The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.
“Calvin” is, as the author’s notes describe, “a difficult story to read due to the sheer nastiness of the characters.” But it also caught my eye this month through its careful work with tone, worldbuilding, pacing, and a layered internal conflict. So this month, I’d like to talk about how to dig a little deeper on the idea of sympathetic and unsympathetic characters, and identifying the driving action of a piece.
“Calvin” is deeply textural: smells, sounds, colours, wear and tear, tastes, a world that’s built of little realistic contradictions and things that don’t work quite right. The vivid imagery makes a scene that’s largely internal—three young men saying nasty things about other people—alive and propulsive, and the way the worldbuilding rises in the background of those everyday interactions fits the speculative element, the copies, into the story in a way that feels organic and grounded. Pair that with a well-paced delivery of new information—this doesn’t feel like 5,000 words, never mind 5,000 words of an intro—and the fundamental craft here is sound.
But I want to address that question of nastiness: what made Brett, Tom, and Willie’s awfulness tolerable, for me, to read? There are a few factors in play here.
The first is that it’s immediately clear that the narrative doesn’t endorse Brett in the slightest. The opening lines—”Maybe we weren’t human. Then again, maybe we were”—immediately set an emotional and ethical framework for what follows. They create a manual for reading “Calvin”: readers are supposed to be weighing and judging this behaviour.
As the piece continues its portrayal of Brett, the hardest-line of the three, is ungrotesquely but consistently unflattering: “his pale white belly spilling over the tops of his faded Wranglers like a pasty, freckled slug”; his father as the tightly paired “charismatic minister” and “town nuisance”. While it’s definitely a problem when we equate bad and physically ugly in our work, there’s a technique in play here that made this read differently for me. What’s being communicated, deeply embedded in Tom’s POV and through features that could have been described neutrally or are socially neutral, is Tom’s contempt for Brett. As a character, Tom notices deeply unflattering things about Brett, compared to how he describes Willie, despite Willie’s particular brand of ugliness.
And yet, it’s not uncompassionate: the story—and Tom himself—seem to clearly understand why Brett is who he is, that he’s aping his father, that there is a tangle of love and approval and posturing and shame driving him. Similarly, he seems to understand Willie: his fear of knives, the scarring of finding his father’s body, that he’ll say both helpful and hurtful things mostly to provoke. That combination of noticing, understanding, contempt, dismissal, compassion makes Tom’s distanced evaluations of his friendships feel real, but also makes it a little safer to trust Tom as a POV character. He can evaluate and admit fault, and he can see the reasons behind behaviours and complexities, so he can be trusted to narrate with reasonable reliability. Tom seems vaguely aware that he’s being goaded, that he can be goaded; that he’s not precisely a good person. That he’s doing a wrong thing.
The second is—returning to Brett’s hardline bigotry—that theirs is an awfulness with gradations. Brett, Tom, and Willie aren’t of one mind about the world. Despite being together, and having a sort of tacit agreement to not draw hard lines on each other, they give each other a lot of shit and disagreement, cloaked in the kind of ribbing some men do. The layers of endorsement and non-endorsement between them make them more complex characters in a more complex web of interaction, and also takes away the worry that “Calvin” is trying to push an ideology or sell something—even something as simple as “men like this are bad”.
The most important cue is, ultimately, back in those first lines. They present not just a framework but a tonal cue—this is a story about retrospective queasiness—that tells readers this story isn’t just going to portray awful behaviour, but meaningfully engage with the question of what was wrong with us then?
There can be, I think, a certain struggle about how graphically we want our work to portray terrible behaviours, traumas, or awful things. Depiction is not always endorsement, no, but depiction can clearly be hurtful. What was ultimately interesting about “Calvin” for me, though, was that it moves past non-endorsement into active, thoughtful engagement. Tom is wrestling with himself and his friends, and with the why of something awful that is clearly coming. We are seeing these things for a purpose. The purpose is better understanding, or resolution, or clarity, and it’s on the other side.
This means the subject matter of “Calvin”—its internal arc of conflict—isn’t actually prurient or violent behaviour but self-examination; that this story is so far one of coming to grips with oneself, and that is a highly sympathetic, engaging, and relatable trait in a narrator.
When evaluating whether a character is sympathetic, I think it’s worthwhile to note that the relatable behaviour—the sympathy—can be a few layers down in the narrative and still work, so long as there’s a point for readerly connection. And that’s, for me, the aspect that pulled me through “Calvin” and would have me read the next two parts.
As for things to look at in revision—which is difficult with a partial story!—I would suggest toning Brett down a touch. The dialect only he speaks is a bit much on the eye for me as a reader, especially since they all grew up in the same place and should speak similar dialects. Especially in the paragraph where he’s suggesting attacking Calvin, he’s also laying it on a bit thick. Paring that back would, I think, keep him from veering into cartoonish, or the “Ain’t natural” from hitting so squarely on the nose.
I’m also tempted to suggest trimming around the paragraphs with the bikes, although it’s hard to evaluate from only a third of a full story. I can say, though, that my attention wanders there. Once the decision to go after Calvin’s been made, a certain amount of the scene after feels just like obstruction between it and the narrative payoff—how this goes wrong next—until they’re traveling down the roadway, and Tom’s history with the town reconnects the story for me again.
As it stands, though, I think this is a promising first third, one that combines solid craft, regret, and the mounting foreboding of something awful in the wind with several balancing tonal factors. I’m interested to see how it concludes.
Best of luck!
–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)