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Crafting Tragic Tragedies

Last month I watched The Miles of Peach Blossoms, an epic and very expensive xianxia drama.

While the story of the main couple was interesting, in my mind the Best Couple Award goes to two side characters: Bai Fengjiu and Donghua Dijun*.

* Dijun is an honorific title for an imperial lord.

Promotional photo of Vengo Gao as Donghua Dijun and Dilrama Dilmurat as Bai Fengjiu

Fengjiu is the young princess of the kingdom of Qing Qiu, a mischievous nine-tailed fox merely 30,000 years old. Donghua Dijun is the former emperor of the heavens, one of the ancient deities born from nothingness when the world was chaos. Heartless and unfathomable, Donghua fought for hundreds of thousands of years to bring peace to the Nine Kingdoms under the rule of the Celestial Tribe.

One day, Donghua rescues Fengjiu from a rampaging tiger demon.

Donghua rescues Fengjiu
Donghua rescues Fengjiu 2

Lovestruck, Fengjiu chases him back to the Celestial Kingdom. She does all sorts of crazy things to catch his attention, from sneaking into his palace disguised as a maid to shapeshifting into a baby fox to become his literal pet. Amused, Donghua eventually thaws and learns how to express his emotions.

Screenshot of Fengjiu hugging Donghua and saying, 'I like you.'
Screenshot of Fengjiu nuzzling Donghua and saying, 'I like you so much.'
Screenshot of Donghua pushing Fengjiu away and saying, 'Even if you didn't tell me...'
Screenshot of Donghua telling Fengjiu, '...I would still know that.'

Their relationship is adorable and, in many ways, stronger than the convoluted one between the main couple.

But though the main couple gets a happy ending, Fengjiu and Donghua do not. Their melancholy ending, and the heartbreaking events leading up to it, were responsible for at least one dozen of the sopping wet Kleenex tissues that ended up in my trash can during that show.

In the comments on DramaFever, I read that Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms is based on a series of novels by Tang Qi, and that Fengjiu and Donghua star in one of them! The commenters hinted that the conclusion of story in the drama is very different from the ending of the novel.

I tracked this book down and read it within a couple of days. To my surprise, at the end Donghua and Fengjiu get married and live happily ever after! I've seen many Hollywood adaptations turn tragic endings into pat ones, but never before had I seen a movie or show trade an original happy ending for a sad one.

However, though you'd think I'd squeal with delight to see my favorite couple in blissful matrimony, I didn't feel much of anything. In fact, I preferred the tragic ending in the drama.

Though the ending of the book was technically happy, it didn't make me happy because the story leading up to it was a mess. While the drama versions of Donghua and Fengjiu made me giggle and bawl, the book versions were bodice-ripper stock characters who spent all two volumes misunderstanding and hurting each other. The ending wasn't truly happy because the "tragic" romance leading up to it wasn't tragic at all.

1. For a story to be tragic, the protagonists must lose something precious.

I didn't root for Book Fengjiu and Book Donghua because they weren't very happy together. Fengjiu spent most of her time crying that Donghua hurt her so much and she should give up on him. Donghua spent most of his time lying to Fengjiu and feeling guilty about it. I didn't care much whether they could save their relationship because it really wasn't worth saving.

But the drama successfully showed the happiness these two characters lost when they were forced to separate. Both demonstrate how much they care for each other through their actions. Fengjiu works earnestly to make Donghua comfortable (though she usually makes a comic mess of it), and Donghua breaks his stone-cold character to help Fengjiu when she's in trouble.

When Donghua descends to the mortal realm to experience the trials of human life, Fengjiu follows. Then we get a taste of the sweet and simple life they could have had if they were normal people.

Screenshot of Fengjiu and Donghua as a married couple in the mortal realm

But they're not normal people, they're royalty. Immortal royalty at that. And so they must make heartbreaking choices.

2. The protagonists' choices should cause the tragedy, and these choices should be understandable and preferably unavoidable.

In tearjerker movies, brooding heartthrobs fall in love with delicate beauties, and then one of them dies unexpectedly from a fatal disease or a sudden encounter with the hypnotic Truck of Doom.

Meme of a Korean drama heroine staring at an approaching semi and waiting to get hit

While these movies are sad, I personally don't consider them "tragic." They're just stories in which Bad Things Happen. To be properly tragic, the Bad Things should be caused directly or indirectly by the protagonists' choices. E.g., if the hero must die from a fatal disease, it should be because he chose to delay treatment to live happily instead of simply longer, as in the YA novel The Fault in Our Stars. If the heroine must succumb to the Truck of Doom, it should be because she plowed into it on purpose to save a group of preschoolers, as in the Korean fantasy Goblin.

Of course, the choices must be relateable to work. Characters who make nonsensical or purely selfish choices don't elicit sympathy from the audience. For maximum impact, the choices should also be inevitable. In the most enduring tragedies, the characters couldn't possibly make different choices to dodge cruel fate—either because every choice available to them would also end in tragedy, or because choosing the one path to a happy ending would compromise their morals.

Book Donghua and Book Fengjiu do make choices that cause tragedies, but those choices are neither understandable nor inevitable. For example, near the end Donghua fails to show up for their wedding feast. Fengjiu leaps to the conclusion that he ran off with a princess from the Demon Kingdom, decides their love was a lie, and descends to the mortal realm to hide for 300 years. Unbeknownst to her, Donghua missed the feast because he was saving the universe (again). Fengjiu comes back to the Celestial Kingdom to find him wasting away from a mystical poison, preparing to sacrifice his life for the greater good, etc. Oh, if only she'd known! If only they could have had those few short centuries of happiness together!

I was supposed to cry for them at this point, but instead I rolled my eyes. Book Fengjiu's decision to hide in the mortal realm was idiotic.

  • Donghua had an established track record of suddenly loping off to save the universe, and no track record of showing interest in any woman—any person, even—other than Fengjiu.
  • Fengjiu and Donghua were already officially married and living together, so they should have been long past the stage of petty jealousies and misunderstandings.
  • Fengjiu was pregnant. Why would she choose to raise her infant son in poverty and isolation, instead of staying in Qing Qiu with her doting parents and grandparents?

The only reason Book Fengjiu would make the choice she did is to manufacture last-minute "tragic" circumstances to squeeze out some tears from the readers.

In contrast, Drama Donghua's ultimate decision to break up with Fengjiu is completely understandable. After fighting for tens of thousands of years to bring the Nine Kingdoms to a fragile state of peace, Donghua believes his marriage to Fengjiu would cause political turmoil.

Screenshot of Donghua and Fengjiu during the final battle against the Demon Lord

"I've used my life to protect all lives. If I insist on my relationship with you, it would surely cause ceaseless wars within the four seas....Bai Fengjiu, you're not some common woman. You're the future queen of Qing Qiu! Don't be absurd!"

In the end, Drama Fengjiu must accept his decision and resign herself to a lonely life on the throne.

Screenshot of Fengjiu at her coronation ceremony

"Dijun, from this day forth, I will become the queen of Qing Qiu....I can no longer act willfully anymore. I can't enter Taichen Palace to make you tea and stay with you all night without considering my identity."

Disappointed fans complain the ending is "stupid," but to me it's painfully sensible. Though Donghua Dijun has unparalleled power, he doesn't have unlimited freedom, and it would have been grossly out of character for him to choose his personal feelings over the stability of the heavens.

3. The seeds of tragedy should be sewn at the beginning.

To be honest, the drama version of Fengjiu and Donghua's story had flaws, too. The biggest is that Donghua didn't explain why he couldn't be with Fengjiu until very late in the game. Very, very late in the game. We're talking episode 52 of 58.

Characters who refuse to explain themselves are very common in East Asian dramas, so I'm used to it. I've learned that when characters push their loved ones away, they usually have Noble Reasons that will be revealed eventually. So when Donghua looked at Fengjiu tenderly but treated her coldly, I trusted he too had Noble Reasons and rooted for the couple to the end.

But most Western viewers aren't that patient. Because Donghua spent most of the drama running hot and cold—one minute giving up half of his life force to heal Fengjiu's injuries, the next throwing her out of his palace and claiming he never wants to see her again—many fans of the show hated their romance line. They'd say Fengjiu is "so annoying" for chasing after Donghua when he obviously doesn't want her. Or they'd ask, "When is Donghua going to get over himself and admit he likes her?" I believe these viewers would have had a different reaction if they'd known from the start that Donghua could never marry Fengjiu, but he couldn't stop himself from acting on his feelings and giving her false hope.

The most effective tragedies set up the insurmountable obstacles at the beginning. The first lines of Romeo and Juliet tell the audience about the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues. The first paragraphs of The Fault in Our Stars establish that the seventeen-year-old heroine is dying from cancer. When she meets her first love at a support group, young readers know there can't possibly be a happy ending to the relationship, but they desperately hope for one anyway.

***

Tragedy is the essence of every genre. The efficacy of the central tragedy makes the difference between a shallow romance and a touching one, a boring mystery and a captivating one, or a cliché fantasy and a memorable one. Even in comedy, adding solid tragic elements can transform the work from a farce into a classic (like Annie Hall, Dr. Strangelove, and The Producers).

Speaking of comedy, here's a funny behind-the-scenes clip of Vengo Gau (Donghua) and Dilrama Dilmurat (Fengjiu) filming a "difficult" scene.

Why I'm Upgrading to Pictures

I have a toxic on-again, off-again relationship with books. Every few years I finish writing one and go through the aggravating, exhausting, soul-crushing process of attempting to sell it for publication. The agents reject me by saying, "You're an extremely talented writer but...," or I reject them because they insist I turn my fun character-driven romps into pulse-pounding thrillers, and my years of work end in bitter disappointment.

I fret and sulk for weeks, drowning my post-book-breakup sorrows in strawberry cheesecake ice cream. I throw myself into sewing dresses or binge-watching East Asian dramas. Then I rally my spirits and declare, "I'm never going to write another book again!"

A few months later, a tidbit of conversation sparks a new story idea, or I spot one of my unfinished outlines on the computer, or I read a book that didn't meet its full potential and I know I could turn that premise into something great. I dwell on the story. I plot it out while driving to and from work. I tweak the key scenes in my head while falling asleep at night.

I convince myself I must write this book. My other books didn't sell because there wasn't a market for them, but there's certainly a market for this one. Every writer goes through a decade or two of rejection. It's part of the process! The successful writers aren't more talented than others, but more persistent. Anyway, I can't let a few dozen bad experiences with literary agents crush my dreams. My dreams aren't that delicate! They're tough and resilient!

Lather, rinse, repeat.

But I really mean it this time. I'm not going to go back to books. I'm moving on to pictures instead.

In years past I flirted with the idea of telling stories through comics and video games, but two things stopped me from pursuing them seriously: (1) my dysfunctional relationship with books, and (2) my utter lack of skill in drawing.

I can't draw because I don't draw. Unlike writing, I don't draw many times a day to communicate. Unlike coding, I don't have to master drawing to do my job. Unlike sewing, I don't have a practical need for new drawings I can use every day.

When I lived in Portland, I took one drawing class and made couple of comics and watercolors. I resolved to practice drawing as often as I could—to pay no mind to the quality of the results and keep at it.

But drawing slowly fell by the wayside. I drew only in spurts when I spotted something irresistibly cute or I had nothing else to do over breaks.

In early 2016 I landed a new job in Central Oregon, and my drawing notebook disappeared into a box during the move. I wrote a cozy mystery, and then I developed a sudden obsession with sewing, and then Sweetie and I tied the knot....

After the wedding things finally settled down, and I thought giving art another try. Sweetie dug out the notebook, and I timidly added a few more entries: copies of panels from Usotoki Rhetoric.

Then Sweetie bought me a drawing tablet, so I've been practicing drawing and painting digitally since.

Why am I going through so much effort to build my skills in art, when I don't have a natural inclination for them? Why not just forget about publishing and continue to write novels for the fun of it? For a long time now, I've felt that words alone aren't sufficient for the stories I want to convey.

1. Visual media require more work from the creators, but much less work from the audience.

Confession #1: Though I read novels frequently because I "should," I much prefer reading manga and watching dramas. I never get excited at the release of new books, but I jump up and down and squeal at the sight of a new chapter of Skip Beat! or a new episode of Father Is Strange. Unlike reading books, reading comics and watching shows is fun.

Of all fictional forms, written stories require the least effort on the part of the creators to make them and the most effort on the part of the audience to understand them. A single person can complete a novel in a couple of months, writing four to six hours per day on a cheap laptop. But after publication, every member of the highly educated audience must patiently extract the story from the words. For most people, reading 250+ pages of pure text is painful and unnatural, not enjoyable.

On the other end of the spectrum, movies and video games require the greatest effort by the creators and the least effort by the audience. Making a movie requires expensive equipment and years of work by production staff, actors, script writers, etc. A half-million dollars for a ninety-minute documentary is considered "low-budget."

In and of itself, reading is not much of a burden for most teens and adults in North America. The problem with books is that they require the audience to do nothing but read, all alone, for hours and hours. People will happily text through every meal and spend their coffee breaks with glossy magazines. They'll be thrilled to play video games with more total text than a complete novel, or watch twenty episodes of a subtitled foreign TV show. But they'd rather suffer the tortures of household chores, or high-intensity exercise, or parties hosted by neighbors they don't like, than spend one afternoon with a book.

2. "A picture is worth a thousand words."

Confession #2: When I read piles of fantasy novels as research for my wuxia trilogy, I liked very few of them and loved none of them. The reason: worldbuilding. Because fantasy novels take place in settings wildly different from contemporary America, they require pages upon pages of description—and many fantasy authors go far beyond what's "required" because they want to share every detail of the beautiful place they've dreamed up. More than once, I've shaken a highly acclaimed fantasy novel and shouted at it, "Stop telling me about the gold-fringed scarlet brocade curtains! I couldn't care less about the stupid curtains! Forget about the curtains and go steal the sacred orb already!"

As much as I hate reading descriptions, I hate writing them even more.

I enjoy writing dialogue and characters' inner thoughts, because those belong in words. We speak with words, and we often think to ourselves in words.

But settings and physical actions do not belong in words. We think of these things as broad visions and sensations, not in the minutiae described in books. The memory of a hike is not a catalog of all the rocks and trees, but the ache of tired legs, the scent of pine trees, and the beauty of the view at the summit. The memory of a romantic slow dance is not a play-by-play of steps and spins, but a rosy melange of emotions. Writing about these things is so difficult because words are simply insufficient; pictures can convey them much better in a single glance.

Conversely, pictures are great for conveying some things but lousy at conveying others. Facial expressions are better portrayed by actors than described by novelists. But because faces can only hint at the thoughts underneath, filmmakers often resort to voice-overs and flashbacks to explain what's going on in characters' heads. Actions and events too are better depicted in paintings than in mere words. But paintings alone don't provide context, so museums need to put up title placards and print out helpful pamphlets for visitors.

Washington Crossing the Delaware

If you didn't know this painting is called Washington Crossing the Delaware, you would have no idea that it depicts George Washington or that the icy river is the Delaware.

"Hybrid" media like comics and games can use both pictures and words to their greatest advantage. They can portray scene settings and action sequences visually, without forcing audiences to read boring descriptions. They can also convey background information and characters' thoughts in text, without immersion-breaking tricks like voice-overs.

When Sweetie first suggested converting the Xing Dynasty trilogy from books to games, I resisted the idea because of all the work involved. But when I realized I could then use images in place of description, and cut out whole swaths of boring worldbuilding text, the idea became a lot more appealing.

3. Comics and games offer new ways of telling stories.

Confession #3: Though I'm intrigued by comics, games, and movies that explore new ways of telling stories, I don't like "artsy" techniques in novels. When authors use creative line breaks to turn prose into pseudo-poetry, or put single sentences in the middle of otherwise blank pages to make a point, I roll my eyes and stop reading.

Because reading is mentally taxing to begin with, authors who try to convey new ideas by flouting the common rules of written language succeed only in breaking immersion and confusing readers. When what should be a complete sentence cuts off and
the words
do
this...
I don't think, "Wow, those line breaks beautifully convey the narrator's state of mind!" I think, "Huh? Is that a formatting error? Wait, the author did that on purpose? Ugh, she's one of those, isn't she? The ones who deliberately make their stories hard to understand to prove how 'creative' they are."

To be lucid enough for most readers to enjoy, novels can be written only one way: left to right, up to down, one grammatical sentence after another from beginning to end. Writers can bend the rules gently in dialogue and internal monologue, but nobody outside of a graduate-level English Lit program likes to read disorienting postmodern "masterpieces."

For the same reasons, "choose your own adventure" novels don't work well either. Every few paragraphs, the audience has to stop reading and concentrate on rifling through the pages, looking for a specific number, before resuming. Even worse than "poetic" gimmicks, these experiments force audiences to struggle with the medium itself just to access the words. It's like wrapping the stories in clamshell packaging. (See: Wrap rage.)

Visual artists have a lot more wiggle room. When making a comic, you can draw a full-page portrait with a large one-sentence speech bubble for impact.

Full page confession in manga

Words can flow many ways down a page or screen, as long as you properly direct your viewers' eyes.

Demonstration of page flow in manga

In games, stories can automatically branch into different paths based on players' choices, without disrupting the flow.

Demonstration of choice in a visual novel

Once I thought of all the interesting things I could do with the Xing Dynasty trilogy in game form that I couldn't do with text alone, the deal was sealed. My plan now is to create three visual novels, each with three distinct stories featuring different main characters. Each story can stand alone, with fully fleshed out plots independent of the other stories, but playing them all will reveal the complete picture of an overarching epic. Each main character's personality will subtly influence the art style of the world as seen through her or his eyes, and the choices players make will determine the story endings they see.

The project was ambitious enough in book form, and now it's a behemoth. I'll probably need three years or more to complete the first game alone, and they'll be long and frustrating years because I'm not a naturally talented artist and I require many hours to draw the simplest of subjects. But "art takes a long time" and "writing is easier for me" are not valid reasons to run back into the familiar arms of books. The many advantages of the game format far outweigh the single con of inconvenience.

T. K. and Sweetie Tie the Knot, Part 2: The Wedding

After weeks of preparation, Sweetie and I were officially married on June 20, 2017, the tenth anniversary of the day we became "Facebook official." Though Facebook is dying away, we're still going strong!

My coworker Pat volunteered to take pictures of the ceremony for us, using our trusty Fujifilm Finepix S700. My mother gifted us this camera in May 2010, and it has recorded many big events since: a two-week vacation in Japan, a car trip to historic Philadelphia, a snowy New Year's Eve in Times Square...and now our wedding at Mirror Pond!

TK and Sweetie before the ceremony

Our officiant, Judge Peter A. Werner, kindly brought along a second witness for us named Annemarie. He read us our vows from a piece of paper tucked inside a very religious-looking copy of The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide.

Cover of the Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide
Wedding vows

Since we hadn't reviewed the vows before the ceremony (whoops!) we didn't know exactly when we were supposed to say, "I do." Sweetie said it three times during pauses between questions. I forgot to say it at all, and Judge Werner had to remind me!

Sweetie putting on TK's wedding ring

While Judge Werner prepared the legal paperwork, Sweetie and I posed for glamour shots of our rings. Sweetie's is a plain 10K gold band from Kohl's. Mine is also 10K gold, custom-made with the help of Laurie at Cascade Jewelers in Bend. It has two cubic zirconias and one lab-created aquamarine in the center. Since Sweetie and I were both born in March, aquamarine is "our" birthstone.

We signed the marriage certificate at a picnic table on Mirror Pond Plaza. Technically these are pictures of us signing a ceremonial certificate, and the state will mail us the "legal" ones later.

TK signing the marriage certificate
Sweetie signing the marriage certificate

It was a hot and sunny day, so Pat treated us to refreshments in the coffeehouse by the Plaza, Crow's Feet Commons. The decor and menu of the Commons is pure Bend: one part rugged country, two parts urban hipster. For our "wedding snack" we had one of Sparrow Bakery's famous Ocean Rolls with sparkling orange juice in fancy glasses.

Our fancy drinks and my bouquet

Of course I forced Sweetie to pose for a K-drama style love shot.

Love shot

Finally we headed back to the water for more pictures. The photo shoot started out respectably...

Sweetie and TK on the pier

But then Pat headed back to work, and the camera fell into Sweetie's hands. And when Sweetie gets a camera in his hands, he starts climbing on things to find interesting angles, heedless of his formal suit and dress shoes.

TK with ducks
TK with flowers

He sent me to the other side of the pond for a landscape shot of the water, trees, and mountains. The photo will make a cool large print to hang up, but it's hard to spot me in the 400px version below. I'm the mint-colored speck in the bottom left.

TK at the side of Mirror Pond

When we arrived home in Redmond, Luna inspected my ring and deemed it acceptable.

Luna inspecting TK's wedding ring

After a nap and an early dinner at Shari's Cafe & Pies, I cut into the cake. This week we're playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild together, so I naturally took my first bite from the Triforce.

Wedding cake
Wedding cake slice with Triforce

In the evening we drove down to Oregon Observatory at Sunriver. On our first date ten years ago, we went to Olive Garden and then sprawled out on the grass of a sports field at Indiana University to look at the stars. (This "date date" is not to be confused with our first "not date date" at a Mather's Museum special exhibit of chairs from around the world. That was merely a meeting to gauge each other's long-term relationship potential under the guise of exploring a common interest in international furniture.)

Our wedding-day version of looking at the stars was much more sophisticated. I don't have pictures because it was much too dark to take them, but we looked through many telescopes to see Jupiter, Saturn, a couple of binary stars, and some impressive star clusters.

Now we have been married for over twenty-four hours, and neither of us has asked for an divorce yet. Fingers crossed that it stays that way for the next fifty years!