Posts Tagged Law Abiding Citizen
Today we are going to talk about character, but I want you guys to breathe and relax. Give yourselves permission to not know everything. Art is not one of those things that we take a few lessons and “graduate” as experts. True artists never stop learning.
We read, take classes, and always push ourselves to the next level. Most new writers do not sufficiently understand plot, but I will say that the key to creating better plots rests in a deeper understanding of character.
But How Do We Come Up with Plot?
Some people naturally think in terms of plot. They are the kind of people who think of a story problem, but then need to cast characters appropriate to the story. Other people think in terms of character, a person who they want to cast, but they need to find the right story. Both ways of thinking are fine, but both require an in depth study of character.
Story/Plot Comes from Characters—Characters Create the Problem
Take a handful of flawed humans with agendas, put them together, shake, slowly turn up the heat and watch the drama ignite. Great fiction is fueled by bad decisions and human weakness. All good stories are biblical. They are all birthed by inherent human flaws—the desire for power, control, recognition, jealousy, rage, cowardice, lust, vengeance, etc. This is why perfect characters are super boring. We can’t relate.
Failure/Weakness is the Hinge Point of Connection and Story
Character flaws help us connect. In good stories, we should be able to connect with both the protagonist and the antagonist. If our antagonist is a pure evil mustache-twirler, that generally leads to a literary snooze fest. In fact, the more we connect with the antagonist, the better the story.
For instance, the movie Law Abiding Citizen is an excellent example. The antagonist, Clyve Shelton, is a husband/father whose wife and young daughter are brutally raped, tortured, then slaughtered by two repeat offenders.
Clyve is beaten, bound and left for dead, yet survives to testify. In the end, the justice system fails to serve appropriate justice and one of the bad guys cops a plea and walks free. Clyve Shelton is a father/husband out to avenge his murdered family and to punish a lax justice system.
Vengeance is definitely biblical.
It is really hard not to root for the antagonist in this movie, which is what makes Law Abiding Citizen a superior example of story-telling.
We see easily how story/plot is birthed from character. When we look at Shelton’s background, we see that he is a tinkerer of the deadliest sort. He has used his skills on all kinds of black bag operations. NOT a guy to screw with.
Thus, we see how, if the murderers picked on the family of an ice cream truck driver, we could have never had the construction materials for the plot of Law Abiding Citizen. Story is birthed from the fact that the justice system failed the wrong citizen. They failed a guy who has the skills to take them out….literally. We find ourselves rooting for him because we connected emotionally. What would we do for our own children?
Dig Down to the Uncomfortable Stuff
This is a photo of my son after he’d been terribly injured. I struggled with whether or not to post it, but this image (captured on my cell phone) was just so haunting, and it spoke volumes with its quiet pain. All of us react viscerally to injustice and pain, especially when an innocent is involved.
There are times, like with my son, that the injury is a result of an accident. Yet, doesn’t this terrible yet beautiful picture speak an untold story? What if this injury was the result of an abuser? A kidnapper? What acts would we “forgive” in the pursuit of “justice”? How easily could the lines of hero and villain blur? This is when things get sticky.
Sticky = Interesting
Law Abiding Citizen connects us on the same emotional fault lines. We are willing to forgive the antagonist, but how far? That is the question the screenwriters explore. The story is one that will leave audiences talking and taking sides. The premise isn’t neat and clean. It is an ugly jagged gash with no clean edges, which makes excellent fiction.
And, just so you guys know, my son is just fine.
Plot is birthed from character. Characters are vital to plot, and that is one of the reasons that attendees of my old critique group were required to write very detailed character backgrounds before plotting. We needed the character’s history to understand her story.
What were her inner demons? What world-view did the character have? What need is not yet fulfilled? What is she afraid of? What are the character’s strengths? What does the character believe she needs to be happy? What does she need to prove? How is the character used to getting her way? Is this tool effective?
This is Especially True for Literary Fiction
Despite what anyone tells you, literary fiction must also have a plot. The only difference between commercial fiction and literary fiction is that the character arc takes precedence and plot is of lesser importance (lesser importance, not NO importance).
For instance, in The Road by Cormac McCarthy, there is a plot. Man and Boy must make it to the sea. But it is more important HOW they make it than IF they make it. If the Man and Boy resort to cannibalism, that is an epic fail. They must make it to the sea, but without sacrificing their humanity. Yet, if you read The Road there is a three-act structure, turning points, rising stakes, etc.
There is an end goal—make it to the sea. No journey, no crucible. If the story is Man and Boy sitting in a cave reminiscing about the good old days and being bummed about having no food, we have a bad situation. Bad situations are not conflict.
But again, story is birthed from character. There is a Man and a Boy who are obviously father and son. Much of the plot and decisions stem from this being a father and son. The story would be very different if the characters were different. The Man might have laid down and died if he had nothing to live for, to fight for.
It makes the conflict far more interesting. As parents, would we watch our child starve to death, or would we serve up some hobo BBQ with extra ketchup and tell the kid it’s chicken? The child would live, but at what cost? This story probes the really hard questions. What would we do to survive? What is “living” if we forfeit humanity? Again, the questions are not easily answered because the problems aren’t black and white.
Whether we are plotters or pantsers, we still need to ask the tough questions. We need to play armchair psychologist and get to the heart of the character, to go beyond hair and eye color. It is the weaknesses, demons, and skeletons in the closet that make the best stories. This is an especially important for step plotters, otherwise, it is easy for all your characters to become “talking heads.”
What are your thoughts? Who are your favorite characters? What do you think adds dimension to fiction? What are some exercises you recommend?
I LOVE hearing from you guys!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.
At the end of August I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!
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Law Abiding Citizen 2009
For the past month or so, we have been discussing the antagonist, and how vital he/she/it is to the story. I’ve run critique groups for seven years. I also have edited literally hundreds of manuscripts, and one thing that most new writers do not accurately understand is the antagonist.
I have to admit that I didn’t understand the antag the way I needed to until a couple years ago, and this pivot-point in my education would not have happened without the fabulous Bob Mayer. Not only is he a NY Times and USA Today Best-Selling mega-author, but he is a great writing teacher as well. A couple years ago, Bob actually taught me a technique that changed everything about the way I wrote. Bob advised that I start thinking of the antagonist FIRST. Initially, I was resistant. I mean, I wanted to construct my heroine. She was far more fun. But, as I would soon learn…that was backwards thinking.
Construct your antagonist first. Trust me. You will thank me (and Bob ) later.
As I have said in previous lessons, there is no story without the antagonist. Period. The story IS the antagonist’s agenda. No Buffalo Bill, no Silence of the Lambs. No Darth Vader, and Skywalker doesn’t have a Death Star to destroy. If Joker was a choir boy, Batman’s life would have no meaning.
Antagonists are the Alpha AND the Omega—the beginning AND the end.
Once we understand the antagonist, narrative structure falls into place with far less effort. The antagonist is responsible for the inciting incident (beginning) and the Big Boss Battle (the end).
When we know our antagonist, it is easier to find a beginning point.
Too many authors have awkward prologues that serve no real purpose. They are just stuck on the front because the new writer wants to “hook” the reader because she intends on spending 50 pages to get going (normally with a lot of back story about the protag’s childhood). Hey, I made the same mistakes when I was new, too. We are here to learn ;).
So there is this awkward prologue slapped on the front to hook the reader. Yeah, um no. Prologues are bad juju. Read why here.
Back to antagonists and structure…
When we understand what the antagonist WANTS, then it is easier to pinpoint where and how his life intersects with our protagonist—also known as the inciting incident.
Normal World—Shows us the protag’s life as it would have remained had the antag never come along to disrupt the protagonist’s life. Normal World grounds us and gives us a chance to become vested in the protag. We need to connect if we are going to spend the next 80-100,000 words caring for this character. Normal World hints that all is not well. It doesn’t hang us over a cliff or a tank of sharks or have us in a hospital weeping over a lost loved one. That is melodrama.
Inciting Incident—Is that event that offers the possibility of change. The protagonist still has to MAKE a choice before we make it to the first major plot point. The inciting incident is that point where the agenda of the antagonist intersects the life of the protagonist.
Normal World–>Inciting Incident–> (Choice) Turning Point into Act One
In screenplays there are three acts, always. In novels, there are four acts. Normal World, Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3.Screenplays generally condense that Normal World so much that it is just part of Act One. In novels, we need time to be vested in the character. Hooking the reader is less about fast action or heart wrenching melodrama and more about presenting a character we like, and who we care about. We connect and we sense trouble, so we worry, and that’s why we stick around.
When we understand the antagonist and his agenda, it is far easier to write great endings.
In Star Wars, we knew Darth’s plan involved the Death Star. Thus, the ending logically would involve the Death Star getting all blowed up, right? In Romancing the Stone, the bad guys kidnapped Joan Wilder’s sister in order to get the jewel. Thus, even if we had never seen the movie, it would be easy to extrapolate that the ending likely involves rescuing a sister and making sure bad guys go to jail and don’t end up with the jewel.
Our beginnings will change a dozen times or more before we make it to the final draft. If you are beginning a book, my advice is that you write out your antagonist’s history. What does he want? Why does he want it? How does he plan on getting what he wants?
Also, remember that the antagonist, in his mind, is not the bad guy. This will help give your antagonist dimension. Antagonists are not always villains. Vilains are merely ONE FLAVOR of antagonist.
Remember that the antagonist is the hero in his own story.
Great villains do not believe they are the bad guy. Hannibal Lecter felt he was doing society a service by eating the less desirable members of the species. It is his warped justification for his actions that makes him even more fascinating.
Antagonists are not always wrong; their goals just conflict with the protagonist and disrupt her life and force change.
For instance, the antagonist in Steele Magnolias is the daughter, Shelby. What is her agenda? Have a baby despite having severe, life-threatening diabetes. That is a noble goal that isn’t necessarily wrong. Why does this make Shelby the antagonist? Because, if Shelby had been happy to adopt, then M’Lynn’s (mom-protagonist) life would have remained the same. When we understand Shelby’s plan—have a baby despite life-threatening diabetes—then plotting becomes far easier. At the end, there must be a baby. Whether that baby lives or dies is up to the creator.
Your protagonist will be reacting to the antagonist’s agenda for roughly 75% of your story. It is only in the final act that your protagonist will transition into a hero and will start gaining ground.This is why, when we begin a novel, it makes sense to figure out out ending first. Then, plotting becomes MUCH easier in that we know how and where the story ends. Then plotting is just a matter of getting the protag from point A to point Z.
Some outstanding references to help you guys:
Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering.
James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure.
Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit
What are some of your favorite movie endings? Some really well-layered antagonists that had you on the edge of your seat? I vote for Law Abiding Citizen. I had a hard time rooting for the protag, and found myself hoping the “bad guy” would win. It was very surreal, but proof-positive that this was a BRILLIANT antagonist that made for a spectacular ending…because his PLAN was just that darn great.
What about you guys?
I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of April I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.
Until next time…
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