Tag Archives: writers

Bad Guys Need To Be Bad

Darth VaderThe conventional wisdom today is that antagonists in fiction, in order to be believable, must have a “pet the dog” moment to show that they have a human side, that they are realistic, since real-life people are a mixed bag of good deeds and evil desires.

In an earlier blog post, “Antagonists Are Real People Too,” I made a case for a different way of creating realistic antagonists: give them appropriate motivation.

Then too, an antagonist may not actually be evil. They might simply be in conflict with the hero, the way the San Francisco Giants pitcher Ryan Vogelsong is in conflict with the Los Angeles Dodgers ace, Clayton Kershaw.

But sometimes the antagonist is evil.

I think, however, writers tend to overlook the fact that there are different types of evil. The general picture of an antagonist is a character who wants total control no matter who he hurts to get it. Certainly that antagonist works, whether he wants total control of a family, a church, a business, a country, or the world.

His number one tactic is force. He aims to break knee caps or kidnap children or murder cousins just to force people to do his bidding. He is made in the image of the Godfather. Or Hitler.

But violent, power-hungry megalomaniacs are not the only people who are evil. What about the charmer who talks people out of their life savings? He’s evil on a different level. He can cheat people but also undermine their trust in others—perhaps a worse result of this evil person’s actions than the loss of money.

Or how about frauds? Or liars in general. These are people who don’t need to cheat—they are healthy, able-bodied, smart and capable, but they’d rather figure out a way to cheat the government or lie to their boss or to their business partner or their clients. They are constantly looking for an edge so their “half” is a little bigger than your “half.” These are the people who steal identities so they can benefit from someone else’s hard work.

Another type of evil is the computer hacker or spammer. This person wants to create havoc because he likes to see other people scramble around and try to undo what he’s done. He might do something malicious like put people’s lives in danger because of his tampering with other computers. Or he might operate like the arsonist—start a virus and see where it goes and what all people have to do to get it under control. He might like seeing his work talked about in the media. He might get a sense of accomplishment by bringing entities more powerful than he, to their knees.

Another type of evil is the sexual predator. Many suspense stories feature this type of antagonist, so I don’t have to elaborate. There are varieties of sexual predators, however. Black widow movies, for example, came into their own when writers realized that women could also be sexual predators.

Other familiar bad guys, but perhaps not utilized as antagonist very often, are people who are prejudice. I’m not referring to the obvious white supremacist or Ku Klux Klan member. I’m talking about the people today who might whisper to their neighbor about “those people,” or start a petition against a certain religion or ethnicity. Or, for a real twist, favor a certain gender over and above the other (and clearly, women can be favored over an above men just as easily as the reverse).

Another effective bad guy is the one who is out to get the story hero and no one else. He may be motivated by revenge, so his aim is to destroy the hero, one way or the other. His hate is focused and white hot so he won’t consider the illegality of his own actions or the danger to others in his way.

Showing antagonists with a bent toward a specific evil is the writer’s first step toward making them realistic. And no dog needs to be petted in the process.

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Beginner Is Not A Bad Word

Dan_Wheldon_2011_Indy_500Now that self-publishing is easy, inexpensive, and available to everyone with a computer and an online connection, a growing number of writers are trying their hand at producing fiction. But there’s a basic problem: these aspiring novelists don’t know what they don’t know.

I’m reminded of an experience I had in first grade. As I recall, the teacher was taking us through the beginning steps of learning to read. She put a word on the chalkboard (this was actually back in the dark ages when, yes, they still had chalkboards, and they were actually called blackboards)—something like cat. We were to think of words that rhymed. Easy-peasy.

After a while of this oh, so simple work, I tuned the teacher out and said something to a classmate near me. And that’s when the teacher called on me for an answer. We’d moved past the “rhymes with cat” exercise. Not only did I not know the answer, I didn’t know the question.

The truth was, I was a beginner. I hadn’t mastered a thing and needed to pay attention to every piece of the reading puzzle the teacher was giving us. I just didn’t know it. I thought if step 1 was so simple, surely step 2 would be also. Except, what I overlooked was that I actually needed to know what step 2 was.

I think a lot of writers who have a story in mind make the same mistake I did. They know how to write, and they have a story. What else is there? Well, actually, a lot.

Recently I used an analogy with one of my editing clients to make this same point. Generally adults in the United States know how to drive. Especially out West, there are miles and miles between places and little affordable mass transportation. Consequently we learn to drive and apply for a license as young as possible (not to mention that driving can make a teen feel very grown up).

Imagine that a driver who got his license when he was sixteen and has been driving for twenty years decides he wants to try his hand at auto racing. Is he qualified to do so? He thinks, Of course I’m qualified. I’ve been driving for twenty years, and during all that time, I’ve never been in an accident, never gotten a ticket. I’m a good driver! Sign me up for the Indy 500!

Here’s the problem. Yes, race car drivers do drive, but their type of driving is not the same as the kind of driving that the average commuter does on a daily basis. Race car drivers have much more to learn—about the car they’re driving, the race track, their competitors, the team they’re working with, handling a car at high speeds, safety regulations and equipment, emergency procedures, racing etiquette, and undoubtedly a host of other things I haven’t even heard about.

But Mr. Good Driver doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He thinks he’s ready for the races because he’s good at the level he’s been operating at. He doesn’t realize, however, that there’s another set of skills required of the race car driver.

In the same way, writers who have mastered written communication for their job or with friends and family, may be fooled into thinking they know all they need in order to write fiction. They don’t know what they don’t know.

One of the give-aways that a writer isn’t ready to publish their novel is that they are overly concerned about mechanics and formatting. They want to be sure they have all the commas in the right place and the right words capitalized. They want to know how long a chapter should be and if they are to set their margins at an inch or an inch and a half.

I’m not saying mechanics and formatting are unimportant, but they are down the list and are the things most easily fixed. The harder things act like worms burrowing into and eating away at the heart of a story—things like point of view errors, underdeveloped characters, weak description or overdone description, a lack of tension, or a bland voice.

A black hole concept drawing by NASA

A black hole concept drawing by NASA

The bottom line is this: if you’re just starting out, realize you are just starting out. Yes, you know how to write, but you are just a beginner when it comes to writing fiction.

There is no shame in being a beginner. It’s actually wise to realize you have things you need to learn. It’s wise to sit up, listen to the teacher, and take notes when necessary. It’s wise to practice, practice, practice. It’s wise to get evaluated from time to time in order to know if you’ve graduated from beginner to intermediate. It’s wise to be patient and learn what you don’t know so that you can turn that black hole into a brilliant star.

– – – – –

Photo credits:
Indy Car by Greg Hildebrand via Wikimedia Commons
Black Hole, unknown artist, in the public domain

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Could Readers Convict Your Characters?

We’ve all watched the detective and lawyer shows. The good guys need proof that they’re after the real perp. They want means, opportunity, and the headliner–motive–before they can put him behind bars.

So if your readers were on a jury, would they find enough motive behind your character’s actions to put him away?

I’m only being halfway facetious with that question. The thing above all others that makes a character believable is that he acts in a way that is consistent with how the author has created him. A thoughtful planner, then, should not make the crucial move in the story based on a whim. It just isn’t him.

Unless the author has provided a motive for the character to act against his usual self. In other words, something greater or more powerful is working against what he would normally do.

The truth is, humans are mixed bags of confusing fears and desires. Which one will win out in which situation? It’s the writer’s job first to be sure the character is not a one-way street. Then it is her job to put pressure on the character so that he isn’t in his normal comfort zone. Now the circumstances are in place that would make the “out of character” actions believable.

Let’s say, for example, that your character is calm and confident, and in full control of his world. He’s that planner we mentioned earlier, and he likes order. But one day, he meets a woman who becomes the love of his life. Suddenly his world feels a little chaotic and unpredictable. He’s not above doing the spontaneous now because he has a reason to do the spontaneous.

From the Writer’s Digest article “7 Simple Ways to Make a Good Story Great” by Elizabeth Sims which we looked at last week in connection to body language:

Human weirdness follows patterns we can all relate to (or at least understand).

One of the biggest is that love—or sex, at least—makes people irrational. We throw over the picture-perfect millionaire for the rough-around-the-edges dirt biker with debt; we lie to our faithful wife on the phone while bonking the secretary in a motel. Which goes to show that if you incorporate a strong enough motivating factor—even an irrational one—you can easily establish a plausible reason for erratic actions on the part of your characters. And those characters are far more interesting to read about than those who always behave rationally.

Properly motivated characters, then, are not properly behaving ones. They can, and should, do surprising things, just as long as they have their reasons and those reasons seem plausible to the reader.

The character of Adrian Monk in the TV show Monk serves as a good example. This brilliant detective suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, to the extent that he rarely shakes hands and when he does, must immediately have a sanitizer wipe to clean away the germs. But being a detective, he has a way of getting into situations that put his desire to catch the criminal or to save a colleague in direct conflict with his OCD behavior.

His fears prove to be the perfect counterbalance to his astute observational powers, and he’s a much more interesting character as a result. His hesitations or reticence is believable because the writers have properly set up his obsessions as motivating factors. But his sense of right, his desire to return to the police force, his care and concern for those he works with are also clearly drawn.

Here is a “mixed bag” character. His decisions, then, can be driven by either his fears or his desires, and viewers believe them.

How about your characters? Are they mixed bags (much like the mixed metaphors in this post 😉 ) or are they one way streets?

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Get It All Down


If nothing else, NaNoWriMo is a great motivator for us writers to turn off the editing side of our brains and write. Rough drafts, after all, are supposed to be rough.

The problem is, novices think the first thing onto the screen is brilliant and a finished product. On the other hands, those of us further along the writing process tend to think we have to polish and perfect scene one before we can progress to scene two.

Years ago I was in a critique group with a writer (actually more than one) whose desire for perfection froze her. She couldn’t get past the problems of her previous novel and move on to her second. She endlessly fiddled and tweaked and rewrote and could not move on. Nothing was good enough. Nothing was perfect.

The truth is, nothing we write ever will be perfect. There is always something more we could do to make the story stronger or the character deeper or the theme more intricately woven into the plot.

It’s a hard truth for those of us who want our books to be our best. It’s such a hard truth that it ends up paralyzing too many good writers.

Enter a contest, of sorts, that pushes writers to produce volume, not quality, and suddenly stories are taking shape and frozen writers and pouring out pages.

But do we have to wait for November to experience this rush of creativity? I don’t think so. What we need to do is to commit first to getting the story down. Then we need to commit to going back and polishing those pages until they shine.

I don’t want to slide by the months when a story is gestating. I think that’s also a necessary step. Unlike children, however, stories don’t have a set amount of time they need to develop. And writers can take some steps to move the process along.

The “move along” activities are sometimes referred to as pre-writing. They might include research, writing character sketches, filling out character charts, or doing the early steps of a process like Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method.

For me, my first pre-writing activity was to make a map of the fantasy world I was envisioning. As I worked, story elements suggested themselves, and I began to make notes. Eventually I worked on an outline, and then I was off.

In those early days of my writing career, I was operating with that false idea that I’d get the story right, with some minor tweaking, as soon as I transcribed my handwriting into my computer. (Yes, I still write my rough drafts in long hand, even for short stories, but that’s just me.)

The bliss of that ignorance was that I plowed forward and got the story down. As I learned more about writing, I found a disturbing truth emerge: getting the story down was becoming harder. I felt less and less willing to write what I knew was drivel and keep going. This scene was wrong, that character motivation was weak, this plot point was predictable. I wanted to get it all right that first time.

I’d been around writing circles long enough to know the importance of getting the story down, and yet at one point I was forcing myself to move on. I’d already torn up one opening and started over. I’d gone back and added in a scene I was pretty sure would make things better. But I was still unhappy, still stalled.

Until I made myself write. Without going back. Without rendering a judgment on what went on before.

This act of getting the story out may be the very best thing that NaNoWriMo does for novelists — even ones like me who don’t play. The emphasis on volume serves as a reminder that at some point we all have to sit down and release the words, which will add up to pages, then chapters, and one day a completed story, rough though it may be. After all, a rough story is a lot easier to pretty up than a non-existent one!

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Clarifying What’s Passive

Instruction manuals and conference workshop teachers say to avoid passive voice, and there’s a good reason to do so, but in order to follow that bit of advice, we need to have a clear idea what we’re talking about. As it turns out, writers of all stripes — including experienced novelists, MFA grads, freelance writers, and editors — can be confused about the term “passive” when used in reference to writing.

Passive voice is a grammatical term identifying a particular subject/verb relationship — a specialized one that runs counter to the usual active voice.

Typically, the subject of a sentence is the agent that does the action of a sentence. In the examples below, the subject of each of these simple sentences is the agent doing the action.

  • The writer cleaned off her desk. [Who cleaned? writer]
  • The editor marked the final page of the manuscript. [Who marked? editor.]
  • The publisher congratulated the team on a job well-done. [Who congratulated? publisher.

In sentences utilizing the passive voice, however, the subject is actually the recipient of the action. Again, examples may be helpful.

  • The book was published by WaterBrook. [The subject book is the object of the action was published rather than the agent doing the action.]
  • The email was sent from her phone. [The subject email is the object of the action was sent rather than the agent doing the action.]
  • Another writer was added to the group without advance warning. [The subject writer is the object of the action was added rather than the agent doing the action.]

Writing instructors discourage passive voice. Since the subject is, for all practical purposes, supine, there’s not much for a reader to see in a sentence with a passive verb. Sentences, like good stories, need action. They need an agent who goes out and makes something happen. Passive characters make for boring stories, and passive subjects make for boring sentences.

So far, so good.

But here’s where problems start cropping up. Some writers (and even some editors) have taken the concept of active subjects to mean that all sentences must have action verbs. Any verb of being, then, gets lumped in with the passive voice. Here are a few sentences with verbs of being.

  • Despite everything that happened, the speaker still wasn’t late to the conference.
  • Her children are all gifted writers, singers, or artists.
  • I am certain about this one.

In each of these sentences, there is no action, so consequently, the subject is not passively standing by having some action foisted upon it. Rather, these sentences identify a condition or a state the subject is in. These are legitimate sentences and perform necessary functions in our writing. Still, they play a minor role and should not be overused.

Another form that gets dumped in with passive voice, and isn’t, is a helping verb working with a present participle (-ing form of a verb).

  • The writer is finishing the last chapter.
  • Her friend was posting on Facebook late at night.
  • The members of his critique group were giving line edits instead of overall impressions.

This kind of sentence is clearly not passive. In each of the examples the subject is the agent doing the action, and there is a strong action verb.

Is there a reason to steer clear of these sentences? Perhaps, but for an entirely different reason than for the erroneous accusation that they are passive.

Sentences with ongoing action, which is what this verb construction communicates, are a little harder for readers to visualize. The beginning of a thing, we can picture, but what do we see when the action is ongoing?

In addition, if an entire paragraph or page or scene contains numerous sentences with this construction, the repeated –ing acts like any other repetition: it becomes annoying.

Believe it or not, there’s one more sentence construction that gets accused of being passive, and it is innocent of the charge. These sentences are the ugly ducklings of writing. They have everything wrong with them — no action verb, the subject in the wrong place, and a bland, unspecific word up front. I’m talking about sentences that start with There is or Here are and the like.

  • There were three Facebook friend invitations in her email box.
  • Here is your coffee.
  • There aren’t any more books available.

These sentences are as legitimate as any other. They serve a necessary purpose, but like other sentences with verbs of being, they should not be overused.

So here’s what we covered:

  • Sentences with verbs in passive voice aren’t as strong as verbs in active voice. A writer would be wise to rewrite them.
  • Sentences with state of being verbs are perfectly fine but shouldn’t be overused.
  • Sentences with helping verbs and the present participle (-ing) form of a verb, while not passive, nevertheless should be used sparingly, largely because of repetition but also as a means to help readers visualize scenes.
  • Finally, sentences with construction similar to there is … may look passive, but they aren’t. The subject comes after the state of being verb, which adds to the impression that there’s a passive something going on. But remember, with no action verb in sight, there is no possibility of a passive subject. 😉

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