Vanilla Villains: The Antagonist’s Arc

This week’s installment of Wednesday Words has to do with the antagonist, the person or situation that blocks the protagonist’s progress toward his or her goals. One of the accepted truths is that antagonists must be as fully-drawn as the protagonists, and must have their own goals and motivations besides simply being evil. (See blog posts by Mary Jaksch and Janice Hardy that make this point.) This had me worried. In my WIP, there is a hierarchy of antagonists the heroes have to face and defeat:

  • A human who has sold out to work toward evil goals. His motivation is made pretty clear. He sees this as his best chance to survive under the rule of the evil forces.
  • A nonhuman creature that manifests in fairly human guise (though with a slippery, shape-shifting appearance). She is scary and dangerous, but seems to have no goals of her own except to serve the whims of her evil master. The closest she comes to independence is when she points out that some of her master’s actions have made it more difficult to reach some of its other goals.
  • The ultimate evil, which is a magical power that rules without self-restraint, focused only on its own pleasure. This being is faceless and shadowy. The protagonists know of it through rumor and glancing contacts, and don’t actually confront it until the climax of the story.

So here’s my problem. Only one of these antagonists has a real, comprehensible motivation, and he’s the most minor of them. The others are, really, just … evil. They are explicitly incomprehensible, because they are entities from a separate, magical dimension where nothing matters but the wishes of those ultimate beings. We don’t know what they actually are or where they get their power. They don’t care about us except that they use humans to fulfill their basest urges. For instance, they may enslave armies of humans and make them fight against each other in wars or gladiatorial contests just because they like to watch.

Is that enough to make a fully-rounded antagonist? Is that really something I need?

Here’s something that helps give me my confidence back. Lots of very successful stories have antagonists that don’t have goals beyond power for its own sake. For example, there’s Sauron from the Lord of the Rings. He lost his corporeal form when he lost the One Ring, and was finally destroyed entirely when the One Ring was unmade. During the Lord of the Rings story sequence Sauron is a noncorporeal manifestation of power and evil, kind of like my magical enemies. J.R.R. Tolkein was able to pull this off. I don’t have a tenth of his experience, imagination, or talent, but just possibly it’s within my reach to do the same.

Here’s something else. Lots of very successful stories have antagonists that aren’t sentient entities at all. The most famous example of this is Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire, where the unnamed protagonist battles against the unforgiving cold of the Yukon Territory and eventually is overcome by it. A more recent example is Andy Weir’s book that became a Matt Damon film: The Martian. Here the antagonist is the planet Mars. In both these stories the antagonist doesn’t care about the protagonists at all and can’t be said to have a “motivation” in any real sense. Still, they are wonderful stories with strong protagonists we root for. Can I achieve the same thing?

So I’m back to my story with renewed conviction. Yes, an antagonist can be something impartial and implacable, like a planet or the weather. Yes, an antagonist can be focused solely on accumulating power, like a magical demon lord. So with these examples before me, I can focus on why my protagonists are doing to overcome the obstacles before them.

What are your favorite antagonists? Are any of them faceless powers of evil, or impersonal forces to be overcome? Can this kind of antagonist work for you?

Daily Writing Update: As I promised, here’s a report on my pledge to write 10 minutes each day. In the last week I only missed one day. Six out of seven is okay, but I’m determined to get every day this week!

Drawing Characters Like Picasso – the Telling Detail

picasso-dogPicasso did this so well – sketch out an entire character with just a few lines, as he did with this lovable dog. As writer, we want to do the same thing! We want our readers to see our characters as complete, three-dimensional people, but don’t want to spend a lot of tedious description to make this happen. How do we do this?

I’m just a beginner on this path, but there are a few times when I think I’ve gotten it somewhat right. The main thing is to pick one or two details that are specific to just that one person, and put them into the dialogue or into the action of the scene. It’s part of the “show, don’t tell” rule – make the description happen as an action, not just words. We want the detail to do the telling, without actually telling explicitly. Clear, right? Maybe some examples from my work in progress can help.

Naia is what one of my critique partners called a “happy Valkyrie.” She is the primary fighter of the group, wielding a mean sword, but she has a ton of fun doing it. That sentence is description, telling you about her, but that’s not how the information is presented in the story. For instance, here’s what happens just after Naia fought and defeated some really scary other-worldly creatures. Kay, the narrator, is ranting a bit about how she doesn’t understand what’s happening, and she says “There are monsters out back!”

Naia interrupted, “Were monsters.” She tossed the wadded-up paper towel in a bin and celebrated her shot a pumped fist.

In that brief moment, Naia shows that she’s proud of defeating the monsters, that she didn’t find it particularly stressful, and that she’s cheerfully competitive, even about tossing away the paper towel. Not bad for 20 words.

Here’s an example with a minor character, one for whom we never even learn a name. Kay comes across him as he is heading off into the woods directly toward some similar monsters, but he doesn’t know the danger he faces. She tries to stop him, but it doesn’t go well. The young man accuses her of representing the oppressive adult power structure.

“I don’t care what you say.” He tossed his head and the black curtain of hair fell back perfectly over one eye. He’d paid a lot of money for that haircut. “I can’t keep on living like this.”

It was a proud moment for me when a critique partner casually referred to this character as the “emo teen,” because that’s exactly what I had in mind when creating him. I could have describe him that way explicitly, but instead I had him express his attitude in his own words, and in the toss of his head. The expensive haircut, ostentatiously covering one eye, cements the picture of a whiny, over-privileged adolescent who thinks the world is out to get him. Unfortunately, at this moment he’s close to right about that.

One more example. Alex, an important character in the team, is tough and demanding. Kay often thinks of her as acting like a school principal, and this shows in her actions and her speech. There’s one moment early on, though, that’s different, that hints at a whole area of motivation we don’t see otherwise. They try to rescue someone from the monsters but don’t succeed. After the fight is over,

Alex knelt beside the boy I had tried to save. She stroked his face gently, touched the old scar on his hand, bowed her head. Miss Martinet herself, grieving for this small stranger.

We come back to this well-hidden bit of Alex’s psyche later in the story, but for now there’s just this one sentence allowing one small peek. It explains something about why the others stick with Alex despite how prickly she is. There’s no explicit flag here (Look! She really cares about these people!). There are just her actions, for the reader to interpret.

As I work through my revision, I try to watch out for those places where I try to use a big, broad brush to paint a character, telling about them rather than showing them. For instance, just this week I flagged a place where I described a character as “crusty outside but soft inside, like the bread she baked.” This is too direct a description. I need to show her being crusty but soft, and once I show that I won’t need to tell about it. If I’m vigilant, I may be able to find and dig out most of these descriptive slip-ups, and replace all that telling with a telling detail or two.

Man Down!

FadingAway  I seem to have lost a character…

Well, not lost exactly. Laid off. Perhaps to be resurrected in a future work?

This is why you do character arcs! As I went through all the main characters I gradually realized that one of the key ones just didn’t really have that much to do. He was supposed to be the romantic interest, but as he went through the story he mostly just held back out of a kind of glum fear. Not only was he not really contributing much, but I realized I didn’t actually respect him, so how could my main character fall in love with him? Although he did have a crucial role to play in the climax, it really came out of nowhere. So I started asking myself questions.

  • If I were Kay (my main character), who in this cast would I fall for?
  • Why does that other character appeal to Kay? Can I strengthen those characteristics she would find attractive?
  • Does becoming attracted to Kay (and attractive to her as well) conflict in any way with the role this character was originally supposed to play? Can he reasonably, naturally do both?
  • If he were in the situation of the final climax, how would he act? Would it be natural for him to do what my original character was supposed to do?

This then led me to the most important question:

  • If I removed my original character, would it leave a hole that I can’t fill?

And my answer was: No.

After I got my breathing and heart rate under control (restructuring my main characters at this point, just a month out from NaNoWriMo, makes my palms sweat), I realized this will all work out just fine. I’m keeping the name of the original character because I like it (the new one was named–wait for it–Tom!) and it actually fits this other character even better than the poor, hapless original.

So we move forward with only one character arc left to map out, and it’s the main bad guy. Well, kind of the main bad guy; the truly main bad guy is a monolith of dread, too one-dimensional to be a real character. The one left to map is the Big Bad’s captain, the one who does the actual dirty work. I’m going to have fun with her.

How about you? Have you had characters slip through your fingers as you plan your work? How did you deal with it?

Fun with Character Arcs

CharacterArc  A character’s life is never easy.

My next step in my NaNoWriMo prep plan is to get the arcs for all my characters planned out. This is actually one step in Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method that I’m adopting because it’s helping me make sure everything fits together and that every one has a purpose and a role in the story. I’ve decided to work this out for six characters: the romantic interest, the mirror character who shows the error of the main character’s original view of the world, two secondary characters who contribute significantly to the plot, and two antagonists. The main character isn’t in this list because the whole plot has already been constructed around her character arc, so I don’t need to go through this exercise for her.

For each character I am giving the following things (loosely based on what Ingermanson describes in his system:

  • A one-sentence storyline summarizing the entire arc.
  • The character’s motivation (what he/she wants in an abstract internal sense)
  • The character’s goal (the external, plot-related things he/she wants to achieve)
  • The character’s internal conflict (beliefs that prevent him/her from reaching the goal)
  • The external complication (people and situations that block him/her from reaching the goal)
  • The character’s epiphany (what he/she learns through the course of the story that causes a significant change and allow him/her to achieve the goal and resolve the motivation) NOTE: some characters won’t have an epiphany and will not change, but they should have a moment when they can see their options laid out, make the choice not to grow and change, and suffer for that choice. This will highlight the positive change that the main character makes, allowing his/her growth to be more meaningful.
  • A one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline.

I’m supposed to have this all done by tomorrow, but probably won’t. Yesterday was the last day of classes and I’m in crazy end-of-semester grading mode. I won’t be more than a day or two late, though. I expect to be able to catch up with my deadlines after next week, when all the final grades are in and I’m really done. I am SO looking forward to that moment!

How about you–how do you develop your characters? How to you give them stories of their own within your larger story?

Gender Bending

ManWoman  Hey, there, Alex!

As I’ve been drawing up my plans, getting ready to try NaNoWriMo in July, I’ve been struggling with one particular character. I know what role this person plays in the story; as a mirror for the main character, as a balance for some of the action in the story, as an important turning point for my main character at a critical point in the book. But I keep going back and forth on this person’s gender.

When I first met Alex, she was a woman. She was elegant and poised and tough, made so by the struggles she’s faced in her life. This toughness was what pulled together the motley collection of people who form the core of the story. She’s not one of the two or three central characters, but she’s in the second ring. Without her it would definitely not be the same story.

Early on in my NaNo prep I tore my story’s structure apart, fitting it together again more tightly. Along the way I dropped a couple of characters whose functions began to seem redundant, folding some of their traits into other, more central characters. In the process the story became tilted more toward women. The majority of the characters were female (not a problem in itself), and all the male characters were suddenly either enemies or nincompoops. I don’t like stories where women are only allowed demeaning roles, and didn’t want to see that in reverse. So Alex became male. His name changed to Frank (for some reason Alex didn’t have the same gravitas, the same degree of near-pompousness I wanted for this character). He became more of a hearty, good-old-boy type, but still with that core of toughness and leadership needed to pull together the motley crew.

The weird thing is – I couldn’t completely believe in Frank. That person over there, doing that plot-related or character-related thing, persisted in being Alex inside my head. I kept reminding myself that I’d made this change, but it just wouldn’t stick. So I gave up. Alex wouldn’t go away, so there she is, pulling her weight in the story.

This meant another restructuring, and my story got stronger yet again. I pulled one of the male characters that had been mostly window-dressing into the heart of the story. Suddenly I had a romantic story arc, which I hadn’t planned on but which added an emotionally important layer. Some of the roles of some of the central characters shifted aside a little to make room, and everything clicked. Poor Alex; her determination proves too rigid in the end, and things don’t turn out well for her. But she held onto her place in the story by her neatly-manicured fingernails. and I’m glad she did.

I think this is what some people mean when they say that their characters come alive and take over the story. It doesn’t feel that way to me; I’m in charge of my story, not the characters. But if these people don’t have a certain level of reality in my mind, so that I really care about what happens to them, then they never will for my readers. The story of Alex’s attempted gender-morphing will always remind me of that.

Have you ever had a character come alive and take over? Was this a good thing for your story?

Character Questions

QuestionFaces  Who ARE all these people?

Now that I’ve opened my plans for the novel back up, working through it scene by scene, I’m asking myself whether I have the right number of main characters. There are six good guys (plus three bad guys – bad, badder, and baddest). Now I’m asking myself whether I really need all six of them, or whether I can combine and rearrange to have a tighter, more streamlined cast of characters. In a loose, theoretical kind of way, here are the people I have now:

  • The main character, who believes she has proved to be untrustworthy where it counted and therefore she must never again allow anyone to really count on her. She has cut herself off from friends and lover.
  • The love interest, the MC’s ex. She walked out on him years ago for reasons she has never told anyone, and it hurt him deeply. Especially since he needed desperately for her to be there, but never had the chance to tell her. Clearly, rebuilding trust between them is the main emotional arc of the story.
  • Two of the MC’s old friends, women she also lost touch with when she went AWOL. One is trusting and always sees the best in others; the MC would love to be like that, but doesn’t see that it’s possible. The other is kind of a control freak, and represents the extreme of what the MC has become to protect herself and those around her.
  • Two folks who are coupled with the two old friends. One is the man her trusting friend just married. He’s kind and wise, and is a scientist with knowledge that can answer important questions about what happened to the MC and how to solve the plot issues. The other is a women in love with the controlling friend. She is smart and sassy, brave and bold, and the two of them drive each other crazy (one too controlling, one too laid back), but they care completely about each other. These two relationships remind the MC of how committed relationships can work, holding up the standard she’d love to have but doesn’t think she deserves.

Can I combine the two couples into one? Here’s a possible plan:

  • The ex becomes the controlled and controlling one. He’s walled himself off, just as the MC has, in response to the pain she caused. Breaking down both their barriers is the work of the story.
  • The trusting friend is still trusting and open. She’s also the scientist with the secret knowledge.
  • The trusting friend marries the sassy, bold woman (the story is set in New York where such couples can marry – yay!). Their relationship shows the MC how such things can work, and I still get both the bold fighter and the mentor with arcane knowledge.

This plan would give me four good guys to balance the three bad guys (don’t worry, they’re REALLY bad, and this will not come off as a fight the good guys should expect to win).  Now the question is whether this will make the story too spare, without enough people in it to carry the whole tale. Also, whether this will actually work for the plot points I need. Must think more about this, before completely revising things.

What do you think? More the merrier? Or prune the guest list down to the minimum? Any advice here would be great.

Lessons from Rom-Coms

Hearts Hubby and I watched a couple of movies over Valentine’s weekend. They were both, appropriately, rom-coms – romantic comedies – recommended to us by friends. We enjoyed them both as good examples of something light, fun, and sweet to watch while cuddled up with someone you love. But I liked one better than the other, and I think I’ve figured out why. NOTE – there are some spoilers here if you haven’t seen the films, but nothing that should really ruin it for anyone.

First up: Letters to Juliet (2010, Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Egan). Sophie, who wants to be a writer, visits Italy with her fiance. She learns about the tradition of young women writing letters to Juliet (of Shakespeare’s play) for advice, and turns her hand to writing a response to a letter just found that was written 50 years ago. This draws her into an adventure with the original writer who has come back to Italy to find her long-lost love, and the woman’s grandson (Charlie) who thinks this is a bad idea. He comes around, though, and Charlie and Sophie wind up together, as do the two long-lost loves. The message of the movie is that it’s never too late to find love, and once you find it you must never let it go.

Next: Music and Lyrics (2007, Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore). Alex is a relic from an 80s pop band, living on his past as a kind of impersonator of himself. He has the opportunity to write a hit song for a hot young talent, but while he’s great at the music he can’t write lyrics. He stumbles across a young woman (Sophie) who has a brilliant way with words and convinces her to work with him, and they are successful despite her fears and his desperation. Along the way they find romance and also find the courage to be themselves without apology.

Here’s why I liked Music and Lyrics more than Letters to Juliet: because the characters and their relationship felt more real and more trustworthy.

Let’s take the two Sophies. In Letters to Juliet, she is engaged to a chef who is opening his new restaurant in New York City in 6 weeks. They go to Italy because it will be the last chance they have to go on vacation for a long time. He is passionate about food and cooking; she is less so, and winds up feeling left out and ignored as he travels around visiting suppliers and wine auctions. This annoyed me. If someone is about to open a restaurant in New York, where else would his focus be? If she’s so uninterested in food and cooking, why is she engaged to a restaurateur? At the very least, she should have come to peace with their differing passions and have expected them to spend time apart.

In Music and Lyrics, Sophie is timid and self-effacing at the start, because of a bad experience in her past. She spends much of the movie learning to have faith in herself and to be open to taking the risk of trusting others. This is a straightforward need and character arc that is rewarding to watch. At every step her character is acting in a way that is believable for her, and that kept me rooting for her the whole way.

Then there’s the male lead character. Charlie, in Letters to Juliet, is a jerk the first time we meet him. He specifically searched out Sophie for the sole purpose of scolding and insulting her, because her letter sent his grandmother on what he is sure will be a heartbreaking quest. That brow-beating, nasty facet to his personality couldn’t just have evaporated, and I didn’t see any convincing change to his true nature. And how do we know he loves her? He says he does, but we don’t see him do anything that shows this love. Finally, I can’t conjure up any image of the life they might have together. All they’ve shared is his grandmother’s quixotic romantic journey, which is nothing like the real life they will have to go back to.

Alex, in Music and Lyrics, is charming from beginning to end. There’s something sad about him hanging onto his long-past moment of glory, but he is comfortable with himself and never pretends to be something he’s not. From his first interactions with Sophie he is gentle and encouraging. He’s kind first, in love second. He shows his love for her by doing the thing that’s hardest for him: writing lyrics. They also have something they share besides just being in love: they write hit songs together. It’s easy to imagine them living a contented, rewarding life for years to come.

Let me repeat: Both movies are fun. They both do what they set out to do and do it well. I don’t want to discourage anyone from watching either movie. See them. If you like the genre, you’ll like these examples.

For me, for the writing, I take away two important lessons about character and relationships:

  • If I want readers to root for a character, I need to show why, especially at their first appearance. Show whatever it is that makes the character rootable – is he kind, is she smart, is he funny, is she generous? This is what Blake Snyder calls the Save the Cat moment – the hero is first seen getting the cat out of the tree, so we know he’s the hero.
  • If I want a couple to wind up together romantically, I need to show that they are in love and can have a life together after the final curtain. It’s not enough that they say “I love you,” there have to be actions, especially sacrifices, to back it up. And they need to have enough in common for this relationship to hold.

So that’s what I learned this Valentine’s Day about character and about love. Not a bad way to spend a weekend.