Monday Challenge: Playing Catch With The Dark Lord

If only it was this simple.

Last week, I read a kid’s book that was fun, interesting, and, strangely, morally challenging.

Not a usual description of a book meant for ages eight to twelve–and, let’s face it, not exactly a cover blurb that would appeal to the intended audience–but from the point of view of a well-read, slightly jaded adult, it made the book so much better. And, while they wouldn’t put it that way, I imagine it improves the story from a kid’s point of view, too. There’s so much in kid’s lit that’s safe and nice that it’s not a surprise more kids don’t read. If you think children can’t spot your condescension a mile off, you’re in for a very rude awakening.

Remember the stories you liked when you were a kid? Better yet, remember the ones you told yourself? How many of those were nice? I’m betting not a lot. Because kids, as a rule, aren’t nice. Not in the way that adults think of the word. They can be sweet and funny and amazing, but nice requires an emotional maturity that most kids don’t have yet. Developing that is part of becoming an adult.

Kids are like tiny barbarian warriors: everything they feel is bigger and stronger than adults, but there’s not a lot of subtlety. When they’re happy, it’s really fucking happy. When they’re sad, the world is ending. And when they’re angry…batten the fucking hatches, because a Category 3 Kid-icane is blowing through.

And all this stuff usually comes from the one kid.

The School For Good and Evil details a school where the descendants of fairy tale characters learn to be heroes and villains. Simple enough. But, because these are the children of famous characters, we see the stories from the other side. The Sheriff of Nottingham’s daughter whose dad was always away at work. The son of a slain werewolf, who’s just trying to make enough money to give his father a proper burial. The vain, greedy daughters of princesses who found their happy ending. The stupid, musclebound poser prince who was taught every day that looks and shoe size are the only things that matter when choosing a mate.

It’s a simple reminder: there’s more than one side to every story.

Monday Challenge time, children: write a popular story from the point of view of someone who cares for the antagonist. Everyone has someone: their parents, their children, their friends, that first grade teacher who still sees something worthwhile in them.

And maybe go read that book. It’s a good summer read, no matter how old you are.

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Breaking Out The Hard Stuff: Writing The Parts You Really Don’t Want To

No one ever promised you ‘easy’.

It’s a myth that writing always feels good. Sometimes it’s hard, for a variety of reasons. The most obvious of these is of course not knowing what to write next, or not knowing how. But I’m here today to address the lesser-known but still powerful type of hard: emotionally difficult.

Case in point: the other day I was working on a scene that honestly made me uncomfortable. It was about a rapist justifying his own actions to himself. The whole thing left me feeling like I’d just taken a running leap into an open sewage pit.

I didn’t want to write it. I don’t even know if that particular scene will make it into the final cut. But I needed to know how he would see it, because of course very few people ever see themselves as the Bad Guy*, so that I knew how he would act later. Because how he acts later is instrumental to how the main character sees him, and makes a decision regarding him. There are serious consequences to his action, and I needed to know how he would accept—or, in this case, not accept—these consequences.

Still, that was a hard 1,000 words. It took me damn near all afternoon, when normally I’d crank out that many words in an hour and then get a cookie. I wanted to stop, not because the words weren’t coming, but because when they were I didn’t want them to. I spent half the afternoon writing a couple of sentences, getting weirded out, and walking away for ten minutes or so before coming back. Because, distasteful as I found it, it needed to be written.

So I wrote it, and felt dirty all over when I was done.

But yesterday I opened it up again and read it over, and it turns out that scene is exactly what it needs to be. Anyone else reading it will come away feeling the same way I did. Which, considering what we’re discussing, is the idea.

This comes back to that old Stephen King quotation that I bandy about every now and then:

“[S]topping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”

You can’t leave the hard stuff out and write only the pieces you want. Because there’s gold in them there hills, if you’ve got the guts to make the climb and dig it out. It won’t be nice, and it won’t be easy. But whoever said art has to be either was a fucking liar.

*Though he is. No worries about that.

The Power Of Hate: Making Monsters

You wanna get a drink after we’re done burning this place down?

The opposite of the hero is not the villain*. It is the monster.

The hero and the villain are often flip sides of the same coin. One dark and one light, they nevertheless have a connection. A common background, a common cause, a shared set of ideals…the villain has something of the hero’s, just twisted.

The monster, however, is a different beast altogether. They can sometimes be the villain, but not always; sometimes they’re an associate or a secondary villain, sometimes they’re a henchman** who lurks in the corner, exuding menace like Axe Body Spray at a junior high dance. Whoever they are, wherever they are, they are the one who does the unthinkable: sets fire to the house with the kids still inside, butchers the village even after they collected the taxes, lets the virulent toxin loose in the air recycling systems of the old folk’s space station. The monster goes toward evil—and then goes a step further.

If you’ve ever read a book or seen a movie where there was a bad guy…and then the guy that you really hated, you’ve met the monster.

Sometimes the villain and the monster are the same person. One memorable Stephen King book I read had the villain, very early on in the book, beat a dog to death because it tore his pants. It was a horrifying act, clearly defining that man as both the villain and a monster. Heroes are often said to have a ‘Save the Cat’ moment—the point in the story where they, literally or figuratively, save a cat from a burning building because they’re the hero, god damn it. Monsters can have the opposite: a ‘Kick the Cat’ moment. Or, in this case, kick the dog. The point where they hurt someone because they can.

To take a pop culture reference: in the Harry Potter series***, Voldemort is the villain, hands down. But Bellatrix Lestrange is the monster. [Spoilers coming, though if you haven’t read the books or seen the movies by now, I doubt you’re going to, so quit your fucking complaining.] She kills Sirius, tortures Hermione, and is not only responsible for the worst crime of the entire series, but gloats about it. The characters fear Voldemort; they hate Bellatrix.

And that’s the point of the monster: to make us hate. It’s an emotional investment in the story. Just like the characters we love, the ones we hate draw us in. Some villains we can understand, or even empathize with, despite their actions. But not these guys. We just want them to die. Or, at the very least, be confined to the deepest, darkest prison imaginable with no hope of parole. They become the lightning rod for our desire for revenge and we want to see them go the fuck down.

Even better: because of their nature, we can safely hate them. They have no hope of redemption. There is no saving the monsters.

Nor does there need to be. Because there’s nothing that gets your audience going like the character they love to hate.

*Or not always. Read the rest of the post, ding bat.
**Women are significantly underrepresented in the henching fields.
***Using this one because I’m reading it again.

Meanwhile, Somewhere In My Brain…

A koala climbing up a tree. Taken on the 28th ...

I like to think she came up with the idea while being attacked by drop bears.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Can you all hear me? Can you—hey, quiet down there! No, no one wants to see your battle hammer, dude. No, I don’t care that it’s in your pants. Now shut up.

Wow, there’s a lot more of you than I thought. That could be a problem. All right, I gathered you all here today because—what’s that? You hate that guy? Yes, I know. You’re supposed to. He’s one of the antagonists. Antagonists. ANTAG—the bad guy, all right? Just…look it up. When you learn to read.

Here’s the thing: you’re all imaginary. You’re the characters in the first draft of the novel I’m working on. All of you. Some of you are good guys, some of you are bad guys, a lot of you are something in between. But you all have something in common. Aside from being imaginary, that is.

You’re all too perfect.

Even those of you who are bad guys are just too fucking pat. Too on the nose. Most of you lack a certain…complexity. And that’s not necessarily your fault. You’re just new. The zero draft pass is about ideas, and that’s what you are. But now it’s time for you to become characters.

I was discussing this via text with a friend who’s in Australia, and I think she gave me the clue. Working on one of her own characters, she finally figured out why said character wasn’t working: she wasn’t broken. All characters are wounded, in some way, and that wound informs their actions. But this one wasn’t. There was no damage in her soul. Just like there’s none in a lot of you.

This can’t stand.

So, here’s what needs to happen. A couple of you are all right. You, there, the killer with the knives, you’re not bad. And you, the first level bad guy, you’re okay, too. If the two of you could just sort of go to one side…what’s that? No, you don’t have to stand by him, miss. You two are going to be spending enough time together.

The rest of you, come over here. If you’re going to stick around this story and be worthwhile, you need to be more broken. I want to see your damage. I want to feel it. And if you don’t have any, then I’m going to give it to you. Hell, some of you might not even exist after this is over. But it’s necessary. It’s for the good of the story.

Now form an orderly queue, and…

Hey, where are you all going?

Backstory, or How To Avoid Boring Your Reader To Death

Marmoset

I’m watching you. (Photo credit: Leszek.Leszczynski)

Fucking backstory. You’ve got your story cruising along, hitting points A to B to C, and all of a sudden someone does something unusual and we have to know why. Why do they get all weird at the idea of marriage? Why does the sight of a carnival carousal make them sad?* Why is the Tooth Fairy stalking them with a pair of pliers? And you have to answer those questions or the rest of the scene doesn’t make sense. Hell, the story might not even make sense. So you have to stop what you’re doing and drop in some backstory. Slows everything down if you don’t do it right.

But it’s necessary. It creates relationships, sets expectations, and makes it clear exactly why the protagonist is deathly afraid of marmosets. It makes the character a real person, with a past, and not just a place-filler because all this shit has to happen to someone.

So how does a writer deal with the absolutely necessary but sometimes pace-killing revelations about the character’s past?

1. Make it short. Seriously. I don’t need to know every detail. Just throw in what absolutely needs to be there for the reader to not get lost, and move on. You can write it out for your own benefit if you like. I do this a lot, just so I know what the details of the steroid-addicted marmoset attack on the protagonist’s childhood campsite actually were. To make damn sure there’s a reason they fear the furry little bastards.
And then I go back and cut. Ruthlessly.

2. Stick and move. This works especially well for the horrible shit we do to our characters. If someone’s choices are informed by something traumatic in their past, chances are they’re not going to sit around and dwell on every detail. No, those moments are going to smack them in the back of the head in times of stress—there and gone in a second. Chuck Wendig’s Bait Dog has a number of good examples of this technique. The main character, Atlanta, never deliberately thinks about what happened to her, but the reader gets flashes of it whenever she’s upset. Not much, either. Just enough to get a sense of what happened, and the emotional impact it had.

3. Do not info dump. If you make me stop in the middle of an interesting bit of story to go back and trudge through fifteen pages of the protagonist’s childhood, I will stop reading. And then I will mail you a steroid-jacked marmoset.

4.Be cautious of…. Using a diary, a dream, a conversation with a perfect stranger, a counseling session, a first date, or any other contrived way of showing backstory. Not saying they can’t be used, but for the love and honour of Velociraptor Jesus, make sure it’s part of the goddamn story. The main story, that is. It shouldn’t be an excuse to get the backstory out and in the open. Also, no one ever randomly tells all their secrets to a stranger at the bus station. Unless they’re crazy. Or drunk. Which are both options, but should once again be used with caution and common sense. When in doubt, don’t. Just don’t.

*I wrote this as a throw away, but now that I think about it, there is something melancholy about carousals.

Twisted Mirror: The Bad Guy

Broken mirror

Look with caution. (Photo credit: Anakronfilm)

I may have mentioned before that I like bad guys. No, not in that damn stupid pop-psychology ‘I can change him’ way. But in fiction, a good bad guy can make or break a story.

I was thinking about the idea of antagonists in the shower the other day*, and trying to sort out what I really like about some of them. Both ones I’ve read and ones I’ve written. I’ll spare you the long, meandering route my brain took to reach a conclusion and jump to the point: my favourites are antagonists that in some way mirror the protagonist.

They should have some key aspects in common: background, proclivities, something. The idea is that the antagonist should take some of those good or neutral qualities and twist them somehow. Maybe they go a step further down the road to hell than the protagonist, maybe they do things for fun that the protagonist has to do out of necessity, maybe take a good quality to such an extreme that it becomes something terrifying. But they should have a connection. Because if they don’t, then what the hell is the story about? Why are these two people** at odds? Why do they so desperately want to stop each other from achieving their goals?

I read somewhere once—can’t quite remember where, but I must have liked it—that real hate, the kind that fills you with fire and acid, doesn’t come from differences, but from similarities and differences paired. We can’t really hate someone completely different from us because we don’t know them. They are alien to us. But someone who is enough like us to highlight every flaw, every choice gone wrong, every might-have-been moment…maybe them we can really hate. Because they are, in some way, something we could have been. Or, worse, something we might still become. Which is why it’s so important to fight them.

I have to think in the shower more often.

*See? I follow my own advice.
**I am aware that not all antagonists need to be people, but most of mine are, and it makes the construction of the sentence simpler. If you prefer to be a pedant, read this sentence as, “Why is the protagonist at odds with this person/thing/force, natural or otherwise/social paradigm/whatever the hell else you feel like making the goddamn antagonist now leave me alone.”

Risking It All

 

Risk

We must stop the advancing horde of Tiny Plastic or…something. (Photo credit: The Fayj)

Let’s talk stakes.

I watched the newest Die Hard* the other day, and, aside from the physics conundrums which are an inevitable part of any action movie**, I had a little trouble with the stakes. The US government wanted to stop Bad Russian Guy from getting more power*** because…

…Well, because he’s a Bad Guy, god damn it. That’s all we need to know. Undefinable Bad Things will happen if he’s allowed to continue being The Bad Guy. Chaos, riots, puppies being kicked in the streets…it’s going to be bad. We think.****

But it’s a little fuzzy. The stakes remain unclear. And if they’re unclear, then why should we care if they’re lost?

Something has to be at risk. It can be big—the fates of nations and worlds is a popular stake in epic fantasy and space opera—or small—romance as a whole is predicated on the risk to a single person’s emotional health—but it has to be there. Ideally, we can have big and small things at stake, but we’ll settle for one if it’s one we really care about. And we have to know what the hell it is.

This was one of the problems with my first horror novel. There was a Thing that was trying to get out of somewhere, and it was generally accepted that it would be bad if it did. But nowhere did I ever say why it would be bad. It was just a given. And, because of that, the motivations of all the characters became suspect. Because why in the name of Christ’s holy cock and balls would they risk life and limb and sanity to stop something that wasn’t a clear threat? I wouldn’t.

There have to be stakes, and they have to be real enough to the characters that they are willing to do whatever they have to. Epic fantasy heroes have to be willing to sacrifice themselves to protect their queen. Romance protagonists must be willing to do embarrassing or downright insane things to keep from losing their One True Love. Aliens have to be willing to lay their eggs inside the disgusting carcass of a hairless ape to ensure their offspring have the best chance of survival.

And they have to be willing to do those things because the alternative is unspeakable.

*Which I can’t be arsed to remember the name of, so I’ve taken to referring to it as Die Hard X: The Die-Hardening.
**And which should never get in the way of enjoying a properly done fight scene or explosion.
***Another problem, because it’s made clear from the outset that he’s got a lot of power already. Enough to imprison Other Russian Guy for a helluva long time. Maybe they missed the mark earlier.
****All right, I’ll admit that the Die Hard series in general is low-hanging fruit, but since I’ve barely left the house for the last week, I haven’t had much opportunity to do other research.