, so I won’t get into that here.)

The next section of my template requires more thought out answers regarding the character’s desires and personality. I often don’t end up filling these out until after I’ve written the last section (sometimes after I’ve started writing the story), as these are things one generally learns about a real person through experience and observation.

And speaking of the last section, that is the most important and in depth part of the template. Aside from the first two questions about their goals, I mostly write short synopses of various childhood moments that serve to make the character who they are at the start of my story. This is typically called back story which is often not included in most character sheets I’ve found.

Whoever we are at any stage of life is who we’ve come to be partly because of our experiences, so to create a character without considering that aspect is simply shortsighted. Our characters don’t come into being fully formed at the start of our stories and they don’t develop their opinions and passions out of nowhere either. Many things happened to bring them to that point and writing those memories down, or at least considering them, is much like having a deep, heart-to-heart conversation with a friend that inevitably deepens the relationship.

Here is an example of my template:

Section 1

Age:

Physical description: (I start with hair and height and work my way down, like giving a new acquaintance a once over. If they’re clothing tells you more about their personality, mention that, too.)

Habits/Mannerisms: (Do they fiddle with pencils, chew their nails, twist their hair, etc.?)

Occupation (if applicable):

Section 2

Personality: (What makes them different from everyone else? If you asked a group of people to describe them with one word, what would those words be?)

Hobbies:

Fears:

Section 3

Short term goals: (What do they want right now, at the start of the story? It doesn’t have to be just one thing.)

Long term goals: (What do they want for their life in general? This doesn’t have to be just one thing, either.)

Backstory: (Here’s where their childhood stories and experiences are explored.)

(Do you like this concept, but prefer more specific questions? Here‘s a similar approach with more of an interview style. Developed by the one and only K. M. Weiland @kmweiland)

Final Thoughts

When I’m creating a new character, a relationship is what I’m really after. I don’t just want to write a unique character that I can describe in perfect detail. I want to get to know them, watch them grow up, know their frustration when they fail their first test, feel the pain of their first broken heart. When I know my characters as close friends, then their unique voices will be that much easier to hear. They will become much more real to the reader.

Since I’ve started creating my characters with this template, I’ve also noticed that I never fill it out from top to bottom. And I never fill it out completely before starting my story. Just as you might learn that a friend is colorblind long after meeting them, there are plenty of things you might learn about your character as you write the story. And as you learn about their childhood, some things in the first two sections might need to be changed to fit the new context.

Meeting new people is a complicated and often non-linear process that is never quite the same every time. So it is with developing characters. This template may work for you, or it may make the whole process more frustrating. It isn’t perfect and that’s okay. After all, the only real rule in writing is to figure out what works for you and keep at it.

Did this template work for you? Do you use something different? Do you have suggestions to make this one better? Let me know in the comments.

Siren of the Void

Siren of the Void

     The door to Sam ’n Joe’s bar slid away as the rough, swarthy captain approached and he stumped through. A quiet ding informed him that he’d passed the age scan. Ed grunted. That stupid ding just reminded him how old he’d gotten. And thinking about his age reminded him of how much he’d lost since leaving Earth. The people he’d lost. Well, one person. One crazy-ass woman.

     He thunked into his usual seat at the end of the bar and rapped a knuckle against the stainless steel. A holographic screen flickered on and he punched in his order, swiping his wrist over the scanner to pay. Most customers just told the smart bar what they wanted, but he never opened his bushy mouth if he didn’t have to. A minute later, a slot opened in the counter and his usual beer popped out.

     “I swears over my memaw’s grave. She came floatin’ right up to the port window. I could hear her sweet singin’ all the way through the walls.”

     Ed’s ears twitched. Without drawing any undue attention, he creaked his head around to peek at the unknown speaker. The young greenhorn waved his arms around in the small booth behind Ed, nearly toppling his buddies’ drinks. They both grabbed the bottles and rolled their eyes at each other. The young miner continued his tall tale despite their apathy.

     “At first I thought I was dreamin’ so I smacked myself to see if I’d wake up, but I didn’t so she must’a been real. She looked like a ghost woman only the most beautifulest woman I ever did see.”

     His buddies turned to each other, then burst out laughing. Ed turned back to his beer with a twist to his lips. They didn’t know what they were laughing at. For that matter, neither did the greenhorn. Most beautiful woman, indeed. If he’d seen her on the other side of the barrier, he’d have dropped dead of shock. Ed nearly did the one time he’d crossed over.

     Her name was Savensa and she was the reason he’d stayed out in space longer than any other miner. Not long after getting fired at the bar back on Earth, he’d heard of an asteroid mining company seeking entry level workers. After all the jobs he’d lost, space had started to sound like fun. The novelty had worn off almost as soon as he’d gotten out there.

     Then she’d found him.

     He’d been out on an unauthorized spacewalk, watching the stars, trying to manufacture some semblance of adventure. She appeared out of nowhere and he nearly shit himself. She was glowing and hazy and a lot of her wasn’t even visible. Most of her was sort of bluish, but he could see traces of other bright colors, too. Like the greenhorn had said, she looked like a beautiful ghost. When their eyes met though, his brain pretty much shut down. She cocked her head curiously and he got lightheaded, like that time he’d drunk an entire bottle of wine in one night.

     Then she disappeared. He blinked and looked around stupidly, as if there was a corner somewhere she could have ducked behind. He nearly emptied his oxygen tank waiting for her to appear again, but she never did.

     After that, Ed made sure to get as many spacewalks as he could. Weeks went by, but the need to see her again never faded. If anything, it grew stronger and stronger the longer he waited. She appeared a few more times after that, but it was always too brief. All his free time he spent fantasizing about her, hearing her voice, touching her skin, tasting her lips. She was driving him mad.

     He’d snuck out while the rest of the crew slept when she appeared that final time. He blinked a couple times, not quite trusting his own eyes. There was more of her this time, more definition. Her arms ended in fingers instead of wispy trails and her legs … well, that’s about when his brain shut down again.

     Her head cocked and a ridiculous grin spread across his face. Then she spoke. It was like a jolt to his spine, so beautiful it struck him like lightning. He couldn’t understand any of it, but that didn’t stop him from reaching for her. His whole body ached to touch her, to hold her.

     Her eyes widened as he neared. That tempting mouth started babbling a mile a minute and her hands fluttered around anxiously. All he could think was how adorable she looked, but he held back, not wanting to spook her. He waited as her rambling tapered off. She met his eyes, then seemed to take a deep breath and tentatively took his hand.

     He felt a brief tugging before being sucked through her and blacked out.

     Later on he learned that he’d been pulled through the barrier to her alternate universe. When he came to, it was to smooth, bright colored trees which turned out to be huge strands of fur. Light fluff all over the ground that he eventually learned was dander. But what he’d truly never gotten used to was Savensa.

     She’d appeared seconds after he’d first opened his eyes in that world. As if the world itself wasn’t amazing enough, seeing her in full form had nearly knocked him out. She’d begun rambling and fluttering again. And it looked so damn cute on her, he didn’t bother to check if he could breathe the air before ripping off his helmet and covering that pretty, golden mouth with his own. She froze, making him nervous, but then, like chocolate held too long in his hand, she melted against him, filling in all his cracks.

     He swept his fingers into her glittering, silver hair, groaning when they tingled like cold hands under hot water. He pressed her to him, clutching a fistful of her petal soft dress. Finally holding her, finally kissing her; it felt like coming home. Which only made their sudden separation more painful.

     He still had no answers for why he’d been ripped back through the barrier only a short time after coming through. He hadn’t had nearly enough time with her. But he hadn’t given up so easily. He’d spent every minute since leaving her world looking for another way back in. Every spacewalk he lingered in the hope that she would appear. Every quadrant of the system in which they’d met he’d mapped and scoured.

     And now, after all the years, he found himself listening to a bunch of knuckleheads scoffing at a fantasy he’d never stopped believing in.

     He knocked back the last drips of his beer and tossed the empty bottle into the smart bar’s recycle chute. His sore muscles strained as he stood and turned to the greenhorn and his buddies.

     “I hear you saw a siren of the void. Mind tellin’ me where?”

     They all blinked up at him stupidly. After a quiet minute, the greenhorn stuttered out the coordinates. Ed nodded his thanks and stomped back out of the bar, suddenly tempted to throw out a fist pump. He was finally going home.

8 Tips On Caring For Your TBR List

To the less reading obsessed, a TBR (to-be-read) list is an inconsequential part of their life. To some it might even be a completely foreign concept. But to a bookworm, the TBR list is an entity unto itself. It grows like a St. Bernard puppy. It leaps in sudden, random directions like an adolescent cat. And it can swiftly become unmanageable like a spooked horse.

So, if your list has gotten out of hand and you’ve resolved to finally deal with it this year, or you’re just looking for some new ideas, here are 8 tips to help you in the care of your TBR list.

1. Set strict boundaries.


(https://onsizzle.com/i/me-at-the-bookstore-me-no-me-i-cant-have-4337055)

If you aren’t vigilant, your list will get out and bring home all kinds of friends until your house is bursting with so many books, you might lose track of your original list. This doesn’t mean your TBR can’t have friends. Just make sure it doesn’t bring home too many.

2. Exercise it regularly.


(http://thoughtfulspot.typepad.com/blog/2012/05/thoughtfuls-thursday-book-faire.html)

If you don’t actually read the books in your list, it will get so out of shape, there will be no hope of getting it back to a reasonable size. See #7 if this one is particularly difficult.

3. Feed it healthy choices.


(dailydot.relaymedia.com)

You know what they say. Everything in moderation. Don’t stop reading your favorite genres, but be sure to keep your list well rounded with some variety.

4. Practice obedience and discipline.


(http://whisper.sh/whisper/0515a5982a32232425950179139939e4a3d8d1/You-cant-read-all-day-if-you-dont-start-in-the-morning)

Whip that list into shape with a plan. Lack of discipline leads to bad habits and bad habits leads to an unmanageable list.

5. Keep it well groomed.


(http://novelgoddess.blogspot.com/2011/11/its-monday-that-means-it-is-time-for.html?m=1)

Bath time is never easy, especially if your list is more cat than dog. But books left in the list too long tend to attract dirt and fleas that can eat away at the careful discipline you’ve just established with #4. Clean out the books you know you won’t actually read. Grooming is difficult, but it must be done.

6. Clean up its messes.


(https://undeadlabs.com/2015/12/studio/developer-bio-cale-schupman/)

Sometimes a book in our list will leave us with a steaming heap of disappointment. Don’t spread it around with a distasteful review. Let it be known that the book didn’t sit well with your list, but allow others to decide for themselves. Every list’s diet is different. This is something we all need to respect.

7. Give it regular check-ups.


(http://blog.whooosreading.org/15-most-accurate-school-librarian-memes/)

Nothing helps with #2,3 and 4 – well, all of them, really – like accountability. Find a reliable, experienced librarian, or at least fellow TBR parents, and meet with them regularly, whether in person or online. This will help to keep your plan on track and for sharing other tips on keeping your list happy and healthy.

8. Don’t forget your other pets (hobbies).


(https://imgflip.com/i/14a0rm)

This one can be hard for parents of particularly unruly TBR lists, but it is necessary. If you let your list take up too much of your life, all your other pets (hobbies) will begin to feel unloved. Don’t neglect them for the sake of your list.

Every TBR list is special and unique and should be treated with utmost love and care. Hopefully these tips will help bring your list back to its happy, healthy self, or if your list is already doing well, they will help to keep that momentum going. May this new year see many TBR lists being read and cared for better than before and may those TBR
lists bring their owners even greater happiness.

We’re Going To The Zoo

We’re Going To The Zoo

I yanked on the old Honda Odyssey’s sticky sliding door and nearly hit the pavement when my four year old launched himself out of the car.

“Grant!”

He skidded to a stop and I blinked in surprise. Apparently he’d actually heard my voice instead of the gibberish his kid filter usually turned it into. He turned around, staring at the asphalt rather than at me.

“Do you want to see the surprise, or not?”

He nodded.

“Then tell me what the one rule is.”

He looked up at me with eyes so droopy he looked like a Precious Moments figurine. My heart squeezed, but I stood my ground.

“Stay with Mommy.”

“That’s right. Now, do you think you can follow that rule?”

He nodded, transforming from a Precious Moments into a bobblehead.

“All right then. Let me get your sister out of the car and we’ll be ready to go see the surprise.”

“Yay!”

After ten frustrating minutes wrestling with the stroller, we were ready to go to the zoo. Grant danced with one hand on the stroller while Eloise bounced and squealed. While we inched our way through the line, I shook out my watch and swiped to the right app. We stepped up to the gate and I held out my wrist to the admittance scanner. The little box squawked its approval and the bars slid away, allowing us through. As I shoved the stroller into the park, a flashback of my pudgy six year old hand holding out a paper ticket to the gate attendant popped into my head. A smile tugged at my lips.
“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!”

The memory was instantly replaced by the huge crush of people Grant was trying to yank the us into.

“Okay, okay. Stop pulling on the stroller. Do you want to see some animals first or should we go straight to the surprise?”

“Surprise, surprise, surprise!”

I rolled my eyes. Asking this kid to wait was like giving him a death sentence.

“All right, all right. Let’s go.” I bent to retrieve the tiny stuffed unicorn Eloise had thrown over the side, then pointed the stroller toward the aviaries.

Our path took us past the mountain goats, arctic foxes, the zoo’s lone pegasus, and finally a bunch of exotic birds I never remembered the names of. Eloise bounced in her seat and clapped every time she spotted a new animal, but we didn’t stop at any of them. I did promise her we’d come back after the surprise, though.

As we approached the aviary, more people crowded the path until we had to stop. Grant danced with impatience as we inched closer, but thankfully didn’t pick up on any of the excited chatter around us.

After enduring the test of patience Grant had hoped to avoid, we reached the stairs leading to one of the aviary’s viewing platforms. We both groaned. The entrance was as packed as the walkway outside.

“Where’s the surprise, Mommy? Are we almost there?”

“Yes, we’re almost there. I promise, just a little longer.”

A tinny voice drifted toward us from the platform, repeating all the info everyone had been discussing while we’d waited. I rolled my eyes as Grant failed to hear the recording repeat the creature’s name several times. When we reached the top of the stairs, bypassing the maglev ramp for regular strollers, I was relieved to see the platform was not nearly as crowded as I’d expected. As we neared the windows, we began to see more trees and bits of cliff through the spaces between people. I grinned in anticipation of Grant’s reaction.

“Is the surprise in there? Is it? Is it?”

I chuckled.

“Yep. They’re in there somewhere.”

Grant pushed forward, stretching his arm, still gripping the stroller, as far as it would go. We weaved our way through until, finally, we were right in front of the window. I panned my gaze back and forth over the whole forested enclosure, trying to spot them while Grant tugged on my sleeve asking where they were. It took a couple passes, but I spotted them by a pond on our right.

“There, Grant!” I pointed and he squashed his nose against the glass.

“See them? By the pond.”

“Yeah,” he said, looking in the opposite direction.

“No. Grant, over there. Look where I’m pointing.”

He glanced back at my outstretched arm, then followed it to the pond.

“Oh.” He frowned. “What are they?”

My arm drooped. “What do you think they are?”

“Um, Iguanas? Lizards?”

“Close.”

“I don’t know, Mommy. You tell me.”

I sighed. “They’re dragons, Grant. Like in your favorite bedtime story, remember?”

He frowned again. I watched him for a moment, trying to figure out his response. I’d thought he’d be more excited. Then I looked back at the dragons. Perhaps if I could see them the way he did, I’d understand.

There were three of them, all about the size of a Labrador. They were all pale brown, almost tan, with dark brown stripes across their backs. I could see how their size and coloring might be underwhelming. Then one of them opened its wings and several people around us ooh’d and aah’d. While most of it was colored for camouflage, its wing membranes were a collage of varying shades of red. Then another dragon growled before spitting fire across the water at its third sibling. I glanced hopefully back down at Grant, but he’d backed away from the window and was staring at something on the other side of the aviary.

It was my turn to frown. They were dragons, for crying out loud! Didn’t every kid dream of flying one? I know I did when I was Grant’s age. And that was back when everyone still thought they were mythical.

“Let’s get a little closer.”

He nodded absently and I nudged the stroller toward the right side of the window. At least Eloise was enjoying herself. But she bounced and clapped every time the trees moved, so it was a bit of a hollow victory.

We squeezed right up to the glass and discovered that the fire-spitting dragon’s wings were covered in swirls of bright green. I nearly sighed at their beauty. Grant started playing with another kid his age, oblivious to the wonder of mythical beasts come to life. Then I did sigh.

“All right, Grant. What do you want to see now?”

He continued running around with his new buddy. My voice had turned into gibberish again.

“Grant! We’re leaving.”

That he heard. He squealed in alarm and rushed after me, throwing a quick goodbye over his shoulder. As we stepped back into the sunlight I asked Grant where he wanted to go next.

“Tigers, tigers, tigers!”

My brows lifted at his sudden resurgence of enthusiasm. I shrugged. It would be selfish to let my disappointment about the dragons affect the rest of the trip. I pulled up the map on my watch and, after swiping around for the right path, pushed the stroller in the right direction.

We took our time getting there, stopping to let Eloise shake her little hands at the other animals, as I’d promised. I knew we’d reached the tigers when Grant shouted.

“Tigers, tigers, tigers!”

I stood and watched him as he pressed his face to the gate bars. The tiger didn’t seem particularly amazing. Orange, black stripes, claws and teeth. Nothing I hadn’t seen a hundred times.

Yet somehow, to my little boy this simple animal elicited all the wonder the dragons failed to conjure with their best performance. Somehow, what appeared ordinary to me was, to him, extraordinary.

Surprise Santa

Surprise Santa

     I gripped the steering wheel and dragged in a heavy breath.

     Walmart. Christmas Eve. I could do this.

     My wallet sat in the passenger seat, mocking me with its meager contents.

     “You’re the reason I’m here now,” I grumbled at it. “Instead of sitting on my couch wrapping gifts I wanted to get weeks ago.”

     The boys were at home with their daddy, hoping Santa would be bringing their gifts that night. I sniffed as I recalled childhood Christmases watching the pile of presents grow day after day. My children’s Christmas memories were turning out quite different from my own.

     “Well, you can’t change it now, and you can’t change it sitting in the car. So get your pokey butt moving.”

     I grabbed the wallet and stuffed it into my purse. Then I hoisted myself out of the ancient station wagon and trudged across the slushy parking lot, stomping snow off my boots as I entered the store. Michael Bublé crooned “I’ll be Home for Christmas” from the speakers and my heart smiled a little, though not enough to reach my lips.

     My boots squeaked across the linoleum and people glanced my way as I passed. I felt their gazes burning into my back as I tucked my hands under my arms and kept my head up. The judgement I imagined in their eyes was likely projected by my own insecurity, but I speed walked toward the toy section anyway.

     It still took me a while to get through the store though, as I detoured around several sections, loathe to pass by luxuries I couldn’t afford. When I finally reached the toy aisle, a relieved sigh eased past my lips, followed by a grimace.

     The few toys left on the shelves were scattered amidst slightly squashed packaging. As if this trip wasn’t hard enough already. I tried to stay focused on the cheaper toys I could actually afford, but my eyes kept wandering up to the top shelves. Giant Lego sets, fancy Leap Frog gadgets, trikes featuring every billion dollar character every kid could want to be. The lowest price up there was still double the total amount I’d budgeted for all my Christmas shopping. My heart squeezed as I tore my gaze back to the stocking stuffers my kids would be getting as their regular presents.

     I avoided eye contact with the other shoppers as I tallied up various gift combinations, trying to figure out how to get the most for what little I had to spend. The results came down to either a large handful of Hotwheels cars and trains or two larger individual toys, one for each boy. As much as I loved the notion of giving them the illusion of lots of gifts with separately wrapped cars, I didn’t want to repeat my parents’ gifts from last year. And even if I couldn’t get them exactly what they wanted, I was still going to make darn sure they got something special.

     So I slid off the shelf one set of toy instruments for my one year old and a small Lego police set for my four year old. Not quite as special as I had wanted, but it was the best I could afford.

     As I squeaked back through the store again in search of the registers, I held my chin high. The shame and guilt might have been crushing my spirit, but I was determined not to show it.

     The lines were mercifully short and I did my best to smile and look normal. The older man in front of me gave me a smile and a nod. He wore wrinkle free jeans and a sleek grey jacket that made his light grey hair appear lighter than it probably was. Or the hair made the jacket look darker. I couldn’t figure out which.

     “Christmas shopping for your kids?”

     I blinked and refocused on his face.

     “Uh, yeah. Two boys.”

     “Really? How old?”

     “One is about nine months and the other is four.”

     His eyes lit up.

     “My daughter just had our first grandchild.”

     “Oh, congratulations.”

     “Thank you. We’re really excited.”

     I smiled, but couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm to reply. He glanced at the toys as they inched closer to the checkstand and I tried not to let the sting show on my face. Then he looked back at me. I pasted on another smile.

     “Would you … Would you let me pay for your gifts?”

     The smile froze and I stared like a deer in headlights. As his words sank in, a spark ignited in my belly and spread to my despairing heart.

     “Oh, you don’t have to do that.”

     “Please. It would be my pleasure.”

     I so badly wanted to accept. But my pride poked out its ugly head, holding back my words. It was bad enough that my wallet was forcing me to choose subpar gifts, I didn’t want someone else thinking I needed help paying for them. Then, over the tug of war in my head, my heart reminded me of a sentiment I’d read recently.

     If we don’t receive, we are depriving the giver of the joy found in giving.

     I looked back at that incredibly generous grandfather and shoved my pride back into the depths from which it came.

     “All right. Thank you”

     “You’re very welcome.”

     My eyes started to burn as he finished the transaction with the checker and I tried not to embarrass myself with my gratitude. I eased around him to retrieve the paper bag containing my now free items. When I turned to give him one last heartfelt thank you, he reached out and took my empty hand.

     “Have a nice Christmas.”

     I looked down at our hands and spotted a hundred dollar bill tucked between them. I stared back at him, the withheld tears pooling in my eyes. My jaw fell open, but no words came. He just smiled and gave my hand a squeeze before letting go, leaving the bill in my trembling hand.

     I gave a final whispered thank you, then turned and walked away, clutching the gifts to my middle. All the conflicting emotions swirling inside were making me feel almost nauseated. Gratitude, shame, guilt, giddiness. My body couldn’t seem to process them all.

     Then as I approached the doors, I heard a familiar song over the speakers.

     “The only gift I’ll ever need is the joy of family. Oh why? Cause that’s Christmas to me.”

     My shoulders relaxed and I finally took a full breath as, for the first time in a long time, I found myself looking forward to Christmas.

The Currents Of Life

     Somewhere above the endless sparkling blue of the sea floated a regal osprey. It had been a long exhausting day of hunting and he had nothing to show for it. The summer was almost over. He could feel winter’s encroaching fingers clawing at him more and more each day. The once abundant buffet below him was now no more than scraps left over by the sharks and dolphins. Scanning the glittering, undulating waters beneath him, he spotted plenty of loose kelp and bits of flotsam, but only the smartest fish must have been left because he couldn’t spot any lingering near the surface.
     For a moment he allowed the flow of the wind to distract him. He tipped his wings just slightly and spun in a wide, slow circle, rising in altitude. Avid bird-watchers might have contrived some complex purpose for the movement – from the precise angle of the wings to the exact height to which he rose – but to the casual observer he appeared to have done it simply for the enjoyment. Casual observers were right more often than they realized.

     He leveled off and, with a sense neither bird-watcher nor casual observer could ever be aware of, he zeroed in on one small spot of ocean. To untrained eyes it would seem identical to every other watery ruffle. To this predator, it was a target. He tucked his wings and sank, cutting through the wind and spray like an arrow.

     A snap of suddenly outstretched wings.

     A splash.

     The fish wriggled and squirmed in the hunter’s claws. Somewhere in its tiny brain it was aware of the great peril, but that awareness didn’t leave enough room for devising a way of escape. All it could hope for – though there wasn’t any room left in its brain for hoping either – was the slim possibility of a larger predator attacking the owner of the claws wrapped around its slimy body.

     Then a loud screech split the air and the very thing the little herring would have hoped for – had it had any brain left to hope with – happened. A massive albatross swooped in on the now less regal looking osprey and the fish was free.

     Another splash and the herring took a deep breath. The cool, tangy water flooded through its tiny body while salt, algae and other unwanted bits filtered out through its gills. It twitched through the water for a few seconds as its various systems got back into working order after the shock of all that stark air. Then it simply floated down toward a small bed of coral where it would hide for the foreseeable future. However, given that it was incapable of foreseeing further than a few seconds, it was unlikely to remain in hiding for very long.

     The trip south was mostly unremarkable. The shallow water held not much more than algae and plankton and as the herring floated down, the sea simply grew murkier with added particles and minerals. Then it began to swim away from shore, following some mysterious instinct that told it where its safe haven was. And as it pushed further and further out, the murkiness began to fade away.

     When the view finally cleared, it honed in on a small cluster of coral and mollusks a few yards away, though measurement was far beyond its limited capabilities. Had its brain capacity been slightly larger it might have been able to appreciate the vast beauty surrounding it. Its little heart might have warmed at the undulating shades of blue and green beckoning the courageous to explore. It might have sighed at the vibrant colors covering the ocean floor, the sandy bottom teeming with life of all kinds. It might have paused to take in the gentle sway of the kelp and seaweed as the tide pulled it to and fro. Perhaps it would have taken a scenic route, past all the sea star and muscle encrusted rocks and stopped to chat with the hermit crabs digging in the sand.

     As it was, this particular fish was not equipped with the necessary brain synapses to appreciate, or even notice, the surrounding magnificence. In fact, it was so oblivious to its own surroundings, it failed to spot a new predator lurking in the shadows. Though, in defense of the simple fish, poor eyesight could have easily lead it to believe that the turtle shell was really just another rock.

     The poor thing didn’t even make it past the first outcropping.

     For such a large creature, with little to no streamlining, the sea turtle was remarkably fast. She was hailed as the best hunter in her bale. The rest of them were content with whatever food was easiest to get. She always went for the best first. The tough, stretchy mollusks couldn’t go anywhere, so she risked nothing by starting with the crunchy, textured fish.

     Of course, once she snapped up the herring, the rest of the fish caught on and scattered, hiding in all the cracks and crevices she couldn’t reach. Oh well. She’d come back for them another day. Most fish had terrible memories anyway.

     She yanked up a couple of the boring mollusks to finish off the meal, then with a swipe of her flippers, spun up and away from the rocks, heading to the surface for a quick breath. When she dove back under, she turned her tail east and swept toward her favorite ledge. She was going to take a nap.

     Unlike the fish she’d just eaten, this dark green turtle took in the sweeping vistas around her as she stroked through the water. She luxuriated in the feel of the cool currents rushing over her face and flippers. She even spun around a few times, creating currents of her own.

     Then the edge of a huge reef came into view to her right and she slowed. At this distance it was difficult to spot any critters along the sandy bottom, but she knew they were there. Only the smallest and least nourishing creatures lived that close to the nearby trench, though. She turned slightly and noticed a new patch of kelp growing just a few yards away. Another swipe of her flipper and she sailed toward the swaying plants. Closing her eyes, she let the soft strands glide along her belly as she swam over them. A cloud of rockfish swarmed out and she snapped up a few of the slower ones.

     After one more dip to the surface, she turned back to the reef and her ledge. It was closer to the trench than most would be comfortable with. That trench hid many large predators. She probably should have been more wary, but she found the solitude peaceful. Besides, she’d never actually gone into the trench.

     But she didn’t need to go in the trench to be spotted. The ledge itself might have been well hidden from larger, stronger predators, but she simply wasn’t prepared for the few predators smarter than her.

     As she approached the reef, a strange untethered harpoon shot through the water. Before she could look up to determine the source of the strange eddy, it sank into her neck and through her body to pierce her heart.

     She was just inches away from her ledge.

     Her lifeless body sank to the sea floor, tracked by a hidden pair of strange intelligent eyes. With a speed surpassing that of the odd harpoon, the strange creature darted out of the shadows to trap the turtle in a small fishing net. His tail seemed normal enough, though one didn’t usually see a dolphin shaped tail covered in scales. With the dexterity of an octopus, the creature’s crustacean-like arms quickly wrapped up his kill. His oddly shaped head turned from side to side, seemingly watching for larger predators. Much like the turtle, his head looked as if it had been mashed onto the end of his body. No tapering, no streamlining, aside from the three fins on top with the center one trailing down his back.

     But none of that detracted from his superior hunting abilities. Though most predators were larger than him, his species were by far the smartest in the sea. Smarter even than the dolphins, some believed. Superior to the sea turtle, the herring, perhaps even the osprey and the albatross. But the undines were still a simple species. Smart certainly, but lacking the passion and ambition that would drive them to seek to rule.

     Not a single creature could become so elevated that a greater predator couldn’t knock them back down. All who lived in the sea or depended on it knew this. And so, as the hunters went their separate ways, the journey of life, the fight for survival, went on.

Husbands

This is another story inspired by the Jesus bracelet. See this earlier post for the picture and explanation.

        I slid my plane ticket onto the attendant’s desk, not bothering to look up from the email I was skimming on my phone.  I’d hoped to have at least one night to recoup after this trip.  Maybe I’d have even spent it at home with my wife.  I couldn’t remember the last home cooked meal I’d eaten.  Then again, home wasn’t as relaxing as it used to be.
        It didn’t really matter anymore, though, since I wouldn’t be getting that night anyway.  A good reporter followed the news.  And according to the email, the news was halfway across the country.
       I spared the attendant a glance to retrieve my ticket and shuffled my way onto the plane.  My small suitcase slid easily into the overhead compartment and I slumped into my window seat.  I considered pulling out my laptop to confirm the details of this additional, last minute trip and the breaking news I’d be covering.  Then I saw the first batch of travelers I’d be stuck with for the next two hours and tucked my briefcase under the seat in front of me instead.  Working on my phone would generate enough sour looks from this bunch without needing to add more technology.
        As more and more of them piled onto the plane, I noticed a lot of them carrying on large, group conversations.  And those groups merged and split like cells as they all found their seats. I rolled my eyes and groaned.  It was going to be a long two hours.
        I pulled my ear buds from a pocket and thumbed through various jazz albums on my phone.  If I had those ear buds in and kept my eyes on the screen, whoever ended up next to me would hopefully be less likely to start chatting.  It had worked on previous business trips. Then a metallic clatter brought my eyes to the aisle floor.
        A set of keys, or rather, a collection of key chains with a few keys on it, sat there in a jumbled clump.  My gaze traveled slowly up and I was not surprised by what I saw of the owner.
       Flowers.  A lot of flowers.  And who wore a hat on an airplane?  I mean, a ball cap I could understand, but that monstrosity?  Was she really going to wear it the whole time?
        Then I came back to her face and instantly felt somewhat shamed by the cynical thoughts.  She had a charming smile.  To make up for the disrespectful attitude, I gave her a small smile in return.  Her eyes lit up.
        For a moment I was transported back to the first time I had seen my wife.  Her eyes had lit up the same way.  And it dawned on me that she didn’t smile like that anymore.  Or perhaps she did and I was simply too busy to notice.
        “Hi there!”
        I came back to the present and suppressed a groan.  I hadn’t gotten the ear buds in soon enough.
        “Uh, hi.”
        “I’m Sally.”
        She was a talker.  Of course she was a talker.
        “Frank.”
        The flowery Sally gave me another charming smile.  Then she pushed her carry-on the rest of the way into the overhead compartment and bent to pick up her key chains.  She sat in the aisle seat next to me and the jangle they made grated against my already frayed nerves.  Like she was sawing my brain with them instead of flipping through them like they were a stress reliever.  And naturally she was jabbering away the entire time.
        I tried to focus on the emails I’d opened on my phone while the plane taxied out to the runway, but for some reason my eyes kept being drawn back to those ridiculous key chains.  There was Micky Mouse.  I could only imagine from Disneyland.  The Eiffel tower.  Either Paris or LA.  I couldn’t see her type enjoying LA, but I also had a hard time seeing her affording a trip to Paris.  A glittery one in all colors of the rainbow must have meant she had grandchildren.
        Then my eyes landed on one that seemed somehow different from the others.  In what way, I couldn’t figure out.  I almost dismissed it as another crafty thing her grandchildren had made her.  But something about it made me look again.  Perhaps it was the strange order in which the beads were arranged; or maybe it was the gleaming spots on some of them revealing how often she held this particular chain.  Whatever it was, I couldn’t stop glancing at it.
        Then, as the plane reached altitude, I became aware of a stark lack of chatter.  I glanced at the woman.  What was her name again?  Sally.
        She was staring at me with an unnerving look in her eyes.  Like all my sly peeking hadn’t fooled her for a second.  Like she knew every thought that had gone through my head and knew exactly what sort of man I was.  A shiver ran down my spine.
        Then she looked back down at the chain, releasing me from her piercing gaze.  I dragged in a deep breath as quietly as I could.  What was with this woman?  I started tapping out a reply to my boss’s email.
        “You know, I’ve had this particular key chain for a long time,” she said.  “I made it myself, actually.”
        I glanced sideways at her.
        “Really?  I never would have guessed.”  My dripping sarcasm didn’t phase her.
        “Yup.  It actually tells a whole story, too.”
        Oh no.  I was in …
        “Would you like to hear it?”
trouble.  Crap.  If I said yes, I would be stuck listening to old lady stories for the entire trip.  But if I said no, I’d come off as a heartless jerk.  Which normally wouldn’t bother me, except we were both stuck on this plane.  Being rude to embezzling CEOs, criminal masterminds, and multimillionaires was one thing.  Being rude to harmless, kindly old ladies – especially kindly old ladies I would be sitting next to for two hours straight – was just … Well, let’s just say I was even less eager to endure her glares for the entire trip.
        I glanced back at Sally and nearly groaned at the hopeful look in her eyes.  What was I getting myself into?
        “Why not?  Tell me the story.”
        Then, the strangest thing happened.  She started telling me all about Jesus, the same Jesus I’d learned about in Sunday School as a kid.  Only she began explaining things I’d never thought about, showing me new perspectives I’d never considered.  Without even realizing it, I had tucked my phone away and was soon not simply listening, but asking all kinds of questions.  Questions about Jesus, about faith, about life.  Where only moments before I had thought I had everything I could possibly want, I now felt empty.  Moments ago I had contemplated spending a night with my wife like she was a risky asset, and now being two hours away from her felt like an eternity.
        My boss had told me the breaking news was halfway across the country.  But he was wrong.  The breaking news was 30,000 feet in the air, tucked inside the heart of a sweet and caring grandmother.