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.

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In the Middle of Things

If you’ve been diligently working on your timeline or outline, you’ve probably noticed the middle (and longest) section of your story is a little sparse. Lots of writers panic when it comes to the middle because they automatically think they’ll never be able to come up with enough interesting stuff to happen. Lies! Stuff happens all the time!

If you understand what the function of the middle is, you will have no problem torturing your characters.

Think of the middle of your story as one of those really bad days when everything seems to go wrong.

Your external goal is to get that promotion at work. And in order to do that, you have to nail a presentation to a bunch of Japanese business men. Great! We’ve already established your goal in the beginning of your story, which probably took place the day or night before when we first met you and your cat family.

Your cat family

Your cat family

Here’s where the middle starts:

You oversleep, wake up in a panic, jump out of bed and land in a pile of cat puke. “Damn, cats!”

You fling the bezoar off the bottom of your foot and hop into the kitchen where you start the coffee maker before hitting the shower.

Someone in another apartment flushes her toilet and your water turns scalding. Curses abound.

While pouring your coffee, you drop the pot, breaking it and spilling more scalding liquid all over your power suit.

You’re cranky because you don’t have time to stop for Starbucks and losing self-confidence because you have to wear a different outfit.

Power Outfit

Power Outfit

Of course there’s a traffic jam. Some idiot got in an accident. You’d go around but cars are blocking you in. The only thing you can do is lay on the horn and scream obscenties.

Phew! You finally get to work (late) but still in plenty of time to make the presentation. After grabbing a cup of sludge in the breakroom, you head into the conference room to set up before the others arrive.

Fire up the computer, take a deep breath, access the file.

The presentation you worked so hard on and stayed up all night perfecting is gone. Hard drives, soft drives, thumb drives; it’s nowhere to be found. Your blood pressure rises, you start hyperventilating, and the thoughts in your brain start to swirl. You look for it again. You try another way. You go through a back door. Fuck! you scream silently.

You sweat, you feel weak, you sink into the chair and ask yourself how you’re going to tell your boss you screwed up.

And then you remind yourself that even though the promotion is out of the question, you still need a job or your cats will go hungry.

Hmm, less food means less barfing…

No, that’s just cruel.

And then you start drawing from memory your diagrams, graphs, and charts on the whiteboard. And you give the worst presentation of your life.

Okay, so that’s the end of the middle of your story. Easy peasy.

If you look closely a each of the scenes or events in my outline, I started with small events that are easily overcome:

Oversleeping, stepping in barf, scalding shower, coffee break (literally).

They start small; annoying, but you can move past them. You don’t really have a choice.

To increase tension, I added some conflicts that are outside of your control or that you can’t readily get around:

Traffic jam; sorry, you’re stuck there, so deal with it.

You're stuck in it

Did I mention it was raining?

Presentation file gone. There is nothing you can do to retrieve it except drive all the way back home, and that is so not going to happen.

You hit rock bottom, your lowest moment. You want to give up. You failed. You will never reach your goal. Everything you’ve worked for up to this point has been for nothing.

Why am I such a loser?

Why am I such a loser?

But you don’t give up because your cats depend on you. Because you’re not a quitter and neither is your main character. He has to see it through to the end, regardless of obtaining that goal. It’s a matter of fulfilling something bigger. And that something bigger is your internal need. What do you need to make yourself truly happy, fulfilled? Seeing a tough situation through to the end, the sense of accomplishment you get when you try no matter what, the increased self-confidence that you can go out there and face those Japanese business men without a shred of technology. Your dignity. Your courage in the face of adversity. A sense of humbleness and humility. Whatever it may be, you have achieved it because you did your best in a losing situation.

To recap in the middle of things: an event or conflict happens that tries to thwart your main character from reaching his goal (coffee spills all over his power outfit). He reacts to the conflict (spends a few seconds cursing) then devises a new plan (changes from his power outfit into one that makes him less confident but is still going to make the presentation anyway).

Repeat this sequence as many times as you want, increasing the difficulty level with each new conflict thereby increasing the tension (will he make it to work on time? will he be able to pull off the presentation without his file? will he get the promotion? will he get fired?), really making it difficult for your protagonist to reach that goal. Because after all it’s not really the goal that matters, it’s what he learns about himself through overcoming obstacles, what he gains internally, that is the real prize. Business-Hero

You know that quote about, “God only gives us as much as we can handle?” Well, you’re God and it’s your job to bring your character to that breaking point and then make him try one last time. Insert your climax here.

So as you work through your timeline/outline for the first time, don’t worry too much about not having enough conflicts. Just aim for a few events, keeping in mind what it will take to bring your protagonist to almost quit and how you want your climax to play out. How does your character react to those conflicts? What new tactics will your character use to get through all those barriers?

And remember, this is just one of many passes you and I will take as we continue to outline our stories.

Next time we’ll visit The End.

In the Beginning

Chances are, if you’ve come up with a story idea, you’ve probably got a few opening scenes, the climax, and maybe a handful of random ideas or bits or dialogue you have no idea where to put on your outline.

Fantastic! Because writing isn’t math (thank god) and a story isn’t a formula. You don’t have to start at the beginning of a problem and work your way through the equation, following hard and fast rules, until you come to a finite solution. You can start anywhere along your timeline and work forward or backward through your scenes until you’re satisfied. And you can do this over and over again, Substituting, Taking Out, Adding, and Rearranging, until the story is exactly the way you want it.

So where do you begin?  First, categorize the scenes you do have (I’ll call these scenes “guideposts”) into one of the following categories: beginning, middle, end. That was a stumper, I know. This is best achieved using the index card method where you actually lay your scene cards out on the floor, a desk, a table, or a bed in three separate groupings. This gives you a visual representation of your story and the ability to physically manipulate the scenes as you try out new ideas. (You may even choose to talk to yourself while you do it, and I hope you do.)

So here’s a guide as to what scenes you might categorize as the beginning.

The Beginning:

Generally, you’ll want scenes that introduce your main characters and give your readers an idea of who your protagonist is before anything interesting happens. Take yourself right now.

  • Who are you? How would you describe your personality and then what actions do you take that show it? If you’re an emotional person, you might cry during commercials with animals in them (think Budweiser ads during the Super Bowl). If you are a fitness enthusiast, you might be slogging it out at the gym or measuring cups of spinach for your salad.
  • What is your daily routine? How do you feel about it? If you’re miserable in your job, show us. If you’re a self-centered diva, maybe you boss people around and freak out over brown M&Ms.
  • Who are the important people in your life? Do you talk to your mother on the phone every night? Do you go out drinking with the guys after a hard day at the construction site? Do you run ragged trying to get your kids fed and bathed and put to bed at a decent hour.

You’ll also want something interesting to happen that will change your main character’s life forever. This is called an inciting incident. This will be the first major event in your story, and it will accomplish a number of things.

  • Define what genre you are writing. Is the major event a murder (mystery), a chance meeting with a stranger (romance), a letter of admission to a school for wizards (fantasy), etc.
  • It will provide an external goal for your main character to try to reach despite a lot of trials and tribulations.
  • It will in some way fulfill your main character’s internal need. What does your main character need more than anything to be happy? If you answered with items like more money, a better job, a fresh start, a spot in the dance company, you are actually talking about an external goal. Like the word says, anything outside of your character’s body is external. Ah, but you might say an athlete pushes his own body in order to win a specific race. Well, winning the race is the external goal, but why does he have to win it so badly? Because his internal need is not just to win but to be recognized, appreciated, admired, etc. (Funny how all these things originate within the core.) Perhaps your main character felt his father never loved him, so he tries to prove to himself over and over again through winning race after race that he is worthy of being loved. See, the internal need always stems from some deep self-need that has gone unfulfilled. Until now. The external goal is just the vehicle to help him achieve it. Some examples might be to learn compassion, to be loved, to be accepted/to accept, to be tolerant, to trust/be trusted. More often than not, your character won’t even know what he or she needs to be happy. That’s why he keeps pushing himself to win those races, working more hours to make more money, sleeping with every guy who looks her way.
  • The inciting incident will also come through a catalyst in one of three ways: a piece of information (a death, a pregnancy, a weather report), a situation (being electrocuted, being fired/getting a raise, witnessing a crime), or another character (a dame looking for her sister, a traveling lightning rod salesman, a bully).

This inciting incident will always be rejected by your main character. At first. Think Scully: your protagonist is skeptical. Or scared or lazy. Or even believe that she isn’t worthy of such a dangerous mission. This is your character’s main flaw. And figuring out this flaw will help you plot out the whole middle of your story because it will rear its ugly head over and over again, taunting your protagonist to quit every time it gets too hard. And it will get too hard.

Life for your main character may go on seemingly as usual; however, there’s always that little question of “what if?” going on in the back of his mind. What if I do take that job? What if there really is life on Mars? What if I do have the power to save the world and all my little hobbit friends?

Maybe he even has a conversation with some of his friends. Maybe they try to convince him to “go for it.” Or maybe they tell him he’s crazy. Either way, your protagonist’s life will be changed forever because he tried going after that goal or be changed forever because he didn’t.

Make sure he tries.

And last but not least, the end of the beginning section of your story will be a scene in which your protagonist takes that first step out of the shire, off the cliff, or onto another planet. She has accepted her fate, risen to the challenge, and taken action.

Now, check out the guidepost scenes you grouped in the beginning category. Where do they fall in the spectrum of the beginning scenes? Can you think of anything that needs to come before or after them? Write down a brief description of any scenes on new index cards and arrange them in an order you think works.

And remember, you don’t have to keep this order or these scenes. The idea is just to get something down to work with.

We’ll tackle what happens in the middle next time.

 

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; Who Knew?

Like many Americans, I don’t know squat about U.S. history despite having been subjected to it year after year after year. I know even less about Abraham Lincoln except that he was the 16th president (I think), he had something to do with ending the Civil War, and he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre.

I was even more skeptical of how one could possibly pull off a story about a giant, gangly, top hat-wearing lawyer who kills vampires in his spare time. I mean, there’s only one slayer in all the world, and it’s not Van Helsing.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

To my surprise, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a really good movie! Like most action adventure stories, Abe: VH executes the elements of storytelling well. He’s got a backstory (best friend taken into slavery, Mom infected by vampires and killed), he’s got an external goal (revenge), he’s got an internal need (to believe in himself), and he even has a mentor to show him the ropes (Henry Sturges). There’s conflict, twists, and turns, and awesome fight scenes. And I for one am glad they did not turn this movie into some kind of campy slasher film–that would be a disgrace to the seriousness of the slavery and Underground Railroad subplots.

But the thing that pulls this story together is the way in which historical people and facts are woven into the tale. It amazes me how much research must have gone in to writing the novel and screenplay. For instance, Lincoln’s boyhood friend, William Johnson, was real, as was Joshua Speed. I know it came out with horrible reviews, but critics spend their time looking for faults and only focus on them. Just ask Edgar Allan Poe.

So what can we learn from this? No matter what kind of story you are writing, you will inevitably have to do research. And while not all of us are writing historical fiction or some kind of weird hybrid genre, historical (or otherwise) accuracy of details is what lends all stories their credibility. Yes, even fiction needs to be credible, and actually more so than reality.

For those of you who have been following my posts on First Draft in 30 Days, the Karen S. Wiesner method, the next step of the journey is research. This doesn’t mean that you have to spend a week looking stuff up, but it should mean that you keep a running list of things you will eventually need to know to make your story credible. Research may span any number of story elements, including character, setting, and plot and, as you start looking for information, you’ll find that you come up with a whole bunch of new ideas for your story and may even find your story takes off in a direction you hadn’t expected. That is the beauty of knowledge; knowledge is power and, in this case, it also inspires creativity.

Throughout your writing process, keep a running tab of information or details you need to research. You may also want to list the chapter or page number at which you will need to include this information. My list is usually kept on any number of scrap papers that I’m working on at the moment and looks like this:

General research list

General research list

 

 

 

 

This is not exhaustive by any means, and it doesn’t even mean that as things progress and I learn more about certain details that all of these items will need to be researched. This general list is just a tool to get you to start thinking about what you don’t know yet.

Another element of research is the interview. In this case, you should write up a list of questions you will need to ask but also include relevant information from your story in case the interviewee needs more specific information. For instance, if you’re interviewing a police officer on procedure or laws, you may need to know all the extenuating circumstances of your story to get the most accurate information (how old the suspect is, what kind of weapon was involved, if any, if the suspect has prior charges, etc.).

Interview Questions

Interview Questions

At this stage in the writing process, though, don’t worry about doing all your research at once. Many writers get so caught up in the research process that they lose their original vision, or worse, they lose their interest in writing altogether.

For now, keep a general list until you finish your preliminary outline (and keep adding to it throughout the process) then you will have a better idea of what you actually need to spend your time trying to figure out. You may also want to keep a list of specific questions that will need to be answered to inform your characters, setting, or plots. And remember, not everything you find out about a specific topic will be used directly in your story but it will all help your story grow organically. Again, this is just about figuring out what you don’t know yet but may need to.

Setting the Scene

By now you’ve probably done extensive work on most, if not all, of your story’s characters. And even if you haven’t filled in every section of whatever character sketch template you decided to use, that’s okay. You can, and should, continue to work on character as ideas come. This may mean adding new information you hadn’t thought of before as other elements of your story, such as plot and setting, come together, or it may mean deleting certain ideas that no longer seem valid. Just last night I finished a character sketch for a pivotal character, the red herring, that I hadn’t been able to work on before without some research on setting.

Here’s what I mean: I decided my red herring, tentatively named Andrey/Sergey/Yuriy, would work in the meat-packing district in the East End of London. I didn’t know if there was a meat-packing district there, so I had to do some research on setting. Come to find out, the closest thing to one is the Smithfield Market where a variety of butchers sell their goods.

This couldn’t be more perfect because, in the 1888 Whitechapel Murders, there had been a suspect named “Leather Apron” and a theory that the killer could have been a butcher because of the way the victims’ organs had been removed.

So now that Andrey/Sergey/Yuriy works for one of the butcheries, his job might take him to the English countryside where the farms are and could place him in the village during the time of the murders. Without knowing this information on setting, I would never have been able to link my character to both the story I am creating and the original historical event I am using for inspiration.

In fact, every element of storytelling will inform others and generate new ideas you hadn’t been able to conceive before. Let this process happen naturally. Nothing creative can be set in stone.

Coincidentally, the second phase of Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days process is setting.

Setting is not just time and place. It encompasses landscape, climate, political/religious/social milieu, clothing style, language, food choices, employment opportunities, architecture, cultural values, behavioural norms, laws and the justice system, education, and most of all–secrets. You get the picture!

Unless you’re concocting a fantasy world where you are in complete control of all these categories, or you’re basing your story on a setting where you have spent significant time, like your childhood hometown, you’ll probably have to do some research. Obviously, taking a trip to desired setting will give you firsthand information, including atmosphere (mood), textures, smells, sounds, etc., but if that’s not possible you may have to resort to books, magazines, maps, travel guides, and Internet searches. Even better if you know someone who has been to your desired setting. Don’t hesitate to ask them questions and ask for any photos they may have. This will help create at least some authenticity. No one wants to read a story that takes place where s/he lives and find blatant errors like setting a ghetto housing project on St. Germaine Street when in reality it’s the swankiest neighborhood in the city.

My favorite way to research setting is through images. I am a visual learner and have files of images on settings for all my story ideas. From those images, I can make general assumptions about what things feel like, sound like, smell like based on similar places I’ve been. Here are some of the images I’ve collected for this project.

East End Pub

East End Pub

North Yorkshire moors 

Dorm room windows

Dorm room windows

Architecture

Architecture

Quaint village street

Quaint village street

 

 

 

 

School Dining Room

School Dining Room

Village alley

Village alley

Dartmoor National Park

Dartmoor National Park

Whitechapel 1888

Whitechapel 1888

Drive to campus

Drive to campus

 

 

 

 

 

It also helps to read other books that take place in your desired setting as long as the author is credible. Think James Joyce writing about Dublin. And then there is National Geographic, Rick Steves’ travelogues, B&N discount book section in which I’ve found no less than 10 huge coffee table books on the history of ancient Egypt, newspaper articles, etc. Reading as much non-fiction about your desired setting can give you valuable information that just may play a role in your story. And even if it doesn’t, whoever said knowledge was a waste of time?

Some categories to include in your general setting sketch are Time (Day, Year, Season, etc.), Location (City, State, Country, Region, etc.), and Language (Dialect, Vernacular). Other categories to consider depending on the genre of story you’re writing are Dominant Religion and Attitude, Cultural Customs, Political Climate/Government, and Dominant Social Class and Attitudes.

Now that you’ve got a feel and description for your general setting, it’s time to work on specific settings your characters will inhabit, such as their homes, places of business, schools, restaurants/bars, cars, etc. This should require little effort if you’ve done some research on your general setting. For example, you wouldn’t describe your protagonist’s home as being American Colonial style if he lives in southern California; however, you might describe it as being in Mediterranean or Spanish style. Likewise, you probably wouldn’t see too many convertibles in Alaska in winter but might see a lot of 4WD vehicles with plows on them.

Depending on what point of view you’re writing from (whether first-person, third-person omniscient, or multiple third-person limited), you’ll want to create a list of each specific settings your character(s) will inhabit during the course of your story. For instance, I am writing from a first-person POV, so my list will only include settings my protagonist will inhabit: private school grounds/quad, dorm room, common room, dining room, school newspaper office, classroom, village streets, village pub, moorland path, police station, and killer’s lair. I’m using some of the images above as inspiration only.

My protagonist’s roommate’s style is Bohemian gypsy/eclectic packrat, and I used the image below as inspiration for her dorm room decor.

Bettina's style

Bettina’s style

Then wrote this description:

It was like walking into a bohemian palace. Every wall covered in textured fabrics, woven throw rugs scattered on the hardwood floor, and Bettina’s bed enshrouded in what looked like a canopy of colored mosquito netting. In the fireplace, a lighted candelabra blazed and dripped wax on the hearth inches away from a pile of overstuffed pillows.

So this week, channel your inner fashion designer/set decorator, gather as many images as you can, and write sketches of what each specific setting might look like. You can write either brief notes to yourself and worry about the exact wording later, or you can write actual narrative as I did above and then copy/paste into your draft. If you choose to do the latter, remember that your description may well indeed change from this brainstorming phase to the actual drafting phase, so it’s best not to marry yourself to anything yet. Just remember to go for descriptions of all five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch.

Setting is one of my absolute favorite things to research and write about because a few well-placed descriptions can conjure up any desired atmosphere and make your reader feel whatever you want. For instance, the setting above not only reflects the character who resides there, it becomes a magical, fantastical place where the characters can escape from the harsh reality of young murdered homeless, drug-addled women and where legends of jackals are learned. Here, it’s okay to think outside the box. In a sterile police station, it would be a different story.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my next blog on plot!