When I first started writing in middle and high school, I wondered how my story ideas could be so creative yet my characters could fall so flat. What could be cooler than an interplanetary explorer? Or an urban witch disguised as a homeless woman? Why did no one fall in love with the changeling living next door to the protagonist? It was during a blunt critique that I found the answer. Your characters are too perfect. They speak like grammar instructors. They don't seem real. And that was just it: my characters didn't have any flaws. They were not human.
Shakespeare's characters have endured so long because there is something deeply human and recognizable about them. Indeed, by the time he met them, some of Shakespeare's characters had already existed for hundreds of years. Borrowing from history and legend, Shakespeare dipped his quill into that deep well of humanity - a collection of shared experiences gathered in a pool as deep as our souls.
This depth contains all that makes us human: our hopes, our fears, our darkest machinations, and our best intentions. Especially those gone awry. Lust and love, passion and jealousy, self-loathing and arrogance. It's that dark pool of truth that makes characters likeable - and detestable. The worst thing that can be said for a character is that the reader just doesn't care about him. Better to be hated than forgotten. We cringe at Iago's manipulations, at Lady Macbeth's deadly bout of ambition, at Lord Hamlet's infuriating lack of action. We bite our lips at Romeo and Juliet's tragic haste. And yet there's something about these flaws that resonates with us. We walk with the character on the page, recognizing his ill-conceived ideas but rooting for him all the same. "Don't open the door," we might plead to a character, knowing he's going to open it anyway, and knowing we would do the same.
Someone once asked me why I read. I answered: to know that I am not alone. When I follow the great characters in literature, I see that the flaws that exist within me have existed for centuries. They are part of me and part of all humans. Jay Gatsby overinflated a dream. Tom Joad refused to give in to impossible circumstances. Janie Mae Crawford-Killicks-Starks-Woods waited twenty years, weathering frustrating relationships and marriages with the faith that eventually, she would find true happiness. I see bits and pieces of myself in the characters I read, and it's reassuring. Everyone struggles. Everyone faces adversity. It's what being human is all about.
Homer. Chaucer. Shakespeare. The Bard is an archetype whose duty it is to preserve our humanity for the ages. In penning "The Shake Sphere," I wondered what would happen if a poet were tasked with restoring humanity after an apocalypse. Would the poet endeavor to create a utopia, free of man's flaws? The answer is a resounding no. A true poet would recognize those flaws as an inherent part of mankind. If the world were perfect, if humans lived without conflict, if every ending was a happy one, then the world would be a forgettable place indeed.
And that just might possibly be a fate far worse than no world at all.
The experiment exploded in a brilliant flash, one Versil couldn't help appreciating even though it meant the end of his doctoral work. The annihilation sent a shockwave through space, testing the integrity of Versil's spacecraft. It was the celestial flash of billions of souls flaring into nothingness. As the wave dissipated and the calm of space returned, Versil realized it was only the distance of the solar system from the university--and its monitoring equipment--that prevented Versil's immediate expulsion.
"Oops," he mumbled as the last particles disappeared from view.
"Damn, Ver," Merillos said, double-checking his monitor, "you totally destroyed your experiment. Dr. Frebil warned you about the combustion of all those gases in the planet. He told you not to heat it up too quickly."
"Well good for Dr. Frebil," Versil said. But his tone could not hide his concern. He wiped a bead of sweat from his purple brow and checked his comm. "How long do you think it'll be before he finds out?"
Merillos checked his comm. "We're pretty far out. The university hardly comes out to this quadrant. Could be a while."
The two were silent as Merillos whisked through information on his screen.
Versil mused. "I hadn't finished gathering artifacts. I'll never be able to complete my thesis now. Though I guess that's the least of my problems."
"Maybe not," said Merillos. He pointed to his screen. "According to these reports, this quadrant is rarely scanned. And it was just scanned before the university approved your thesis research. They won't be back anytime soon." He watched the wreckage in space. "If only we could--recreate the planet..."
"Why not? We have data from our scans. We know about its density, its composition. We can gather most of the elements from the stardust around here, and anything else can be easily synthesized. It's a primitive planet. I could do it for you."
"Really? You could recreate it?"
"It wouldn't be perfect, but it should be enough. Besides, why would the university waste time with such a strange ecosystem? Useless creatures."
"Hmmm." Versil flipped through the notes on his screen. "How will we repopulate it, though?"
"All I promise is I'll rebuild the planet for you. After that, you're on your own. It's your thesis."
"Alright," Versil said. But Merillos wasn't listening. He was already deeply engaged in his research, getting ready to rebuild the blue planet as best as he could. So Versil trudged with worry into the artifact room to see what he could recreate of life on the blue planet.
* * * *
It took little more than a lesson from his second year in Beta School for Merillos to recreate the planet. His standard-issue gravity orb had more than enough power to jump-start a core for the small planet, and the required elements were easily found in the vicinity of the recent destruction.
"I've even improved things by stabilizing the planet's molten interior, decreasing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions," Merillos boasted as he and his colleague stared out at the new planet from their spacecraft.
"The similarity is impressive," Versil admitted. It was his way of thanking his peer. Maybe now he wouldn't get expelled after all.
"How's the search for life going?" Merillos asked.
Versil sighed, slicking back his front gills. "You know I didn't have time to finish my research. I have a not-quite-exhaustive array of genetic samples. Not quite enough to create the proper genetic diversity, but enough to get by - for now." Versil slid a file from his comm to his peer's, displaying a list of all the life he had collected and catalogued.
"You're missing something," Merillos said. "What about the predominant species? The humanoids? The whole premise of your doctoral thesis rested with you studying the primitive habits of the planet's dominant species when placed under planetary climate change. Gradual climate planetary change."
"I know, I know. And it was going so well until the explosion..." Versil led Merillos into the lab behind the ship's controls. There, a full-sized humanoid floated in a vat of pink liquid. "I grew him while you were recreating the planet," Versil said. "I based him off of a compilation of samples I collected. The biology is there, but - these things aren't intuitive like the other lifeforms I've collected." He motioned to a few examples he had grown: rodents and insects filled various cages and containers, all moving and functioning normally.
"What's wrong with this one?"
The two researchers looked at the being in the liquid, now comatose, his body being fed by various tubes.
"He was just - sitting there. Not doing anything. Just sitting. Prey. I couldn't release that onto the planet. Look how inferior it is. These humanoids, their minds are not - preinstalled. I've got to crack their code and upload information into their brains. It's a step unnecessary with the others."
"So upload it, already."
Versil disappeared into his personal chamber and repapered with a brick of an artifact.
"It was found in my preliminary search for artifacts. It is a code - a guide to the predominant species written by an early god. He was called The Shake Sphere. The name, roughly translated, refers to the sphere of life he once created around him, and he left clues for those living after him - clues in this codex."
Merillos fingered the book. "Such ancient technology. It's a wonder the species lasted any time at all. Now how can we use this knowledge? Can we summon the Shake Sphere?"
Versil shook his head. "He was a biological deity. Bound by flesh. But I've managed to collect genetic samples from The Shake Sphere's tomb. The code is specific, but its language is difficult. The raw genetic materials fit together alright." He motioned to the humanoid body in the other room. "But the other specification - the brain functions - I don't understand them. And the translator isn't helping."
Merillos held up his portable comm. "Send me all your life files. I'll get to work populating the planet with these lesser species," he said. "You best start cracking the Shake Sphere's code - or you'll be expelled." With that, he loaded a genetic replicator into a pod and headed toward the surface, leaving his friend to the thick, ancient tome.
* * * *
Merillos had already populated the mammals in the northern hemisphere when he returned to find Versil pouring over the text. Suspended in a liquid vat before him was the brainless humanoid from earlier along with two others, all connected to wires and nodes as they floated in oblivion.
"Is this all you've done?" Merillos scolded. "I've gone and regenerated the mammalian species of half a planet, and you've created two measly humanoids?"
Versil whisked him away with his tail. "If you weren't finished, then why'd you even come back? To gloat?"
"No," Merillos said. "I was hungry. But now I'm kind of worried. You don't get those creatures down to the surface to start breeding, you're going to have a problem once the chancellor finds out."
"Don't remind me!"
"Well then what's taking so long?"
"I told you, without me inputting information into their minds, they just sit there." Versil pointed to the book. "The code is so dense. The translator doesn't work. The text is filled with so many references I just don't have the context to figure out. Translating this tome itself is the work of a lifetime, its own doctoral project."
"What can I do to help?"
Versil pointed in frustration. "I re-grew a few specimens from my genetic samples - as you can see." The two new bodies floated in the nutrient bath. They were not quite as developed yet as the first body. The newest one, a male, was still waifish, and his eyes stared blankly. "See, the minds are blank. I don't have much to work with. The humanoids' minds develop through their lives, it seems, rather than at creation. So their minds are blank. I need to overlay them with instructions from The Shake Sphere. I've chosen three bodies according to the specifications in the book. The first one is called The Hamlet. The other is called The Ophelia. The last one, the male, is called The Laertes. The code for their minds is right here." He tapped the book.
"So what's the problem, then?"
"I told you. It's too dense. Too foreign. I can't make sense of it."
Merillos squinted down at the page. "It makes no sense. There must be a translator key somewhere."
"There's none. Problem is, there's more than the literal here. And anything that might help us has been destroyed. There's only one place I can go for help, but I can't do it by myself. We'll have to work together. And luckily I had the foresight for it: before the explosion, I took his entire tomb, body and all, onto our ship." He motioned to a stone slab in the corner of the lab.
Versil nodded. "The tomb of The Shake Sphere."
* * * *
It took a bit more than a second-year class at the Beta School to reconstruct the corpse. So much of the body had decayed that a level four scan was required even before they could construct the body. And while the new body grew in its gestational bath, Versil and Merillos worked tirelessly, taking turns at the microscope in search of salvageable cells and cell fragments they could use to reconstruct The Shake Sphere's consciousness and memories. The work was painstaking and boring, and they entertained each other while they worked.
"This codex is written in a metrical pattern," Versil observed as he read through something called Measure for Measure while Merillos sat at the microscope.
"Perhaps that is what gave The Shake Sphere his power." Merillos checked the progress of the humanoid. "His language synapses are constructed. Check them for references to meter."
Versil flipped through The Shake Sphere's neural network. "No sign of metrical pattern in the language sector."
"You'd better put it in there, then. If the communication parameters are not accurate, our attempt might fail. Maybe the use of meter is what gave him power."
"Very well," Versil said, making some adjustments. "Now he only speaks in meter.'
"His memories are recovering well, given the state in which we found him."
"It's exhausting work," Merillos said. "It's too bad this can't be our doctoral work. If only we could show the university just how much work we've put in - "
Versil shot him a look.
"I know, I know." Merillos sighed. "But you have to admit, it takes a steady mind to reconstruct an entire consciousness from a rotten pile of bones."
Versil frowned. "Yes, but I'm worried. If we have to do to this amount of work every time we create a humanoid - to go through each sample cell-by-cell - I might as well withdraw from the university now."
"Not so fast, Ver. Let's just see if this works before you consider dropping out."
* * * *
When it was completed, The Shake Sphere looked so animated, even in his watery tomb, that it frightened Versil. Just a little. Versil eyed the creature. His eyes were already open - they weren't programmed to be - and there was something behind those eyes, something he hadn't seen before. Something frightening. A thought flashed through Versil's mind - that he wished he hadn't ever tried for his degree, that he was safe at home working a menial job, safe and bored and far away from those piercing, penetrating eyes.
Merillos punched him in the gills. "Come on, what's wrong with you?" Merillos manipulated the controls, draining the liquid from the specimen's container. The Shake Sphere's chest rose as he took his first breath.
"It's... alive at least," Merillos said, checking the monitors and lifting the forcefield containment.
But Versil's eyes remained locked with the humanoid's. The glassy eyes already darted from side to side as he observed his new surroundings. And when the eyes caught sight of Versil, they flung themselves open impossibly wide. They were terribly detailed, unlike most eyes on the planet and unlike any from Versil's home. No, these were orbs of color surrounded by a wide, glowing white.
The Shake Sphere stood staring with all muscles taut, his breathing rapid and deep. Then he licked his lips with a fat, pink tongue, took one more breath, and then he spoke:
"But what of this I cannot make unless..."
This time, even Merillos leapt back. The Shake Sphere's voice boomed through the laboratory. Its timbre echoed with more conviction than any species Versil had ever heard - including his own. There was a mysterious power in his voice, one Merillos and Versil could not explain. And it terrified them.
"The chill of death engendered in my bone
And monsters fanciful to human eye;
Demonic witch's brew did I consume?
Or else, by heaven's light, I must have died - "
He stared at the creatures and they stared back. Then he continued:
"What gods are these with blue tinct in their skin
That radiates the light like heaven's eyes?
Or wingless angels sent to guide me Home?
Or Satan's mongers - death a second time?"
With this last thought, he drew back in fear. Merillos and Versil stood simply staring, observing.
"I don't understand him," Versil said after running the conversation through his translator. "The way he speaks - it doesn't follow any archetypal linguistic pattern."
Merillos, too, was reviewing the creature's speech. "Something about death," he said finally. "He seems to think he's dead."
"Tell him he's not."
Merillos spoke the words into the translator. They came out in a monotone. The Shake Sphere not dead.
This seemed to thrill The Shake Sphere.
"By providence, I've everlasting life!
Of what relation are you to the Christ?
And is this heaven's gate? And may I live
Within the golden halls, my sins forgiv'd?"
Merillos looked at Versil. They waited for the rough translation. "He doesn't understand," Versil said.
Not dead, they told him through the translator once more. Fix humanoids. Merillos pointed to the three humanoids floating in the embryonic fluid. Need brains. Minds. The Shake Sphere started at their lifelessness, his skin draining of color. Versil picked up the tome and brought it to the table. The Shake Sphere followed but did not sit. He trembled.
"And am I to reside without a stitch?
The cold-kissed air of ever-present death?"
He looked at the skin-tight body suits worn by the students and took them for skin.
"Or do I like Adam and Eve reside
With naught to be ashamed and naught to hide?"
The speech translated.
"Get him some clothes," Versil snapped.
Merillos placed a robe on The Shake Sphere's shoulders, and the creature sat down. Versil pushed the tome towards him, and the creature's eyes widened as he ran his fingers along the gold lettering of the cover. He read aloud: "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Unabridged." The creature flipped from page to page, spreading his awe with his fingers as he slid his hands along the paper.
"Then truly," he began, looking up at Merillos and Versil, "I am in the presence of
The ministers of heaven's gracious wealth."
"He doesn't get it," Versil said. He pointed to the creatures growing before him. "Hamlet," he said, pointing to the first. "Ophelia. Fix them. Brains. Thoughts."
"Hamlet?" The Shake Sphere repeated once the translator did its work. "Ophelia? I can't believe - " He rose and approached the growing life forms. He stared into the blank eyes of the creations and put his hand against the forcefields.
Merillos and Versil tensed.
"They are but pictures only, sure as I
Imagined them; but underneath there lurks -
Nothing. As if the fire within their hearts
Extinguished, or never was alight."
Versil tried again. "Fix them. Science," the translator told The Shake Sphere, though it could not communicate Versil's frustration. "Formulas. Theorems. Mathematics." The Shake Sphere's eyes flashed with recognition, and he spoke:
"I cannot work through science; it is
Another muse who through me does her work.
I wield not astrolabs or rods, but pens;
For it is through my pen that I create
My characters, their worlds, their twists of fate.
And through my pen the sweet ambrosia flows,
A lifetime's joys, the soul's extensive throes
With pen and ink my worlds I engender
As if with blood: man's woes and godly splendor."
Merillos looked at Versil, and Versil looked at Merillos as the translator worked. "Your pen, you say, is the source of your creative power?"
"And with it I can build you any world," The Shake Sphere told them.
It wasn't The Shake Sphere's eyes that widened this time as the two students worked quickly to see what materials they had to create an old-fashioned pen.
* * * *
The software interface was one Merillos could have built even before Beta School. It was a simple program, translating brain impulses to computer code that could be uploaded into the growing creatures. It was an unnecessary skill on the homeworld, for never had there been such a creative mind as The Shake Sphere's. The creature's eyes flashed with brilliance as he grasped his pen. Despite the leaps in technology since his lifetime, The Shake Sphere insisted upon the archaic inkwell and lofty plume before he agreed to write a word. His eyes were wide, for a thousand ideas flashed through his brain, and he paused to sort them out. And then a bit of calm washed over his countenance, for all the pieces had fallen into place in his mind. They needed only to be written now. And so with bright eyes and an adrenaline smile, The Shake Sphere brought quill to paper to pen his latest masterpiece. And he called it -
* * * *
Val Muller grew up in Connecticut and now lives in Virginia with her husband and dogs. She teaches high school English and writes during her spare time. Her work has appeared in a handful of magazines and anthologies. Her first novel, Corgi Capers: Deceit on Dorset Drive, is a middle-grade mystery novel inspired by her two corgis and the stories neighborhood children asked her to tell while walking the dogs around the neighborhood. You can keep track of her at http://mercuryval.wordpress.com.
Penumbra's next issue will be released on March 1, 2012