September 10, 2009

Bring on the Bad Guys!

Very sorry I didn’t get to post anything last week. Spent the time trying to hammer out a last few wrinkles in my current project… and hopefully succeeding. Guess we’ll know soon enough.

But enough about me and my problems. Let’s talk about your problems. To be more exact, let’s talk about the people who are causing problems for your characters.

The technical term for this person is the antagonist. He, she, or it is the entity that’s opposing your hero or heroine. Simply put, it’s the bad guy. There are cases where the antagonist is actually the good guy in the story, or at least the more respectable one, but those tend to be much larger, Shakespearean-level stories (well, when they’re done right) than anything most of us are dealing with. There are also cases where the antagonist and the villain are two separate characters (yes, it can happen– look at The Fugitive). So for ease of discussion, I’m just going to be tossing stuff out with the understanding that the antagonist is the bad guy for whatever story we’re working on.

(That title’s another pop-culture reference, by the way, but only the older geeks will get it…)

The bad guy can make or break your story. Whether it’s an enemy general, a high school mean girl, a homicidal sociopath, or even just the overbearing boss at the office, the bad guy has to be just as solid and well developed as your main character. How many books have you read or movies have you seen which failed because the villain was just a two-dimensional caricature tossing out random challenges and “threatening” lines.

So, a few things to keep in mind when crafting your antagonist. Like most things I toss out, they’re not all hard-fast rules, but I think if you look back over some of your favorite books and films, you’ll see that the most memorable bad guys tend to be…

Smart — No one’s saying the bad guy has to have a degree from Oxford, but if you’ve got a gullible character who has trouble opening closet doors and can’t string two thoughts together, it’s going to be tough convincing your audience he or she somehow rose to the position of being a real threat. There’s book smart, street smart, and even just plain old animal instinct. But the reader has to believe your bad guy has a brain in his or her head. Remember, few things are more intimidating than a villain who’s a step ahead of the hero–especially when that puts him or her a few steps ahead of the audience, too. In Die Hard, when Hans Gruber quickly assumes the identity of a cowering hostage, we all think John McClane is smart for asking his name and department… until we realize Hans assumed this would happen and already memorized the office directories.

Motivated — The hero has a believable motivation, and the bad guy should, too. There has to be a reason they’re doing whatever it is they’re doing. Robbing homes, starting wars, humiliating people, killing kids at a summer camp– none of these things are done just for the heck of it. In fact, one of the worst motivations a character can have is “just because,” which is probably the only thing worse that saying “because he’s insane!! If the writer knows why these acts are happening, it helps flesh out the bad guy and make him or her more than a forgettable cut-out. The men who betray Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo all have different reasons for screwing him over, but every one of them has a solid motive for sending their friend off to prison.

The Good Guy – This one’s definitely not hard/fast, but it’s an important one to consider, especially when you look at the last one. Many of the best villains honestly think they’re doing the right thing, so their motivation is similar to the hero’s (even if their methods are a bit questionable). Magneto in X-Men saw one of his subsets of humanity (the Jews) almost exterminated in World War II, and so he’s determined not to let that happen to the other subset he belongs to (the mutants). The flipside of that is Josef Mengele in The Boys From Brazil, who honestly believes what he’s been doing is the right thing, even though pretty much every historian on the planet would disagree.

Doesn’t act like the bad guy — It’s easy to make someone the obvious bad guy. How many romantic comedies have you seen where the love interest starts off paired up with some who is so obviously not right for them? It’s easy to have the third leg of that romantic triangle be a jerk or a bitch. When the bad guy straddles that gray line, they’re a lot harder to write off. They also tend to be much creepier, because once their true nature is revealed it becomes clear how manipulative this character is. Consider Nazi Colonel Landa in Tarantino’s recent Inglorious Basterds. He’s a pleasant, polite, smiling goof who laughs at every joke…and yet the audience can’t help but be on edge around him because of it, wondering when and if the other shoe’s going to drop.

Calm – again not a hard fast rule, but like I was just saying, the quiet, friendly villain is almost always scarier than the shrieking, raging one. Just like with heroes, someone who’s calm is in complete control of the situation. Part of the eeriness of the original Jason Vorhees was he was slow and quiet. Never rushed, never crazed. Who was really scarier in the original Star Wars— Darth Vader who psychokinetically strangles a guy? Or Grand Moff Tarkin, who blackmails the princess with the life of a whole planet… and then coldly wipes it out anyway after she cooperates? And didn’t Vader jump up a few creepy notches in Empire Strikes Back when he calmly invited the heroes to join him at the dinner table? Heck, consider that when we first meet Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (either the book or the film) he’s meticulously pleasant, doesn’t make one threat, doesn’t raise his voice… and leaves us squirming in our seats.

Limited — When I talked about superpowers a few weeks back, I mentioned that the more believable tales tended to involve characters with limits. An all-powerful antagonist is just as boring as an all-powerful hero. Superiors, vulnerabilities, emotional weaknesses– there has to be something that convinces people from early on that the antagonist can be overcome. Every tyrannical office manager has to answer to a supervisor, who has to answer to a junior executive, who has to answer to a senior executive. Captain Barbossa had a few unlucky gold coins. Randall Flagg is nightmarishly powerful in The Stand, but most of his power stems from people believing he’s nightmarishly powerful. Bad guys need their own swords hanging over their heads.

Finally, one or two things to avoid. First, you don’t want your bad guy to be a dupe. It’s almost always frustrating on some level to get to the end and find out the bad guy has been blackmailed/ brainwashed/ manipulated into the role of the bad guy. If you saw the recent G.I.Joe film, you probably remember how silly and pointless it felt when it was revealed the Baroness was really a good woman who’d been hypnotized by… nanotech… or something. Not saying it’s impossible to make this little twist work, but it has to be played with carefully because it’s one of those elements that bad writers have pushed to the edge and now it’s teetering on cliché.

Also, you probably don’t want your bad guy to have some secret, hidden past ties to your hero. Ever since we found out Darth Vader was Luke’s father (and I would apologize for the spoilers but come on! Where have you been?) it’s been an easy out for writers to drop in this sort of thing as a weak attempt to flesh out characters. Janie and Megan were best friends back in grade school. Dillon and Dutch served in the same military unit. Jake and Mitch used to be in love with the same woman. These sort of reveals seem clever at first glance, but more often than not they’re pointless and have no real bearing on the actual story. If you’ve got some of these ties in your manuscript, try cutting them out and see now much they really affect the story. If you’ve got less than ten lines of rewrites to do after removing them, you probably didn’t need them.

And there you have it. Whether your bad guy is a bionic ninja warlord from the future bent on conquering the Earth or just Britta from fifth period English who wants to be prom queen no matter what, hopefully something in this little rant will strike a chord with you, one way or another.

Next week–and it will be next week, I promise–I’d like to rant a little about your backside. It’s getting a little sizeable, and not in that good way…

Until then, go write. Go! Who’s stopping you?

March 28, 2009 / 1 Comment

Kiss Kiss, Boom Boom

      An odd title, I know. Hopefully it’ll make sense by the end.

      So, everybody here knows a drama queen, right?
      I know there are two or three international readers here, and maybe they’re called something different across the ocean. Drama queens can be male or female and, as the name implies, they make drama. All the time. It’s what they release instead of the sweat and pheromones the rest of us let off. No matter how simple or mundane the situation, they’ll find a way to complicate it and over-emotionalize it. It’s what they do. I had a drama queen friend once who could make a dozen people going to the movies an operation on par with storming the beaches of Normandy. Operation Desert Shield was child’s play compared with getting all of us out to see the new Lord of the Rings.
      Now, people do behave irrationally sometimes, and we all have a buffer of sorts for it. There’s one time that you’ll accept someone’s insistence this is the worst thing that can ever happen, despite all evidence it’s pretty minor. We’re all decent enough to let a friend have one breakdown or emotional crisis for no real reason. That’s what friends do. Sometimes molehills really do look like mountains. We’ve all been there. If this happens once, it doesn’t make you a drama queen.
      Here’s the thing about these folks, though. The litmus test, if you will. They can pull their business once. That’s it. The second time someone tries to make a production out of a text message, or a trip to the grocery store, or a rumor they heard, you’re going to be taking it with a grain of salt. The third time it’ll be a spoonful of salt. And by the fourth time, you’ll already be focusing past them before the second word.
      Starting to see where we’re going with this?
      Some folks have a bad habit of creating false drama in their writing. They want to keep the reader’s interest, so they throw in something that they know is considered a good element for their chosen genre. Suddenly, for no reason at all, Bob and Cindy kiss passionately. With no warning, Emily starts to freak out over the message she just got. People start shooting at Dan. Out of nowhere, the car blows up. And then Cindy remembers she was molested as a child and starts shrieking at Bob.
      Let me use films as an example. Most folks have seen a movie that’s just loaded with action. Where there are gunfights, explosions, ninjas, and more. Non-stop ninjas, in fact. Cyborg ninjas. From the future. With nuclear self-destruct devices on timers. Short timers. And yet… the movie didn’t hold your attention. Bored you, even.
      On the other hand, maybe you’ve had to sit through an indie film. And by indie I don’t mean independent, I mean indie. That special sub-genre of film that’s grown over the past decade. Indie films usually have a lot of people talking. Or not talking. Maybe staring at walls, old photos, or trees. Staring deeply. Pondering. And all the while, they’re trying to deal with issues. Problems. Things that weigh heavy on their soul. And talking some more. Or screaming. Or crying. Or then Cindy remembers she was molested as a child and starts shrieking at Bob. And that’s not holding your attention either, is it? Bored again, aren’t you.
This is all empty material. It’s false drama. It’s unmotivated action. And like the drama queen we’ve all known, it doesn’t take us too long to start tuning it out.
      This is, for the record, a very, very common first draft problem. Someone comes up with an interesting idea on page 98 and drops it in, ignoring the fact that absolutely nothing in the 97 pages before it even slightly or remotely hint at this idea. It isn’t a bad idea mind you. It just comes out of nowhere, like me suddenly shouting out WHANGDOODLE for no reason. Might be eyecatching and funny once. Maybe. But wouldn’t it be better, and more keeping with the rest of the post, if I made an off-color joke about some of those cyborg ninjas traveling back in time even further and molesting Cindy when she was a child?
      So, the easiest ways to avoid all this emptiness…
      Motivation. If one of your characters is doing something, whether they’re one of the leads or that guy they bump on the street, they should have a reason for doing it. It should be consistent with what we’ve seen them do before. This includes people we don’t see at all, like the people who are setting bombs under cars or loading that song into the jukebox. If there’s no reason for someone to do it, that probably means no one should do it.
      Realism. It doesn’t have to be tied to our real world, but what’s happening in your story should be believable within the reality of your story. Cyborg ninjas are great in Bytestrike VII: Computron’s Revenge. They are not quite as impressive or fitting in To Kill A Mockingbird.
      Coherency. A sci-fi story shouldn’t turn into a gothic romance halfway through. Likewise, a chick-lit story about shopoholics shouldn’t decend into a bloodbath. And hardened soldiers on the battlefront shouldn’t break down in tears because war is so icky and their boots are too tight. If you come up with a neat idea, go back and make it a consistent idea thoughout your writing.
      Relevance. Okay, maybe Cindy was molested by time-travelling cyborg ninjas when she was thirteen. Does that really have anything to do with the story of her trying to save the historic movie theater in her town from demolition? Will it have any effect on that meeting she’s having with the developers and the town council? If not, why are you bringing it up? Yeah, it may be rich character development, but it’s also distracting from your actual story, and that’s what everyone’s here to read.
      So, look back over your manuscript and make sure everything’s actually got something behind it. No empty drama. No empty explosions. Make sure it’s all got some weight to it.
      Next week, by request, a few thoughts on names and what’s in them.
      Until then… go write.

One of your goals as a writer is to bring your stories to life. One of the tell-tale signs of bad writing (a waving red flag, really) is characters that talk, act, or react unnaturally to the world around them. It doesn’t matter if that world is Manhattan, the ancient city of Babylon, or the main bridge of a Space Marine Thunderhawk orbital lander. If readers can’t identify with what a character is saying or feeling, it’s going to distance them from your writing. In some cases, that distance will include them setting down your manuscript, going out to lunch with friends, and completely forgetting it.

For the record—that’s bad.

As writers, the main source we have to draw on is our own lives. We can spend hours doing research in libraries or people-watching from the patio of our favorite Mexican restaurant (El Zarape on Park—it’s fantastic), but in the end it all comes down to things we’ve done and seen. We know how people act because we are people. We’ve all gone to school, hated our boss at work, and been cut off on the freeway. We’ve traveled a bit, kept secrets, and gotten our first kiss from that cute girl (or guy) we like. Well, most of us have, anyway.

However… this is where things tend to get a bit tricky.

People often confuse fiction-real with real-real. Y’see, the thing is, real life—the life you, I, and all the people we know are all living– is actually kind of boring when you get right down to it. I think the average person feels they’re living a pretty good life if they have one or two amazing days a month. And amazing usually just means having a great night at the club, a perfect evening out (or in) with a loved one, or just hanging with your friends while you watch a DVD with pizza and beer.

Very few ninja attacks.

Not that many pirates.

Almost no killer cyborgs from the future.

Not one nymphomaniac Famke-Janssen-look-alike billionaire heiress with amnesia who needs me to follow her to Europe to fend off the Knights Templar while she tries to locate the ancient mystical talisman that will restore her memory and bring about world peace.

(I really had my hopes up for that one…)

The other big problem is one you’ve probably heard of. Truth is stranger than fiction. No, really, it is. Even considering that last little fantasy. The world is a truly bizarre place filled with amazing coincidences and connections. They’re completely ridiculous. Did you know there’s a direct link between the development of the Japanese tea ceremony and the rise of the Freemasons? Honest, there is.

Take Vesna Vulovic. Vesna was a flight attendant on a DC-9 that was bombed in mid-air by terrorists in 1972. She was trapped inside the ruins of the plane’s hull as it plummeted more than six miles to the ground. However, through a near miraculous series of events and conditions, Vesna survived her fall. She fell 33,000 feet, was in the hospital for a mere two months afterwards, and is still alive today, walking, talking, and laughing.

So… does that mean a character should fall six miles and live in your writing? It really happened, so it must be believable, right?

Another great historical example is Grigori Rasputin, sometimes called the Mad Monk. Rasputin had a truly disturbing amount of influence over Alexandra, the wife of Tsar Nicholas II (why he had this influence… well, that’s a topic for the after-hours discussion) and in 1916 a group of Russian nobles decided he needed to be “removed.” But how do you quietly get rid of a man who would be huge by today’s standards (some reports claim he stood almost six and a half feet tall)? As it turned out, they poisoned him, beat him, stabbed him, shot him, beat him some more, smothered him, beat him a third time just to be safe, and then dumped his body in the Neva River.

Final cause of death, when the body washed ashore a few days later?


Another true story, and yet how often have you found yourself scoffing at the film character who ignores knives, bullets, and broken limbs? Or berated the screenwriters when someone survives a three story fall or a major car crash with only a few scrapes?

Here’s another one, a bit simpler and closer to home. I once worked with a guy named Carlos. He was an electrician and a best boy on several television shows and films that I worked on back when I was a prop master. One day at lunch I realized Carlos had the odd habit of putting “bro” at the end of almost every sentence when he spoke in English. At the time I was slogging my way through my first serious attempt at a novel, The Suffering Map, and ended up adopting his habit for one of my characters. When I got requests to send the manuscript to a few agents, I was thrilled. And every copy came back with the same note, worded in a variety of ways.

“The dialogue doesn’t sound real.”

At which point I smacked myself in the forehead, because I’d forgotten this same tip I’d given to dozens and dozens of people…..

Cloverfield is an excellent example of a movie that had flawlessly real reactions and dialogue—dialogue that made you want to smack every one of the main characters into unconciousness. Indie films have almost become a genre unto themselves, where “indie” refers to real stories about real people reacting in real ways to real situations… and boring the hell out of the audience.

Y’see, it doesn’t matter if something is real or not. What matters is that it works and draws in the audience. Books are not real life. Movies are not real life. No, not even if they’re biographies or documentaries. They’re a window, and the thing about windows is that they only offer a limited view, whether you’re looking inside or out. Simple common sense will tell you that you cannot make a window that lets you see everything. There will always be something just out of sight, around the corner, or just too big to see all at once.

A good writer knows just how big to make that window. They know just what they want you looking at. They won’t let you see distracting things. They’ll make sure it’s all fresh and sharp (or old and rotting, depending on what they’re trying to show you). They won’t waste an inch of glass displaying something that isn’t part of the view they want you to see.

Because if you try to make a window big enough to see everything… well, even if it wasn’t impossible, it’s not very structurally sound. Those are the windows that crack in the wind or just shatter under their own weight.

Remember, real life is never the answer.