Tag Archives: conflict

Testing Character

As I mentioned in my previous post a few days ago, I’m working now on the ending to my current manuscript. I’m not rushing it because a) my life is filled with distractions/interruptions and I want to get this portion of the story right; and b) I want to make sure I’m testing my protagonist sufficiently and appropriately in these last few pages.

“Test” seems to be an unwelcome word to many of us. It kicks our memories back to schooldays, when teachers put us through the wringer of pop quizzes and frightful exams.

At the time, we suffered through hours of study or wished–too late–that we had cracked our books more than we did. If we were sufficiently prepared, then we felt confident. Otherwise, test days transformed us into bundles of nerves.

But what are tests for?

To enable cruel teachers to torture us? To determine whether we’ve memorized the names of all the county seats in our home state? To make us sweat?

Answer:  They’re a gauge of whether and how much we’ve grown or altered.

To be tested academically means we’re forced or enticed to study and prepare. Doing so  broadens our knowledge, insight, and perception on the selected topic. That preparation forces us to change from having little or no knowledge to possessing increased knowledge.

To be tested physically means we train our bodies to learn tasks and/or skills or to become stronger and more fit. We practice. We stress our muscles. We perform cardio workouts. We gradually improve our body’s state of fitness or we learn to perform certain movements easily, gracefully, and efficiently.

There are other tests, of course, but I needn’t define them all. The point is that tests of any kind are designed to force us to change.

Late Thursday afternoons are when my university’s ROTC units practice marching. This week, I saw cadets in casual student attire standing at attention. By next week, as I leave work, I suppose I’ll see them marching in unison. At some point, they’ll be wearing uniforms while they practice their drills. Every week, I’ll see a more visible change in these young men and women.

So we get it. We don’t like tests, but we recognize their purpose and usefulness. In fiction, a story’s real point is to test your protagonist.

How? And why?

Let’s examine how first:

1. The test for your focal character begins with a problem for him or her to solve. Something has changed in this individual’s life or world. It’s something that directly impinges on your protagonist, something that is immediate and impossible to ignore.

2. As soon as your protagonist attempts to solve this problem or deal with this situation, an antagonist must step in to oppose those efforts. It’s up to you the writer to figure out a plausible motivation for that opposition. Just keep in mind that opposition needs to be strong and direct, and it should grow stronger and more direct as the story progresses.

3. The story problem or situation can be purely a physical one, or it can be a complex one involving emotional or psychological issues within the protagonist.

–If physical, such as wildfires are raging toward the protagonist’s home and community, and she must try to save her family, pets, livestock, and possessions before everything she owns is lost forever, then the plot is purely an external, surface one. There is no deep soul-searching required. How much will she risk? How important is her property to her? How long will she fight to save her house or barn? Etc.

–If internal, such as the protagonist feeling consumed with guilt over having betrayed a friend by sleeping with his wife, then the external plot conflict should move the protagonist toward confronting that guilt, getting the issue out into the open, and solving it once and for all through confession, apology, atonement, or a fight.

As for why we need to test our protagonist:

1. A story about a character that remains static, is never tested, never grows, never changes is not a classically designed story at all, but merely a vignette. A few authors possess the talent and insight to present such a protagonist in an interesting way, but it’s merely a frozen depiction. Is that enough to enthrall today’s jaded and impatient readers the way it did in the mid-twentieth century, the early twentieth century, or even the nineteenth century?

2. We test our protagonist because classic story design is about creating an arc of change within this focal character. We are showing readers an example that change in behavior, or attitude, or knowledge, or situation is possible. Therefore, we are offering hope and optimism to readers held in the webs of an increasingly stressful and complicated world.

In the controversial (for its day) 1950s film, THE YOUNG LIONS, Marlon Brando portrays a young German who believes that Hitler offers him the hope of change and possibility. He feels that with Hitler in charge of his country, he will no longer be forced to work in the same career as his father, or live his life in the same small village where he grew up. He is eager to break the bonds of an almost feudal system, to reach for all the potential he feels he has. The film follows him as he enlists in the army and then becomes gradually disillusioned, horrified, and rebellious through witnessing the atrocities of a Nazi regime. This character is tested again and again by plot events, conflict, and stress into changing his ideas until he is willing not only to disagree with his orders but to defy them.

3. We test our protagonist because without stress or pressure or opposition or intense trouble, it is human nature generally to resist change. We might desire a certain status or item, but if achieving it takes too much effort we aren’t likely to bother. For example, I desire to be slimmer, but that means changing what I eat and sustaining a regular exercise program. Am I willing to give up chocolate milkshakes and cheeseburgers? I am not. Therefore, my weight remains where it is.

People have good intentions all the time, but they are like rivers that follow the path of least resistance. Therefore, we test and pressure our protagonists because a) they aren’t real people and we can force them to undergo whatever we design; and b) we use how they handle conflict to show readers that change is possible.

4. We also test our protagonists to make heroes of them–at least we do in commercial and genre fiction. We are entertaining readers by showing a transformation, and readers participate vicariously in that experience. Thematically, transformation is extremely popular with audiences of all ages. Fairy tales explore transformation of many kinds. Small children tie bath towels around their necks for superhero capes. Fathers take their children to movies in the STAR WARS franchise to show them the mythology surrounding the Force. Little girls grow up planning their weddings, when–at least for a day–they become a princess like Cinderella, conveyed in a limo, wearing a fabulous gown, and destined to dazzle the eyes of Prince Charming waiting at the altar.

5. Finally, we test our protagonist to prove to readers that he or she can take all the hits the story problem is going to dish out, cope with them, and survive. We show readers that the protagonist deserves to achieve the story goal, deserves to solve the story problem, deserves to win, deserves recognition and reward because the protagonist has taken the test and passed it. Giving a character what he or she deserves is meting out poetic justice.

When so much of real life can seem unfair, reading a story where matters work out as they should and heroes are rewarded while villains are punished is very comforting indeed.

And comforting, rewarding, just, optimistic, transformative, fair, and affirmative stories sell.

 

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Exploding Plot

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion–that’s Plot.”

–Leigh Brackett

Have you outlined a tidy, well-organized, and logical plot for your story? Are your characters busy being civil, well-educated human beings going about their lives and work, sighing now and then over a lost dream or one of life’s disappointments? Are they angst-ridden mopers propped up on bar stools, feeling sorry for their failures and delivering beer-sodden soliloquies that are your insights to life?

Are you typing and typing and typing, compiling a ever-growing page count while in the back of your mind you worry whether your story is actually going anywhere and how will you end this thing anyway?

And if you have a reader that’s honest with feedback instead of simply an ego-supporter, and that person is quiet after perusing your sample pages and hasn’t much to say in reaction, then it’s time to face reality:

Your work-in-progress could well be a self-indulgent, staid, lackluster, sanitized bore.

As Winnie the Pooh would say, “Oh, bother.”

Where, I ask you, is the fire?

A book, a story, a yarn intended for the commercial market isn’t a collection of words, or character speeches, or passages of description, or self-conscious style, or even a slice-of-life duplication of life’s most mundane moments.

Instead, it should be alive, with vivid characters bursting with emotion. It should be messy, because human beings are squalid, and tender, and ferocious, and petty, and heroic, and gentle, and greedy, and contradictory messes themselves.

Your characters should be in trouble. Not just suffering from a bad day. Not simply afflicted with the choice of whether to purchase a white car or a blue one. Not concerned with how to afford those Starbucks lattes while paying little Jimmy’s private school tuition. When I say trouble, I mean plagued with worry so intense the stress is eating them alive. Blighted with jealousy so white-hot it sears them every time they look at the person they believe is their spouse’s lover. Terrified in mind-numbed paralysis by the stalker that leaves eerie messages and gifts inside their apartment while they sleep. Raging with the grief and frustration of being falsely accused and convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. Horrified by the cruelty of cyber-bullies that have been secretly grinding their once-happy daughter into a withdrawn, bulimic, isolated, social outcast.

At its essential core, a story is what pits one character against another. It’s how those characters clash in struggle against each other, how they grow fiercer in striving to win–or survive–and how they overcome the biggest challenges of all at the end to achieve poetic justice.

You cannot generate a successful, emotionally satisfying plot that comes alive in reader imaginations unless you’re willing as a writer to get your hands dirty. By that, I mean willing to step right into the intense emotional quagmires within your protagonist and antagonist. Until you do that, you will never fully understand their motivations, and of course without motivation the actions a character takes will always seem contrived and artificial.

In other words, you can’t write at a distance from your characters. You can’t remain tidy and detached. You must be willing to crack open a sleek character’s facade and look at what’s seething beneath the mask.

More than that, you must be willing to apply more pressure to a protagonist already in tremendous trouble. This is done by not protecting or safeguarding your lead character. This is done by allowing the antagonist to hit the hero where he or she is most vulnerable–and hit that person hard.

Until we push a character hard enough, how will we–let alone readers–ever know what that story person is really made of?

Until we push a character hard enough, that character will not take action, will not take risks, will not dare to strike at another individual, will continue to hide or stay safe, and will remain dull and boring on the page.

Think about the best mysteries you’ve read. Often–in cozies anyway–the first victim is a sly, wicked, conniving, ruthless, immoral blackguard so rotten every suspect has a solid reason to wish him dead.

Think about your favorite thriller where the protagonist is swept up in the sudden terror of an ordeal so dangerous and horrific the suspense is tightened to an almost unbearable degree. The danger forces the protagonist to flee whatever comfort zone she has always known and attempt the unthinkable in order to survive.

Think about those romances where sparks fly between hero and heroine who stand on opposite sides of an issue yet are pulled together by a physical attraction so potent they are nearly powerless against it.

Think about the fantasy where magic is the only way to save the person the protagonist most cherishes, yet using that magic will extol a terrible price the protagonist fears to pay.

Do you see how, in each of these genre examples, I’ve set up a situation that puts the protagonist inside an emotional or ethical pressure cooker? Yes, some of these examples are stereotypical, and the tropes are well worn, but they work to illustrate my point.

Brackett’s quote says that explosion creates plot. If so, then you need intense emotion, conflict between characters in active opposition to each other, and situations that demand frequent clashes. They are your dry tinder. Additional pressure and/or stress is the spark.

Result?

Conflagration … and a plot that comes alive.

 

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The Allure of Disappointment

When you’re constructing scenes, do you allow your protagonist to succeed or do you thwart her plan?

Common reasoning may convince you that your protagonist should succeed. After all, how else can she continue toward victory in the story climax?

However, if she prevails against every obstacle and challenge thrown her way, she will be mighty indeed but she will not experience an arc of change; she will not hold reader attention for long; and she will know only a hollow, phony type of victory at the end.

It seems counter-intuitive to thwart your protagonist at the ending of scenes, doesn’t it? Isn’t it wrong  somehow that she should fail them? After all, how can she convince readers that she’s clever, resourceful, and admirable if she’s not getting anywhere? Won’t she come across as a loser?

That depends.

She won’t be perceived as a doofus if her opposition is stronger and trickier than expected and if she doesn’t whine about it. A loss makes her more of an underdog, and consequently she gains reader sympathy. As the antagonist stops her, outmaneuvers her, cheats her, betrays her, and corners her, reader sympathy for her should increase. Even better, dramatically speaking, the climax will loom ahead as a bigger threat or obstacle as the story outcome in her favor grows less likely.

However, if she fails in scenes because she makes too many mistakes, or she doesn’t plan well, or she does dumb things like chasing the villain down a dark alley while forgetting to carry her gun, then yes she will come across as unsympathetic, less than bright, and a loser.

Are you frowning over this? Are you thinking, but how will she ever win if she always loses her scenes?

The true purpose of scene-ending setbacks is to force her to take a bigger risk in her next attempt. After all, when things are going smoothly for us, why change our methods? When everything is fine, we don’t learn. We don’t dig deeper. We don’t challenge ourselves. We don’t grow.

And pushing your protagonist through an arc of change in behavior, beliefs, attitude, or personal growth is really what stories are all about. Not how many vampires she can destroy in an hour.

Therefore, if you’ve been writing scenes where your protagonist always succeeds, pause and re-evaluate your plotting. Consider what would happen if your protagonist lost the encounter.

“But, but, but,” you might sputter, “if that happens, Roxie will be fanged by a vampire!”

My response is simply, “So? What then?”

“But she can’t become a vampire. She’s trying to hunt them. She hates them. They killed her mother, and she wants to destroy them all.”

Understood. But consider how much better your story will become if Roxie is bitten, or grazed. She might then escape the predator’s clutches, and perhaps she even destroys her opponent, but now her situation is uncertain, potentially dire. She will experience the terror of believing she’s been turned. Could there be anything worse in Roxie’s world than becoming the very type of monster she’s sworn to obliterate? Consider the angst she’ll go through. And maybe she won’t know for certain right away, which means you can spin out the suspense and anticipation even more.

From a writer’s standpoint, that’s delicious. See how Roxie has become more interesting?

Never be afraid to disappoint your protagonist. Never fear to make her situation worse. Never lose an opportunity to test her to her limits and beyond to see what she’s made of.

I want to know how Roxie will handle this development. Don’t you?

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Plotting Plots

You can have story concepts and ideas all day long, and not have a plot.

Maybe you’ve been living with a character or a setting for years, ever since inspiration struck you, but have you ever gotten your story off the ground? Has the storyline ever completely come together? Or are you still mulling over the story world and never managing to figure out what should happen to your protagonist once he or she actually sets out on the great quest?

It’s not easy to make the leap from concept, dream, idea, or spark to an actual plotted storyline that spans beginning, middle, and end, but there are certain techniques in the writer’s toolkit that will make it possible.

Firstly, determine the moment of change for your protagonist. Yes, I know you’ve been designing the history, back story, and mythology of your story world, but what catalytic event does it all boil down to?

Consider the opening of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, Dune. Herbert has obviously thought through a complex political situation, the world Paul and his family are leaving, the world they are moving to, the factions, the intrigues, etc. but instead of a massive info-dump he chooses instead to open his story with the last-moment preparations for the move off-world. This is the actual change in Paul’s circumstances, and it causes a visit from the Bene Gesserit witch that sets Paul on his path of destiny.

Secondly, examine the character you’ve selected to be your protagonist. Is this character truly suitable to play the lead role of your story? Or is this character a bystander, watching others engaging in conflict and adventures? How can you tell if you’ve chosen the best character to star?

By honestly assessing whether this character’s goal drives the story action and whether this character has the most at stake.

Too often, I watch students of mine contort their stories into Gordian knots in an effort to preserve the wrong character. They will cling stubbornly to a weak, vapid, reactive, passive bystander while ignoring the so-called secondary character that possesses drive, determination, stamina, and a defined goal.

Thirdly, what is the protagonist’s goal in light of the story situation, the stakes, and the catalytic event? Until you know it, you have no plot no matter how much world-building you may do.

Fourthly, who is the antagonist? Don’t shove forward some contrived dastardly no-good without any thought. Instead, take time to sort through your characters for the individual that most directly opposes your protagonist’s objective.

For example, I can cook up some mighty, evil super-wizard living in a remote tower as he plots the annihilation of all living things. But what has Super-wizard got to do with Young Farmboy living three kingdoms away in the dell?

Please don’t start rambling about how Young Farmboy has a destiny and someday, after Young Farmboy has gone on a thirty-year quest, he will meet Super-wizard in a cataclysmic battle to the death.

Go back instead to Young Farmboy’s goal. What, specifically, does he want? To go on a quest? To what purpose? Okay, sure, to find the Golden Casket of Treasures Untold. And what does that goal have to do with Super-wizard three kingdoms and thousands of leagues away?

Are you going to remind me that Super-wizard is evil and wants to annihilate everything? But is that intention directly opposed to Young Farmboy’s goal of seeking the Golden Casket?

No, it’s not. Beware the temptation to sweep past this glitch. Ignore it at your peril. For it will unravel your plot and leave you stalled.

There are three approaches to use in solving this plotting problem. Super-wizard’s purpose can be altered so that he has the Golden Casket in his possession and would rather see all living things annihilated than surrender it. Or Young Farmboy’s goal needs to change so that he’s seeking to stop the threatened annihilation of all living things, specifically his village and the sweet maiden he loves. Or Super-wizard can sit in his remote tower and you can devise a more immediate antagonist that can constantly oppose and trouble Young Farmboy as he seeks his goal.

Lastly, once you’ve solved the problem of goals that are actually directly opposed, think about the climax you intend. How will you wrap up this clash of opposition? How will the conflict be resolved? How will the protagonist prevail even when all the odds are stacked against him and his antagonist seems to have the upper hand?

Solve these problems and answer these questions, and you’ll have a plot. It may not be exactly what you originally intended, but what does that matter? You’ve made progress in moving from a concept – nebulous and not quite coming together – to a storyline that jumps into action from the beginning, holds together in the middle, and delivers a rousing good finish.

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Fighting for Story

There’s a quiet battle waging in the entertainment arena these days.

Classic story design versus minimal story design.

Plot versus character.

Story-driven versus problematic situations.

Good fighting evil versus shades of gray.

Linear plotting versus webbed plotting.

Bold and vivid versus drab and small.

Scene-based conflict versus discussions of problems.

Resolution of story versus open-ended stopping point.

Now, there’s no simple explanation for this situation. Too many factors ranging from the flux of trends in prose fiction, TV, and films to cultural pressures and social agendas are all mixing into what’s currently taking place.

The why, in this context, is less important than the acknowledgement of what is happening. And writers need to be aware of it so they can decide whether they want to stand for one side or the other or whether they simply want to follow the current trends like flotsam riding a river.

Classic story design versus minimal story design

What is this? What does it mean? What’s the difference?

Classic design is the plot structure that’s archetypal — meaning it’s worked universally since the dawn of time. It follows this pattern:  a protagonist pursues a goal despite the active opposition of an antagonist until the conflict escalates to an ultimate showdown and the protagonist prevails or loses.

Minimal story design is where the protagonist is facing a problematic story situation but is reactive to it and may not necessarily be facing a direct foe.

Plot versus character

This debate seems a bit pointless to me because plot derives from character and what a character wants. However, the phrase “plotted story” generally means a story that follows the archetypal pattern of a protagonist in pursuit of a specific goal despite direct opposition.

The “character-oriented story” is sometimes shaped around the circumstances surrounding the protagonist and how that individual responds to or thinks about it. There may be a perception of a desired goal, but little action will be taken toward it.

Story-driven versus problematic situations

Story-driven refers to the protagonist initiating confrontations in scenes in order to accomplish a specific objective. Each confrontation causes a chain reaction or consequences as a result that lead to bigger complications for the protagonist.

Problematic situations are difficulties in the life of the protagonist or problems afflicting someone the protagonist cares about. But there’s no particular human foe behind those difficulties. They are often stemming from adversity such as illness or financial worries or some nebulous sense of unhappiness or misery.

Good fighting evil versus shades of gray

It’s become unfashionable to label fictional characters as the good guy or the bad guy. To consider someone a villain means you must make a judgment. You must gauge this person against your standards, ethics, and principles, and find him or her lacking.

In classic story design, we need villains just as we need heroes in order for the story to take shape. Fiction is art, and art makes order of reality. The story protagonist must become heroic in order to prevail over an opponent who chooses expediency enough to become a villain.

While some mainstream fiction out there seeks to explore the concepts that there is good and evil in every person, classic story design acknowledges this while pushing the characters to move to one side or the other of that line. In other words, will the flawed protagonist change and take risks or overcome inner fears to become heroic and win? Or will the character waffle and wallow in doubt and angst until nothing ultimately is achieved?

Linear plotting versus webbed plotting

Classic design unfolds a story in a logical, cause-and-effect chronology. It begins with the catalytic moment of change in the protagonist’s circumstances that forces him or her to take action. Thereafter, it moves in a linear direction toward the finish where the story’s climax will resolve the protagonist’s problem one way or another.

Webbed plotting involves numerous flashbacks to dramatize past events or character motivations through scene action. It involves several viewpoints, which in turn requires the story to present each viewpoint as directing a subplot. Strict chronology of story events is deemed less important than a character’s feelings or perspective. Although web plotting can generate more depth of characterization, if handled poorly it can result in a split focus in the story and much difficulty in achieving effective story resolution.

Bold and vivid versus drab and small

In classic design, there is no attempt to hide a scene antagonist. Every scene is focused around conflict, which is created by the clash between the protagonist’s goal and the antagonist’s goal.

Classic protagonists are heroic, strong, and admirable. They are presented to readers in ways that make readers like them, sympathize with them, and relate to them. This is not by accident. It is through the writer’s design and intention.

Classic antagonists are devious, ruthless, and driven. They may hide some of these qualities beneath charm or lies, but they are not depicted so that readers will like them.

I’m not saying that good guys won’t have flaws or bad guys won’t have positive qualities, but whatever the character design is … go for bold. Exaggerate that quality. Own it. Flaunt it. Build it bigger. Don’t be timid in writing characters. Make them vivid.

The drab, small, insignificant character that’s designed for realism is a character that comes across as flat, dull, and unimportant.

Writers who fear being considered melodramatic and cheesy tend to constrict their characters into bland, monochromatic, non-achievers.

Scene-based conflict versus discussion of problems

Is there anything more boring than two drab characters sitting in a small, drab room, discussing a small, drab problem without ever getting up to do anything about it?

That’s too realistic for my taste. When I read fiction, I want to follow a viewpoint character through tough problems right into the heart of conflict and see that character meet the challenge or be temporarily flattened by it.

Minimalized plotting reduces the drama, shrinks the scene conflict, seeks subtlety at the expense of story progression, and usually devolves into dull yammering circular dialogue.

Conversely, scene-based conflict focuses a confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, brings an issue out into the open, pits the two characters against each other, and drives one or the other into victory or defeat.

Resolution of story versus open-ended plot

Okay, I get that the current fad is to leave stories hanging in order to entice readers into buying the next volume in a series. I get that in this rough economic climate publishers are desperate for a sure thing and would rather expand a book series than take too many risks seeking new authors or fresh stories that might or might not grab public fancy. I get that TV series are generally now structured like novels from start to finish of the season or all the seasons in their entirety, stopping weekly episodes with cliffhangers like book chapters, to keep viewers tuned in.

I get it and I understand it. However, the danger with too much of it is that readers — and inexperienced writers — lose touch with how stories should be resolved, how questions raised within stories should be answered, and how readers should be taken through a cathartic experience of anticipation, suspense, emotion, and satisfaction at the story’s conclusion.

You can resolve a plotline and settle issues between hero and villain sufficiently to give readers a feeling of completion without losing opportunities to set hooks for the next installment to come.

The habit of leaving every single thing open and hanging eventually creates a perception that this is the norm. This is realistic. This is believable.

No, it’s too much like real life.

Fiction isn’t supposed to be realistic. It’s art, and art focuses on the message its creator wants to convey. Story is contrived by writers to transport readers to a different place and time, to put them vicariously through tremendous challenges and difficulties, and to let them survive, prevail, and grow as individuals.

Last weekend, I settled in to watch ABC’s special presentation of Cecil B. DeMille’s masterful feature film, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. I have been watching that film since childhood. Some years I focus on the costumes or sets. Other years I skip the parts I like less and wander in and out of the living room when the movie reaches the points I enjoy most.

This year, what struck me was the writing and how strong in technique it actually is. The storyline of the two rival princes vying to be Pharaoh’s successor is well written so that each character is powerfully motivated, and every scene — even if it is between a princess and her faithful servant — carries clear, easy-to-follow conflict. Every scene centers on a clear character goal, and every scene ends in a setback for the central character.

I was surprised by my reaction to the technique. Usually I acknowledge it as a matter of course, but this year I found it soothing and reassuring. It was comfortable. It worked. The plot rolled forward, and even the subplots made sense. I felt myself relaxing and truly enjoying the way the story unfolded. I realized how much I’ve been missing that kind of writing in what I view–and often read–these days.

In contrast, I took advantage of commercial breaks to click over to my public station to check out the Henry VIII drama on PBS Masterpiece — WOLF-HALL. Granted, I was watching it in small snippets, but the characters were drab and drawn with such subtlety that I found the drama hard to follow. Few historical events are as dramatic as the battle between King Henry and Cardinal Wolsey, and I’ve seen — and read — several fine fictionalized accounts. But this version was small, realistic, drab, talky, and shaded to the point that I wasn’t sure whom I should be rooting for and whom I should revile. Only my actual historical knowledge of the characters involved helped me understand anything of what was going on.  Scenes faded into each other. There didn’t seem to be any significance to what was depicted. The episode didn’t make me care. If you think I’m being unfair by comparing DeMille and ancient Egypt to a smaller BBC production of Renaissance English politics, then pit WOLF-HALL against the film ANNE OF A THOUSAND DAYS.

 Even so, the two programs I watched Easter Sunday couldn’t illustrate the point of this blog better. One classically designed, clear, easy to follow and compelling. The other modern, realistic, webbed, shaded in drab stripes of gray, no clear-cut hero to cheer for, no clear-cut villain to boo, no reason to keep watching, no point in returning.

Call me old-fashioned if you wish. But muddled technique does not a compelling story make.

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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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In Search of the Elusive Antagonist

Are bad guys becoming extinct?

Are villains on the endangered species list?

Have writers forgotten the meaning of “antagonist?”

Why is it so difficult for neophyte writers these days to invent and design a story antagonist? If the hero is the driving force of the story, then the villain will make all the difference in whether the story is compelling or simply meh.

An antagonist is an opponent. A person or entity standing in determined opposition to whatever the protagonist is trying to accomplish.

It’s. That. Simple.

If a writer, on the other hand, doesn’t know what her protagonist wants, then she won’t get far.

Let’s consider a zombie premise:
Harriet Heroine discovers that her roommate Zoe has been infected and is now a zombie trying to eat her. The apartment–formerly a haven–is now a trap. Harriet has to get out of there–to save herself. Zoe wants to keep her there and eat her.

Two goals in direct opposition. The story will be focused, clear, and easy to follow.

Compare it with this version:
Harriet Heroine is afraid of the recent zombie outbreak near her apartment building. She barricades herself inside her home and stocks up on Twinkies, pretzels, and bottled water.

See the difference? Both versions have similar premises, but one is just a situation. The other has the foundation for a plot and can at least be a viable short story.

Here’s a fantasy premise:
Harvey Hero has inherited an old pendant made of Sacred Stone, the last piece of Sacred Stone known to exist in mortal hands. When his dying grandfather gave the pendant to Harvey, he whispered that Harvey must take the pendant back to the Island of Weir, where their family came from, and claim the treasure hidden there. Viktor Villain–aware that the pendant has the magical power to unlock the treasure chamber–pursues Harvey, intending to capture him, steal the pendant, and reach the treasure first.

But compare it with this:
Harvey Hero has inherited an old pendant made of Sacred Stone, the last piece known to exist in mortal hands. Ever since he started wearing the item, he’s been troubled by strange dreams and feels compelled to journey to the Island of Weir. Viktor Villain has taken possession of the island and has enslaved its inhabitants.

Which version has story potential? In the first version, two characters are vying for a fabulous hoard of treasure. In the second version, the protagonist is moving around without any clear purpose and the antagonist is not in direct opposition.

Another problem that often comes with the nebulous villain is when the antagonist isn’t in the same proximity as the protagonist. How can they be in conflict if they’re on opposite sides of the world?

They must intersect, frequently. They must oppose each other, directly. They must be in conflict, all the time.

Now, perhaps you’re thinking of the Harry Potter series, where Voldemort stays hidden for much of the time. Is Harry in conflict with him? Through Voldemort’s representative, yes.

Hidden villains send minions to do their dirty work of opposing the protagonist. That’s fine. It’s exciting, suspenseful, dangerous, and readable.

The problem falls when no rep shows up. Without conflict, the plot sags, stalls, and crumbles.

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