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.

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


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



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.


Monday Challenge: Change of Heart

Deutsch: Lesbische Zweisamkeit im Bett

Getting laid might solve a lot of your antagonist’s problems. Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So it begins.

October is upon us. Aside from being one of my favourite months, this is the last countdown until the beginning of NaNoWriMo. One month left to do all the planning and research you’ve been meaning to. And then it’s time to climb in the ring and go thirty rounds with your story. You’ll both be pretty punch-drunk by the end, but with any luck, someone will be getting their hand raised.

To that end, for this month, all my Monday Challenges will be related to things I’m considering about my own upcoming novel project. These are questions that I’m asking myself, stuff that I think I should know before starting. So, aside from being a writing prompt, this is also a behind-the-scenes look at my creative process. Be warned that it’s pretty fucking messy back here. Mind where you step.

One of the things I like* most about this story is the antagonist. God help me, I do love a good bad guy. And he is bad. He wasn’t born that way, of course, but his life and his choices have brought him to this stage. And now he’s ready to do whatever he has to to achieve his goal.

That’s the thing about bad guys, in my view. That’s the reason I tend to enjoy writing them: they want it. Whatever it is—power, money, prestige, freedom, love, whatever—they want it, and they have reached a point where nothing will stand in their way. The wanting is stronger than anything else. You might hate them, you might want them to die horribly, but, god damn it, they have conviction. It’s mesmerizing, in its own way. It pulls you in.

If you’re writing an antagonist, you’ve got to give them that resolve. Whatever they want is usually opposed to what the protagonist wants. And since that conflict is one of the primary movers of the story, it’s got to be a good one. The antagonist has to really want their outcome. The protagonist must be in serious danger of not achieving their goal because the antagonist wants their goal so badly. It has become their driving force, their reason for existence.

So, my question, for you and for myself, is what would it take it take to make the antagonist turn away from it?

Now, I’m not saying it’ll be easy. I can feel my antagonist giving me a look inside my head, like he’s thinking, The fuck did you just say? But if he’s a person and not an automaton**, then there has to be a sequence of events that would lead to him changing his mind. It doesn’t have to be likely, it doesn’t have to be possible, but it has to exist.

So what would change your antagonist’s mind? A pardon for crimes committed? The death of the person she holds responsible the situation? A boatload of money? Write that sequence, either as a scene or just as character notes. Consider how they could change. It doesn’t have to be for the better; they might create something worse. But what change could there be that would alter their current situation, and therefore their motivation?

In the case of my lad, I already know what would change his mind: love. I hesitate to say it, because it seems trite, but if a very specific person asked him, there’s a chance he’d stop. But she won’t ask.

So it’s probably going to be death. And that is not going to be easy.

*Probably not the right word, since he’s a dyed-in-the-wool bastard, but it’s the best I’ve got.
**If he is an automaton, then you’ve got a whole other set of plot questions.


Things I’m Judging You For Right Now


The Attack Bees of Violent Judgement are immune to your feeble pleas for mercy. But they do like rum. Fucking drunk bee minions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(Related to fiction writing, that is. That other stuff is between you and God/The Universe/The police/the neighbour with the restraining order.)

1. Passive voice: I had to put up with enough of this shit in academia. Any attempt to inflict it on my current life will result in the offender being dragged outside and beaten with a thigh-high stocking filled with kitchen utensils.* Knock that shit off. (Edit: some people would like clarification, so here you are. Don’t write, “Jimmy was hit by the car.” Write “the car hit Jimmy.” The first example adds useless words and slows the pace. End side-bar.)

2. Sock Puppets: I’m on to you. Don’t pretend that side character with an inexplicably long monologue only vaguely related to the plot is there for the story. It’s just a way for you to make a point, and a clumsy way at that. You want to make a point, go start a blog like every other maladjusted twat with an axe to grind. I can even give you some tips on how to get started.** But don’t drop that crap on me in the middle of a story. I haven’t been to Sunday School in eighteen years, and I’m not interested in going while I’m trying to read.

3. Tokens: If I see one more shallow, thinly-veiled attempt at inclusion in a work of fiction, I will set the Attack Bees of Violent Judgement on the offender. Gay characters, transgendered characters, polyamourous characters, characters of varied ethnicity, background, or sexuality—they should be characters first. Not shills, not a way to show how cool and accepting you are. If they exist only to fill the mandated ‘not a straight monogamous white dude’ quota, get the fuck out. It’s insulting and annoying.

4. Paper Tigers: If someone’s going to be a bad guy, then for the love of Crom, make them a goddamned bad guy. Don’t pull their teeth. Don’t force them to make choices that help the heroes just because you want the story to go a certain way. If your heroes can’t handle the villain, then they’re not the people for the job. They should go home and hide under the bed while they wait for the real heroes to turn up and kick some ass. Or die horribly. I’m not picky.

5. Born This Way: Related to number four, don’t show me villains without cause. The secret to creating good villains: they should believe they’re doing the right thing. No one sees themselves as the bad guy. Give them a reason why they want to turn the population into viscous gene-spliced soup, and use that. “Because they’re the bad guy” does not cut it. When I come across this crap in a story, I feel like the author believes I’m too stupid to question a character. And then I stop reading.

6. Sad Panda Assassins: Okay, this is kind of specific, but I’ve seen it a few times, especially in fantasy fiction. A serious thought on the sanctity of life and the wrongness of their actions is fine once or twice, but every fucking time? Dude either needs to shut up or find a new profession. Possibly as a flagellant.

Right. That’s my little list of vitriol and bile for the day. So, what’s annoying you about fiction lately?

*Any volunteers willing to check the internet and find out if this is already a thing? I’d do it myself, but I’m all out of mind-bleach.
**Step One: Embracing Your Maladjusted Twat-ness. It’s clear I already have.

Make ‘Em Bleed

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I appreciate violence in a story. (Maybe not just in stories; all my favourite sports involve someone getting punched in the face.) It can add a raw, realistic element to a piece. Violence and action are the chili pepper in the story: they spice it up and make it interesting. But it has to be used right. Anyone who has ever had suicide wings knows that spicy does not equal flavour. Sometimes it just kills the taste of everything else. Blood in a story is the same: you have to use it to add something to the story, not just for the sake of having someone bleed.

In the piece I’m editing now, there’s a seriously violent character. I’ve gone through several different versions of how his scenes could go, ranging up and down on the blood scale. The first draft was pretty bad, but the first draft I let someone else see was toned down, because, honestly, the guy was starting to weird me out a little. But the current version has most of those scenes returning to their original, higher, level of violence. I read the drafts side by side, made a lot of notes, and decided the more violent level was the right one. And here’s why.

 1. It builds tension. The violent character (nicknamed Wild Card in the first draft) needs to be stopped before the worst can happen. And the best way to illustrate the worst is to show what he’s capable of. Then he’s not just some guy who needs to be stopped if it’s not too inconvenient. He’s a fucking terrible person who must be stopped at all costs, because if he’s not, something truly bad will happen. Something worse than what’s already happening.

2. It illustrates character. The violence shows what kind of person Wild Card is, and sets up conflicts between him and other characters, good and bad. Their reactions to what he does show what kind of people they are. Are they okay with it? Does it disgust them? Why? And what are they going to do about it?

3. It highlights vulnerability. Particularly useful in this case, because Wild Card’s victim is a character who, until quite recently, was very hard to hurt. Seeing a badass character in a situation where they’re scared and helpless creates intrigue, because they have to come up with a way to get through it that does not rely on their traditional strengths. They have to be clever about it, and there’s always a chance it won’t work. Invulnerable characters are not interesting; people who get bloodied up and then try to beat the shit out of the bad guy with a broken chair leg are.

4. It makes heroes. One of the main characters has an opportunity to be the hero here. But his hero cred will be seriously diluted if the threat isn’t real or dire enough. There must be a sense that he’s not only saving the day, but that the consequences of not saving it will be really fucking bad. There has to be danger, to him and the victim, or there’s nothing for the character to gain from acting. He could just wait it out.

This is what I came up with, at least with regard to this particular story. And I’m feeling good about it. Maybe not entirely comfortable, because I’ve never written this kind of violence before, but it’s working. At least for me. The characters…they probably feel differently.