Tag Archives: zombies

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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Can Softies Survive Zombie Apocalypse?

Last night, I was quick-watching a few episodes of the AMC zombie show, Walking Dead, in an effort to choose something for my Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy class at the University of Oklahoma. I try to cover a broad spectrum of subgenres in the course, letting students examine various types of stories and then discussing aspects of plotting or story shaping, etc. And although I’m no fan of horror and don’t care for zombies as a matter of personal taste, I intended to spend a class period dealing with this slice of the market.

In my scan, I watched an episode which seemed so-so. One zombie beheading, a brutal fight, some wife abuse, a raving man handcuffed to a pipe like bait while zombies tried to swarm him–not too bad. But the plot had some holes and lacked good character motivation, so I decided to check another episode. I chose the series opener.

The initial hook has a sheriff’s deputy encounter a small girl in her jammies, carrying her teddy bear. The deputy wants to help her, but when the child turns around, it’s revealed that she’s a zombie. He shoots her between the eyes. In slow motion, with blood splatter.

I nearly threw the remote at my set. Then I nearly threw the DVD away. Then I thought the experience over.

Granted, the genre is horror. By definition, horror should shock and horrify its audience. But to what extent? What separates good story from gratuitous violence?

As a writer, I understand exactly where the author of this teleplay was going. We really need to grab viewers by the throat with this show. We’ll set up a sharp contrast between a sweet little blonde girl in her bunny slippers and a shuffling monster. We’ll show her blown away by a man in a uniform, a man that wants to help a little girl and instead has to destroy a monster. Oh, and we’ll make sure we take screen time to demonstrate that she’s a killer and he’s giving her a head tap in self-defense. Gotta keep him sympathetic while we make the audience scream.

I understand TV. I understand story. I understand plot hooks and stingers. I understand visual imagery.

But I think writers need to think about what they’re doing and why. When you’re writing shock to make your readers (or viewers) gasp and scream, how far will you go? And should you go there?

When should cheap entertainment surrender to decency and responsibility?

Some might argue that there’s no longer a line, that writers bear no part in what viewers or readers do after encountering the actions in a story. Others can cry censorship.

I’m not calling for that. I don’t think writers should be strangled, stifled, or banned. However, I do think writers should govern themselves.

Too idealistic? Perhaps I am. Just don’t offer me the defense of, gory shock sells.

Of course it does. It always has. (Just ask the gladiators of ancient Rome.)

But there are alternate ways in which to supply shock. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, Psycho, was plenty horrifying but it didn’t supply a visual of every knife wound–complete with stabbing entry crunch and sucking blade exit.

Before the 1980s, there were certain taboos–lines, if you will, that most writers didn’t cross. One of those was that a writer didn’t harm a child character directly in a scene through  violence. Stephen King was among the authors who broke that taboo. I’ve read that he was uneasy about killing the little boy in Pet Sematary and that he was uncertain whether he could get the novel published or that people would even read it. But he did and they did, and the broken taboo was stepped on and kicked and mangled by enough writers subsequently that it hasn’t been put together again.

Today, I can’t think of any writing taboos still standing. Writers are lobbing any topic, any character action, any degree of violence that they please at their readers, and readers seem to eat it up. Some, like Dennis LeHane and Andrew Vachss, do so for a cause. They say they’re trying to make people understand the depravity of child predators. Reputedly they hope that if the public learns about this type of horrific crime, public outcry will demand something be done about it.

But does public outcry happen?

Look at how desensitized we’ve become. Entertainment, in an effort to keep topping itself, runs farther and farther down a road that’s very hard to return from.

I have a friend who stopped watching NCIS at the close of its first season because Kate was shot in the head. In slow motion. With blood splatter. My friend has worked hard to KEEP her sensitivity. Good for her. I can’t imagine what she’d have to say about a deputy plugging a little girl between the eyes in our living rooms, just so we can laugh and cheer.

This morning, when I mentioned my disgust about the child scene to another friend, his reaction was an enthusiastic, “Isn’t that great? She’s a zombie!”

Instead, I’m thinking about teenage boys being shot on the streets of Florida and fathers striking their small boys with axes before setting fire to them. The news hands us one brutal crime against children after another in a reality seemingly gone mad.

As a novelist, I’m no wuss when it comes to violently wiping out my characters, but I don’t intend to contribute to desensitizing a mass audience just to gain cheap thrills.

I was called a softie this morning. Jokes were made about how I wouldn’t survive a “real” zombie attack.

That’s not the point, is it?

What do you think?

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Plotting Dots

Let’s say that inspiration strikes you–zap!

You have an idea: a family moves into a new neighborhood and discovers that the house next door contains zombies.

Zowee-wow! You’re excited. You’re eager to write. You can see the opening sequence vividly in your mind’s eye:

There’s the teenage boy slouching out the backdoor at twilight to take out the trash. He realizes the terrible smell isn’t coming from the dented trash can on the back porch but instead from the Steadman basement twelve feet away. He looks up, sees a shape shambling toward him from the shadows. He drops the trash. Tries to scream. Stumbles backward, but the door is locked. His younger sister has flipped the deadbolt. She’s laughing at him through the glass. He bangs on the door, shrieking now, but she doesn’t realize the danger he’s in. When he looks over his shoulder, the first creature has reached the porch steps. Another is staggering into view. And another. He vaults over the railing and is saved from breaking his ankles by landing in the overgrown azalea bushes. Scrambling to his feet, he flees. The zombies turn and pursue him.

What fun to write whatever’s inspired you. You feel on top of the world. You’re certain you have something viable, something others will enjoy reading. You’re psyched to keep writing what happens next.

Only … what will come next?

Much of the time, my writing students cook up story ideas that are far superior to my cliched zombie example. But once these fledgling writers envision a major scene, they become stuck. Some can’t figure out how to advance their protagonist to the next plot point.

Do you encounter this problem of transforming inspiration into plot?

 Are you able to envision your key scenes, but can’t move your characters from one to the next?

Do you clearly see your opening and your ending, but you have no idea of what to do in the middle?

Then it’s time you learned how to connect the plotting dots.

In the series to come, I’ll be sharing tips on how to plot from start to finish.

Here’s Tip #1: Know how you want the story to end.

It gives your plot a destination. That will immediately affect what parts of your idea you’re going to keep and what you’re going to delete.

Stay tuned.

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