Win a Free Copy of Call of Affliction

You may have noticed on the right hand side of the webpage a link to sign up for my Author Newsletter. I wanted to explain what this is and isn’t. This mailing list is the way I will use in the future to first announce upcoming books, as well as fun giveaways, and even offer opportunities to read the book before it even comes out. It’s not something where I’ll spam you constantly. If I don’t have a project coming up, you won’t hear from me, and even then, I’ll try to get all the pertinent information in one or two emails. Secondly, I won’t ever give this information to anyone else. Also, I don’t ask for much: just your first name and email address.

Plus, if you sign up for the Newsletter mailing list before Thanksgiving, you’ll be entered into a giveaway to get a free copy of Call of Affliction. I’ll be giving away two paperback copies and five Kindle copies of the book. Even if you don’t have a Kindle (I don’t, much to my chagrin.), you can read ebooks on their ap for computers and smartphones.

You can sign up here or at my Facebook page. Speaking of which, if you haven’t already, check out my Facebook Author page. Feel free to Like it while you’re there 🙂

So, sign up and good luck!

Navigating No More

For the last couple of years, you might have noticed that the tagline for my blog has been, “In Progress: A New Author Navigates the World of Publishing.” I was never given a map, so my journey has taken a while and looked something like those maps from the comics I never found funny as a kid:

family circus

It’s even less funny when you’re the one wandering around. As you might have noticed, while I have still been plugging away at the food blog, I’ve been pretty silent over here. I have been working on a number of things, but one of the lessons I learned in the past year is getting published involves a lot of waiting.

Around about a year ago, I started sending out letters to agents to try to get my first novel published in the fantasy genre. After about 6-8 months of the slow back and forth of waiting to hear, writing more people, getting rejections or manuscript requests, waiting to hear back again, etc. I started to see a pattern. I was getting a lot of letters along the lines of, “We like what we read, but it just doesn’t fit with what I’m looking for.”

I knew already that I had a bit of a genre bending novel, and I had already had one surprise when I realized I had not written a young adult novel. So, I went back and did some more research again, and found out I had written a paranormal romance or perhaps urban fantasy, not straight fantasy. At that point, I had to reconsider my whole strategy. I’ve written here before that often self publishing is still not the way to go for most authors. The one exception to this rule is if you are writing anything in the romance genre.

Now finding that I had written a paranormal romance, instead of starting the process of finding an agent all over again with a romance agent, I decided to strike it out on my own with self publishing. It had taken me the better part of a year to figure out how to navigate the traditional publishing process. Self publishing is a different arena entirely. Thankfully, a very dear friend self publishes in the romance genre, and she has very patiently tutored me in the process.

All of this to say, I have not been idle while I haven’t been blogging. In fact, it is just the opposite. I have been trying to devote the time to getting an actual book out faster. As you will note, my tagline has changed. My navigating days are coming to a close, and the publishing is about to begin.

Stay tuned!

So Are You Still Writing or What?

If you are an older follower of the blog, or perhaps have just read its tagline, “A New Author Navigates the World of Publishing,” you might be a little confused. When I started this blog I mostly wrote about the craft of writing, and some tips about the publishing market. For the last several months I’ve had posts on fall pilots, cooking, how to button tuft a couch, exercise, etc. Occasionally, this has led to someone asking me, “Hey, what’s the deal?”

In case you didn’t read the articles and statistics that lead up to the switch (according to my blog stats, few of you did), I realized that no one but other aspiring authors care about dialogue and how to write a convincing antagonist. So, I started writing blog posts about other things that interested me: food, home décor, TV, and whatever else I thought others might find informative. Turns out, you guys seem to find these topics more interesting as well.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I’ve abandoned writing my trilogy. Around last July, I wrote about the book that ruined my life. It was one of many books on writing that I read last summer that made me realize that I needed to step up my game. I had written the first drafts of all three novels by that point and was feeling pretty good. It was an accomplishment, but I began to realize that the amount of work required to write a really good book instead of a decent book was vastly different. If I wanted to write novels I was proud of, then I needed to almost start from scratch.

That’s a hard decision to make when you’ve already spent a year writing 300,000 words. Still, after a short pity party I got about the business of writing a better book.  Surprisingly, I have found I really enjoy even the nitty gritty background work of research, outlining, and character development. So, here’s a peek into what I’ve been doing.

I set up an office upstairs with a door and everything so I can work without letting myself get distracted.

my office

I’ve got a desk for editing, but I do my writing in that recliner with my laptop. I’ve found it’s a lot harder to get back and shoulder pain in a recliner. Stooping over a desk is for the birds.

The art on the walls is large pieces of paper and post-its I’m using to plot out various events and character arcs. I also use them as brainstorming boards. No use straining your eyes for spoilers. I purposely took the pictures far away and then compressed them.

brainstorming board

This one is the board right over my desk, so functions as the brainstorming board for whatever current story problem I’m chewing on. Right now, that’s making my villain a lot more robust. I took this picture a couple weeks ago, so my board’s so full now I might have to spill out onto the adjoining wall.

book one postits

Here’s a chapter-by-chapter layout for the first book, where the different colored post-its represent different character’s points of view. Extra points for the nerds that noticed the Napoleon Dynamite Liger notes and the Doctor Who TARDIS notes.

what to keep what to pitch

Another board for book two, where I was trying to decide what events to keep from an outline of the first draft I wrote. The outline is the typewritten pages at the top, and the post-its at the bottom are what I eventually decided to use. To help you get a perspective of how much I’m changing, the occasional green highlights you see in the outline were the only “must keep” events I had.

character profiles

Character profiles were another project that kept me busy for a few months. That binder is as thick as printouts of my novel manuscripts. Every character in my trilogy got a full work up. I can tell you everything from what they smell like to the layout of their apartment. Yes, those are Dalek flag markers. What can I say?  My sister bought me a set of Doctor Who post-its and I use them liberally.

Anyway, I thought I’d give all of you a peek into what I’ve been up to. The writing is still happening and going well. It’s just happening a bit slower than the breakneck speed it was at before.

Writers: Is Your Blog Working?

I was chatting with a fellow blogger this week, discussing the pros and cons of regular blogging.  We’re both pretty new to the game, and like most newbies are a teensy obsessive about our stats.  Both of us continue to be surprised what posts are popular and which ones seem to tank.

I’m a nerd at heart, so when in doubt, I research.  I wanted to know why fiction authors really blog in the first place.  I’ve always understood platform when it comes to non-fiction writers.  They get to try out all their ideas first on their blog and then collect posts into chapters that eventually become a book.  For those of us that write novels, deciding what to blog about is quite the chore, and it seems most of us end up writing about writing.

But are we accomplishing anything?  What’s the goal of blogging for the fiction writer?  Certainly, there can be more than one.  Some writers blog to develop discipline and to get themselves writing.  Others like being part of the blogging community, making friends and gathering manuscript critiquing partners.

If either of those were my main goals, I’d say my blog is working just fine. Unfortunately, that’s not why I started this blog, and I’m guessing it’s not why most other authors blog, either.  Added discipline and community have been wonderful side benefits, but they have never been the point.  The goal of my blog has always been to build an audience and connect with readers.

While not published yet, I write fantasy fiction for adults.  As mentioned before, I’m pretty attentive to my blog statistics.  The people following my blog are almost exclusively other authors.  That makes sense, since this blog has been about writing and publishing.  While a few of you might one day be interested in a novel of mine, my primary market I will be writing for is not authors.  So why is my blog about the craft of writing–a topic my potential audience won’t likely give a fig about? 

Hmm.  I’m not sure anymore.

I’m not Kristen Lamb, who writes books teaching authors how to use social media and be a support to each other.  I’m not an agent like Rachelle Gardner or a publishing guru like Jane Friedman to be giving writers expert advice how to make it in the industry.  I’m a novelist in want of readers. 

How do I craft a blog that will connect me with the same audience that is likely to read my books?  Is a blog even the best way to do it? 

L.L. Barkat argues that sometimes the best thing an author can do is STOP BLOGGING.  It blew my little mind.  Dan Blank disagrees. I’d really encourage you to read both of those articles including the comment section.

Authors, I’d love a lot of feedback on this.  Should we blog?  Should authors spend their time elsewhere?  If so, where?  If you do think blogging is important, should we really be blogging about writing if our audience is not writers?  What in the world should we blog about instead?

After My Theories, Here’s Some Cool Infographic Fact

So after a number of posts about why readers will ditch a book, and how to make sure you write characters so they don’t, I found this infographic and laughed.  I read a ton of blogs, but I have a tendency to let them pile up for weeks and then read 200+ posts for hours on a random Saturday.  If I hadn’t been so behind on Nathan Bransford’s blog, I would have found this a lot earlier and had some cold hard facts in hand.  The lovely people at Goodreads surveyed their members and have provided us with The Psychology of Abandonment.

My fellow authors, we have caught a break.  It turns out 38.1% of the population will read our book to the bitter end NO MATTER WHAT.  I also noted that only 4.9% of people reported that they stopped reading because they didn’t like the main character as opposed to 46.4% that claimed it was because the book was slow, boring.  I would still argue that not caring about the characters (which is different from not liking them) makes a book very boring, but I wonder if the complaint there was more about pacing.  I found the results fascinating, especially that people abandon Catch-22.  Okay, it’s a little hard to follow at first, but that’s a good book.  What surprised you?

goodreads infographic

How To Get Readers To Feel Something For Your Characters-Part II

So we’ve established that if readers don’t care about your characters, they are much more likely to ditch your book. On Monday, we talked about common author errors that lead to character apathy.

It’s not enough to just avoid the obvious pitfalls, though. When I finish a book with characters I really love, it’s almost like a death. I’m in mourning for a few days, and I’m known to be a little crabby. Those are the authors whose books I pre-order. When that next book hits my door, I crawl back into the world of my beloved friends. I pity the person that interrupts me. I aspire to write books that readers feel that strongly about.

Granted, there’s no formula for writing perfect characters. I have found starting with the following questions certainly increases your chances of writing deeper characters whom your readers will enjoy. How do you know if your manuscript needs more work on characterization? That’s simple. Every manuscript needs deeper characterization. Career editor Elizabeth Lyon maintains that this is a nearly universal phenomenon in the manuscripts she sees.

Batman Backstory

So, this particular backstory can get old, but that doesn’t mean your characters won’t have past experiences that shape them.

What experiences have shaped your character? Rare is the person who has made it to adulthood (or even the teenage years for those writing young adult) unscathed. Most of us carry around past experiences for good or for ill that shape not only our worldviews, but the actions we take. Well developed characters are no different. This doesn’t have to be clichéd. Not all heroes have to be orphans on quests to bring justice to the villains who killed their parents before their very eyes! Your heroine could just as easily be formed by her experience as a military brat who grew up on bases in other countries. Not really American, not really of the other cultures, either, this “third-culture” kid is restless and has trouble committing to long-term relationships. Whatever the backstory is, you need to know it, and every character needs one. Good novels generally show character growth. A great way to do that is to show a character overcoming the wounds of the past.

What drives each character? I’m not talking about the story goal here, whatever that might be. Don’t confuse this with getting the girl, defeating the villain, etc. These are usually universal needs that everyone can identify with. This is the personal yearning that is more important to the character than anything else. Is it a desire to be loved? Do they want to succeed and finally make a disapproving parent proud? Do they need to feel needed and useful? If you don’t know what they want most of all, how will you make decisions for the character?

Baby eats puppy.

See? Even cute, loveable characters can have bad habits. It makes them more complex.

Did you give them strengths? Weaknesses? No one is all good or all bad. Your heroes need flaws and your villains need redeeming qualities.  Not only does it make your characters more interesting, it also provides you with good sources of internal story conflict. A hero’s weakness can keep him stuck in the mistakes and experiences of the past where he’ll never get what he’s yearning for. His strengths will pull him toward character growth. Don’t go crazy with a grocery list of both, though. Pick one or two of each to emphasize, or you can just end up with a mess.

What does your character need to learn (often the theme)? In order for your character to get what she yearns for most, what does she have to learn first? For example, just because a desire to make a disapproving parent proud drives your character’s actions, she doesn’t have to get that approval in the end. In fact, she might need to learn that her disapproving parent will never be pleased. The story theme might be about her finally accepting that. In the end, the way her yearning is fulfilled is quitting the career that her parents approved of but she hated. She must now find her self-worth outside of parental approval.

Child's drawing

If you gave a description of your character to a sketch artist, would it look something like this?

Can you picture them? I’m not talking a semi-vague blob here where you’ve just nailed down the basics of hair and eye color, height and weight. You need a crystal clear, very detailed portrait of each character. In Manuscript Makeover, Elizabeth Lyons lists the following physical characteristics that you should know: gender, age, height, weight, body build, body hair, race, skin color, skin texture, hair body and style, hair texture and color, smell of hair, head size and shape, facial hair, eye shape and color, shape of brow, shape and fullness of lips, teeth size and color, personal grooming, handshake, hands, nails, body smell, added scents, carriage and posture, activity level (lethargic to maniac, focused to attention deficit), deformities, hereditary physical attributes, birthmarks, scars, tattoos, overall health, habitual stances, gestures, and mannerisms, voice quality—volume and timbre and pitch (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass), quality of laugh, head-to-toe clothing (style, functionality, quality), and accessories (jewelry, bags, satchels, gloves, scarves, hats). Whew!

Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys over at Mired in Mundanity did a post back in May that provides authors with a list of 101 excellent questions to ask when developing characters. The final one is one of the best questions ever. “Why should I give a tinker’s damn about your character? Don’t get offended, it’s a valid question. What makes your character interesting? Am I supposed to like them, or hate them? Why?”  I’ve found it to be one of the most difficult questions to answer. I want to turn all middle-schooler and shout, “Just because, okay!”  Forcing yourself to answer it will go a long way in focusing your characterization efforts.

Barney's Hot/Crazy graph

Eccentric/sleazy. . .it’s a fine line. Always entertaining, though.

Are they eccentric enough?  This one comes from Sol Stein. I was skeptical of this advice at first, but after I was made aware of it and started studying good characters, I realized he was right. Stein maintains no one really wants to read about an average Joe. Readers have enough ordinariness in real life, so they long for something unusual in their fiction. Any How I Met Your Mother fan knows Barney’s character wouldn’t be as legen-wait for it-dary without his catch-phrases, suits, apartment purposely designed to discourage women from staying long, crazy vs. hot charts, elaborate playbook for picking up women, etc. You might not be friends with Barney in real life, but he’d be fascinating to read about.

Related Reading:

Mired in Mundanity’s whole list of 101 Questions for Characters

The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test (A test to see how clichéd you’ve made your character.)

How To Get Readers to Feel Something For Your Characters-Part I

Last week I talked about the quickest way to get even loyal readers to ditch your book. If they aren’t emotionally invested in the characters of your story, they’ll bail on your lovingly crafted novel in a hurry. Right now you might be thinking, “All right, Ms. Smartypants, that’s all well and good, but how do I get my readers emotionally invested? I’m emotionally invested in my protagonist up to my eyeballs. Give me some for examples here.”

That’s a legitimate question. I went back and analyzed those six books that I bailed on recently and tried to pinpoint exactly how the authors lost me. Why didn’t I care about the characters? In this first post on how to write characters that won’t put your readers to sleep, I’ll focus on some of the pitfalls to avoid. All of six of the books committed at least one of these, usually more than one.

No emotional reaction

Characters lack emotional reactions. This is especially crippling for a novel if your protagonist is the one with the problem. Don’t get me wrong, I love a great stoic character. Stoic does not equal no emotion, though. The reason stoic characters work is because even though they aren’t crying as the love of their lives die in their arms, you know they are feeling powerful emotions and struggling to keep them in. As an author you’ve got to show us that struggle. If it’s a point of view character, for heaven’s sake, take us inside his head and let us know what he’s thinking. If he’s not a POV character, we need the actions that betray what he’s feeling—the trembling lips, the fisted hands, the clenched jaws. We also need that character’s actions and motivations to convey what he is feeling. The heroine might never speak of her burning need for revenge, but we can watch her hunt down the killer.

Dawson the Crybaby

There’s a reason I bailed on Dawson’s Creek, too.

Characters have only one emotional reaction. Yes, even in real life, people have a default reaction in stressful situations. Some are yellers, others are criers, and some people run away. A good character can absolutely have an M.O. What they can’t have is only one reaction over and over. I think everyone’s read a book where the character’s chest beat so much they should have died of a heart attack after chapter three. One of the books I gave up on had a female character that could do nothing but cry. Happy, sad, depressed, sacred, angry, Tuesday evening—you name it—she cried. A personal pet peeve of mine is the throwing of stuff off of desks and tables repeatedly to show a person is angry. Sometimes the author will shake things up and (gasp!) have the character also punch a wall or door. Buy an Emotion Thesaurus and give me some variety, please.

Low stakes for characters

I have to mention here that this picture is from an actual competition in the UK where people watch paint dry.

The stakes are too low. An author’s characters are her babies, so I understand the desire to not be mean to them. However, playing it safe does not make for good story-telling. Neither does it help your readers build an attachment to your babies. Writers need to be relentlessly awful to their characters. Readers bond with characters as they suffer. One of the books I ditched had dual protagonists. Other than the inciting incidents for each that set up the book, nothing upsetting happened to either of them for about 200 pages. I kid you not, I read chapter after chapter, and the only thing of significance that happened to either of them was they managed to get jobs. They weren’t even interesting jobs, nor was there any conflict in obtaining the employment. The two protagonists didn’t even meet until page 176. You know who else I hadn’t met after 200 pages? The antagonist. Or if I did, he was so mildly antagonizing I missed his entrance.

Whiny heroes are like toddlers

Whiny, selfish heroes. I just finished up a series of posts on the mythic hero. Traditional heroes generally aren’t allowed to be either of the adjectives I just listed, with good reason. It doesn’t endear him or her to your readers. I would suggest they’re not a good look on an antihero, either. Most of us can get behind a rough around the edges antihero who breaks the rules so long as the ends justify the means. No one likes a whiner, though. It reduces your hero or heroine to a petulant toddler. If your whole cast of characters is this self-centered, you’re essentially asking your reader to baby-sit.

Michael Bay Presents Explosions

No motivation/unclear motivation/unbelievable motivation. Why did your heroine just blow up that building? “Because it was cool,” is only a motivation if you’re Michael Bay. As an author, you need to know why your characters take the actions they do and say the things they say. What drives your hero? What is your heroine’s deepest yearning? What wound haunts your villain to make her so awful? If you don’t know, your reader sure won’t. If the plot isn’t driven by clear and believable motivation, how can the audience get lost in the world you are creating? It can’t. Readers won’t buy what you’re selling if they have to stop and start the reading process too often to try to puzzle things out.

Related Reading:

What Can Make Even a Loyal Reader Ditch Your Book

I am loyal to the point of folly. People, I watched season seven of Supernatural. Every. Single. Episode. The Geneva Convention is holding talks about whether Netflix should be required to pull those 22 hours of slow torture. It was horrible, but, by golly, I had logged a lot of miles with Sam and Dean in that Impala, and I was not giving up. I’m glad I didn’t since season eight was greatly improved, and I’m downright giddy about season nine.

I am just as teeth-clenched determined when it comes to reading.  Robin McKinley wrote two of my favorite young adult books, The Blue Sword and The Hero and The Crown. Her adult fiction can be sort of hit or miss for me, but I will read every page. I had to check out Sunshine on three different occasions over two years to get through it. It ended up being excellent, but the beginning was painfully slow. If Robin McKinley’s name hadn’t been on the book cover, I would have chucked the thing out the window the first time. But I am LOYAL.

Pushing through a boring book.

I have a professor friend who because of time constraints and because she reads slower than I do, has to be aggressively picky about what she reads. She has a formula for how many pages she will read of a book before she decides whether she’ll continue. It is as follows:

100 – (your current age) = the pages you allow the author to woo you

She’s 35, so she gives a book until page 65. I’m generous. I’ll give you 200 because I’m really hoping you’ll have a miraculous turn around half way through.

Even so, I’ve had a rough time lately with books. I returned more unfinished books in the last six months than I ever have before. Others I finished out of sheer tenacity, but I never grew to like them.

All of the books were critically acclaimed and from a literary perspective were well written. Some were the author’s first book, others were not. Two were science fiction, two were fantasy, two were mainstream fiction. What united them was their universal problem:

I did not care what happened to the characters. Not at all. Not a one. Zilch, zip, nada. Blow them all up, heroes and villains alike, and I would have slept like a baby.

Readers should care more about the book than their beverage.

The authors were very good at other aspects of the writing. The fantasy writer was a masterful world builder. He created one of the most interesting systems of magic I’ve ever seen, and then he plopped down a set of characters into it with all the relatablity of dry toast. Both of the science fiction writers wrote wonderful scenes of tension and suspense that I made notes on. One of the mainstream writers had lovely description of the world of her two protagonists. Sadly, her setting had more depth than her characters.

At the same time I read these books, I was alternating reading a series of paranormal romances. You know the type. They have the kind of covers that encourage you to buy an e-reader. The writing is atrocious. Every single time I read one I wonder how this author ever got a publishing contract. The dialogue is cringe worthy, and she is constantly telling instead of showing. BUT—this is huge—I am currently reading the ninth book in this series. These horribly crafted things are New York Times bestsellers. I continue to plod through the inferior writing because the author made me care about her characters.

If you make me fall in love with the people in your story, I will put up with a lot. I watched plots revolving around Pepperjack Turducken Slammers(! ) because I had already loved Sam and Dean Winchester for years.   If I don’t care a lick about your characters, I don’t care how pretty your prose is, I’m chucking your book.

Dean eats a Turducken Sandwich.

In the words of the great Sol Stein, “The fiction writer’s primary job is creating an emotional experience for the reader.”

So, please, make me feel something.

Questions for comments:

  1. Think about your favorite book. Why did you like it? Was it the writing style or the characters?
  2. What makes a good character?
  3. What makes a reader apathetic about a character?
  4. Why do you most often abandon a book?

Mythic Villains: Bring on the Big Bads

With this post, we’ve reached the end of our Hero’s Journey, the monomyth based on the writings of Joseph Campbell. The Villain is the last of our cast of characters, and like the Hero, he has a very specific list of qualities.

Much like the Hero, who is supposed to be unambiguously good, there needs to be no question that the Villain is evil. Remember the motto from the producers of Seinfeld: No learning and no hugging. Your Big Bad can’t be misunderstood, can’t be redeemed, and can’t be conflicted. The Villain is often called the Evil One in the monomyth and with good reason.

Seinfeld finale in jail

The Seinfeld finale drove home the “No Learning” lesson. Your villain needs to be just as selfish as these four.

Interestingly, he or she shares a number of qualities with the hero:

  1. Hubris, although in his case, it might be a straight up big head.
  2. An outlaw, but in the true sense of the word. The Villain is a criminal, not just a little rebellious.
  3. Clever and resourceful. A stupid villain easily duped isn’t a worthy opponent. Also, someone who was tricked into doing the wrong thing isn’t truly evil.
  4. May be wounded, giving him an excuse to do evil. This characteristic is terrifically important for making a three-dimensional villain. The mythical Evil One can easily descend into a cat-stroking, cackling caricature. The wound explains the motivation for his actions, but it cannot make us sympathetic. Don’t make your villain evil for evil’s sake, but make him appalling enough that even knowing his back story, we find him despicable.
  5. Have a special talent, which he’s using for evil. If he has a knack for chemistry, for heaven’s sake don’t have him making medicine for babies and puppies. He should be concocting fowl poisons.
  6. Have great sex appeal. This isn’t required, but I’ve always found the good-looking villains infinitely creepier than the wart-covered oozy ones. However, you can’t have any great love affairs here. He or she will be using and manipulating their lovers for personal gain. Sure, they could fall in love, but they are first and foremost selfish, and nothing will change that. Remember, no learning.

The Evil One also has a number of qualities that are directly opposite of those listed for the Hero:

  1. Is motivated by greed, avarice, lust, lust for power, vanity, narcissism, and other moral flaws. With a list like that, it’s easy to slip into posturing and sneering, but keep the wound in mind.
  2. Is never motivated by idealism, only selfishness. There is one exception: the Evil One’s family. He’s allowed to do nice things for his family, but ultimately that is also a form of selfishness and vanity. They reflect on him.
  3. Is often cruel.
  4. Can win by luck.
  5. Is not forgiving.
  6. May quit, but only at the end.
  7. May whine, grovel, and complain. No need for him to suffer in silence.
  8. May not be loyal.
  9. May not be physically superior, although sometimes he has a sidekick or minions that are.
  10. Has no special birth or destiny, although he may claim one.

Not nearly as much direction is given about the Evil One as the Hero, but that should not mean that you spend any less time crafting a deep and well crafted antagonist. Kristen Lamb recently wrote an article about how a lot of writer’s block and sagging middles could in fact be due to poorly constructed antagonists.

Ben Linus LOL cat

When do you know you’re villain has captivated the public? When they start making LOL cats about him.

I, myself, realized that my first draft contained a cartoon villain. A strong antagonist can make a story come alive. How amazing was Lost after the writers added Michael Emerson’s Ben character? Did I like him? No. Did every scene he was in crackle with energy? You betcha. Why was the third season of the Vampire Dairies so amazing? The Originals, lead by Klaus. That set of villains was so good, a year later the CW has spun them off into their own show! Why was season four less interesting? Because the new Big Bad, Silas, is booorrrrring.

A word of caution, though. In your effort to make your Evil One interesting, don’t make him or her more compelling than your Hero. In this summer’s Star Trek, it became clear that someone was going to have to die. As the final showdown between Spock, Kirk, and Khan approached, Benedict Cumberbatch’s villain was so amazing that he was not my first choice to go. I’m not even sure he was my second. And I like both Spock and Kirk.

Related Reading:

Did That Monster Come Out of You? (Reflections on how to write the truly evil villains from the always great Charles Yallowitz)

Sort of Related Art:

I found this post on the art of Kiersten Essenpries, who did a series of pieces on what villains do in their spare time.  If you like her brand of kooky, you should check out the whole series at her website.

The Mythic Hero: Can He Ever be an Antihero? Can an Antihero be Female?

I’m a big fan of the Vampire Diaries. Yes, I’m 34, hold two college degrees, and I watch the Vampire Diaries. That is another discussion.  One of the main characters, Damon Salvatore, is your traditional bad boy antihero. Over the course of the last four seasons he’s redeemed himself somewhat, and he gave this wonderful bit of advice to the series’ main villain, Klaus, “If you’re going to be bad, be bad with a purpose. Otherwise you’re not worth forgiving.”

Vampire Diaries' Damon and Klaus

That, in a nutshell, is what separates an antihero from a villain. They are bad with a purpose.

What, then, separates the antihero from being a mythic hero?  An antihero by definition lacks the virtues and qualities that would make him heroic. If you’re writing a regular novel, your protagonist can be an antihero with no problem.  When you are writing a myth, however, you are writing about the epic struggle between good and evil. Experts maintain that a mythic hero must be unambiguously good, or the structure breaks down.

In James N. Frey’s The Key:  How to Write Damn Good Fiction with the Power of Myth, he lists the qualities of the mythic hero. (For those of you who didn’t read my previous posts about The Hero’s Journey and the characters the Hero meets along the way, you can click those links for more info.)

The Hero Must:

  1. Take the lead in a cause or action.  No reactionary heroes.
  2. Have courage, or find it in the course of the story.
  3. Be an outlaw or maverick of some kind, living by his own code.  This is only in the sense of him defying conventionality; he cannot be an actual criminal.
  4. Be good at what he does for a living.  He can’t be a lazy, surly employee before the call to adventure.
  5. Have one or more special talents that set him apart.
  6. Be clever and resourceful.
  7. Be sexually potent.

The Hero Can Never:

  1. Quit.
  2. Act cruelly.
  3. Whine.
  4. Grovel.
  5. Win by luck, although luck can play a part.

The Hero Usually (you can use these qualities or not—up to you):

  1. Is stoic.
  2. Is loyal.
  3. Is forgiving, or learns to forgive over the course of the story.
  4. Is considered sexually appealing (slightly different than sexually potent, which is a non-negotiable).
  5. Has a special birth (parent might be a king, doomed prisoner, a goddess, an Apache warrior, and the like).
  6. Is physically superior in some way (strength, speed, hearing, reflexes, etc.).
  7. Has a special destiny (predicted by a seer, perhaps).
  8. Has hubris (a big head, or at least seems to think he can do things most people can’t—an extra dose of stubborn and initiative might be another way to think of it.).

The Hero Occasionally (the rarest traits):

  1. Is cynical.
  2. Is mouthy.

Now, if we look at that list of traits, you’ll probably notice that the only ones that sound slightly like an antihero are the last (and rarest) two, and even then, they’re pretty mild for an antihero.  Some could argue that the requirement that the hero be an outlaw tips the mythic hero in favor of the antihero, but the distinction between outlaw and criminal is made very clear.  The mythic hero is a little rebellious and thinks outside the box, but he doesn’t break the law.  I think the real line in the sand, though, is that a mythic hero can never be cruel.  Can you think of an antihero that wasn’t at some point cruel?  If not, were they truly an antihero?

Thems the rules, folks.  I’ve read about the Hero’s Journey from multiple sources now, and they’re pretty adamant.  The Journey doesn’t work if your Hero isn’t written a certain way.  I want to rebel against this, because like most postmoderns, I prefer the antihero.  Man of Steel wasn’t a perfect movie, but it was by far my favorite Superman because it was the first one that the character wasn’t a total boy scout.

I was getting myself pretty worked up.  I wanted to write a Hero’s Journey, but I still wanted to be able to write an antihero.  Then I realized it was all moot anyway.  Why?  Because my protagonist is not a hero but a heroine.  While the public clamors for antiheroes, they’re not so interested in anti-heroines.   Once a heroine crosses certain lines, it’s just not socially acceptable to consider her heroic anymore.

Wikipedia has a listing of antiheroes, and it’s pretty telling.  In the literature category, it lists 26 antiheros, only one of which is a woman—Scarlett O’Hara.  The movie list had a mere four of the 137 listed:  Beatrix Kiddo of the Kill Bill movies, Juno MacGuff of Juno (which I think is a bit of a stretch), Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Dawn Weiner of Welcome to the Dollhouse (has anyone heard of that?).  TV had the best showing with six names of 80:  Emily Thorne from Revenge, Jackie Peyton from Nurse Jackie, Veronica Mars (again, I don’t see how she counts), Ally McBeal, Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (wasn’t she an antagonist?), and Nancy Botwin from Weeds.

What’s an author to do?  Are the rules made to be broken?  In a postmodern world, can you successfully write a mythic antihero, or even crazier—a mythic anti-heroine?  Can you think of someone who has already done it?

Related Reading:

Let Mindy Kaling Be an Asshole (Fabulous article, and I hope she doesn’t cave to pressure and change the show too much, because I loved it.)

Darkly Developing Dexter