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.

 

Character Creation

According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition of “story” is:

NOUN (plural stories)

Notice how the first element in this definition is “people.” That is, characters. Whether real or imaginary, all stories begin with a character. And only then can we as writers put them into messes and conflicts and see what happens.
Sounds like bad news for those of us who come up with plotlines first. For instance, I can’t think of one idea where I came up with a character and said, “Now, what happens to this person?” Rather, it goes something like this: “I”ve got a slew of dead bodies piling up in Jack the Ripper-esque fashion, and now I need someone to stop the killer before he strikes again.”
And guess what? I can’t go any further without figuring out who that person is. I can’t even really go any further unless I know why this killer is doing what he’s doing. So see, it’s not that hard to start with character even if you’re a plot fiend like me. Because whatever inspires you to write a story, you’re still going to need a character. That’s why the first step in Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days begins with character creation.
Now while I won’t share any of her brilliant insight or worksheets (you’ll have to buy the book yourself), I will share my process of character creation using methods she describes tweaked by me. And that’s what you should be doing: take the knowledge you’ve learned from various sources and manipulate it until you find out what works best for you.
Any book on writing or writing teacher will probably have/give a list of character sketches to complete with categories like Physical Description, Background Information, Personality Traits, Internal Conflicts, External Goals, etc. But to really get to the heart of your character, it’s imperative to know what s/he would do in extraordinary circumstances. This, in turn, will organically inform other areas of the sketch you hadn’t previously realized.
Here are some probing questions you might ask of your character (which may or may not make it into your story):
  1. What is your character’s biggest weakness/greatest fault?
  2. What is your character most afraid of?
  3. What is your character’s most prized possession? What one item or person would your character save in a fire and why?
  4. What is your character’s proudest accomplishment?
  5. What is your character’s guilty pleasure? Bad habits? Secret talent? Pet peeves?
  6. Who is your character’s greatest hero and why?
  7. If your character could bring anyone back from the dead, who would it be and why?
  8. What is one thing your character doesn’t know about him/herself? Who knows about this?
  9. Does your character have a recurring dream or nightmare and what is it? What wakes your character up at night?
  10. What is your character’s moment of most profound guilt? Redemptive forgiveness? 

But don’t stop here. Come up with your own questions. Anything that leads to deeper insight goes.

While some writers like (or need) to keep to a strict schedule, I’ve found it’s best to let things percolate. Fill out a few sections of the sketch at your leisure in any order you wish and revisit it often. There is nothing linear about writing and just because you don’t have an answer for one category in your sketch right now doesn’t mean you won’t in a few hours, days, or weeks. And it doesn’t mean you have to keep the first ideas you come up with either. As other elements of your story become clear, new ideas and answers will unfold. I promise.

In my last post, I mentioned how I didn’t like my main character. More often than not, my protagonists are neurotic, moody, overly-dramatic, bitches with a chip on their shoulders. I always love my secondary characters; they seem so much more complex, interesting, and sympathetic. Why is this? Maybe it’s because I have been writing in first person, and the only way I can show secondary characters is through action and dialogue–two of my strengths. I don’t have to get into their heads and describe what they’re thinking and feeling especially when there isn’t anyone else around to talk to.

What changed this time? I took out the horrible event from her past. Of course, I still needed a reason for my character to give up her education in the US to move to England, but it didn’t have to be so tragic. So now she didn’t have anything to prove or have a chip on her shoulder. She didn’t have to be tough (although she is). And that changed everything about her.

I wrote a few opening lines in third person to further remove myself:

Tate stepped off the plane all boots and leather and bleary eyes.

Then I made her outgoing, a chatty-cathy if you will, because, after all, if she’s going to be a journalist, she should probably like talking to people. So I wrote a few lines of dialogue between her and the cab driver:

 “The Queen said that?”

            “I swear on me mum’s grave.” Bartleby, the cab driver, crossed his heart and looked back at me in the rearview mirror. “Heard it straight from Georgie, me second cousin twice-removed.”

            “Georgie? The dishwasher with the lisp and the cauliflower ear?” I asked, leaning farther into the front seat.

            “Well, I only got one cousin who’s a dishwasher.” He erupted into a gurgling chortle that ended in a pneumatic wheeze.

            Wiping tears on the sleeve of my jacket, I gasped for breath between fits of laughter. “Wow. I never would have guessed.”

This new reincarnation of my main character percolated for at least a couple of months. I kept wanting to go back to some horrible event in her past. And I did. A couple of times. Until I finally settled on a more realistic reason for her to leave her friends and family behind, a reason that would connect her to the antagonist as well.

With this new inspiration, I was ready to work on all my characters.

First, I typed up a brief synopsis of each character’s identity and role in the story then filled out a pre-fab character sketch for each. For some characters, like my protagonist, I was able to fill out most sections relatively quickly. For others, like some of the secondary characters, particulary the red herring, I’ve only just begun to make a dent.

L: brief synopsis R: basic character sketch

L: brief synopsis
R: basic character sketch

Though you can’t quite see on the left image, there are some characters who only have one or two sentences descriptions as well as changes made to others after the fact. As a rule, I like to do most of my prewriting by hand. It seems more organic to me to have the thoughts flow from my brain to my hand to my pen to create the letters and words on the page. Typing is faster and less messy, and it’s all up to you how you like to write, but writing, in general, is messy. Plus, it’s easier to carry pieces of paper around with you to fill out as the ideas come instead of trying to get into a computer file. And, I’ve found, these sketches are not set in stone. I keep revising them all the time.

After I filled out the basic sketch, I worked on answering some of the harder questions for my protagonist and then free-wrote a summary of her backstory.

The hard stuff

The hard stuff

L: Antagonist freewrite R: Protagonist backstory

L: Antagonist freewrite
R: Protagonist backstory

The whole idea with freewriting is to just slap a whole bunch of ideas onto the page and see what sticks. I won’t use everything or maybe even anything that are on these pages, but getting your ideas out there on the page will lead to new and improved ideas you may never have come up with if you hadn’t gone through this process. I ask questions in my writing, some I follow up on, some I discard before even considering the answer. I make notations about things I would need to research. I contradict myself over and over again. And that’s okay. Nothing is perfect in this stage and it shouldn’t be.

There are other tricks writers use to get to know their characters, and I’ve tried pretty much all of them: journaling in your character’s voice, interviewing, writing dialogue between two characters, writing the scene of one of those hard questions. And you probably have some of your own methods: making a collage of your character’s favorite things, finding a photo of someone who represents your character, making a playlist that represents specific moments in your character’s life…

Whatever your strategies are, use them. Not just for your main character but for all your characters. Figuring out what motivates everyone will inspire new ideas. I promise.

If you’ve got a favorite method for creating characters or have a question or even just want to chat writing, leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

Conan the Barbarian–From a Writer’s Perspective

I must admit I was a bit scared to view this movie after approximately 27 years. When it was popular in the 80s, I must have watched it a thousand times because I was super into anything Dungeons & Dragons like, and I never missed a showing of it on TV (and I swear it was on every Saturday afternoon). The reason I was so scared was because I had recently watched Red Sonja on Netflix, another Dino de Laurentiis film from the era that I had once loved, and it was so horrible I was embarrassed for myself for once liking it.

However, I was pleasantly surprised with Conan, and it is still a movie that can live up to today’s standards (mostly). In fact, as far as storytelling goes, it far surpasses a lot of the crap movies that are out there now.

First, Conan the Barbarian (oh, did I mention this is the Arnold Schwarzenegger version) is an epic tale and embodies most of the conventions we assimilate with epic literature: it’s written in a formal style on a serious subject whose main character or protagonist is of a quasi-divine nature. The hero’s actions often determine the fate of a nation and involve super-human deeds and battles with supernatural beings. There is also an element of ceremony or ritual, and a vast setting that encompasses lots of travel.

Aside from just being a great story all around, Conan is a master of showing character through action. By this I don’t mean sword fights because, let’s face it, the fight choreography is a little lame by today standards. Rather, I mean we see the true nature of Conan through his actions and not through dialogue. He actually doesn’t speak much at all and has the least amount of dialogue of any of the characters. But we are still able to see his struggle with his internal need and his desire for the external goal by small actions.

A perfect example of this is when Valeria begs him to forget about saving King Osric’s daughter from Thulsa Doom and take the jewels and love they have at the moment and run away. Without speaking, Conan embraces Valeria back in a sort-of agreement but stares at Thulsa Doom’s talisman over her shoulder, which represents his desire to avenge his family’s death. The next morning, Valeria wakes up alone.

Any screenwriter of any genre would do well to study this movie for character’s actions/reactions as well as a lesson in using dialogue sparingly to convey only the most important information.

Truly, this is an epic movie.