NaNo Warm-Up Part 4

We’re heading into the home stretch. Just a mere 10 days before National Novel Writing Month officially kicks off.

Hopefully, you’ve taken advantage of some of the writing exercises I’ve shared in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, and it sparked a new juicy novel idea to work on next month.

For some, you might not have been as consistent with your writing as you would have liked and now you’re asking yourself how will you ever be able to write 1,667 words for 30 days in a row? That’s like going to take way longer than 10 or 15 minutes a day.

Your heart picked up a little just now, didn’t it? And your breathing got a little shallower. Your inner critic is probably laughing at you and telling you it’s not possible.

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Of course, it’s possible. Thousands of people do it every year. And you can too. Consistency is the key. Every day you have to sit down and try. Try is the operative word. Even if you only manage to write, say, 100 words a day, that’s still 100 more words than you had yesterday. And that is cause for celebration. (Hey, if James Joyce considered two perfectly written sentences a full day’s work, so can you.)

So instead of giving you another writing exercise this week, something that may only take a few minutes to complete, I thought I’d share some tips on how to write consistently and not feel like crap about it.

  • Be specific about when and where you are going to write. Choose the time and place that fits your schedule. It may vary depending on what day of the week it is or even what your kids’ schedule is like, but knowing ahead of time when and where you will be writing every day will alleviate the first hurdle.
  • Set boundaries on your time. If you don’t have the luxury of living alone, don’t let other people bother you when you’re trying to write. Lock yourself in the bathroom, get up earlier or go to bed later than everyone else in the house, slip out to the library for an hour. The best place to write is a cemetery. No one bothers you there.
  • Decide on what or how much you want to accomplish each day. Start off by setting the bar low, like really low to start, so that when you’ve met your goal, you feel like a badass. Start with 100 words a day, then 250, then 500, then the dreaded 1,667.
  • Or if the thought of a word count already raises your blood pressure, start off by completing one scene per day, or one page per day. You’ll be in the company of John Steinbeck who advised the same thing when he wrote, “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” 

badass

 

  • Never stop writing when you can’t think of anything to say. You’ll be frustrated before you even start the next day and you’ll waste valuable, precious time pulling your hair out, slamming your fists on the desk, and swearing into your computer screen. Ernest Hemingway said it best when he offered this piece of fatherly advice, “You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next, and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.”
  • Create the habit of writing by attaching it to a habit you already have (preferably one that’s good for you, but I guess it doesn’t have to be). My favorite thing to do on weekend mornings is drink a pot of tea. When that tray comes out and the first cup is poured, I know it’s time to write.
  • Likewise, you can create a writing ritual. Perform the same meaningful (or meaningless) routine to get you in the mood. Charles Dickens would rearrange knickknacks on his desk, Steinbeck would sharpen 12 pencils, Mark Twain wrote lying down, and Victor Hugo stripped naked to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (For more weird writing rituals of famous authors, check out this book.)

If the thing that gets you down is not so much the time spent at writing but what you end up with on the page, remember you are not the only writer to ever think that what you’ve written is crap. Maya Angelou said, “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay, I’ll come.'”

Remember the operative word is “try.” No one is going to think that what they wrote at such a furious pace like the one set by NaNo is great. And if they do, then it really is crap. The point behind the challenge is to just get the words out, the story finished, not to labor over linguistics.

Joshua Wolf Shenk puts it like this, “Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and rewriting the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.”

inner-critic

So this week, make writing a priority, or at least set plans to in motion, and have the courage to try.

Hey, if it helps, you can always tell yourself you were trying to write the worst novel ever written.

Good luck!

 

 

NaNo Warm-Up Part 3

Welcome to Week 3 in the NaNo warm-up writing prompts.

In last week’s post, we explored ways of coming up with story ideas based on book titles. Some of you may have come up with your own titles or some may have worked with titles of already-published books that you knew nothing about. Either way, writing a short book synopsis is a great way to start thinking about a story in terms of plot.

But what if writing plot isn’t your strength or you prefer to write a story based on character instead?

Mary Hilton in Potent Fictions: Children’s Literacy and the Challenge of Popular Culture criticised the Point Horror series’ main characters, who were often teenage girls, as basically being used as a plot device. These femalce characters spend much of their time being upset, stalked, dumped, terrorized, paranoid, or killed. It’s true. The main characters of any of these books could be swapped from one to the other without changing storylines much.

But for literary writers, stories begin with character, and plot grows organically from there.

This week’s exercise focuses on creating characters who have a specific story to tell and comes in two parts.

Remember the Bestselling thriller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or the movie The Man in the Iron Mask? How about Girl With a Pearl Earring? Each of these titles is basically an innocuous character description, and if you had never read any of these books, you would be hard pressed to guess what genre or plot they suggest.

The first part of this exercise is to come up with a list of various character descriptions. These could describe some physical attribute, a personality quirk, or an emotional state. Heck, you might even want to take a cue from Edgar Allan Poe and be as generic as possible: The Black CatThe RavenThe Sleeper.

Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • The man in the green speedo
  • The girl who cried at midnight
  • The boy who ate glass
  • The cat whisperer
  • The woman in the rain

The second part to this prompt is to randomly select one from your list and create a character from it. This could be done any way you want: personality profile, character questionnaire, backstory narrative. You can work on one character per day or spend several days on the same character. There is no wrong way to do this.

The most challenging option for this exercise is, once you have selected your character, to write his or her story. This is done by asking simple questions: WHO? WHAT? WHY? HOW?

For instance, why is that man wearing a green speedo? Is it socially acceptable because he’s on a beach in Italy or Spain? Is he on a swim team? In the Olympics? Is his choice of swim attire out of place on the rocky Maine coast?

Why is the girl crying at midnight? Who is the woman standing in the rain? How does one know they can communicate with cats on some otherworldly level? What makes a young boy eat glass? The answers are endless, and no matter which ones you decide on, your character will dictate your story and not the other way around.

Happy writing!

NaNo Warm-Up Part 2

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, young adult horror novels were all the rage. Authors such as Caroline B. Cooney, Diane Hoh, Christopher Pike, and R. L. Stine were suddenly catapulted to success with their contributions to the Point Horror imprint from Scholastic Publishing.

These novels, with titles such as Blind Date, Mirror, Mirror, and The Vampire’s Kiss, were not works of literary genius nor were they probably meant to be, but they were immensely popular and fun, quick reads.

While I never read most of the Point Horror books, my favorite YA author growing up, Richie Tankersley Cusick, had written four titles for the imprint, including The LifeguardTrick or TreatTeacher’s Pet, and April Fools, which I must have read at least a dozen times over the years (as well as all her other books). Trick or Treat was my favorite because I love Halloween, and in fact, Ms. Cusick’s books are what inspired me to write my own YA horror/mystery/suspense novels.

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I recently read a Q&A with Cusick regarding the Point Horror series, and she stated that the authors were all given specific titles to work with and had to write stories around them. While some might consider this “factory” writing, I thought the idea would make an interesting writing prompt, especially for those of us who are plot junkies or those who may need a little help coming up with a plot or title.

Again, this is a two-part exercise.

  • First, you will have to come up with at least a dozen (or however many you feel like) titles for would-be novels. I suggest you don’t use titles for books you already know you want to write. That’s cheating! (And don’t worry if you find out there is already a book published with one of the titles you came up with. There is no copyright law for titles.)
  • Secondly, each day, you will randomly select one of the titles and write a short plot summary that you might find on the back of a paperback or inside flap of a hardcover.
  • Set your timer (if you wish) for 10 minutes and get writing. Stop when the timer dings or keep writing. It’s up to you!

This is the synopsis for Cusick’s novel The Mall, which I happen to have at my fingertips, and as you’ll see, it’s not particularly long or involved but is a general skeleton of the plot, the two main characters, and the overall tone of the story:

“Trish smiles into the dressing-room mirror, admiring herself in the gorgeous white dress. Unknown to her, someone else is watching. He knows she is smiling just for him. His soft, strange voice whispers her name from the crowd. His hooded eyes follow her every move … At first she thinks he’s just a creepy customer, hanging round Muffin Mania where she works at the mall. But suddenly he’s everywhere, the man with a thousand faces tormenting her day and night. He knows her secrets. There’s no safe place to hide. There’s no one she can tell, no one she can trust. How can she escape a madman wiling to kill to make her his–forevermore.”

And here are a few titles I came up (again, keeping with the horror theme) to get you started:

  • Blood Sisters
  • Murder Island
  • Hall of Mirrors
  • Cursed
  • Cellar Stairs

If you have trouble coming up with titles, I found this infographic on Passwordincorrect.com that gives you 15 examples of how books are titled.

15-ways-to-create-a-book-title-full-infographic

Alternatively:

  • Make a list of already-published book titles you have never read before nor know anything about. You might want to stick to a genre you wish to write in or may want to go outside your comfort zone and look for titles in an unfamiliar genre.
  • Continue as above.

I found these examples by Googling mystery titles:

  • Ghostwalk
  • City of Liars and Thieves
  • MacDeath
  • Belzhar
  • Crime Rib

This exercise is not meant to hone your synopsis-writing skills, so don’t worry about making the summary perfect or enticing. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, paragraph breaks, or even coming up with catchy phrases. It’s more about just brainstorming a general story idea with a few important characters. You may even find one of these ideas is perfect for your NaNo novel next month.

Good luck and let me know how you like this exercise. Even better, I’d love to read some of your synopses!

 

NaNo Warm-Up Part 1

Perhaps you haven’t been writing as often as you’d like lately, or you haven’t written anything at all in years.

Perhaps you even think that signing up for NaNo next month is just what you need to get back on track.

Well, hold on, sport. Trying to write 50,000 words in 30 days when you haven’t written that much in a year is like trying to run a marathon when you can’t even run a mile.

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There’s training involved. You have to flex those creative muscles first, get them warmed up and firing. Does this mean you have to glue yourself to a desk and write for hours on end? Hell no! Chances are you probably wouldn’t even make it to the chair if you thought that.

What you need to start with is consistency. Don’t worry about how long your sessions will have to be to write the obligatory 1,667 words a day during NaNo. For now, just focus on writing something every day. Sounds doable, right?

Writing consistently, without specifying a time limit, will reduce anxiety, especially if you fail to meet your minute mark because something else came up. Life happens. No one’s perfect. Not even you. But you can probably manage a sentence or two every day.

Writing consistently will also help you form a sustainable habit like brushing your teeth. It will just become something you do without any dreadful thoughts about how sucky you are at it. I mean, how often have you said to yourself, “Wow, I could have brushed that right incisor better.”

brushing-teeth-too-hard

And if you haven’t been writing consistently, you probably do have some nagging thoughts in your head about how sucky you are. You might even think, “I’ll never be able to write anything ever again.”

Let me just put that fear right out of your head. You have not suddenly forgotten how to hold a pen or pencil and form words on a piece of paper, or forgotten how to open Word or Google Docs and type. And you probably have written something in the past 10 minutes, be it an email, text, or grocery list. So I don’t believe it when you say you can’t write. What you’re really scared of is not being as creative as you used to be.

To that I say, consistency will train the creativity muscle. The more you show up for your muse, the more your muse will show up for you. She might even have to sleep over because she’s sick of driving back and forth every day. Just think, muse on demand.

The trick to being consistently creative is to start out by writing something inconsequential. Don’t try working on the next Great American Novel, even if it’s only for 10 minutes a day. That’s too much pressure. Instead, work on quick writing prompts. Remember, this is a warm-up, not the long haul. Wait until your muscles are sufficiently fired up before diving into that important project.

So for the next month, I’m going to supply you with a new exercise each week. You don’t have to set a time limit, but if you want, start with something small like 10 minutes. Literally set a timer. When it dings, you stop. Or you continue. Either way, you win.

NaNo Warm-Up Part 1:

I’m sure this exercise has origins elsewhere, but I found it in Lawrence Block’s Write For Your Life: The Home Seminar for Writers. This is not a craft book or how-to write anything specific book. It’s about how to write more often, despite fear and procrastination, not about how to write better.

Here’s the two-part exercise.

  • First (and you can use this as one of your daily sessions), you will have to come up with 50 to 100 sentences you can use as the opening line of a story
  • Then type the list double- or triple-spaced, print it out, and cut each sentence into slips; or write each one on its own index card
  • Secondly, every day, randomly select one of the sentences (set your timer for 10 minutes if you choose) and continue the story without stopping until the timer goes off or you have run out of steam
  • If you come up with 365 sentences, you can have a different prompt every day of the year

Easy peasy. Now to help you get started, I’ll share some of the opening sentences I’ve come up with. Feel free to add these to your collection or use them as a jumping off point. If it would help, you also might want to come up with prompts in your genre of choosing. For instance, I tend toward murder mysteries, so a lot of my sentences were geared toward them. However, once you get the wheels turning, you might want to try coming up with prompts in a genre you are unfamiliar with. This will flex those muscles even more.

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  • When the weather turned cool, so did his emotions.
  • She only had time to pack one evening dress, and it wasn’t even her best one.
  • Another year, another dead body.
  • If she knew how to read tea leaves, hers would say, “Death.”
  • Backpacking across Europe sounded like a great idea until he did it.
  • It wasn’t just the tights that turned him off from being a superhero.
  • Baby Jesus hung upside down in a tree.

Alternatively:

  • Open a random book to page 52 (or any page number you prefer)
  • Choose the second sentence (or any number sentence) on the page (even if it’s just one word) and use that as the opening line for your daily prompt
  • Continue as above

Do not worry about grammar, punctuation, or if what you’re writing even makes sense. Do not try to work these prompts into something you are already writing or want to write. Let the ideas flow without restricting them. If you can’t think of anything to write, write, “I can’t think of anything to write,” over and over again until you can think of something or the timer runs out.

The only way you can fail at this exercise is to not do it.

Good luck and let me know how you did or share some of your opening sentences too!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take What You Need

A little widget told me it’s been a year since my last post.

During that time, I’d been on a quest to work my way through Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days. It was more like 30 weeks. I didn’t finish that quest or continue to blog about it mostly because I realized I didn’t want to plan the crap out of my story.

And a first draft is really much more difficult than just writing an expanded outline. But I don’t have to tell you.

Unfortunately, I’m the type of person who believes that if I don’t write the way _______ writes, then I’ll never be a good writer. (I also believed everything my teachers told me because they were supposed to be the experts.)

So after finishing Wiesner’s book and realizing that wasn’t the process for me, I read Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (and it’s not as much a book written by him as it is a transcription of the writing classes he taught).

This book=polar opposite. His premise is that, to write literary fiction, you can’t write from your literal mind. You can’t logically, intellectually, consciously plot and plan. You must go into your writer’s trance and “dream” up your characters, scenes, and structure. You cannot write summary, generalization, or what teachers like to call “telling.” You must create yearning in your character and describe everything sensually, i.e. through the five senses. It is not okay to write something like, “As she walked into the party, she looked around and saw her ex-husband standing at the bar.” That is telling. There is no yearning or sensuality in that sentence. (Actually, you’re not even supposed to write, “She looked around.” Or, “She walked into the party,” for that matter.)

So for about six more months, I felt like crap because I couldn’t do what Butler was telling me to do–write first thing in the morning before doing anything else so I was closer to the dreamworld than the realworld, describe every scene sensually, stay away from summary and generalizations (there are some interesting chapters in which Butler deconstructs his students’ stories sentence by sentence to illustrate his point), and use an object to highlight this yearning which creates a metaphor which becomes a motif.

(Oh, and if you’re looking for him to tell you how to get into that writer’s trance, A.K.A. the flow, he doesn’t.)

Don’t get me wrong, there are many things I like about this book. For instance, visualizing your story, your scenes, your characters from a dreamlike state (even those you will eventually throw out) and how to write using film techniques like shots, close-ups, cuts. (This chapter, using a brilliant example from Hemingway, explains why you should never write, “She looked around.”)

But the thing that gives me the biggest niggle is that Butler chooses to distinguish “literary” writing from “entertainment” writing in a not very nice way. He even goes so far as to call Stephen King a “non-artist.” He does this because he thinks “entertainment” writers have an agenda before they even start to write (as in, King wants to scare you). Butler says, “These writers know the effects ahead of time and so they construct an object to produce them.” Real artists, A.K.A. literary writers, don’t know ahead of time what they’re writing because the characters, their yearning, their metaphors and motifs happen organically.

Are we to believe, then, that “literature” (as opposed to “commercial” writing) should not be entertaining? Is this why so many people hate English? But what’s the point of reading fiction if not to be entertained in some way? To escape where you are, who you are, what you think, what you feel at this moment. Writing “entertainment” fiction does not mean the author, or the reader, cannot also explore the human condition in some deep, meaningful way. It just means something actually happens in the story.

To sum up, I think it’s important to not follow just one author’s method or process of writing. Even if it’s Stephen King’s process. Read books and blogs, listen to podcasts, watch interviews and TED Talks by writers about writing to give you ideas, not force you into thinking there is only one right way to be a good writer.

And by all means, use your sixth sense. If your gut gives you a niggle that the advice isn’t right for you, trust it. Take what you need and leave the rest.

The End

The end, also known as the conclusion, resolution, falling action, or denouement, should be the shortest section of your story, so don’t worry if your outline looks a little skimpy. Indeed, you may only have a few scenes or only a few setting changes.

(We’ll discuss more on what exactly a scene consists of in a forthcoming post, but for now, think of a scene as taking place in one distinct setting like bedroom, boardroom, stock exchange floor, police interrogation room, hospital room.

Don’t confuse it with other distinct areas of a general setting. For instance, in a police station you might have several different settings such as Captain’s office, breakroom, interrogation room, holding cell, dispatch cubicle, detectives’ desk area, etc. Each time your protagonist [or POV character if writing in third person omniscient] moves into a new area of the police station, you can label it as a new scene.)

Basically, the end section of your story begins after your main conflict has been resolved. You’ll know when this happens because all the tension will have been released. You, along with the reader, are finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. In a mystery, this may be when the police finally arrest the criminal. Or when two lovers finally profess their feelings for each other in a romance novel. Or the ragtag crew of bandits overthrow the evil queen in a fantasy novel.

It’s a chance for you to tie up any loose ends in one or all of the subplots (though not all subplots have to be resolved) and a chance for your readers to view the aftereffects of the resolution. If your protagonist was fighting for the good of humanity, we will need to see how humanity reacts to the outcome of the conflict. Maybe the town is rebuilding after being devastated by the evil queen, or a community holds a candlelight vigil for lives lost during the battle. Maybe no one even notices that anything has changed (think government conspiracies that happen unbeknownst to the general public). But your characters know because they have changed during the process.

Use the end of the story to show us these aftereffects both physically and emotionally, but keep it brief. If you’ve outlined your story well, the ending will be both logical and satisfying without the need for lengthy explanations. If you find you do have too much to explain, you many need to rework your main plot or consider tying up various subplots earlier. All of your plots should not be resolved at the same time.

Many writers find it helpful to craft their ending scenes in such a way that their protagonist and important minor characters can congregate in one place to tie up loose ends. Settings that can bring everyone together could be at a wedding reception, birthday party or school dance, in a bar, a restaurant, the village commons–any place and/or event that seems logical not only for your story but for your characters as well.

So see? The end is not as complicated as you thought.

The following is my first pass at outlining the conclusion of my story. There are actually only two distinct settings: outside the school and inside the headmaster’s office, but I broke the scenes down into which characters were interacting with each other and which subplots were being resolved.

  1. Back on campus, Insp. Hunt drives True and Nils to the administration building. True’s mother is waiting for her and doesn’t look too proud that her daughter is getting hauled up in a police car.
  2. Inspector Hunt talks to the administrators alone. Bettina, Nils, Tucker on crutches, and Konstantine, hand in hand with Bettina, are all anxiously awaiting the plight of their friend.
  3. True and her mother meet with Headmaster Wickingham alone. The school feels that though True did break every rule, it was her tenacity that broke this case wide open. Though she would still be placed on disciplinary probation, they would like her to continue her studies at this school. If it’s ok with mom. Mom broke up with David because she didn’t want to lose her only daughter and her husband in the same year. She can stay.
  4. Outside everyone claps and cheers. True tells Hunt she knows he put a good word in for her. And she thanks him. Nils tells True she can write the kind of article about this experience using the first person if she still wants to. True says she’ll start on it right away just as soon as she and mother take a little time together. She asks Mr. Bartleby to pack their bags in the car and take them to the train station bound for London.
  5. Rumpleton brings up a basket with freshly baked goodies for True and her mother to eat on the train. She winks that there might be a nail file baked into the cinnamon apple braid bread.

You can’t do any worse than this, so take heart and plot on.

The End

A Word About Antagonists

No matter what you call them–antagonists, bad guys, villains, opponents–they always get a bad rap like 7th grade bullies.

Who's the real bully?
Who’s the real bully here?

It only seems natural that we think of antagonists as evil because they make it increasingly difficult for our main characters to reach their goals. And because we love our main characters and want to protect them and watch them succeed, we make sure we create antagonists our readers will hate.

But antagonists don’t have to be evil, and we shouldn’t always think of them so one-dimensionally.

Regardless of whether it is your protagonist or antagonist, all characters are motivated by something. All characters have a distinct and specific internal need that drives them, however subconsciously, toward their goals.

Antagonists are no different, though usually they are motivated by ignoble desires like greed, lust, power, and revenge. But if we truly look at what causes those characters to embrace their dark side, we’ll see some sort of tragic event in their backstory. Perhaps they were subjected to neglect or abuse, witnessed corruption or violence, were bullied or humiliated. Enslaved even.

We aren't born bad.
Antagonists aren’t born bad.

These are all events that could have happened to our main characters too. And in either case the internal need for each type of character is the same: the need to be protected or to protect, the need to be loved or to love, to be accepted, to be recognized, to face fear, to just be happy.

Unfortunately, while our protagonists take a more worthy approach to fulfilling these needs (saving the world, kittens, old people), our antagonists take a slightly different, selfish path to reach them.

So when dreaming up your antagonist, try to sketch him as a complex, multi-layered character and not just a vehicle to make your protagonist’s life hell. Ask yourself what he is motivated by and what need he is trying to fulfill. For instance, a teenager living in the ghetto whose father always told him he’d amount to nothing may choose to join a gang and prove he is worthy of his father’s respect. Not evil (though he may do evil things), just a bad choice in how he goes about proving it. Another kid with the same history may choose to further his education, become a lawyer (much more evil), and move away. The same need, a different, more moral (cough) response.

Which brings me to another bit of advice. There are two different reasons your antagonist and protagonist will clash.

First, your antagonist may want the exact same goal as your main character. For instance, two men fighting over the same girl (if only).

The same goal motivated by different reasons.
The same goal motivated by different reasons.

Obviously, they will both do things to stop the other from getting her. Your protagonist will choose more righteous actions while your antagonist will generally be a douchebag. Is the latter evil though? He may be, but he may also be your main character’s best friend. What makes it wrong for one man to fall in love with that girl and not wrong for the other? Both inherently need to feel loved, though one may be motivated by feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, or jealousy.

Secondly, your antagonist and protagonist’s goals may be mutually exclusive. That is, one may not want the other to reach it. For instance, the Nazis wanted the Ark of the Covenant for power. Indy didn’t want them to get it.

Now this is a villain.
Now this is a villain.

Did either achieve their goal? Technically, yes, but not in the way they had imagined. And that’s okay if the goal doesn’t turn out the way your characters think or want, if the ark ends up in some military warehouse where another power-hungry leader can get to it. At least your main character saved the day for now. Not for reasons of power or greed or lust. For humanity.

And that, my friends, is my humble opinion on the difference between protagonists and antagonists. It’s not that their needs or goals are necessarily different; it’s that the antagonist, growing up jaded and cynical, is motivated by selfish reasons and makes bad choices.