“Oh I don’t know where it is, Jane. You put the body there last time.”
Challenge: Tell a story in one short dialogue chunkette.
“Oh I don’t know where it is, Jane. You put the body there last time.”
Challenge: Tell a story in one short dialogue chunkette.
Villains are fun, or they should be. Even if they make us physically ill there is entertainment from loathing their very existence. So why is it so many villains end up cackling mustache twirlers? The answer is the same as why so many protagonists end up reading the same as others, writing a role and not a person.
As I was typing this up I almost wrote that the mistake was making characters evil for the hell of it, but I realized that has never been a problem. A well written villain can just enjoy being wicked or flat out evil just like a protagonist can enjoy being good for compassion’s sake. Some of my favorite villains have been those who are just quite simply evil. In my opinion one way to make these characters work is by giving them the illusion of having other motives and complexities. Another way is by making the villains motives unknown until the protagonist gets to ask. I don’t remember what show this was, but years ago I remember this exchange between a protagonist who’d just been captured and the villain of the show. The hero basically asked why, and ,without a single laugh or any other stereotypical sign of insanity or wickedness, the villain just said “Because its fun for me.” That moment always stuck with me.
The reason that stuck with me is because so often villains are just evil to fill the role of being evil without ever convincing you that they are the villain for a reason. Often there are mitigating forces writers mistake for backstory such as insanity, which is borderline offensive in most cases, or not being loved. But those traits and a thousand others don’t automatically make a villain complex. Those traits like any plot element become cliches when you fail to understand how to use and portray them well.
Why do people love Loki from the Marvel films?
Putting aside Tom Hiddleston’s acting(And face) Thor begins by showing Loki as an outsider not because of who he is, but because he is a methodical intellectual more than a traditional fighter. He is constantly compared to his brother who is more traditionally handsome, more of a warrior, and the first born. Thor is arrogant, but light in all places where Loki is dark. Thor’s arrogance came from entitlement, while Loki’s arrogance came from his actually being smarter. Loki’s most complex relationship comes from a father, Odin, who is moderately detached, set in his ways, and quicker with punishment than with a kind word. The great irony of their interactions is Odin, in trying to bring out the best in his sons, often brings out the worst…and the funny part is Loki’s worst parts are in many ways the parts that make him most like Odin. Does he hate Thor? Does he hate Odin? Yes…and no. He is a man who would gladly kill them both…and we constantly get glimpses that despite that he still loves them…and hates that. He is in conflict with his actions, wants, and feelings which are shown to be somewhat justified. All of these things make Loki a complex character and a protagonist in his own head.
When you watch him these things aren’t just thrown out to the audience. The complexities of his character play out in how the characters move, how they respond to traumatic events, and what brings them together just as much as what pulls them apart. Loki doesn’t spend all his screen time being the caricature his comic book persona really is(trust me on that). Loki isn’t just a villain, but a whole present person in a world where he chooses to antagonize the common good. Those traits are elevated because Loki doesn’t just act like a boring villain whose one purpose in life is to be in Thor’s way. He has his own goals…and Thor is just the one in the way.
Our villains can be simple, but that doesn’t stop them or their motivations from being complex. Another example? Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. He is a complete bastard who gets away with everything because he is a “man’s man” with good looks and supposedly little fear. Why does he fascinate people beyond his inflated sense of ego? Gaston thinks he is doing everything right. Everyone thinks he is. Belle is the problem, not him. In his eyes she should be fawning over him because that’s how it should be. His entire view of the world isn’t just based on him, but on a value system of how everyone should and should not be. In his mind every passive aggressive “compliment” at Belle is legitimate help, and he is doing her a favor by even speaking to her at all. Why be smart, he wonders, when you are a woman…and a beautiful woman.
I love the picture below because it captures everything about him and how he sees himself in an image. You understand him the moment he comes on screen because the moment he strikes that pose you learn everything. He is arrogant, self-absorbed, and superficial. Oh and a jackass. But the movie takes the time to situate him and those traits in his world. It’s not just him, but the whole village who is superficial because they all hold the same values. He is just the embodiment of every wrongly held value of that village. He is still a person with insecurities that make him lose all of his senses. Insecurities he probably never knew he had. He isn’t like the wicked step-mother from Cinderella who just is evil. Side note: the film Ever After does an amazing job of conveying why she is so cruel. Gaston is a product of toxic masculinity, of hubris left unfiltered, and of a world where pretty things become trophies even if they aren’t things at all.
Some of you may be wondering what is the solid difference between a villain having traits of substance and not. I said earlier I hate when insanity is used to justify a character’s evil actions. I am an advocate for mental health, but I will tell you that I still disagree with people who say mental illness should never be a part of a character who is evil. The problem with mental illness is that it is just glued on. All traits tend to be exaggerated in fiction, but mental illness is exaggerated to the point of mockery without any nuance. The villains run around talking to themselves doing crazy looking things because crazy. That’s just fucking lazy. It’s poor writing. It’s a cliche. And it sure as hell ain’t your average mental illness. There is a way to craft a character with mental illness as an aggravating factor to their actions. The trait has to be there not as an excuse, but as part of the character. No mentally ill person is defined by just being mentally ill. The problem too is plenty of mentally ill people are perfectly regular members of society, but we rarely see that portrayed. Instead we get a lot of mustache twirling justified because…evil.
When you are creating your villains don’t ever say “Ok here is the villain” because you should be creating a person with goals, dreams, and insecurities. Unless you intend it to be so don’t make your characters just be empty roles with traits glued on. Make those traits have real weight. Portray them as being individuals who are no less fully realized than your main character. It may take some time, but your story will be all the better for it. My dearest hope is people will take my advice, and I will never have to see a shitty villain again. That won’t be the case, but a girl can dream.
It may sound traitorous,
But I don’t want to be in love today.
Want just me and myself to sail away.
To feel the breeze instead of on my knees,
To be apart except for in the heart,
To be like one yet spread apart,
Even when I love it…there are storms.
Even when I’m with you I’m always torn,
I’m a loner whose living unnaturally,
I’d give it up,
Because I love you naturally.
But with that said
I don’t want to be your love today.
Just pack my things and run away,
And it is nothing that you’ve done
But I’d like to be just me originally,
Alone like a person,
Even though I’m half a person without you.
Somehow it seems the best thing to do.
You’re not like me.
No you’re desperately in love,
In a way I cannot be,
Because I like to be alone with me,
Does that change a thing?
When I sing my songs about you?
When I only want to dance with you?
If so what shall I do?
Don’t tell me I’m not a lover,
If everything isn’t about him,
I love and I do miss him,
But I miss me myself alone too,
So the wisest thing to do,
Is temporarily to try to be,
Alone with me.
*Poetry for an introverted lover.
One little way to help you pace the flow of your story is to make a musical playlist. Obviously this doesn’t work for everyone, but this is for those of us who can benefit from this nifty little tool. Pacing a story or a longer chapter it can be very difficult to know how smoothly emotions move from moment to moment. I’ve always used music with different beats of my story, but recently I’ve expanded it to whole sections of my stories. Whether you’re writing a sex scene or the climax (no pun intended) of a fight the emotional movements from one beat to another should function like the movements of a good piece of music. Whether you’re writing jazz or an opera you gotta get that flow. A playlist can really help you shape your story.
Individual stories tend to have a sound. One story of mine is very old school sounds. New artists like Audra Day, Adele, Lana Del Ray are paired with Eartha Kitt and Nina Simone because their sounds are soulful enough to carry the scenes. The music fits with the atmosphere I have created and want to enhance in the editing process, as well. For individual moments I assign a song, so a scene may have a particular vibe that fits “Young and Beautiful” or “My Baby Just Cares for Me”. And often you’ll find these songs are just ones that fit when you really listen. You’ll be driving in the car or washing dishes and the song comes on the radio. Once you have the songs you need put them on a playlist. I use two services for this…youtube and soundcloud, but there are a hundred music services and playlist makers available. If you’re using music already available I recommend MusicBee. You just put in a CD or a USB with your music and upload.
Like scoring a motion picture or a musical the playlist should fit the tone of the overall story. So the songs work together, and then they work for individual moments. Read the central moments of your story with the playlist. You can replay songs for longer moments, but listen for the flow of emotions, of tone, and to make sure the feeling of the scene fits your intent. This little trick can keep your story crisp and constantly moving. Story structure is damned hard, but any little tip helps. Why not let it be a fun one?
In text of zeroes and ones,
He professes desire to me,
Across a screen brighter,
Than the fires of hell,
He plots to tempt me,
Because he saw my face by chance,
After months of radio silence,
And his heart, for a second, skipped a beat,
Across a thousand wires and wavelengths,
Lust in the modern age,
Like the fruits that burst red and juicy,
On Persephone’s tongue,
“Lure me” or perhaps she said,
“Lure me?” or perhaps she said,
“Lure me!” but we’ll never quite know.
Perhaps she doesn’t quite know,
But it Flows.
But it Follows.
But does it Grow?
But across some far off distance,
Or closer than I hoped,
I became an object of desire,
He plots, leaving the door open,
Lure me or lure me or lure me.
Across clicks and churns and,
Chuggings of hard drive,
By chance he saw me, and I?
You never know what you do wrong until someone tells you, or until you do it. That is just how a lot of writing works. Even with critique groups you’re left pulling things apart yourself to figure things out.The broadest question is How to Write? and from there we get How Do I Become A Better Writer (#writelife #writerwednesdays) There’s a reason for that. Writing is a skill that is intuitive and learned, one of possessing talent and crafting skill, one of cultivating your best traits and minimizing your worst. It is easier said than done at almost every possible level. So it pays to spend more time figuring out your weaknesses especially for beginning writers and writers who have primarily written their craft for themselves. Doing the introspection, self-reflection, and criticizing yourself isn’t easy. You have to step away from your work for months if not years to even see how much you have or have not improved. But no matter what we can and must pick apart our writing somehow.
For the last few months I’ve been working on a novel, and truthfully something about it has felt off the whole time. I love the story. I love the characters. I love the central conflict. However something has constantly seemed off. So today I pulled out my book on writing guide: “Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft” (The international edition) by Jane Burroway. I sat down at my desk and began to go through the book. I knew what worked so I stayed away from the chapters on characterization and focused on the other chapters. I reread old notes in the margins, and began highlighting chapters as I reread them. Why? Well the book is pretty damn great for giving you plenty of comparative examples of what to do and what not to do from both published and purely example based writing. It doesn’t speak in absolutes, but pulls from dozens of writers and pieces to give you a concise break down of how to write well, how to write compelling stories, and how to convey theme without sacrificing anything. And I went to the section on filtering.
Yes, I the “show don’t tell” critique queen, have a drastic problem with filtering. Filtering is between showing and telling. For example “She looked out the window and she saw him standing outside her building”, when for the whole paragraph we’ve been in her head so “Outside her window he stood on the stoop of her building, waiting”. Instead of relying on the reader to be smart and follow along; instead of allowing for direct action I present the filters like “seemed”(been using that one alot) “saw”. I don’t just show you what the character sees and that’s a problem. Honestly that is probably why I do it with others. Subconsciously I do know I have a deep struggle with using filters instead of conveying direct action. Why? Honestly it’s a natural inclination, but its also it is the result of careless readers in critique groups. You gotta pick them well people. I spent an hour or two reading the book again, carefully searching for my answer and now that I have it I’m taking action not just by editing, but by rewriting what I’m editing so it is more present, more in the moment, and direct.
It’s hard to be direct as a writer just like it is hard to confront our problem areas directly. I was very lucky that I picked up that book and managed to follow my instincts into what was plaguing me. I didn’t just fall on the page, but I’ve lived with my writer self for long enough to seek out my faults. Why? Because I was in those critique circles to begin with. As much as I did get some perhaps misinterpreted advice in regards to how to clarify who is what and what is in whose view I did get advice. Solid advice and reactions that allowed me to see where I could improve as a writer. Some people really are able to identify those things on there own, but even still other’s input allows you to see how others read. You need that feedback (and you also need to give feedback too because it does make you a better writer, but that’s another subject).
So what’s my point?
Take time to understand your weaknesses, and don’t be afraid to seek them out. Sometimes a writer can be positively wrong about something in their piece. We think the best part is the worst, we think the most nonsensical section is clear as day, and we even second guess out instincts. The only chance you get to know those weaknesses and address them is by digging deep and figuring them out. Get books on craft and read them. Join critique groups. And don’t be afraid to reread your pieces. Most importantly…don’t be afraid to edit. Sometimes out weaknesses are charming and add a particular character. Hell sometimes our weaknesses are so out shined by the good they don’t matter. But no matter what you owe it to yourself to take time to better understand them.
Do you want to know more about filtering? Do you want to know more about my erotica and romance writing? Ask me below, or just share you thoughts on knowing your weaknesses whether in writing or in life. I have plenty of advice both about writing and about life on this blog, and I think so far I’ve shared one thing…for writers both are deeply connected. We gain a lot by talking and exchanging. So go fill up that comment box!
How do you edit the first chapter of your story is a question every fiction writer asks, and it is a question I’ve done my share of struggling with. However I think I’ve found the most important bit of advice when dealing with the beginnings of any story, and even any non-fiction piece. Whether you’re doing chapter one or the opening paragraph of an essay, you are doing a fine balancing act. You have to give as much information as possible to the reader without overwhelming them, but also ensuring they’re following along with everything you say. The opening of your story, regardless of genre, will sink or swim your novel. While I don’t claim to have perfected the opener, I do claim to have worked at working around and through common mistakes authors are prone to make. And so I’m going to offer the best advice I’ve ever heard for editing chapter one of a novel, advice I was reminded of by the lovely Stephanie London via her youtube channel.
When you’re writing you feel the pressure to get everything just so because you want to be clear about who, what, where, and why. However, the dangers of exposition are many. Since I’ve been an active member of scribophile I can tell you that I’ve seen my share of wonderful tales bogged down by the exposition fairy. That little butthole flew through the window and just refused to leave from the moment the story began. The exposition fairy encourages telling not showing and harkens back to the way we most naturally tell stories, orally. But away from the oral tradition you have to put people in the story. You have to give them a front row seat, and if the exposition fairy is guiding your hand at every other paragraph, or god forbid every other sentence, the reader will be stuck in the back of the theater.
So how do we deal with this?
Well, truthfully it will always be tempting to have it happen unless you are a minimalist story teller. Fans of grand epics and sprawling worlds fall prey to the exposition fairy most of all, but everyone can be a target. To that end, you have to write smart. BE vigilante of your own bad writing behaviors, and then keep writing. MAke notes, and even make minor changes but don’t edit constantly while your writing unless you truly benefit from it or it has to happen. Then once your opening is written you have to do this one super important thing. This is the thing that will make all the difference in the world….
Reread and highlight. Whether you print it out or do it digitally, go through and highlight everything that is only there for exposition. What lines only serve to explain what isn’t shown? You may wish to use different colors for exposition related to different characters or events in order to keep track. Sometimes I mark exposition important to the plot with stars or sidebar comments so I know why they’re their and that they matter. If your opening is mostly color coded and coated then chances are you need to tighten that sucker up. You will most likely need to rewrite the whole thing. It isn’t enough to disguise exposition in unnatural dialogue. It isn’t enough to excuse why its there because it is there for a reason. It isn’t enough for it to be there to help your readers understand. If it isn’t furthering your theme, your plot, your characters, and bringing people into your text then it isn’t working. I say to do this because you need to see how much explaining to the reader you’re doing. Seeing it visually becomes a lot harder to justify or overlook. Does this mean all exposition is evil? Not at all, but there are ways to pace exposition and present it that are vastly superior to walls of text that may not enrich the story.
By doing something as simple as highlighting expository text you are increasing your ability to keep the story in action and moving forward, which will keep your audience engaged.