Posts Tagged understanding the antagonist

The Difference Between “Flawed” Characters and “Too Dumb to Live”

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Which is more important? Plot or character? Though an interesting discussion—sort of like, Could Ronda Rousey take a Klingon with only her bare hands?—it isn’t really a useful discussion for anything other than fun. To write great fiction, we need both. Plot and characters work together. One arc drives the other much like one cog serves to turn another, thus generating momentum in the overall engine we call “STORY”.

If we goof up plot? Readers/Audiences get confused or call FOUL. Watch the movie Ouija for what I am talking about *shakes head*.

Goof up characters? No one cares about the plot.

New writers are particularly vulnerable to messing up characters. We drift too far to one end of the spectrum or the other—Super-Duper-Perfect versus Too Dumb to Live—and this can make a story fizzle because there is no way to create true dramatic tension. This leaves us (the frustrated author) to manufacture conflict and what we end up with is drama’s inbred cousin melodrama. 

If characters are too perfect, too goody-goody and too well-adjusted? If they always make noble, good and professional decisions? Snooze fest.

Again. Bad decisions make great fiction.

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Of course, the other side of that is what I call The Gilligan Effect. Yes, I am dating myself here and don’t want to upset ant DIE-HARD Gilligan’s Island fans, but I remember being a kid and this show nearly giving me an aneurism (being the highly logical child I was).

After the third time Gilligan botched up the escape off the island? Kristen would have gone Lord of the Flies and Piggy Gilligan would have mysteriously gone “missing.”

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I also recall how the stranded party could make everything out of coconuts except a freaking BOAT, and the only reason I kept watching was because it was better than being locked outside to play in heat that returned asphalt back to a plasma state (Yay, Texas summers!).

Today we are going to talk about how we can make characters flawed without crossing over into TDTL (Too Dumb To Live) Territory. That and I SO had to blog about something that let me share THIS! *giggles*

Let’s hide behind the CHAINSAWS!!!! *clutches sides*

Okay, I’m back *giggles*.

Great stories are filled with characters making bad decisions, and when this is done well, we often don’t really notice it beyond the winding tension in our stomach, the clenching that can only be remedied by pressing forward and seeing if it works out okay. When characters are properly flawed, the audience remains captured in the fictive dream.

When we (the writer) goof up? The fictive dream is shattered. The audience is no longer part of the world because they’re too busy fuming that anyone could be that stupid. They also now cease to care about the character because, like Gilligan? They kind of want said TDTL character to die.

If this is our protagonist? Extra bad. Our protagonist should make mistakes, just not ones so egregious the reader stops rooting for him/her.

Bad Decisions Birthed from The Flaw

When we create a protagonist, we should remember that all strengths have a complimentary weakness. If a character has never been tested by fire, the protagonist is blind to the weakness.

For instance, great leaders can be control freaks. Loyal people can be overly naive. Compassionate people can be unrealistic. Y’all get the idea.

This dual nature of human strength paired with fallibility is why plot is just as critical.

The plot is the crucible that tests the mettle and reveals and fires out the flaw. The strength ultimately will have to be stronger than the weakness because this is how the protagonist will grow to become a hero by story’s end.

A great example of this is one of my favorite movies, The Edge. Anthony Hopkins plays billionaire Charles Morse. Charles is extremely successful and very much in his own head. Though he’s a genius, he lives the sheltered existence of the uber-wealthy.

What happens when all that “head-knowledge” is what he needs to survive a plane crash in the unforgiving wilderness?

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When the plane crashes and he and the other two survivors make it to shore, Morse does the right thing. He knows they need to get dry before they all die from hypothermia. He also realizes Stephen, the photographer, is in full panic. What is the intelligent thing to do? Put the photographer to work doing something fruitful to take his mind off his fear.

The problem, however, is Morse assumes the photographer has the same knowledge-base and doesn’t take time to show Stephen how to use a knife properly and the man is badly injured. Now we’ve already had a problem (plane crash) and now we have a complication (bad injury) and then it gets worse.

Morse, again, being an in-his-own-head-guy and unaccustomed to having to communicate WHY he wants certain things done, tells Robert Green to bury the bloody fabric. Green is jealous of Morse and rebellious and instead of following instructions and burying the material? He hangs the blood-soaked rags from a tree where an incoming storm whips up the scent of an newly opened All You Can Eat Buffet.

Soon, the men are being hunted by an apex predator with the munchies for humans.

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But all of this was birthed from a myriad of flaws. Morse failing to communicate and assuming his comrades are operating with the same head knowledge (because he’s never HAD to use this type of information in a real-world way) and also the two photographers who are City People and don’t have the sense to know 1) NOT to drag a knife towards the body and 2) that the smallest scent of blood will draw predators.

These men are used to the “civilized world” and at the beginning, have failed to properly appreciate that their position at the top of the food chain is NOT static.

Bad Decisions Depend on Circumstances

Sometimes characters will make bad decisions simply because this is a completely new world or a set of circumstances they’ve never faced, thus have no way to fully appreciate. The “bad” decision was not a “bad decision” before the adventure.

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A good example? Merry and Pippin in The Lord of the Rings. In the Shire, people talk and are sociable. These naive characters haven’t yet felt the consequences of this new and dangerous world. To them? Chatting away and freely sharing information at The Prancing Pony is NOT a bad decision in their minds. Neither is frying bacon on top of a mountain.

They’ve always lived a life that if they were in a pub? They drank and made friends. If they wanted bacon? They just made bacon. They’ve never had to think beyond their mood or stomachs and don’t have the experience base to realize that fire is a “Come and Kill Me” beacon to the enemy.

Bad Decisions Can Be Birthed From The Wound

From the movie "Thelma & Louise"

From the movie “Thelma & Louise”

We have talked about The Wound before. In Thelma & Louise what is the wound? A lifetime of male oppression. In Thelma’s case, her husband controls every aspect of her life. Thus, when she finally does get on her own, she has poor judgement and is naive and that’s how she nearly ends up raped in a honky-tonk parking lot.

Louise was raped and no one was there for her. She’s been a victim and doesn’t trust men or the law. Thus, her baggage is what leads her to shoot Thelma’s attacker, but then also dovetails into the really, really bad decision to run.

But if we look at all these examples from an analytical distance, these characters are just DUMB. But why aren’t they TDTL? Context. Because of plot we (the audience) are not staring down at them like specimens through a microscope. We are immersed in their worlds and thus empathize with the bad decisions.

The bad decisions are forgivable because unless we live in the Alaskan wilderness? We can empathize with maybe doing something seriously stupid if we were stranded, too. We (the audience) have “been” to the Shire and know what world created the childlike Merry and Pippin. We appreciate they are grossly out of their depth and give them a pass.

In Thelma & Louise we can understand how damaged people make poor decisions because, unless we’ve been living under a rock, we’ve made similar choices, and suffered consequences created from fear not reason.

What this means is that, while ALL of these characters made really wrong decisions, they are necessary and pardonable decisions that serve to drive the character arc and thus the plot’s momentum.

That is the final note on characters making bad decisions. Do we have a character making a mistake, withholding vital information, acting irrationally because it is coming from a deeper place of flaws, circumstance or wounds?

Or, do we have a character playing marionette? Characters are making a mistakes because we NEED them to. The tension has fizzled, so let’s just let them do something epically stupid (and random)?

Audiences can tell the difference between mistakes that are organic and flow from deeper emotional waters versus something contrived. And we can ALL be guilty of forcing characters to make bad choices simply because we sense tension is missing. Even I have to go back and ask the tough question…WHY is this character doing this?

For more help on how to use characters to ratchet anxiety to the nerve-shreding level, I am finally back teaching and offering my Understanding the Antagonist Class on April 18th and YES, it is recorded in case you miss or need to listen again because this class is jammed with information.

I LOVE teaching this simply because our antagonists are pivotal for writing a story readers can’t put down. Yet, too often we fail to harness characters for max effect. I look forward to seeing you there! I also offer the Gold level for one-on-one. Maybe you’ve hit a dead end. Your story is so confusing you need a GPS and a team of sherpas to find the original idea. Instead of wasting time with misguided revisions, I can help you triage your WIP and WHIP it into fighting form :D .

What are your thoughts regarding characters making poor decisions? What are some of your favorite examples? Ever quit a book, movie, or show because you wanted everyone to DIE? Did you hate Gilligan, too? Do you think Ronda Rousey could take on a Klingon with her bare hands?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MARCH, 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. 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).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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Creating Dimensional Characters—The Blind Spot

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Last time, we talked about how to deepen characters and how EVERYBODY LIES (thank you Dr. House). Lies are critical for great fiction. To become excellent writers, we need to become great secret-keepers. Denial is more than a river in Africa ;) .

I’d started a series on this a few months ago and Shingles got in the way of the next posts I had planned. But, the first of the intended series was about THE WOUND.  Check it out if you have a bit of time.

Most of us don’t go around lying because we are pathological liars. We lie because of our wounds. And, if you read the post, wounds don’t have to be big to be BIG.

Newer writers sometimes think we have to have a rape or death for it to be “enough” but never underestimate “smaller” wounds. They are far more common, very damaging, and readers have a lot likelier time empathizing and thus connecting.

Though I had my fair share of big wounds in life, strangely enough, the small ones did just as much damage and maybe even more. It was the jokes about me being ugly or fat from family members or schoolmates. It was being teased that my clothes were from Kmart (had a single mom).

It was playing sports, competing in martial arts, or being first chair in clarinet and playing a key solo…yet every kid had a parent/family member in the audience but me.

These wounds drove me to being more of a perfectionist, a people-pleaser, and insecure about my body and looks. One can only be called “Thunder Thighs” so many times. To this day, I refuse to wear shorts even though, when people made these comments, I was 11% body fat. I just happen to be built for strength and “willowy” is an adjective that will never describe me.

Me at 5'3", 165 pounds and a Size 10.

Me at 5’3″, 165 pounds and a Size 10.

Yet, though the wounds did their fair share of damage, they also created a person who learned to be self-sufficient VERY early….which is a mixed bag. Also, I learned to ignore other people’s opinions. This helped A LOT when I was blogging about how social media would change the world and had others calling me a lunatic.

But, I can also say there are times I maybe should have been better at listening to counsel and opinions. Learning to discern when to listen and when to ignore is still a struggle for me…because of the WOUNDS.

Beyond “The Wound”

Today, we’re going to explore an extension of the WOUND. The BLIND SPOT. There are no perfect personalities. All great character traits possess a blind spot. The loyal person is a wonderful friend, but can be naive and taken advantage of.

The take-charge Alpha leader can make a team successful, but also inadvertently tromp over feelings or even fail to realize that others have great ideas, too. Maybe even BETTER ideas.

Often the antagonist (Big Boss Troublemaker) is a mirror of the protagonist, especially in the beginning of the story. In the first book of the series I am currently writing, Romi (my protagonist) is LOYAL. She believes everyone has some good and the world will reward you if you simply are good and work hard.

How she ends up in trouble and the number one suspect in an Enron-like scam is that she trusted the wrong people and they let her take the fall for the scheme.

Romi is VERY Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde."

Romi is VERY Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde.”

To arc and be able to beat the antagonist and solve the core story problem—Find money and clear her name—she’s going to have to grow up. Her bright-eyed naiveté is an asset. Others (ALLIES) gravitate to her because she is such a Pollyanna. They are there to buttress her weaknesses and even mentor her growth.

Yet, by story’s end, she cannot be the same. She’s going to have to be more realistic and see truth about people in order to come out alive.

Conversely, the antagonist is betting that the original blind spot used to make Romi the sucker will remain. The antagonist is banking that she will refuse the call and thus not grow. The antagonist’s blind spot is pride and opportunism. Being able to manipulate.

Yet as Romi grows, she learns to see who people truly ARE, not what she simply wants to see and that is a large reason the antagonist fails.

Application

To use an example from a movie we have likely all seen. In Top Gun, what makes Maverick the best pilot is his complete lack of fear. He has the cajones to do what other pilots wouldn’t ever consider.

He’s driven by his wound, the lie about his father. This has made him one of the best pilots (trying to overcome his tainted history and impress a ghost) but he’s missed the lesson on how to be part of a team.

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Yes, maybe breaking all the rules makes you “the best”, but it can get others killed. It isn’t all about HIM.

This is why when I refer to “the antagonist” I prefer my made-up term Big Boss Troublemaker. The antagonist isn’t always “bad.” The antagonist is simply the person responsible for creating the core story problem.

Iceman isn’t a bad guy. He isn’t evil with a plan to take over the world or infiltrate the Top Gun school as a sleeper terrorist.

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He’s simply a by-the-book fighter pilot who believes Maverick shouldn’t be there. He loathes Maverick because he thinks he’s a danger to himself and others (and, frankly, he has a very valid point).

The plot provides the crucible. Maverick butts heads with Iceman over and over in a um, man-part-measuring contest. But what happens when Maverick loses Goose? Crisis.

A hard event (PLOT) has now forced Maverick to face the truth about himself. For the first time, he SEES the blind spot Iceman and others have been pointing out (which has been the core source of conflict). This loss forces him to go searching for answers deeper than buzzing the tower.

He finally recognizes others might actually have a point.

The beauty of this movie and why it’s remained so timeless (aside from hot guys in Navy dress) is it’s a movie exploring people. Real, broken, hurting people blind to who they really are. By story’s end? Everybody arcs.

Maverick learns there are other people in the sky besides HIM and that he is part of a TEAM. Iceman lightens up and recognizes that Maverick, too, has a point. Sometimes one just has to toss out the rulebook.

Thus, when creating characters in any story, to deepen them, we need to KNOW them. What DRIVES THEM? How would they react according to their past, their wounds and their blind spot?

As a writing exercise, take a scenario. Maybe an attempted mugging. How would different characters react?

For instance, when I was in college, I taught Jui-Jitsu during the day and sold papers in the evening. One dark winter night a drunk tried to mug me in a dark apartment complex and take my hard case briefcase.

Because of MY background, growing up powerless and determined to be in CONTROL, I’d taken years of martial arts. Also, when I was eight, I witnessed my 6’8″ male family member raise his hand to hit my mom while she was cooking….and she beat his ass out the front door wielding a mad hot cast iron skillet.

This left a mark (though likely more on said family member).

Thus, 12 years later when a MUCH larger drunk came up behind and tried to mug ME, he got beaten heartily with a briefcase and then chased until I lost him.

But why did I fight, not just hand over the briefcase?

I’d always been POOR. I was very poor in college and had worked long hours to buy a really nice briefcase in hopes of landing a better job than selling and delivering papers. There was no money in the case. I could have handed it over but because of MY wounds, the briefcase was more than a briefcase.

Clearly my BLIND SPOT is I have an alligator mouth and a pekinese @$$. I could have lost and ended up hurt or dead.

But what about a person with a different background? A different wound? A different blind spot?

What if the person mugged was a trust fund baby who could easily buy another briefcase? Or a person who’d been beaten badly in formative years and would do anything to avoid experiencing that pain? What if the person was elderly? There are a lot of variables that make a VERY rich palette to create characters with LIFE.

Think of your own life and personality? What is your greatest strength? How does it create your greatest weakness? What is YOUR blind spot. Play a little armchair psychiatrist and what you find might be really interesting ;) . Feel free to share about you or even your favorite characters you’ve read or even written.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JANUARY, 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. 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).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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Conflict—Giving LIFE to Your Fiction

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Bad decisions make GREAT fiction. I know it’s tough to not write about fully evolved/self-actualized characters, but those guys are B-O-R-I-N-G. We like to watch people grow, probably so we might glean some hint of how to grow, ourselves. The more messed up a character is? The more INTERESTING they become.

Come on! You know it.

If you were at a restaurant and had a choice of where to eavesdrop, would it be the couple talking about their plans for the week as a team baking cookies for the school? Or would it be the nasty breakup on Table 6?

If we don’t have conflict, the story falls flat. Everything comes too easily and that is a formula for a Snooze-Fest. I am SO HUMBLED and honored to be friends with THE LEGEND Les Edgerton. In his mind? NOTHING comes easily. Even if your protagonist just wants directions, she should get, “What? Do I look like Google Maps?” in response.

Conflict

Once you get an idea of what your protagonist’s end goal is, you need to crush his dream of ever reaching it (well, until the end, of course). Remember, last week we talked about the Big Boss Troublemaker and log-lines. Generally (in genre novels especially), it is the BBT is who’s agenda will drive the protagonist’s actions until almost the end.

The CORE ANTAGONIST (what I call the BBT) is responsible for creating the problem that 1) disrupts the protagonist’s life 2) forces change and growth 3) is in need of clear resolution by the end. No core problem and there is no clean way to end the book.

Your protagonist will be reacting for most of the novel. It is generally after the darkest moment that the protagonist rallies courage, allies, hidden strength and suddenly will be proactive. THIS is the point when the protagonist has CHANGED enough to become a HERO.

Logical disasters are birthed from good plotting (and a solid core problem). One of the reasons I am a huge fan of doing some plotting ahead of time is that it will be far easier for you to come up with set-backs and disasters that make sense.

There is a scene from the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles that I just LOVE. The prime villain, Hedley Lamarr, is interviewing scoundrels to go attack a town he wants to destroy so that he can build the railroad through it. There are all kinds of bad guys standing in line to give their CV.

Via the Mel Brooks classic "Blazing Saddles"

Via the Mel Brooks classic “Blazing Saddles”

Hedley Lamar: Qualifications?

Applicant: Rape, murder, arson, and rape.

Hedley Lamarr: You said rape twice.

Applicant: I like rape.

This sequence used to be quoted quite a lot in my workshop. Why? Because there are many new writers who, upon noticing doldrums in their novel, will insert a rape scene.

I am not making this up O_o.

And if I hadn’t seen it so many times in my career, I wouldn’t have brought it up. We can chuckle, but this is fairly common to the new writer, just as it is common for children to write the letter “c” backwards. It is a heavy-handed attempt by a new writer who hasn’t yet developed plotting skills to raise the stakes and tension. Robberies, car chases and rapes are justifiable conflict, if they genuinely relate to the story. Otherwise, it’s contrived and awkward.

The Many Faces of the Antagonist

There is ONE BBT. Sauron, Buffalo Bill, VIKI, Loki, Darla the Fish-Killer all create the core story problems the protagonists must resolve. Ah, but along the way, there should be conflict in EVERY scene. Conflict often will come from multiple directions. There will be the long-range conflict (I.e. drop evil ring into volcano in Mordor) and short-range conflict, which is very often generated by allies (run from angry pitch-fork-wielding-farmer because Merry and Pippin stole veggies).

The antagonist role can shift. It can be friends, family, coworkers, but these guys are not the CORE antagonist.

From the film, "I, Robot."

From the film, “I, Robot.”

For instance, in I, Robot, VIKI (the computer controlling all the robots) is the Big Boss Troublemaker. Yet, who generates much of the conflict? ALLIES who are acting as antagonists.

Whether it’s the protagonist’s grandmother, “Look, I won an evil robot in the lottery! See how well he handles a KNIFE? We’ve been cooking ALL DAY! Whee!” or his boss “What robots tried to kill you? The tunnel was clean and you’re imagining things. Gimme your badge,” poor Spooner CANNOT get a break.

The more the robots try to kill him, the more his allies protest and create roadblocks, generating conflict.

Even in literary works, there has to be external conflict. A book of navel-gazing is not literary. It’s navel-gazing. In the Pulitzer-Winning book and later Oscar-Winning movie The Hours each story is a manifestation of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel Mrs. Dalloway. And, if you watch the movie or read the book, it’s WAY better if you’ve actually read Mrs. Dalloway. 

From the Oscar Award Winning Film, "The Hours"

From the Oscar Award Winning Film, “The Hours”

Clarissa wants to help her former lover-friend who is ravaged by AIDS, but he refuses help and torments her by calling her Mrs. Dalloway (who was a woman searching for meaning). Mrs. Dalloway arranges the flowers and flitters around planning parties, but deep down believes she’s a non-entity.

Clarissa is the same. She has become what she fears and those around her only reinforce this insecurity. Clarissa can’t connect to her lover, her friend or her daughter and there are roadblocks at every turn.

One way we can ensure we have conflict is to use the Blake Snyder method. In each scene, ask “Protagonist wants X, but then….” Someone or something should stand in the way, and it is better if it’s someone. Remember all good characters have baggage and issues like real people. This is what will make your cast more than talking heads. I know it is counterintuitive, but this is why writing is HARD. Humans avoid conflict, but great writers dive straight for it.

What are your thoughts? Questions? What books or movies ratcheted the tension so high you thought your nerves might just snap?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of October, 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. 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 novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Also, for all your author brand and social media needs, I hope you will check out my new best-selling book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.

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The Stuff of Legends—Creating a Character Apocalypse

"The Lincoln Lawyer" by Michael Connelly

“The Lincoln Lawyer” by Michael Connelly

My friend Piper Bayard is away for a few days and she asked me to pick up the Apocalypse Torch for the week. It is so tempting to write more about zombies and Kardashebola or Sharknado and maybe we will. But, today, we are going to talk about the apocalypse—what it is and what it means for really great writing.

When we hear the word “apocalypse” we think of doomsday prophesies, Mayan predictions, global catastrophes, and Mad Max movies. It conjures images of the end of the world. Yet, if we look to the original Greek word, an apocalypse, ἀποκάλυψις apocálypsis, from ἀπό and καλύπτω meaning ‘un-covering’, translated literally from Greek, is a disclosure of knowledge, i.e., a lifting of the veil or revelation (via Wikipedia).

When it comes to writing a great novel, the apocalypse must be present externally (plot) as well as internally (character growth). The story problem, created by the antagonist, is what provides the crucible that leads to change. There is an unveiling on two levels. First, the solution to the story problem (unveiled over time) and secondly, the protagonist has an opportunity to grow from regular person to hero.

Protagonists Need Baggage to Become Heroes

Most of us have done this. We begin with the uber-perfect protagonist. She is beautiful, speaks twenty languages and saves kittens in her spare time…and she’s utterly boring. Why? First, we can’t relate since most of us are far from perfect.

But why the uber-perfect character is dull is there is no room for an apocalypse. There is nothing to shake her out of the stupor of existing and introduce her to living. There is nothing personally at stake because there are no fears to face. A fully-evolved character has no room to GROW.

An apocalypse is most interesting when there is massive change we witness. For instance, if a tornado hits a junkyard, it just rearranges the existing mess. But when it wipes out half of Joplin, Missouri? We are moved and emotional because change is on such a large scale.

Now reverse this. If our character is too perfect to begin with, when the apocalypse happens….eh *shrugs*.

In Normal World our characters flaws are working for him, or so he believes. It’s the story problem that reveals the error of his thinking, that there is more inside him than he believes. The more baggage a character is carrying, the more interesting the transformation.

One of my favorite examples of this is Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer. Mickey Haller is a sleaze bag defense attorney who operates out of the back of a Lincoln Continental. He defends the worst of the worst because nothing frightens him as much as representing a truly innocent man. The guy is a total bottom-feeder who knows how to manipulate the justice system. But what happens when he comes face-to-face with real evil? Can he live with who he is?

Crisis point.

Crisis point.

Now, if Mickey Haller was a crusader who’d been fighting for justice since he was a small boy playing Superman in between earning badges as a Boy Scout? Boring. But a guy who defends drug dealers, murderers and pimps and can still sleep at night? The guy with no apparent conscience? THAT is an interesting character and one ripe for an apocalypse.

In The Lincoln Lawyer, not only does the story unveil an evil unimaginable, but it also unveils the most unlikely of heroes. The person who’s always been perfect to defend the bad guy now is the only one who can take him out.

Picking the Perfect Story Problem

This is one of the reasons we discussed beginning with the antagonist first this past Friday. If we begin with the antagonist and then create the story problem, it becomes far easier to envision the flawed protagonist who is the perfect guy or gal to solve the problem (and know precisely how this character must grow along the way).

When it comes to The Lincoln Lawyer, who better to destroy true evil than the guy whose been making a fortune defending evil? What is the threshold that causes someone as low as Mickey Haller to change? And since he believes he’s a slime ball, what can happen to change this internal belief so that, in the end, Mickey rises to be a hero?

Another great example is Ree Dolly in Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s BoneRee lives in the trailer park and has no interest in her future. She’s too locked in the hell that is her present. Unlike Mickey Haller, Ree is a good person. She takes care of a mentally ill mother and two much younger siblings, living hand-to-mouth while her father is in and out of prison for cooking meth.

Stirring the pot can be fatal.

Stirring the pot can be fatal.

What is her flaw? She keeps her head down and doesn’t make waves.

There is an unspoken rule in hillbilly culture. Family is everything. Never turn on family. But what happens when family turns out to be the enemy? When Ree’s father doesn’t show up for court, Ree finds out he put up their home and the land it sits on as part of his bond. She must find her father—dead or alive—to save her mom and siblings from losing everything. Yet, to find her father she’ll have to take on the most terrifying adversary of all…her own family.

Seeking the truth is painful...

Seeking the truth is painful…

She can no longer keep her head down and get by. She has to make waves. For Ree, this is a personal apocalypse.

But again, notice how creating the antagonist/story problem reveals who the protagonist is and the precise way to create a hero. We begin with a hillbilly culture, steeped in secrets, and pit one of their own against them. The conflict is deep, intimate, ugly, personal and all the right ingredients for an award-winning story.

To Help

I am running an on-line class this Friday about antagonists. Use the WANA15 code for 15% off and the class is recorded if the time doesn’t work for you.

If your story isn’t moving, you’re stuck, plotting is making you want to OD on brownies, it might just be you need to alter or strengthen your antagonist. We will also talk about scene antagonists to keep the momentum increasing in your novel.

What are your thoughts? Questions? What are your favorite character apocalypses from books or movies? Why did they inspire you? Do you use these to inspire your writing?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of July, 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. 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 novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.

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34 Comments

The Single Largest Cause of Writer’s Block–Might Not Be What You Believe

Image courtesy of Cellar Door Films WANA Commons

Image courtesy of Cellar Door Films WANA Commons

Today, I’d like to talk about the single greatest reason for writer’s block (aside from laziness and fear, but we can chat about those another time). I spent years as an editor, and I believe I’m a pretty good one. I’ve taken stories that were train wrecks and helped the author create a best-seller. Just ask Piper Bayard about Firelands, LOL.

I had a unique ability to pull apart a story and locate what wasn’t working and why. Then I could guide that writer to the best book possible (without altering that writer’s voice). Editing is a skill, but it’s a different skill from creating. For instance, a person who restores historical houses isn’t necessarily someone who can draw a blueprint and build a new house. The restorer looks to the bones of the house and fixes what’s already standing to help create what the owner envisions.

Same with editing. There is less creating and more reverse-engineering.

When I initially began writing fiction, I was shocked how terrible I was at it. Oh, page to page, the writing was lovely. But as a whole? I kept creating mess after mess, a blob with no internal structure that made sense. To make matters worse, I would hit about 30-40, 000 words an hit a WALL. I was paralyzed with no idea how the story should progress.

This, then led to editing and reediting the beginning until I was just ready to throw myself in traffic.

I was blocked.

Was it the wrong story? Was the idea flawed? Oh, let me try something new. 

Writing can feel a little like THIS...

Writing can feel a little like THIS…

Yet, time after time the same thing happened. I’d hit the exact same spot and paralysis would set in. I kept reading craft books and yet, nothing clicked. I’d start some new writing teacher’s program and again. STUCK. I’d hear things like, “Write your ending first” and it just made me want to punch the person who said it.

How is this even possible? Write the ending. RIGHT. After I take my pet unicorn for a ride.

Then I took NYT best-selling author Bob Mayer’s Warrior Writer class. We spent two days doing what he calls a “conflict lock.” I still didn’t get it. Bob kept asking me what kind of protagonist I wanted. Who was she? I had her in mind and yet…the plot ideas would end up so complicated even I didn’t understand what the hell I was talking about.

After some time, I am sure Bob was probably ready to hairlip me. I know I was ready to hairlip myself.

In frustration, Bob finally said the words that changed everything, “Okay, Kristen. Stop talking to me or I will call the cops.”

Kidding!

Bob said, “Forget the protagonist. Let’s start with the antagonist. Who is he and what does he want?”

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Robert Ellsworth Tyler

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Robert Ellsworth Tyler

Everything changed, and I finally saw what I was doing wrong. I was creating my hero with no problem. I had to begin with the story problem first or plotting would be next to impossible. Why? I had no idea what the hell my protagonist was trying to SOLVE!

I also was carrying around misguided ideas of what an antagonist was.

She is her OWN worst enemy.

Oooh, a STORM! SOCIETY!

Um, yeah…no.

This set me a on a new course. I stopped writing fiction altogether and threw everything I had into studying antagonists. I read stacks of novels, this time paying attention to the antagonists. I read psychological journals, profiling books, and tore apart every movie I watched (my husband has banned me from speaking during movies). I reverse engineered everything until I understood antagonists from every angle possible.

When most of us start out as baby writers, we only think of antagonists as villains. Buffalo Bill. Easy. But what if we don’t want to write about serial killers? And even if we DO want to write about serial killers, we can’t put the killer in every scene. A villain alone isn’t enough.

Don't make me toss you in my well....

Don’t make me toss you in my well….

High body count is still, as Les Edgerton would put it, a bad situation not conflict. Car chases and gun battles are not dramatic tension and can quickly become tedious in movies and books.

As I began to speak at more and more conferences, I saw how far-reaching this problem was. When I’d ask a writer to give me her pitch, I’d get something like this:

Well, it’s about a girl who is half-fairy and in high school, but she doesn’t know she has magic and, wait. Let me back up… Her mom fell in love with a vampire but then her mom had an affair with an evil fae and now their kingdom is in ruin because of werewolves and my character needs to find herself. She keeps having these dreams and there are these journals left by her aunt who was only 1/8 fae….

Kill…me…now *looks for closest wine bar*.

I started to realize what I had done to poor Bob (and I sent a letter of apology and a thank you for not slapping me). But it showed me something critical. Most new writers are backing into the story the wrong way.

With no clear antagonist, it is impossible to know the core story problem in need of resolution by Act Three. It’s impossible to plot (even good pantsers still have to know the story problem). It’s impossible to generate dramatic tension and what we are left with is melodrama….and a great way of getting STUCK at 30,000 words and wanting to kill ourselves and give up being novelists.

As an editor I knew when these elements were missing, but couldn’t articulate my instincts. I had to train and study and read until I got it.

Looking back at all those-half-finished novels, I now know how to fix them because I know what was missing to begin with. The novel I’m revising right now (that I easily finished) is actually one of those works that made it to 40,000 words then *insert sounds of squealing breaks here*.

The antagonist is the beating heart of the story. He/She/It creates the crisis and the crucible that forces our protagonist to become a hero. If we don’t know the endgame, we have no idea how to insert roadblocks, create misdirection, setbacks, or drama. So if you keep getting stuck? It might not be you are lazy or fearful (I wasn’t either). It might be your foundation (the antagonist/core story problem) either isn’t there or it’s weak and unable to support the bulk of 65-100,000 words.

I am offering an on-line class on antagonists next Friday. Use the code WANA15 for 15% off, and the class is recorded if you can’t make the actual window. But, if you want other resources you can read on your own (check out of the library), some great references are:

Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell

Hooked by Les Edgerton

Bullies, Bastards and Bitches by Jessica Morrell

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout PhD

The DSM-V (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition)

Anatomy of Motive by John Douglas, the father of modern profiling

Take one of Bob Mayer’s workshops or Les Edgerton or even James Scott Bell. They are fabulous teachers.

Yet, if you are stuck, take heart. You might not be lazy or scared, you might just need some foundation repair :D. Good news is most stories can be fixed, just might take a lot of elbow grease. Yet, once you are finally headed in the right direction? That’s when the magic can happen.

What are your thoughts? What other books would you add to my list? Have you gotten stuck?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of July, 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. 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 novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.

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121 Comments

Brave New Publishing & Attack of the Feral Plot Bunnies

That rabbit is DYNAMITE!

It’s a Brave New World of Publishing out there. We’re no longer locked into only one path to becoming a professional writer. Yet,  despite all the shinies and tools and gadgets, there are core fundamentals that will remain unchanged.

Humans LOVE a good story. One of the reasons I worked so hard to put together a simple plan for author branding is the writing needs to be paramount. Most writers, no matter which path they choose, do not see success on the first book. A standard tipping point is book THREE.

Many of you are hearing stories of writers-gone-indie who are making a really good living. Most of these authors are comprised of two types of writers:

a) Authors with extensive backlists.

They worked their tails off for years and years and wrote A LOT of books and got the rights back to those old titles. Time didn’t change the fact that these were still really good stories. But, reality dictates that B&N can only shelve so many books. 

But note, these authors already put in YEARS of sweat-equity. They are reaping NEW harvest from older works.

b) Authors who work hard and write their tails off and write A LOT of books.

Indie authors Amanda Hocking, John Locke, Aaron Patterson, etc. didn’t see success with Book One. They wrote their tails off and built up a tremendous amount of potential energy. Thus, when word-of-mouth ignited? These authors enjoyed the benefits of compounded sales. They didn’t write ONE book and then beat others to death marketing it.

How To Be Successful in the New Paradigm

Regardless which publishing path you choose, writers have to learn to write good books at a professional pace. Yes, sure it took six years to write that first book, but what if NY loves it and hands you a three-book deal? Are they going to give you 18 years to complete your obligation?

Without certain fundamental skills, it’s easy to get lost in a labyrinth of plot bunnies…bunnies that, over time, turn feral. Plot bunnies, like real bunnies, multiply like CRAZY if left untended.

Our stories can get so complicated we need a team of sherpas and a GPS to locate our original idea. This wastes time and makes it hard to keep writing more books. Thus, to combat this, writers must:

Learn to Develop a Bad Situation into a Solid Core Story Problem

The best way to combat feral plot bunnies is to truly understand the antagonist. What are the different types of antagonists? How do we use them to generate page-turning tension and thus keep the bunnies at bay?

Most new writers don’t properly understand the antagonist, yet the antagonist is the reason for the story problem which must be solved by Act III. If the core is weak, the rest of the story will be flawed. I watch writers rework the same book year after year after year and yet, I can tell in five minutes what the problem is.

No core antagonist. No clear story problem. Ripe breeding ground for plot bunnies.

This is why a lot of writers want to throw up in their shoes when faced with having to pitch an agent.

Lack of a core story problem makes it impossible to generate true dramatic tension, thus what we are left with is drama’s inbred cousin, melodrama.

Plot bunnies LOVE melodrama.

Problem is, we aren’t taught to write commercial fiction in school and so we have options:

  • Read a bazillion books. Read so much story structure is practically embedded in our DNA.
  • Read a bazillion books then write a bazillion books (most of them bad) and then finally write enough books we stop sucking.
  • Read a lot, write a lot, read craft books and get some training in commercial fiction.
  • Read a lot, write a lot, read craft books, break apart movies, go to conferences/critique groups and get some training in how to write good fiction

Notice there aren’t a lot of shortcuts. I was bummed too.

Most of us begin a book with a fuzzy idea, a scene and then we take off writing (Hey, I did it, too). Okay, but I want to make you aware that the story problem must be proportionate to the size of the work. Sometimes we do have a story problem, but it just isn’t strong enough to be a foundation for an entire novel. We have to get good at learning to:

  • Formulate interesting story problems.
  • Develop the core problem until it is strong enough to support a novel.
  • Make sure the problem is clear and actionable.
  • Learn to layer the problem to sustain dramatic tension.

When you get good at spotting good ideas and then developing that idea into something that can make an interesting novel, your writing will be leaner, meaner and faster. You will be able to write multiple books because you won’t be duct-taped in Act II by a hoard of rabid plot bunnies.

To help you guys, I am offering a class to train you to understand the antagonist and create solid plot problems quickly and easily.  As a gift to you, I am offering a 15% discount Wana15. Class is July 23 and in our WANA International Digital Classroom. I know it took me years and a lot of pain, heartache and cookie dough to grasp the concepts I will be teaching in this class.

Regardless the publishing path we choose, we need to be experts at our craft. My goal and WANA’s goal is to give you what you need to be successful.

So, are you being held hostage by feral plot bunnies? Are you stuck? Can’t seem to make it past a certain point in your novel? Is your work getting rejected and you’re unsure how to change it to make it work?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of July, 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. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. 

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Right now, I am flattened with a cold or flu or something that just makes me want to crawl off into a dark place and die, so I will announce last month’s winners sometime this week.

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 July I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

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41 Comments

The Key Ingredient for Dramatic Tension–Understanding the Antagonist

Today I wanted to take some time to talk about the antagonist. Why? Well, not only is the antagonist THE most important character, but he is the most misunderstood as well. In fact, that is part of the reason I am teaching a class about understanding the antagonist at the DFW Writers Workshop Conference this next month. I hope you guys will sign up ASAP. This conference has a history of selling out. It is a FABULOUS conference and the keynote this year is a dear friend of mine, NYTBSA James Rollins. Not only is Jim an amazing author, but he is probably one of the finest people I’ve ever met.

But back to the antagonist…

Whenever I blog about the antagonist, I generally get one of the following:

“Well, my character is the antagonist. She is her own worst enemy.”

“What if my antagonist is nature?”

“But my antagonist is a belief system.”

Most of the time, comments like these are a red flag to me that the writer doesn’t truly understand the role of the story antagonist, or what I like to call the Big Boss Troublemaker. And this is okay, because I believe the antagonist is not only the most vital role, but it is also the most difficult to understand.

He is His Own Worst Enemy

Just to be clear, virtually all protagonists, at the beginning of the story are their own worst enemies. That is called character arc. If properly plotted, all protagonists would fail if pitted against the story antagonist in Act One.

Luke would never have bested Darth if the showdown would have happened on Tattoine, minutes after his aunt and uncle were murdered. Luke was his own worst enemy. He was angry, grieving, reckless and untrained. If a protag starts out with his act together, then this is called boring fiction. The protagonist needs room to grow into the hero.  It is the growth that makes great stories.

The Engine of the Story

Conflict is the core ingredient to fiction, even literary fiction. Conflict in any novel can have many faces and often you will hear this referred to as the antagonist. The antagonist is absolutely essential for fiction. He/she/it is the engine of your story. No engine, and no forward momentum. Like cars, plots need momentum or they are dead.

The antagonist provides the energy to move the story forward. Antagonists generate genuine drama. No antagonist, and we get the crazy, unpredictable cousin of drama known as melodrama.

Yet, the antagonist has many, many faces and that is what trips up most new writers.

Not All Antagonists are Villains

Think of your antagonist like ice cream–infinite colors, flavors, and complexities. The antagonist is not always evil. Villains are only a flavor of antagonist, much like chocolate is only one flavor of ice cream. And, even in chocolate, there are still limitless varieties. Guess what? Same with villains. We’ll talk about them later.

Today we are going to talk about the two primary types of antagonists. There is the scene antagonist and there is the overall story antagonist, or what I like to call The Big Boss Troublemaker (BBT). Why? Because the term antagonist confused the hell out of me for years, so I decided to make things simple.

The Scene Antagonist

The scene antagonist is fairly simple. In every scene there needs to be a character that offers some form of opposition. Think of your novel as a machine. Each character is a cog that moves the machine and creates momentum. How do cogs move? Another cog must move the opposite direction. A cog with no opposition is a spinning, useless part incapable of providing any forward momentum.

If we are trapped in a theme park that has been overrun by dinosaurs, some member of the party will want to fight and some will want to flee and likely everyone will argue about the precise way to fight or flee.

There will always be a character who wants something different than the protagonist. Whatever this character wants stands in the way of the protagonist’s goal. Each scene goal is like a subgoal to solving the overall story problem. Thus, when the protag is kept from completing subgoals, the overall goal is, by extension, in jeopardy. This jeopardy is what makes readers tense.

Why is this important?

When editing, we must make sure we can look at every scene and say what the goal of that scene is. Then, ask ourselves, “Who is standing in the way?” Characters thinking and pondering does not a scene make. That is called a sequel. To learn more about scene and sequel, I highly recommend Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure. 

One bad situation after another is not conflict. It is wash, rinse, repeat. This is the stuff of bad action movies, not great page-turning fiction.

The scene antagonist is vital, but the most important type of antagonist is what I like to call the BBT—-or, Big Boss Troublemaker. For long-time followers of this blog, we have talked about the BBT before. So this will be a refresher. We never get so good that we can’t use a dose of the basics.

As we’d already discussed, every scene in your book should have an antagonist, but no BBT and you have no story. Your opposition is the most important ingredient for a great story readers will love.

Introducing the Big Boss Troublemaker

The Big Boss Troublemaker is whoever or whatever causes the protagonist’s world to turn upside down. The BBT creates the overall story problem that must be solved by the end of Act III. This is also who or what must be present at the Big Boss Battle. 

In Finding Nemo, the Big Boss Troublemaker was Darla the Fish-Killer. Though we only see Darla a few minutes out of the entire movie, it is her agenda that creates the problem. If Darla wanted a kitten for her birthday, little Nemo would have been safe at home. It is also Darla’s propensity to kill her fish that creates the ticking clock in the race to save Nemo.

The Stronger Your BBT, the Better

In the beginning, your protagonist should be weak. If pitted against the BBT, your protag would be toast…or actually more like jelly that you smear across the toast.

One of the biggest problems I have with new writers is they shy away from conflict. New writers tend to water down the opposition. This is natural. As humans, we really don’t like a lot of conflict…unless you happen to be a regular on the Jerry Springer Show.

It is natural to not like conflict, but good fiction is the path of greatest resistance. The bigger the problem, the better the challenge and thus the greater the hero. When we begin our story, the best stories are when we look at the opposition and ask, “How can the protag ever defeat this thing?’

A fantastic example of this. Go watch the movie, The Darkest Hour. I spent over 2/3 of the movie wondering how on earth humans would survive, let alone have a fighting chance. This movie was terrifying, not because of a lot of blood and gore, but rather because the opposition was so overwhelming it seemed there was no hope of winning. I’ll warn you that the movie is frightening, so those who dare can check out the trailer here. The trailer alone is enough to show what I’m talking about.

The BBT doesn’t have to be terrifying, but he/she/it must be powerful. Think of Rocky. If his big fight was against the band nerd from three flats down, it would make for a lousy story/movie.

What About When the BBT is Not a Person? 

The Big Boss Troublemaker doesn’t have to be a person. It can be a storm, like in The Perfect Storm or alcoholism, like in 28 Days or an ideology (religious fundamentalism) like in Footloose.

Remember high school literature?

Man against man.

Man against nature.

Man against himself.

Ah, but this is where writers can get into trouble. Just because the BBT is not a person, does not mean the BBT will not work through a person. Humans don’t do so great with existentialism, which is why proxies are often so helpful.

For instance, in the 1984 movie Footloose, religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing is the BBT but religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing is represented by the town’s Bible-thumping minister (who also happens to be the father of the love-interest). Talk about conflict!

We will talk more about this next week.

Okay, well that’s enough for today. Need to stop before your brains all explode and then you have to clean up your keyboard. The antagonist is tough, and hopefully this series will break its complex nature down in to bite-size, manageable pieces.

What are some of your all-time favorite BBTs? What made them so awesome? What are your biggest problems with the antagonist? What do you find confusing? What books or resources helped you? Any recommendations?

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’ve been having technical problems lately and am in the middle of rebuilding my web site. Also, my toddler has had an allergic reaction to something and he is home sick, which is slowing me down.

Thus, I am a tad behind and there were so many comments last week I need a bit more time, so I will announce on Wednesday. Thanks for your patience!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.

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70 Comments

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