Of Saints, Freaks, and Weird-Looking Lizard Guys

In speculative fiction as in all art, it’s important to balance realism with fantasy. Your characters may have physiologies unlike those of any creature on this planet, they may live in floating cities or carry on photosynthesis with their antennae, but their behavior and emotional lives had better ring true, and the internal logic of the secondary world had better remain consistent, or your story is sunk.

I’ve written fantasy stories for most of my adult life, and once I had kids I started taking a professional interest in the world-crafting they did through play. My son was a stickler for accuracy from a young age, especially regarding his pet subject, dinosaurs. He demanded strict realism from dino models; the sight of a poorly executed plastic lizard with a random crest or horn irritated him as badly as the word “Brontosaurus.” Once approved and in his possession, though, Daniel’s models led lives of a sort unknown to any taxonomical order or family of Reptilia, building fortresses, forming alliances, and holding feasts to rival those of the Geats and Jutes.

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We got rid of our TV when Daniel was around three and rarely saw movies; my kids’ first exposure to comic books happened in their teens. Their imaginative lives, therefore, were largely unaffected by franchises directed to children. They had to make up origin stories and sometimes names for many of the random action figures we acquired from yard sales. These included a maroon Batman, a Goliath (his back story, at least, was easy to verify), and a Riddler who sported a backpack with a capturing loop thing that could be launched over victims. Some action figure personas were mysteries to Greg and myself as well as to the kids—like Wrench Man, who wore big clamping wrench things on his shoulders for I know not what purpose, and Chief, an armor-suited guy equipped with a jet pack, a hook, and a bubble mask that could have indicated a life in space or the deep sea, or both. Most bafflingly of all, pushing a button on Chief’s back made his head flip around, changing his face to a visage only vaguely humanoid, goggle-eyed and open-mouthed with rage. To this day I have no idea what this character was supposed to be.

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Goliath has no pants. Goliath needs no pants.

It was the nineties, so Beanie Babies and their knockoffs abounded. My kids had lots of beanies and other stuffed animals, including the pragmatically-named Beanie Cow, a fox, an anteater, a mouse, and a kangaroo inexplicably called Peter in spite of the pouch he possessed. Lots of the animals had accessories or clothing; Peter the kangaroo wore a red cape I’d made from a fabric scrap, and a frog who came to us minus one eye was soon supplied with an eye patch, which had to be connected to a matching vest because an eye patch is not an easy thing to strap to the head of a frog. The eclectic stuffed animal tribe included such members as a little fabric crow from a craft store with jointed legs held on by buttons; Gwendolyn, a sassy biped of indeterminate species who wore a gold-embroidered coat; and Cuddly Chameleon, a plush, rainbow-hued fellow with a curled tail, a crested neck, and an inscrutable heavy-lidded facial expression. Cuddly was a sort of patriarch in the stuffed animal community, whimsical but wise, and always stirring things up. He was the sort of character I think of in my own writing as a catalyst. He made things happen.

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LEGO bricks and accompanying figures presented special suspension-of-disbelief problems. Daniel had lots of minifigs, including characters from the Rock Raiders, Johnny Thunder, and King Leo’s Castle storylines. He didn’t have a complete Star Wars set, but Anna had a random Chewbacca who ran around with the other characters. Anna and Emilie also had lots of Belville sets, featuring princesses, a prince, a king and queen, a couple of infants, and assorted fauna. In my daughters’ storyverse, most of the Belville humans were either stupid or evil, as suggested by their facial expressions; the only sympathetic characters were princesses Flora and Elena, the horses, the cats, and a carrot-clutching rabbit. The difference in scale between Belville figures and standard minifigs is substantial; even the rabbit towered over Johnny Thunder. This had to be accounted for when the worlds met.

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And meet they did—not just Belville and minifigs, but dinos, Beanie babies, everyone. The handling of the crossover stories interested me greatly. Samuel Taylor Coleridge spoke of “that willing suspension of disbelief…which constitutes poetic faith”; J.R.R. Tolkien preferred the paradigm of secondary belief based on the inner consistency of the fictional reality. Whatever we call this aesthetic action, we can agree that certain conditions have to be met in order for it to occur, and that credibility can only be stretched so far. An audience or reader may suspend disbelief for ghosts, or aliens, or leprechauns, but ordinarily not for all three in the same story.

My children’s toy collections formed a system of worlds, each equipped with a complex history and mythos, discrete and independent but able to meet and interact through special circumstances. For the most part, conflicting fantastic elements in crossover stories were handled with the breezy nonchalance that made Joss Whedon’s Avengers so much fun. Discrepancies between worlds were cheerfully acknowledged and remarked on but not belabored with heavy-handed explanations.

The stories concerning these characters were long and intricate. Often Daniel and Anna would “play” without actually having the toys present, just by talking through a story scenario. The two of them would go outside and sit on the swings and just talk. They didn’t swing or run around or multitask in any way. They were story-crafting, and that took concentration.

One day while out and about, we happened upon some likely additions to the stuffed animal ’verse. I don’t remember whether they were real Beanie Babies or knockoffs, but I seem to recall some of them being smaller than standard beanies, real micro-guys of three inches or so. They were all reptilian, and—oh, the joy!—one of them had the same rainbow pelt as Cuddly Chameleon! He wasn’t a chameleon himself; he was more of an iguana-type guy. There were some quasi-chameleons in the group, but their pelts had blue and green splotches. Still, these animals were clearly meant to go home with the Midkiffs.

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On the way home I listened to the sounds of play coming from the back seat of the Suburban. I heard this sort of thing all the time but always found it interesting. With only three young actors to voice a multitude of characters, much had to be done in the way of tone, timbre, syntax, and so on, and new dialogue had to be consistent with a character’s history.

These efforts were collaborative and somewhat spontaneous, but usually Daniel directed things. He was doing that now, and his vision was clear. The gist of the story was that the little reptiles were worried about going to their new home. They knew their bodily configurations did not conform to those of any factual animals. They knew they were about to meet a community of toys awaiting them. And they were afraid.

“Look at us!” one little reptile wailed in Daniel’s voice. “We’re freaks!”

I don’t know what made Daniel deal head-on with the realism issue that day, but I do think the decision marked a leap in his maturation as a storyteller. He actually had a bunch of self-aware stuffed animals pondering the nature of their existence. What species are we, exactly? Are we iguanas? Chameleons? Geckos? Why do some of us have these serrated sail things running down our backs while others do not? And what’s up with these weird colors? What’s the matter with us?

Of course we don’t want to get carried away with realism in storytelling. Give it too much weight and you will soon be observing that in the real world you do not see rabbits taller than Chewbacca, or kangaroos taller than that, or Chewbacca at all, or any animals that talk or willingly wear capes, and soon after that you will be giving up play altogether. Daniel didn’t take things that far. What I found so interesting was that in his exploration of the realism problem, he focused on the freakish reptiles’ fear of rejection.

Social conformity is a soul-crushing thing. I’m not talking about natural law, which is here to stay whether people like it or not and is disregarded only at great peril. Social conformity might be likened to what C.S. Lewis referred to as belonging to a collective. Some people are pretty good at it. I never have been. That sounds self-congratulatory, but I don’t mean it that way. It’s just true.

One of my most painful childhood memories involves an ill-advised slam book fad in sixth grade. These slam books were spiral notebooks in which friends and classmates could record their opinions about various topics, including teachers, music, and each other. There was a thin veneer of anonymity but in reality everyone knew who said what. And the page topped with my name was covered with one word over and over in all the different handwritings of my peers. That word was weird. Variations included nice but weird, weird but nice, and smart but weird, but this did little to mitigate the sting. I had been socially marginalized in the pages of my very own slam book. It still makes me feel a little sick to think about it.

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Wouldn’t it be great to belong to a community where 1) everyone is a freak and 2) no one cares? If everyone is a freak, then no one is. The word has no more power. We are all just individuals. We don’t have to conform to some standard we can never attain and only dimly understand. We can stop striving and simply be.

In his wonderful essay “Membership,” C.S. Lewis writes,

How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself. The mother is not simply a different person from the daughter; she is a different kind of person. The grown-up brother is not simply one unit in the class children; he is a separate estate of the realm. The father and the grandfather are almost as different as the cat and the dog. If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes, almost of incommensurables.

Isn’t this what everyone wants? Not to conform, but to organically belong? To be irreplaceably, inescapably oneself, and to have one’s unique identity recognized and treasured?

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The end of the story for the little reptiles, which of course Daniel was purposely building up to all along, is that they arrived home full of dread, expecting rejection and scorn, only to find that the members of their adoptive family were as outlandish-looking as they were, and also warm and welcoming and fun—exactly the family they would have chosen for themselves if they had even known to imagine something so marvelous.

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If acceptance is so great and makes everyone feel so good, why not just abandon all standards of behavior and accept everything? Because human morality is not an artificial construct. Some behaviors are abhorrent and ugly, and it is natural and just for us to want to cast them out. Tolerating them might make people feel good in the short term (well, some people, anyway) but will ultimately destroy the community we are trying to nurture.

And what are we supposed to do about that? We’ve all got ugly things about ourselves—not just weirdly colored pelts and odd neck frills, but things like malice, lust, perversion, greed. We can’t make these things go away by ignoring them, and we can’t just stop doing them. Our problem with sin is systemic.

The good news is that Christ has dealt with sin, thoroughly and permanently. He hasn’t just made temporary amends or hidden it from view. It’s gone. We who believe in him have a new identity. His blood has paid our debts, his righteousness has been given to us freely, and through him we have the power to walk in the light. We know this because he says so. We might not feel particularly righteous or victorious at any given moment, but his word is more trustworthy than our temporal experience. We can rest in his faithfulness.

And just like the disparate collection of toys in the Midkiff household, we are united to each other by virtue of whose we are. We belong to him, and by extension we belong to each other. With all our defects of mind, character, and person, our weird back-stories and inconsistencies, we can be assured that we have our place, and a very good place it is. We’re free to love and help each other, to think and rest and play and be. The striving is over. We’re home.

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