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Friday, July 27, 2012

Bad Guys Have More Fun: How to Write Realistic Antagonists, From John Cusick's NJ SCBWI Workshop

Bad guys have more fun, says literary agent John Cusick, because they bring more diverse pathways to a story; often there's only one 'right way,' but a myriad of 'wrong ways,' he says. Maybe that's why John, who prefers the titles Mr. C., Professor C, and 'the Doctor,' once asked his dad for a big fur coat so he could dress as Batman's villain Penguin for Halloween.

"There are many ways to be wrong," he says.

The word villain comes from the French word villein, for 'farm hands,' from back when the elite ruling class identified all unseemly behavior--stealing, rape, murder, etc--with the lower class. Over time, of course, the word's unpleasant connotations became its definition, and the association with manual labor faded away, John explained.

Now-a-days, you could classify "villains" into bad guys and antagonists with a Venn diagram. Your 'bad guy' goes in the left circle; he's anyone in the story who does bad, or has bad behavior. The right circle holds the literary term antagonist, who opposes the protagonist or hero.

In class, John used the diagram to demonstrate that often there's overlap between 'bad guys' and antagonists, but they aren't always the same person. Dark Lords fall right in the middle. When Tom Hanks plays a cop against Leo DiCaprio's a thief protagonist in Catch Me If You Can, Tom falls only in the right circle: he's a good guy, but he's the antagonist opposing the protag. Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Carribean generally demonstrates unsavory, bad-guy characteristics--lying, cheating, misusing women--but he's not the antagonist.

John defined the protagonist as the character who moves the plot forward--which would make Darth Vader/Anakin the surprising protagonist of Star Wars. His plots and actions change the galaxy; everyone else just tries to keep him at bay. Voldemort, Harry Potter's antagonist, is the only guy with any initiative in the Harry Potter series, says John. Harry's the focal character, but not the character moving the plot.

John introduced a few other character definitions that can help authors organize their character development. Anti-Heros--like may of Johnny Depp's dark characters--do wrong, but either work with the hero or serve as the primary movers towards good against a greater bad. Dramatic foils serve to highlight aspects of the protagonist. In Spiderman 3, Venom serves as an antagonist dramatic foil to Spiderman, because he does not choose to overcome the symbiont suit, demonstrating Spiderman's strength of character in his own victory over the suit. In Crime and Punishment, each of the prostitute, the priest, and the protag's best friend highlight a different perspective on killing, and the protag must watch and navigate their different rights and wrongs. These other characters--not all antagonists--are his dramatic foils.

While a villain may recognize himself as a villain--as does Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker, who mocks an evil laugh in the gangster meeting in Batman--you want to avoid evil for evil's sake, says John. He quotes, "All truly wicked things start from innocence." In other words, every villain needs an equally strong motivation as your protagonist's motivation.

We brainstormed a list of motivations in class:
Evil for power's sake/greed--like literary agents, says John
Evil for revenge's sake--Captain Hook
Evil for envy/jealousy
Evil for pride
Evil for the sake of advancing an agenda/making the world a better place
Evil for lust's sake
Evil for love's sake
Evil for the sake of being loved

John explained that readers can relate to more powerful motivations. Not many readers have impulses for power or lust for conquering the world, but perhaps they've wanted to be loved. He warned writers not to stop at a scarring origin story as a simple explanation for a villain's evil: "The scarred childhood thing is the foundation of your bad guy house. But it's the successive decisions the character makes that make him a bad guy and get him to be more complex."

John says writers should give the villain a motivation that we agree with--"it's the execution we have a problem with." A husband's love for a wife--a good thing--in Hansel and Gretel, causes him to cross ethical boundaries. A father's love for his children--again, a good thing--might cause him to obsess over their safety until he locks them in a tower forever. In science fiction, curiosity often becomes a villain motivation, as in Jurassic Park. The villain should be sympathetic, and become a villain because they cannot modulate their passion for a good thing to an acceptable limit.

How can we arouse some sympathy?
The reality is that most human beings are sympathetic in some way, so it makes a bad guy more real when you make him more sympathetic. The more human a scary thing is, the scarier it is, says John, because it is frightening and sad. (On the other side of the fear spectrum, of course, we find terrors so dark and alien that we fear them because of the unknown)

Sometimes we arouse sympathy with something as small as a desire to be loved. All you need to do is hint at that a villain wants a hug, and that character gains like six leagues of depth, says John. Insecurity and fear work wonderfully also because we can relate to them. We can't all relate to the desire for power, but when the Silence fights Dr. Who because of fear of his powers, we begin to understand. Childishness and a sense of humor also add sympathy to a bad guy character. An author may choose to work positive details for the villain anywhere in the story. Front-loading might strengthen the villain's appeal, but later revelation of good details might bring powerful surprises.

And once you know all those, says John, you should forget them. They are tropes--clichés. He's seen them 1.2 billion times before, and asks that you don't use them, or use them consciously and twist them.

Here are clichés he hates:
1. Wearing black
2. Scars
3. Well-dressed
4. Foreign accents
5. Smoking
6. Small pets

You're in slightly safer ground with these because of the self-awareness in some bigger sci fi etc.

But do not do this, no joking:
7. cheerleaders/jocks/blondes/hot girls who are just evil/unmotivated bully
Those are just too easy, he says.

In terms of villains over a series, John explained how in the first book of a trilogy, the protagonist will defeat the first villain, but the second book will reveal the bigger, badder, ACTUAL villain BEHIND Villain 1. That gives the author an opportunity to really explore the first villain, and in book three, Villain 1 and the hero can team up because Big Boss just has to go. Star Wars does this well, with Darth Vader in A New Hope, the revelation of Palpatine in The Empire Strikes Back, and Darth Vader's betrayal of Palpatine in Return of the Jedi. However, John sees series becoming less popular market-wise right now. Nevertheless, good trilogies exist, stories with endings that aren't cliff hangers, but "guitar solos to take us out into the next song."

All of these tropes, strategies, and definitions should work for the author like a pose-able doll, says John. The doll means nothing special--just mass-produced plastic--until the author takes it and tilts the head a little. Pose your tropes in unique ways. Write your own story. And use bad guys effectively.

Because, after all, they are more fun that way.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Author Interview with T.Z. Wallace, and I am Batman's Best Friend

Two great things happened to me today: one, I had an incredibly realistic dream where I took down the Joker, and two, I got this author interview back from Ms. T.Z. Wallace. You can now call me Robin, or Nightwing if you wish, and then to quench your jealousy about my apprenticeship to Batman, you can read about Ms. Wallace. One of my favorite things about trying to become "a real writer" has been meeting all the other "real writers" out there who have glorious stories of their own to tell--that's one of my favorite things about writing conferences, actually--and Ms. Wallace is no exception! Ms. Wallace put an incredibly popular first 250 words up on Miss Snark's First Victim just a few months ago--you should check out her excerpt here, on her blog. I'm really looking forward to see what she does in the next few years. But here she is, for herself:

Petre Pan: What is the most important sound in the world--if you had to sum up the entire world in one sound, what would that sound be?   
T.Z.: The sound of the word “mom.”  That sound encompasses childlike innocence and uncertainty and fear and hope and desperation and promise.  It is the sound that calls to me in the night and rouses me from the warmth and safety of my bed.  It is the sound that calls forth everything fearless and primal in me.

Petre Pan: What sound would describe your writing style?  
 T.Z.: The sound, “Ahh!”  I try to craft my stories so that the readers get to piece things together and have moments of discovery and excitement.  Things that may have initially seemed unimportant may have a larger meaning; I love the idea of readers scrutinizing words and phrases, places and things to try to determine whether they serve a greater purpose in the story.  I have read books like that…where I was “rewarded” for remembering a detail, some minutia, and I always felt like the author and I shared a secret.  I love that feeling and I want to give that to my readers.

Petre Pan: What word do you overuse when you write?   
T.Z.: Said.  A lot of my work is character and dialogue driven.  They are a chatty bunch.  For a while I tried to find various words to substitute, but it feels less authentic and was distracting. 

Petre Pan: What's the most challenging part of the writing process for you?   
T.Z.: Definitely finding TIME for writing.  Or, rather, finding time for what I want to be writing.  I write at my day job, and I write to pay the bills, and then there is the work of my heart…my novel and short stories.  Too often these things I most long to write are the very things that I neglect.  But I am getting paid to write these other things, so I can’t complain.  I am, however, hoping to rearrange things a bit so that I can free up more time for the stories I really want to tell.

Petre Pan: What's the hardest disappointment you've ever experienced in your writing/publishing journey? 
 T.Z: I am still relatively early in the journey, so I haven’t had any crushing experiences yet (oh, but give me time!).  I think that mostly I disappoint myself by not doing more. 

Petre Pan: What's the greatest achievement/happiest high you've reached on your writing journey?  
 T.Z.: I have a lot of little victories with my writing.  Like when I reread something that I wrote and I get goose-bumps and think, “Geez!  Did I write that?”  or when I surpass my word count for the day, or when I stumble upon a phrase or event or detail that wraps up some plot point perfectly.

Petre Pan: What do you do outside of writing? 
 T.Z.: I love to read (duh!), and I like to garden, and I taught myself to knit (I am pathetic really, and only know two stitches, but it makes me happy).  I also have a glaring of cats (apparently a bunch of cats can also be called a “clowder,” but that doesn’t sound arrogant enough for my felines, so I am sticking with a “glaring”).  Stray cats tend to find me and stick around.  I am the crazy cat lady you heard about as a child.  I also love to cook.  For me, October through February is “High Baking Season,” and I am never happier than having a rainy or snowy day where I can put something in the oven to bake, peck away at a story on the laptop, and pad around the warm house in my wool socks drinking hot tea. 

Petre Pan: What's the best writing advice you've received (that you remember)? 
 T.Z.: My grandma once told me “Don’t dally about, just put pen to paper and get on with it.”  I guess that is as straight forward as it gets, and it has served me well.  If I talk about it too much I get nothing done.  If I over-think it I get bogged down.  Best for me to just write and sort it out later.

Petre Pan: When did you start writing fiction, and why?
T.Z.: I have always written stories down and tucked them away.  I was a latch-key kid in elementary school, and I remember long summers (before cable and internet) when there were only three or four channels and they were all showing re-runs.  So I read.  But sometimes the characters didn’t do what I thought they should and I found it rather annoying.  Then I discovered that if I wrote the stories that I could control what happened.  (Or so I thought.  I have since learned that my characters tend to do as they wish and I just try to keep up with them and write it all down!)  But that is when I started writing.  I wrote a lot. 

  Petre Pan: What do you write? 
 T.Z.: I tend to gravitate toward mystery, dystopian, and horror.  I guess I am fascinated by the darker aspects of a story.  I have a bit of a…ahem…Southern Gothic family history, and it makes me smirk a bit when I try to write warm fuzzy stories--it all feels so contrived to me.  

So there you have it! Go check her out! Over here! There! Look!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Guest Blog! On World-Building in Fantasy


My, my, my! My writing´s on hiatus while I give out OTC medicines and learn my beloved guarani language in Paraguay, but igual no mas I attended a wonderful conference in June that left me with some great advice. Here´s a taste of what I learned from Christine Norris, published fantasy author (the rest is on her blog):

We´ve all read agent bios with that one super-vague line: “I´m looking for writers who transport me into other worlds,” or something to that effect. How, we ask, and what does that even mean? According to Christine Norris, we have to balance between Tolkein-esque info-dumping and naked mental terrains. The reader does not want 20 pages about the history of your Smurflings, and often authors invent much more than the story needs—“Please, for the love of Pete,” she says,“Don´t try to cram it all in.” On the other hand, rich details make the whole story, whether in a real or imaginary universe setting, more believable to the reader.

We can classify fiction worlds into five types, with six components. The first type involves high fantasy, or a whole new world, as in Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars. The second type adds on to the real world in which we live. Harry Potter is a good example of this. We can also predict the future, as in Hunger Games or 1984, or we can do the opposite: we can re-interpret the actual past events with alternative history, as in the Bartameus Trilogy, or recreate an entire historic period in a fantasy style, as with steam punk stories. With the last two options, says Christine, world-building is called research. With any world, we need to have some understanding of geography, history, economics, politics, religions and culture, and technological odds and ends. Christine provided us with a few questions to consider and a few hints and details to flesh out in each category. 

What kind of questions? Read the rest of the post here!  http://kathytemean.wordpress.com/2012/07/02/world-building-fantasy/