Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The antagonist: Hero or villain?

In many stories, the antagonist may even be more important than your main character. Your main character cannot become sympathetic without an opposing force.

The antagonist is more than just a bad guy who tries to stop the good guy. A good antagonist actually pushes the protagonist to action. The bad guy gives the good guy a reason to behave like a good guy. Because he is so important, your antagonist has to be every bit as real, every bit as well-rounded, as the protagonist.

The Antagonist is Evil


 No. The good antagonist is not evil. OK, he could be, but not for the mere sake of being evil. It's fun to write the bad guy who ties maidens to railroad tracks for fun, and throws the hero's One True Love on to the conveyor belt at the saw mill just because he can. The kind of bad guy who spends his time laughing maniacally while he twirls his 'stache. There's one secret, one thing you need to remember, if you want your antagonist to be truly interesting:

The antagonist honestly believes he is the good guy. Everything he does has a reason, and to him, those reasons are Right. They are Correct. They are Good.

Your good guy needs flaws and your antagonist needs positive characteristics. In some stories, the reader might even start to wonder just which character is the good guy and which is the bad guy. Few characters are as dull as the arch-villain who is evil just because being evil is evil. People aren't like that. Even people with a warped sense of reality (another little secret: we all have a warped sense of reality, shaped by our imperfect perceptions), do things for a reason. There are truly evil actions, and your bad guy might do some of them. But we humans have an almost unending supply of rationalizations for what we do.

A Rebel With a Cause

Your antagonist has his own character arc. Give your antagonist a cause. She wants to accomplish something, wants that more than anything else. And, like your protagonist, she is prepared to do what she has to do to achieve it, because that's what people do when something is of ultimate importance. Even a bad guy who wants to do something truly awful, like blow up a stadium full of innocent people, does it because he believes it has to be done to achieve the end result, which he believes to be for the ultimate good.  
  • Sauron thought he was doing Middle Earth a favor by taking dominion.
  • Saruman thought he was doing good by trying to stop the Black Lord and taking the power himself.
  • Darth Vadar probably saw the Jedi as nefarious upstarts who wanted to thwart his plan to make the universe a better place.

A Hero in His Own Mind

The antagonist believes he's the hero. Your protagonist, who stands in his way, is the villain.

We are both nice people. The last cookie is sitting on the counter. You want it. I want it. Boom: conflict! In my story, you are now a villain because you want what I want.


My favorite example of this principle comes from politics. No matter what your political position is, your side is right and the other side is wrong. Maybe even evil. The thing is, the other side looks at you the same way. Why? Because each side believes it is right. If they were allowed to have their way, the world would be a spectacularly better place. It's the same with your hero and villain.  

Which one is the bad guy?

Molly has a new puppy. This puppy is so naughty. When she takes it for walks, it pulls at the leash and tries to go its own way. It doesn't follow Molly's perfectly reasonable rules. When the puppy runs away, Molly is devastated. How could her puppy be so wicked?

But what is the puppy doing, really? It's being true to its own puppiness. It doesn't understand Molly's unnatural rules. All she does is try to to restrain it and she scolds it for simply being what it is. 

Let your reader sympathize with the villain, and understand why he wants what he wants, and maybe even see his point. If your reader can sympathize with both the hero and the villain, the conflict becomes more real, the stakes are raised, and your reader is more engaged.

Read More About It

Monday, November 23, 2015

7 tips for writing fiction even if you think you’re not a writer

When I mention that I write, I often hear responses like:
  • I’d like to write a book but I don’t know where to start.
  • I’d like to write, but I never have any good ideas.
  • I could never be a writer. I’m not creative enough.
There’s nothing wrong with not writing if you’re not going to enjoy it. But if it’s something you’ve always wanted to do, go for it.
1. It only takes one idea.
Ideas are everywhere. Keep your eyes and ears open. Most people who write have folders and notebooks full of ideas, often too many for one lifetime, but you only need one. We find ideas in:
  • Our real life
  • The news
  • The books we read
  • Overheard conversations
  • Travel
The smallest spark can become a story. When you see or hear something, ask yourself “what if?” What if that strange-looking person is really a ghost? What if Macbeth took place on a distant planet sometime in the future? What if those kids talking about their homework at Burger King were actually aliens sent to spy on their school?
2. Practice. Practice. Practice.
You wouldn’t expect to pick up a guitar or sit at a piano for the first time and immediately sound like a master. Writing, like all the arts, requires practice. The more you write, the better you get.
Here are some practice ideas:
  • Look for writing prompts online. Several sites provide them.
  • Write about anything. It doesn’t matter what.
  • Work on one element of writing at a time.
  • Write badly on purpose.
Give yourself permission to suck. Practice means taking baby steps. It means working through frustration. Being bored. Getting impatient. And always improving, even if you don’t notice the change, until one day something clicks.
3. Imitate your favorite writers.
Every writer begins by imitating the writers they like. It doesn’t matter if it borders on plagiarism. When you start, you’re writing for practice, not publication, so copy all you want. Write fan fiction. Copy style. It takes a lot of imitation before you start to develop your own voice.
4. Set reasonable expectations.
Don’t expect your first idea, no matter how excited you are about it, to be the Great American Novel. Start small and think small. Think in terms of a project, a story, or “that little thing I’m writing.” A book is a Big Thing, and it’s easy to intimidate yourself out of finishing, especially when the inevitable Inner Editor kicks in to remind you that you’re not good enough, and just who do you think you are anyway trying to write a book?
Few writers publish their first attempts. It’s incredibly difficult to get published, and we don’t all have what it takes to self-publish successfully. Fantasize about it all you want, but don’t expect it. Not yet.
Don’t expect greatness. Expect to entertain yourself. Expect to have fun. Expect to learn something. Expect it to take a long, long time. Expect to think you suck more than you do. Expect to think you’re even better than you are.
5. Read widely.
You don’t like romance novels? Read one anyway. It might help with a romantic scene you weren’t expecting to write. Read classics. Read current best sellers. Read history and science. Read about words. Read about writing. Read author biographies. Read true crime fiction. Just read.
It’s especially important to read in the genres and age groups you want to write, so you understand the elements of those kinds of stories. But don’t stop there.
You’ll generate ideas. You’ll understand how people work so you can make your characters more realistic. You’ll learn about the ways you never ever want to write.
6. Write.
If you want to write, you have to write. You’d be surprised how many “writers” try to skip this part.
Write for yourself  Write every day. If your life doesn’t allow you to write for an hour, write for fifteen minutes or ten. Give yourself permission to miss a day now and then so you don’t quit when you realize you’ve been so busy that a week has gone by since you last wrote.
7. Set a goal and persist until you reach it. 
Never give up. Start small. Your first goal should be to finish a paragraph, then a scene. Then the next one. Eventually you’ll have a story. Even if it’s no good, you wrote one. The vast majority of people who start writing a story never finish. Probably 95% or more. Finishing that first draft puts you in an elite company of writers. That’s something to be seriously proud of.
Pat yourself on the back. Throw a party. Take a break. Then start revising.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Enneagram: Create Characters Based on Personality Types

Today I’m going to show you how to use personality tests to flesh out the people in your stories. My favorite system for this is the Enneagram.
I’m not a fan of those quizzes in magazines or on websites that claim they can fit me into some narrow category that defines who I am. In general, I don’t trust anything that takes real people and shoves them into tight little cubbies. People are too complicated for that.
When I create fictional characters, however, these things can help me determine my characters’ desires and how they will act in the various situations they’ll face.

Discover how your characters tick

The Enneagram categorizes personalities into nine types:
1The ReformerRational, idealistic47
2The HelperCaring, nurturing84
3The AchieverAdaptable, success-oriented96
4The IndividualistIntuitive, reserved21
5The InvestigatorPerceptive, cerebral78
6The LoyalistCommitted, security-oriented39
7The EnthusiastEnthusiastic, productive15
8The ChallengerPowerful, aggressive52
9The PeacemakerEasygoing, accommodating63
I recommend doing an Enneagram quiz for your main characters. For your first test, answer for yourself so you can get an idea of the questions and how the test and the Enneagram works. Then, think about your characters and take the test for each of them.
The act of taking the quiz forces you to think about your character’s personality. This quiz is made up of 37 questions, with two possible answers for each. Before you take the quiz, spend some time thinking about your character so you’re not just making stuff up as you answer the questions.
Hint: At the end of the quiz, I suggest printing the page before you click to calculate the results. Then you can go back and look at how you answered the questions. Include the printed quiz in your character profile.

Deepen your characters

For a character to seem real, he or she has to react to situations in a way that is consistent with his or her personality. And, because certain character types naturally conflict, pairing a protagonist and antagonist with clashing personality types creates the tension you need for a successful story.
What I like about this system is that it doesn’t say a person is one type and that’s it. It assigns a number value that shows how firmly a person fits into each type. In other words, it acknowledges a challenger might be a peacemaker as well as a reformer, with strong individualist tendencies. It also defines which types bring either comfort or stress to each type.
I took the test for one of my characters and got these scores:
Type 1: Reformer2
Type 2: Helper8
Type 3: Achiever3
Type 4: Individualist5
Type 5: Investigator2
Type 6: Loyalist6
Type 7: Enthusiast4
Type 8: Challenger3
Type 9: Peacemaker3
This tells me Aellin is primarily a Helper, with strong Loyalist tendencies. She is not a Reformer or an Investigator.
So what could I do with this character? As the first table above shows, a Helper is stressed by a Challenger, Aellin obviously needs to be pitted against a powerful authority figure. Her sidekick should be an Individualist, because a 2 is comforted by a 4. And Aellin should be forced into a situation where she needs to be an Investigator. Maybe she needs to plot revenge against the leader. As it turns out, this is a major part of the story I’ve come up with, so the test tells me I’m on the right track.
Why does the test tell me that? Well, if Aellin is clearly not an Investigator, then having to become one means that there will be conflict, not only against her powerful enemy, but also internal conflict with herself as she is forced to act in a way that is unnatural for her. She’ll revert to her natural personality, which works against what she has to do. She’ll struggle constantly to achieve her goal because she’s fighting against her own nature.

Wash, rinse, repeat

As legendary editor Sol Stein said, each character needs to have his own script. So, if I take the same quiz for each major character in my story, I’ll get a good idea of their inner and outer conflicts, and how they’ll react to various situations. I’ll create characters with their own consistent lives, and I’ll see how to create personality conflicts.

Learn more about it

The Enneagram is a complicated system. I’ve presented a simplified explanation. You don’t have to understand everything about it to create strong characters. If you want to know more, I suggest starting with the Wikipedia article. For an even deeper dive, I or The Enneagram Institute, where you can learn more about the personality types and find additional tests.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Creating Reality in a Fictional Setting

Use available resources to create an imaginary place as real any you can actually find.
One of the fun elements of fiction writing is creating a setting and bringing it to life. When creating a setting for your story, you have three choices:
  1. Use a real place.
  2. Create a fictional place.
  3. Create a fictional place based on a real place.
I wanted to set my story, The Secret of Eucalyptus Cove, in a place I know well enough to satisfy the Writer’s Digest list of setting elements.
I knew I wanted Eucalyptus Cove to be a small, somewhat isolated ranch on the San Mateo County coast in California, near Half Moon Bay. It’s not far from where I grew up, and is the section of coast where I spent countless hours. I know it physically, sensorily, and culturally.
Because I could not find a place exactly like I needed for my story, I created a composite of several places. Between my memory, my imagination, and the magic of Google, I was able to create a setting as real to me as any actual place.
There are several farms and ranches in the area, and I knew how I wanted Eucalyptus Cove to look.
I wanted my ranch to be above a small, secluded beach. The part of the coast that I selected has countless little coves, many of them almost inaccessible at the bottom of cliffs. I combined my own memories of the coast with the pictures below to create exactly what I needed.
Once I had my location, I needed a farmhouse. For this, I drew on the Patterson house just across the city limits from my home town. It’s not right on the coast, but it’s not that far. It’s easy enough to move a house in fiction.
I took the house, transported it to my fictional ranch above the cove, and modified it a bit based on other homes of the type and in the area, such as the Meek mansion, whose tower became an important part of my farm house.
Like ranches everywhere, Eucalyptus Cove needed a compound of sheds, barns, and other out buildings. Something like the one on the left below, which also happens to have a beach and eucalyptus trees, combined with the typical coastal ranch on the right:
I also needed the ranch to have some history, so I placed an older house on the ranch, an adobe home from the days when it was a Mexican rancho. I based the adobe on several in the San Francisco Bay Area and surroundings.
Finally, of course, Eucalyptus Cove needed a eucalyptus grove. There are groves all along the coast. The one I drew from was the one on the edge of my home town. As kids, we referred to this grove as Hobo Jungle, a place of many legends and secrets. And a place that, sadly, is now only a fragment of what it once was. Fortunately, there are enough similar groves that I could find pictures to trigger my sensory memories.
I know from experience what a Eucalyptus grove smells like and how the peeled bark, seed pods, and other plant litter looks and feels under foot.
I’ve used Hobo Jungle and the Patterson house before, in a poem I wrote many years ago. Here’s part of it:
Us kids passed that grove on Jarvis
eucalyptus stretched to Union City
trunks striped with peeling bark
the odor of Dad’s cough drops
Deer, fox, rabbit, coyote
Pat heard there were bears
they like eucalyptus he said
A farmhouse, deserted, rotting
a haunted hotel for jungle hobos
Juan said. We laughed, stayed away
With all the pieces assembled in my mind and in my files, it was time to imagine how my characters would interact with the place I created.
(Note: None of the pictures in this post are mine. I collected them too long ago and didn’t expect to use them in a blog, so I didn’t keep track of my sources. Thanks to the original photographers for helping enhance my imagination.)