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.

March 15, 2018 / 4 Comments

It’s Not THAT Bad

I tried a few pop culture references for this week, but none of them seemed to work just right.  They weren’t awful, but that’s the best I can say about them.  They weren’t awful.

Speaking of which…

A while back I mentioned an idea called Crap +1.  It’s a viewpoint screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott noticed (and named)–a common way some people approached screenwriting.  It’s a mindset where I look at something absolutely horrible and say “well, my script is better than that.” And that got made, therefore logic and fairness dictate that my script deserves to get made, right?

I’m betting you’ve probably seen this reasoning applied to books, too, yes?  And publishers?  That garbage book got published, so of course the publishers are going to want to snatch up my slightly-better-than-garbage book.  The bad book proves I deserve to be published just by existing.

It doesn’t work that way, of course.  The big problem with the crap+1 theory is that what it really justifies is laziness.  It assumes my work just needs to be “slightly better” to qualify as good.  Which simply isn’t true.  My story might be “better” than an illiterate piece of derivative fan-fic… but that still doesn’t mean my story is any good.

I’ve found this mindset also pushes a certain degree of entitlement.  The idea that I’m somehow owed an equal form or level or success (logic and fairness, remember?). If that made it, I deserve to make it.   At the end of the day, nobody else’s success has anything to do with my success.  The universe—or a Big Five publisher—is not required to do something for me just because it did it for someone else who I feel is less talented/ less creative/ less determined/meaner/uglier than me.

It’s an easy trap to fall into.  The crap + 1 mindset.  Try to avoid it.  In all aspects of your life.

Anyway, it struck me recently that some writers use this sort of logic and justification within their stories, too.  Especially in the darker, grittier tales that some folks like.  A lot of these stories operate under the idea that my character or their actions or the outcomes will be seen as good once we compare them to something worse.  The story has unlikable, awful people as our protagonists or in the cast of supporting characters around them… but that’s okay because there are people in the story who are even more awful and unlikable.

Think about it.  How often have we seen something where my protagonist is a violent, abusive, racist… but, wow, you should see the bad guy!  My heroine just brutally killed two dozen people, yeah, but that’s not even half as many as her antagonist killed in an earlier scene.  Hell, sometimes that bar is literally as low as “well, he didn’t try to rape any of them… I guess he’s the one we’re rooting for?”

How ridiculous is this when we stop and think about it?  Yes, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was responsible for more deaths than Charles Manson, but that doesn’t mean Manson was a nice person. Yakko isn’t likable because he’s only cruel to women when he could be cruel to women and children.

A. Lee Martinez (he of the wonderful Constance Verity books, among others) made an observation once.  Being a good person is more than not being a bad person. This is fantastically simple and true. It’s fine to say Wakko’s not a serial killer, but that doesn’t make him a hero. Or even a good person.  That’s the kind of dating logic “nice” guys use. “Well, I’m not going to treat her like crap the way some guys would—so why doesn’t she want to go out with me?”

I’ve talked about this before when discussing characters, especially my main characters. They need to be likable.  By which I mean, my readers need an actual reason to like them. A reason that counts as “good” when it’s divorced from any conditionals. Helping out someone in need.  Showing restraint with power. Defending and supporting the weak. These are all inherently good actions that don’t need to be compared to anyone else’s to be good.

Not being awful is just… that’s the bare-bones minimum.  It should be baseline human existence. It’s definitely not a quality to cheer about in my main character.

Along with the crap+1 idea, I think this is also a bit of binary thinking slipping in here.  This character is marginally better than the antagonist, yes, but you know what else they are…?  Not the villain.  So, logically then, they must be the hero, right? I mean, who else can they be in my story?

And that brings me to one last aspect of all this.  I’ve mentioned before the need for my characters to win.  They can still get hurt, physically or emotionally–even die–but they need to succeed at their goals.  Because my readers identify with the heroes, and they don’t want to identify with people who don’t win because it reflects back on them.

With this talk of being “slightly better than…,” it’s worth noting that the antagonist losing is not the same thing as the protagonist winning.  They can be connected, but this isn’t always a nice Venn diagram overlap.  If someone else stops the bad guy… that doesn’t mean my hero wins.  If the antagonist somehow fumbles things themselves… that doesn’t mean the good guy succeeded.  And if they villain just gives up and walks away… well… nobody’s really earned a victory parade for that.

My hero needs to actually be a hero…not just a rung above the villain.  They actually need to win… not just be nearby when the plot is resolved.  And all of this needs to be in my story, which is actually good… not just slightly better than someone else’s.

Next time… there’s something I’d like to discuss for the first time.

Until then, go write.

October 20, 2016

A Win-Lose Situation

            Okay, believe it or not, I’m actually somewhat ahead on ranty blog posts right now.  Three weeks ahead.  But I want to put it out there again that suggestions and requests are always welcome.  Or just general comments. 
            Without them I’ll just keep blabbing away about whatever comes to mind.
            For example…
             A few weeks back I blabbed on about art, especially the tendency in art stories to make characters as miserable as possible.  That idea bounced around in my head for a while.  The other day it hit another idea, and once they were next to each other I knew how to explain this.

            When we’re starting out as people, and as writers, we tend to look at things in very black and white terms.  Something is positive, or it’s negative.  Good or bad.  That’s it.  The idea of something being mostly good, despite having some bad in it, doesn’t tend to cross the mind as a first choice.  Or that a villain could be anything less than 100% evil.  White hats and black capes, right?

            I can be honest.  I used to do this a lot.  I think most writers do. It’s an experience thing.  None of us ever think we’re doing it—we’re all wise and worldly, after all—but the truth is it’s just a stage the majority of us go through as we’re learning to tell stories.
            If I had to make a guess, I think this is why a lot of these artistic stories tend to be so negative, especially the ones by beginning writers.  The only visible choices are all positive or all negative, and if they were all positive there’d be nothing for anyone to talk about. Soooo…
            The characters in these stories just have awful, pathetic lives.  They have bad jobs for low pay where they’re unappreciated and have horrible bosses.  They hang out with boring friends and have bad relationships and unenthusiastic, unfulfilling sex with barely-adequate partners.
            Sound familiar?
            While this can work on a very simple level, it’s just not a great representation of the real world.  Yes, the world is a messy place, full of compromises and mistakes and a lot of people trying to do the best they can, usually under less than ideal circumstances.  Bad things do happen to good people far too often, and some folks just never seem to get a break.
            There can be a lot of bad, yeah, but there’s also a lot of good.  Friends and family who help out.  Random sympathetic strangers.  Even just sheer luck. Sometimes—maybe just once or twice in our lives—we stumbled across just what we need at the exact moment we need it.
            The simple truth is, life is a mix.  It’s very rarely all good or all bad.  And that holds in fiction, too.  A good story is rarely going to be all of one or the other.  My characters need to succeed (we don’t want to be following losers), but success doesn’t always mean getting the sexy love interest, finding the treasure, or triumphantly winning the battle without physical or mental scars.
            Great example—we’ve all heard the story about the day Oprah gave everyone in her audience a luxury car, right?  Fantastic!  Nothing but positive there, right?
            In the weeks to come, many of these people were begging her to take the cars back.  Seriously.  Did you know you have to pay taxes on big prizes like that?  What do you think the tax is on a $60,000 luxury car?  And do you want to guess at the minimum insurance payments?  The attempt to make all these lives better actually made many of them worse.
            You’ve probably heard similar stories about lottery winners.  At first they’re thrilled to win all that money—who wouldn’t be?  But then you hear stories about how people start to look at them differently and act differently. They’re no longer Yakko from work—they’re Yakko the multi-millionaire. And every time they don’t pick up the tab or don’t chip in or don’t offer to help, the looks change a little more.  Seriously, check it out—a huge number of lottery winners say it ruined their lives.
         Remember that classic story “The Monkey’s Paw,” where no matter what you wish for there’s always a negative twist to it?  Ursula K. LeGuin did the same thing in The Lathe of Heaven, about a man whose dreams shape reality.  And if you’re a Doctor Who fan, you may remember the Game of Rassilon, where those who win shall lose, and those who lose shall win.
            Alas, even with all these examples, it’s not always easy to see this.  Definitely not easy to write it.  Multi-layered success is a challenging thing, and—as I mentioned above—it takes a degree of experienceto pull it off.
            Simple experiment. Take your favorite book or movie.  Odds are it’s got a happy ending, right?  At least a mildly-positive one?
            Now—find the bad things.  What did it cost the protagonist to get to that happy ending?  Ruined relationships?  Compromised morals?  Lost job?  Property damage?  Bodily damage?  Maybe even a death or three?  I’m willing to bet there was a price.  Probably even a big one.
            Winning rarely comes without some losses.  Losing isn’t always the end of the world.  And my stories should reflect this.
            Next time… it’s Halloween.  Time to sit around the campfire and tell… well, some kind of scary story.  We’ll figure out what.
            Until then, go write.
December 13, 2012 / 7 Comments

I Win. I Always Win.

             Minor pop-culture reference for those of you who are good with movie quotes.  And if you are, you’ll see the conflict with today’s little rant…

            Also, a shameless plug.  My book 14 was chosen as best sci-fi novel of the year by Audible.com, and the publisher’s got the Kindle version on sale right now for just $2.99.  Please check it out and then come back to tell me I’m a talentless hack.
            Speaking of which…
            This is going to be one of those divisive posts, but I think it fits the nature of what I try to do here.  This is one of those perhaps painfully obvious tips a writer needs to follow if they want any measure of success.  And when I say “success” I refer to the age-old definitions of selling your stuff and making money.
            If you want that kind of success, your hero has to win.
           I’m using heroin the gender-blind sense.  If it makes you feel better, feel free to substitute in heroine or protagonist.  I’m not against any of these terms or the characters they attach to, I just think hero is short, quick, and to the point.
            And the hero wins.
            Pretty much always.
            A couple spoilerscoming up, too.  Nature of the beast for this kind of rant, sorry.  You may want to stop here if you’re way behind in your required reading or viewing.
           There’s a belief in some circles that having the hero of the story fail and diesomehow improves the story.  This usually ties back to the twin ideas of art and realism which… well, which I mock here on a regular basis.  It’s the belief that inserting something random and depressing into my story is more “honest” because life is often random and depressing. 
            And as we all know, art imitates life.  Therefore, if I’m imitating life, I must be making art, right?  That’s just simple math.
            As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, this ending sucks.  It sucks because we all inherently know the hero is supposed to win.  The hero is supposed to win because we identify with the hero.  If the hero loses, it means welost.  We’re losers. 
            Believe it or not, this sort of statement doesn’t go over well with most people.
            Now, before people start scribbling the angry comments (although I’m sure at least one person already has), let me finish.  I’m not saying that every book has to end with happy smiles and people rolling around on piles of money in their new castle.  My hero does not need to defeat the lizard men ninjas, save the world, and end up with nymphomaniac/ heiress Reiko Aylesworth in a flying car.
            Keep in mind, the hero doesn’t necessarily need to enjoy winning.  I just said they need to win.  They may be crippled or scarred—physically, emotionally, or both.  If the hero ends up wounded or broken after all they’ve done, really that just makes us identify with them a little more, doesn’t it?  I know if I had to fight a dozen terrorists in the Nakatomi Building in my bare feet, I’d get the crap kicked out of me.
            But I’d still win, of course…

            Heck, it may only be a moral or spiritual victory.  Atticus Finch loses his court case in To Kill A Mockingbird.  At the end of Rocky, our title hero’s battered, bruised, and can barely stand.  And Rocky loses the fight.  The refs rule for Apollo Creed.

            And yet, we all understand that he’s won in the way that really matters.  He’s proven he’s not a loser.  He’s shown that he can go the distance.
            The hero doesn’t even need to survive the story.  There are plenty of characters in books and film who didn’t live to enjoy their victories.  Let me give a few quick examples… 
            If you’ve seen The Professional, you know the end is a fiery bloodbath.  Only one person walks away, and it definitely isn’t Leon.  Stephen King has killed off his heroes in The Dead Zone, The Stand, IT, Desperation, and more.  Reese dies at the end of Terminator, and when Arnold plays a good Terminator in the next two movies he always gets destroyed.  J.K. Rowling has a lot of bodies at her feet by the end of the Harry Potter series, enough so that she almost seems as kill-happy as Joss Whedon, and he’s just legendary for killing his heroes in brutal ways—in comics, television, and film.
            And yet, in all of these examples, the hero wins.  No question about it.  Anyone who’s read or seen any of these stories will tell you the good guys won and the bad guys lost.
            So if I’m going to kill off my hero or if my plot resolves with a massive failure… maybe it’s worth rethinking that.
            Especially if I want to win.
            Next time, I’d like to discuss a common writing problem and the wisdom of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
            Until then, go write.