Writing Subliminal Messages (Part III)

Following some blog posts on fathers and mothers in fiction/fantasy, I realised that I had more on writing subliminal messages in stories. So, here we shall continue with the topic.

The Wise Father Who Is Not So Wise

As I wrote in the first fathers of fantasy blog post, the Wise Father is the archetypal father. Indeed, he is the kind of father that a child looks up to (and the same is true for the audience, vicariously). This is because everything the Wise Father seems to say or do is right. Plus, he has great knowledge, intellect and a strong sense of justice.

However, for all the Wise Father’s wisdom, he always has a blind spot. This blind spot (weakness if you like) is his fatal flaw and what gets him killed in the narrative. This tells us that even the wisest cannot see everything, and that what they can’t see can hurt them in ways they are beyond their imagination/wisdom.

Example – Mufasa

If Mufasa were so wise, how did he get himself into a situation not only left him exposed, but also put his son and his kingdom in danger?

Mufasa from The Lion King (1994) is the ultimate Wise Father. He is strong; brave when he has to be; intelligent; and a good king and father. Simba, his young son, looks up to him. As a young cub, Simba probably thinks he will never live up to his father’s brilliance. (Maybe he never does.)

And, yet, for all Mufasa’s wisdom, he fails to see Scar for the inverted, dark mirror image of himself, that he is. For Scar is cunning, scheming and deeply resentful. But, crucially, no less intelligent. In short, Scar is an evil genius, and Mufasa fails to realise this until Scar has him where he wants him.

Mufasa’s failure makes us question how wise the Wise Father really is. After-all, if he were that smart, how comes he failed to see his rival for what he was? Again, the subliminal message here is that the Wise Father is not as wise as we initially thought. Mufasa’s/the Wise Father’s failure puts all those he loves, and everything he cares about, in peril. So, is he still wise?

Honour Is Not Straight Forward

The term ‘honour’ or ‘honourable’ is bandied around a lot, particularly around (supposedly) noble heroes. The word ‘honour’ is defined in Dictionary.com as: honesty, fairness, or integrity in one’s beliefs and actions.

While I am not one to dispute the esteemed dictionary’s meaning, in practice honour is a lot more complicated. Rarely, is it as black and white as Dictionary.com makes it look. For what does ‘honesty,’ ‘fairness’ or ‘integrity in one’s beliefs and actions’ actually mean in practice?

Examples From A Song of Ice & Fire

A Song of Ice & Fire is notorious for its morally dubious characters. That is why the next two subheadings will examine four different characters to illustrate that honour is never clear-cut.

Comparison 1 – Lord Eddard Stark vs Lord Tywin Lannister

Lord Eddard Stark is the closest character to a Tolkien-esque, conventional hero in A Song of Ice & Fire. In the series, Lord Eddard is regarded almost unanimously as the ‘honourable’ Ned Stark. But this is a man who we meet beheading a deserter from the Night’s Watch. This is a man who rebelled against his former king (conveniently afterwards dubbed the ‘Mad King’), whilst judging Ser Jaime Lannister negatively for betraying and killing that same ‘Mad King.’

Moreover, Lord Eddard is so honourable that he is incapable of seeing (let alone managing) the treachery at court, which gets him betrayed and beheaded. Therefore, if Lord Eddard is the epitome of honour, why would anyone strive to have this trait?

Conversely, Lord Tywin Lannister is not a man considered to be honourable. This is because he is an antagonist, cunning and utterly ruthless. Nevertheless, in A Storm of Swords, Ser Kevan Lannister, his brother, refers to Lord Tywin as a ‘just’ man, who has acted no more harshly than he’s had to. As a consequence of killing the Reynes of Castamere and treacherously sacking King’s Landing, amidst other crimes, Lord Tywin brought order and stability to an otherwise unruly land.

Granted, Lord Tywin is more feared than loved. But he is no less honest or fair than Lord Eddard, and nor does he act with any less integrity to his beliefs (in the furtherance of House Lannister) than Lord Eddard. Plus, Lord Tywin does not get betrayed and rules the Seven Kingdoms with great effectiveness. So, is Lord Tywin more honourable than Lord Eddard?

Comparison 2 – Ser Jaime Lannister vs Ser Barristan Selmy

writing subliminal messages - the honour of Ser Jaime v that of Ser Barristan
Why is Ser Jaime villified for being dishonourable when he saved lives and Ser Barristan merely did nothing and watched as King Aerys committed crimes?

Arguably, no-one in the series typifies morally grey characters more than Ser Jaime Lannister. Casterly Rock’s golden lion becomes a member of the Kingsguard, before going on to betray and stab the King he vowed to defend.

Ostensibly, this makes Jaime a villain. But Ser Jaime stabbed the Mad King in the back to stop him from burning the capital. By doing this, he saved half a million people. That’s not something to scoff at. Many would argue that he did the right thing by killing King Aerys. So, why is Ser Jaime derided for being dishonourable?

By comparison, let’s look at Ser Barristan Selmy, who represents a supposedly chivalric, honourable knight. In the run up to Robert’s Rebellion, Ser Barristan stood by and watched as the Mad King locked up Brandon Stark and burned Lord Rickard Stark alive. In the histories and lore that accompany Game of Thrones, Ser Barristan says: “I had sworn a vow to a mad king, and I was honour-bound to obey him. Even at the cost of my own soul.”

Does honour really demand that of someone? To some extent, who cares about a vow when you can save innocent people?

Circles And Society

Imagery is extremely powerful in art and one of the ways of writing subliminal messages. Without saying a word, the image talks directly to you to the point of leaving an imprint on your mind.

When it comes to depicting society, circles are perfect. This is because they crudely show who is in the circle and, crucially, who is not. In other words, circles emphasise who fits into society and who is on the outside (at least, according to the author’s viewpoint of the society he is depicting).

Example – Frankenstein’s Creature

The Creature does not look ‘beautiful’ (according to his society). Moreover, he neither knows how to dress nor how to behave. It is small wonder he doesn’t fit in.

In Frankenstein, the ballet, Dr Victor Frankenstein is marrying his fiancée, Elizabeth. At the wedding, the great and the good from their society are dancing in a circle. Then, the monstrous, ill-made Creature appears.

The Creature lurks, leers and creeps around the circle of good-looking, well-put-together people. The subliminal message could not be clearer: the Creature is not one of them. It looks different, dresses incorrectly, and has the wrong approach and etiquette to be part of that society.

This can apply to anybody who has been rejected by a particular society that they want to be part of; or because they do not feel that they fit into a certain society, at any given moment.

A Leap of Faith

A leap of faith is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s jumping away from a situation that you are (too) familiar with, in the hope that you will land on safe ground and go on to succeed in one capacity or another.

Yet, taking a leap of faith means having to do away with a safety net or rope. Either (the net or the rope) holds you back from growing as a character and from enabling you to fulfil your goals/potential.

Example – Bruce Wayne Makes The Jump

After being beaten in a fist fight with Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne finds himself in a hellish pit. The only way out is to make the climb and jump.

With the rope attached to him for safety, Bruce tries twice and fails. It is only when he realises that the only way to make the leap is to jump without the rope that he succeeds. Without the rope, Bruce has to face his fears again, and conquer them once more.

His successful jump ensures that his (metaphorical) rebirth is complete. Plus, it entails that he can return to Gotham reinvigorated to save it from Bane.

writing subliminal messages - the leap of faith
Bruce Wayne, in the pit, jumping to make the leap without the rope/safety net. After-all, you cannot really make a leap of faith with either.

When The Narrative Makes Fun Of Its Characters

We will discuss this point next time around. In the meantime, thank you for reading Part III on writing subliminal messaging. As ever, I hope you have found it useful and interesting.

Let me know what you think of these subliminal messages in the comments below, and keep well,


PS: If you enjoyed this blog post on writing subliminal messages and would like to be the first to receive Part IV, fill in the short form below:

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