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Plotting III: Romance Structure

A working definition of plot can be a protagonist attempting to achieve a specific objective or overcome a problem despite direct opposition by an antagonist through escalating conflict and obstacles to a crisis point, whereby the protagonist either succeeds or fails.

Granted, this is cumbersome and convoluted–as many working definitions are–but it basically means the protagonist wants something and tries to get it despite an antagonist standing in the way. They clash and maneuver until a big showdown occurs that settles the matter.

While most commercial-fiction genres follow this linear, cause-and-effect, archetypal plot structure, two genres stand out as exceptions because they utilize different–somewhat unconventional–plot dynamics.

They are the romance story and the mystery. Both of them manage to confuse and entangle new writers frequently enough to warrant further discussion.

For this post, let’s examine the romance structure. On the surface, it seems straightforward and simple enough. The couple must meet. The couple must fall in love. The couple must commit. How hard can it be to write about two people falling in love with each other?

Hmmm.

You’ve chosen your setting–perhaps a tropical beach with palm trees swaying in the breeze and turquoise waves curling onto pristine sand.

You can imagine your heroine’s curly auburn hair and tawny eyes. You’re planning to write a heterosexual story so the hero is handsome, dark-haired, and athletic. You envision them kissing passionately on the sand as the tide comes in–something like that famous beach embrace between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the WWII film, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.

Okay, and now what? What you have so far is fine, but it’s not a story. After all, besides going on dates and kissing, what else should happen? A genre romance–in contrast to erotica–is not just one torrid bedroom scene after another. And although you intend to bring your couple together happily ever after, you can’t seem to get there while you’re  contriving constant squabbles. In effect, you’re grounded on a sandbar.

So you attend some writing workshops, where the speaker advises you to create a protagonist and antagonist with directly opposing goals and talks about linear plot structure much as I did in the opening paragraph of this post. Trouble is, that advice of opposition, clashing goals, and conflict makes little sense for anyone trying to write a story intended to bring a couple together.

If the heroine is the protagonist, then who’s the antagonist? The guy? Does this mean he has to be an arrogant, foul-mouthed, ruthless, and awful villain? And if he’s like that, how stupidly besotted will a heroine be to fall for him?

Stop!

The heroine isn’t going to be stupid. The hero isn’t going to be a villain.

Granted, some romance novels published in the 1970s and ’80s featured assorted rough and rotten heroes that today make us roll our eyes while muttering caustic remarks about neanderthals, but a successfully plotted–and plausible–romance can follow the classic, archetypal plotting principles just fine.

Allow me to explain.

If your heroine’s desire/objective is to meet and attract THE ONE into a wonderful, committed, forever type of relationship, she has a specific story goal. Furthermore, her goal is clear, obtainable, understandable, and fits the standard tropes of the romance genre.

The plotting principles of genre fiction, however, dictate that stories must have conflict and clashing goals. Does that mean a couple must bicker at every opportunity?

Not at all. It means they should disagree on specific goal-directed issues.

Let’s repeat the heroine’s goal: to meet and attract THE ONE. She meets him on the opening page and recognizes him instantly as THE ONE. That means, therefore, that she wants to attract him. She wants to be with him.

Now, to achieve plotted conflict that will advance the story, the hero–in this scenario–must NOT want to be THE ONE. Sure, he’ll like her. He’ll think she’s cute or beautiful. He might or might not seek a date with her. But despite his attraction to her, he will be determined to avoid becoming her ONE.

His reasons can be a variety of motivations that have little or nothing to do with her personally. Perhaps he’s committed to a bachelor existence and doesn’t want to change or settle down.

I recently read a novel by Cindi Madsen called JUST ONE OF THE GROOMSMEN, where the hero was focused on his recent job-loss and how he didn’t have a career, didn’t have enough money saved, and didn’t feel confident of supporting himself let alone a wife.

(In my youth, I dated a handsome guy who was just starting law school and didn’t want a serious relationship until he was finished with his training. I wanted to be serious, and he didn’t. Wisely or not, I moved on.)

Conversely, the heroine may be the individual that’s determined never again to be in a relationship. Perhaps she’s been burned before, and hero is exactly the type of guy she doesn’t want.

If this THE ONE / NOT THE ONE dynamic is set up clearly in your mind during the planning and outline stage, you will have the conflict you need to keep your plot going because although clearly ideal for each other, the hero and heroine will not be in sync until the story ends.

In the screwball comedy classic, BRINGING UP BABY, heroine Katharine Hepburn falls for an already-engaged Cary Grant and chases him mercilessly in a series of zany antics designed merely to keep her in his sight.

Occasionally, for the sake of variety, a writer will create a lovers triangle where a rival for either the heroine or the hero gets in the way and tries to prevent the course of true love.  In THE RAZOR’S EDGE, the hero’s former flame–who ditched him years before to marry a rich man–destroys his new relationship rather than see him happy.

A third plot variant is the forbidden romance with a parent or authority figure refusing to allow the couple to form a committed, lasting relationship. Tolstoy’s tragic story, ANNA KARENINA, centers upon an unhappily married woman’s love affair with a dashing young soldier while her husband and Russian society turn against her. War itself can also serve to part lovers as in the classic films CASABLANCA and  WATERLOO BRIDGE.

In the romantic comedy, THE MORE THE MERRIER, starring Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea, all three of these plot structures are employed:  she is seeking a female roommate to share her apartment and doesn’t want Joel McCrea for a tenant (she does not consider him THE ONE); although she’s very attracted physically to McCrea, she’s engaged to another man (lovers triangle); WWII is the authority about to deploy McCrea on a dangerous overseas mission, thus parting them (forbidden romance).

The WHY Factor

The romance plot structure requires a clear understanding of WHY from both opposing characters. In other words, WHY is he THE ONE for her? WHY is she so certain of it?

Or, if she dislikes him at first, WHY is she so determined to avoid and evade him as he pursues her?

The why factor is critical character motivation. Work through the why, and your couple will fight and disagree from valid, plausible reasons instead of bickering foolishly for bickering’s sake.

Also, remember that strong motivation will keep your protagonist from quitting, even when winning true love seems hopeless.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

Jane Austen’s book has been delighting readers for over 200 years, which is a darned good track record for longevity. Her deft handling of the romance plot structure as well as where and how she turns it in unpredictable ways continues to charm readers.

Let’s look at it briefly as an illustration of my points. First of all, the why factor is critical in making this plot plausible. Darcy is eligible, handsome, and very rich. Austen must create valid, plausible reasons why Elizabeth does not instantly fall for him. And therefore, although he is handsome and rich he’s also very shy with strangers and tends to be brusque until he feels more comfortable. That is why he sneers at the people attending the dance and insults Elizabeth when they first meet. They each start off with a poor first impression of the other.

REASONS WHY ELIZABETH AND DARCY STAY APART

*Miscommunication

*Misunderstanding

*Clashing personalities

*Stubbornness, misplaced pride, and prejudice

*Meddling from others

*Social inequality

Initially, both Elizabeth and Darcy dislike each other and are firmly convinced that neither is THE ONE.

Darcy is smitten first, but he fights against accepting Elizabeth as THE ONE because her family is unsuitable.

Elizabeth fights against accepting him as THE ONE because her feelings are hurt, then her sister is hurt, then she is deceived by Mr. Wickham, then she realizes what a social hindrance her family is.

Just as she is starting to accept Darcy as THE ONE, his clumsy first proposal insults her all over again. By the time she truly recognizes how much she’s misjudged him (as well as how incredibly rich he is) and realizes he is really THE ONE, he has backed away.

Back and forth they go, pursuing and evading then switching positions, but always in a dance of conflict until the final misunderstanding is resolved.

 

 

 

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Wonky Scenes

Let’s say you’re working on a scene in your story. It’s supposed to be a turning point. You know what’s at stake. You know which characters will be involved. You know what you want to have happen. You know how you want it to end.

But somehow when you write it, nothing goes as planned. Either your characters get bogged down and talk about nothing important, or things veer off course, or you can’t make the scene end, or it doesn’t achieve the resolution you intended.

Just about every writer has had this happen, so if you’re experiencing this quandary, be assured you’re not alone.

If your characters bog down … look for the point in their scene dialogue when the conflict jumps track. Consider the following primary reasons: 1) the antagonist deliberately changes the subject and both you, dear writer, and your protagonist lose sight of the scene goal; or, 2) your protagonist’s emotional stake in the scene’s outcome is too tepid; or, 3) you have too many characters in the scene, interrupting each other.

Reason #3 is the easiest to address. Eliminate everyone but the two characters in conflict. Send the sidekicks out of the room. Lose the cute tiger cub lying at the villain’s feet. Avoid text messages on the protagonist’s phone; shut down phone calls and anxious little secretarial tappings on the door. If there are onlookers that really do have to be present as a backdrop, keep them quiet until the scene is over.

Do some authors write scenes that feature multiple characters and interruptions? Yes. But until you’re adept at scenes, avoid this construction.

Reason #2 means you should re-examine your protagonist’s motivations. Why is it so important to borrow the boat keys at this moment, on this day? What will happen if the keys are withheld? In other words, what’s at stake in this scene for your protagonist and why does it matter? If your protagonist starts a scene with a meh attitude toward the scene goal, the scene will lose momentum quickly and stall.

Reason #1 may seem heinous to fix, but actually it means your villain is working very well. Now you just have to bring your protagonist up to speed.

While it’s tempting to rein in your antagonist, avoid doing so! The bad guy or girl is doing a good job here. Instead, pull your hero together, pump up his or her motivation, and keep the scene focused on the goal despite all the antagonist’s tricks.

If you can’t get the scene to end … it feels like you’re mired in quicksand, sinking fast, with no way out. The rescue rope is actually the scene goal. What happened to it? When was it forgotten? Focus your protagonist on that, and keep your character moving toward it.

Also, sometimes the conflict in scenes lapses into circular bickering that won’t end. This usually occurs because the character motivations are weak, and the scene goal is lost or lame. Are the scene’s stakes too low? What might happen if you raised them?

However, remember that not everything in your story has to be written in a scene. The story action may not be important enough to warrant dramatization. Reserve scenes for turning points, strong conflict, and high stakes.

If the scene outcome surprises you … that’s usually because you’ve lost control of your characters.

Who’s in charge, anyway?

When I was writing my first stories, I used to hope that my characters would seize control of the plot and do all the hard work for me. Usually those attempts flopped before completion. Then I learned that I had to be in charge, and that I shouldn’t let my characters take over. While you don’t have to keep a stranglehold on them, remember that your protagonist should propel the story action forward. And if you can’t reach the scene outcome you want, maybe you need to rethink it.

Have you intended your protagonist to achieve the scene goal with no problems? Then be aware that you will weaken your story and lose suspense and rising tension if you do that. Having your protagonist achieve only part of the scene’s objective–and at a high or unexpected cost–forces your lead character to take bigger risks in the next attempt.

Maybe your scene is heading toward a too-predictable outcome, and maybe your story sense is trying to help you by stalling the scene. Maybe you need a plot twist–something that will be logical to the story but entirely unexpected to your protagonist and reader.

When scenes go astray, train yourself to pay attention. Check these problem areas, and above all, listen to what your instincts are trying to tell you.

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Slump Stumped

When you write long fiction, does it sag in the middle? Does it slow down, drag, stall, or hit a dead end? Do you feel lost, unable to figure out what to do next? Are you doubting your story idea, hating your characters, feeling tired, or are you simply bored and frustrated with a story that begin with such promise but has now become as heavy as cement boots pulling you to the bottom of the lake?

Been there, folks. And without trying to sound like a TV commercial for indigestion, there is a solution to the bleak, daunting, soggy, sagging middle. Give your story oomph!

Generally story oomph comes from a strong, focused plot, characters in direct opposition, high stakes, and fast pacing.

But specifically, you can add oomph by utilizing hooks, tossing in unpredictability, and boosting motivations.

Let’s examine these three methods separately:

  1. Hooks:  When scenes are written effectively, each scene conclusion should end with some kind of setback or additional trouble for the protagonist. That means an automatic hook is created to draw readers forward. However, hooks can be set anywhere in your story. In chapter openings, in character introductions, in narrative, in scenes, in viewpoint changes … all sorts of places. If the zombies hadn’t been trying to kill me, I would have enjoyed seeing the Grand Canyon. Or, “Lucy Cuthbert, if you don’t find someone to marry by the end of this afternoon, I will cut you out of my will.” Or, When Bob opened the desk drawer in search of a paperclip, he didn’t expect to find a clear acrylic box filled with writhing, agitated scorpions. Or, Jane had expected her new stepmother to be small, fragile, blonde, and vicious. Instead, she walked outside to see a statuesque, bikini-clad Amazon poised on the pool’s diving board, holding a martini glass aloft and singing an aria from Carmen at the top of her lungs.
  2. Unpredictability: Plot twists and turns add zest to stories. If your protagonist carefully plans what he intends to do next and then executes that intention, your story is focused and easy to follow but predictable. Without the element of the unexpected, stories become dull, and dull stories bore their creator while guaranteeing a rapid loss of reader interest. So if you’re bored by a passage, scene, or chapter, imagine what your readers will feel! Shake your copy out of the doldrums. Add some zing. Set up a scene to go in a certain direction and then knock it sideways by a wily, ruthless villain. Think about a scene you’re about to write. Within the context of the story and the parameters of your protagonist’s objectives, what can you toss in that will be completely unexpected–yet not wholly illogical? When I was writing the manuscript that would become my first published book, I hit a dull spot in the story where my heroine was going on a picnic with the hero. Romantic? Yes. Lively? No. So I thought about it and let the imp of unpredictability loose. As a result, when my heroine opened the wicker food hamper, she discovered a dead rat inside. Needless to say, that livened up the scene considerably as she screamed and tossed the basket away. (The villain had bribed his lordship’s kitchen servants to put the nasty rodent in the basket.) It wasn’t great plotting, but it served its purpose. Of course, you don’t want to throw a carcass (or its equivalent) into every scene. That, in turn, would become predictable. But eschew timidity when you write. Be daring with characters and their actions. And don’t always follow the expected path.
  3. Boosting motivation:  Often books lose steam because the characters involved don’t care enough about what they’re doing. Maybe the characters did care in the book’s opening chapters, but Amy Author has forgotten that she must strongly motivate her protagonist from start to finish. I’m not saying a protagonist who’s battered by a string of setbacks should never feel doubt, but the character must keep finding new, tougher determination to continue forward despite everything. In C.S. Forester’s The African Queen, Rose is motivated to destroy a German warship patrolling an African lake because of the brutal destruction of her brother and his life’s work by the German army. Her brother is an insignificant missionary, trying to bring Christianity to the native population. He is a harmless civilian, but he is so shocked and broken by the soldiers’ cruelty that he dies, and Rose wants revenge. To get it, she is willing to attempt the impossible. Vast distance, dangerous jungle, impassable rivers, rapids, clouds of vicious insects, and grueling physical hardship do not matter to her. She never gives up because her motivation is like a spear in her back, driving her forward. But not only the protagonist should have powerful motivations. Remember to give your villain motivations as well. Consider the complex villain Imhotep in the 1999 film The Mummy. Imhotep is a ruthless killer, but he is also sympathetic. He is driven by his desire to be reunited with the woman he loves. We can understand him, perhaps even feel sorry for him, while we disapprove of his extreme actions. Still, it is clear that he will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, and that powerful drive to succeed forces the good guys to become tougher and more determined to thwart him.

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The Contrivance Factor

Is there such a thing as plausible contrivance?

If we want to be philosophical about it, we could say that all fiction is in fact that very thing. We lie and contrive to create our stories and characters, and readers accept the Great Deception in order to play make believe with us.

But that’s not what I want to address in this post.

Instead, I’m thinking about the writer with a carefully outlined plot, where each event has been planned and placed in an order that makes sense and is driving the protagonist toward an exciting story climax. And yet, perhaps halfway through the story–or two-thirds of the way in–something goes amiss.

Let’s say you have Polly Protagonist in a tight spot. She barely escaped an ambush by irate werewolves. She’s been chased across Dark City. She’s cut off from her friends and the cops. She can’t get back to her fortress on Shady Elm Street. All she can do is take refuge with vampire queen Moira, who lets her in.

Fine and dandy so far.

However, the plot outline says that Moira is hostile. Okay, check.

The plot outline says that Moira’s brother learns what she’s done and overreacts, threatening to burn down Moira’s hive if she doesn’t kick Polly out immediately. Huh?

Okay, STOP!

Let’s think about this. Doesn’t that seem harsh? Would Buddy actually burn out his sister? Are they enemies? Why? Couldn’t he just phone and suggest that Moira not harbor human Polly? Why the extreme overreaction?

The plot outline says that Polly must be cut off from all help at this point, so her situation will be harder, and she’ll have to turn to the Ancient Crone and strike a Fatal Bargain–something she’s dreaded since page 4.

So, in other words, the writer of this yarn needs Polly to be evicted by the vampires, thus keeping her in trouble.

[Push pause while we consider this for a moment.]

When you’re writing toward a particular turn of events or plot twist, beware of contrivance. Contrivance is simply when a story event occurs without plausible reason or motivation for the author’s convenience.  While writers can pull off nearly any conceivable story action if they motivate it properly, in my example Moira and Buddy are not motivated. Therefore, on some level, what they’re doing is no longer plausible. And while it’s possible to create so much danger and froth in story action that readers might keep turning pages, the reader will start to doubt. And when readers doubt, they stop believing.

Sure, I can go back and devise a backstory where Moira and Buddy fall out, and now he’s always angry about how she runs the vampire hive, but why over-complicate my task? I need to think about the key to this plotting misstep, which is that Buddy overreacts.

Why?

If you’re plotting, you should always be able to answer that question for any character in your story at any point in the plot. If you don’t know, or you haven’t given the matter sufficient thought, you will fall into contrivance.

The important point is that Polly must be evicted. Yet Moira will seem peculiar indeed if she gives Polly refuge then kicks her out two pages later. Why would she do that? Sure, sure, she’s doing it because Buddy has threatened her, but why would he do that? I know I keep repeating this question, but it’s important and deserves an answer. How does he know Polly is there? Why should he care? What is the story situation anyway?

So if we want Polly evicted, we have to invent a plausible reason for Moira to change her mind. Perhaps Buddy doesn’t threaten her. Perhaps he’s learned Polly is hiding inside the hive and he’s concerned that the werewolves will next turn against the vampires in retaliation. Maybe a savage and costly war between the werewolves and vampires has just ended, and the new treaty is pretty shaky. Buddy doesn’t want the conflict to start up again. He doesn’t want his sister caught in the middle. So he warns her from concern for her safety.

Now, doesn’t this work as a reasonable motivator for Moira to apologize but firmly push Polly out into the cold?

The plot outline is saved, but we’ve ditched the contrivance factor.

Often writers make this type of error when the plot is clear, but writer fatigue or a desire to hurry and finish a long writing project rushes the typing along too fast–or too heedlessly. Be on the watch for it, and don’t let it slip past you. Vigilance can only result in a better, more enjoyable story.

 

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Contriving to be Stupid

One of the pitfalls writers can stumble into is when they know exactly where they want their story to go. Their ending and theme are clear in their minds, and they are so determined to reach that plot point that if they aren’t careful they may end up contriving part of the storyline to reach it.

Let me provide you with a couple of examples: [SPOILER ALERT!]

The 1940 film THE MORTAL STORM depicts a non-Jewish German family in the 1930s that begins as a comfortable, well-established, close-knit group but is torn apart as Hitler rises to power and the sons and their best friend are caught up in fascism. The film presents a chilling example of how dangerous peer pressure can be for adults, and was made as a warning at a time when the U.S.A. was not yet involved in WWII.

[SPOILER ALERT!] Despite this compelling plot and its inherent conflict, the film stumbles at the climax. The heroine and her friend attempt to escape over the Alps and are nearly to the Austrian border where safety lies. (In the story’s time frame, Austria has not yet been annexed by Germany.) However, just as they have one last slope to ski down to safety, a German patrol shows up. All the couple has to do is wait until the patrol is gone. They are breathless and exhausted. They are hidden in the rocks with a good vantage point. Why not sit down and take a breather? Oh no! As soon as they see the patrol and exclaim in dismay that it’s shown up, they immediately launch their skis and head down a long, open, snow-covered slope where they can’t help but be spotted.

Now the whole point of this character action is to test the girl’s ex-fiance who is in command of the patrol. Will he order his men to open fire on his girlfriend? He does, and she’s killed. The screenwriter or director or producer wanted to depict how far her young man will go in order to follow Hitler. There’s a close up of the agony in his face as he gives the command. And the ending is very sad.

Except it’s not. How can viewers share emotionally in this “tragedy” when the girl has been so stupid? Her fate has been contrived to achieve a certain end, and it just doesn’t fly.

Here’s another example:

Some years ago, I was writing a historical romance set during the French Revolution for Harlequin Books. To tip the book from its mid-point into the third act, I needed the heroine to be abducted by the villain. So focused was I on this objective that I contrived her capture by having her leave her hiding place and go wandering out through an orchard in search of something to eat. The idea was that she would pick a peach, be seen, and although she would run for it, the villain would catch her.

Fortunately I had an editor that refused to pass such nonsense. She yanked my chain hard, calling my heroine “stupid.” And she was right. I had to go back to the drawing board and rewrite that story event completely, coming up with a much more plausible way for the heroine to land in trouble without being a complete idiot.

Here’s the lesson: of course every event in fiction is a contrivance. Writers are moving their characters here and there through a plot for a desired effect. The challenge lies in concealing that contrivance from readers, so that readers suspend disbelief and vicariously experience the story as it unfolds.

The trick in achieving that concealment hinges on proper character motivation for every action, no matter how risky. Failure to provide a plausible reason leads to characters that may be too stupid to live.  And stupid characters become unsympathetic characters.

Perhaps in THE MORTAL STORM the screenwriter wrote a valid reason for the couple to risk death in skiing where a German patrol could not help but see them. But it ended up on the cutting room floor. Oops.

My novel ended up with a rewrite and some Band-Aids, but it got the job done. Even so, I still wince when I think of that scene.

Know where you’re going, but avoid character stupidity in getting there.

 

 

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The Dullness of Timidity

I’m seeing a trend among my writing students these days … the avoidance of a villain in the stories they write.

No villain leads to the absence of conflict …

Which causes weak scenes …

Which creates dull writing …

Which guarantees bad story.

Is this lack due to insufficient reading in young writers? Or is the current insistence of our modern society on being sensitive to others having a trickle-down effect toward villains?

In a previous decade, just the very suspicion of something so ridiculous would have had me slapping my forehead in disbelief. Today, I’m not so sure.

Are we now trying to be nice to story villains? Are we now trying to see their side of things and give them more than the benefit of the doubt? Are we now playing the relative card when it comes to situational ethics and making excuses for their behavior on the pages of our own manuscripts?

Surely not!

And yet, where are these rogues? These outlaws? These bad guys? Has Snidely Whiplash and his descendants gone the way of the dodo? Why aren’t my students coming up with antagonists?

Granted, these young writers have often experienced a soft life. They don’t always know lack or struggle. They may have been coddled throughout their young lives, praised for efforts rather than results, and shielded from the world’s unkindness. So perhaps they don’t recognize bad guys, don’t understand them, and don’t see the need for them in writing stories.

Wow. I never thought I would witness the looming extinction of fiction antagonists.

And yet … lately, I’ve been trying to explain in class exactly what antagonists are and why they’re necessary for stories to work.

It boggles the mind.

When antagonists do turn up in amateur fiction, they sometimes have a phoney, faked lack of plausibility to them. They’re weakly designed. They seem unsure of whether it’s okay to do awful things to other characters.

Let me just say that, in fiction, timidity guarantees dullness. If you’re timid with your character design or your characters’ actions, then chances are you’ll be timid when it comes to your plotting. You’ll never take creative risks. You’ll never develop flair.

Let’s look at an example:

Here’s a character named Stanley. He works as a bank teller. He lives alone in a small rented house in a medium-sized city. He drives an aging Civic that’s a fading silver gray color. On his days off, Stanley shops on eBay, sometimes takes in a movie, and mows the grass.

Stanley, declares Wanda Writer, is going to be the bad guy of my story. Stanley is going to rob the bank.

Seriously?

Why should he? This bland character is barely memorable past a few paragraphs. He couldn’t cause any trouble for the story protagonist if he tried. And if Stanley suddenly, on page 2 of Wanda’s story, pulls a revolver from his lunch kit and waves it at his coworkers, readers won’t believe the plot.

Stanley cannot work as a plausible bad guy because 1) he lacks motivation; 2) he’s not vividly designed; and 3) he’s not a villain.

Let’s address these flaws separately:

1) no motivation

Why would an ordinary guy like Stanley suddenly risk imprisonment in order to steal from his place of employment? What would drive him to such extraordinary measures?

Maybe his mother is dying of cancer because her medical insurance won’t cover the medicine and operation she needs. So Stanley is going to help her by stealing the money.

That’s a motivation, but it doesn’t make him a villain. Let’s suspend this quandary for a bit while we examine the next problem.

2) vague design

Let’s jazz Stanley up. His real name is Artem. He came illegally to the U.S. as a child, smuggled into the country. He was put to work begging on the streets, then stealing cars, and later running drugs. Arrested and convicted as a youth, he learned computers while in juvvie. Now a skilled hacker, he left the Russian mob to work alone. He moves frequently, changing his name and identity, taking employment at banks or businesses until he figures out a way to infiltrate their accounts and clean them out. Then he’s gone, a phantom, heading for the next medium-sized city and his next opportunity to steal. When he has enough millions stashed away in an off-shore account, he plans to retire on an island where there’s no extradition treaty. There, at last, he will live the good life.

According to plan, he’s presently adopted the name of Stanley Brown. He’s renting a modest house and he’s landed a job at the local branch of a state bank. He’s driving a used Civic of no particular color because it’s harder to identify, but underneath the hood the engine is a souped-up monster that can outrun any cop car on the streets. He keeps a mistress in a nearby community, and she knows him by a different name. He refuses to make any relationships, any ties that might render him vulnerable. He’s frugal and seldom goes out for entertainment. At night and on his days off, he’s hacking, doing his best to figure out how to break the bank’s firewall of security.

3) villainy

At present, Stanley is starting to take better shape, but he’s still just a criminal and hardly a villain. It’s necessary to push Stanley over the line. Now, Wanda Writer could decide that Stanley poisons the neighborhood dogs for fun, but that’s just something crazy and doesn’t connect with the story parameters.

It’s usually helpful to think about the story protagonist and what that individual’s qualities are. The protagonist and antagonist should be tailored into foil characters — opposites of each other or characters who will stand on opposing sides of an issue. So who will stand in Stanley’s way?

Maybe, despite all of Stanley’s efforts to be a loner, a co-worker has befriended him — or tried. Let’s call this teller Nick. He’s served in Afghanistan and seen how soldiers returning home can become withdrawn loners. Nick can’t get Stanley to talk much about himself, but he’s aware of how Stanley shows evidence of possible former military training in the way he stands or watches or is alert. Or maybe Stanley acts like a guy who’s done time, yet Stanley’s background check was clean. Nick thinks Stanley is much too much on his own, and tries to draw Stanley out by inviting him over for a barbeque with the family, asking Stanley to bring his girlfriend along, etc.

Suppose Nick isn’t really a teller, but is in fact a security expert posing as a common employee. Evidence of hacking attempts have triggered alarms in the bank’s computer security system, and Nick’s on the alert for who might be trying to breach the accounts. Maybe Nick is himself ex-military. He’s suspicious of Stanley, but he can’t actually get any proof on the guy. And maybe another employee is more suspicious, so Nick is unsure of which person to watch.

As Nick closes in, and Stanley feels pressured or endangered, perhaps Stanley will retaliate against Nick’s wife or small children. Now Stanley is crossing lines. He is demonstrating — through his actions and goals — his capacity for villainy.

[I should also note here that Wanda Writer had better do some research on banks, hacking, and security systems to see if any of the above scenario is plausible.]

1) back to motivation

Remember that we suspended motivation until we knew Stanley better? Let’s now readdress this issue. How can Wanda Writer put more pressure on Stanley? Perhaps he didn’t just leave the mob. Perhaps he was made the fall guy to save his boss, and that’s how Stanley ended up in jail. For years, he’s felt resentment at such a betrayal.

Raise the stakes. Pressure on Stanley will drive him to take desperate measures. Maybe he’s just a greedy man. Maybe he’s a sociopath. Or … maybe he’s afraid to go back to prison. When Nick — a guy that Stanley perhaps likes in spite of himself — starts closing in with suspicions — and when Stanley learns that Nick, his friend, is in fact the security inside man who is trying to catch Stanley, then Stanley will feel betrayed and angry. All that anger from the past will be turned against Nick, and Stanley will retaliate.

And the stakes go up again.

This isn’t to say that a writer and readers don’t understand how villains become the way they are, but we aren’t obliged to sympathize with the bad guy, or condone bad actions, or excuse them.

So let bad guys (and gals) in fiction be bad.

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Full or Flat

When I was a child, one of my favorite cartoons was “Dudley DoRight,” probably because he was a Mountie–which was almost a cowboy in my young eyes–and rode a horse. The villain was called Snidely Whiplash, and I loved his name. It always made me laugh (and still does).

Snidely twirled his black mustache and leered from my television screen. He was always kidnapping Dudley’s love, Sweet Penelope, and tying her to train tracks and giant buzz saws in the best tradition of the old action serials.

But although Snidely has enough vivid character tags to stick in my memory, he remains a simple cartoon villain. He has no depth, no complexity, not even a motivation for why he is so evil.

He’s not just a villain. He’s a bad one. In other words, his design is so flat and thin he could never work in prose fiction. Especially today.

Often, new writers are bombarded with plenty of advice on character design. They do their best to juggle personality traits and external tags. They try to remember character goals. They worry with physical appearance, and sometimes become stymied over the right name. There are so many elements and details to pull together, and all while trying to wedge the character into a plotline.

I constantly chivvy my students with reminders of how an antagonist must bring conflict to the story, how an antagonist must oppose the protagonist.

With all of that to handle, is it any wonder that inexperienced writers often construct a tissue-thin villain performing wicked deeds?

If you are writing conflict between your protagonist and a villain, and the scene or story feels lifeless and difficult, or if you are plotting your story events but you can’t seem to bring the bad guy to life, consider these tips:

Look at what’s behind the villain’s goal:
Let’s say that your villain plans to steal the story McGuffin–secret plans for a new super rocket.

Why?

Uh, because the hero has designed them for the Right Cause and if the villain steals them the hero will be in trouble.

Is that all you’ve got?

Because that’s a cartoon motivation behind a flat villain.

Let’s reconsider what drives this villain. Let’s dig into his past, or invent a past for him. Let’s raise the personal stakes because even villains need emotional reasons for the actions they take.

Make the villain’s goal personal:
Okay, Vic Villain wants those secret plans because …

1) he can sell them for a lot of money.
2) he wants to mess with Harvey Hero because he can.
3) years ago, he was Harvey’s roommate in engineering school and they worked together on the prototype. Now Harvey’s getting all the credit and Vic wants a piece of the action.
4) all of the above.

Let personal stakes spark emotions:
If Vic thinks he was done wrong by his ex-roomie, then he’s going to be harboring years of resentment.

Maybe he’s watched Harvey’s career zoom to dazzling heights. Maybe he’s nursed a grudge all this time, blaming Harvey for his failures instead of himself.

(Okay, yes, I hear those of you who are clamoring with the question: what happened between Vic and Harvey? How come Harvey has the plans and Vic’s out in the cold?)

Good question, and one you shouldn’t answer for readers until the middle or near the end of your story.

Determine why the villain will strike now:
Sure, you want Vic taking action from the opening scene of your story, but if he and Harvey go back years … why has Vic waited until now in your story to act?

You need a catalyst, something that changes the circumstances for both Harvey and Vic.

For this example, let’s say that years ago Vic abandoned the project as impossible and walked away from it at a critical point. Maybe Harvey pleaded with him to have faith and keep trying, but Vic saw a better opportunity and ditched the partnership.

Now, all these years later, Harvey has finally solved the final glitch and created the super rocket. He’s making a billion-dollar deal with the Pentagon. It’s in the news. He’s nominated for a major science prize.

Reading this in the newspaper at breakfast, Vic looks at his messy pile of unpaid bills, the dirty dishes in the sink, and his dead-end job. Something snaps inside him. He forgets that it was his decision to quit, and he shifts his sense of inner guilt to blaming Harvey for his troubles.

He makes the decision to take revenge on Harvey by stealing the plans and selling them to a higher bidder.

Build your bad guy from this foundation:
Vic isn’t a fabulous character construction yet, but he’s more filled in than before. Now it’s time to layer on more complexity.

Create complexity in a character through contrasts:
If Vic is the story’s villain, what are his good qualities? Is he ever nice? To whom? Why?
Take the time to think about your villain as an entire person.
What are some of Vic’s positive accomplishments?
Has Vic ever helped anyone?
Who does Vic care about?
Does he love his mother, his wife, his child, his pet canary?

In the classic noir film This Gun for Hire, Alan Ladd plays a stone-cold killer who assassinates people for money. Yet while he’s a loner, impassive, wily, and ruthless, he likes cats. He buys milk and leaves a saucer on the open windowsill of his cheap rented room for the stray cat that comes by. He considers cats to be “his luck.” Slowly his backstory unfolds, and the audience learns that he was an orphan raised by a cruel aunt who physically and verbally abused him. From that, it’s evident why he can’t befriend people and why he can only show kindness to cats, perhaps the only creatures that have ever shown any affection to him.

If you can create Vic Villain into a multi-layered individual of contrasts, understandable motivations, emotions, and the capacity to do the right thing, then when he decides to do the wrong thing that makes him so much more villainous than if he’s portrayed as a cartoon figure or a sociopath.

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