The Stories That Stick With Me

As I’ve been trying to balance editing my novel, recording my poetry, editing the old serial story to repost once I’m out of poems, updating my blog every week, and the various Dungeons and Dragons games I’ve been running or playing in, I’ve wound up spending almost all of my free time thinking about stories. I tend to get contemplative when I’m incredibly busy, usually as a means of procrastinating whatever work I’ve given myself to do, and this time is no exception. I’ve tried to avoid any topics that might make me feel upset, sad, or regretful, and I’ve landed on the kind of stories that I still think about to this day and what those have in common.

These aren’t necessarily my favorite stories. To qualify for this list, they just need to be a story of some kind that I’m still thinking about long after having read it, usually unprompted by a desire to recall it specifically. For instance, I love The Kingkiller Chronicles, but I don’t think about the two stories in that series all that much. Sure, if I find a fellow fan who isn’t going to gripe about waiting for the next book, I love to have an in-depth discussion of the books and our theories about what is going to happen next. But I don’t find myself idly reflecting on them as I’m working out or as I’m doing something monotonous at work.

Probably the best example I can give is a story from a collection of comics called “Good Deeds Gone Unpunished,” a set of stories about various side-characters from the webcomic, The Order of the Stick, that was produced as part of a huge Kickstarter project for book reprints back in the day. The story in question, How The Paladin Got His Scar, is something I’ve thought about off and on since the first day I read it, which was over five, maybe six, years ago. It is imbedded in my memory so deeply that I can go through all the beats of the story, major and minor, without needing to find where I saved the PDF or what happened to the collection I bought. I loved that story but I think I’ve only reread it once (soon to be twice, since this whole post was inspired by my recent and unprompted craving for a reread of that story). It didn’t really impart any major truths to me, didn’t really do anything in storytelling that amazed me or opened my eyes to something I hadn’t understood before. This attachment to the story isn’t even an emotional association.

Another example is Adventure Time, the cartoon. I’ve watched through the entire run a couple times (the earlier parts more than the later parts thanks to watching the series as it came out) but I can still remember every single major beat over all those seasons as the show slowly turned from a set of barely attached adventures into a grand, sweeping narrative. I can hear the voice lines in my mind and rewatch favorite episodes in my head. So many individual episodes or small plots within the total arc of the show had a massive impact on me as I worked through a lot of my past and traumas. Things that made me feel understood and that helped me work through something I didn’t have the words for at the time. I don’t think I could even list all the reasons this show and its stories have stuck with me unless I worked on it for months.

What these stories, and all the others I haven’t mentioned, have in common is a character who chose to do the right thing specifically because it was the right thing to do. In many stories, characters do the right things but frequently because they benefit from this happening or because it is also the heroic thing. Stopping an evil lich who is trying to plunge the world into death and destruction is the right thing to do, but the hero does it because they’re a hero and because they also can’t live in a dead world. It is still the right thing to do of course and that matters, but the reasons are complex and rarely does it come down to the character saying “this is the right thing to do.”

Adventure Time moves into the finale with the protagonist, Finn the Human, noted heroic figure who has rescued many people and put an end to more threats than your average hero, deciding that he wasn’t going to do the heroic thing. He was going to do the right thing, even though it put him in conflict with everyone around him. Even as his friends called on him to stand aside if he wasn’t going to fight on their side, he still took action regardless of the risk it put him in. Not because he wanted to save the day (though he did want to stop a war), he ultimately chose to act the way he did because anything else would be a betrayal of what he knew to be right.

The main character of “How The Paladin Got His Scar” does a similar thing. He stands against his own people, on the side of those his friends and allies called monsters, because it was the right thing to do. Not because it was also heroic, not because he had anything to gain, but because he saw something wrong and couldn’t sit idly by while it happened. In thanks for his action, he received even greater responsibility and a great deal of mistrust from the people he stopped from doing something horrible, not to mention the titular scar.

As someone who was raised with responsibility for others in the forefront of their mind, who was told that they must always do the right thing, and was indoctrinated into a specific (and increidbly toxic) interpretation of their parents’ faith, I think about what it means to do the right thing all the time. I could write an entire week of blog posts (and have already written and deleted about a thousand words of that while writing this post) about the right thing, what it means to me, the impact of consequences on my life, the impact of consequences on my life resulting from other people’s decisions or actions, and so forth. When it really comes down to it, though, these stories stick with me because I can’t help but feel attached to a character who made a decision to do something because of who they are. It wasn’t even a proper decision for them, since they knew what they were going to do the moment the situation arose. They couldn’t do anything else. They could work to figure out a way to have the best chance at success, but they knew that they were going to do it even if they were certain they would fail.

In a life with a great deal of uncertainty, it is comforting to find echoes of myself in characters like this. Not because I ache for the certainty those moments provide or because I feel a kinship for a moment when you must act regardless of the consequences or compromise your fundamental beliefs, but because I think those moments are much more common than people think. Sure, they might not have the sweeping consequences shown in most stories, they might not have the dramatic build-up that these examples do. But people make decisions every day that determine the course of their lives, that describe the shape of who they are, and these stories also show that these big moments aren’t the only time the characters act this way. It shows every little moment from sparing a hurt enemy to treating even the smallest problems with gravity and concern for the victim that made them into the person who eventually acted despite the harm that might befall them, simply because it was the right thing to do. It pays homage to all the people in the world who do the right thing every day even if they never get a chance to do it in a moment that will have a resounding impact.

It is a person taking a moment to put away a shopping cart that was rolling around a parking lot that someone else left behind. It is a person picking up someone else’s trash and throwing it away. It is a person going out of their way to open a door or help someone move or sticking around to make sure someone’s unattended groceries are being seen to. It is a person leaving a note on a car after accidentally scraping it in a parking lot when there’s no one around to see them. There are so many people in the world that do these countless little things because they’re the right thing to do and I love any story that places just as much importance on the small things as it does on the big ones.

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