Why Orphans Are So Important in Stories

Oliver TwistFrom Charles Dickens to countless modern works, including some of my own stories, orphans are among the most common characters in fiction. I find this especially true in fantasy – so much so that The Orphan might have its own place among the pantheon of other iconic fantasy figures such as The Soldier, The Peasant, The King. But at what point do these figures become bland labels that define the character more than his or her actual traits?

Fantasy, a genre that so often pulls characters from the grab bag of tropes on display in either The Lord of the Rings or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, has received countless literary complaints over its apparent lack of variety. When a book’s first act describes a backwoods young farmer – unwise to the ways of the world (and obviously having some convenient prior experience with weapons via hunting) – I automatically assume that said farmer will be sitting on a throne before the end. Continue reading

Stranger than Fiction

Sometimes our world offers up images that really are stranger than fiction.

Photo taken by Andrew Biraj.

Photo taken by Andrew Biraj.

This is a photo I found on Time Magazine’s website. Here’s the URL if you want to see more: http://lightbox.time.com/2013/01/25/pictures-of-the-week-january-18-january-25/#23. The caption reads simply: ” boy plays with balloons by Buriganga river as smoke emits from a dump yard during sunset in Dhaka.”

I don’t know why, out of all the other photos I looked at, this one stuck with me. When I first saw it I didn’t think, “Now, that’s a pic I can blog about. The title will read ‘Stranger than Fiction.'” I looked at the rest then left my computer for a while before coming back and finding it again.

It’s like a dream. That one image. An odd, hazy sort of dream half remembered. A boy grips a cluster of balloons and stands in the middle of a world of smoke and waste. (That would have been my caption).

It’s one of those dreams from which you wake somehow still emotionally invested in a story you can’t recall. Who was that boy? His features are indistinct. You can’t remember his smile or the color of his eyes. But you have the color of his dazzling balloons. You have the smoldering ground he stands on. You can almost smell it — the sick and sulfur smell of that world.

I don’t know why this image affected me the way it did, but sometimes we look at things like this and we think, “Wow, that photographer captured the lighting and color so well. I wish I could do that.”

Sure. he did. But I caught myself thinking about that kid. Nothing distinct. Just thoughts about who he was and where he was headed.

From the picture it looks like his reality is stranger than my fiction.

Maybe that’s all we need to understand.

Madison Bridge: A Short, Short Story

Just a little story on the eve of Christmas.


A light snow fell as Charlie Reardon left the diner and made his way down Madison Street. Had anyone been watching, they would have noticed that his gait matched the look of someone walking through a light snow after leaving a diner alone. Had he been walking up Madison Street, he might have been standing a little straighter, and his hands might not have been crammed so deep in his pockets. But Charlie Reardon was traveling down Madison, and his thoughts slid ahead of him to wander about the bridge and peer out into the black, mid-December river.

He shrugged so that his collar scattered the fine powder that clung to his neck. Twice he slowed his steps and almost paused before the neon storefronts to avoid his destination. Let the chill and the bridge and the water wait for a few moments longer. They could wait. But he couldn’t. Not in good conscience. Not even after his solitary evening in the diner. It felt safer to avoid thoughts of the bridge until he came to it.

Madison Bridge was not long. Two streetlights bowed formally to each other in the center, and Charlie walked along the edge until he stood just outside the rim of light. He faced the river, watching the snow falling to meet the semi-frozen water.

“I’m betting you’d go numb in under five seconds. That’s if you didn’t just hit thick ice.”

Charlie didn’t turn toward the speaker. He closed his eyes and thought about the voice for a moment; it was just as he remembered it. Still with his eyes closed, he said, “The ice is thin. City hasn’t opened the skating ranks yet.” He expected a retort. Was mildly surprised.

“Do a lot of skating?”

It was a strange question. “Alice and I went together once. She had to hold me up most of the time,” said Charlie. He still hadn’t looked at the speaker, but he could picture him nodding and rubbing at his unshaven face, maybe the ghost of a smile picking at the edges of his thin lips.

“You and Alice married yet?”

Charlie looked over at his father. “Alice is five months pregnant. Our anniversary was two weeks ago.” The edge in his voice that he had imagined, had planned for, died when he looked at the old man.

Henry Reardon was indeed rubbing his rough chin. He was rubbing it furiously. “Guess I haven’t been around much.”

Charlie said nothing.

“I stopped smoking.” The old man shuffled his feet.

“You came all this way to tell me you stopped smoking?”

The beard-rubbing continued. “No. It’s about your mother.”

“She’s not my mother,” Charlie said, but he regretted his words.

Henry’s expression became urgent as if he had just clamped his hand on Charlie’s arm. “Stepmother. It’s about your stepmother, Charlie. She…she left me.” His voice cracked, and Charlie felt sweat tickle his armpits despite the chill.

Charlie’s father leaned on the rail, imitating his son’s position, and the two of them stared into the freezing river below Madison Bridge.

“You never met me at the diner,” Charlie said softly. “I think I understand.”

“Will you let me learn how to be a grandfather?” Henry whispered.

“Not for a few months yet.”