January 14, 2021

So. Much. Winning!

This is one of those posts some folks may feel the need to argue with. It’s a writing tip that’s going to feel obvious to some of you, and ridiculous to others, but I truly think a writer needs to follow if they want any measure of success.  And when I say “success” I refer to the classic definition—“making money off your material.”

If I want that kind of success, my hero has to win.

Fair warning, there’s going to be a couple spoilers coming up. Kind of necessary if we’re going to talk about how things end for a character in a story. They’re for pretty big things I’m sure most everyone already knows the ending of, but there’s the warning just in case. If you’re way behind in your required reading or viewing, you may want to stop here.

Also, I’m using hero in the gender-blind sense. If it makes you feel better, feel free to swap in heroine or protagonist. I’m not against any of these terms or the characters they attach to, I’m just using hero because it’s short, and quick and I’m trying to stay focused on this instead of everything going on in the world. So for this post, I’m just talking about the hero.

And the hero wins.

Pretty much always.

Now, there’s a belief in some circles that having the hero of the story fail and die somehow improves the story. That it’s more dramatic. It’s the belief that having something depressing and random happen to my hero is more “honest” because life is often depressing and random. I think this ties back to the frequently-waved buzzwords realism and art. Art imitates life, so if I’m imitating life, I must be making art. That’s just logic. Right?

As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, this kind of ending sucks. It sucks because we all inherently know the hero is supposed to win, since we identify with the hero. If the hero loses, it means we lost. We’re losers, identifying with another loser.

Believe it or not, this sort of statement doesn’t go over well with most people. I mean (as we’re currently seeing in the real world) people have a lot of trouble dealing with it when a character they’ve invested so much of themselves in doesn’t win.

Now, before people start scribbling down below (for any reason, although I’m sure at least one person already has), let me finish.

I’m not saying every book has to end with happy smiles and people rolling around on piles of money in their new twelve-bedroom mansion. My hero doesn’t need to defeat the cyborg werewolves, save the world, and fly off into the sunset with nymphomaniac heiress Margot Robbie in her private jet.

Truth is, the hero doesn’t necessarily need to enjoy winning. I just said they need to win. They may be damaged physically, emotionally, or both. In fact, if my hero ends up wounded or broken after all they’ve done, it just makes us identify with them a little more, doesn’t it?

When they win like this, we often call it a pyrrhic victory. Maybe our hero solves the murder mystery, but loses their best friends in the process. She got revenge, but her lover’s still dead and now she’s a wanted criminal herself. He won the contest, but now his family’s humiliated and wants nothing to do with him. The team tried to save all the hostages but only half of them got out alive. As I mentioned above, victory isn’t an all-or-nothing thing, and my hero can still have a pile of losses even though they’ve succeeded in their main goals. A partial win is still a win.

Hell, the hero doesn’t even need to survive the story in order to win.  There are plenty of characters in books and film who didn’t live to enjoy their victories. At the end of Rogue One (here’s that spoiler alert) our two surviving heroes are literally incinerated in the blast from the Death Star’s test firing. And note I say surviving heroes. The rest of their team has already suffered a series of brutal and violent ends. Nobody gets out of that movie. Same with Tony Stark in Avengers: Endgame, cooked from the inside with a single snap of his fingers.

And yet, in both of these examples, the heroes win. No question about it. Anyone who’s seen these stories will tell you the good guys won and the bad guys lost.

A key thing here is my character’s motive. What are they trying to do? Keep in mind, their stated goals and their actual goals might not always be the same. Phoebe may say she wants to date the head cheerleader, but what she’s really looking for is romantic love and companionship. Wakko may say he wants revenge, but what he really wants is justice. So they may fail at that obvious, stated goal (dating the cheerleader) or even a broader, more universal goal (keeping their left leg attached), but still succeed with their actual, motivating goal.

Now, I want to mention one other thing, because my friend Stephen Blackmoore brought it up when I mentioned this theory of winning at the Writers Coffeehouse once. There are some stories (a lot in the noir genre, for example) where the hero doesn’t win. In fact, in some cases they fail completely, on all levels, and end up much worse off than they began. This can absolutely happen in stories. Great stories, some of which get a lot of praise and awards.


I think if we named some stories where the hero fails in this complete way, we’d probably realize… they’re not all that well-known. And they’re probably read even less. Again, not saying they’re bad, but it is a much smaller niche of potential readers who’ll enjoy a story where the hero, well, doesn’t really accomplish anything. Even if it’s beautifully written. So there’s nothing wrong if those are the stories I want to write, but I should have my eyes open about how wide an appeal they’re going to have.

Y’see, Timmy… we encounter enough failure and losing in real life that most folks aren’t going to also enjoy it as entertainment. We want to see victories and success and heroic sacrifice because these are the things we dream of in our own lives, and we relate to those people because they’re the kind of people we wish we could be. Even if just for a little while.

So if I’m my plot ends with a massive failure or my hero dies for no reason… maybe it’s worth rethinking that.

Especially if I want to win.

Next time, I’d like to talk about Flashdance.

Until then, go write.

September 19, 2019

Revenge! For Wanda!!

Finally! At long last the day has come! Don’t act so surprised—you know what you did and you’ve known it would…

…you don’t? Oh. Well, this makes things a little awkward, doesn’t it?

Look, we’ve all been waiting for this for a while. Revenge. The moment Yakko finally gets his comeuppance for what he did to me and my friends. Today’s the day he learns just how big a mistake that was. He crossed the wrong guy that day.

Plus, let’s be honest. Revenge stories can be loads of fun. John Wick. Arya Stark. The Wraith. Okay, probably not the Wraith, for a couple of the reasons I’m going to be talking about here. Thing is, a well done tale of revenge can check off a ton of storytelling boxes and almost everyone is up for it. Seriously. There’s something just so wonderfully cathartic about them.

But… by the same token, a good revenge story is kind of a balancing act. Not too much of that, just enough of those, and that base has to be juuussssstperfect if it’s going to support this whole thing. If one of these things is off, my whole story can stumble pretty easily. More than one and… well, I’m probably going to faceplant. Hard.

It struck me that I’ve seen a lot of stories make that faceplant. Sometimes in books, sometimes on screen. Sometimes, while poking around looking for Saturday geekery movies, I come across some things where it’s clear just from the description that they’ve hit the ground hard. So I figured it might be worth going over a few of those key elements to keep in mind. Y’know, before we go out to seek revenge on those who wronged us…

And, as always, this is just me babbling on. There has been no exhaustive study of the canon and there are always going to be exceptions. But I’ve been mulling on this for a while and I feel like it’s a pretty solid checklist.

First off, right at the start, is this something that actually needs revenging? Yeah, we all understand why John Wick goes after the guys who killed his dog. But what if they’d called his dog ugly or stupid? There’s the bully who puts cigarettes out on Wakko’s arms, but also the one who shoots poorly-aimed spitballs in class. Someone can blow up my car, or they can blow up my car with my partner and cats trapped in it. Some of these acts deserve wild, hard-bitten revenge and others…
Well, I mean they’re still bad, but are they really revenge-worthy? Should I really dedicate my life to balancing the scales just because somebody torched my Yaris? Or stole my lunch from the break room fridge? That would seem a little extreme, yes?

In this sense, a revenge story’s a lot like a redemption arc. I need my reader-empathy set to high so I  have an honest sense of how this first, inciting act (ooooh, inciting act–doesn’t that sound all professional)  is going to be viewed by my readers. Will they agree it’s something that requires vengeance?

Second thing is whether or not my character is the person who should be getting revenge. To use an earlier example, if someone kills John Wick’s dog, we completely understand why he goes on his revenge spree. It’s an intensely personal loss for him… but it isn’t for the nice old woman he runs into on the beach sometimes who liked to pet the dog. She might be upset, even angry to hear the news, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense for her to go get revenge, does it?

Revenge is a very personal thing. So the more removed and unconnected my protagonist gets from that actual act, the less it feels like revenge and the more it feels… well, it could be a bunch of things as we get farther away. Maybe Dot hired a hitman to get revenge, so he might be administering the beatdown or pulling the trigger, but for him it’s really just a job. And that police detective obsessed with the case? Well, for her it’s more about justice than vengeance. So revenge tends to stay tight and intimate. Personally, I think it needs to be a family thing, even if you want to take the broader sense of family (in that I can consider my best friends or my teammates “family”).

My third point is very much my own, but it’s also probably the one I feel strongest about here. I think it’s a key part of a revenge story. The person or persons my protagonist is getting revenge against must know why this is happening. Yeah it’s really cool that my heroine’s picking off the folks who killed her family one by one with a sniper rifle. But if they don’t know why it’s happening, who this ruthless killer is… then isn’t this just a random killing spree?

I feel that a big part of a revenge story is that it’s kind of symbiotic, from a storytelling point of view. It’s a relationship between the revenger and the revengee, so to speak, and one sided relationships are always just… well, weird. They need to go both ways. Yes, we want Phoebe to get her revenge, but we also want Yakko to know why she’s doing this. Why is she coming after him? Why is she doing these things? He needs to acknowledge this, one way or another—even if he just dismisses it (“…but I’d do it all again, lady, whoever you are!”).

And the reason for this is that we understand, on some level, that if Yakko doesn’t know why this is happening, then he’s just a victim. Not an innocent victim, no, but still just a victim. It’s the difference between my character seeing their empire torn apart and them knowing why it’s being torn apart.

Which leads me very nicely to my fourth and final point. Revenge can be a messy business. Very messy. Blood is often spilled, property is usually destroyed. And we’re all cool with that. We like seeing people getting what’s coming to them. Maybe even with a little interest.

That’s where it gets tricky. It’s really easy in a revenge story to go too far with the blood spilling and the property damage. And when I do, that’s when my protagonist stops being the hero and becomes a monster in their own right. Yes, we understand why John Wick wants revenge for his dog being killed. But if his response was to go visit the families of everyone involved and kill theirdogs right in front of their kids…? Well, I don’t think most of us would be rooting for him quite as much. Likewise, if Phoebe gets revenge on the guy who killed her husband by… oh sweet jeebus she dissolved him alive in a lye pit? Seriously? And the crane just lowered him a couple inches a day? It took eight and a half days for him to die? I mean, at this point it’s essentially a torture porn story where we’re being asked to root for the killer.

In a lot of ways, revenge is like something I’ve talked about before—the bully balance. Once those scales tip, our mood is going to shift, too. We stop feeling good about the revenge and we start feeling sympathy for the people they’re exacting revenge on. Again, they become the victim and my protagonist becomes the aggressor. Which alters… everything. The whole tone of my story will change, and a lot of things will be questioned. Not in a good way.
Y’see Timmy, in the end a revenge story is all about the characters. Why are they doing this? How are they doing it? Are they managing to walk that tightrope between being a hero and being a monster?  Or have they fallen off it…?

Next time… I think I want to talk about something we usually don’t talk about.

Until then… go write.